DVD Review: Spellbinder

At long last, you can watch Kelly Preston's erotic 1980's supernatural thriller on DVD, thanks to the MGM Limited Edition Collection.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


I think I like the new print-on-demand model of video sales.

A few years back, Warner Bros., suddenly realizing that they were sitting on an enormous library of literally hundreds classic feature films that had never been released on home video, decided to rectify that, and flood the market with these films. Silent classics, pre-Code sex comedies, and more recent musical fare all came bounding into the public's grasp. Warner Bros., though, wisely observed that DVDs may not be so viable, and printing 100,00 copies of, say Taxi with James Cagney, may not be the wisest move in a world where Netflix often encroaches into video store territory. As such, they offered the wise option of print-on-demand. For a slightly higher price, they will print a single DVD for you, should you order it. The print-on-demand DVDs were usually unremastered, had lo-fi packaging, and no special features. But, if you were passionate about the film in question (and you, like me, are still hung up on the important idea of building a tangible personal video library), you could own it.

Even though the films aren't necessarily getting the star treatment, it's still nice to have that option. Thanks to the Warner Bros. model, I have access to the only DVD version of Penn & Teller Get Killed, Tod Browning's twisted silent film The Unholy 3, and the cult tragedy He Who Gets Slapped. If you've ever wanted to see Julie Christie get raped by a malevolent computer, you can finally own Demon Seed on DVD through the Warner Bros. Archive.

I like this model. It's like the best-stocked video store in the world is finally selling copies of its library. Sure, we can all get several editions of Terminator 2, but if you're a true cinephile, then you probably have passion for an underrated, underseen, or underappreciated subgenre of film that is not so readily available in DVD stores, or through the frustratingly impermanent streaming libraries. The infinite, colored, and textured world of the video store bottom shelf just got vaster, for you see…

Jumping on the bandwagon now is MGM, another studio with a vast library of classics that they don't necessarily want to see slip away. Dozens of films have already been released through the MGM Limited Edition Collection, which follows the Warner Archive mold exactly. We here at CraveOnline have been granted a few of the films available, and I will review a few of them in the coming weeks. The first out of the gate? The 1988 supernatural thriller Spellbinder.

Spellbinder is a Kelly Preston film, wherein she plays a mysterious woman who is rescued from a mugging by the handsome Timothy Daly, and eventually turns out to be involved with a mysterious coven of evil Satanists. It was directed by Janet Greek in her only feature film job, although Greek is prolific in TV, having directed several episodes of L.A. Law, Melrose Place and Babylon 5. She also directed the music video for “Weird Al” Yankovic's “Ricky.” Spellbinder, as its vintage and subject matter would imply, feels a lot like a cheapie straight-to-video erotic thriller along the lines of Witchcraft 3 (or 5, or 8, take your pick), but with better acting, complex plotting, and much superior production design.

Preston (she of Travolta's wedding, star of countless semi-notable Hollywood sub-blockbusters, and puberty fuel for a generation of boys) plays Miranda, a lovely and wispy young lady with big hair who is seen in a parking lot being shoved around by her douchenozzle boyfriend (Rick Rossovich), who sports a long black coat, a pinky ring, and a hideous 1980s ponytail. Tim Daly plays Jeff, a hotshot Reaganaut lawyer who rescues her. He takes her back to his house, where she uses a magic spell to cure his sciatica; she lays him face down and straddles his rump. They fall asleep next to each other. The next night, they have sex, and the scene is sexy in the way movies used to be; that is: one gratuitous boob shot, a brief scene of cunnilingus, and a lot of dreamy close-ups of orgasmic expressions. The scene plays without music, making it sexier. I don't mean to sound prurient by describing the sex in such detail, but it was clearly a centerpiece of the film.

A mysterious woman named Mrs. White (Audra Lindley from Three's Company) begins stalking Jeff, asking after Miranda's whereabouts. It's slowly revealed that Miranda once belonged to a coven of witches who would do horrible things to her. Everyone thinks there's something up anyway; why would a hot chick like Kelly Preston go after a hot guy like Tim Daly? Maybe because he's hot. Seriously. Nice bodies on both of them. Anyway, we know the evil coven is up to no good, as earlier in the film we saw a nameless character attacked in his apartment, and, in a rather amusing kill, has his head magically set ablaze by Rossovich. This is why I love horror movies.

The film has the requisite thriller scenes; a visit to a cop (played by a sedate Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the desperate chase to a safe locale (overseen by the mad survivalist M.C. Gainey). There's a scene where Jeff has to do some research in a cult bookshop, and I always love horror movies with cult bookshops in them. Maybe this is why I still rush to the defense of Roman Polanski's maligned The Ninth Gate. There's a cool witch attack, wherein Jeff and Miranda have to hide inside a circle of salt. There is a twist at the end, and it's pretty predictable but appropriately bloody.

While I do enjoy watching challenging and complex films from talented and notable directors, and rant endlessly about film theory, often when I'm perusing the video store, I seek something mindless, merely decently made, and fulfilling certain genre tropes. Spellbinder, in that regard, is the perfect movie. Kinda cheap, kinda sexy, a mite wicked, just the right amount of bland, and surprisingly entertaining. The kind of film you saw on cable as a teen, and now think back on with fondness. Thanks to MGM, you can see it again. Hold it close. Re-watch it. Don't bother sharing with your friends, though. They have their own objects of affection.