Thursday, September 13, 2018

TV Movie Time Tunnel: Falling Under "The Spell!"

I don't know how on Earth I ever missed this one during its initial airing in 1977, but The Spell stars Lee Grant, and it shouldn't take a genius to know that the terms "Lee Grant" and "1977" (as in Airport '77) can mean only one thing for me. Obsession!
Grant is top-billed in The Spell, having won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar not long before for Shampoo (1975), though the story heavily concerns her teenaged daughter Susan Myers. Myers is a pudgy, awkward, sensitive young thing who is mercilessly taunted at school by all the other prettier, further-developed girls. (They may be physically more developed, but clearly not mentally!)
In what is clearly inspired by the blockbuster Carrie (1976), Myers is taunted and baited by the girls in her P.E. class (overseen by the rather mysterious looking and acting Lelia Goldoni.) When one of the other girls, the bitchiest of them all, is set to climb a tall rope alongside Myers and then begins to show off, she winds up falling to her death in a mangled clump!
At home, Myers isn't cut much slack by her father James Olson, nor too much by her younger, slimmer sister Helen Hunt either. Grant, on the other hand, is sympathetic, confessing to having "eaten my way out of two proms."
The spark has gone out of Olson and Grant's marriage and Grant is eager to reignite it, though it isn't exactly a cake walk. It's rather hard to see why Olson is detached since Grant looks about as good as she ever did in her life and is rapturously made up and lit throughout the film.

Olson comes back from a business trip, with Grant meeting him at the airport and stopping off for a drink before dinner at home; dinner that Myers is supposed to be preparing. When they come home to an unholy mess with Myers not even home, things come to a head. Olson takes Grant and Hunt out to a fancy dinner and leaves the overweight Myers at home, missing a meal.
During dessert, Olson has a sudden compulsion to get up and leave the restaurant, as Myers' intense face appears before him. He heads outside and is immediately almost run over by a car belonging to a business associate he's just interacted with inside. Returning home, he finds his own car (presumably they took Grant's to dinner) with a warm hood and lays into Myers for having driven it, though she has a (strangely flimsy) excuse.
Grant and Olson seem to be recon- necting at last, but after a night in bed together there is still a lost of distance between them. Grant then informs her daughters that she is going to visit a friend of hers who's been ill as of late.
Here, the movie takes a wild left turn into striking horror (and hilarity!) Grant is discussing her female pal with the woman's concerned husband wherein he explains that a parapsychologist has been called in. The doctor thinks that the woman has been "hexed."
The friend comes wafting down the steps in a caftan, wearing a complacent expression on her face, but, upon encountering Grant, suddenly stops and arches back in a seizure. Then her skin turns red, her eyes become glazed over and her face starts expanding wildly as smoke drifts from her burning flesh!
A horrified Grant watches as the woman bursts through a glass door and falls to the ground. Her husband's hands are scorched as he tries to help his hapless spouse.
Grant meets with Goldoni to discuss Myers and her bullying problems at school and Goldoni is rather un-alarmed and comp- limentary towards the poor girl.
At a cocktail party, Grant is introduced to the para-psycho- logist (Jack Colvin) who was treating Grant's friend. He informs Grant that she killed her own friend; that she was used as a vessel to destroy the woman because someone else hated the lady enough to want her dead.
At the cocktail party, by the way, is our all-time favorite extra, Leoda Richards, once again winning a primo spot behind the star!

Colvin is attempting to figure out the whole mess in his office when, while listening to a recording of Grant's voice, the desk light explodes, cutting him with bits of glass.
Next, Olson and Grant are attending a swim meet of Hunt's when the girl is suddenly stricken, images of a grimacing Myers appearing before her as she struggles to breathe. A hysterical Grant watches as Olson dives in to save his daughter. Omnipresent P.E. coach (are there any book studies at this school?!) Goldoni reacts with a knowing stare as Hunt is brought back to life.
Grant has a chat with Myers, who has been fighting with - and dominating - Hunt as of late. Myers is unrepentant and unsympathetic about Hunt's near-death incident as Grant attempts to steer her away from her severe behavior and attitude.
After this exchange, Grant goes to check on the husband of the woman who died before her eyes and is informed that he too has perished of a "heart attack." A forlorn Grant is comforted by Olson, who thinks that Myers and her problems are cause enough to send her away to an English boarding school.
Grant is unconvinced that Myers is part of all the recent drama, but goes into Hunt's room to ask her what she thinks. Hunt, still recovering from her underwater ordeal, turns on the radio in order to drown out the conversation and informs her mother that Myers is responsible for everything that's been going on.
She was caught chanting incantations and even told Hunt some of the things she was going to do. After Grant leaves Hunt's room, the radio goes eerily hog-wild, changing stations rapidly on its own.
During a family dinner, Olson broaches the subject with Myers about her heading off to school in London. Myers will have none of it and angrily storms off, but not before "clearing" the table by hurling dishes and milk towards her father!
Grant then informs Olson that he and Myers were doomed from the start because all fathers want a little princess for a daughter and that was something that could never be with her. She sends Olson and Hunt out of the house so that she can be alone to process everything.
Later, she overhears Myers leaving and follows her outside. Myers is cloaked in a red robe. (The music during this sequence is hysterically reminiscent of the John Denver song "Sunshine," only with a creepy bent.
Grant follows Myers to a home which she has entered and watches through the window as her daughter first confers with her psychic mentor and then engages in a battle with the same mentor over how to proceed with her powers. The whole thing then comes to a head back home as Myers is discovered to be a bit in over her head with her fledgling abilities.
I love Lee Grant. I like her in the 1960s and I like her in the 1980s and I like her still (though she is far more involved in her directing these days than her acting), but I especially ADORE Lee Grant in the 1970s. As she's said many times, she was so hungry to work again after having been blacklisted during the 1950s that she did practically anything she was offered and by this time she was firing on all cylinders while also looking fantastic. At times the camera is so in love with her that costars have to make to with leftover fill light as shown below!

