“Magic. Gives me the shakes what you can buy in this town.”
Cast A Deadly Spell is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek urban fantasy with a late 1940s Film Noir backdrop. This alternate history of LA features a city gone mad after magic becomes just as common practice as sports night at the pub. Occultists and mobsters seek far and wide for diabolic tomes and eldritch artifacts. Even our main character shares his office with a witch. So, welcome to Las Angeles; where you won’t just need a gun, but a book of spells too!
Our film kicks off with the landlord atop the apartment/office building performing a witch’s ritual to try to decipher the recent ominous weirdness. Meanwhile, our detective Phil Lovecraft (a mix of Howard Phillips Lovecraft and Phillip Marlow) is on the job. In addition to sensing bad energies in the air, the landlord wants Lovecraft to pay up and ship out. He responds by saying his new client’s bound to pay tons of cash. Who is his client, you ask? A wealthy scholar of occult arts, Mr. Hackshaw (played by David Warner, whose voice is best known by many geeks as “Ra’s Al Ghul” from Batman Animated.) After bumping into his daughter, a somewhat crazy overly sheltered young woman, he sets off to go on the case. What’s the case you ask? Snag a copy of the unholy grimoire, “The Necronomicon”, from some criminals and return it to Hackshaw. The landlord warns him not to go through with it, but money’s money, right? After getting absorbed into a dark underworld of crime, he ends up unveiling a dark underworld of demons and Great Old Ones. With time running out, and horrific things on the loose, can Detective Lovecraft prevent absolute disaster? I won’t spoil anything else.
The film itself is truly a bizarre genre blender by mixing pulp detectives, urban fantasy, Lovecraftian horror, and oddball comedy into one very weird fantastic Earth. This is a timeline where scientists and inventors shared space with sorcerers and alchemists, where our founding fathers probably dabbled in eldritch arts as well! Perhaps a more serious work could pull this off too, but the intentionally campy nature of the film works in the benefit of this Magic Earth.
Besides, the mashing of genres, what makes this an unique urban fantasy piece is that it hones back to the classic macguffin quest of classic fantasy tales, while staying true to the mid-century setting. Not to mention, unlike most mainstream urban fantasy stories, this one has the supernatural in plane sight. Beyond True Blood, Shadowrun, and perhaps a handful of others, such a trope is rarely utilized in contemporary-setting fantasy.
Since it’s a fantasy film, one has to have interesting effects. And for a made-for-TV HBO flick, I can say the effects aren’t half bad. Sure, they’re a tad hokey, but that just adds to the fun of the movie. Whether it’s gremlins that hitched a ride in World War II or imprisoned werewolves caught in the city precinct, there’s no short list of weird creatures in this film. Sure, the practical effects could have been better for them, but it worked well enough to not be that jarring. Plus, the ending scenes look good enough to pass for a higher budget film.
Much of this film’s surreal and whimsical imagery can be attributed to director Martin Campbell. Despite being an earlier/lesser known work, he’s best known for reinventing the James Bond movies for the Information Age. Unlike his works from the mid 1990s onward, movies such as Cast A Deadly Spell are sadly forgotten. In fact, it could be said that the rich style and narrative in this work helped to set the bar for works to come.
Despite being a clever work of genre-mashing art, this film is truly a hidden gem. Despite being released onto VHS nearly 10 years after release, obtaining an actual copy of the film is more than a challenge. Not to mention, no official release on DVD has been announced (beyond VHS Historical Societies manually converting copies.) However, someone on youtube was gracious enough to upload the film (for the time being.) So please, if you have 2 hours to kill, love detectives/monster/Lovecraftian lore/urban fantasy, give this film a shot!
Cast a Deadly Spell gets 9 Dark Hexes out of 10