First aired on the NBC network on 20 February 1977, The Spell was a TV movie that was clearly inspired by the rash of supernatural horror films that were popular at the time, most notably Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of the Stephen King novel Carrie. Written by Brian Taggert (Visiting Hours) and directed by Lee Phillips, a television veteran with a number of telemovies under his belt as well as a slew of episodic TV shows like The Partridge Family, Kung Fu, The Rookies, The Waltons, M*A*S*H and many others, The Spell starred Susan Myers as Rita, the overweight and unpopular teenager who uses her psychic powers to get back at her enemies – both real and perceived – such as the high school classmates who mercilessly taunt and tease her. Headlining the cast of The Spell was Lee Grant, who is great in her role as Rita’s mother, while Helen Hunt made one of her early film appearances playing Rita’s sister Kristina.
With The Spell finally making its hi-definition debut thanks to a new Blu-ray release from the folks at Scream Factory, I decided to take the opportunity to sit down and talk about the film with Marneen Fields, who worked on the movie as both an actress and stuntwoman, and as such got to observe the making of the film from two different perspectives. As an actress, Marneen appears in The Spell as one of the clique of good-looking high school girls whom we meet in the opening sequence, teasing poor Rita and imitating her with exaggerated “fat girl” walks. Moving into the school gym, the tormenting of Rita continues, culminating in her using her psychic powers to cause one of the girls to fall to her death while climbing a rope and performing a gymnastic twirl from it. A Class One advanced all-round gymnast, Marneen’s skills were called upon to perform this stunt.
|Marneen Fields (on the left) as one of the mean pretty girls in The Spell.|
Marneen, I believe The Spell was one of the first films that you worked on. Can you tell us briefly about how you wound up in Hollywood, and how you specifically landed the job on The Spell?
I was initially brought in to audition for The Spell purely to be a stunt performer. During the opening scene of the film, set in the high school gym, the girls mercilessly tease Rita because she is unable to hoist herself up the rope suspended from the ceiling. My job was to perform the backward high fall from the top of the rope while doubling one of the other mean girls who, while at the top of the rope performing some dizzying aerial acrobatic swirls loses her grip and plummets to the hard gym floor in front of her horrified classmates. Rita looks on unemotionally, her supernatural powers obviously having caused the tragedy. I had been asked over the phone, “Can you climb a rope without using your legs and fall backwards from the top of a rope?” "Yes, I can do it." I said. I was hired on the spot, over the phone to perform the dangerous backwards fall from the top of the rope, and given my call time and directions for another audition they wanted me for.
When I stepped inside the gymnasium where the audition was taking place I saw there were two ropes dangling from the ceiling at the far end. I watched as a procession of girls tried and failed to climb the ropes without the aid of their legs. I heard Eddie Foy III, the casting director, call out, "Is there anyone here who can climb the rope without their legs?" Then I heard him say, "Stunt coordinator Paul Stader has sent over a Marneen Fields to do this. Is Marneen Fields in the room?" I could barely hear him being at the end of the long line of girls, and only heard what he said because other girls turned around and repeated what he said to those of us at the end of the line. I heard my name being called out loud, and I realized Eddie was calling me to come down to the ropes. "Are you Marneen Fields?" "Yes, I am." "Can you climb the rope without your legs?" "Yes, I can." "Show me, climb the rope without your legs." I climbed the rope without my legs and he said, "Good." Eddie then handed me a page of the script with some lines of dialogue on it and told me to learn the following lines and wait off to the side with a group of about twenty-five other girls. He wanted me to read for the role of one of the mean girls that taunts Rita and provokes her to cast the first spell, the backward high fall from the top of the rope.
About an hour went by, then Eddie came and got me and took me into another area to read for him. After I read for him he told me that I was cast in the role of one of mischievous schoolmates. She was one of the leaders of the clique that would continually taunt and make fun of poor Rita. He told me I‘d be climbing the rope without my legs in the scene, and that I'd change wardrobe and also perform the backward high fall from the rope doubling the aerial acrobat as well.
