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Film Review – Spell – (2020)

A big shot lawyer suffers agony and despair when his plane crashlands into a gruelling abyss of diabolical Hoodoo.

Marquis T. Woods is a black attorney trying to shake free from the hobbling ligatures of his past. He is determined to conquer the demons that blighted his upbringing and fumigate the lingering stench of bigotry that still swirls in the toxic troposphere of modern America.

The collateral damage of his uncompromising mindset is the utter renunciation of his Appalachian heritage and as a result a compromised sense of identity politics. However, when his father dies he is compelled to attend the funeral with his beloved family. 

After his private plane, which he of course pilots himself, is downed by an electrical storm he awakens to find himself badly injured and under the curative care of a charismatic elderly lady called Eloise. An enigmatic and highly superstitious folk magic entrepreneur, Eloise embodies everything Marquis has been trying to obliterate from his self airbrushed timeline. Conversely, what she perceives as entitled arrogance in his confident demeanour epitomises her deep distaste of ancestral distancing.

With no sign of his missing family and clearly under house arrest he comes to realise just how poisonous the inner fibres of his roots really are.

Digging deeper than he ever thought imaginable he must channel his inner Paul Sheldon and face off against the intense misery of Hoodoo, a community belief system of casual organ reappropriation and the demonic spiritual puppetry of Boogity dolls. 

Director Mark Tonderai’s horror fable is an entertaining, and often painful to watch, movie that punches above its pulp horror weight. Agreed, it does not have the depth nor subtly of the exceptional Lovecraft Country and its penetrating exploration of racism. But then again it does not have the luxury of a season-long runtime to develop thematic nuances either.

In opting to place Hoodoo, a spiritual tradition born from the evil womb of slavery as its central mechanic, Spell proves much more philosophically challenging than most big studio fright flicks.

There is a craftily delivered gag during the swift set up of Spell that illustrates perfectly both the tone and direction of the films converging motifs. When the cocky Marquis casually parks his plane at a tiny rural gas station he goes inside to pay and leaves his son to pump the fuel. As he stands high up on its wings he gazes down at a passing local black youth and asks, “Is there service?” The young man chastises him for his racially motivated preconceptions before noticing he is referring to the mobile device in his hand.

This acerbic and admittedly funny interaction is a storm warning of the class conflicts that lie in wait in the mountains of Kentucky. The controversial themes of resentment within the ranks of the same righteous struggle and the embracement of a cultural legacy formed in the wake of suffering and oppression give Spell an edge that some may find too paradoxical for comfort.

Despite its serious core Spell never forgets it is supposed to be a genre film and delves gleefully into the esoteric wonders of Lowcountry Voodoo. This potent amalgamation of faiths and tenets obscured from white slaveholders is a ripe vine for creepy chills, disturbing imagery and gory abuse.

One particular sequence involving a barn roof and some freshly plucked goats eyes will haunt your nightmares to come and the manipulation of intricate effigies to wreak controlling havoc is deliciously impish. A big reveal involving bones is equally well executed and elicits a healthy gag response of inherent revulsion.

Although not too dependant on the red stuff, a double bill of practical effect foot trauma will have you wincing in empathy and Annie Wilkes seeking a refresher course in debilitative restraining methods.

For horror fans looking for a schlocky good time with an uneasy nucleus of social commentary, Spell is both a refreshingly sleek fright film and a provocative reminder of the cabalistic scars etched by institutionalised bigotry.

★★★★

Folk Magic Horror | USA 2020 | 91 min | Cert. 15 | Paramount Pictures | Google Play, Apple TV, Sky Store, Amazon Prime Video, Oct 30th, 2020 | Dir. Mark Tonderai | With: Omari Hardwick, Loretta Devine, Lorraine Burroughs