I love a good high-concept B-movie, or just one with a bizarre premise. If you’re going to make something in our world, why not try and have fun with it? Raw Force – “bunch of kung fu enthusiasts get shipwrecked on an island full of zombies”; Rome 2072: The New Gladiators – “a bike based murder TV show in the far future”; and Demon Cop – “about, er, a werewolf social worker”…among many many others. To that fine tradition we can add “Cast A Deadly Spell”.
Its premise? “HP Lovecraft is a detective in 1940s LA, and everyone uses magic apart from him. Literally everyone”.
Unlike some of the odder concept movies we’ve covered here at the ISCFC, the people behind this have got the chops to pull it off. There’s director Martin Campbell, who also directed all-time great TV show “Edge Of Darkness”, the Hollywood remake with Mel Gibson, and two James Bond movies (“GoldenEye” and “Casino Royale”). Writer Joseph Dougherty has been responsible for both “ThirtySomething” and “Pretty Little Liars”. And it stars Fred Ward (“Tremors”) as Lovecraft, David Warner (“Final Equinox”, “Beastmaster 3”) as the guy who hires him, Clancy Brown (“Highlander”) as Lovecraft’s former partner / villain, and a very early role for Julianne Moore as the femme fatale.
Much like its spiritual counterpart “The Maltese Falcon”, there’s a MacGuffin which drives the plot along – the Necronomicon! I mean, someone does want it to open up a portal to whichever dimension Yog Sothoth lives in and revive him, but it’s not important to the plot. They just want that damn book! Lovecraft, after some unspecified earlier incident, refuses to use magic, but everyone else does – every scene, there’ll be something floating along in the background, or a guy shaking a cocktail without using his hands. While it could have become annoying in the wrong hands, it’s just subtle enough to still be entertaining.
The Necronomicon is stolen from Amos Hackshaw (Warner), there’s a subplot with Lee Tergesen (“Wayne’s World”) playing two parts, one of whom is Lilly Sirwar, the love interest of the thief – he’s a convincing woman, it wasn’t until about two-thirds of the way through that my wife went “is that a guy?” – and Lovecraft is trying to find it and keep it out of the hands of Harry Bordon (Brown).
They really make an effort to make the world they’re in feel normal and lived in, along with recreating the classic film noir flavour. Unlike films noir, there’s substantial roles for people of colour though, which is great, such as HP’s landlord / dance teacher Hipolyte Kropotkin (Arnetia Walker). There’s also a huge zombie familiar, who I thought might have been pro wrestler Viscera but was actually a fella by the name of Jaime Cardriche, and Bordon makes an off-hand remark about buying them in packs of six from Haiti.
Those of you with long memories may remember our coverage of movies based on HP Lovecraft stories, or in one case “inspired by the stories of” (which meant a few character names and not much more). This would go right to the top of the list of those movies, and I think it counts as much as “Cthulhu Mansion” ever did, as his mythos is a prominent part of the plot (summoning Yog-Sothoth, etc.) I just asked my friends back in the UK about “Cast A Deadly Spell” and they all acted amazed I’d never heard of it, considering how much they’d enjoyed it. Heck, there’s even a sequel of sorts! Same writer, diferent director (Hollywood legend Paul Schrader!) and different star (playing Lovecraft is Dennis Hopper!)
For a made-for-HBO TV movie, this is infinitely better than it has any right to be. The mood of the era is captured beautifully, the cast is absolute dynamite, the plot is interesting, the wild concept doesn’t dominate proceedings, and I was interested from beginning to end. If you’d like to watch it, it’s available for free too, so knock yourselves out.
One last thing – there’s lots of comparisons made by other reviewers to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, and…I guess? I don’t really see it myself, although admittedly there’s a private eye, the period setting and the wild world that everyone accepts as reality. Okay, so I may have just convinced myself, although this is perhaps a little darker than that was. It has more in common with something like “The Rocketeer”, an underrated gem from the same sort of era and about the same sort of era.
Rating: thumbs up