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Criminally Underrated: Cast a Deadly Spell

Criminally Underrated: Cast a Deadly Spell

In a more just world, this would be ripe for a reboot or at least an adventurous television adaptation.

Film noir, as a genre, is the pineapple juice of the cinematic cocktail world. You can add it to any concoction and the whole affair just gets sweeter. Few films exemplify this maxim like HBO’s 1991 underrated telefilm Cast a Deadly Spell.

Time was, an enterprising screenwriter could walk into a Hollywood producer’s office with two disparate elements scrawled on separate napkins and walk out with a big, fat check just for laying them on top of one another. In this case, it’s marrying the striking crime fiction of a private eye yarn with the world building of magic and fantasy. Unlike, say, Netflix’s 2017 debacle Bright, which throws the two genres together with reckless abandon and some heavy-handed metaphors, Deadly Spell merges the best of each in a way that strengthens both halves of the whole.

Fred Ward stars as Detective H. Philip Lovecraft, a private sleuth operating in an alternate reality 1948 where magic is prevalent. So, imagine the same suits, antique cars, rooms filled with cigar smoke and femme fatales, but there’s also gargoyles, grimoires and people shooting fire from their hands. Lovecraft is hired to hunt down a copy of the Necromonicon for affluent sorcerer Amos Hackshaw (David Warner) and in his search runs into his former partner Harry Bordon (Clancy Brown), an ex-cop who’s now the city’s criminal kingpin.

If it sounds a little goofy, that’s because it honestly is. Director Martin Campbell and writer Joseph Daugherty strike a difficult balance between the hard boiled, heightened realism of noir with the extravagant, reality bending nature of fantasy. What’s so fascinating about the final product is how the film is tongue-in-cheek and more than a little hilarious without devolving into hollow parody. It truly plays like a love letter to storytelling and creating a whole new world out of odds and ends from an old one.

That pulp high wire act is largely possible thanks to the game cast. Ward is the perfect guy to embody the gumshoe archetype, but he’s also capable of explaining why he doesn’t use magic (“out of principle”) without it sounding too corny to behold. Daugherty gives Ward and every other performer so much sharp dialogue to chew on, it’s a wonder everyone doesn’t stumble through their scenes with bloody mouths. The entire endeavor calls to mind Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but with less focus on technical achievement.

Operating from a small budget, Campbell injects the piece with some coherent action and theatrical creature work a cut above what would have been possible for TV at the time, especially when it comes time for the climactic showdown that answers the age old question, “what if Chinatown ended with Cthulu and the Old Ones returning?” It’s such a flat-out fun picture that it’s amazing it didn’t spawn a lengthy franchise.

There’s a sequel that swaps out Campbell and Ward for Paul Schrader and Dennis Hopper, but it sounds like that effort took itself a little too seriously and missed the boat on the unique charm that made this film so special. In a more just world, this would be ripe for a reboot or at least an adventurous television adaptation. Surely HBO or some other brave streaming platform would be willing to give it a new chance at life.

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