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Fred Ward Headlines a Magical Noir With a Comical Edge

By  · Published on April 3rd, 2017

Missed Connections

‘Cast a Deadly Spell’ Is a Magical Noir With a Comical Edge

Evil creatures and worse humans threaten the world of late ’40s Los Angeles.

Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned. I’ll be shining a light in two directions – I hope to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and I’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to.

This week’s pick involves a stolen book, a femme fatale, and a hungry shoggoth.

Harry Lovecraft (Fred Ward) is an ex-cop turned private eye making his way through a late ’40s Los Angeles infused with magic. People use the mystical arts for help with the mundane and the complicated, creatures roam the streets, and once in a while it even rains blood. Lovecraft is an anomaly amid it all in his refusal to partake – he doesn’t use magic to help with his cases or his personal safety. His latest client may just make him regret that decision though.

A wealthy collector named Amos Hackshaw (David Warner) hires Harry to reacquire a very special tome that was recently stolen from him, and it looks to be a simple case. Looks can be deceiving though so Harry’s not all that surprised when things grow a bit more complicated. Amos’ virginal teen daughter takes a break from hunting unicorns to take a stab at seducing him, the book is traced back to a club run by Harry’s old partner, also named Harry (Clancy Brown), and an old flame named Connie (Julianne Moore) re-enters his life with promises of both love and danger.

It’s not a stretch to suggest that Cast a Deadly Spell’s genre mash-up may have acted as at least a minimal inspiration for later films as diverse as Clive Barker’s Lord of Illusions and Barry Sonnenfield’s Men in Black. It’s a fun little thriller mixing noir tropes and supernatural shenanigans into a mystery with gory deaths and apocalyptic designs.

Ward’s pummeled face and no bullshit attitude are used to great effect here as he fits the grumpy PI mold well, and the film’s infusion of magical elements into the norm run the gamut from subtle (some background levitation) to blatant (actual gremlins in a broken down car engine). We buy into this world almost immediately, and the genre beats are used well to create both laughs and horror. Cops having to deal with actual werewolves during full moons earns a chuckle while zombie muscle and a chest-ripping gargoyle deliver the pain.

The script (by Joseph Dougherty) teases elements of Chinatown into the mix with bits involving real estate deals and unconventional familial relationships, and story lines involving ex-friends on opposite sides of the law are equally familiar. The film’s voice comes into its own though in its fluid blend of genres and plots. The narrative is solid as well and sees a parade of side characters and double-crosses on the way to a face-off that might just signal the end of the world.

Practical creature effects and bloody gore are plentiful sights with highlights including a giant, otherworldly creature, a kitchen jump scare, and a death by thousands of paper cuts. The film also manages an unexpectedly progressive element too for an early ’90s genre effort with the appearance of a gay couple – Lovecraft is mildly derogatory, but the couple’s love and relationship are never questioned or belittled. (They die of course along with many others, but that’s equality for you.)

Ward is the big draw here for someone like myself as his cynical grumpiness never grows tiresome, but the supporting cast is equally terrific. Warner and Brown are both known for playing villainous roles, and it’s fun seeing them embrace the period setting and dialogue. This is an early effort for Moore (and came right after her appearance in Tales from the Darkside: The Movie), and she does great work as the smoldering ex who spells either Lovecraft’s redemption or his doom.

Director Martin Campbell’s best known for his forays into the world of James Bond including Casino Royale and GoldenEye, but he’s dabbled in more genre-oriented fare. He’s a skilled filmmaker, and even limited by budgetary constraints he delivers an immersive world demanding of return visits. The feature was made for HBO, but despite being a staple on the pay cable network through the early ’90s it never quite broke out from its television birthplace. No theatrical play kept its exposure and audience limited, and while an inferior and recast sequel (Witch Hunt) followed a few years later it never became the franchise starter it deserved to be.

Cast a Deadly Spell is great fun and worthy of seeking out for fans of noir, horror, and the rare delight of seeing Fred Ward in a leading role.

Read more entries in last year’s The Essentials, and follow along every Monday with Missed Connections — my appreciations of movies that failed to find an audience for one reason or another.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.