Director Mark Tonderai’s taut film, which is now available in some theaters and on VOD, follows in a long tradition of horror films exploring deeper, politically resonate themes more astutely than most dramatic films. The ability to use allegory within horror films to explore larger ideas attracted Tonderai to the genre. But it’s the lack of broader opportunities within other film genres that keeps him coming back. Spell comes nearly 10 years on the heels of his last directorial effort – the financially successful House at the End of the Street. Since then, only television has opened itself to his immense talents and vision.
“It’s very, very frustrating for us as Black filmmakers, because we know, we believe that we’re storytellers, but our only route really is by going through the Black route,” Tonderai remarked. “I personally feel that a lot of the reason why a lot of us are going through this route is purely because of the opportunities – that lack of opportunity for diverse people in Hollywood. That’s the truth.”
In a very literal way, Spell could be summed up as a Black Misery. Wealthy attorney Marquis Woods (Omari Hardwick) crash lands in remote Appalachia and is held captive by local healer Miss Eloise (Loretta Devine) who tends to his extensive injuries. Yet, the comparisons end at these basic plot points. Spell uses this narrative to explore variations of the southern Black experience. Urban expansion versus rural roots. Hoodoo magic handed down from southern slave culture. A protagonist desperately clinging to a notion of an ideal life for his children – better than the cruel upbringing he suffered in this very part of the world – that dangers on completely isolating them from their Black roots.
In order to escape the clutches of Miss Eloise and save his family, however, Marquis has to tap back into that culture of Black aggression and rage. It’s a theme that Tonderai most definitely wanted to explore.
“In America, in particular, we sort of live this life in sort of flight or fight mode. We have to sometimes dip into our rage to survive. For me, that’s what the film is about. That’s what he does to survive,” Tonderai explained. “It was a kind of a metaphor for the Black male psyche. And it was one that I really, really responded to. One that I really felt for. The same thing with the fathers and sons storyline – the circular nature of violence.”
Also setting this film apart from standard horror films is the care and attention paid to Miss Eloise (Devine). In other hands, her character would emerge as a stereotypical villain. Yet, in the hands of the great Loretta Devine, Miss Eloise is anything but that. She is a woman doing what she thinks is best for herself, her family, and her community. She lives in a world where she can thrive given the lack of opportunities to do otherwise.
Audiences may be surprised at Devine’s ferocity in this role given her history of sweet-natured performances. Tonderai explains that she was, in reality, chomping at the bit to take on the role, something different and more dangerous than she’d ever attempted before. The key to understanding the character and Devine’s performance is that Miss Eloise is neither good nor bad. She is a practical woman who has turned her back on the modern world.
At one point in the film, Miss Eloise sneers, “We got no Obamacare up here.”
That’s an important statement about a broader nation that has left behind or forgotten a segment of its population. And attention only seems to be paid during election cycles only to be forgotten when candidates are sworn in. Thus is born Miss Eloise and, in her mind, a very practical savagery.
“She basically shuns modern technology. I agree with that. She, basically, is into community. I agree with that. She’s into herbalisms and natural remedies for things. I agree with that. Now, for choices, you know, killing people and abducting them, in her mind, she’s doing it for a community. She’s doing it for her people. So even that is motivated by something that she thinks is good when, actually, it’s not.”
It’s the unwillingness to define characters in terms of good and evil that makes Spell such a compelling film. In a way, as Tonderai remarked, it’s all about the opportunities Black individuals are given in a world that seems designed to oppress them. The frustration and lack of choices and resulting anger are all funneled into art like Spell as a part of the recent renaissance of Black horror films, masquerading on the surface as boilerplate slasher flicks.
“That’s the beauty of I think of the genre,” Tonderai muses. “It really is a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ genre.”