Horror films about religion and spirituality are not hard to find, with films like The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Omen being some of the highest-regarded horror films of all time. The issue with many of them is that they almost exclusively deal with horror in the face of Western Christianity. Spell gets points right off the bat for going outside the box and exploring the potential of horror within traditionally Black American practices of Hoodoo, which is a mixture of traditional African practices, Native American practices, and Christian practices born out of the slavery era (different from the traditional practice of Voodoo, which is a dedicated religion with different practices, with origins outside of the United States). But does the exploration of a lesser-known spiritual practice make Spell a unique horror experience? Well…
Marquis Woods (Omari Hardwick) is a successful lawyer returning to rural Appalachia for his estranged father’s funeral with his family. When his single-engine plane crash lands in the mountains during an intense storm, Marquis wakes in the attic of the meek Mrs. Eloise (Loretta Devine) as the sole survivor of the plane crash. Soon, Marquis begins to realize that the Hoodoo-practicing Eloise might have more sinister intentions than what she shows on the surface.
Let’s start with the positive: if there is a reason to watch Spell, it’s for Devine’s enjoyably campy performance as Eloise. Sure, it’s definitely Devine’s own version of Annie Wilkes, but it’s clear that Devine is having a ball playing the sweetly evil antagonist. I can always appreciate an actor playing against type, and Devine taking the reins as a full-fledged horror villain, as opposed to her lovable maternal demeanor displayed in most of her work, is fun to watch when Spell lets her run wild. Hardwick is also a fine lead, with a nice everyman charm that makes him a very understated leading man, even if he does fade into the background a bit against Devine’s fabulously over-the-top performance. Regardless of any of its other issues, Spell’s performances are surprisingly fun.
As I am not one who practices Hoodoo, nor am I one who knows that much regarding the spiritual practice, I have no point of reference with which to determine whether the portrayal of Hoodoo in Spell is accurate and/or respectful (I’m leaning towards “no,” but I won’t make assumptions), but I can say that Spell is far less interesting of a horror film than its premise would lead you to believe. This is mainly due to the fact that Spell doesn’t have a single unique feature in anything it does with everything feeling like a much less effective re-telling of Stephen King’s Misery with a spiritual twist. Yet, even with this twist, Spell doesn’t effectively utilize the spiritual elements of the film as anything but a campy vessel for cheap thrills.
And that’s just how everything feels: cheap. It takes an interesting premise and wears it down with clunky dialogue, derivative thrills, and unsubstantial scenes of violence only meant to provoke on the basest level of shock value. It’s not unnecessarily cruel or as offensive as Antebellum was in its execution, but it’s just entirely empty. I simply didn’t care enough about anything going on to feel offended or jilted.
And that’s the real kicker: it’s almost criminal how forgettable the film is in its final form, which is one of the biggest sins a horror film can commit. There’s a place for good horror and bad horror around Halloween, but releasing an unmemorable piece really feels like the deadliest sin of the whole genre. I should be able to walk away from your film with a clear and present understanding of what worked and what didn’t, but when I walk away with merely a shrug, without sparing a second thought for what I have seen, that’s when something has truly gone wrong.
Spell had its chance to be interesting but squandered that chance early on by taking its unique take on the Misery formula and doing nothing to change it beyond a superficial level. You can add as many spiritual twists you want to a film, but when everything feels like a cheap comparison of better films that have come before it, it becomes hard to root for the film. Devine delivers an enjoyably droll performance as the film’s great evil, but it’s simply not enough to make Spell feel distinctive enough to warrant a recommendation. Even if your film is awful, if it has something eccentric or uncommon about it, I can find a reason to recommend it. Spell isn’t an awful film, but its lack of anything special means it might as well be, because I could’ve found more enjoyment in something awful…or even something good, if that’s too much to ask.
Available on digital October 30th, 2020.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.