SCHLOCK TREATMENT | Spellbinder (1988) — Sam Zee

Schlock Factor: 🎷🎷🎷🎷🎷

Good horror films are fairy tales. Better ones verge on psychoanalysis. The best horror films are always rituals, lulling us into attention before unmasking the collective dream experience. Many horror films we admire because of their twists and turns, but that’s just the trick of the game. Your rabbi might call you back for service by occasionally offering dry, unleavened bread instead of challah (as my rabbi did once or twice), but that’s to encourage you to keep looking deeper, keep creeping beneath the collective dream experience.

Spellbinder is a complex psychological fairy tale. It’s not quite jarring enough to destroy the collective dream experience, but I still like it a lot, and I wondered why it took me so long to find it. It’s a mainstream MGM release starring Kelly Preston, but only a few blogs have reviewed it. One horror blog supposes that John Travolta (Preston’s later wife) disliked the idea of his wife getting nude on camera and so used his power and influence to keep the film from release. This story is what keeps Spellbinder firmly in the position of schlock: potential conspiracy theory protecting a star from embarrassment, specifically the image of her boobs on screen. If not for this, it might actually be considered an OK horror movie.

It begins with a pickup basketball game to establish its masculinity, an essential quality in the collective dream experience. Among the players is Jeff Mills, a high paid lawyer who drives a red fancy car, which is not just a car as we come to find later. Jeff is the best player on the team, and he’s also the best looking and has the admiration of everyone in his friend group. In the collective dream experience, each one of us is the star of our own movie, so we identify Jeff’s masculinity has regular but with a slight twist: he’s unhappy. He’s just blown off another boring date with another vapid woman. He’s bored, which is strange because everything we know about his presents him as the self-actualized man. He’s chiseled and chinny, and we’re perplexed as to why he’s unhappy.

But Jeff has a secret. Though it’s never stated in the film, Jeff has deep anxieties about intimacy and family life. Spellbinder is essentially a dark screwball comedy that plays a man’s desire for sex off his own fear of commitment. Jeff has no family; instead, the film gives him familiars to care about: his car, his furniture, his secretary. One by one, the love he lets into his life (Miranda, the sorceress, and her evil family) destroys each one of his familiars over lengthy sequences coinciding with the act structure. “You can’t even take a piss without us knowing about it,” Miranda’s mother tells Jeff when she shows up to his office unannounced and threatens his job security.

Spellbinder is a delightful piece of sexy trash, but I don’t think that’s the reason John Travolta wants it gone from the face of the earth. My theory is, Travolta regrets his marriage to Kelly Preston. She’s a threat to his independence and his career, and watching Spellbinder would identify him too closely with Jeff Mills.

Originally published at on December 6, 2016.

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