For “Spell” director Mark Tonderai, the movie serves as more than a hoodoo spirit-filled thriller — it’s his comeback story. After helming “House at the End of the Street,” the 2012 film of the same genre starring Jennifer Lawrence that raked in $44 million worldwide — opportunities to create another film of that magnitude were scarce, the director says.
“The film market changed. So, business changed and basically became about ultra-load budgets,” he tells Variety.
Being the accomplished director he is, Tonderai found work on a number of TV sets — he’s currently spending his days filming on the set of Netflix’s “Locke & Key” Season 2 (while also following COVID-19 guidelines). But because he was a Black director in the TV space, he began to feel some restrictions on where his creative abilities could take him within the realm of the small screen. Soon enough, he felt the itch to get back into studio films. He just needed to find the right story to focus his lens on, but there was no telling when the perfect project would come across his path.
“It had to be a script that’s right,” the director explains. “It had to be a film that’s kind of a Black voice, and it had to be a studio film. So that’s a hard thing to find, those three things. And I had to wait and wait and wait and wait and wait, until eventually, the [‘Spell’] script came up.”
It’s safe to say the Paramount Pictures film certainly has a Black voice to it. The movie boasts a predominantly Black cast, featuring Omari Hardwick and Loretta Devine as the main characters. It follows Marquise T. Woods, (Hardwick) who, after crashing his plane near his childhood small town, finds himself caught in a battle of good vs. evil, trapped in the attic of a centuries-old hoodoo witch named Eloise (Devine) in order to find his wife and kids.
Hoodoo (also known as rootwork or conjuring) is a common cultural practice within the Black diaspora, especially in the Caribbean and rural Southern parts of the United States. It not only involves traditional ideas of magic and voodoo, but also certain holistic approaches to medicine.
As the two stars went round for round in the thriller, one thing is for certain: Hardwick and Devine are definitely world-class acts. Of course, that’s to be expected when one of them is the original Broadway Dreamgirl. “If she was white, she’d be the missing treasure and trophy of this country,” Tonderai says of Devine, whose career spans about 40 years and over 100 films. As for the former “Power” lead actor, he holds his own against the accomplished heavyweight: “Omari is very much like those classic movie stars. When I said action to Omari, oh my God. It was like he became a different person and he became Marc.”
Like all good Halloween thrillers, Tonderai delivers gore in a way to make viewers shudder. With unsettling sound effects and wince-inducing visuals, he takes a specific “less is more” approach to make audiences writhe in their seats. Instead, he relies on marrying the sound effects to the actor’s performance and expressions. “You can’t just have gore gore gore,” he says. “You can find that with the performance, with so much agony, you get that. It’s so much more powerful like that.”
Obviously, Tonderai has experience within the thriller genre, but the thrillers won’t tie him down to just one type of story. This director’s love of storytelling keeps him interested in telling more diverse stories in the future, and certainly with characters of all backgrounds.
“I feel very lucky,” he says as he walks to his current film set. “I really don’t care about the genre. I just care about what the story’s trying to say. I just really enjoyed the whole content aspects of storytelling in general. Truth of the matter is there’s a lot of original stories coming out of the horror genre.”