There was a time before HBO was known for its original programming. The first shows they did try were hardly the critical juggernauts and audience darlings of today, either. Tales From the Crypt might have enthralled a young Captain Supermarket, but it is primarily famous for the terrible puns slung around by its puppet host. Dream On was a mildly smutty sitcom that promised far more nudity than it ever delivered. Yet there was a brief period in 1990-1991 when HBO produced two great cult flicks that indelibly imprinted themselves on my psyche: the revisionist comic-western El Diablo, and this week’s movie, the occult neo-noir Cast a Deadly Spell.
The concept, as explained in a quick graphic, is brilliant in its tantalizing simplicity: it’s 1948 in Los Angeles, and everyone used magic. Because of the year and location, it can only be film noir. The best way to get into a “everybody does/is something” conceit is to have it star the one person that doesn’t/isn’t. In this case, that’s the only detective in LA who doesn’t use magic, ex-cop and current private dick (his sex machine status with all the chicks is unconfirmed) H. Philip Lovecraft (Fred Ward). While it would be tempting to call this movie the rosetta stone of my entire aesthetic, that’s slightly inaccurate. The cult cinema of the ‘80s (and I’m including 1991 as the ‘80s because fuck you I make the rules here) is the true rosetta stone. But I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge the heavy debt I owe this particular movie, especially for a certain book about the “only normal detective in old Los Angeles.”
Like every good film noir and supernatural detective plot, it uses one of my very favorite tropes, the “minor crime reveals major plot.” Essentially, this means that a simple errand for our heroic shamus rapidly turns complex as his employers and enemies have vast, world-shaking conspiracies. While it’s immediately recognizable from classic films like Chinatown, it has a strong basis in reality. Ted Bundy was captured by a routine traffic stop. Enron’s wrongdoing was uncovered because people thought the stock was priced a little high. Watergate, the shorthand for all scandals, was uncovered after a simple burglary revealed widespread corruption in the Nixon white house. In Cast a Deadly Spell, the employer, Amos Hackshaw (David Warner, doing his David Warner thing), hires Lovecraft to find this missing chauffeur who also absconded with a rare, but ultimately harmless book. The book’s name, however, is instantly recognizable to anyone who has read the real Lovecraft’s work or even just likes Bruce Campbell movies: it’s the Necronomicon. And we know that harmless is the last thing it is.
Lovecraft, though, is clueless. And like any good hardboiled protagonist, wastes no time getting himself neck deep in trouble. While his landlady, the delightful witch Mrs. Kropotkin tells him that the omens are seriously bad and he should leave town (she suggests Miami), Lovecraft isn’t going to follow that warning. Instead, he stumbles over his old partner, Harry Borden (the great Clancy Brown) who was chased out of the force on corruption charges, is now a nightclub owner and probable organized crime figure. His diminutive button man Mr. Tugwell uses magic in his hits, but for more conventional muscle, they rely on zombies. “Thirty dollars a head, six to a box,” Borden says. “Like bonbons,” Tugwell adds dryly. Borden’s top draw in his club — The Dunwich Room — is the gorgeous singer and Lovecraft’s old flame Connie Stone (a young Julianne Moore).
When this came out, I was at the height of my Call of Cthulhu playing career. The relentless Lovecraft references, especially those at the heart of the mystery, might as well have been crack to my young mind. It was the first time I felt like those making the entertainment I consumed were fans of the same things I was. While this feeling seems common now, especially with the way social media has compelled and encouraged artists to connect with fans, at the time it was a revelation. With my weird noir fandom already firmly in place, it felt like a movie aimed directly at me, and it hit the target.
The impressive thing about the movie is that the world feels lived in. Director Martin Campbell (Goldeneye, Casino Royale) and writer Joseph Dougherty (lots of TV shows I’ve never seen) really run with the idea of a culture utterly reshaped by magic. It’s the small details at the fringes that bring the world to delirious life, whether it’s a group of kids chanting until the hubcaps blow off a car, a man lighting a cigarette on his own hand, or a murder-by-voodoo doll. The monsters aren’t left out, with the cops grilling a werewolf, a gargoyle henchman, and in the best of these sequences, a hapless zombie work crew putting up a suburban housing development. The actual in-plot uses of magic are just as good, with Tugwell’s murderous whirlwind made from a dummy payoff counting as my favorite. Best of all, we never get an origin story of when magic shows up. The characters know when this was — and it’s implied to be recently — so they don’t waste time flapping their gums about it. Why would you when it’s raining blood outside and your car engine is infested with giggling gremlins?
The cast does an admirable job anchoring the weirdness in well-worn noirish performances. No one is playing to the cheap seats, and the winks are never condescending. This is the kind of ready-for-cult-adoration flicks that were thick on the ground back then. It’s right on the tail end of the era where movies like this could get made, before Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino ushered in the cinematic ‘90s which were great for crime and slice-of-life indies, but not wonderful for genre oddities. The downside is that this was a made-for-TV movie, and the lack of budget can sometimes show on screen. More than anything, it looks like an episode of Tales From the Crypt, and it would not surprise me if both productions had largely the same team.
Like the best noir, I feel compelled to keep the mystery largely under my hat, though genre savvy viewers could probably unravel it. Though it has another of my favorite tropes, when a seemingly pointless subplot becomes of vital importance later on. Of course, this is also horror, so that subplot turns relevant in the most ironic possible way. Much like Belloq learned, just because you can talk to a god doesn’t mean the god wants to talk to you.
The worst part of this is that there is no DVD release for Cast a Deadly Spell, and unlikely there will ever be one. It exists now on Youtube, and from the looks of it, was uploaded from a flawed VCR copy made at the time. So you can (and should) watch it, though it’s basically like viewing a movie through a haze of cigarette smoke. Then again, there’s nothing more appropriate for the genre.