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Kino // R // January 5, 2016
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted January 11, 2016 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

The satisfaction one might discover in Janet Greek's Spellbinder will largely pivot on their feelings about Kelly Preston in the hypnotic and alluring role of the film's enchantress. Arriving near the end of a period with increased attention toward occultism in the '70s and mid-'80s, where the subject's shock-value has been sapped by other ill omens, devil worshipers, and cultists, this tense tale of enigmatic witch running from her ex-coven conjures little that hasn't been seen before. Stiff dialogue and dubious events amid her evasion don't really help matters, either, forming into a middling and unremarkable occult thriller that relies too heavily on the lead actress' striking presence as its source of intrigue. Seeing Preston wave her hands around, speak in tongues, and gallivant in sheer articles of clothing amid ritualistic endeavors might offer a striking diversion, but not enough to redirect one's attention from the unsurprising spells being cast here.

Preston plays Miranda Reed, whom we first see getting roughed up by a darkly-dressed man (Anthony Crivello) in a shadowy corner of downtown Los Angeles. Seeing this take place, local attorney Jeff Mills (Tim Daly) and his friend, Derek (Rick Rossovich), rush to her aid and eventually send the guy packing, leaving Miranda with few options of what to do and where to go next. Jeff, whose success as a lawyer doesn't transition as well into success with relationships, offers Miranda a place to stay until she can get her affairs in order. As payment, Miranda works some of her magic on Jeff -- both figurative and literal -- as she hides away and develops a relationship with him. Jeff doesn't realize how much he's bitten off by bringing Miranda into his life, though, becoming clear when people start pursuing them both throughout the city, filling his voicemail and intruding on his professional life. The reasoning for them wanting her "back" so desperately start to emerge, as does the full breadth of Miranda's mystical capabilities.

Tim Daly and Kelly Preston end up shedding their clothes and getting personal within the first eleven or twelve minutes of Spellbinder, a good indication that things progress far too quickly after a blade-wielding guy threatens to hunt them down. We know very little about Jeff at this point beyond that he enjoys basketball and loves pets, so some assumptions fill in the gaps in how he handles Miranda and the dangerous people after her, painting him as an inattentive and enticed white knight. Perhaps those are just the (side-)effects of being smitten with Miranda, though, with the depths of her mystique and exotic presence. Filtered through Kelly Preston's graceful movements and innocent eyes, the character's otherworldly actions and behavior -- palm readings, healing spells, casual mentions of the Solstice -- do account for some of the rationale behind Jeff's shortsighted acceptance, even though the ease of how this lawyer allows a beautiful, persuasive victim to so effortlessly slip into his everyday life still doesn't feel right.

The mystery of Miranda's past feeds into casual, understated ways that her powers emerge as a witch, igniting a lingering degree of intrigue in Spellbinder that uses the gravity of rushed attraction as its own type of hex. A lack of flashiness and a credible depiction in how Jeff introduces his new lady to friends and colleagues at a distinctly '80s cocktail party -- balancing excitement for the pair and some much-needed suspicion toward the quickness of their relationship -- taps into a relatively down-to-earth approach toward the idea of budding romance with a semi-closeted mystic. Of course, the script from Tracy Torme swiftly betrays its flirtations with realism as soon as the threats from Miranda's former coven intrude on their new life, drawing Jeff into a tedious atmosphere of ongoing police investigations and his own flimsy research pursuits into their endeavors. Eerie music fills the air of overextended scenes in bookstores and around Jeff's apartment with the hopes of artificially elevating the suspense, instead having the opposite effect as they draw out formulaic and dull circumstances.

Spellbinder tends to be at its best when the witches and wizards restrict their magical machinations to a smaller scale, since any increases in their capabilities -- destructive or psychological -- create openings for disbelief over why they didn't cast this spell or inflict that damage at earlier, more opportune times. Clever practical effects underscore the vastness of their supernatural potential, though, from unleashing fire upon targets to bending walls and shattering glass, and the timing and moderation of their use in their pursuit of Miranda yields suspiciousness instead of their desired tension. Those misgivings, that they're not really doing what they could to retrieve this integral member of their practice from the hands of defenseless humans, leave Janet Greek's supernatural thriller fending off common-sense questions instead of enrapturing those watching with Jeff's gallant and powerless charge deep into the world of dark practices. A gloomy finale attempts to make sense of why that's the case by echoing twists found in past occult films, but that sinister magic isn't as spellbinding under these circumstances.

