The Summoned has two openings: a prologue in which a male figure is impressionistically shown out of focus burying a human body in a makeshift graveyard alongside other, similarly rough-hewn graves; and a summoning. The latter comes in the form of an official letter from Dr Justus Frost (Frederick Stuart) inviting Joplyn ‘Lyn’ Rose (Emma Fitzpatrick) and a friend to spend three days on a therapeutic path to reaching their ‘full potential’ at the exclusive Staufen House (named for the German town where Faust is said to have died). Lyn is a platinum-selling musician, and her fellow guests are superrich investor Joe Agrippa (Salvador Chacon) and Hollywood superstar Tara Grandier (Angela Gulner) – ensuring that Lyn’s plus one, her boyfriend of two years Elijah Moulton (J. Quinton Johnson), is, as both a black man and a working mechanic, very much the odd one out in this élite A-list. As these four meet their host Frost, with his performative sense of dramatic camp, and as the strange, bearded Abe (played by the film’s first-time director Mark Meir) circles the premises and unnerves Elijah with his cryptic warnings, viewers are left to wonder what links these two openings, and whether anyone else is destined for an early grave.
As the outsider to this group, Elijah is also our cicerone and figure of identification through the narrative. He is modest and humble, but not without ambition to improve his lot: to marry Lyn and start a family with her, to have his own musical talent recognised, and to enjoy the high life. Indeed, he has already devoured Joe’s self-help book Boots of Gold and was particularly drawn to the story from which it took its title – a story about how a man named Wagner once made a deal with the devil while tricking his way out of the deal’s less appealing terms. This is the dream: to get it all without ever having to pay the price. Yet Elijah will soon discover that this business-manual anecdote is no mere fictive parable, but intimately related to his own immediate situation as he experiences recurrent nightmares about improvised burials and devilish goings-on in the basement. “I feel like the only one getting therapy here,” Elijah observes – and as his paranoia rises, he also becomes convinced that he is playing a part in a diabolical scheme whose script has already been written.
The Summoned is a twisty film of Faustian pacts, of unpaid debts and of rewritten contracts, where dreams of advancement and affluence fast become nightmares of entrapment and infernal obligation. With its repeating histories of slaughter, its increasingly irrational interior (and exterior) spaces and, of course, its axe attacks, Meir’s film, written by Yuri Baranovsky, is certainly riffing on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), while in depicting the exploitation of a promising African-American by white people, it draws from Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). Yet it also takes a long hard look at class in America: the way that wealth and success are born of moral compromise, and passed down the generations in a seductive but cursed legacy of privilege – so that the only way to get on the looping road to prosperity is by inheriting a ticket, by hitching someone else’s ride or by breaking bad, and, whichever way, by accumulating a collection of buried bodies. So the film offers all at once a therapeutic journey, a Satanic story and a dark allegory of the American dream.
strap: In Mark Meir’s Faustian feature debut, an ambitious African-American man finds himself caught between contract and script
© Anton Bitel