Out one night with his basketball buddies, successful lawyer Jeff Mills (Tim Daly) rescues the beautiful Miranda (Kelly Preston) from an apparently abusive boyfriend. He brings her back to his place where she miraculously heals his injuries and a steamy night ensues. Love blossoms between the hitherto luckless pair. Miranda quickly moves in with Jeff and wins over his lawyer friends, including the stalwart Derek (Rick Rossovich), with her amazing fortune-telling abilities although his protective secretary Grace (Diana Bellamy) proves more suspicious. Sure enough, Jeff finds himself stalked by beady-eyed strangers, hears creepy voices muttering on his answer-machine, and sees his car magically levitate into the air. He is then visited by the formidable Mrs. White (Audra Lindley) who cryptically croaks: “We want her back.” It transpires Miranda is a witch and on the run from a Satanic coven responsible for a string of murders across L.A. Now they want her for a human sacrifice.
Rumours persist the reason Spellbinder remains among the more obscure Eighties horror films is because star Kelly Preston and her famous husband John Travolta have suppressed its home video release, supposedly offended by seeming allusions drawn between witchcraft and Scientology. Whether there is any truth to the story or if it is simply symptomatic of a certain paranoid attitude towards Scientology, there is at least one instance where the film draws an explicit parallel when Miranda casually mentions the cult routinely claims a hefty percentage of members earnings and property. Otherwise any resemblance is either coincidental or simply too outlandish to work successfully as satire. For real Scientology-baiting check out the doomsday cult in Bless the Child (2000).
More or less Fatal Attraction (1987) with a witch, Spellbinder is nonetheless intriguingly low-key for an Eighties high concept piece. Forgoing the forced MTV flashiness that routinely punctures promising premises in films from this period, Janet Greek - a TV regular (Melrose Place, Babylon 5) whose other notable feature was the rape revenge thriller The Ladies Club (1986) - deftly develops the script’s central idea. Written by Tracy Tormé, who wrote the UFO drama Fire in the Sky (1993) and contributed scripts for Star Trek: The Next Generation, Sliders, and Carnivàle, the film is admittedly talky and slow and hindered by instances of sheer silliness such as Jeff’s impromptu battle with one karate kicking witch and a cheesy bit of foreshadowing when one survivalist client (M.C. Gainey) casually mentions he owns a reinforced bunker, in case, you know, Jeff ever has need of it. Crazy survivalist types were stock Eighties characters, later memorably spoofed in the marvellous Tremors (1990). Most films would have staged the bunker siege as a big f/x set-piece, but this evidently lacked the budget and repeatedly finds characters arriving at the aftermath of some show of supernatural strength.
However, at its best Spellbinder exudes a winningly subdued, almost Val Lewton-esque aura of supernatural unease, including sequences involving Jeff stalked through a bookstore by invisible muttering voices or confronted by a ghastly row of ghoulish faces pressed against his living room window. It also does a fine job maintaining the ambiguity of whether Miranda is femme fatale or damsel in distress, neatly turning a number of Eighties erotic thriller clichés (as well as the plastic presence of Rick Rossovitch) on their head. Tim Daly essays a more compelling yuppie in peril than was the norm and Kelly Preston makes an exceptionally alluring witch. Preston never quite became a big league star, but her charismatic performances throughout these early roles earned her a devoted fan following and she arguably remains a compelling screen presence to this day. Fans will no doubt delight in her steamy love scenes and her naked dance in a diaphanous gown - sort of The Wicker Man meets Stevie Nicks.