A lot of movies saw their release schedule delayed in 2020 at the height of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Other movies were shuffled off to streaming platforms. One of those movies, Spell, looked like it had the production budget and potential for an October release. Instead, Paramount quietly dropped this story of Appalachian Hoodoo onto their own streaming platform before Halloween. If like most of us, you didn’t have Paramount Plus in 2020, Spell pulled a disappearing act without making much of an impression. Now Netflix has added the thriller just in time for Netflix and Chills.
Following the news of his estranged father’s death, Marquis Woods packs his family into a private jet to return to the Appalachians. When the weather turns bad, however, Woods’ plane crashes into the rural wilderness sprawl. Days later Woods wake up badly injured in a remote farm cabin.
A few things are apparent pretty quickly watching Spell. First, if it wasn’t for the lockdowns that shut down theaters during COVID, Spell looks like it was set for a theatrical release. The production values here look good and all the technical aspects of filmmaking are sound. On the surface, this looks like a middle-of-the-road horror movie that would have least deserved an early January release in the before times. Unfortunately, the next thing that’s obvious is that Spell isn’t particularly scary. Director Mark Tonderai (House at the End of the Street, Locke & Key) dutifully sets scenes up while showing no real ability at crafting tension. At times, the pacing feels lackadaisical. Even scenes that should put you on the edge of your seat end up feeling perfunctory.
Unfortunately, the next thing that’s obvious is that Spell isn’t particularly scary.
And it’s too bad because Hoodoo and Voodoo practices haven’t been done to death in Hollywood horror – there’s so much potential in the premise. Occasionally, when Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay delves into Hoodoo practices, Spell instantly becomes more engaging. Yet instead of letting this aspect of the premise drive the story, Wimmer allows his screenplay to bog itself down in a dull cat-and-mouse game between captor and captive. It doesn’t help that this aspect of Spell too often reference checks the much better Misery. As for the climax, everything feels like it’s under-cooked – one can’t help but feel some vital piece of information wasn’t communicated. The result is underwhelming and forgettable.
Spell Wastes Casts and Strong Performances With a Spotty Screenplay
None of Spell’s problems or shortcoming stems from its strong cast. In between several years on critically-acclaimed series Power and last year’s Army of the Dead, Omari Hardwick makes a strong case for leading man status here. He possesses charisma and a physical presence while always adding a cerebral component to his roles. And these traits are present in Marquis Woods and, initially, it looks like the character will give Hardwick a lot with which to work. Yet something feels like it’s missing from the screenplay. Though it’s hinted that Woods’ father was not only abusive but may have had his own connection to Hoodoo, Spell never follows through on the idea. By the thriller’s climax, we’re left wondering how Woods is able to turn the tables on a Hoodoo priestess.
Both veteran performers offer the requisite screen presence demanded of the roles.
If Woods feels underdeveloped as a character, you shouldn’t expect much from the screenplay’s treatment of the supporting cast. It’s a good thing that Woods repeatedly asks about his family otherwise you’d be forgiven for forgetting all about them. Yes, they do in fact exist – Spell just does nothing with the characters. And the lack of consistent tension or scares isn’t due to a lack of effort from either Loretta Devine (Urban Legend) or John Beasley (Firestarter, The Purge: Anarchy). Both veteran performers offer the requisite screen presence demanded of the roles. As mentioned above, however, the screenplay and direction just leave Devine and Beasley’s performance in a void.
Spell Has the Right Ingredients, Can’t Work Much Magic
Despite having a lot going for it, the scares and suspense never quite materialize in Spell. From just a technical perspective this hoodoo thriller is a well-edited, slick-looking affair. And all of the central performances are quite good – or at least as good as the screenplay allows. But Wimmer’s screenplay alternates between derivative and convoluted. It feels like seeds are planted for a more haunting, psychological horror movie that are just discarded. Tonderai also never conjures up any sense of danger or urgency. As a result, Spell is a watchable, if not immediately forgettable, horror movie.