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Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – The Spell (1977)

My notes on The Spell (1977)

Plainly an attempt to do a sanitised-for-prime-time take on Carrie, this opens with a trauma/revenge scene in a high school gym rather than the showers (it involves rope-climbing and the skinny blonde bully doesn’t survive), then deals with a lumpy, sullen schoolgirl who develops telekinetic powers and winds up in a cutlery-throwing mental duel with her mother. Though it covers the Carrie bases, Brian Taggert’s script takes a different approach, stringing elements together in a fresh manner. This time out, the viewpoint character is Marilyn Matchett (Lee Grant), uppercrust Californian housewife, who tries to keep peace in her home as her older daughter Rita (Susan Matchett, slightly heftier than her classmates and therefore qualifies as a freak by 1977 TV movie standards) transforms from gloomy misfit to empowered, apparently malicious witch under the influence of her gym teacher Mrs Standish (Lelia Goldoni). Marilyn’s best friend Jill (Barbara Bostock) is struck down by a hex, for reasons that don’t become apparent until late in the day, and parapsychologist Dale Boyce (Jack Colvin) is called in. Rita’s younger sister, golden girl Kris (a young Helen Hunt) nearly drowns when the fluence (intercut flash images of Rita staring evilly) hits her during a swimming meet. Dad (James Olson) survives being sideswiped in a parking lot by a lawyer friend who is under some kind of influence at the time—he veers between stern but workaholic patriarch and surprisingly frisky husband (Olsen gets a real acting workout in a complex role), and invites trouble by declaring that he wants to get shot of Rita by sending her away to school in England.

Like a lot of TV movies from the 1970s, this has the feel of something which would do for a series pilot if there was enough interest—ironically, they weren’t making shows on this pattern then but are now. The big reveal, nicely set up, is that Marilyn knows what is going on because she also has powers and has repressed them all her life, prompting a major mother-daughter face-off (‘where do you think you got them from’) which isn’t quite the big scene it ought to be since they don’t do more than toss things at each other. A lot of important business takes place offscreen, including virtually all of Rita’s relationship with the teacher who nurtures and directs her powers (mostly through mantra-chanting) and much of the sub-plot about the hexed best friend (she seems to be cooked from the inside when Marilyn visits). This give the film a jagged, unpredictable narrative—without any real establishing business, it turns out part-way through that the movie is narrated on a tape Marilyn has given to Boyce (a device similar to that of the TV movie/busted pilot The Norliss Tapes). Throughout, we get a few flash-forwards to the scarred, obsessive boffin (Colvin would soon become the Lieutenant Gerard figure in The Incredible Hulk) looking at a map of paranormal occurrences in Southern California which suggest a series-worth of weird happenings a-brewing with the potential crop of junior witches Mrs Standish wants to raise – in a nice moment, Rita is against this because she assumes that as soon as a coven of like talents gathers, she’ll wind up an outcast again. Though they live in an unbelievable mansion (no girl with parents this rich would be an outcast), the family have an interesting set of dynamics—especially when the parents begin to worry that their younger daughter is in danger from Rita, but Marilyn can’t bring herself to write off her firstborn as a monster. Directed by Lee Philips (The Stranger Within).

Discussion

2 thoughts on “Film review – The Spell (1977)

  1. Ken Kupstis
    I vaguely remember this one…this goes way back.

    CarrieAnne Atreides
    I was named after the novel, CARRIE.

    Kim Newman
    I was named after the novel, Kim.

    CarrieAnne Atreides
    I wondered about that! I love Kipling. Thanks for sharing that.
    Yup, my mum was reading the King novel when it came out, and here I am.
    I’m more of a Richard Matheson, Kim Newman kinda gal.

    George White
    I like these tv movie rpoffs.cash ins.

    Posted by kimnewman | February 12, 2022, 12:30 pm
  2. Thank you for this review! I watched it (“The Spell”) yesterday, and wholly agree with you … it’s the “poor man’s” ‘Carrie.’
    Not that I feel it didn’t have a few of its own worthy moments; Lee Grant is especially good. Then again, Lee Grant is always good! In fact, she was almost TOO good, here; her acting stood out sorely from that of her costars’ performances. (It brought to mind Anthony Hopkins in ‘Audrey Rose’ … leagues more authentic and believable than his fellow actors.)
    Regardless, a fun, campy, old-school ride … thank you!

    Posted by Molly | July 11, 2022, 10:35 am

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