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2023 Miami Film Festival: "Summoning the Spirit" to drive critical thinking away

Not all monsters need to be reloaded: Sasquatch wanders about "Summoning the Spirit" / Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures

Not all monsters need to be reloaded: Sasquatch wanders about "Summoning the Spirit" / Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures

I knew I was in trouble early in Summoning the Spirit, Jon Garcia’s horror movie premiering at the Miami Film Festival. A guy in a glorified gorilla suit runs toward the camera and does some preventive comeuppance to the least convincing couple of arsonists in the history of arson. Then again, if we do the most and activate our suspension of disbelief, it is the titular spirit of the forest or Sasquatch. Either way, the arsonists are history, and Big Foot becomes a silent player in a plethora of drama.

Dean (Ernesto Reyes) and Carla (Krystal Millie Valdés) are an attractive couple looking for a change. He is suffering from writer’s block, and she is mourning a miscarriage. To move into a remote cabin in the woods seems like just the thing to bring them some healing. The place is Zillow-ready but comes with undesirable neighbors: a cultish commune leader named Arlo (Jesse Tayeh), a new-age type who drones on and on about the spirit of the forest, to a coterie of adoring followers. If this is not enough of a warning, he invites Dean to listen to his podcast about - you guessed it - the spirit of the forest. Carla first sets foot in the post-hippie enclave, enticed by Celeste (Isabelle Muthiah), a new recruit she finds hitchhiking in the woods. Before you know it, the couple is partaking in weird rituals and near-orgies. Carla gets some hallucinations where she is getting too close to Sasquatch. Is he out to get them or protect them? The answer is as underwhelming as the movie.

Valdes goes under the knife, surrounded by fruits and store-bought pies in "Summoning the Spirit" / Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures

Valdes goes under the knife, surrounded by fruits and store-bought pies in "Summoning the Spirit" / Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures

Summoning the Spirit is an independent production that takes the label to the extreme. We like to think indies are all A24 bangers or Sundance-ready humanistic dramas, but those have more in common with Hollywood fare from when the studios still did adult-oriented films in the heady pre-Marvel years. There is a whole stratum of movies that are so independent that they are free to defy technical demands or common sense. It is a pure expression of creativity against all odds, like The Room (Tommy Wiseau, 2003) and Birdemic: Shock and Terror (James Nguyen, 2010).

That the movies end up being poor is beside the point. The makers got the creative impulse out of their system. The best they can aspire to is for the movie to become a cult phenomenon, something people embrace as an object of scorn or a cautionary tale, a mine of filmmaker memes. By now, it is impossible to know if these fearless filmmakers reach this level inadvertently or are actively searching for this kind of infamy. They can be like a contestant in a reality show who sets out to become a villain because it is the surefire way to get some degree of notoriety.

I put off writing about Summoning the Spirit because I felt bad about not finding anything good to say. Then again, this is a dereliction of duty. Critics criticize, after all. It is easy to fall into the wave of new sensitivity. It has come in fashion to decry criticism because movies are hard to make. Actor Seth Rogen, known for big-box office comedies like Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2005) and scored a career-high in The Fabelmans (Steven Spielberg, 2022) latest movie by America’s greatest living director, stood up for creatives less lucky than him while giving an interview to The Diary of a CEO with Steven Bartlett podcast.

“I think if most critics knew how much it hurts the people that made the things that they are writing about, they would second guess the way they write these things…It’s devastating. I know people who have never recovered from it honestly – a year, decades of being hurt by film reviews. It’s very personal…It is devastating when you are being institutionally told that your personal expression was bad, and that’s something that people carry with them, literally, their entire lives and I get why. It fucking sucks.”  

Sure, it sucks. But critical opinion, positive or negative, comes part and parcel with public expression. The public gives you money, time, and attention. Members of the audience are entitled to opinions and feelings about the experience you are subjecting them to. And critics are part of the public. The only way to avoid criticism is not to show your work to anybody. Or only to your nearest and dearest, but even then, they might find fault. They just won’t tell you about it! It is also easy to protect yourself from critical opinions. Just don’t read it. Log off social media for a while. Stay zen.

Isabelle Muthiah finds out why you should never join a cult in the middle of a forest in "Summoning the Spirit" / Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures

Isabelle Muthiah finds out why you should never join a cult in the middle of a forest in "Summoning the Spirit" / Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures

There might be something performative in a pan. Roger Ebert, perhaps the most influential critic of our times, was ruthless in his negative reviews. Read his takedown of Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986). If Lynch could take it, why not Seth? In the end, this is the critic’s self-expression, after all. By the way, Rogen talks, you would think it is a form of glorified trolling.

If a bad review could ever bury an artist’s career, that moment has passed. The advent of social media has turned everyone into a critic and somewhat diluted the power of the few who remain publishing in major outlets. Rogen and his friends can chill. Film distribution is not what it was in the heyday of print media. Current market trends guarantee a constant need for new movies to stream, giving low-budget fare like Summoning the Spirit a chance to reach an audience.

For the record, I take no pleasure in telling you Summoning the Spirit is a bad movie. I’m sure it took a lot of work, but I can’t pass the awkward framing and choppy editing. The script is a mishmash of ideas that never gel, filled to the gills with events that never quite coalesced in a coherent drama. Bad choices extend to actors’ direction. The girl who greets people by licking people’s faces haunts my nightmares, and not in the way a horror movie might intend.

The one thing I appreciate is the natural, live-in way the protagonist couple, Reyes and Valdez, switch from English to Spanish as they speak. Also, the visibility of sleep apnea sufferers strikes a hit. You can see Dean wearing a CPAP face mask as he awakes, which confirms that for all her grief, at least Carla is not losing sleep because of his snoring. Then again, that might be a problem with Sasquatch, so Carla should take that into consideration when the spirit entices her with kinky dreams where she cuddles with the monster.

I like to think the actors will be able to move on to better projects, and years down the line, they will see this movie like Matthew McConaughey and Renée Zellweger see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (Kim Henkel, 1996) or Jennifer Aniston with Leprechaun (Mark Jones, 1993). Even if movies like these fail critical standards, the work itself is the reward. You got the gig. You got to make your movie. And we can hold on to our opinions.

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