By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Omari Hardwick, Loretta Devine and John Beasley
Directed by Mark Tonderai
Written by Kurt Wimmer
Diversity in horror can lead to great things, like Netflix’s HIS HOUSE, debuting today. And then there’s a movie like SPELL, also premiering today, which employs an almost entirely African-American cast yet flirts uncomfortably with exploiting fears of the Black Other.
There’s some muddled messaging involved in the buildup to and development of the endangerment of Marquis T. Woods (Omari Hardwick). He’s a wealthy hotshot lawyer who has clearly abandoned his roots; when met in the movie, he’s about to represent the defendants in a class action suit brought by African-Americans–though their lawyers, he rationalizes, are white. Part of his past that he has fled and mentally filed away is his upbringing at the hands of an abusive father in the Appalachias, a milieu he finds himself drawn back to after his dad dies.
Reluctantly accepting an invitation to the old man’s funeral, he packs his wife Veora (Lorraine Burroughs) and teenage kids Samsara and Tydon (Hannah Gonera and Kalifa Burton) into his small plane and, having apparently not checked the weather reports, flies them straight into a raging storm. No sooner has his wife admonished him, “Sometimes the jungle comes back to find you, no matter what boardroom you try to hide in,” than the plane goes down; rendered unconscious in the crash, he wakes up bedridden and badly injured in an attic room of a middle-of-the-woods house, his family nowhere to be seen. His “host” is middle-aged Eloise (Loretta Devine), who insists he needs to rest and let her and her older husband Earl (John Beasley) take care of him. Very quickly, however, she’s blowing strange powder in his face, and we see her putting together occult totems while her hulking, silent son Lewis (Steve Mululu) digs graves in the front yard.
Subtlety is clearly not on the plate here, and that includes director Mark Tonderai’s visual style, which is rife with exaggerated angles, shaky handheld close-ups and both sun and artificial lighting in the camera’s face. Kurt Wimmer’s script strains to delineate the differences between Marquis and his family’s upper-class existence and his down-home roots; when he lands the plane at a rural refueling station, and Tydon calls a local kid a “country-ass n-word,” Veora admonishes him about the “country-ass” part. Yet that stereotypical view is how the film itself sees Eloise, complete with dialogue like “Lookit what the cat done drug in” and “You done worked yourself up into a sho-nuff appetite.” Devine attacks the role with relish and does what she can to elevate it above caricature, but Eloise still feels like a reductive black figure of fear. And the film doesn’t engage with the concept of bringing Marquis back into the environment that once traumatized him; he just becomes a victim again, and has to escape again, and there isn’t a single scene suggesting that its lower-class characters are anything but backwards at best and evil at worst.
All right, I hear some of you cry, get off your sociopolitical high horse and just tell us whether SPELL works as a horror movie or not. Despite the rich, threateningly detailed production design by Paula Loos, the film makes everything too obvious too early to generate honest tension or scares. Eloise introduces Marquis to his doll effigy, known as a Boogity, and explains all the attendant folklore early on, and when he makes his first late-night escape attempt, he spies Eloise leading a Hoodoo revival meeting in her barn as rain pours, lightning flashes and thunder crashes. By this point, only a half hour in, SPELL has already sustained such an over-the-top pitch that when Eloise kills a cat (warning, animal lovers) and puts its tongue in the Boogity of a mute woman, you can be forgiven for thinking (hoping?) that woman is going to start meowing.
Any hope that SPELL might attempt to investigate Hoodoo as anything but a gimmick fades away as the movie churns through the clichés, expecting us to be surprised when (SPOILER ALERT, but not really) an authority figure who seems to offer hope of rescue turns out to be in league with the villains. And expecting us to buy it when (SPOILER ALERT) Marquis torturously pulls a six-inch metal spike out of his heel, then rams it back in so Eloise won’t know he’s fiddled with it, then pulls it out again, and is subsequently seen limping only about as much as one would expect from someone who just stubbed his toe. By the final act, the film has fallen apart into unconvincing developments and illogical behavior, and even basic storytelling coherence gets lost. One key scene appears to have been cut from the very end of the film and awkwardly inserted earlier, in the midst of the climactic action.
By that climax, SPELL has abandoned its promising premise of Marquis coming to terms with his formative abuse in favor of conventional action heroics. “I Put a Spell on You” is predictably played twice over the course of the movie, but the film is unable to conjure up much beyond a sense of possibilities unfulfilled.