Paramount Pictures newest horror film “Spell” is the latest film to skip theaters for a video on demand release. It’s a tightly directed thriller and the second great African-American led horror movie of 2020, coming in after “Antebellum”. Director Mark Tonderai and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer, combine the same amount of Jordan Peele’s socially-aware relevance with typical horror movie trope scares. The films first fifteen minutes feels as though it is on autopilot, but it gets really good. Stars Omari Hardwick and veteran actress Loretta Devine, carry the movie wonderfully and help increase the suspense. While director Mark Tonderai finds ways to make a static situation reasonably tense, keeping the lead character Marquis in a state of distress for the remainder of it’s run time. Tonderai has made a sharp and stylish movie that builds it’s tension by throwing in some deeply disturbing gory elements as it builds to a bit of a psychological revenge action thriller that will chill you to your bones. “Spell” kept me mesmerized with genuine suspense, right through it’s final blaze of violent glory.
This past Halloween weekend, three horror films premiered with two of them getting a theatrical release, that received a less than stellar word of mouth and ticket sales. The third film of the bunch is called “Spell”, which has decided to skip it’s theatrical release and go straight to video on demand. Being released on VOD was the best choice for “Spell”, seeing as how streaming is still dominating what has been a slow, but large opening of movie theaters.
“Spell” is a tightly directed thriller and the second great African-American led horror movie of 2020, coming in after “Antebellum” (out now on 4K & Blu Ray). “Spell” goes for the “horror noir” that has become such a huge thing in horror films, thanks to the success of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and “Us”. While a lot of the recent horror films with a black lead has tried to combine the same amount of Peele’s socially-aware relevance with typical horror movie trope scares. “Spell” definitely shares that despite being written and produced by Kurt Wimmer.
Penning the script for “Spell” is an unexpected turn for Wimmer, who has previously mixed bizarro genre (“Equilibrium”, “Ultraviolet”) with studio action (“Salt”, “Point Break” and “Total Recall”). For the first time, Wimmer has gone full schlock, but it’s good practice for his upcoming remake on the rural horror film “Children of the Corn”. The director of “Spell” is Mark Tonderai, who has been building his resume for the last five years as a genre TV director on everything from “Gotham” to “Doctor Who” to “Locke & Key” to “Castle Rock”. His last directed feature film was 2012’s “House at the End of the Street”, which failed to inspire much hope in the helmer’s abilities.
Thankfully “Spell” brings back some faith in the filmmaker as his tale of rural mayhem is an endeavor that gives viewers a claustrophobic sense of horror involving the deep south and fantasy powers. Wimmer mixes elements of voodoo and cult violence to establish an economical chiller that largely takes place in a single room and surrounding area. “Spell” sees a rich and powerful lawyer living in the big city, named Marquis (Omari Hardwick) who tries to put child abuse from his formative years behind him, but the scars still remain. Living with wife Veora (Lorraine Burroughs) and children Tydon (Kalifa Burton) and Samsara (Hannah Gonera), Marquis’s stable life is disturbed when word of his father’s death arrives, forcing him to travel to Kentucky and deal with estate matters.
After loading his family into a private plane, Marquis flies them south, only to encounter a powerful storm that crashes the airplane in the middle of nowhere. Returning to consciousness, Marquis finds himself on a bed with a wounded foot, while Eloise (Loretta Devine) tends to his needs, informing the visitor that his loved ones haven’t been found. Panicking about his situation, Marquis is quickly numbed by Eloise’s “folk magic”, gradually realizing the deep trouble he’s in, including Eloise’s husband, Earl (John Beasley) and farm muscle, Lewis (Steve Mululu).
“Spell” starts off slow and feels as though the film is on autopilot. But after about twenty minutes, it starts to get really good. Once Marquis wakes up in a strange bed, within a locked room and discovering a swollen bleeding foot, the suspense is set into overdrive. As we watch Marquis out of his comfort zone of a rich life and back in his Appalachian home town, where he grew up as an abused kid by his religiously-devout father who believed in the area’s Hoodoo customs. Following in the classic horror movies like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Misery”.
Once Marquis wakes up to his surroundings, we soon meet Eloise who screenwriter Kurt Wimmer quickly establishes and doesn’t hide her initial intentions for Marquis. She uses powders to control his behavior and creates a “boogedy” doll that gives her command over Marquis’ body. Strangeness increases and director Tonderai finds ways to make a static situation reasonably tense, keeping Marquis in a state of distress for the remainder of the run time.
Bits and pieces of Eloise’s master plan are revealed, but mostly revealed during an escape attempt sequence as Marquis watches a cult ceremony taking place in a barn on the property. The primal horror of “Spell” is fascinating, with Eloise a total nut trying to play the part of a kindly nurse, while Marquis learns more about his situation, as his foot problems grow squeamish and gruesome later in the feature. It’s a sequence that is enough to make even those with an iron stomach squeamish and it’s memorable enough to recommend the movie on it alone. If that isn’t enough for you, just wait till you see what Eloise gives him for dinner.
All of the acting in “Spell” is fairly spot on. Majority of the film falls on the shoulders of Omari Hardwick and Loretta Devine, who carry it wonderfully. The on screen chemistry between them is bone chilling that helps fuel a movie so filled with suspense, that this is one of those movies that is partially relied upon by it’s cast. Omari Hardwick conveys the terror Marquis goes through, which is actually two types of terror. In not knowing if his family is alive and the torture that Eloise puts him through. He represents everything that she despises and Hardwick convincingly portrays how his character realizes he’ll have to get in touch with his roots in order to outwit his captor.
Veteran actress Loretta Devine is Ms. Eloise and I’m glad she was able to get this role in what would have normally gone to someone like Octavia Spencer. Devine plays Eloise as a combination of an evil Madea and Kathy Bates Annie from Rob Reiner’s “Misery”. As Marquis and Eloise establish their “Misery” dynamic, Eloise and Earl are deep into dark magic, complete with late-night rituals and a sacrifice timed to the arrival of the “blood moon”. Eloise makes a Boogity of Marquis, out of his blood and skin and keeps a box of voodoo dolls that look exactly like their human counterparts. If she does something like taking the tongue out of a doll, the human will lose their ability to speak.
When it comes to the script Wimmer is clearly more in tune with fleshing out the spooky Hoodoo elements rather than focusing on the social dynamics. And although there’s an overwhelming sense that it’s headed in a corny direction, then the horror and suspense of it all kicks in and goes for a different kind of horror than we’ve seen recently. There are no ghosts or supernatural entities, just malevolent people with the power of the traditional African-American folk magic known as Hoodoo. I rarely have audible reactions to horror movies, but I had them during “Spell”.
Tonderai has made a sharp and stylish movie that builds it’s tension by throwing in some deeply disturbing gory elements as it builds to a bit of a psychological revenge action thriller that will chill you to your bones. “Spell” kept me mesmerized with genuine suspense, right through it’s final blaze of violent glory.
GRADE: ★★★1/2☆☆ (3.5 out of 5)