In Halloween hoodoo horror Spell, protagonist Marquis is trying to escape a past of violence and poverty, a dogged struggle mirroring that of the film’s makers simultaneously trying to escape comparisons to past thrillers Skeleton Key and Misery, both sides as doomed as the other. There’s a cinematic slickness to the film (it was intended to be released theatrically until the pandemic) that separates it from its more noticeably shoddier fright night competitors but it’s mostly a familiar, if not entirely fruitless, trudge down a well-trodden path, one that takes us into, at times, questionable territory.
Marquis (Power’s Omari Hardwick) survived an abusive childhood in rural Appalachia, at the mercy of a toxic father with fantastical beliefs. He made it all the way to the city, earning big money as a lawyer, living with a wife and kids in an extravagant house. But when he finds out his father has died, Marquis is forced to reckon with his past, quite literally, by flying himself and his family to the area he grew up in to say goodbye. When a storm hits and they crash, Marquis finds himself at the mercy of elderly local Elouise (Loretta Devine), whose sinister remedies might not be designed to make him feel better.
For a short while at least, the script, from Kurt Wimmer, writer of Ultraviolet, The Recruit and Law Abiding Citizen, dabbles with an interestingly knotty predicament for Marquis. As a father, he’s trying to discipline his son in a way that separates himself from his own childhood, to represent a form of masculinity that doesn’t require violence to send a message. The brutality of his upbringing has provided him with a roadmap of pitfalls to avoid as well as a desire to amass enough material wealth that his family won’t ever need to struggle in the way that he did. When they arrive in his old stomping ground, there’s a prickly air of snobbiness towards those on the breadline and it seems, briefly, that Wimmer is keen to weave an undercurrent of class tension within his horror and to make his protagonist not always particularly likable. But as Spell trundles ahead, we’re quickly reminded that the script is from Kurt Wimmer, the writer of Ultraviolet, The Recruit and Law Abiding Citizen, a creator of subpar Saturday night schlock with little to nothing on its mind.
After Marquis wakes up post-crash in a remote house, too injured to walk, Spell falls into a familiar Misery formula, one that’s not ineffective at points but one that does fall into a repetitive rut rather quickly (breaks out of room, investigates house, races back before being found and repeat). British director Mark Tonderai (who made the simple yet striking road thriller Hush before heading to Hollywood for the outrageously silly yet rather fun Jennifer Lawrence vehicle House at the End of the Street) isn’t a fan of half-measures and gussies his film up like a haunted funhouse attraction, rain crashing down, thunder striking and floorboards creaking, every moment dialled up to 11. It’s a similar all-out strategy taken by a scenery-devouring Devine who has a ball hamming it up as Marquis’s captor and while she’s never exactly scary (especially when unfavourably compared with Annie Wilkes), she’s ferocious enough to steal the film away from Hardwick, who does a solid enough job wincing and yelping at her devilish doings.
In a boom time for black creatives in the horror genre (one that hasn’t always greeted a spectrum of voices with much warmth), there remains something a little uneasy about a white screenwriter delving into a world such as this, one that paints country-living black folk as magic-practicing savages. There’s also a rather predictably primal ending that sullies the interesting work of the first act by telling us that actually no, to be a man one has to embrace violence in order to survive, with a shirtless and bloodied Hardwick striking back with full force. The gory bluntness of the ending reminded me of 2005’s underrated Kate Hudson hoodoo horror Skeleton Key, a film that used a game-changing last minute twist to say something of worth while also trying to scare us. There’s far less here to chomp on, a film that chucks interesting elements into a pot and conjures up something rather bland instead.
Spell is released to rent digitally on 30 October