Omari Hardwick plays a man held captive by a witch in horror film Spell (2020).
BY DWIGHT BROWN, NNPA News Wire Film Critic
Omari Hardwick’s and Loretta Devine’s performances elevate this horror/suspense/thriller in ways the script may never have imagined. Devine, especially, steals scenes and makes her venomously evil character devilish beyond redemption.
Think back to the 1990 film Misery, which was based on a Stephen King novel. A famous author (James Caan) is in a car crash in wintry Silver Creek, Colo. He’s seemingly rescued by an older fan (Oscar-winner Kathy Bates), who holds him captive in her house. Update that story to 2020, set it in the Appalachian Mountains, make the characters African American and season it with a bit of Voodoo magic.
Marquis Woods (Omari Hardwick) is a very successful attorney. Wealthy as he may be, he is not without his emotional scars, a result of the beatings he suffered as a child by his violent father in rural Appalachia. And so, it is with great ambivalence and consternation that he plans a trip back home upon receiving word of his father’s passing.
As a licensed pilot, Marquis loads his family on to a small prop plane: His wife Veora (Lorraine Burroughs) herds and mothers their two teenagers, the snarky daughter Samsara (Hannah Gonera) and iPhone-obsessed son Tydon (Kalifa Burton). Briefly, they land on a rough airstrip near a convenience store/gas station to refuel. Then they ascend into the mountains, just as a storm hits. The over-confident pilot thinks he can fly through the squall. Instead, the extreme turbulence causes the plane to crash.
When Marquis regains consciousness, he is alone in the attic of a farmhouse, being tended to by a weird older woman Eloise (Devine) and her husband Earl (John Beasely, Tremé). Marquis wants to leave his bed and find his family. Eloise, with the aid of a “Boogity,” a Hoodoo doll-like figure she has made from his blood and skin, holds him prisoner. Hoodoo is a cultural/spiritual tradition born in the South, out of slavery and mixed with African, Native American and European Christian practices. Hexes, sorcery and spells are part of its magic. Uh oh!
The first scenes of this well-thought-out production look so slick viewers will know immediately that this is not a cheap looking 10 cent horror/thriller. The footage (cinematographer, Jacques Jouffret, Deepwater Horizon) looks glossy—almost like a commercial—particularly with scenes at the family’s house or Marquis in an office. The production design (Paula Loos), costumes (Danielle Knox, The World Unseen) and tight editing (Sarah C. Reeves, American Horror Story) are pretty solid, even if this is likely not a high-budget film.
The premise, though not all that original, plays out in very inventive ways thanks to Kurt Wimmer’s (Total Recall, the 2012 version) can’t-guess-what’s-next script. He’s kind of flipped the bondage horror film genre on its head. All black cast. Voodooish magic. A cult following a woman who is completely deranged. It’s not Oscar-worthy material, but more than enough to please fans of the genre in a theater or on a TV screen.
At the helm of this project is British director Mark Tonderai, who started in radio, segued into TV directing (L.A.’s Finest) and film too (Hush). He’s great with actors, especially this small talented ensemble that carries the film over any rough spots. There aren’t a ton of locations. And once Marquis is imprisoned there are fewer. But within this sphere, Tonderai pours on the fear and dread just enough to keep audiences involved in the protagonist’s plight. How long will she torture him? Will he ever see his family again? Will he die?
Many viewers will recognize Hardwick as the actor playing James “Ghost” St. Patrick on the TV series Power. Movie fans will be familiar with his films: Sorry to Bother You, Sparkle, For Colored Girls. Thrown into this situation, where so much rests on the lead actor with so few settings and usual genre devices, his persona shines through.
He is a successful man, nursing emotional wounds, desperately searching for his family and being overpowered by a demonic woman who probably looks like his grandmother. Hardwick milks the victim and hero nuances nicely. In another movie, his performance would be the domineering one. But like James Caan in Misery, he is the appetizer not the entrée.
That dominant role has been stolen from him by the very crafty stage, screen and TV actress Loretta Devine. Devine won a Primetime Emmy for TV’s Grey’s Anatomy. Her impressive Broadway resume includes being one of the original Dreamgirls. With film credits like Crash, Waiting to Exhale and First Sunday, she has established herself as a veteran character actress.
Now, she makes Eloise all her own. The flighty light voice compared to her heavy evil violent deeds is eerie. She acts like a witch or witch doctor. Bosses everyone like a warden. Her smile is never sincere; she possesses a trigger temper and a sinister, threatening edge. This is where her theatrical experience pays off. She gives the character more dynamics than the writer envisioned and enough to help the director sustain tension throughout the film. Audiences will love to hate Eloise.
This is the kind of horror/thriller fans of the genre can wrap their heads around. An odd film that could form a cult. And don’t be shocked if Eloise becomes a Halloween costume one day, complete with a Boogity Hoodoo doll to scare the bejesus out of trick or treaters.
Available on: Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, DirecTV, VUDU, Xfinity, FandangoNOW and more.