June 1, 2020

spellbinderGood little horror movies are still a rarity these days, so Spellbinder is recommended for fans of the genre. It’s an intelligent movie that forgoes gore in favor of creating a more generally sinister ambiance.

It’s about a normal, somewhat lonely, Los Angeles lawyer (Timothy Daly), who witnesses a scuffle between a man and a woman in a parking lot and helps the woman (Kelly Preston) to his house. She stays. He’s deliriously happy, but as is the case with many seemingly perfect partners, she has a few troubling idiosyncrasies. The movie teases for a while, and eventually reveals that she is a witch.

She’s an unwilling witch, she says, and the other members of her coven want her back, so they can enlist her in a little human-sacrifice ceremony on the solstice. Our man, with the help of his best friend (Rick Rossovich), must try to protect her.

Screenwriter Tracy Tormé and director Janet Greek borrow a bit: The normalcy of the devil­ worshipers comes from Rosemary’s Baby; the lonely man drawn to an exotic, super­natural woman comes from Cat People. But Spellbinder creates an effective, dreadful atmosphere, with a couple of really dandy scenes, including the surprise epilog.

There’s a nicely shaded party scene when the new girlfriend is introduced around, and everyone loves her except the lawyer’s suspicious secretary. She happens to see the witch take a roast turkey out of the oven with her bare hands, which prompts the secretary to conclude, “That woman is trouble.”

This is director Greek’s first feature film, and Greek seems to bear gifts. She does a particularly good job of letting the story lay itself out in the opening reels, with subtlety and deliberateness. There’s a bit too much going on toward the end, but the film is well-acted and handsome, and it has just the right measure of unhealthiness.

First published in The Herald, September 1988

I realize now that the “without oven mitts” scene is borrowed from the 1963 British sci-fi film Unearthly Stranger, which I saw a couple of years ago. Janet Greek directed the “Weird Al” Yankovic music video, “Ricky,” and a good amount of TV until 1999. Screenwriter Tormé is the son of Mel Tormé, and wrote for Star Trek: The Next Generation and created Sliders; he was also a writer on SNL during some rough years. Music by Basil Poledouris. If you’re a genre person, you have to see this.