Major spoilers ahead for Tarot. You’ve been warned. 

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PG-13 horror is something that’s hard to do well. It has to be scary, but not so much that it truly terrifies. It has to have some violence and gore, but not so much that it becomes blood-soaked and sickening. Every once in a while, though, someone pulls it off. James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s Insidious (2010) series carefully and skillfully walks the line between PG-13 and R, as do flicks like Mike Flanagan’s Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) or Scott Derrickson’s Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005). But for the most part, the PG-13 horror field is littered with failures like the recent Imaginary (2024),  Night Swim (2024) and unfortunately, Tarot.   

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So Tarot’s story (using that term very loosely) starts with the all-too-familiar horror base of a group of college buddies at a vacation house for the weekend. They spend the first few minutes in a quick getting-to-know-you scene around a fire pit. Turns out the seven buds are all there to celebrate the birthday of Elise (Larsen Thompson). Rounding out the bunch are Haley (Harriet Slater), her recently-broken-up-with boyfriend Grant (Adain Bradley), Paige (Mean Girls’ Avantika), Madeline (Humberly Gonzalez), Lucas (Wolfgang Novogratz) and the required funny guy Paxton (Spiderman: Homecoming (2017) and No Way Home’s (2021) Jacob Batalon). 

Haley (Harriet Slater) does tarot card readings in Tarot

Harriet Slater in Tarot

The group soon realizes that they’re out of booze (a shot of an overflowing trash can full of empties makes one wonder how they’re not all already passed out). Too late to go out to the liquor store, they decide to search the massive house. They come across a door labeled “Keep Out,” so of course, in typical horror movie style, they break the lock and go in anyway. 

What they find instead of a bar is a room full of weird, antique collectibles. Haley, being an amateur astrologist, recognizes that it’s all astrology-related stuff. And how did she get to be the expert? Well, turns out she started delving deeply into horoscopes and astrology as a way to deal with her mother’s terminal illness. You can imagine the predictable dialogue, something about believing or not believing in fate. 

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Then they find a wooden box with one of those zodiac charts carved on it. Inside is the titular deck of tarot cards. Haley notes that they’re very old (of course) and unique in that they’re hand painted. So in lieu of getting drunk, the gang pressures Haley into giving them all readings, even though she says it’s a cardinal rule not to read with someone else’s deck.  

One by one, they all sit for their readings with the cards dealt out in a circle. Then Haley draws the last card and lays it in the middle. Each card has a ghoulish character on it, such as The Priestess, The Magician, etc. And of course, there’s also a Death card. Haley gives the kind of typical readings you’d find in any magazine or newspaper, and they all seem harmless enough.  

Paige (Avantika) and Elise (Larsen Thompson) get readings in Tarot

Avantika, Larsen Thompson in Tarot

On the drive back to campus, Lucas buys a scratcher ticket and ends up winning $700 – just like his reading predicted. Everybody’s psyched and goes back to their dorms and everything’s fine. But that night, Elise starts hearing things. She goes to check it out and finds the ladder to the attic is down. She climbs up, gets freaked out by something and falls off the ladder. Turns out the something is The Priestess – the last card drawn in her reading. The ghoul kills poor Elise by repeatedly slamming the ladder down on her. 

News spreads of Elise’s death and the whole gang gets questioned by the police. Everyone’s freaked out and sad, but they don’t make the connection until Lucas gets killed the next night. The creature from his reading, The Hermit, stalks him on the subway and chases him down until he gets hit by a train.  

Now the gang’s not only shocked but suspicious. Haley starts putting together the clues that make her realize the deaths are connected to the readings. Long story short, the rapidly disappearing gang spends the rest of the flick struggling to figure out the “clues” in Haley’s readings to keep anybody else from getting killed.  

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And in another typical horror trope, they do the requisite internet search to find a so-called expert to help them figure out a way to defeat the curse. They choose some random site and e-mail the owner, who meets with them. Haley tells the astrologer (Olwen Fouéré) their story and of course, the astrologer knows exactly what deck of cards they’re talking about.  

The astrologer tells them the tale of the deck’s origins, created and used by a Hungarian astrologer (Suncica Milanovic) centuries earlier, who did readings for a Count. When the Count didn’t like the readings predicting the death of his wife in childbirth, he had the astrologer and her daughter killed. And so, the astrologer lives out her revenge through the deck, cursing anyone who uses it.  

Madeline (Humberly Gonzalez) gets frightened by The Hangman in Tarot

Humberly Gonzalez in Tarot

By this time the gang’s down to Haley and Grant after Madeline dies by The Hangman, Paxton gets killed by The Fool, and Paige literally gets sawed in half by The Magician. They go back to the vacation house and try to burn the tarot deck, but it doesn’t work. So they call up the astrologer lady, who meets them there. The astrologer does a ritual that should reverse the curse, but of course, she dies before they can complete it. Haley and Grant spend the rest of the flick running around the house, trying to avoid getting killed by The Devil and Death.  

Haley gathers the cards and completes the ritual, which makes the ghost of the Hungarian astrologer show herself. She gets swept up in something like a dark tornado and vaporized, which in turn destroys the cards. Haley and Grant start walking home only to be picked up by – surprise! – Paxton. He’s alive and well thanks to his roommate showing up and saving him from death by elevator – which makes about as much sense as anything else in the whole flick. In the words of his reading, “he came through for his friends in an unexpected way.” Aww. Laughter all around. Too bad about the other four though, huh? Oh, well. Cut to credits.  

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Whether on purpose or not, Tarot takes a lot of what little structure it has from the early 2000s Final Destination flicks, where similar high school/college groups of friends end up surviving a catastrophe of some kind due to one of them having a premonition. The rest of the movie was always the gang trying to figure out the clues in “Death’s design” to keep themselves alive. They’re all goofy flicks, but they have an awesomely dark sense of humor. They also take full advantage of the R rating with their complicated chain-reaction deaths and heavy use of gore.  

Paxton (Jacob Batalon) gets a reading in Tarot

Jacob Batalon in Tarot

I can see that the logic in making Tarot was to make something that appeals to the teen crowd. Make it short, fairly light and PG-13 so we can lure in all the tweens just looking for something to go see on Friday night. Makes a certain amount of business sense, and in that way, Tarot’s harmless fun. I can appreciate a flick like that, and so I don’t feel horribly let down by it since my expectations were low to begin with.  

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On the other hand, from a storytelling standpoint, it’s hard to argue that Tarot’s mostly empty and a missed opportunity. Instead of making yet another mediocre teen horror movie, a flick that focused on the origin of the deck, the Hungarian astrologer – that would’ve made for a much more intriguing story. And with skillful enough writing and direction, it still could’ve been PG-13. As it is though, Tarot is diverting enough for 90 minutes and probably won’t give you nightmares because it’s really not scary. In fact, after a few days, you probably won’t remember that you saw Tarot at all. 

Tarot poster

 

Directed by:  Spenser Cohen, Anna Halberg 

Written by:  Nicholas Adams (the novel Horrorscope), Spenser Cohen, Anna Halberg 

Release date:  May 3, 2024 

Rating:  PG-13 

Run time:  1hr, 32min 

Distributor:  Sony / Screen Gems 

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