Summoners, not to be confused with The Summoner, is the third feature from Terence Krey and Christine Nyland, the team who’ve previously given us An Unquiet Grave and Distress Signals. Once again it’s a quiet, low-key tale that’s as much about the characters as it is about the events they’re caught up in.
Jess Whitman (Christine Nyland, An Unquiet Grave, Distress Signals) impulsively returns to visit her father Doug (Larry Fessenden, Dashcam, The Spine of Night) and the small town she left ten years ago. She runs into her old friend Alana (McLean Peterson, The First of Our Friends to Get Married, Zero Avenue). They used to practice witchcraft together and Alana is shocked to find out Jess has given it up since the death of her mother.
But, as is often the case in films like these, there’s more going on than it appears. Alana has plans to cast some dark spells and may have had a hand in Jess’ return, whether Jess wanted it or not.
In some ways, Summoners resembles Liam Gavin’s brilliant film A Dark Song. The small, basically two person, cast, the use of an ancient spell to alleviate guilt over the death of a child, and the inability to let go of the past. And it compares favourably in terms of quiet dread.
It also calls back to the filmmaker’s first feature, An Unquiet Grave in a perhaps less obvious way. Christine Nyland has said the last act of that film was about the issue of consent. In that case, being drawn into a ritual under false pretenses. And that plays out again here between Jess and Alana as one manipulates and keeps secrets from the other.
But Summoners is more about mundane matters than magical ones. The ritual and its fallout forces Jess to confront her feeling toward her mother and the circumstances surrounding her death. In that sense magic is a catalyst for the plot, but not the most important part of it. Both Alana and Jess are dealing with feelings and guilt over things they had no control over.
Krey and Nyland’s script is about how each of them confronts that guilt and the secrets they choose to keep. By using witchcraft to frame these issues they make Summoners something more than just another trip down a well-worn cinematic path. It’s still primarily a drama, but the supernatural aspects give it a fresh edge.
That’s not to say that Summoners isn’t scary. It frequently creates a very ominous feeling but it only occasionally, mostly in the final act crosses the line into outright horror. And when it does, it’s more effective for its previous restraint, slowly building to those scenes rather than burning the viewer out with jump scares. Or boring them with endless dialogue.
The one place I thought Summoners somewhat fell short was conveying the strength of the relationship between the two women, especially in the first act. Do they feel like old friends who fell out of touch, yes. But the kind of closeness that exists between best friends doesn’t really feel like it’s there until much later which makes some of the decisions the characters make feel strange.
Overall though, Summoner is a strong film both as a supernatural tale and as a drama. It probably won’t satisfy fans looking for a full-on horror film, despite a couple of strong scenes. But those who like the filmmaker’s other films, or fans of slow-burning films in general should be quite satisfied as will fans of dramas who don’t mind the witchcraft angle.
Summoners made its debut at this year’s Brooklyn Horror Film Festival and will be playing more festivals ahead of its eventual release. And if you need something similar to hold you over until its release, FilmTagger can summon a few titles for you.