by Kyle Barrowman
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Spellbinder is a really weird, really fun ’80s film that is equal parts The Wicker Man and Angel Heart with some Poltergeist sprinkled on top because…well…why not?
Directed by Janet Greek (she went on to be an active television director, but more importantly, she wrote two episodes of Renegade, which means she’s a glorious human being) and written by Tracy Tormé (he went on to write two episodes of the canceled-before-its-time HBO masterpiece Carnivàle), Spellbinder tells the story of lawyer Jeff Mills (Tim Daly) as he is sucked into a world of illusion, betrayal, Devil worship, and witchcraft.
It all starts one night when he and one of his lawyer buddies, Derek Clayton (Rick Rossovich), after finishing a “lawyer’s league” basketball game at the local rec center, spot a creepy looking dude named Aldys (Anthony Crivello) hitting his girlfriend, Miranda (Kelly Preston), in the parking lot. They rush over to intervene, and Aldys threatens them but eventually leaves.
Jeff offers to drive Miranda home, but in the car, she tells him that she was living with Aldys and is now essentially homeless. Good guy that he is, Jeff suggests she stay at his place for the night. He promises no funny business, but Miranda has other ideas. Not sex, you understand. Witchcraft. The other funny business.
Complaining of a sore back, Miranda offers to “help” Jeff. Greek lights the scene like a typical sex scene, has it develop in very sensual fashion, but once Miranda gets in bed with Jeff and you think you know where the scene is going, fully expecting cheesy ’80s music followed by sexy slow motion, Greek turns the tables on you and offers a really cool first look at Miranda’s mysterious powers as she literally removes the pain from Jeff’s back.
As the days progress, so does Jeff and Miranda’s relationship, eventually (and inevitably) evolving into a romance. A substantial amount of time is devoted to the two lovebirds building what seems to have the potential to be a happy life together. As is characteristic of film noir, though, the genre to which Spellbinder owes a considerable debt, this is just the calm before the storm. Eventually, Jeff starts getting an uncomfortable feeling, like people are watching him. Some guy looks like he’s following him. Aldys mysteriously shows up watching Jeff and Miranda together (and Crivello is sporting possibly the most hilariously over-the-top man perm ever recorded on film).
Still, though, Greek has not confirmed our suspicions. We don’t know whether these people are just weirdos or if there’s really something sinister and otherworldly going on, and the best part of this film is the way it’s plotted. As with much supernatural noir like Angel Heart and later descendents like Fallen and The Forgotten, the protagonist must undertake a detective mystery type search for the truth in a world that is no longer as stable as once thought. Jeff’s investigation leads him to Satanic worship and covens, and a detective (played by the perennially awesome Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) who believes there’s more going on than meets the eye.
Spellbinder is not the type of film anybody goes to Netflix or Best Buy consciously looking for, but it’s one of those movies where, when you find yourself watching it on TV at midnight with a snack you know you shouldn’t be eating, you find yourself not touching your food because you’ve been surprisingly sucked into the movie.
Daly is cast well as a Jimmy Stewart type of “good guy” and Preston deftly combines the impression of virginal innocence with a more ominous femme fatale quality, and they’re directed well by Greek, who is able to keep this film from devolving into camp by virtue of strong plotting that leads to a splendidly-executed finale that makes you wish movies nowadays had the guts to end more provocatively.
If you’re in the mood for a good supernatural thriller with a fun ’80s vibe, it’ll be hard to do better than Spellbinder.
Kyle Barrowman is the Senior Editor of Film Monthly. He is studying film theory and criticism in Chicago.
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