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SPELL (2020)

Directed by Mark Tonderai
Written by Kurt Wimmer
Starring Omari Hardwick, Loretta Devine, Lorraine Burroughs, Hannah Gonera, Kalifa Burton, John Beasley, Tumisho Masha, Steve Mululu, Peter Butler, Andre Jacobs, Doctor Khasu-Nkatlo, Chris April

When Mark (Omari Hardwick), a well to do lawyer gets word that his father has passed, he rents a plane and flies it to the backwoods of Appalachian territory with his family aboard. The plane hits turbulence and ends up crashing. Mark wakes up in the rural home of Eloise (Loretta Devine) a practitioner of dark Hoodoo magic. Wounded and dazed, Mark has no idea where his family is or who Eloise and her family are. As he gains his wits, Mark realizes that Eloise is up to no good as she won’t let him leave and seems to be preparing for a ceremony to take place on the eve of the Blood Moon which is only a few nights away.

While SPELL isn’t perfect, it does one thing that many other films get wrong. It offers up a glimpse at folk horror and Voodoo magic and does the impossible by making it terrifying. Director Mark Tonderai and writer Kurt Wimmer make the magic palpable and personal as Mark endures Eloise’s spells, potions, and trickery. You can count the number of good and scary Voodoo Hoodoo movies on one hand and SPELL can be added to that short list. Sure there are plenty of Voodoo films, but for some reason, they just never get under my skin or simply feel scary, but the simplicity of the spells, the small details of the potions and powers Eloise uses, and the wince-inducing terrors that Mark endures really work here and I have to commend this film for getting it right. This isn’t anything goes magic going on. Eloise’s power has a set of rules we clearly learn early, which helps make it more threatening and, dare I say it, realistic. There are numerous scenes that are full of tension, solid scares, and some absolutely toe-curling gore that work where other films attempting to illustrate the power of mysticism fail miserably.

In many ways, this is an Appalachia-magic version of MISERY with Eloise keeping Mark in bed by any means possible for dark designs. While SPELL follows a lot of the same beats as MISERY, the down-home setting and use of magic with a set of rules makes things feel fresh. There’s even a scene in SPELL that rivals MISERY’s hobbling scene that is almost as greusome. It helps a lot that Hardwick and Devine are pretty great together as Mark and Eloise. Eloise seems to have the whole thing planned out, but Mark’s from the area as well, though he moved away long ago, and his familiarity really makes this a formidable matchup.

Despite the solid performances, strong conflict, and apt use of magic, SPELL has problems. First and foremost, the theme of city folk looking down on country folk is dropped in the latter half to make for a more conventional ending. When you add the fact that Mark and his family are black but seem to be racist and classist towards the black people from the Appalachian country, it makes things extremely interesting as this is a subject many in Hollywood wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. One might think a dark lesson would be learned in SPELL as Mark and his family all have moments of being pretty uppity towards the poorer community Eloise represents. Mark’s son Tydon (Kalifa Burton) is the biggest pampered asshole of the bunch and one might think at least he would suffer for his ignorance. But while SPELL goes there at the beginning, once Mark wakes up at Eloise’s place, the theme is dropped almost entirely.

The finale of SPELL is all over the place. Mark is in the barn trying to save his family in one scene and the next scene he is chasing down a police car a mile away, then he’s back in the barn in the next scene to take on Eloise. The rules established in the earlier portions of the film are tossed out of the window as the rules of magic go all over the place, scenes are set up off camera only to be flashed back to awkwardly, and suddenly this dark art is easily mastered by a novice. The final moments almost undercuts the entire goodness of the first hour. I liked that first hour of SPELL a lot as it really knows how to make backwoods magic macabre, exciting, and personal. But be prepared to slap your head hard in the final moments as this film richly misses the landing by a country mile.

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