The Film: Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)
The Principals: Fred Ward, Julianne Moore, Clancy Brown, David Warner, Charles Hallahan. Written by Joseph Dougherty. Produced by Gale Anne Hurd. Directed by Martin Campbell.
The Premise: Our setting is the classic hard-boiled 1940’s of Hammett and Chandler, full of scruffy private eyes, untrustworthy dames, dubious rich men, and sharp-tongued noirish banter… plus magic and monsters. Our hero is a charmingly loutish ex-cop turned private investigator named Harry Phillip Lovecraft (Fred Ward), who gets hired by the wealthy Amos Hackshaw (David Warner) to recover a special book of dangerous black magic for him, the Necronomicon. Following the clues strewn about town, Lovecraft stumbles back into the life of an ex-flame, Connie Stone (Julianne Moore), who has taken up with Lovecraft’s ex-partner turned nightclub gangster, Harry Bordon (Clancy Brown), who is also after the book. It becomes apparent very quickly that Lovecraft has stepped in something much bigger than he expected, something that just may involve conjuring some world-enslaving “Old Ones.”
Is It Good: Short answer — yes. It’s flawed but too much fun to get cross with.
Cast a Deadly Spell strikes me as one of those movies that you’ve either seen (and probably remember fondly), or have no clue it even exists. Generally if you bring it up in conversation, even with other genre film fans, most will say, “How have I never heard of this?!?!” Directed by Martin Campbell. Produced by Gale Anne Heard. Just right there it is at least semi-noteworthy. Then toss in a pre-fame Julianne Moore and the fanboy wet dream trio of Fred Ward, Clancy Brown and David Warner? Plus a story that’s balls deep in the Cthulhu Mythos? And it’s a period piece private eye movie?! Conceptually this film is geek Viagra; the off-brand kind you’d buy in Mexico that gives you a four-hour-plus erection. Best of all, it delivers.
Though I suppose that delivery depends on what your expectations are. The movie is tongue-in-cheek, somewhat to a fault. I mean, our hero’s name is H.P. Lovecraft for fucksake. That is so on the nose I had a hard time not rolling my eyes every time the name is said. And it doesn’t stop there. The police chief’s name is Bradbury. Clancy Brown’s nightclub is the Dunwich Room. Not to mention that we’re not dealing with a “Lovecraftian” story. It is Lovecraft. Cthulhu and the Old Ones are involved. But if you can get into all this, or at least get past it, the movie is rather sublime in its high-concept bravado.
Magic noir is just a great mash-up concept — at least it hits me right in my G(eek)-spot. And Campbell and writer Joseph Dougherty find a sweet harmony with the serious and the silly. The magic itself is played just right. Movies like this can often forget that the best moments – as far as world painting is concerned – are the mundane ones. Lovecraft doesn’t use magic, and in his first scene he gives a friend a cigarette. When the guy makes a small flame appear nonchalantly in his hand to light his cigarette, Lovecraft ask, “You too, huh?” And the guy responds, “Not all of the time.” It’s a minor moment, but it gives a plausibility to the idea that magic is part of everyday life in this world. But Campbell also knows when to treat the magic seriously. The best example is the film’s first big set piece, in which Harry Bordon’s right hand goon Tugwell (Raymond O’Connor) commits a hit in a public bathroom using magic — a death-by-paper-cut hit that is far more gruesome than it sounds. The scene is creepy and cool, and scenes like this help the film never stray into goofy camp (despite a scene in which Ward kicks a gargoyle in the nuts). The private eye aspect of the story is also treated with even measures. Ultimately the mystery isn’t a particularly huge factor in the film and narratively it sputters out towards the end, but like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? the Hammett/Chandler riffs are done with as much genuine homage as they are parody.
But, of course, twenty years after the fact (this was an HBO movie), it is undeniable that the main selling point of the film is its bitchin’ cast. I don’t need to tell anyone who reads CHUD why Fred Ward, Clancy Brown and David Warner are amazing. Them together – and they do all appear on camera at the same time – is as wonderful as it sounds. Especially when it involves Old Ones and the Necronomicon. Julianne Moore is the real novelty here, as this was one of her first feature film leads, and it’s fun to see her so young, vamping it up noir-style; she does a bang-up job. The film also features The Thing‘s Charles Hallahan and Oz‘s Lee Tergesen giving amusing turns. For me though the surprise scene stealers are Clancy Brown’s enforcers, Raymond O’Connor as Tugwell and the massive Jaime Cardriche as the Zombie. I watched Cast a Deadly Spell when it premiered on HBO in 1991 and always assumed O’Connor a) was someone of note like the other males in the cast, and b) would continue to be. I was quite surprised when I later discovered he didn’t have many noteworthy credits beforehand, and has mostly done TV guest spots since. O’Connor is great, his smallness part of his odd menace, like an Irish Joe Pesci. And Jamie Cardriche just looks badass, a giant mute fat bald black guy with ghost-white eyes; very iconic. For years these two were actually what I remembered most about the film, well above Ward, Brown and Warner.
Is It Worth A Look: If you can find it, definitely. It’s not a movie I’d recommend to everyone, but anyone reading this site is squarely in its demo. The cast plus the Cthulhu Mythos makes it a memorable novelty if nothing else.
Random Anecdote: Poor Fred Ward. First Remo Williams, then Miami Blues, then this. Dude just can’t get a franchise going without graboids and Kevin Bacon involved. Yet HBO actually made a sequel to Cast a Deadly Spell called Witch Hunt. Why Ward wasn’t involved, I don’t know, but Gale Anne Heard again produced and Joseph Dougherty again wrote. Campbell didn’t return either so they got some guy named Paul Schrader to direct it, and some other dude name Dennis Hopper to replace Ward. Anybody heard of these noobs?
Maybe I’ll have to do Witch Hunt for a future MOD.