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“We don’t have much in the way of Obamacare down here,” says Eloise (Loretta Devine), the hoodoo-practicing matriarch who serves as the chief villain of Spell. That it’s the most ominous line of Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay provides some indication of the dearth of genuine thrills in the new horror film directed by Mark Tonderai that provides an African-American riff on themes rendered much scarier in Misery.
Heavy on oppressively humid atmosphere and light on originality, the film is a mostly forgettable genre exercise whose viewers won’t miss much by watching at home.
Release date: Oct 30, 2020
Veteran stage, screen and television actress Devine — she was one of the original “Dreamgirls” in the classic Broadway musical staged by Michael Bennett, and has been a regular on numerous TV shows including Boston Public and Grey’s Anatomy — is actually the best thing in the film. Playing the alternately menacing and solicitous villain who can render a person immobile simply by blowing magic dust in their face, she brings a hammily enjoyable flair to the proceedings, even if her Eloise is never once as scary as Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes.
Her victim is Marquise (Omari Hardwick, Starz’s Power), an attorney who lives with his wife (Lorraine Burroughs) and self-absorbed teenage children (Kalifa Burton, Hannah Gonera) in the sort of modernistic home that could be the subject of an Architectural Digest photo spread. When Marquise receives word that his estranged father has died, he impulsively decides to fly his family on his private plane to attend the funeral in the rural Appalachian town where he grew up.
After a fuel stop during which Marquise and his son have quietly unsettling encounters with distinctly unfriendly locals and a truly hideous outhouse, the plane flies into a terrible storm that apparently brings it down. Marquise wakes up alone in a ramshackle house (Paula Loos’ spooky production design is worthy of a haunted house attraction) with a serious foot injury that makes getting around extremely painful.
Not that he really has anywhere to go, since Eloise, along with her elderly, shambling husband Earl (John Beasley, Sinister 2, The Purge: Anarchy), makes it clear that the best thing he can do is stay in bed and allow her to work her healing treatments. Despite his injuries, Marquise is still a formidable physical force, but he’s no match for the couple’s hulking son Lewis (Steve Mululu), who doesn’t speak but nonetheless gets his forbidding message across.
It’s at this point that Spell, after a reasonably effective slow-build, becomes ultra-formulaic. Marquise manages to escape from the room several times, only to be forced to retreat and pretend that he never left as a suspicious Eloise eyes him warily and reexamines his injury. The excursions do lead to the single most effective scene, when Marquise crouches on a roof and looks down at a prayer meeting in which a blind man is given doll’s eyes and suddenly seems to regain the power of sight, warningly pointing up toward the interloper.
Those fake eyes belong to Boogity, Eloise’s hoodoo doll, which she claims can nurse Marquise back to health but clearly has more nefarious purposes. After all, it’s hard to trust Eloise when she locks the door to her captive’s room and tells him that it’s for his own good. “I’m on your side,” she assures him, none too convincingly.
Director Tonderai, whose previous credits include the cheesily fun Jennifer Lawrence horror film House at the End of the Street, certainly doesn’t skimp when it comes to piling on the Southern Gothic atmosphere. There’s enough torrential rain and wind on display to fuel a dozen hurricane movies, making you wonder how much drying off Hardwick had to do between his strenuous physical exertions.
Unfortunately, the filmmaker’s stylistic efforts aren’t enough to compensate for the predictable, cliché-ridden aspects of the screenplay by Tillman, who’s written more than his share of mediocre cinematic remakes (Point Break, The Thomas Crown Affair, Total Recall). Even though his script for Spell is technically an original, the film can’t help unavoidably feeling like a remake as well.
Available in theaters, digital formats and VOD
Production companies: LINK Entertainment, MC8 Entertainment, Paramount Pictures
Distributor: Paramount Players
Cast: Omari Hardwick, Loretta Devine, John Beasley, Lorraine Burroughs, Hannah Gonera, Kalifa Burton, Tumisho Masha, Steve Mululu
Director: Mark Tonderai
Screenwriter: Kurt Wimmer
Producers: Gordon Gray, Kurt Wimmer, Morris Chestnut, Brian Wilkins
Director of photography: Jacques Jouffret
Production designer: Paula Loos
Editor: Sarah C. Reeves
Composer: Ben Onono
Costume designer: Danielle Knox
Casting: Bonnie Lee Bouman, Priscilla John, Orla Maxwell
Rated R, 91 min.
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