Thursday, February 11, 2016

THE SPELL (1977)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS (Really. Don't read unless you've seen the flick)

There's no question that this 1977 telefilm owes its existence to the successful 1976 film-adaptation of Stephen King's CARRIE. At the same time, the Brian Taggert script does exert itself to ring a few changes on the material, so that THE SPELL is not a total knockoff. Aside from some nice acting moments here and there, those changes are the only thing worth discussing about this low-intensity barely-a-shocker-- ergo, massive spoilers.

Jagger and Richards penned the song "Sympathy for the Devil," and it wouldn't be much exaggeration to sum up THE SPELL as "Sympathy for Carrie's Mom." CARRIE is first and foremost a horror story about a child who suffers abuse from a domineering mother. As a result of the mother's browbeating, Carrie possesses few psychological resources for dealing with the torturous rituals of high school-- though as it happens she does possess superior psychic resources, which eventually make Carrie into a monster who slays all of her tormentors.

THE SPELL is nowhere near this ambitious, and if anything, Rita Matchett's status as a young monster-in-bloom is compromised throughout the story. Fifteen-year-old Rita is somewhat tormented by other girls at school, but their dislike and contempt of Rita isn't explained by anything but their conviction that Rita is "fat." Given that the actress (Susan Myers) playing the part is at best merely chunky, even this reason seems unconvincing, especially compared to the motivations Stephen King gives to even his most routine villains.

As for the situation at home, Rita really doesn't seem to have all that much worth complaining about. Her dull father Glenn shows a tiny bit of favoritism to Rita's younger sister Christina, but he's not exactly sentencing Rita to live under a stairwell. The girls' mother Marilyn (Lee Grant) is actually quite sympathetic to Rita's travails, though she does enforce a strict but sensible code of behavior on the tempestuous young girl, and the sister doesn't do anything particularly offensive beyond taking away attention from Rita..Ironically, though Myers' character Rita is technically the focal point of the story, Marilyn gets most of the best lines, probably in deference to Lee Grant's formidable thespian experience/ Thus the story sometimes skews toward that well-traveled TV trope of the "aggrieved parent with a problem child."

Whether one thinks Rita fortunate or not, people around Rita start to have bad fortune: a young girl breaks her neck, an older woman burns alive for no apparent reason. One would assume that this is Rita's psychic power at work, consciously or not, but then the script brings in references to witchcraft and occult techniques. So it would appear that unlike Carrie White, Rita has gone out of her way to use her power to become a practicing sorceress.

However-- SPOILER #1--

While Carrie White had a girls' gym teacher who sympathized with the young girl's plight, Rita's gym teacher is also her mentor in malefic magic, She's the true culprit in the murders, which is the film's first "big surprise," as well as a means of exculpating Rita so that she doesn't meet Carrie's tragic fate.

As for the other big surprise, aka SPOILER #2:

At the very end, Marilyn reveals that she too is a psychic/ witch, and she uses her own powers to school Rita so that she learns not to abuse her powers in future.

This non-tragic ending is not particularly engrossing, and Taggert drops the ball on any opportunity to play with some of the popular tropes of "witch-cinema:" like "witchcraft as female empowerment" or even "witchcraft as lesbian bonding." There's the slight possibility that Rita's gym teacher--given the gender-ambiguous first name "Jo"-- may have designs on the high-schooler. Yet Jo never makes a pass, and the two characters fall out for a not very compelling reason: Jo wants to build a coven of similarly powered witches, and Rita doesn't like that-- not for any altruistic reasons, but because such a gathering impinges on her feelings of uniqueness. Perhaps there was some notion of Jo playing the part of the "bad indulgent mom" as opposed to Marilyn's "good strict mom," but even that small psychological myth doesn't come to life.

As I mentioned earlier, there's not much horror in the telefilm's supposed shock-sequences, and though there are a few adequate dramatic scenes, THE SPELL's greatest debit may be that the central character is just not very interesting, either as a monster or an innocent.

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