Column: Cthulhu Eats The Movies: Cast A Deadly Spell

By Brian M. Sammons

cast_deadly_spellCast A Deadly Spell. Director: Martin Campbell. Cast: Fred Ward, David Warner, Julianne Moore, Clancy Brown.

Welcome back, my friends, to the Cthulhu show that never ends; I’m so glad you could attend. Come inside, come inside.

I thought I would be cruel once more and tell you all about another very cool movie that is now sadly very hard to watch. You see, Cast a Deadly Spell originally aired on the HBO cable channel back in 1991. Some years later, it had a minor outing on VHS cassette, but it has never, ever come out on DVD. This is perplexing, considering some of the truly awful stuff that has been released on DVD over the years and the fact this movie has quite a few well-known actors in it. Now, since VHS tapes have gone the way of the Elder Things, that means that your chances of seeing this movie, if you haven’t already, are getting slimmer and slimmer by the year. So, why am I talking about such a hard-to-see film? Well, again, because I’m cruel, but also just because a movie is difficult to get a hold of doesn’t mean it’s not worth discussing. And who knows? Cthulhu willing, the stars may become right someday and this little flick could finally get the new release it so richly deserves. If that happens, you’ll thank me for giving you the heads-up on it.

Oh, what, you want proof of that? Okay, let me tell you about this long-lost gem.

This film is set in an alternate version of 1940s LA where magic is commonplace and everyone uses it, everyone except one hardboiled, tough-talking PI named H. Philip Lovecraft (yes, really) played to tough-as-nails perfection by Fred Ward. Lovecraft, an ex-cop who got bumped off the force for not being dirty enough, is hired by a wealthy man to return some stolen property. What was taken from him, you ask? Just a little old book called the Necro-something-or-other. Why does he need it back so badly, not to mention, quickly? Because he has a…conference…yeah, a conference coming up and if he doesn’t have the specific book on that very specific night, well, let’s just say that he’ll he most put out indeed. Yes, I’m giving some things away, but nothing too important or anything any fan of Lovecraft won’t see coming a mile away. Besides, the rich, old bibliophile is played by genre veteran David Warner and has he ever played a good guy? So, there’s no great surprise there. What is a surprise is just how well-written, acted, and directed this movie is, not to mention entertaining and funny.

What follows is a pretty effective noir-ish mystery where Lovecraft has to follow the usual leads and, in doing so, meets plenty of unusual people and supernatural boogiemen along the way. There’s the little neat-and-tidy mobster, who casts runes at people instead of using a Tommygun, and another man is killed in a magic tornado of whirling dollars by a million paper cuts. In this world, zombies come six-to-a-box, or, as one man quips, “like bon-bons”, and virgins ride unicorns through the woods. Oh, and did I mention that Lovecraft’s landlady is a practicing, but completely legally registered, witch? As for acting chops, you’ve got a young Academy Award nominee Julianne Moore as a femme fatale; one of my favourite bad guys ever since Highlander, Clancy Brown as a mob boss who was once a cop and Lovecraft’s partner; and I already mentioned Ward and Warner both doing what they do best. Non-Cthulhu Mythos horrors include a werewolf getting the third degree by police; a very persistent gargoyle hit man, meddling gremlins that followed the American troops back from World War II; and let’s not forget the aforementioned zombies. But I know you and you want to hear about the Lovecraftian-related elements, right? Well, there are some of those, too, so don’t worry. They range from namedrops aplenty to a very Cthulhu-ish critter of appropriate size and dimensions.

Cast a Deadly Spell was followed by another HBO movie sequel called ‘Witch Hunt‘ that ditched all the Lovecraftian touches (other than the PI’s name) for a parable on 50s McCarthyism; replaced low-key Fred Ward with scenery-chewing Dennis Hopper; and was the very definition of a lackluster followup. While, if I never see that sequel again, I’ll be fine with that, I am praying to the Great Old Ones that one day in the very near future, I’ll be able to once more cast a deadly spell if I so choose. This movie is Grade-A fun and it is nothing short of a travesty of cyclopean proportions that it’s not widely available.

Final Verdict: in truth, this movie is only moderately Lovecraftian, despite all the HPL-inspired names tossed about with wild abandon. It’s not based on any one HPL story, but is a fun mix of Lovecraftian ideas, more-traditional supernatural horrors, magic, fables, and tough-noir-PI mystery. If you ever get the chance, do yourself a favour and make some magic with this movie. You’ll be glad you did.