Spell’s hero, Marquis T. Woods (Omari Hardwick), is a bigshot lawyer getting ready for his next case—defending against a class-action lawsuit with mostly black plaintiffs—when he gets the call that his father has died. Over dinner he tells his wife and two children, “I haven’t seen him since I ran away from Appalachia and never looked back.” The family decides to fly his single-engine plane down for the funeral. After ignoring multiple warnings at a gas station, Woods loses control of the plane in a storm. The scene cuts to black, leaving audiences to imagine the crash.
Woods wakes in the bed of a creepy cabin, foot wrapped in blood soaked bandages. Shortly after, Ms. Eloise (Loretta Devine) comes in with her associate Earl (John Beasely), who tells Woods, “Wasn’t no one in that mushed up old plane but yourself” with a thick accent. There’s also no help on the way because they’re 50 miles away from the nearest hospital and Ms. Eloise doesn’t have a phone. She does have two men—Earl and Lewis (Steve Mululu)—to help her take care of Woods. Quickly, she begins telling him about Hoodoo, though she never says if she’s going to use her spells to help him or use him as ingredients to help with her spells.
Spell mixes Deliverance and Misery with a big dose of Hoodoo. Its worst elements come from Deliverance. Like in that Best-picture nominated film, the people of Appalachia are imagined as slow-witted because of their accents. Early on, Ms. Eloise can’t seem to go more than a line without dropping a southernism like “Vain naming the Lord” which makes the character feel very much like a caricature. Having an accent doesn’t mean someone’s dumb, but Ms. Eloise is and it makes the story worse.
In Misery, which has a similar setup to Spell, Annie Wilkes is cunning. When the novelist she’s kidnapped finds a way out of his bedroom prison, she catches him repeatedly. Woods matches Paul Sheldon in the inventive ways that he gets out of the locked room, but Ms. Eloise isn’t a competent jailer. At one point, he comes in from the roof on a stormy night and jumps straight into bed and she doesn’t seem to notice how wet he is for minutes. When he escapes again through the door, she makes no changes to the security she has in place. Misery works because the cat-and-mouse game between Wilkes and Sheldon is between two people with even footing. Spell sags because it never convinces audiences that Ms. Eloise can catch Woods.
While Woods seems a bit more intelligent, his motives make no sense. It’s almost boggling how long Spell’s writer Kurt Wimmer waits to have Woods, who asks Ms. Eloise about his family each time she comes in, check for them in the house.
More than just not being intelligent, the characters both seem to be allegorical stand-ins. Woods is the city while Ms. Eloise is the country. By asking one character to represent an entire way of life ends up reductive. Woods and Ms. Eloise both feel like cartoons of a city person and a country person, not actual city people or country people.
Despite those issues with the script, Hardwick’s performance is a bright spot. He carries what might be the most harrowing scene in the film with his reactions as Woods goes through a painful experience with his foot.
Jacques Jouffret’s cinematography is another highlight. The Purge film series veteran has some inspired moments. A bobbing camera not quite focusing aptly communicates the way Woods is feeling as he first wakes from the crash. The Hoodoo is captured elegantly. Joffret’s beautiful shot compositions elevate other familiar moments.
It’s also excellent to see a black director, Mark Tonderai, working with a nearly all black cast. Too often indie horror features a mostly-white crew filming a mostly-white cast, so it’s nice to get the reverse. While Spell isn’t a perfect film, we need more movies like it. If you agree, make sure to rent or buy it.
This Blu-ray includes over an hour of bonus features. There are 14 deleted scenes, some of which would have helped with Spell’s logical issues; a short film called “The Nightmare Spell” which remixes pieces of the original film and includes some new, better imagery; and two making of documentaries.
Wicked Rating – 4/10
Director: Mark Tonderai
Writer: Kurt Wimmer
Stars: Omari Hardwick, Loretta Devine, John Beasely
Studio/Production Company: LINK Entertainment, MC8 Entertainment, Paramount Pictures
Release Date: January 12, 2021 (Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital)
Length: 91 minutes