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COLLECTING VHS: Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)

Not that long ago the video store was a mundane and sometimes obnoxious part of life; driving over to some lonesome strip mall with your friends or family to comb through the all-too-often disorganized shelves of your local shop, argue over a selection, and then be stuck with it, for good or ill. Yet, it was also sublime. And for those who lived during the true video boom, video stores also equate to another bygone commodity: VHS. When JVC’s Video Home System won the early-80’s format warthe motion picture market changed forever. The genre and B-movies that had previously filled drive-ins across the country now often went straight to VHS. Then DVD took the world by storm in the late-90’s. It was a brave new world, and sadly, many films never made the leap, trapped now on a dead format. These often aren’t “good” films, but goddammit, they were what made video stores great. For we here at CHUD are the kind of people who tended to skip over the main stream titles, our eyes settling on some bizarre, tantalizing cover for a film we’d never even heard of, entranced. These films are what VHS was all about.

Some people are still keeping the VHS flame burning. People like me, whose Facebook page Collecting VHS is a showcase for the lost charms of VHS box artwork. With this column it is my intention to highlight these “lost” films and the only rule I have for myself is that they cannot be available on DVD. 

Title: Cast a Deadly Spell
Year:
 1991
Genre:
 Film-noir/Supernatural Horror/Comedy
Tagline:
 The comedy detective thriller with very special effects. 
Released by:
 HBO Video
Director:
 Martin Campbell

click to embiggen

Plot: It is 1948 Los Angeles and everyone uses magic. Everyone except hard-boiled private eye H. Phillip Lovecraft (Fred Ward), who refuses to for “personal reasons.” He’s hired by the mysterious old millionaire Amos Hackshaw (David Warner) to recover a stolen book, the Necronomicon. His investigation leads him to the realization that the book is the key to world domination by releasing the “Old Ones” upon our realm.

Thoughts: The beautiful thing about being a VHS collector is that sometimes you’ll discover something long forgotten that’s just so ultra-geek cool, you feel as if you’ve uncovered an amazing piece of rare nerd-archeology that makes you want to scream and shout to the world around you to look up and take notice of its significance!

That’s how I feel about this week’s review, Cast a Deadly Spell, which I first came upon through a friend of mine who lent me his video copy after we had a long discussion on how much we both loved the acting work of the ridiculously underrated Fred Ward. He told me of this made-for-HBO movie from the early 90’s I had never seen or heard of, that’s a noir-horror hybrid with Ward as the lead. Intrigued, I took it home and watched it that night, falling immediately in love. I must’ve watched it at least three more times before giving it back to my friend, turning as many people on to it as I could while it was in my possession.

From that point on, I was a man on a mission to find myself a copy of it in good condition on VHS, which of course is the only home video format that this mini-masterpiece has ever been available on. It was a hard one to track down let me tell you. I naturally searched for it online first, but the few copies that I found available were always for outrageous amounts of money, which I was actually considering paying for a while. Then my friend Julia took me on a video shop raid in the Northern Valley and after searching through one dusty box of videos after another for hours and hours, I unearthed a gorgeous ex-rental copy of it for only two bucks. I had found my Holy Grail! Well, one of ’em anyway.

The film takes place in a fantastical vision of a 40’s era Los Angeles where every citizen uses magic to perform everything from the simplest to most complex tasks. It’s a world filled with voodoo curses, vampire prostitutes, werewolves that get picked up by the police on full moon nights, children that use magic to cause vandalism, gremlins brought over from WWII that screw up the engines of automobiles and zombies that are used for cheap labor on home construction in Santa Monica. There’s always someone performing some kind of magical act in the background of this movie, making it perfect for repeat viewings to catch what you missed the first time.

Fred Ward plays private detective H. Phillip Lovecraft, a hard-boiled gumshoe who refuses to go with the times and abstains from the usage of the occult. He prefers to rely on his natural instincts as an ex-cop, as well as having other more “personal reasons” for his dislike of magic. Lovecraft’s hired by a mysterious rich man named Amos Hackshaw (David Warner) to recover a stolen book on “esoteric magic” for him. The book is called the Necronomicon. He also wants Ward to keep his private “eye” on his uber-horny sixteen-year-old virgin daughter Olivia (played by the sultry Alexandra Powers), who enjoys hunting Unicorns (!) in her spare time.

Unfortunately, the ruthless mob boss Harry Bordon (Clancy Brown), who practices the dark arts to keep his gangster empire on top, is also after the book. Bordon’s assisted by a sadistic little killer named Mr. Tugwell (brilliantly performed by Raymond O’Connor), who’s like a Joe Pesci-type of psycho-thug, only with the powers of an evil wizard. He employs various spells to dispatch his victims in a variety of creative ways that include: a man being sliced to ribbons by a tornado of newspaper and a short order cook who’s eaten by a monster that crawls out of a pot of chili in a greasy spoon diner. There’s some great 80’s gore and prosthetic monster effects throughout this movie that are executed beautifully by both Alterian Studios and 4-Ward Productions on what appears to be a limited budget.

Lovecraft eventually unravels the mystery and learns that Hackshaw intends on providing his own daughter Olivia as a virgin sacrifice in a ceremony in which he’ll use the recovered Necronomicon as a key to return a group of exiled monster-gods called the “Old Ones” onto our realm. They will then destroy our world, plunging it into darkness, so that they can rule it once again since their millennium long banishment. That’s right, the old Cthulhu itself is on the way and it’s bringing The One That Is Not Named with it! Writer Joseph Dougherty fills his sharply written script with tons of references to H.P. Lovecraft’s writing, as well as some spot-on dialogue from the detective genre.

I can’t state enough how awesome this movie is! It’s good enough to have been released theatrically and why it wasn’t is a mystery to me. Especially when you consider that Gale Anne Hurd, who was just coming off the success of The Terminator and Aliens at the time, produced it. The film is also the first full-length feature from big-time Hollywood director Martin Campbell (Goldeneye, Casino Royale, Green Lantern), who was doing a lot of television work previous to this. The cast is nothing to sneeze at either. In addition to Ward who’s typically awesome, there’s David Warner, Clancy Brown and a very young, ravishing Julianne Moore in one of her first film roles as the femme fatale nightclub torch singer, Connie Stone.

So, there’s a small minority of fans out there that either saw this film during its initial run on HBO or rented it from their local video retailer during the brief period of time it was made available to the mass public. If there was ever a genre film that truly needed to not only be rediscovered, but also to be just plain discovered by the geek masses, then this is that film. I would love to get a digitally remastered widescreen version of this thing someday on either DVD or Blu-ray, just so I can see the incredible cinematography of Alexander Gruszynski a little bit clearer. Not that the visuals don’t already look fantastic on analog, but to get a 1080p looksee would definitely be magical.

Abracadabra! (Poof.)

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