Review: Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)
When I was but a wee lad in the early 1990's apparently no one cared about what I watched and I would tune into HBO from time to time. As such I've had a jigsaw puzzle of memories from that period that I've been trying to coalesce, pulling together vague memories bit by bit and I finally have access to a bunch of these movies now that they've popped up on blu-ray or streaming services. One of those films was Cast A Deadly Spell, a direct-to-cable production from Gale Anne Hurd (Terminator, Aliens) and director Martin Campbell (Casino Royal, Green Lantern), and boy that's certainly a rollercoaster of expectations between those last two credits. It stars Fred Ward (the guy who's not Kevin Bacon in Tremors), Julianne Moore(!), David Warner(!!) and Clancy Brown (!!!). I went into this fully expecting it to be painful, and while it is cheesy it's a pretty great kind of cheese and fully enjoyable.
Taking place in 1948, CADS is a Hollywood noir thriller taking place in an alternate reality where magic is commonplace. Our main character is Harry Philip Lovecraft, a private eye who is the only person in town who doesn't rely on magic. He's hired by a wealthy client to retrieve a book (the Necronomicon, natch) that was stolen by an employee. Also looking for the book is Harry's crooked ex-partner Borden, who is now a successful nightclub owner who employs Harry's old flame as a singer. Conspiracies ensue and demonic forces rise.
And let me tell you, it leans hard into its hardboiled crime tropes.
That's like, seconds after the opening credits.
It's pretty great how hard it leans into all the noir tropes, and it feels like it was a bit of a passion project because of that. Fred Ward plays the hardboiled PI pretty straight and it's kind of hard to imagine anyone else doing this role, even though Dennis Hopper played the same character in the follow up film Witch Hunt and uh, yeah we're gonna have to give it to Fred. They were going for such a specific tone and they hit it off pretty quickly with the dialogue and Lovecraft's narrations.
Lovecraft's landlord and friend Hypolite Kropotkin (Arnetia Walker) steals the show quite a bit for me, to the point where I would kill for a tv series revival of this concept where she gets a much more prominent role.
Clancy Brown's turn as nightclub owner Harry Bordon works great but it's Clancy Brown so it's kinda going to be great regardless. Bordon's toadie Tugwell is played creepily well by Raymond O'Connor who does a great job of being professionally sadistic.
Julianne Moore expertly handles the quintessential femme fatale lead, which also unfortunately makes all the plot elements concerning her character fairly predictable.
While the budget was low, they get a lot of mileage out of their practical effects, setting great tones with lighting and matte paintings:
Fun concepts like the perfectly normal blood rain:
And some pretty great monsters as well:
Sassy murderous gargoyles are best gargoyles.
Some of the cleverness unfortunately lands a little short in some places, and is also revealing of a huge lack of follow through on some really potentially great commentary. They reveal that zombies are a favored form of inexpensive labor as they don't need to be fed and can be replaced after a few months when they rot. That's great! Then crime boss Bordon explains that they're, "30 bucks a head. Come from the West Indies, 6 to a box." His lackey adds in, "Like bonbons." As all the zombies we see during the film are black men, that's a pretty loaded set-up for exploring racial issues in this time period. Instead they're used for comic punchlines as clumsy construction workers who keep falling over or get impaled by their work tools.
On top of that there's some painfully clumsy handling (i.e., horribly murdered) of the films only two queer characters. And when I say horribly murdered I mean one character is killed via a thousand papercuts and the other is impaled by a gargoyle's fist.
Oh, and under-age sex saves the day, which is not great and was painfully telegraphed. Also, maybe don't cast a 24 year old as your virginal 16 year old.
On the Lovecraftian fiction front, it mostly only gives lip service to the familiar names. Besides our main character's name and the Necronomicon, we get some name drops like Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu. We also get a lumpy mess of an elder god, which I know they're usually supposed to be lumpy messes but it was a little underwhelming.
Again though, my expectations were pretty low. The film is only 96 minutes, yet it's loaded with interesting side characters, fun creature effects, and a pretty tight script with solid pacing. So while it's unfortunate they didn't expand on many elements it's also understandable considering their restraints. It's a film with many faults, but it's also a crime noir supernatural thriller with a great cast and an obvious love for its influences. How often do you get that?
And just look at this utterly terrible box art design. It's all worth it just for this to have come into existence.