MOVIE REVIEWS

Cast a Deadly Spell

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January 1, 1991

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By Matt Golden January 31, 2017

The year: 1948. Magic is everywhere, the hallmark of progress. Hardboiled gumshoe Philip Lovecraft is a PI for hire, but his latest case, a search for a missing book called “The Necronomicon,” leads him down darker alleys than he’s ever traversed before, filled with black magic and hideous creatures intent on doing him harm. Charged with protecting a virtuous dame, finding a magical tome, and unravelling a murderous mystery, Lovecraft will have only his wits, his fists, and a trusty pistol to come out alive. And in this world, coming out undead is a distinct possibility…

Supernoirtural would be the perfect word for this film. Cast a Deadly Spell is a fascinating anomaly, a rare treat and a helluva fun ride. It was made for HBO in 1991, directed by Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, Casino Royale, The Mask of Zorro) and starring Fred Ward (as Lovecraft), Clancy Brown, David Warner, and Julianne Moore as Lovecraft’s ex-lover and current gun moll, Connie Stone. And since it’s inexplicably never been released on DVD, it’s never seen the audience that it deserves. This is a pitch-perfect blend of film noir, droll comedy, and Lovecraftian horror. The script (by Joseph Dougherty) is smart, funny without being silly, and filled with perfectly-placed nods to H.P. Lovecraft’s oeuvre.

Fred Ward is fantastic as the gruff, acerbic detective, turning in one of the best modern-day performances of a noir PI. He has great fun with the über-noir dialogue. Case in point:

> Hackshaw: You don’t believe in magic?
> Lovecraft: I believe it, just don’t use it.
> Hackshaw: Why?
> Lovecraft: Personal reasons.
> Hackshaw: And they are?
> Lovecraft: Personal.

or

> Olivia: That’s quite a tie.
> Lovecraft: Oh, thanks.
> Olivia: Did it put up much of a fight?
> Lovecraft: No, I snuck up behind it.

Clancy Brown makes a magnificent gangster heavy, Julianne Moore would fit perfectly alongside Barbara Stanwyck as a classic noir dame, and David Warner is in prime form. Director Campbell fully embraces the tale’s pulpy roots and directs with the most stylish flair I’ve seen out of him; it’s almost as though he filmed it in the style of the old Roger Corman shlock films, with exaggerated shots and colors cranked up to 11. The performances ground the film and the direction gives it more class than its origins as a cheap made-for-cable movie should warrant. It’s a heady, exuberant pairing.

With the talent both behind and in front of the camera for this made-for-TV flick, it’s incredible that it’s never seen a DVD release. It managed an ugly VHS transfer (and, thanks to the internet, a rather cruddy but serviceable copy can be downloaded) but it’s high time for HBO to release this gem on home video. Two-fisted, brawny action, horror-tinged, a tad campy (in all the right ways)…this is a magnificently fun film that needs to seen. Highest recommendation.

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