‘Cast a Deadly Spell’ Is the Best of a Bygone Era of HBO Originals
September 14th, 2020 | By Jerry Smith
As a kid, nothing was better than begging my father to stay up late so I could watch the latest HBO Original film. I adored my countless trips to my local theater and regularly took advantage of my video store’s Five Movies, Five Days, Five Bucks promotion, but watching HBO originals was my adolescent film school. Throwing TV clichés out the window, HBO offered films that covered all genres and types of storytelling.
As a lifelong lover of all things genre, it was a blast to have brand new sci-fi, action, and horror films delivered right to my television. Viewers could watch the Sam Elliott-led western The Quick and the Dead, the Ken Russell erotic drama Women & Men: Stories of Seduction, and so many other offerings. The futuristic Wedlock (starring Rutger Hauer) was such a ride to experience. Anthony Hickox’s 1993 film Full Eclipse, a mashup of werewolves and X-Men, was everything a monster and horror lover would want. Christopher Guest (of Best in Show) gave home viewers a hilarious remake of Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman.
And while the possibilities for HBO originals seemed endless, the 1999 premiere of Martin Campbell’s Cast a Deadly Spell changed things for me. There was something special about a film noir that was knee-deep in both femme fatales and Lovecraftian magick. So, readers, grab your fedoras, light your smokes with magic, and let’s chat Cast a Deadly Spell.
Set in 1948, in a fictional world that combines Raymond Chandler and H.P. Lovecraft, Cast a Deadly Spell follows Fred Ward’s Harry Phillip Lovecraft (witty, right?), an old-fashioned private detective that hates all things magic and deems the use of such methods as lazy. Since Ward lives in a world where monsters are commonplace, and spells and sorcery are as familiar as driving a car, the film unfolds as a noir-heavy mystery.
Hired by the devious Amos Hackshaw (David Warner), a mysterious man searching for a former driver that holds the key to something terrible, Lovecraft takes on the mission with gusto. Viewers are presented with a love letter to all things ’40s Los Angeles, with songbird lounge sirens – an excellent performance by Julianne Moore, even with some of the most questionable lip-syncing around – and heavies played by Clancy Brown, and Halloween 4’s Raymond O’ Connor.
Oh, and there’s also enough face punches and double-crossing to please the most diehard fans of Detour or The Big Sleep.
What makes Cast a Deadly Spell so great is how it’s a wildly imaginative film played straight, without winking at its audience. The combination of classic noir film and a fantastical approach – little gremlin-like creatures, a police interview involving a goblin, and death by spinning cards – makes the film a blast to watch.
The humor comes off closer to The Naked Gun films – not as satire, but in Ward’s deadpan delivery. There’s almost a musical rhythm to the back-and-forth, fast as hell, and anchored in Ward’s performance. The actor is having a great time embodying Harry, and it shows.
Harry is a character cliché we love to see. The Tremors actor relishes in the role, peeling back layer after layer of a giant conspiracy that involves bringing the elder gods into our world. But a lot of effort also went into writing an excellent story, as the characters feel fleshed out without being caricatures.
Even the silly gremlin-like creatures we see from time to time are more than a throwaway, showing how wonderful the film’s practical effects can be. A sequence involving Lovecraft questioning a mechanic with a monster problem in his engine is so dry and deadpan that as a viewer, you wonder how the performers didn’t break character every moment of it.
Brown’s Harry Bordon character is your classic double-crossing villain, right out of an Indiana Jones film. The actor is relishing being the heavy to Lovecraft, with O’Connor doing a complete 180 from his creepy security guard in the fourth Halloween film. Tugwell is a right-hand baddie you almost want to root for, with a knack for using magic to do his dirty work. With each act of sorcery, Lovecraft’s patience lessens, and the tension between these two characters is always good for a laugh.
Three years after Cast a Deadly Spell’s release, Paul Schroder (First Reformed, Taxi Driver) would direct Witch Hunt. This sequel replaced Ward with Dennis Hopper but lacked the magic (pun intended) of Campbell’s vastly superior slapstick-meets-satanic original. Cast a Deadly Spell knows precisely what kind of movie it is and revels in just that. It never tries to be anything aside from a film noir deep in Lovecraft’s magical world and the elder gods.
HBO Originals never scoffed at horror/sci-fi storytelling, and instead of looking down on the genre that made Hollywood, they embrace quite literally ever type of film that their viewers would want to see. Some people pay tens of thousands of dollars to get lessons in storytelling and filmmaking. I sat down in front of a TV and learned the craft from films like this one.
Future films like Bright would try to achieve the same social satires with monsters living alongside human beings, but they fail to capture the charm and imagination that Campbell and screenwriter Joseph Dougherty conjured with this gem. A lesser-known film to some, but I can see Cast a Deadly Spell gaining a proper audience on services such as HBO Max. Like Halloween III, Possession, and so many others, this movie screams to be watched. It’s a unique little diamond of a film packed with creatures, curses, and more imagination than you’d expect from a straight-to-HBO gumshoe reinvention billed as “Who Framed Roger Rabbit? with witches and zombies.”