Features and Columns · TV

Move Over Carrie, Rita Has Something to Say With ‘The Spell’

The Spell
By  · Published on August 30th, 2018

Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a column where I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the 70s. This week’s entry had the great misfortune of airing a mere three months after the movie it most resembled, and while it wasn’t a knock-off — supposedly — it was still seen as such. From Carrie to The FuryThe Spell covers a lot of ground in 86 minutes.

Where: NBC
When: February 20th, 1977

Rita (Susan Myers) isn’t like the other girls. Well, she’s like other girls in general, but she’s different from the ones in her school because she’s apparently the only overweight teen in the general area. As such she’s hounded by bullies, called names, and mocked at every turn, and it doesn’t get much better at home. Her dad Glenn (James Olson) shames her eating habits, her younger sister Kristina (Helen Hunt) is constantly mad about Rita’s behavior, and only her mom Marilyn (Lee Grant) shows any degree of compassion. Rita’s attitude has been worsening, though, and suspicions are raised when the meanest girl in her gym class falls to her death after showing off with some fancy rope-climbing and acrobatics.

The Spell PosterDisobedience, strange mutterings beneath her breath, and unexplained late night absences add to her family’s worries, and Kristina’s mysterious near-drowning during a swim meet seals it. Glenn decides Rita’s going away to boarding school, Kristina’s scared for her life, and even Marilyn starts to lose hope. It soon becomes clear that young Rita is channeling some dark energy giving her the ability to move objects, pound back second and third helpings, and even make people spontaneously combust. This doesn’t bode well for the family that’s abandoning her.

Stephen King’s novel Carrie hit shelves in April of 1974, Brian De Palma’s adaptation hit theaters in November of 1976, and NBC’s The Spell premiered on the small screen in February of 1977. Writer Brian Taggert claims to have been working on the script even before King’s book was published, and people’s doubt as to that claim has given this film a bit of a bad sheen. That’s too bad as it’s actually a perfectly okay tale of psychic powers run amok. The explanation for it all, given away somewhat with the title, is a fun spin on the expected and usual and leads to a fairly thrilling ending. Thrilling for TV in the 70s I mean.

There’s magic, spells, and witches afoot, and the film delivers a couple reveals in that regard moving it beyond the realm of typical Carrie knockoffs (if it is one…). The first is fairly predictable to viewers paying attention as Rita’s gym teacher turns out to be tutoring her in the dark arts. The second — look away if you don’t want to know! — comes towards the end as Rita’s rage is directed her mom’s way. Marilyn has followed her daughter’s latest late-night jaunt and witnessed the witchy happenings, and when she moves to confront the disobedient teen she finds herself targeted by Rita’s telekinetic rage. Surprise! Mom’s a witch too, and soon the two are battling it out in the kitchen sending objects and bodies hurtling into walls, through glass, and across the kitchen island. It’s a fun change of pace, and it leaves you wondering how different the end to King’s debut could have been if Carrie’s psycho mom busted out some psychic knife tricks too.

You can look back now.

The script and performers are the big pull, but director Lee Philips shows some stylish chops with the spontaneous combustion sequence. It’s terrifically unsettling and creepy scene, and while there’s a building menace surrounding it this is the film’s most horrific beat. It stands apart as the rest of the movie feels far more restrained. It’s no great shakes style-wise, so the idea that it’s ripping off Carrie is limited strictly to the teen girl with powers angle. It’s obviously a much smaller scale leaving no room for big name stars or special effects. Myers made her debut here, and while her amateur nature is evident she does a good job delivering the detached coldness growing between her and her family. Remove the telekinetic violence and you have a misunderstand teen rebelling against the world around her — but with the TK shenanigans you have this week’s entry in 4:3 & Forgotten. (That’s the column you’re reading. Thank you.)

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.