‘Tarot’ Review: Jacob Batalon Almost Saves Evil Doodad Movie

There’s a very long and very mixed-bag tradition of horror movies in which an object that isn’t evil in real life turns out to be evil. Killer cars, killer lamps, killer refrigerators, killer iPhone apps, killer tires, killer laundry machines, killer bongs, the list goes on and it will never stop because we keep inventing doodads and every time we do, someone makes them evil and turns it into a movie.

The latest is “Tarot,” based on the novel “Horrorscope” by Nicholas Adams. In the film, a group of college students find an old and scary-looking tarot deck and read their fortunes, but it’s an evil tarot deck, so everyone who has their fortune read gets killed by an evil ghost who represents the Major Arcana.

One student draws the “Hanged Man” card and gets hanged to death by the Hanged Man, who also — even though it’s a centuries-old demonic entity — knows all the rules of the modern kids game, “Hangman” (because why wouldn’t it?). Lather, rinse, and repeat until everyone’s been killed in a tarot-y kind of way.

“Tarot” isn’t the first horror movie to rigidly follow a well-worn formula, and it wouldn’t be the first horror movie to be kinda fun anyway. It’s abundantly clear that writer/directors Spenser Cohen and Anna Halberg aren’t trying to raise the bar. There’s no shame in making a slumber party jump scare flick. Slumber parties need movies too. There’s an honesty to this kind of pop filmmaking that’s easy to admire, even if it doesn’t necessarily make the actual movie any better.

One of the biggest problems with “Tarot” is that the characters don’t have character. Only the film’s protagonist, Haley (Harriet Slater, “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny”), seems to have any memories of events that took place prior to this film’s opening scene. None of them have hopes, dreams, or ambitions and only one of them has a hobby, and that hobby is vaping. It’s like they were designed in a lab to be killable, so the audience won’t care when a ghost hermit makes them jump in front of a subway.

The film’s saving grace is Jacob Batalon (“Spider-Man: No Way Home”), who seems to know damn well that he’s the comic relief and this whole film rests on his shoulders. He manages to be a goofball — “The Fool,” if you will — and keep the energy high without becoming a nuisance.

Other than Harriet Slater, whose performance has a Barbara Crampton-ish quality that makes “Tarot” relatively grounded in the protagonist department, Batalon is the only performer with any material he can work with, and he makes it work as well as any actor could. “Tarot” has very little on its mind and, frankly, very little on-screen, since cinematographer Elie Smolkin (“The Offer”) keeps most of the frame in shadow in almost every shot. There’s an early kill that’s on the violent side but otherwise the film puts very little strain on its PG-13 rating.

If anything it seems as though “Tarot” is trying very hard to be inoffensive, which is odd for a horror movie that literally demonizes something quite a few people genuinely believe in. The film does make it clear that not all tarot decks will kill you, but they’re still turning the High Priestess into a horror movie villain who has a weird amount of fun murdering people with ladders. It’s still trying to make horoscopes and the tarot seem scary, and considering how the media tends to treat those topics already, it can’t help but come across like it’s punching down.

The best moments in “Tarot” are when it abandons all pretense and admits its premise is laughable. There’s a scene where all the buttons on an elevator change to the Taurus symbol, which much have been a fun prop to make. There’s another when a character finds a supernatural newspaper with the headline “YOU DIE NEXT” and his photograph on the front page. It’s genuinely amusing to imagine the evil ghost from “Tarot” trying to decide what the scariest headline would be to put on a fake newspaper, and even funnier to imagine what it wrote underneath that headline in case their victim tried to read it, since “Lorem ipsum” probably wouldn’t have the desired effect.

“Tarot” isn’t a good killer doodad movie, and it’s not quite bad enough to be ironically entertaining. It’s a horror movie for people who want to watch a scary movie but are hanging out with someone who gets scared very easily, and so they decide to compromise. Not too scary, not too silly, not much of anything really, but not much to complain about either.

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