My first job in the film industry and not only was I getting to show off my gymnastic skills and perform an impressive stunt, but I'd also be appearing on-screen in an acting role as well! I was twenty-one at the time and could still easily pass as a teenager, and I'd been minoring in Theater Arts in college at Utah State University so I was I was thrilled I landed the acting role too. Like the other actresses playing my classmates, I was given a form-fitting leotard to slide myself into (while most of the other girls were given brightly colored leotards to wear, mine was two shades of dark brown one being a stripe up the side, which helped me stand out from the pack).
Unfortunately, while my lines of dialogue, one of which was, “Who’d want to take out that tubbo?" can be heard in the film, they were featured with my character off-screen while the camera was on Rita. The audience doesn't get to see my character speak, you only hear my voice, and Rita's reaction to what I'm saying, but I'm on camera the rest of the time in the scene acting and laughing and making mischief. Aside from the gymnasium scene, I also appeared on screen a couple of more times during the movie. During the opening credits, I can be seen crossing the school grounds and doing a funny lumbering walk in mock imitation of Rita being fat, while later in the film I am playing a game of volleyball with the other girls.
It’s interesting that right from the start you were doing both acting and stunt work, which must have been a pretty unique situation to be in. Did you feel that this separated you somewhat from the other stunt performers who were around at the time, most of whom probably had little interest in branching out into acting?
I had aspirations to act before I became a Hollywood stunt woman minoring in Theater Arts at Utah State University. I don’t know how many stunt people also had desires to act, not many of my stunt friends wanted to act as badly as I did. In fact, almost from the moment I started doing stunts, I wanted to stop doing stunts and only focus on my goals to become a famous actress. While training at Paul Stader’s Stunt School, my favorite part of the training was when his wife, Marilyn Stader would pull me aside and coach me in how to sell a high fall by screaming, and tell me secrets like how important it was to study the actresses I’d be doubling to learn how they walk, gesture, and move. By the time I started studying acting with celebrity acting coachesVi ctor French (Highway to Heaven and Little House on the Prairie) and Jeff Corey (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), there was no turning back, I only wanted to act.
The Spell also allowed you to get your SAG card thanks to a special clause they have in their eligibility criteria. Can you tell us a little about that?
Looking back, The Spell may not have been one of the biggest or best films that I was lucky enough to work on, but it was certainly one of the most important. It set the template for my future career as an actress, stuntwoman and stunt-actress. It enabled me to display a range of my talents, and it paved the way for me to join the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). I got into the guild on the Taft Hartley Law which stated that no young woman in the guild at the time of the filming of The Spell could perform the highly dangerous backwards fall from the top of the rope. I’ve retained my SAG membership proudly and kept up with it since 1976. In many ways, it was the luckiest day of my career. I’d have probably ended up with a career like Meryl Streep’s if every day had been so lucky and fruitful. A career like hers wasn’t meant to be for me, but my being cast in The Spell was still a great start to an amazing and varied career in the industry. I was on my way.
What do you recall about being on set for the first time?
The main thing I recall about being on the set for the first time was how organized everything was. Everyone was brought into a waiting room and given their contracts to sign before anything else began. Then one at a time people were taken to wardrobe to get fitted for the roles they were playing for that day. When it was time for my scenes I was escorted almost single file with the other girls to stand together to hear instructions from the director of what we were supposed to do in each scene. Then were stood on our marks for lighting while waiting for the director’s cues for lighting. I worked on The Spell for a week and each day for each scene I was in was handled in the same organized and efficient way. And believe me, it’s always “Quiet on the Set.” You don’t speak or make any noises at all unless you’re told to.
|Marneen Fields stunt doubling for Doney Oatman, about to hit the floor|
with a fatal thud in The Spell.
Tell us about the main stunt you performed in the film, falling from the rope in the high school gym. How much rehearsal and preparation went into it? Did you only perform it once for the camera, or was there multiple takes?
