Spell is a movie that really snuck up on me. The first fifteen minutes are a little clunky. You don't understand what the premise is going to be, although there's an overwhelming sense that you're headed in a corny direction. Then the horror abruptly kicks in. It isn't corny at all. Directed by Mark Tonderai from a screenplay by Kurt Wimmer, the film goes for a different kind of horror than we've seen recently. There are no ghosts or supernatural entities, just malevolent people with the power of the traditional African-American folk magic known as Hoodoo. I rarely have audible reactions to horror movies, but I had four during Spell.

Marquis Woods (Omari Hardwick) is a seriously ambitious lawyer at a major law firm. He gets a rush from the power afforded to him by the job, in addition to the hefty paycheck. Marquis lives large, making no apologies for it. After getting a call notifying him that his estranged father has died, he heads to rural Appalachia in order to take care of the arrangements. Accompanying him on the private plane he flies himself are wife Veora (Lorraine Burroughs), teenage daughter Samsara (Hannah Gonera), and teenage son Tydon (Kalifa Burton). Their first stop is one of those remote movie gas stations, which remain fully operational despite looking as though no one has visited them in decades. They fill up with gas and have a weird encounter with a local law enforcement official.

When the family takes off again, a severe storm hits, causing the plane to crash. Marquis wakes up in a strange bed, in a strange old rundown farmhouse. It is the residence of Eloise (Loretta Devine) and her husband Earl (John Beasley). They won't tell him how he got there or whether his family survived. In fact, the couple won't let him leave at all. Eloise, a practioner of Hoodoo, makes a “Boogity” (a.k.a. a doll) from Marquis' hair and skin to help ensure his obedience. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that these people have something very sinister planned.

Scares in Spell come in unusual forms. One of the most chilling scenes has Marquis witnessing an ominous faith-healing session Eloise holds in the barn out back. I won't specify, but there's a sight so bizarre that it's deeply unnerving. Another scene is an instance of body horror that might make you cover your eyes or turn your head. (Overall, the movie isn't particularly gory; this is one moment where gore is essential to the plot.) The finale relies heavily on Hoodoo and its possibilities, leading to some shocking events as the couple's evil scheme is finally revealed. Those are merely a few examples of what the film has in store.

Visually, Spell is ominous, and the plot's occurrences are undeniably horrific. That said, compelling performances are what truly sell the story. Loretta Devine is outstanding as Eloise. The actress avoids making her character a psychopath. Instead, Eloise is one of those hardcore, no-nonsense matriarch types, times about 100. Imagine an evil Madea and you're on the right track. Devine's choice, including making her firm voice as much of a weapon as Leatherface's chainsaw, makes this woman scarier than if she was a basic monster.

Omari Hardwick is also very good, conveying the terror Marquis goes through. Actually, he goes through two types of terror: not knowing if his family is alive and the stuff Eloise puts him through. Hoodoo has long been associated with class struggle, so that's a factor in the Marquis/Eloise dynamic. He represents everything she despises. Hardwick convincingly portrays how his character realizes he'll have to get in touch with his roots in order to outwit his captor.

Spell is the second great African-American horror movie of 2020, coming after Antebellum. That's significant because representation is important in cinema, and many ambitious, cutting edge fright flicks are being made by Black filmmakers. Any fan of the genre should celebrate that, especially when the results are as intense as Spell.

out of four

Spell is rated R for violence, disturbing/bloody images, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.