Kelly Preston

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: The Witch has us staring deeply into our bubbling cauldron, in search of other superb movies about witchcraft.

Spellbinder (1988)

Of the many adjectives one could use to describe Janet Greek’s erotic thriller Spellbinder, timeless isn’t among them. It’s deeply rooted in the 1980s, the period during which the erotic thriller rose to prominence, as well as the dark span in which the moral panic around the alleged rise of satanism gripped the country. Between the country’s voracious appetite for tawdry affairs turned deadly and its widespread belief in the existence of satanic cabals, Spellbinder seems like it could have been written by a computer program designed to generate movie treatments by cross-referencing newspaper headlines and box-office trends. But it’s doubtful a computer could have written something quite as playful as Spellbinder, which combines those elements into a story about a long, heartbreaking con.

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Tim Daly stars as Jeff Mills, the affable everyman who “has it all” except for the love of a beautiful woman. Then he meets Miranda Reed (Kelly Preston) under deeply unpleasant circumstances. After working out with his buddy Derek (Rick Rossovich), Jeff spots Miranda being physically assaulted by a male acquaintance and intervenes to save her. Jeff vows to protect Miranda from what he believes is her creepy ex-boyfriend, and she falls in love with his kindness and bravery. Naturally this is one of those “no good deed goes unpunished” stories, and when the ominous occurrences begin, Miranda explains that she has escaped from a coven of satanic witches who want to sacrifice her in a winter solstice ritual. The coven won’t take no for an answer, and its members set about scaring Miranda into returning to them and accepting her fate.

Spellbinder is a by-the-numbers ’80s thriller for most of its runtime, and not an especially good one. It’s not quite sexy enough to distinguish itself as an Adrian Lyne-style erotic thriller, and while its satanic elements take it in a horror direction, it never fully settles into that groove either. The movie only clicks into place in its devilishly clever third act, where it’s revealed that a good bit of what Miranda said is true, but she left out some key details. She’s part of a circle of satanic witches determined to celebrate the winter solstice with a human sacrifice, but Jeff was the target all along. In order for the ritual to work, the sacrifice has to come to the right place at the right time of their own free will, and Miranda was the seductive bait. There’s yet another reveal, in which it becomes clear how skillful Miranda’s coven is at luring pure-hearted men to their deaths. Ultimately, Spellbinder is neither an erotic thriller nor a supernatural horror flick. It’s a heist movie where the big score isn’t a huge diamond or a pricy painting, it’s the beating heart of an innocent.

Availability: Spellbinder is available for streaming through Amazon Prime Video, on DVD from Netflix and Amazon, or possibly your local video store/library.

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