Winning Hand: Canadian filmmaker Patrick White takes on a Russian horror classic and deals out Queen of Spades

Shortly after Patrick White finished the final mix on his movie Queen of Spades in February of last year, the filmmaker hit a bit of a wall.

“All of a sudden the world changed,” says White of the COVID-19 pandemic’s quick arrival in North America, which swiftly shuttered movie theatres across the country. “Then we said, ‘Alright, we’ll hit the festival circuit,’ and then all of the festivals just started getting cancelled.”

While opportunities to exhibit films dried up in the ensuing months of 2020, White admits he soon began to see an upside to the pandemic that he hoped Queen of Spades would be able to tap into. After all, says White, “a lot more people are (at home) watching content, so that ends up potentially being a benefit.”

Indeed, there is little doubt that lockdown measures brought about a surge in online streaming and, for Queen of Spades, it gets even more promising. According to film experts, the genre of horror experienced a boom year in 2020, with more people seeking out cinematic scares on streaming services to cope with COVID-19. That’s good news for White’s remake of an award-winning Russian horror hit.

“The other beautiful thing about a horror audience is that the star of a horror movie is usually the concept,” adds White, who recognized early Queen of Spades would hold promise with its premise, not a celebrity headliner.

Available on streaming platforms since June 15, Queen of Spades follows four teenagers as they face the horrific consequences of releasing an ominous entity known as the Queen of Spades after performing an ancient ritual as a lark. Not unlike classic cult hits Candyman or Clive Barker’s Hellraiser franchise, Queen of Spades taps into the incessant human curiosity to meddle with the other side.

“If you slow yourself down enough and actually do (a ritual like) Queen of Spades and you actually pay attention and listen in a dark room, you are going to hear stuff and it will play games with your head,” says White, admitting ritualistic horror makes for persuasive horror content. “As much as we are rational beings, I think everybody has encountered events that we can’t explain or we can’t rationalize.”

Originated in the 19th Century by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, the folklore behind the Queen of Spades has been the basis of everything from operas to radio shows to several films, including Svyatoslav Podgaevskiy’s popular 2015 version that became the inspiration behind White’s adaptation.

“Whether you talk about The Exorcist or you talk about The Shining or all the classic horror movies, you’re talking about the situation or the horror,” says White of making his directorial debut from famous Russian folklore. “As a filmmaker, it’s one thing to make a great movie —which is a huge battle — but the other is, is anyone going to see it and is it going to get out there?” 

Mostly known for his work as a producer, White recently made the jump into the director’s chair with his short thriller The Garage (which premiered at CUFF in 2014). Shortly afterwards, distribution company levelFILM came to him and his producers with the rights to Podgaevskiy’s Queen of Spades: The Dark Rite. Even with his limited experience as a director, White quickly jumped at the chance to dive into the horror franchise. 

“The horror genre is like punk music,” says White of finding confidence as a new director. “Maybe you don’t exactly know how to play your instruments, but it’s more about that sheer excitement and enthusiasm (and) people having an experience and saying, ‘Wow, that was a lot of fun.’ ”

However, there is another reason that the up-and-coming, Ottawa-based director embraced the horror genre as well.

“It lets you flex your filmmaking muscle,” states White. “It’s a great genre to be able to invoke emotion and really capture an audience, take them for a ride and have that suspension of disbelief. I love a good comedy but comedy is extremely hard (but) a well done horror movie is a fantastic movie.”

Queen of Spades is available on VOD and streaming digitally.