Cast A Deadly Spell
Cast A Deadly Spell is just the right balance of supernatural strangeness and detective thrills, set in a world just different enough from ours yet strangely familiar.
When I was in College, I was privileged enough to take a Mystery Fiction course where we discussed the history of the genre and read several novels from various time periods ranging from the Pulps to more modern fare. I was always fascinated by the mystery and was familiar with Dame Agatha Christie and A.C. Doyle but my tastes at the time were heavily in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Doubtless I would have gone on to discover the wide breadth of Mystery novels in due time but this course allowed me to immerse myself into a genre that was wholly fascinating and unknown to me and I really got into the Pulp Mysteries, especially the works of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. These two pioneers of the form created (or at least popularized) the Hard-Boiled Detective - a street-level gumshoe who utilized violence and a little sex to solve crimes and catch the bad guy. The style and the form really appealed to me and I spent some time acquainting myself with the Hard-Boiled genre, reading everything from Micky Spillaine to Richard Stark (the great Donald E. Westlake). Of course, the Pulps weren’t limited to just the Hard-Boiled Detectives; they were also a launching ground for some fine works of weird tales and evocative horror stories, including the works of Conan the Barbarian’s creator Robert E. Howard and the cosmic terror of one of my all-time favorites, Howard Philips Lovecraft.
With the popularity Lovecraft’s work has attained over the past 30 years, there have been many, many collections of stories written within his bizarre world including some fine mystery tales; for example, Shadows Over Baker Street, where some top names in Mystery and Horror have placed the one and only Sherlock Holmes against the mad creations of H.P. Lovecraft, totally within the Sherlockian Canon (indeed, the book was even authorized by the Doyle Estate). However, in film, Lovecraft’s work has not always received the best care. A few years ago, I purchased a book called Lurker in the Lobby by Andrew Migliore which lays out a ton of movies, television programs and short films all dealing with (or parodying or an homage to) the works of HPL. It was while I was flipping through the book that I ran across a film I had never heard of before called Cast A Deadly Spell which not only was a loving homage to H.P. Lovecraft but also supposedly a tribute to Raymond Chandler as well! Of course, I immediately set out to find a copy of this film which combined two of my greatest loves… which turned out to be a nightmare 5 years in the making. Apparently, even though it’s listed as a major film in the guide, it turns out Cast A Deadly Spell was an HBO movie which they showed one time in 1991 and has been buried ever since. Oh, sure, people will tell you all about it on the internet but actually finding a copy to view is like finding bigfoot: not going to happen. Well, given enough time and resources, along with the able assistance of Mexomorph, we did indeed finally procure a copy (bad VHS dub with like 5 minutes missing) for our viewing pleasure. Now it just remains to find out if it’s as good as it’s supposed to be.
I’ll come right out and say it up front: this film is awesome. It exceeded expectations on every level and deserves the kudos it’s accrued over time. The story begins in an alternate version of LA, where magic is used on a daily basis and all kinds of mythical beings like unicorns and werewolves are a regular part of life. Hard-Boiled gumshoe H. Philip Lovecraft (the outstanding Fred Ward), who does not use magic, is summoned to the house of Amos Hackshaw (ultra-baddie David Warner) who has an interesting problem: a certain book was stolen from his house and he needs it back post-haste, hence the need for a reliable and discreet detective the likes of Mr. Lovecraft. Fred Ward is brilliant as the cynical private eye who believes magic is another way of bilking the public and he stolidly moves forward in his investigation with the same single-minded doggedness as Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Along the way, he runs afoul of his former cop partner turned gangster Clancy Brown and his former love interest, the stunning Julianne Moore, who are now hooked up and begins to realize something funny is going on and that this book, the Necronomicon, is something more than an average book. Turns out he’s right; Mr. Hackshaw is attempting to open a portal to let the Great Old Ones back into our universe and is willing to sacrifice his virgin daughter to make his evil plan come to fruition! Can H. Philip Lovecraft put the pieces together and stop Hackshaw and his associates from destroying the world in their lust for power?
Writer Joseph Dougherty and director Martin Campbell have an obvious love for both Chandler and Lovecraft and the script makes plenty of references to both authors without overwhelming the audience or making it too overt and in-jokey. That’s not to say the film isn’t funny; indeed, there is plenty of humor threaded throughout the film and people who know more about Chandler and Lovecraft will find plenty of nods but it does not prevent the casual viewer from following the main story. The world of the 1940s is captured very well (kind of the antithesis of the brightly colored, rather garish 1990 Dick Tracy film) and the use of “magic” and otherworldly characters is used just enough to make it plausible. It’s the little touches and flourishes that make this truly a fun viewing experience, from the surprisingly well-done effects to the fun, fast script. For a “made for TV” film to have that production value and then populate that world with the likes of Julianne Moore, Clancy Brown, David Warner, Alexandra Powers, Charles Hallahan and Fred Ward is unheard of. There is something about seeing David Warner in the middle of a housing development, intoning the chants that will allow Cthulhu to enter our realm that is so awesome I cannot describe it. Clancy Brown is just as devious and despicable as you’d hope, Julianne Moore as attractive as she’s ever been (very Jessica Rabbit) and Fred Ward is marvelous as the no-nonsense, nose to the grindstone private eye. The interactions between the characters is straight out of Chandler yet the subject matter they’re discussing is total Lovecraft! Cast A Deadly Spell is just the right balance of supernatural strangeness and detective thrills, set in a world just different enough from ours yet strangely familiar.
Lurker In The Lobby sums the film up with “Praise goes to Joseph Dougherty’s script which really catches the flavor of an archetypal detective yarn. If your tastes include a story full of hard detectives, soft dames, and Lovecraftian demons, Cast A Deadly Spell is well worth a viewing” and that’s as good a way of saying “this film is excellent” as any. Everything from the setting to the first-rate cast to the fun script, mashed together in this Chandler-esque Lovecraftian world just works. Fred Ward is a joy to watch, as we all know from those films where he beat up all the giant underground worms, and allowing him to play off the likes of Sgt. Zim Clancy Brown and Sark David Warner really produces some fine television. The only problem now is finding a copy. I have seen DVDs for sale on the internet but they seem to be converted from VHS, reminiscent of the Night of the Creeps I got a few years before Sony Pictures finally decided to put it out. I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m just saying HBO (or whomever owns the rights now) needs to wake up and release this ‘hidden gem’ on a more mass-market level. However you can get it, Cast A Deadly Spell is a dandy little gem of a movie that provides all the hard-boiled thrills and nuances, wraps it up in a world of magic and fantasy, heaps on tons of Cthulhu Mythos flavoring and then turns Fred Ward loose on it as a gumeshoe named H. Philip Lovecraft. Who could ask anything more out of a film? Totally Worth Watching.