Director – Mark Tonderai, Screenplay – Kurt Wimmer, Producers – Morris Chestnut, Gordon Gray, Brian Wilkins & Kurt Wimmer, Photography – Jacques Jouffret, Music – Ben Onono, Visual Effects – Motif Pictures (Supervisor – Craig Parker), Special Effects Supervisor – Tyrell Kemlo & Cordell McQueen, Prosthetics Designer – Jaco Snyman, Production Design – Paula Loos. Production Company – Mayhem Pictures/MC8 Entertainment.
Omari Hardwick (Marquis T. Woods), Loretta Devine (Eloise), Lorrain Burroughs (Veora Woods), Kalifa Burton (Tydon Woods), John Beasley (Earl), Hannah Gonera (Samsara Woods), Tumisho Masha (Sheriff), Steve Mululu (Lewis), Leo Winger (Elderly Man at Gas Station), Tafara Nyatsanza (Young Man at Gas Station)
Marquis T. Woods is a successful lawyer in the city. Upon receiving news that his father has died, Marquis travels back to where he grew up in remote West Virginia, accompanied by his wife and two children. He pilots his private plane only for the plane to enter a storm and crash. Marquis comes around in the cabin of voodoo mambo Eloise. As Marquis soon finds, Eloise has cast spells to keep him a prisoner there. She runs a voodoo church from her barn and may have killed his family. Making an escape from Eloise requires finding a way to counteract her spells.
Mark Tonderai is a former BBC radio host who moved into television before making his debut as a film director with Hush (2008). After Hush received moderate acclaim, Tonderai went to the US to direct the Jennifer Lawrence psycho-thriller House at the End of the Street (2012). This received poor notices and it was several years before Tonderai returned to the director’s chair with Spell. During this time, he also co-wrote Day of the Dead: Bloodline (2018) and has been active as a director on television in shows ranging from Doctor Who (2005- ) to Gotham (2014-9) and 12 Monkeys (2015-8).
Spell comes with a script from Kurt Wimmer who has also written films like Double Trouble (1992), The Neighbor (1993), Relative Fear (1994), Sphere (1998), The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), The Recruit (2003), Street Kings (2008), Law Abiding Citizen (2009), Salt (2010) and the remakes of Total Recall (2012) and Point Break (2015), as well as directed Equilibrium (2002) and Ultraviolet (2006).
The set-up of the film is less one about Voodoo – as the film ostensibly appears to be about – than of Folk Horror. We get archetypical city slickers heading off into the backwoods and being warned about needing to take protection and Omari Hardwick laughing off any need at doing so, while dismissing the warning about not flying off into “tham thar hills.”
I am not sufficiently immersed in African-American culture to be aware of the degrees to which there exists any kind of divide between urban and rural peoples. In this regard, Spell seems to be trying to play into the typical divides between city slickers and backwoods hillbillies that turn up in Backwoods Brutality, but opting for All-Black casting of the roles. Omari Hardwick is the city slicker – a high-flying lawyer who lives in an expensive apartment in the city and has his own private plane that he flies into the backwoods, landing on a backroad to fuel up at an antiquated nowhere gas station, where his son (Kalifa Burton) seems to amaze local teen (Tafara Nyatsanza) with his cellphone.
By contrast to this, Loretta Devine is cast as the equivalent of the backwoods hillbilly who proudly announces she lives without a phone, many modern conveniences and even has a mute, hulking son of apparently damaged wits. This is wound in with her voodoo practices that are a weird mix of voodoo religion and a Southern gospel church. Certainly, when Loretta Devine turns up with exaggerated hick southern accent and hulking idiot son, while the Southern voodoo/gospel culture is full of shock images, it suddenly feels that the Civil Rights era is being abruptly wound back some fifty years.
I don’t know if racial stereotypes being conducted by a Black director make them any less so. That said, it should be noted that Mark Tonderai comes to Spell as an Afro-British director – not an African-American – and the script itself is written by the very white Kurt Wimmer. It’s a bizarrely weird mix. I don’t even feel qualified or even want to delve into unpacking the racial stereotypes and caricatures the film seems to be buying into.
In terms of a horror film, everything that Mark Tonderai delivers consists of ridiculously overwrought effect. The one scene that does work moderately well is where Loretta Devine serves up a meal to Omari Hardwick and he suddenly realises that what he is eating is a human hand and vomits up a piece of tattooed skin. There comes the nasty suggestion (for a time) that the flesh he is eating is from one of the missing members of his family. (This cannibalism is part of the film’s random shock effects – so random it is never referenced again).
In one medically ridiculous scene, Omari Hardwick pulls out a six-inch nail that has been hammered into his foot (something that would have to go all the way through the heel and into the shin bone) and then forcibly slides it back in again when someone comes. Equally the scenes with Omari writhing about because Loretta Devine has removed the tongue from the voodoo doll are so ridiculously overwrought to enter into almost being parody. This is a bad movie no matter which way you look at it.