Review: 'Spell' spins a dark tale of rural horror

Omari Hardwick and Loretta Devine star in credible backwoods horror story

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

When his estranged father dies, a big city lawyer is confronted with his rural roots in "Spell," an enticing genre thriller which traffics in familiar horror themes but spins them forward for a post-"Get Out" world.  

"Power's" Omari Hardwick is Marquis T. Woods, a prominent attorney with two teenage children and a loving wife, Veora (Lorraine Burroughs). After learning of the death of his father, Marquis gases up his single-engine plane (he's rich, you see) and flies his family to the hills of backwoods Appalachia for the funeral.

Omari Hardwick in "Spell."

Immediately upon touchdown he's confronted by unwelcoming hillbilly types, familiar from films such as "The Hills Have Eyes" or "Wrong Turn," who put cityfolk like Marquis and his family in their place. But rather than being white, these antagonizers are Black, part of "Spell's" up-front politics of race and identity which set it apart from routine exercises in genre exploitation. 

That continues after Marquis flies into a dangerous storm and wakes up alone in the attic of Eloise (Loretta Devine) and Earl (John Beasley). He's held captive there by the couple, and their intentions are made clear when Eloise — whose downhome charm and homespun phrases ("can't never could!") masks her sinister side — reveals herself to be a devout practitioner of Hoodoo, complete with a doll of Marquis.

Thus begins a perilous game of cat and mouse, with Marquis attempting to escape and Eloise keeping him locked down, "Misery"-style. It becomes more routine as it goes along, but director Mark Tonderai (2012's "House at the End of the Street") drums up several spellbinding moments, including a deeply uncomfortable incident involving a long stake and Marquis' foot.

Hardwick's character is in a constant state of peril — he's all terror and exasperation — while Devine makes a meal out of her over-the-top, sinister Southern whimsy. It would be served even better if "Spell" had a sense of humor about itself, but it consistently plays things dead-straight.    

Tonderai creates a rustic, moody atmosphere, but more importantly he never lets his underlying message slip away. "Spell" is about where we come from, the sacrifices we make for success and how our past never really leaves our DNA, no matter how much we shine up the surface. It just happens to be dressed up in a horror costume.




Rated R: for violence, disturbing/bloody images, and language

Running time: 91 minutes

Available On Demand