Watching her in The Spell is like witnessing a melange of Karen Wallace from Airport '77 (1977) and Ann Thorn of Damian: Omen II (1978) with a dash of Miriam "I'll heat up the lasagna" Polar of Valley of the Dolls (1967.) She's just simply fascinating to watch, even in the most benign moments.
While Myers is decent in her introductory role, the other acting kudos really must go to young Hunt, who demon- strates some really strong thespian skills throughout. I have never been much of a fan of the adult Hunt, but she is almost peerless as a child actress. Myers was able to eke out a career in the late-'70s and early-'80s (and scored with 1984's Revenge of the Nerds), but apart from voice work wasn't up to much after 1985. Hunt, of course, went on to a highly successful TV career and even copped an Oscar for As Good as It Gets (1997), beating out four powerhouse British actresses in the process.
Goldoni's career spans from the late-1940s to the present, though she has mostly flown under the radar. Our first experience with her was in the 1965 thriller Hysteria in which she sported a highly elegant coiffure that we never forgot. However, she's also been effective in many non-glamorous parts.
There's no question that the men of this piece having acting talent, especially Olson, who led a pretty decent movie and TV career in the late-'60s and early '70s. Rachel, Rachel (1968) and The Andromeda Strain (1971) are among his more prominent credits. He reunited with Grant for 1978's The Mafu Cage, but abruptly retired in 1990 at age sixty. He is currently eighty-eight.
Colvin maintained an active career during the same period, though is most likely recognized for his work on the TV series The Incredible Hulk. He was also a highly regarded acting teacher. It's just that when it comes to actors, I tend to go in for the very handsome ones, regardless of the talent level! So while both men are creditable in their performances, they don't set my heart aflutter. (Ahhh... the waters of Poseidon's Underworld run shallow...) Colvin died at age seventy-one of complications from a stroke. (In an odd bit of editing/construction, the scene below, in which Colvin listens to Grant on a tape recorder, occurs BEFORE they've ever held a session together and is not presented as a flashback that I could tell...!)
The Spell is clearly a derivative story, but it does maintain interest and isn't as completely predictable as it might seem on the surface. The real draw, though, is the chance to see Miss Grant doing her thing the best way she can. It was such a treat to see her in a role from the very era in which I first fell in love with her and her Method chops, 1977.


Gingerguy said...

I don't remember this tv flick either but bet I watched it. Phys Ed class in the 70's was a dangerous place for bitchy girls. Was there not a similar scene in the Initiation of Sarah? (besides tampon pelting in Carrie). Teens with powers was a genre, like The Fury, I wonder what they represented to horror writers?
I had only recently read about this movie on a Lee Grant Blogathon. She looks gorgeous here. My initial attraction to her was to the camp aspect of Miriam Polar and her other icy bitch roles, but really deepened into respect after reading her memoir. She is a consummate survivor and a real treasure to watch.
Where did children get satanic hooded robes before as-seen-on-tv snuggies? they seem to pop up on these kinds of movies like clockwork.
I came to love Helen Hunt later in film, not tv. She did a movie with John Hawkes called "The Surrogate" that is just amazing.
Always great to see Lee in her prime and this looks like a real hoot.

Unknown said...

'Comet TV' shows this film at least once a year along with other horror and scifi films. As impressive as Miss Grant is I can never watch it through as now it seems so 'by the book's set ups as reveals. And I really do not like James Olsen. Enjoy!

angelman66 said...

Poseidon. You have captured this 1970s telefilm to a t with your wonderfully written and illustrated article. I do remember these movies of the week where bone fide movie stars like Lee Grant and Shelley Winters rubbed elbows with TV celebs like Goldoni and Belinda J Montgomery, in a derivative plot stolen liberally from big screen horror of my very favorites of this time period, was, of course, the sequel to Rosemary’s Baby with Patty Duke and Ruth Gordon and Stephen McHattie....

I need to see this one again. Miss Lee Grant looks like she has it all under control here!
- Chris

Poseidon3 said...

Gingerguy, speaking of teens with powers, remember the hooty TV series "The Powers of Matthew Star" with Peter Barton, who was sort of prettier than many of the female teens who had special abilities? LOL Ms. Grant is one of those performers who I could, almost literally, watch reading the phone book aloud...

Unknown, I had no clue that Comet TV showed this. Neat! I don't tune into that channel very often, but perhaps I ought to. (I always avoid commercials whenever possible and those over-the-air channels aren't available to me without having to deal with them... I become a channel flipper between all of them but so often they all have ads going at the same time! And they're mostly local ads which are even more hideous. Ha!)

Thanks, angelman66! I really wanted to take part in your Blog-a-thon, but the timing was just the worst for me. I was going to tackle "Visiting Hours," which is truly a Lee Grant fest in and of itself. Even though "Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby" has a staggering cast also including Donna Mills, Tina Louise, George Maharis and Ray Milland, it's a tad hard to buy Patty Duke as Rosemary after Mia Farrow did it first! It's as if Dr. Shrinker got ahold of her! LOL