Writer-director Kevin Ko’s spell arrives on Netflix after scaring a serious bank at the Taiwanese box office, where it debuted last spring before becoming the country’s highest-grossing horror film of all time. In Ko’s found footage exercise, a woman strives to free her preschool daughter from the age-old and very deadly curse she and her ghost-hunting college pals managed to unleash. Are his efforts working? Well, don’t forget to silently answer your name.
INCANTATION: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The essential: In the messy chronology of spell, we meet Ruo-nan (Tsai Hsuan-yen) in the present, where she is out of breath. “Six years ago, I violated a terrible taboo,” she confides to the video camera that has become her omnipresent companion. “Anyone who got too close has been the victim of misfortunes that I cannot explain.” She lost her parents to a Final destination-like a calamity, lost custody of her infant daughter Duo-do (Huang Sin-ting) and got lost in a mental institution, where a doctor tried to make sense of her delusions about a ” tunnel you must not enter”. Six years ago, when Ruo-non first traveled to a remote mountain village to observe the mysterious ancient rituals performed by the family elders of her boyfriend Dong (Sean Lin) and her friend Yuan (RQ) was all in fun, a callous goof for their ghost hunting social media page. Six years ago, she didn’t even know she was pregnant. And six years ago, she definitely neither understood nor respected the curse that would be triggered by Yuan and Dong entering the village temple tunnel.
As spell between a distraught Ruo-nan in the present and footage that Yuan shot on that fateful trip, it also fills in the backstory of Ruo-nan’s life with her daughter Duo-do. Released from the institution, she picked her up from the foster family where Ming (Kao Ying-hsuan) became a father figure. But despite her efforts to fortify their home against the curse’s supernatural reach, trouble began on the first day of Ruo-nan and Duo-do’s new life together. His camera chronicles the disturbances, as things move through the night and Duo-do sees and talks to the “bad guys” floating near the ceiling. And when the villains reveal more about the ritual and the tunnel, Duo-do ends up with a traumatic brain injury.
Fleeing from the authorities with her daughter and their new ally Ming, Ruo-nan becomes convinced that returning to the village temple and subjecting Duo-do to folk medicine is her only chance for survival. And when Ming searches the footage on Yuan’s camera and links the rituals to the worship of a malevolent Tantric Buddhist deity, he discovers that the much-vaunted incantation itself -“Hou-ho-xiu-yi, si-sei-wu-ma” – is not a prayer at all, but a terrible curse of sharing. Let this deity learn your name, and your time is up.
What movies will this remind you of? 2014 supernatural horror film by David Robert Mitchell It follows explores the deadly ramifications of passing an entity between sexual partners. Get it, and it gets you. And obviously there’s an entire wing of the horror library devoted to found footage items, fates of unlucky souls investigating the Blair Witch (choose your fighter, the original 1999 movie or the 2016 Adam Wingard riff on the material), to the cursed videotape of the Ring franchise.
Performance to watch: Tsai Hsuan-yen handles the technical complications of the found footage genre well, where acting is meant to convey the changing moods of a real person seen on film. For the purposes of spellTsai portrays Ruo-nan’s desperate hope for her daughter’s salvation as being constantly crushed by a heavy, cowering fear.
Memorable dialogue: Addressing his video camera, and thus the audience, Ruo-nan directly asks for help. “If you can, please recite this with me. Doing it in your head is fine too. Hou-ho-xiu-yi, si-sei-wu-ma.” Ruo-nan doesn’t just break the fourth wall. She prays with.
Sex and skin: None.
Our opinion : More than once watching spell, you will ask yourself: “Where do these images come from? Did the malevolent deity himself shoot it? It’s a constant sticking point with the found footage genre, which always has to lie against the hard truths of onscreen storytelling, and this film’s nonlinear composition doesn’t help in that regard. Ruo-nan’s fourth heartfelt plea for our help in barriering his daughter’s life via a repeated mantra does not forgive some of his more risky decisions, such as subjecting Duo-do to a life lived in the clutches of an all-powerful curse that has already killed at least six people with even tangential ties to Ruo-nan. She tells us that she did it out of love for her daughter. But from the moment we meet her, it just feels like the cold calculation of fear. And what about the misguided decision-making six years ago that initially led the “ghosts” to this remote mountain village? It was not out of street-level ethnographic interest. Watching the footage of Yuan and Dong making their way through the evil tunnel, defiling altars and invading sacred chambers, it almost makes you root for the ancient evil deity.
Once the choice is made not to question the motivations of its characters and to take advantage spell for its surface-level scares, there is charge in its sudden, disturbing visuals and manipulation of religious scripture and iconography into a vehicle of fear. Ming’s investigative visit to Yunnan Province and an elderly monk’s lair makes it seem like he’s about to commune with ancient evil. And the sound editing in spell emphasizes the supernatural hold of Buddhist throat singing, especially when linked to runic symbols and curse-related ritual sacrifices.
Our call: SPREAD IT. spell proves that there’s still vitality left in found footage horror, and offsets most of its narrative journey with ominous ancient ritualism and a few jarring scares.
Johnny Loftus is a freelance writer and editor living in Chicagoland. Her work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glenganges