In this new semi-regular column, Inside Pulse writers will explore forgotten films that deserve to be remembered.
Martin Campbell has been a very busy man over the last 20 years. While his big screen adaptation of Green Lantern may have fizzled out at the box office, you can forgive him that misfire. He did, after all, revamp and revitalize for modern audiences both Zorro (The Mask of Zorro) and James Bond twice over (GoldenEye and Casino Royale). But before he was a go-to guy for action spectaculars, Campbell directed one of the best films you’ve never seen.
A made-for-television movie produced by HBO, Cast a Deadly Spell is a modestly budgeted, impressively produced horror noir set in the ‘40s. Fred Ward stars as Harry Philip Lovecraft, though you may know him better by his initials H.P.. Ward’s Lovecraft isn’t a writer penning tales of giant squid-faced monstrosities, though. Ward stars as a hardboiled private eye struggling to make ends meet as a non-magic user in a world addicted to the stuff. In the society Lovecraft inhabits, everybody uses magic for both the mundane and the extraordinary. From employing slack-jawed zombies as body guards to summing chiseled chested gargoyles to stalk through the night spying on people, magic is as every much a part of the film’s shadow-drenched post-World War II world as dangerous dames and pencil-mustached gangsters.
When Lovecraft is hired by Amos Hackshaw (a rich recluse played by David Warner) to recover his lost tome (a little book you may have heard of called the Necronomicon), he finds himself tangled up again with old “friends” — chief among them being Harry Bordon, a petty thug played by Clancy Brown who dreams of ruling the world. Julianne Moore and Alexandra Powers also co-star as two mysterious women with secrets that further complicate the case Lovecraft is so desperately trying to unravel.
Campbell, directing from a script by Joseph Dougherty, created a fun, tightly paced film that’s special effects were truly outstanding considering the film’s modest origins. From tiny gremlins to monstrous werewolves, Campbell stocked his film with enough interesting monsters to keep audiences struggling to decide whether they should keep up with the story or just stare slack-jawed at the creature designs.
Where the film really succeeds is its script. The film’s story is a perfect throwback to those cheap paperback crime and horror novels you used to be able to buy at the drugstore. Not a scene nor character is wasted in the story and Dougherty shows he knows perfectly well how to lay out the pieces to a puzzle. Cast A Deadly Spell is one of those rare but delicious mysteries where all the clues are set out for the viewer to discover and try and solve the film’s mystery before the hero does.
Gale Anne Hurd (who has recently returned to television with The Walking Dead) produced the film as well as its semi-sequel, Witch Hunt. Following the success of Cast A Deadly Spell, HBO commissioned another film featuring the character of H. Phillip Lovecraft. Unfortunately, neither Campbell or Ward returned — instead replaced by an equally impressive duo: Dennis Hopper as Lovecraft and Paul Schrader in the director’s chair. Despite the talent involved, the sequel lacked the energy and whimsical fun of the first film — drawing out a lethargic plot that used the Red Scare of the ‘50s but substituted magic users for communists.
No, when it comes to detective stories featuring H.P. Lovecraft, the original is the one that best stands the test of time. Cast A Deadly Spell is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and remains a pleasantly weird movie that deserves wider recognition. Unfortunately, the film is not available on DVD and HBO hasn’t aired it on cable in forever.
Without resorting to piracy, then, how is a person able to check out the movie? Well, you can find a VHS copy relatively easy on Amazon or any number of other second-hand online shops. Or, if you are lucky enough to live in my hometown of Houston, you can come to the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema at West Oaks Mall on September 17 for a free screening of the film. HBO has given us permission to screen the film in its entirety — a rare treat for fans of the genre. Details will be up on the theater’s site shortly (follow the Houston area Alamo Drafthouse theaters on Twitter at www.twitter.com/houstonalamo for updates on the screening) but, in the meantime, mark your calendar because this is a movie that should definitely be sought out and watched — if only to see some of the amazing matte paintings produced for the film’s lavish set design.
Robert Saucedo is an avid movie watcher with seriously poor sleeping habits. The Mikey from Life cereal of film fans, Robert will watch just about anything — good, bad or ugly. He has written about film for newspapers, radio and online for the last 10 years. This has taken a toll on his sanity — of that you can be sure. Follow him on Twitter at @robsaucedo2500.