The Spell: Scream Factory Got Classic TV Horror Right, But Did Anybody Notice?

Look, I've given Scream Factory some flack over their awkward relationship with made-for-TV horrors.  And I've just been praising Warner Archives for some of their stellar work with it.  So it would be pretty disingenuous of me not to cover this case of Scream absolutely nailing it and giving us exactly what we wanted: a total DVD/ Blu-ray debut, marketed on its own merits (i.e. the cover features its own title, rather than "TV Terrors: Double Feature, vol. 2") with a quality transfer and some appealing special features.  Plus, this is just the kind of under-appreciated little gem I live to write about on this site anyway.  This is 1977's The Spell, originally broadcast on NBC, and viewable for the first time in HD courtesy of Scream Factory.
And yes, it's a blatant Carrie knock-off.  A teenage girl named Rita is bullied at school, and uses her latent psychic powers to lash back against her bullies, mother and even her coach.  The screenwriter claims, "It was based on my sister; it was an original idea... I knew nothing about Carrie, and so it was just an odd, dark coincidence that Carrie would come out at the same time that mine did," in the special features, and that his "was already recorded in the writer's guild before Stephen King had even dreamed up Carrie," but it's hard to believe Carrie had no influence on the production if not the screenplay.  Rita even wears a cape like Piper Laurie.  But where The Spell distinguishes itself is in its subtlety.  I did appreciate the one moment in Carrie when the coach hits the bully in gym class, because it at least went some way towards blurring the lines between saintly good guys and irredeemable villains.  Because otherwise it's just so arch.  King adaptations always seem to have these absurdly mad-with-religion types (see also: Marcia Gay Harden in The Mist, Everett McGill in Silver Bullet, Jeremy Slate in Lawnmower Man and of course all Children Of the Corn), but Carrie's mother is queen of them all.  Admittedly she's more than just a flat bad guy: she's conflicted and deluded, somehow always meaning well despite committing a lifetime of extreme child abuse, right up to and including the attempted murder at the end.  But the point is, she's totally batshit nutso.
Meanwhile none of the characters in Rita's home are perfect - everyone says the wrong thing and behaves brashly or selfishly to the others at least once - but it never leaves the realm of the believable.  If anything, it's uncomfortably relatable.  Admittedly, Carrie earns its place in cinema history for its powerfully iconic bloody prom massacre; The Spell never gets so bold or dynamic (and hey, if you want to appreciate how much Carrie did right, just compare it to its sequel and two remakes).  It has one really cool death scene and an entertaining enough showdown at the end (which also seems to inspired by Carrie to be all coincidence), but it's never nearly so ostentatious.  File them both under horror, but Carrie sells thrills and spectacle, while The Spell deals in genuine drama.  Nothing in Carrie lands like the speech Rita gives to her mother about how she loves her but not her sister and brother, and she should accept that like the rest of the family has.  That's the moment (about 25 minutes in), that made me really lean forward and realize wow, this film is operating as so much more than just a passable knock-off.
The mother, Lee Grant, won an Oscar and was nominated for three more throughout her storied career, and a preteen Helen Hunt turned out to be The Spell's breakout star, but relatively unknown Susan Myers commands the stage as Rita.  Not that this movie doesn't have flaws.  It has one stand-out kill, but the rest of the psychic attacks are pretty underwhelming.  And while the feminist and family issues are as relevant now as ever, they can feel as clunky and dated as you'd expect a 70s TV movie to be.  And as flat and boxy looking, with its 4:3 framing and over-reliance on close-ups.  There's also a subplot with a parapsychologist (The Incredible Hulk's Jack Colvin) that struggles to connect with the rest of the story, like important scenes were either cut or inserted at the last minute.  In fact, there's a very weird edit at the end of the film, which I can't get into too much without spoilers (but if you've seen the film, it's the suspicious way the film leaves and returns to the exact same shot of the cat painting), that suggests the film was clumsily tampered with.  There's actually a shorter version (73 minutes vs 86) that removes most of the ending, as well as a few other scenes, which does fix that weird cat painting cut, but only makes things more confusing overall.  I'm very glad Scream secured us the longer, more complete cut; but I suspect the ideal director's cut would be some third, alternate edit that nobody's ever seen.
2017 Scream Factory blu-ray.
Scream presents The Spell in 1.33:1, which is undoubtedly the correct aspect ratio for a 70's TV movie.  It's a fairly attractive HD transfer, but it's not exactly cutting edge.  Grain is patchy and blocky.  I assume this is the master MGM had sitting around for at least a couple years before Scream Factory came knocking in 2017.  But it's clearly taken from film elements and leaves any old TV broadcast/ VHS transfer well in the dust.  Sure, this would benefit from a 4k scan, but it looks as good as any of their other MGM-sourced transfers.  There's minor film damage (small scratches, white specks) on practically every frame, but it's always very minor and never distracting.  If this was a new Sony restoration of Lawrence of Arabia or something, I'd say come on guys, you could do better.  But honestly, this is all I ask for with a lesser known TV movie like this.

The audio's about what you'd expect, too.  It's the original mono, which sounds pretty clean - you'd have to crank the volume uncomfortably high to hear a bit of background hiss in most scenes - but also a bit muffled and low-fi.  I said "most scenes" because there are a few points where it flares up more, but never to the point of competing with the dialogue or music.  Scream has added optional English subtitles, which was a nice touch, but I never needed it to pick out words or anything that weren't clear enough to make out on their own.
And they give us some very welcome special features, too.  The highlight for me is the on-camera interview with the screenwriter, Brian Taggert, which I quoted from earlier.  He talks about what you want to know.  Then there's an audio commentary by Amanda Reyes, who just did the new commentary for Don't Be Afraid Of the Dark.  She's enthusiastic and knows a ton of stuff, addressing some more topics fans would surely be wondering about.  But she does tend to veer off into other TV movies that are only tangentially related; sometimes I wished I could snap my fingers and bring her back on track.  But it's absolutely an asset to the disc.
And that's it.  But apart from the producer coming in and giving us a definitive explanation for the alternate cuts and endings for this film (and what are the odds he'd remember, anyway?), the pair of Taggert and Reyes really doesn't leave you wanting for anything more.  Again, this is a neat little TV horror flick that'd never even been released on DVD before, let alone BD.  Now we have the rarer, longer cut looking great in HD, subtitled, and with some substantial extras.  I'd be nothing but delighted to see more made-for-television gems get this treatment.

No comments:

Post a Comment