Video and Audio:

Flawed but wholly suitable for a lesser-known, budget-conscious '80s thriller that received a meager theatrical release, Spellbinder has been conjured up on Blu-ray from Kino/Lorber in a 1.85:1-framed, 1080p AVC treatment that wears its age and natural film appearance with pride. Warmer skin tones, some shimmering in camera movement across dense textures (like rooftops), and speckles hallmark the age present in the transfer, but they don't intrude on the caliber of image clarity and depth in both daytime sequences and dim interior shots, spotted in the contours assisted by shadows and through the organic -- if heavy -- film grain. Notable detail clarity can be found in beads of sweat, bubbles from a bath, and shards of glass, while vivid bursts of reds and oranges in flames and the diffused, subdued blues of a shadowy living space offer surprisingly capable shades of color. Black levels generally stay evenly balanced, to a point that doesn't completely swallow up details in bedroom scenes or while sprinting through the night, and despite a few jittery camera moments, it's a stable image.

Electronic music, a handful of bold sound effects, and a lot of amplified dialogue put the 2-channel DTS-HD Master Audio track through its paces, which also adapts to the vintage of its source. There's a lot of decent, albeit dated clarity available here: smaller effects like the jingling of keys and the snap of an answering machine's messages project strong and natural effects, while the fierce shattering of glass and the movement of a car from side to side are vigorous and aware of the stereo surround space. Dialogue finds a comfort zone between thick, natural mid-range levels and thinness both above and below that space, as does the erratic music throughout the film. It's a clean track, one that affords the opportunity for eerie atmospheric touches to resonate wherever applicable.

Special Features:

Commentaries don't get much more candid and forthright than the beginning of this Audio Commentary with Janet Greek. She discusses the fact that roughly twenty minutes had been lopped off the beginning and elaborates on the tough experience she had with MGM's lack of confidence in the picture, while also discussing casting decisions and the chemistry between the actors. The context of that missing reel at the beginning of the film continues throughout the early stretch of the track, largely as an explanation as to why things don't seem to make the sense that they should, clearly and understandably a sore spot for the director. She touches on both positives and negatives of her experience, introducing a bunch of interesting anecdotes about the production: sicknesses incurred in capturing the film's atmosphere, how all the ritualistic glyphs and chants were entirely made up, strategic shooting schedules, etc. Long gaps of silence and generalized discussion about the actors drag down the tempo as a complete viewing experience, but Janet Greek's impressions are worth seeking out throughout the track.

A lengthy new Interview with Anthony Crivello (28:52, 16x9 HD) has also been included, where the actor discusses his relationship with Janet Greek and his rapport with the rest of the cast in the beginning. After those initial nine minutes of standard, amiable discussion scattered with interesting tidbits, he then moves into chatting about the uniqueness of the film's look, the trajectory his career took afterwards, and some of the iffy attitudes surrounding the film's reedit and release. A vintage Theatrical Trailer (1:2, 16x9 HD) has also been included.

Final Thoughts:

The sensual charms of Kelly Preston, her chemistry with co-star Tim Daly, and the ominous approach to the subject matter become the draws to Spellbinder, Janet Greek's occult thriller about a witch on the run from her coven and the smitten lawyer who attempts to protect her. Stale dialogue and a questionable grasp on how magic fits into the equation drag the film down, though, which doesn't help with its absence of a strong current of suspense and its familiarly bleak downward spiral of an ending. Not a lot separates Spellbinder from other thrillers cut from the same cloth, but there's enough of a presence in its eerie craftsmanship and the enigmas of its witchy seductions to be worth a watch. Kino/Lorber's Blu-ray looks and sounds pretty strong, with a candid audio commentary and interview to round out the experience. A Rental will suffice for most, but fans will enjoy the uptick in quality enough for a purchase.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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