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H.P. Lovecraft Meets Raymond Chandler in ‘Cast a Deadly Spell’

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Cast A Deadly Spell
By  · Published on May 23rd, 2020

Welcome to The Prime Sublime, a weekly column dedicated to the underseen and underloved films buried beneath page after page of far more popular fare on Amazon’s Prime Video collection. We’re not just cherry-picking obscure titles, though, as these are movies that we find beautiful in their own, often unique ways. You might even say we think they’re sublime…

“Sublime /səˈblīm/: of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe”

Most movie fans associate Martin Campbell with the Bond franchise and other blockbusters. However, before he became one of Hollywood’s A-list directors, he helmed Cast a Deadly Spell, a genre-bending TV movie that originally aired on HBO back in 1991. It isn’t the most known movie in his oeuvre, but it’s easily one of his most entertaining and rewatchable efforts.

What’s it about?

Cast a Deadly Spell takes place in a fantastical iteration of 1940’s Los Angeles. The story follows Harry Phillip Lovecraft (Fred Ward), a hard-boiled private detective who gets hired by a mysterious client (David Warner) to track down the Necronomicon after it gets stolen. If you’re familiar with the work of H.P. Lovecraft and the Evil Dead movies, then you know that the Necronomicon is synonymous with trouble. It’s no different in Cast a Deadly Spell.

With time running out, he must retrieve the book before the Old Ones are summoned, who will most definitely bring about the apocalypse. But first he must contend with the local gangsters, cops, old flames, and array of folklore creatures that he encounters throughout his mission. Despite coming up against supernatural forces, Lovecraft refuses to use magic, which makes him a rare breed in this world. However, his investigation brings him into contact with those who are more than willing to, and not all of them have noble intentions. In this universe, magic is perceived as a sign of progress, but Lovecraft is the world-weary old rogue who refuses to get with the times.

What makes it sublime?

Cast a Deadly Spell is an earnest and successful attempt to combine the best elements of film noir and pulpy crime fiction with Lovecraft, Ghostbusters, and Gremlins. The movie serves as an affectionate love letter to all of its various inspirations, yet it blends them in a way that actually works.

The reason why this collection of elements works so well is because screenwriter Joseph Daugherty wrote a great story. This provides a strong foundation for the more outlandish aspects to be incorporated without feeling shoehorned. At its core, Cast a Deadly Spell is a compelling private eye yarn, with complementary magicians, critters, werewolves, gargoyles, and zombie bouncers.

The movie also remains at a consistent level of just under over-the-top, which prevents it from becoming a parody of itself. Cinema is a medium that allows talented storytellers to let their imaginations soar, and Cast a Deadly Spell, while tongue-in-cheek, is all about transporting viewers to an alternate reality.

While the movie is a fairly modest production with a small cast, the world-building feels enormous, giving off the impression that the film is grander in scale than it actually is. The recreation of the 40s feels authentic (minus the magic and monsters, of course), but the inclusion of cosmic ideas, lore, and various character interactions helps bolster the film’s sense of scope.

Ward is perfectly cast as a Humphrey Bogart-esque detective, and his character deserves to spearhead a long-running franchise. My favorite scenes in Cast a Deadly Spell are the ones where Lovecraft exchanges words with the human characters who he has a history with. Whether he’s rekindling his spark with an old lover or arguing with the captain of the police force that let him go, it’s clear that he’s had storied experiences with each of them, and I want to know more.

Sweetening the deal is the impressive creature effects work, which can best be described as charmingly grotesque. The tiny critters are very reminiscent of the Gremlins, while some of the other monsters will remind viewers of the ghouls in Ghostbusters and Tales from the Crypt. Cast a Deadly Spell is tonally similar to those movies as well, and I imagine the film will appeal to their fan bases.

And in conclusion…

Cast a Deadly Spell is pure fun, first and foremost. That said, the movie is also a prime example of how great storytelling and imagination are two of the most magical ingredients in any film. This movie has those qualities in abundance, and it deserves to be appreciate by a wider audience.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.