6. Cast a Deadly Spell

Schlocktoberfest #6: Cast a Deadly Spell

I’ve wanted to see this made-for-HBO movie, starring Fred Ward as private eye H.P. Lovecraft in a witchcraft-friendly Hollywood, for many years. The lackluster sequel, Witch Hunt, starring Dennis Hopper, was forgettable but fans insisted this first entry was worth seeing if you’re a Lovecraft fan. So I persisted, and found a copy. It’s tongue in cheek at times but it has to be, and while H.P.L. may have found humor an unwholesome entertainment for the lower peoples, a dash of it in his universe makes for an amusing and compelling diversion.
Guns and gargoyles do mix.

Cast a Deadly Spell is directed by Martin Campbell, who has since gone on to make the two best Bond films of recent note- Casino Royale and Goldeneye. It mixes two pastiches, that of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, where sleaze and crime lurk beneath the glittery surface of the rich and famous, and Lovecraft’s world of dark magics and hideous unearthly creatures clawing their way into our own. Fred Ward plays gumshoe Howard Philip Lovecraft, sent to seek the stolen Necronomicon, a legendary book of dark sorcery. He’s the only guy in town who doesn’t use magic, and while this disadvantages him in some ways, it gives him an integrity that no one can match. He won’t screw you over for a bit of knowledge of the black arts.

HPL and a rich doll

Magic pervades every corner of life- the rich have zombies as backup heavies, but they are the original zombies of voodoo, not the brain-eating kind. World War II was won, but we brought back gremlin pests from Japan that get into machines and mess things up. Ward’s HPL is your typical noir-style private dick, with his code, gruff demeanor, and acerbic commentary. He gets hired by Amos Hackshaw (David Warner, the evil genius from Time Bandits), an old-money magician who lost the Necronomicon and needs it back. His daughter is out hunting unicorns, and one runs across the road as Phil drives by; at first it feels like a throwaway to show us the magical world the story is set in, but the plot is pretty tight, without such indulgences.

Ebony and Ivory, go together in perfect harmony…

We’ve already seen Tugwell (Raymond O’Connor, My Blue Heaven)- a sawed-off warlock in a white suit, with a huge black zombie thug in tow- put a hex on a doughy slob while looking for the Necronomicon. He’s a blase’ killer with a lot of tricks up his sleeve, blasting the guy out of the crapper stall with a fireball, and then giving him the dirt nap with a whirlwind of paper. The death of a thousand cuts indeed. He’s working for nightclub owner Harry Bordon (Clancy Brown, Highlander, The Shawshank Redemption) another magic maven looking for the book. The film succeeds by magic its magic dark and brutal. Once “Phil” is on the case, Tugwell tries to whack him in a diner as he breakfasts with Hackshaw’s hot bimbo daughter Olivia (Alexandra Powers, Mask). This time he summons a demon that claws its way out of a bubbling stovepot, a skeletal horror that goes through the cook like a buzzsaw. Droll old Phil just clocks it with a frying pan and locks it in the freezer.

Sticking with the noir formula, the cops- represented by hardboiled Detective Bradbury- don’t like how Phil works, because people get caught in the crossfire. The story avoids the usual cliches, and Bradbury wants to help Phil if only to keep the body count down. Phil also has his landlady Hypolite, a voodoo witch on his side. She sees vile portents in the air, and gives him a protective charm against his will before high-tailing it to Florida, to avoid the bad ju-ju the Old Ones are gonna bring down on L.A. As he weaves his way through the deceits and tracks the Necronomicon, he gets on the tail of a “gal” named Lil- a drag queen played by Lee Tergesen (Point Break). With the Hayes Code long gone, Chandler’s sleazy L.A. can be represented as he intended.

Big ol’ Clancy and his half-pint henchman.

Phil’s dialogue is sharp and noir-inflected- while not being as great as Chandler or Hammett’s, it’s not overwrought and clumsy like in Brick (which I liked, actually, it just grates with repetitive patter). Clancy Brown always shines in a villain role, and this has shines of his later performance in “Carnivale” as Brother Justin. This time he wants the Necronomicon to unleash the Old Ones- Yog-Sothoth, Shub-Niggurath and the like- to rule the world and gain immortality. He and Phil have bad blood between them, one went for magic and the other stayed pure; they also have a history with the same girl, nightclub singer Connie Stone (Julianne Moore, hot as ever).

Every noir needs a nightclub singer.

The film has plenty of creepy-crawlies to entertain us- a stony gargoyle who likes to gore people, bloodthirsty demons, and even cute little gremlins like to gnaw on wires and the occasional kneecap. It has its Cthulhu mythology down pat, though we mostly get to see generic stuff like the gargoyles, zombies, and some vampires and werewolves locked up in the police station. For ’91 the effects are pretty good, and excellent for a cable TV movie. The big payoff is of course at the end, when the gates are opened to the Old Gods. The beast looks great, a hulking mass of tentacles and a trunk-like mouth- sort of like a gigantic star-nosed mole with a taste for swallowing people whole. The twist is worth a good chuckle without ruining the tone, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s better than Witch Hunt, and worth hunting down if you like Lovecraft. Purists might scoff and prefer the excellent adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu, but this is really good fun, especially for noir fans.

2 thoughts on “6. Cast a Deadly Spell

  1. Every time I read the name “Fred Ward” I picture Fred Willard. It comes up more often than you’d think. Imagine Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins starring Fred Willard; go ahead, I dare you!

  2. You’re a madman!! 31 comments, that was hilarious to wake up to.And thanks, now I will think of Joel Gray saying “Yuo move like pregant yak!” and hearing Fred Willard say “how does a pregnant yak move exactly? Does it have a maternity dress on?”

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