Sunday, October 14, 2012

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #6: Spellbinder

So, upwardly mobile lawyer Jeff (Tim Daly) has just been shooting some hoops with his yuppie chums – if nothing else sticks with you about ‘Spellbinder’, you will remember it as a film of the 80s – and wanders out to the car park nursing a serious pain in his back that’s been exacerbated by a tumble on the basketball court. He’s yakking to best bud Derek (Rick Rossovich), bemoaning a break-up with his latest girlfriend, when they notice a sinister looking dude in an ankle length leather jacket, Aldys (Anthony Crivello) beating up on a gorgeous redhead. They intervene, Derek taking a cut to the hand when Aldys pulls a switchblade. Jeff seemingly gets the better end of the deal when he offers to drive the girl – Miranda (Kelly Preston) – home. He seemingly gets the even better end of the deal when Miranda tells him she has no home to go to, and he valiantly offers her the comforts of his bachelor pad.

On their first night together, Miranda performs a spell which takes Jeff’s back pain away. It doesn’t seem to occur to him to query exactly how she’s able to do this, but seeing how she’s topless at the time you can understand why the guy might have been a tad distracted. Next day she cleans his house top to bottom and waits for him to get home wearing one of his shirts and not much else. If ‘Spellbinder’ hadn’t been both written and directed by women – Tracy Tormé and Janet Greek respectively – I’d have written it off as the clunkiest of male fantasies. Actually, if the film functions on any level beyond ‘cheesy 80s horror flick for people who don’t like horror flicks’, it’s as a commentary on the gullibility of the male of the species. ‘Spellbinder, or: How Thinking Through Your Penis Isn’t a Good Idea When Witchcraft is Involved’.

Y’see, Miranda is a witch. The palmistry and preternatural connection with Jeff’s dog and cat don’t tip him off either, and he has to wait till around the fifty minute mark, after all kinds of weird things have happened and various of Aldys’s minions have warned him “we want her back”, before Miranda breaks out the expositional monologue. A witch, moreover, who is on the run from her coven. Of which Aldys is the leader. Since when covens were ruled by men, I’m not sure … and wouldn’t that, y’know, make him a warlock not a witch? But, hey ho, the script isn’t too bothered with the finer details. And besides, Miranda disappears during the middle third just so that Jeff can report her missing and team up with Lieutenant Lee (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), an LA detective who spends all his time obsessing about devil worshippers without ever getting the piss taken by his brother offices or hauled into the captain’s office and told to concentrate on real police work.

‘Spellbinder’ really isn’t a very good film. It’s a comment on the 80s that we have rich-as-Croesus lawyer as our hero and we’re supposed to feel sorry for him when of all a sudden he’s not getting sex on tap from an impossibly gorgeous redhead anymore. Hard life, innit? On top of this, we have some of the unscariest antagonists the genre has to offer. Seriously, in a straight-up fight, Aldys’s coven would get trashed by the Lost Boys. Hell, they’d probably get trashed by Count Duckula. There’s a fight scene notable for its appalling martial arts choreography, Miranda casting a protection spell that consists of five random words in Latin, a potentially awesome subplot involving a paranoid survivalist that’s utterly wasted, and an ending that’s not just predictable but lifts the whole “to which you have come of your own free will” aesthetic of ‘The Wicker Man’ wholesale.

‘Spellbinder’ never fully embraces its genre. Nor, with the first half hour hinting at the softcore noodlings of, say, Jag Mundhra or Zalman King, does it deliver as a piece of erotica. Still, its leading lady justifies the film’s title if nothing else.

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