When I landed the job on The Spell I had been a student at Paul Stader’s Stunt School for almost exactly six months. I remember this because I told myself I would give my stunt woman career six months, if I hadn’t gotten my SAG card within six months I was going to return to college at Utah State University and continue being a gymnastics coach in life. Within almost six months to the day I landed The Spell, and remained in Hollywood doing stunts and studying acting. At Paul Stader’s Stunt School I was trained in how to do backwards high falls from the rungs of ladders and platforms, but not from a swinging, hanging, dangling, slippery rope. My job was to stunt double the aerial acrobat who was doing twirls from the top of the rope with a harness, then loses her grasp and falls. She did her twirls, in a couple of takes, we brought in a small mattress pad for me to land on my back on. I climbed the rope got into the same position on the rope that she was in without the harness, spun myself around a few time, then fell backwards from the rope letting go with my hands. When falling backwards from any high surface the main thing to remember is to keep your eyes on your feet so your head is in the correct position for the landing. The body follows the head when flipping or falling and if you look back and not down at your feet you can land on your neck and break it. Being a Class One advanced all-around gymnast, I was known for getting my stunts in one take without injury. This job was no exception, the fall was executed perfectly. However, I always like to joke, “Anyone can fall backwards from a swinging, dangling, slippery, hanging rope.
Thanks to some clever editing, you effectively get to watch your own self falling to your doom in this sequence, since you play not only the victim falling from the rope but one of the girls who looks on screaming and horrified as it happens in front of them. I imagine that even in the world of movie magic that is a pretty unique thing.
Yes, that’s true. I can’t imagine it happening very often for any actor. After I perform the stunt falling from the top of the rope, my character can be seen screaming at the grisly scene unfolding in front of her. I did the fall, and then I also played the other role of one of the schoolmates witnessing the aerial acrobat falling from the top of the rope when I was the one who did the fall. The way they accomplished this is after I did my backward fall from the top of the rope, they moved the mattress pad that I had fallen into out of the scene. While they prepared for the next scene I went and changed into the other wardrobe my main character was wearing (the brown leotard), and the hairdresser re-did my real hair to match my character and not that of the aerial acrobats. The girl playing the aerial acrobat was positioned onto the hard wood floor as if she had fallen onto it. Then they brought in all the schoolmates and directed us to scream as if we’d seen her fall, and then we were told to rush over to the her body laying on the floor. Thanks to clever editing and the magic of moviemaking I was able to witness my own demise in an imaginative way.
Did you sit down to watch The Spell when it first aired on television?
At the time The Spell aired I was living in a small studio apartment in Ventura, California with three of my girlfriends, I waitressed part-time at Carrows Restaurant in Ventura, California with one of them, and taught gymnastics full time in Simi Valley, California with the other one. I remember arriving home to watch The Spell, and Connie and Penny had surprised me having my first movie premier with balloons, gifts, friends, cards, and signs. Connie’s mom even put a star on my small bathroom door.
That's a nice memory! For a long time a lot of your film work, such as The Spell and Hellhole (1985) were pretty hard to track down, especially in any kind of decent quality. How do you feel now that they are finally being made available to the world in beautiful hi-definition?
To be honest with you, I can’t help wondering why someone wasn’t more on top of getting these productions seen way before now. Sure, it’s great they’re out now, but forty years in the case of The Spell, and thirty-two years in the case of Hellhole is just bizarre.
For a showcase listing of the 150-plus productions Marneen has appeared in please visit her imdb page at: Marneen Fields IMDB.
Marneen's stunt from The Spell can be seen along with some of her other TV movie work in this terrific showcase reel, which was initially edited together by Marneen for her appearance on a TV movie panel at the 2016 Monster Fest film festival in Melbourne:
(The Spell is out now on Blu-ray from Scream Factory. Special features on the disc include an interview with screenwriter Brian Taggert and an audio commentary by Amanda Reyes, a noted authority on TV movies and editor of the 2016 Headpress book on the subject Are You in the House Alone: A TV Movie Compendium 1964-1999).