Film

Review: More Tense than Scary, Spell Is Spooky Enough to Stay Interesting

Definitely taking a unique approach to the “dangerous hillbillies in the wooded mountains” sub-genre within the horror movie space, Spell tells the story of an African-American corporate attorney named Marquis (or Marq, played by Omari Hardwick), raised in rural Appalachia by an abusive father who also was deep into dark magic—a past that Marq has been running from ever since he left the region. Now his father is dead, and Marq must return to the mountains to attend the funeral with his wife and two teenage kids.

Spell

Image courtesy of the film

In a stroke of horror-film luck, Marq owns and flies a single-engine plane, which he flies back home and promptly crashes while approaching his destination. He wakes up battered and bruised but alive after being found by an older woman named Ms. Eloise (Loretta Devine), who believes she can nurse him back to health in her mostly finished attic, so that they can all go searching for the rest of Marq’s family, whom she claims weren’t anywhere around the wreckage. Because we need more reasons not to trust Ms. Eloise, she builds something called a Boogity (the regional equivalent of a voodoo doll) made up of Marq’s hair, skin, blood, and certain other bodily fluids (an important theme in horror films this week) to sit in the attic and watch over him as he heals. It becomes clear that not only do Ms. Eloise and her husband and weirdly silent and strong son not want Marq to heal too completely but that they don’t ever want him to leave.

Admittedly, Spell gives us something I’ve rarely seen in the horror genre—an all-Black cast in a world in which folk magic is the key ingredient. It’s not an especially scary movie, but only because it’s more of a tense thriller, which does work well at times. The big reveals are a bit anticlimactic (another theme in this week’s horror offerings), and the entire film feels a bit undercooked.

Before long, it becomes known that Eloise is planning an important ritual to coincide with the coming blood moon, and Marq will have to tap into his long-buried knowledge of dark magic to survive and find his family—if they’re still alive. This inner struggle is probably the most interesting aspect of the film, and Hardwick does a really solid job playing inner turmoil convincingly. The film is also wildly gory at time, which is a plus—the way in which Ms. Eloise keeps him from walking right and thus escaping is especially nasty. Devine is clearly having a blast playing this overtly evil character, one that still possesses a type of country charm that makes us adore her. And the production design makes her home—especially that attic—look genuinely rundown to the point where you can almost smell the rotting wood and strange potions brewing and stewing all over the house.

Weirdly, the story, especially the ending, has a great deal in common with HBO’s recent series “Lovecraft Country” and that show’s idea that African Americans possess all of the magic in the world. As I said, there aren’t a lot of surprises or scares, but there are enough interesting qualities to Spell to recommend it. Plus, it’s short enough to make it painless.

The film is now available on VOD.

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