MARCH 14, 2013
I was only about 7 seconds into The Spell when I knew it wasn't going to be a very successful attempt at ripping off Carrie. Rita, our tormented, potentially telekinetic girl, is being mocked for being fat by all of her classmates as they make their way to gym class. And I mean ALL - not a single one of the other girls seems to have anything better to do than laugh and point, do the exaggerated, arms outstretched "fat person walking" shtick, etc. But here's the thing - Rita's not going to be on America's Next Top Model anytime soon, but she's not actually "fat" at all - she's maybe packing 5 extra lbs above what is a normal, healthy weight for a girl her height.
So right off the bat I had trouble buying into the movie; Carrie's tormentors may have been a bit ridiculous, but I never doubted that she'd be a target of their scorn - she was awkward, made to look plain, etc. Here, I couldn't understand why they'd even notice her at all, let alone pick on her weight. Sorry for the lack of tact, but couldn't they find an actual fat actress to play the part, so the audience would at least be able to quickly understand what was going on? Honestly, when I saw the girls all doing the fat jokes I wondered when the girl would appear on-screen, because I figured Rita was just some random extra.
Luckily, this stuff doesn't carry through the entire movie. Perhaps to avoid being labeled a complete Carrie knockoff, the school never appears again after this opening sequence (which ends with a gymnastics "accident"), and we instead focus on her family life. She doesn't get along with her younger sister (Helen Hunt!) or father at all, and her relationship with her mom (Lee Grant) is heated, though the closest thing she has to an ally there. But she brings it on herself; whereas Carrie was sympathetic, Rita's just a mean brat, and the targets for the rest of the movie are of no interest to us (assorted friends/business associates of her parents, though she seemingly tries to drown her sister at one point), making it hard to care much about what's going on. I can root for Grant, torn between the love for her child and the knowledge that something is seriously wrong with her, but it's nowhere near as effective as something like We Need To Talk About Kevin or Joshua.
Plus, apart from that brief drowning scene, the family is never in any danger, so there's nothing to really get scared over. It'd be easy to say "Eh, it's a TV movie, they can't really do much", but Don't Go To Sleep scared the hell out of me and didn't shy away from being vicious when it had to be - this just lacks the balls to go all out, opting to just kill some random adult we have no attachment to in order to provide the movie with its action. And they go a step further (spoiler), revealing during the climax that Rita's actually just a pawn for her gym teacher, who also has this ability and wants her to hone her skills. This leads to not one but TWO showdowns of people mumbling chants at each other, which I assure you doesn't come across as cinematic or riveting as it sounds. Even as a TV movie this thing is shockingly dull throughout, and I thought they were just saving the FX/action budget for the finale, but no.
Oddly this is the 2nd made for TV Carrie wannabe that was written by someone who'd go on to make something far more interesting and beloved. Tom Holland co-wrote The Initiation Of Sarah long before he'd join the ranks of the Masters of Horror with Child's Play and Fright Night, and this was written by Brian Taggert, who would go on to adapt Of Unknown Origin (the original novel of which I just got! Can't wait to read), aka the 2nd best Peter Weller movie ever and certainly the best killer rat one. But it's interesting that it was based on a novel, as just about everything else I've seen from him (Poltergeist III, Omen IV, Visiting Hours (which also had Lee Grant)) was underwhelming at best, so maybe he's just not a very good writer unless he has a guide to work from, as all of those others (and this) weren't based on existing books or whatever.
In closing, I'd like to say that if I was around in the 60s-70s, I probably would have had a crush on Lee Grant. She's in her 50s here but still very attractive, and she's got that mix of being a classy lady but with a fiery attitude, not unlike Helen Mirren. We need more women like them in our generation! Most of what we have are dolts like Lohan or manic pixie dream girls. Mirren and Grant could still kick all their asses while drinking their tea.
What say you?