Cast a Deadly Spell
Hollywood in the 1940s and everyone is practising magic… and this is supposed to be an alternate universe? Neither director Martin Campbell nor star Fred Ward were exactly riding high when they made this detour into the less than bewitching world of TV (HBO) movies. Cast a Deadly Spell is a curiosity, too lightweight to make the most of its Lovecraftian trappings and not raucous enough to revel in its more irreverent inclinations.
Lovecraft: My name’s Lovecraft, and I’m the guy who knows.
Ward was coming off a trio of cinematic failures that effectively put paid to any hopes he had of big-screen lead status (Miami Blues, Tremors and Henry & June, even if two of those have rightly attained the status of cult classics). Campbell had floundered somewhat in his Hollywood journey, first with Criminal Law and then Defenseless. Most likely, neither felt they could afford to be choosy, and besides, while this was TV, and decidedly oddball TV, writer Joseph Dougherty was in favour as one of Thirtysomething’s key players (he’d go on to further HBO TV movie fare including Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman and Spell sequel Witch Hunt). Also in the mix was executive producer and ex-Mrs Cameron Gale Anne Hurd, who had served on Tremors (with Ward) and would later produce No Escape (with Campbell).
Detective Bradbury: Someone’s throwing lesser demons at you, black magic from the Pot of Asagoth, and you don’t even carry a rabbit’s foot!
The weak link here, perhaps unsurprisingly, given he is most definitely not a whizz at full-blown fantasy (The Green Lantern), is Campbell. Except the reason is less obvious than simple lack of aptitude. Cast a Deadly Spell looks like cheap TV of the period trying to do period TV; it’s all very flat and static. Perhaps he was trying to approximate ’40s noir, in which case he should have gone the whole hog and shot in black and white; this is closer to Who Framed Roger Rabbit than Bright (or Chinatown, in terms of neo-noir), but it lacks that movie’s visual panache and flair. The results are curious, as it isn’t as if Campbell had a history of being a slouch on TV. Quite the opposite, as both Reilly: Ace of Spies and Edge of Darkness testify.
Dougherty rehearses suitably hard-boiled dialogue and spreads it atop of the kind of premise that Max Landis would later claim as his own (but, in Landis’ case, in the laziest fashion). So there are unicorns (who can only be captured by virgins), vampires, werewolves, telekinetic dabblers, blood rain, gremlins (getting into engines), animated gargoyles (with nuts, it seems, that they can get kicked in), the casting of runes and zombies (curiously all black. There’s a building site crewed by zombies, ultimately expiring through overwork; I suspect there’s not-so-subtle commentary here). And being Lovecraftian – Ward is playing Harry Philip Lovecraft, PI and former cop – there’s the summoning of the Old Ones through reciting the Necronomicon (some of the creature effects here are quite fun, but again, the shooting of them is all rather lifeless).
Harry Bordon: Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a virgin in Hollywood?
Lovecraft has been hired by Amos Hackshaw (David Warner) to secure the book – “A treatise on certain kinds of esoteric magic” – in two days. So by April 30, Night of the Witches/ Beltane (“The conference starts at midnight”). Also after it is old partner Harry Bordon (Clancy Brown), now proprietor of a night club The Dunwich Room and into bad stuff, aided by runes-casting lieutenant Tugwell (Raymond O’Connor). Lovecraft swears off practising magic himself, making him the mockery of all those he comes across. Even those who wish him well (landlady and dance-school madam Hypolite Kropotkin, played by Arnetia Walker). He butts heads with Detective Bradbury (Charles Hallahan, of The Thing) and old-flame Connie Stone (Julianne Moore, who doesn’t seem the most natural femme fatale, or night-club chanteuse).
Lovecraft: Nobody’s got a mortgage on my soul. I own it free and clear.
Because the script is leading with the idea of itself as pastiche, there isn’t any place for serious rumination on its theme; good and evil, magic and monsters, gods and demons are all presented in quotation marks. There’s no reason you can’t do both, be meta- and exhume and analyse the underlying ideas, but Cast a Deadly Spell only really cares about the presentation. Which, as we’ve established, isn’t all that.
At times, the proceedings pick up some steam, but as a detective piece, the material never quite delivers. And in terms of the fantasy, it isn’t quite inventive enough. As Campbell recalls “I remember Criminal Law previewing extremely well, and naively, I thought every film had great previews. And I went to Defenseless, and it got 25 out of 100. I was so shocked. And as a result, I got offered Cast a Deadly Spell. It was called Lovecraft in those days. I didn’t want to do it. I simply thought this is not my material. My wife at the time said, ‘You better get out and do it’, so I did, and it was fun”.
Amos Hacksaw: You really don’t use anything. Any magic, that is.
He didn’t think so much of the Dennis Hopper (as Lovecraft) sequel Witch Hunt but recalled “HBO used to take film scripts that these studios no longer wanted to make, and they used to buy them and subsequently make them into movies themselves. Cast a Deadly Spell was one of those”. I doubt it would have been a hit had it been a full-blown movie (it didn’t help In the Mouth of Madness), but I’d have been interested to see it given the kind of production values Carnivàle would boast a decade later.