Sunday, November 13, 2016

Cast a Deadly Spell review


    HBO's 1991 made-for-tv movie Cast A Deadly Spell is weird. It's not even close to being as weird as a David Lynch film but it's the kind of weird you'd more typically find on the shelf of the speculative fiction shelf of a bookstore (remember those?). It starts with the premise it's a noir detective story set Hollywood in the late 1940s, except magic is everywhere, and the Great Old Ones of H.P. Lovecraft are real.

    Okay.

    The funny thing is that it's not actually all that avante garde. You may recall another noir detective story set during the same time period, except cartoons were real. Yes, Who Framed Roger Rabbit existed three years before this movie and did a lot more with the premise. Despite this, I still enjoyed Cast a Deadly Spell and I'm always up for something even tangentially connected to the Cthulhu Mythos.

This image summarizes the movie in a nutshell.
    The premise is H. Phillip Lovecraft (which was probably cuter when fewer people knew his name outside of sci-fi circles) as played by Fred Ward is a grizzled private eye in the Sam Spade mold. He's also the only detective in Los Angeles who doesn't use magic. Hell, it's very likely he's the only person in the city who doesn't use magic. Barely scraping by, he is given an extremely lucrative offer by Amos Hackshaw (David Warner) to recover his book. Yes, it's the Necronomicon.

    Along the way, Phillip has to deal with his old flame Connie Stone (Julianne Moore), his ex-partner Harry Bordon (Clancy Brown), and ingenue Olivia Hackshaw (Alexandra Powers). As is typical in these sorts of films, it turns out there's a conspiracy afoot and a plot to bring the return of the Great Old Ones. Because, of course, there is.

Julianne Moore looks gorgeous in this movie. Well, especially gorgeous.
    Cast a Deadly Spell isn't a great movie because it makes the mistake of trying to take the material a little too seriously and relying on the belief its premise is wacky enough to entertain audiences by itself. To be fair, they're not entirely wrong and the best moments in the film are when things like gremlins, unicorns, gargoyles, werewolves, vampires, and other things show up with no surprise from the cast. The rest of the movie, though, has Fred Ward downplaying everything to the point it's a movie with less energy than it might have gotten otherwise.

     Even so, there's a lot to recommend about this film. Clancy Brown knows what kind of movie this is and hams it up as a nightclub-owning mob boss, Julianne Moore shows why she should be sultry more often, and David Warner actually seems to belong to a better horror movie. Hell, the highlight of the film is where he does a spell invoking Yog-Sothoth. The voice of Ra's Al Ghul manages to get all of the names of Cthulhu's ilk right and sells he's invoking the end of the world.

Yeah, in no way is this racist.
     Ironically, to show I'm not at all a good critic, the places where the movie goes for comedy are some of the weakest. For all my complaints about the movie taking itself too seriously, the places where it goes for jokes are usually the worst. For example, in the middle of this oddball story about the End of the World, we have a running joke about Lovecraft giving his landlady's business cards to customers instead of his own. Which, really? That's what you're going for?

    I'm also of the mind some of the elements of the movie attempting to deal with the social problems of the Forties aren't quite...good. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, there was the link between Black actors being famous and the fact they were still disliked disadvantaged minorities. Here? We have the Black character as a literal zombie in the employ of the villain. There's also a subplot about how the Necronomicon's two thieves are a gay man and a transsexual woman. I'm not sure what to make of that. Likewise, I'm not sure what magic is supposed to stand for.

David Warner should totally have played Joseph Curwen in a movie.
    Here's a bit from the movie's script: What makes me special is I'm my own man. When I started out I said there were things I'd do and things I wouldn't do. A lot of guys start out like that, and a lot of them sell out along the way. But the more who fall, the easier it gets. "See, look, everybody compromises, everybody cheats, everybody uses magic." So they empty their ideals out of their pockets and get down to the job of sticking it to their neighbors before they stick it to them, because that's that way it's done. To all of which I say nuts. My collar may be a little frayed, and maybe I need a shoeshine. But nobody's got a mortgage on my soul. I own it. Free and clear. Is magic supposed to be money? Technology? Corruption in general? Is it just magic? No real commentary is made on it either.

    By contrast, I've got to say I dug the characters. Fred Ward's H.P. Lovecraft may not be the nicest person but he's enjoyable to follow as he unravels the mysteries around him. I also enjoyed Olivia Hackshaw as she struggled to be anything but the virgin sacrifice she's been predestined to be (and more for the former than the latter). I also felt Connie had a point that there's no point being honest in a town as corrupt as this version of Hollywood (or the real one).

Don't screw with gargoyles.
    The world of magical Los Angeles is also a fun place to visit and I like all of the special effects used to bring it alive. There's quite a few Gremlins-esque monsters which were enjoyable to watch and they blend in pretty well with the environment. While it's a bit silly at times, I've got to say I like the concept of a world where the supernatural is used with about the same level of casualness as cars. It's sort of a prototype for the Dresden Files and I love that series.

    Overall, this movie is about 85% really good and something I would recommend to fans of both Lovecraft as well as urban fantasy. It's not a horror movie, far from it, but it does kind of feel like someone's very cracked Call of Cthulhu session and that's not a bad thing. You can pick up a copy of Cast a Deadly Spell on Amazon Prime, which means now is probably the best time to watch it.

8.5/10

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