DIRECTED BY: Martin Campbell
PLOT: Private eye H. Phillip Lovecraft, who shuns magic in favor of old-school detective skills, searches Los Angeles for a missing grimoire.
COMMENTS: Films set in other times and places sometimes turn to text prologues to help set the scene. The more that needs to be explained, the more convoluted and tedious the word scroll can become. So you have to admire the economical way Cast a Deadly Spell lays out the rules of the world we’re about to enter: “Los Angeles, 1948. Everyone does magic.” Boom, we’re done. Premise established, The Big Sleep meets Evil Dead, let’s do this thing.
At a surface level, the blend is just cheeky enough to work. Despite the specific references to H. P. Lovecraft (the detective and the author share a name, and little else) and his works (specifically, the Necronomicon, which serves as this film’s MacGuffin), Cast a Deadly Spell is content to pilfer its magic from any source handy. Lovecraft’s landlord and occasional girl Friday is a Caribbean voodoo priestess. Zombies are shipped in from West Africa to perform heavy manual labor until their bodies give out. (The racial element to this practice is left unexplored.) Unicorns are hunted for sport, gremlins could lurk beneath any car hood, and everyone uses supernatural powers to perform basic tasks: lighting cigarettes, carrying trays, filing papers and the like. It’s simple stuff, but it does create a strong feel of a world where magic is commonplace and even mundane.
Where the film truly succeeds is in capturing the 1940s crime thriller milieu. Screenwriter Joseph Dougherty has a good sense of the tropes and characters needed to populate the story, from the tough-but-fair police lieutenant to the poor little rich girl to the mysterious damsel with a secret (who, in this telling, is transgender, a fact the film treats with surprising respect, even if the characters do not). Dougherty also has a terrific ear for genre’s pulpy dialogue, from the hard-boiled explication of the hero’s moral code to any number of tossed-off bon mots, such as Lovecraft’s order at a swanky nightclub: “Bourbon. Show it some water, but be discreet.” Ward is perfectly cast, delivering this and other lines with exactly the right mix of cynical wit and world-weary sadness that marks him as the last honest man in L.A. The cast surrounding him is pretty solid, too: Moore is a sultry femme fatale not to be trusted, Brown is slick to the point of slimy, and there’s nowhere near enough David Warner with his malevolent dignity. All the elements are in place.
The two genres sit comfortably side-by-side for a while, with Lovecraft defiantly bypassing the easy path of magic, recognizing its corrupting influence. But the film can’t resist itself, and in the final showdown, it’s the monster movie that wins out, culminating in a special effects extravaganza (as much as its premium-cable budget can afford) that has little to do with its time or place. The ending is big, loud, and unworthy of its well-crafted setup, leaving behind unfinished plotlines and unrealized potential. It’s telling that we see monsters, zombies, and gargoyles simply fade away at the finale, as though the film couldn’t think of what else to do with them.
The cleverness of the basic idea doesn’t translate to any further breakthroughs; if you’ve seen a Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe tale, or even if you’ve seen newer takes like Chinatown or L.A. Confidential, then you’ve not only seen the style but a lot of the plot elements. And that’s okay; it’s a genre worth revisiting every now and then. The biggest problem for Cast a Deadly Spell is that the highwire mashup trick it’s attempting has been done much better. For example, Who Framed Roger Rabbit brilliantly joins the seemingly incompatible elements of noir and screwball animation in a way where each actually relies upon the other. By contrast, Spell is more of a patchwork than a true melange, taking bits from both styles but never really getting them to gel.
Dougherty penned a sequel, Witch Hunt, set at the height of the Red Scare. Starring Dennis Hopper as Lovecraft and directed by Paul Schrader (!), the latter film is by all accounts a dud. So stick with Cast a Deadly Spell, an enjoyable watch that hits its noir marks with just enough horror seasoning to catch your eye. You can wish it did more with its juicy premise, but let’s be grateful for the small gift we have. All the rest… that’s the stuff that dreams are made of.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Cast a Deadly Spell is a pleasingly bizarre mix of 50’s noir with elements of arcane horror with surprisingly high production values… a weird curio that definitely would never get made today…” – Garry Gallon, All The Ones That Got Away
(This movie was nominated for review by Adam, who said it was “So goddamn weird that I was angry at myself for never having seen it and angrier at the cult following it never got.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)