Cult Cinema: Cast a Deadly Spell

Chris Jordan reviews cult film Cast a Deadly Spell.
When I recently wrote my Un-Unfilmable article about film adaptations of H. P. Lovecraft, there was one movie that I really, really wanted to rave about, but it just didn't fit into the theme. Not an adaptation of Lovecraft, but a crazy, snarky, genre-mash-up homage, this film is a hugely entertaining and original should-be-cult-classic from the late-'80s/early-'90s era that produced a whole lot of cult classics. It belongs on lists with Fright Night, Night of the Creeps, Return of the Living Dead, and Army of Darkness, but aside from serious cult film buffs and people who watched a lot of HBO in the early-90s, I would guess that most people haven't even heard of it. Long out-of-print since the days of VHS and Laserdisc, it is way past time for this awesome film to be rediscovered and appreciated. From producer Gale Anne Hurd (Aliens, Terminator 2, The Walking Dead) and director Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, Casino Royale), starring Fred Ward, Clancy Brown, David Warner, and Julianne Moore in one of her first starring roles, comes the Lovecraftian-noir dark comedy, Cast a Deadly Spell.

An homage with a sense of humor that manages to stop just short of satire, the HBO-produced Cast a Deadly Spell mashes up literary tropes of H. P. Lovecraft and Raymond Chandler, and creates a very unique and strangely believable world in the process. The film is set in a sort of parallel-universe 1940s Hollywood in which everyone uses magic, for things as simple as lighting cigarettes with fire from their fingertips, or as nasty as mob hits done with voodoo dolls. Gangsters have zombie bodyguards, the cops find themselves arresting werewolves every full moon, and everybody in the city's criminal underworld seems to be after a stolen book called the Necronomicon. Which is exactly why hard-boiled private eye Philip Lovecraft (Fred Ward) is determined to find the book first.
What is most impressive about Cast a Deadly Spell is how well-developed its world feels: the script works magic into the everyday activities of Hollywood life in such casual, matter-of-fact ways that from the very first scene you immediately buy into its reality. The key to this is that magic isn't portrayed as some wonderful, fantastical thing in the film's world; it has been there for long enough that everyone takes it for granted and primarily uses it for easy shortcuts, the way we think of wi-fi or delivery food. Like any good private eye, Phil Lovecraft just rolls his eyes and treats it all with a jaded cynicism. The other key aspect of the movie's world is the film-noir atmosphere, which is crafted perfectly. Deep shadows, moody period sets filled with cigarette smoke, stylized color-tinted lighting that accentuates the pulp-magazine art design... it hits all the right visual notes, with just the cool attitude it needs.

And then there's the script by Joseph Dougherty, with its perfect ear for hard-boiled noir dialogue. Everybody talks in cool, snappy, vintage one-liners that sound straight out of a Chandler or Hammett novel, or a movie with Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum. But crucially, the script knows how over-the-top and borderline-camp that dialogue is, and the whole thing is laced with just enough genre-skewering sarcasm to make it work in a modern movie. It doesn't go so far as to parody of film-noir dialogue, but it isn't quite serious either; more Brick in intent than Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, if you will. Of course, dialogue like this only works if the actors can handle it well, and walk that fine line between homage and satire while always playing it straight. Deadly Spell's excellent cast is right on, working well with time-honored character archetypes of the detective genre.
The supernatural elements of the story are written equally well, with just as much familiarity with the material from which they originate. While there are tropes from all over classic horror cinema and literature, that aspect of the film is first and foremost an homage to H. P. Lovecraft, and a very knowledgeable one at that. There are loads of references to his stories, and a whole lot is directly pulled from his mythology, right down to the language used in the Necronomicon's passages related to the Great Old Ones. In a script that clearly takes itself with a grain of salt, the Cthulhu Mythos elements are what give the story dramatic weight as horror.

However, as highly as I may speak of the film for all these reasons, it isn't without some flaws. While the script is very well-written in terms of how it interacts with its root genres, the story itself has some weak points. As a mystery, all the plot threads don't quite come together in as satisfying a way as they perhaps could, and the resolutions of certain threads aren't as strong as the set-ups. Narratively it doesn't quite manage to live up to the noir classics that it pays tribute to, but that doesn't stop it from being a great time along the way. The film also has a pretty low budget, and occasionally it really shows – especially in the horror elements. While it easily creates great film-noir atmosphere that looks a lot more expensive than it probably was, it suffers from some very cheesy low-budget creature effects; particularly in the case of one major monster that looks approximately Power Rangers quality. Effects like that can sometimes pull the viewer out of the story, and they really haven't aged well, but generally it's pretty forgivable; just remember that these are the visual effects of an early HBO original movie with a budget of just $6 million.

Even with the budgetary problems and occasional narrative weak-points, Cast a Deadly Spell is a seriously entertaining film, with a refreshingly original and clever take on the genre-mash-up concept. It's a great homage to classic film-noir, a great homage to H. P. Lovecraft's writing, and those two elements manage to enhance each other in very cool ways. What a shame that it has been allowed to fade into out-of-print obscurity like this. That HBO never released the film on DVD is baffling; by now we should have a special edition blu-ray by a company like Scream Factory. Given that it was made for TV, I have no idea if a widescreen version exists, or if 4x3 is its intended aspect ratio, but it certainly was shot on 35mm film, so we should be able to at least get a remastered upgrade from the laserdisc transfer that's the best currently available. Still, great long-lost films like this are the reason why it's essential for cult film fans to keep a VCR around, or a laserdisc player if you are lucky enough to have one. In whatever format you're able to find it, Cast a Deadly Spell is definitely worth digging up.

7/10 - Christopher S. Jordan