Review by Sean Boelman
Were it not for the fact that this month is so lacking in mainstream horror content, Mark Tonderai’s Spell likely would have gone under the radar as a niche B-movie. Thanks to good performances and some disturbing imagery, this backwoods horror tale is able to overcome most of its narrative shortcomings, if only barely.
The film follows an upper-class man who, while on the way to a funeral in Appalachia, gets into a plane crash and wakes up in the attic of an old couple who may be up to something more sinister. With the way the movie starts off, it almost seems like it is going to be a Black spin on Deliverance, minus the offensiveness, but it also isn’t as culturally sensitive as it may initially appear.
Kurt Wimmer’s script is heavily centered around the Hoodoo tradition that traces back to the time of slavery in the South. And while the film doesn’t quite otherize the Black Appalachian culture, there’s almost a xenophilia to its approach. The movie feels as if it's obsessed with their traditions, but in a way that is too distant to truly understand them.
As is the case with most lower-budget horror films, the first act drags significantly as the exposition is dumped, and then the other two-thirds feel rushed, shoving all of the creativity and intensity into a short period of time. Perhaps even more frustrating is the fact that the ending is so anticlimactic and predictable that it leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth.
Wimmer also fumbles the character development. The inciting incident of the script is the fact that they are heading to a funeral, and yet this theme of family is almost completely abandoned after the first twenty minutes. At that point, it turns into a much more basic fight for survival, and while there is excitement there, it’s a shell of the movie it should have been.
The main saving grace of the film is Loretta Devine, who gives a devilishly fun performance in her supporting role. An otherwise average horror movie can be significantly elevated by a memorable villain, and Devine’s character fits that bill and then some. Omari Hardwick’s lead performance is fine, although he’s really just another hero fighting back against an evil antagonist.
Tonderai also does a good job of shooting the film in a way that is eerie and atmospheric. The production design is minimalistic but is able to make the viewer feel immersed in this world that exists in the modern world yet is trapped in the past. As for the effects for the more horrifying moments, they’re surprisingly great.
Most of the problems with Spell are in its script, not its execution. It’s entertaining and creepy enough to be a satisfying watch, even if the narrative weaknesses keep it from being as disturbing as one would hope.
Spell hits theaters and VOD on October 30.