Directed by Mark Tonderai.
Starring Omari Hardwick, Loretta Devine, Lorraine Burroughs, John Beasley, André Jacobs, Tumisho Masha, Peter Butler, Ri-Karlo Handy, Hannah Gonera, Kalifa Burton, and Steve Mululu.
A man crash lands in rural Appalachia and awakens in the attic of a traditional Hoodoo practitioner. He desperately tries to break free from her dark magic and save his family from a sinister ritual before the rise of the blood moon.
Spell follows a wealthy Black family taking a trip to rural Appelatia in the wake of the death of patriarchal Marquis’ (Omari Hardwick) estranged and abusive father, although what’s more intriguing is they aren’t necessarily planning on going to the funeral just to pay awkward respects. Marquis is a successful corporate employee, but in his success has ended up in a white environment with concerns from his wife and offspring that they might be too disconnected from their own culture. Not to mention, the cushy lifestyle might be having a negative effect on their teenagers, giving them a sense of entitlement and questionable perspectives on less well-off people to countryfolk. Marquis’ father doesn’t actually factor into the major story; it doesn’t have to considering this is clearly intended to be about societal and cultural clashes that could arrive within a hotshot Black family far removed from the roots and people.
It makes sense why Zimbabwean director Mark Tonderai would be drawn to exploring those themes, and while he does deliver on the horror aspect of Spell (we will get to that in just a moment), there is also the feeling that fully realizing and connecting those dots is somewhat held back by the attachment of a white screenwriter in Kurt Wimmer, and I don’t say that with disdain for the guy. Wimmer is a talented filmmaker in his own right having made the underappreciated sci-fi gem Equilibrium, but when it comes to the script he is clearly more in tune with fleshing out the spooky Hoodoo elements rather than the social dynamics. The latter is more or less abandoned as the proceedings turn into full-blown terror.
Nevertheless, Marquis personally flies his family to the general area whereupon landing he immediately encounters a classic trope; the creepy gas station filled with sketchy characters and disgusting environments that suggest turning around and heading home. Thinking not much of it, he fills up the small plane with gas and is on his way before a rapturous storm causes fight complications and takes the aircraft down for an emergency crash landing.
Upon waking up, Marquis’ family is nowhere to be found but there are some suspicious Hoodoo practitioners doing their best to reassure him that everything is okay, with the leader of the group played by a hammy but creepy Loretta Devine. Marquis also has an injured foot and is mostly unable to move around, which means that when the form inevitably requires him to sneak around the scenario is much tenser. There is also a sequence involving a nail and his foot that is enough to make even those with an iron stomach squeamish, and it’s also a segment memorable enough to recommend the movie on alone. Still, Spell contains more than brutal body horror, as the backwoods location is chillingly atmospheric, especially when Marquis is out and about stumbling around trying to uncover what the hell is going on.
The addition of Hoodoo dolls is a supernatural element enough for some to compensate for Marquis’ overall ineptness when it comes to survival (even with a damaged foot it’s hard to buy that he can’t simply overpower some of these elderly locals), but even those frustrated should be able to enjoy some of the clever methods of pain inflicted through them. If Spell doesn’t feel as socially conscious as the first act might lead people to believe the rest of the film is going to be, it certainly makes up for that with lean pacing, detailed claustrophobic spaces, bigger picture ritualistic freakiness, and inspired violence. Omari Hardwick also elevates the lack of depth and his own character shortcomings by selling the torture and disbelief surrounding his circumstances. The hex is not particularly strong, but sufficient enough for a brisk 90 minutes of scares within an untapped area of the genre.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com