Melding together genres seldom works. It’s a delicate balancing act; tone is key, and when either (or both) are off the whole thing can come crashing down. By 1991, HBO was already offering up original programming and decided to create a whole new sub genre – horror noir. The result was Cast a Deadly Spell, a very entertaining and perfectly concocted mixture of 1940s detective story and supernatural terror. And when the balance is right, like it is here, the results are sublime.
Originally airing on HBO on Saturday, September 7th, CaDS was met with critical acclaim as a riotous mashup of Bogart and the Dark Arts, treating audiences to a unique blend of murder and magic.
Let’s open up our sacred book of incantations, TV GUIDE, and see what we’re in for:
CAST A DEADLY SPELL (HBO, Sept. 7th)
L.A., 1948. Private eye Harry Philip Lovecraft is hired to retrieve an ancient book in a town where everyone practices magic for their own gain – and sometimes pay for it with their life. Fred Ward, David Warner star.
In an alternate reality, Los Angeles is a city where using magic is an everyday occurrence; some use it for success, some for love, and some for revenge. An ex-cop turned P.I., Lovecraft is hired by Amos Hackshaw (David Warner – Waxwork), a mysterious man of means, to locate his latest acquisition, the book Necronomicon, stolen by his chauffeur. Hackshaw needs the book returned in two days for a “conference”. After an encounter with Hackshaw’s headstrong teenage daughter, Olivia (Alexandra Powers – Sonny Boy), Lovecraft’s trail leads him to the Dunwich Room, a nightclub run by his ex-partner on the force, Harry Bordon (Clancy Brown – Highlander), where he finds his ex flame, Connie Stone (Julianne Moore – Boogie Nights) singing torch songs. To Lovecraft’s dismay, the book has far more than sentimental value, as it may unlock a portal to another world, where smog is the least of his concerns.
So many questions come to mind after viewing Cast a Deadly Spell; for instance, why wasn’t this made into a series, instead of a belated, lesser received sequel (Witch Hunt) with Dennis Hopper replacing Ward? Or, why does this not even have a DVD release, let alone a Blu-ray? It’s bewitching to say the least. This a film that easily could have been released theatrically; with an estimated budget of $6 million, shepherded by the powerhouse production of Gale Anne Hurd (Aliens), CaDS looks terrific – the 1940s set design is gorgeous, and the practical effects are as strong as any for its time. HBO – remedy this please, and give us a physical release.
With that public service announcement out of the way, let’s move on to why CaDS deserves to be seen by a lot more people than it has, starting with the script written by Joseph Dougherty. Coming off acclaimed TV drama Thirtysomething, Dougherty is tasked with not only finding a tone that balances all of the elements, but provide viewers with colorful characters to follow the mostly incredible events. This is something he handily accomplishes; CaDS does not attempt to be grounded in any kind of reality, except that which we know from movies. This is all glamorous gangsters and ghouls; the film is keenly aware, heightened, and affectionate towards the legacy of mob movies, and is filled with wry dialogue very much in the spirit of its hard boiled forebearers:
“Magic is the way of the future, wouldn’t want to buck the future, would you Bradbury?”
“If this is the future, I’ll take vanilla.” Or:
“That’s quite a tie.”
“Put up much of a fight?”
“No, I snuck up behind it.”
And so on. CaDS loves gangster movies and it shows; from the neon lights to the finely cut suits and gowns. But it also loves horror; there is a death by paper cuts near the beginning that is stunning (and wonderfully shot), and we’re treated to gargoyles, pre-Romero zombies, gremlins, and of course, more than a passing interest in the literary works of H.P. Lovecraft. Perhaps it’s a little on the nose; Ward’s name, the name of the nightclub, but I think they’re all in service of creating a world for future endeavors. And it isn’t just lip service; some of Lovecraft’s staples such as Cthulhu, The Old Ones, and the Necronomicon all play a part in the story, with an appropriately big finish that’s as good as anyone’s vision towards filming his “unfilmable” prose. Perhaps Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe never dealt with creatures from the unknown, but if they had, they’d be taking notes from our weathered detective.
Director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) and his cast are all in on the take; he keeps the repartee lively and the action swift, and makes sure his players are all on the same page. Brown portrays blowhard Bordon with a wicked grin and a brusque demeanor; he’s almost as frightening as the conjured beings weaving in and out of the story. Warner is a joy as Hackshaw; enigmatic and animated in a way I haven’t always seen him. This was one of Moore’s first film appearances; first of all, she’s absolutely stunning, with piercing eyes and hair of fire, definitely recalling the smolder of Lauren Bacall – and the smarts, too. If you’re a fan of Ward’s no bullshit, seen it all characters, you’ll love him as Lovecraft; this was a role he was born to play, and as the one main character who doesn’t practice magic, he’s our guide through this world where illusion is summoned as easily as lighting a cigarette.
While I don’t think Cast a Deadly Spell is a completely unique concept (dear old Carl Kolchak the reporter may have something to say on the subject), it certainly arrived at a time when horror needed an injection of originality. By making the monster hunter a gumshoe, HBO stumbled upon a refreshing, funny, and winning formula that begs to be explored further. So if I were you, HBO, I’d give Fred Ward a call so he can set up shop again, and pull those ties out of mothballs. The world could use a little Harry Lovecraft right about now.Next: It Came From The Tube: WHEN MICHAEL CALLS (1972)