I usually begin my reviews with something of a pre-amble to give some context to the work I’m writing about and my general feelings surrounding certain themes and genres, but I’m not going to bother this time (unless, of course, this paragraph counts and my irony radar is a pile of shit). I’ve spoken many a time about how a lot of 21st-century horror is dull, recycled garbage and that’s precisely what we’re dealing with here, so let’s get on with it.
Marquis Woods (Omari Hardwick) is a successful businessman married to Veora (Lorraine Burroughs), with whom he has two children, Samsara (Hannah Gonera) and Tydon (Kalifa Burton). It is established via flashbacks that Marquis had a pointedly horrendous start in life, being raised in rural Appalachia by a cruel and violent father who provided the impetus for Marquis to escape and make something of himself. Having grown up to become a man of respect and wealth, Marquis diligently provides his family with things he never had, being particularly passionate about displaying empathy and patience for his children. He’s also an enthusiastic amateur pilot.
While at work, Marquis receives a phone call from an attorney in his birthplace of Kentucky, informing him that his father has just passed away. Gathering his wife and kids, Marquis swallows his pride and resentment toward the abusive and deceased old bastard and plans an excursion to the funeral. Boarding Marquis’ plane, the family briefly land on a deserted stretch of desert to fill the fuel tank and interact with some rather strange locals before taking off once more, right into the eye of a thoroughly crazy storm. Everyone obviously freaks out, Marquis loses control of the plane and the screen cuts to black.
Waking up in a strange bed, Marquis discovers that his feet are extremely painful and bandaged and that his family are nowhere in sight. Unsuccessfully attempting to hobble around, Marquis is confronted by Ms Eloise (Loretta Devine), a larger-than-life, aggressively hospitable woman who owns the house that Marquis is inexplicably plotted up in. Explaining that he was found near death and, more disturbingly, alone in the wreck of his plane, Eloise and her partner Earl (John Beasley) have taken it upon themselves to nurse Marquis back to health in the attic bedroom of their creepy woodlands abode. Revealing herself as a practitioner of ‘Hoodoo’ (a mixture of African & Native American folkway practices, tangentially related to Voodoo and referred to in the film by the regional nickname ‘rootwork’), Eloise assures Marquis that panic and fidgeting will only delay his convalescence.
Marquis grows ever more perturbed as Ms Eloise insists that their location is too remote to contact emergency services and that it is in his best interests to remain where he is, the literal and figurative lines of her ‘working her magic’ increasingly blurred as she constructs a ‘boogity’ (essentially the same thing as a Voodoo doll) using Marquis’ blood and seminal fluid, benevolently professing that ”the more good things happen to it, the more good things happen to you”. ‘Good things’ quickly turn bad as Eloise’s rage at Marquis’ lack of obedience manifests in sadistic actions upon the doll, our hero deducing that this couple and their bizarre associates plan to utilise him for some diabolical ritual. With the air of threat mounting and Marquis’ desperation to locate his mysteriously absent family becoming more severe and delirious, he must find a way out of his hocus-pocus conundrum by any means necessary.
Call it hyperbolic all you want, but Spell was an extraordinarily taxing experience. For a start, it merely recycles Misery with some supernatural furnishings, right down to foot-oriented brutality, manufacturing convenient explanations for lack of police and medical contact and the protagonist constantly trying to placate their suspicious and mercurial captors. Whereas Caan & Bates both delivered phenomenally immersive performances in that work, it’s the antithesis that is in operation here.
All of the acting has a hackneyed and inorganic air to it, made all the worse by an utterly cringe-inducing reinforcement of the worst kind of stereotypes that surround black residents of the Southern United States. None of the Woods family is convincing enough to generate pathos and, most bafflingly, Devine & Beasley conveyed something akin to an SNL-lampooning of racist stock characters with all of the ‘yessir!’ and ‘Quite you’re hollerin, woman!’. This particular umbrella of folk religions actually has a compelling history and sociocultural position, and you need only look at something like Angel Heart for an example of Voodoo (or, indeed, derivations of it) used effectively as a religious horror device. The depiction here is nothing short of juvenile and embarrassing.
In conjunction with this thoroughly un-scary characterisation is the problem of the way Spell elects to showcase the unfolding horror. Giant mute henchmen and mysterious dust that renders someone catatonic when blown into their face reminded me of Are You Afraid Of The Dark?, something that undoubtedly scared the life out of me when was 8 but is now solely worth revisiting for its resolute silliness. I haven’t the foggiest idea what director Mark Tonderai was thinking in his decision to so conspicuously squander the chance to be smart within the confines of a small budget. The visual effects, particularly near the climax, are laughably awful, further driving home the point that this interesting premise could have enormously benefited from ‘less is more’, ‘show, don’t tell’ and all of the other idioms that advocate economic aesthetics.
You won’t be efficiently startled, you won’t be on the edge of your seat, you won’t have your thoughts provoked, I’ll bet my last penny that you won’t even be engaged at the most rudimentary level, instead patiently slogging it out and praying for the end credits to come bulleting around the corner as quickly as possible. I wish it were so bad that it’s good but it’s just a boring misfire.