Saturday, February 22, 2020

Spell, The (1977) (TV)

... aka: Control mental (Mental Control)
... aka: Den onda gåvan (The Evil Gift)
... aka: Kirous (Curse)

Directed by:
Lee Philips

CARRIE was not only a huge box office success in its day, helping to skyrocket the careers of star Sissy Spacek (who received a rare Oscar nomination for starring in a horror film), director Brian De Palma and novelist Stephen King in the process, but now stands as one of the most beloved horror movies of the entire decade. To date, there has been an official sequel (the somewhat underrated The Rage: Carrie 2) in 1999, a schizo and overlong TV movie version in 2002, a pointless 2013 big screen remake, an ill-fated Broadway stage musical, many non-musical stage versions and endless parodies. And then there were the numerous inferior films that either blatantly ripped it off or were clearly strongly inspired by it. That's where the The Spell fits in. Carrie was released in November 1976 and was still playing in theaters when this NBC TV movie was released in February 1977.

The Spell begins exactly as Carrie began, in a high school gymnasium, as the only slightly chubby 15-year-old Rita Matchett (Susan Myers) is being teased and tormented by her classmates. They say things like "I heard she was really slim until she started eating everything in sight!," make the observation she wears big dresses and sweatsuits "to hide all that lard" and call her "tubbo" and "Moby Dick." However, where Carrie was so shy and introverted she endured much of her abuse in silence (well, until the end, at least!), Rita has a lot more fight in her right out of the gate. She warns blonde ringleader Jackie (Doney Oatman) to stop. When she doesn't, there's a tragic "accident" where Jackie falls off a rope and dies after breaking her neck. Isn't that convenient? Strangely, gym teacher Jo Standish (Lelia Goldoni) seems curiously unconcerned about the death.

Rita also has a miserable home life just like Carrie, though in an entirely different way. While Carrie came from a poor home and was the only daughter of a religious fanatic single mom, Rita lives in a San Francisco mansion with her well-to-do parents Marian (Lee Grant) and Glenn (James Olson) and younger, skinnier sister Kristina (Helen Hunt). The abuse here isn't near the level of physical and psychological torment Carrie endured at home either, but a mix of neglect, preferential treatment of one sibling over the other and cruel, more subtle comments made under the guise of "helping" the suffering child.

Glenn always seems to be out of town on business but whenever he is home, he's amazingly insensitive to his eldest daughter and makes constant comments about her weight gain. Daddy's favorite Kristina, who can do no wrong in Glenn's eyes, is possibly even worse when she gets mad, really knows where to hit Rita where it hurts and is embarrassed to be seen with her at school. With Rita making no bones about hating both her dad and younger sister ("She's a simpering little toad!"), Marian tries desperately to get through to her daughter while encouraging Glenn and Kristina to be a little more patient and sensitive. That tactic fails miserably as Glenn continues being cold and Kristina starts spying on and ratting out her big sis.

Naturally, there's something more going on than just an ostracized and ridiculed teen acting out. Instead of being blessed with natural telekinesis, Rita has been drawn over to the dark arts of witchcraft and spellcasting by Miss Standish. Her behavior worsens, she starts lying, sneaking out late at night dressed in a red cloak and seems to be stealing dad's sports car to go somewhere. More people soon start dying (or almost dying) in ways that can usually be written off as either accidents or natural deaths.

Glenn is temporarily entranced and wanders out into the street, where his inebriated lawyer friend Stan Reston (James Greene) tries to run him over. However, Stan remembers nothing about the event, only that he blacked out. And then Marian goes to visit her friend Kathleen, only for Kathleen to suddenly turn lobster red, start smoking and then burn to death before her very eyes in the front yard after crashing through a window. Kathleen's husband Rian (Wright King), who went into shock witnessing the event, dies soon after from a heart attack. After Kristina is pulled under and almost drowned during a swim meet, Marian starts popping Valium and is forced to seek advice from parapsychologist Dale Boyce (Jack Colvin).

Scripted by Brian Taggert, this is brought down by lack of originality, minimal plot complication, several pointless dead end subplots and TV movie limitations but mostly doomed by amazingly unlikable characters. Olson is in contention for "The Worst Film Father of 1977" award for playing a jerk who insults his daughter, refuses to try to bond with her and then plots to ship her off to some boarding school in England because he's too selfish to invest any time into her and too much of a stubborn jackass to even throw out an occasional kind gesture. Hunt's character is basically just a one-dimensional spoiled girl while our should-be-sympathetic outcast teen Rita proves to be little more than a big brat herself by the finale. More of the central focus is actually put on the mother character and her quest to help her daughter, something that's seriously undercut by a silly finale that makes little sense seeing how oblivious Marian acts throughout the entire film. Myers and Grant both deliver good performances under the circumstances. One just wishes they were in service of a better overall film.

Veteran actress Kathleen Hughes (IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE) is briefly seen during a “Save the Otter” (?) charity event. Director Philips began his career as an actor and was seen mostly on TV, though he did have a starring role in the proto slasher Psychomania aka Violent Midnight in 1963. His only other genre film credit was directing the ROSEMARY'S BABY-inspired The Stranger Within (1974) starring Barbara Eden. There were VHS releases in the U.S. (most notably on the WorldVision label) as well as Swedish, Finnish and Spanish video releases. In 2017, Shout Factory once again unearthed this for a Blu-ray and DVD release. That release comes with a brief interview with Taggert.

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