In the past, TV One has not been good at executing genre work. “Fright Night” and “Fear Files” have bordered on being unwatchable, and, in a word, lazy. So much so that I feared deeply for the viewers who are largely African American adults, assuming that more than a few would imagine the horror/thriller genre as nothing but cheap, gimmicky, ridiculous fare. If these projects that are written by, directed by, and star us, maintain a level of lethargy and just plain cheesiness, people who aren’t directly fans of these genres won’t take the time to further see how entertaining, informative, and transformative these genres can be. We will remain the butt of the joke and not be taken seriously as active participants in these spaces.
I’m glad to lay an opinion down that implies TV One is finally steering in the right direction, nearly washing away the stench of the former, with their latest in the speculative universe, “The Summoning” (2015).
“The Summoning” is both engaging and delightfully dark, taking its time to develop characters and hitting beats that consistently stay true to the theme without ever feeling cheapened. It is a more serious attempt at tackling genre storytelling, with virtually an all people of color cast, and nods to Black cultural signifiers, while remaining universal. “The Summoning” prompts ideas of loss, pain, second chances, and family that are cleverly manipulated by supernatural antagonists, placing it under the “horror/thriller” tent quite nicely.
Five years after her first husband’s death, and still in mourning, a woman named Angela (Paula Jai Parker) is visited by an old peer (Darius McCrary as Drew) who gives her a strange medallion she’s told can bring back a deceased loved one. When she’s overtaken by the compulsion to follow through, her former husband TJ (Terrell Tilford) is brought back, longing for the family and love he once had. However, things aren’t what they seem, as revelations about TJ and the medallion threaten to destroy Angela’s life, and that of her family, if she doesn’t make some rather harsh decisions, and trust those that are living around her.
Paula Jai Parker’s 20-plus years as an actress shines brightly here, as a centralized character who channels about every emotion found in the human condition, seamlessly. “The Summoning” allows for enough exposition to stay invested in her story as a mother, wife, friend, business owner, and most critical, a fighter. Her performance elevates the performances of those she shares scenes with, as Angela’s behavioral tones never feel disjointed.
I don’t want to spoil the twists, so I will say that the film does prompt questions about death and alternate dimensions beyond. What inspired me was the concept of what Angela actually brought back; her beloved TJ or something else? TJ is a ghostly dream of possible closure, who gradually transforms into a menacing, controlling poltergeist, bent on taking Angela into a mental tailspin. This works so effectively because, textually, she learns about his skeletons, and fittingly, they help her move forward. Although simplistic, their dynamic kept me invested.
This hearkens back to an old tenet of horror: conjure the dead, and reap the consequences.
“The Summoning” is not without a few technical storytelling decisions that don’t make full use of the medium. There’s almost a little too much establishment in the form of dialogue. While it’s near perfect for a “TV film” and doesn’t fall victim entirely to character motivation plot holes, the investment you achieve could’ve easily been played with more subtlety.
This is a significant step for African American-oriented genre programming on a cable network. In summary, “The Summoning” is hope in the sense that we’ll get to see more speculative works on TV One with this level of quality. I’m looking forward to seeing other stories that dive deeper into the supernatural, by more writers and directors who love the genre as much as many of us do. Even with television limits and other unknown bureaucracies, “The Summoning” is a solid installment.
It premieres this Saturday, June 6 at 8 p.m. ET on TV One, directed by Charles Murray starring Paula Jai Parker, Terrell Tilford, Dorian Missick, Darius McCrary, Storm Reid, and Diandra Lyle.
Ashlee Blackwell is a lifelong lover of film and writing. She’s the founder of Graveyard Shift Sisters, a blog that highlights and celebrates Black women and women of color in the horror genre. Find her on Twitter: @GraveyardSister; Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/graveyardshiftsisters; Tumblr: http://graveyardshiftsisters.tumblr.com/