Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)

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Here’s another one of those movies I had no idea existed until it showed up on HBO one day in the early 90s. IMDB lists it as a TV movie, but it looks a helluva lot slicker than most of the TV movies I know. It’s got a killer cast of character actors including a young Julianne Moore and the creature effects are charming. Right now it’s streaming on HBO GO, which makes me wonder if someone who’s in charge of programming has similar B-movie tastes or they just randomly throw movies onto the service to fill a monthly quota.

In this fantasy version of 1940s Los Angeles, magic has become as ubiquitous as cell phones are today. As one character puts it, magic just makes everything easier. David Zucker liked to cram background gags into Airplane and his Naked Gun movies whenever the foreground characters were delivering exposition. Similarly, in Cast a Deadly Spell there’s almost always something going on in the background to remind you it’s an alternate universe, from levitating cocktail trays to a nightclub that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

Indeed, the opening story card tells us everybody does magic, which is to say everyone but Fred Ward’s hard boiled detective, Harry Philip Lovecraft. That gives him an edge, as a detective who doesn’t carry talismans or charms is apparently in demand. In his introductory scene, Lovecraft cracks a case that had the LAPD stumped when he declares a voodoo doll the murder weapon.

In typical film noir style, Detective Lovecraft has just been hired by David Warner’s character to retrieve the priceless Necronomicon, which has been stolen by a gangster played by Clancy Brown. (To my knowledge, this is one of two movies Warner has appeared in involving the fictional grimoire, the other being Necronomicon, which I wrote about here.) Brown plans to employ the book in a ritual which will give him godlike powers at the expense of destroying the world.

While the movie shamelessly relies on the old detective tropes a little too much, it never really gets bogged down by it. As I’ve said before, the difference between tropes and cliches is we like tropes and perhaps no other genre gets away with it more than film noir. It’s a fun little movie that’s a lot bigger looking than it has any right to be, which probably comes down to the fact it was directed by Casino Royale’s Martin Campbell and produced by Gale Anne Hurd. That its actors were seemingly born to play roles like this doesn’t hurt either. The film has none of the disposable qualities of a typical made-for-TV movie at the time.

There was a sequel called Witch Hunt which substituted Fred Ward with Dennis Hopper. I don’t think it was as good, but I plan on catching back up to it soon anyway.

A Dark Song (2016)

A Dark Song

A while back I wrote about Take Shelter, a film which questioned its protagonist’s sanity in a meaningful way (the open-ended ending felt less like a cop-out and more like bold punctuation). The heroine of A Dark Song is in a similar sort of predicament: early on it’s revealed she has abandoned the medication and therapy prescribed to her in the wake of her son’s death. Some or all of what happens to her in the course of the movie could very well be the product of delusion. That doesn’t make it any less terrifying.

Whereas Michael Shannon’s character in Take Shelter was ostracized by his community for his (possible) mental illness, the main character of A Dark Song is barreling along the road to losing even more. Her name is Sophia and she will stop at nothing to speak to her dead son. Sophia’s internet research has led her to an occultist who claims he can help. Unfortunately, he looks less like a dark magician and more like a guy who listens to records backwards in his parents’ basement.

Sophia wipes out her savings to rent a secluded house in the Welsh countryside and pay Joseph’s hefty asking price. The ritual, he says, can take several months to complete, but at the end of it Sophia will get a chance to have her guardian angel grant any wish she desires. As Joseph draws a circle of salt around the perimeter of the home, he issues a dire warning: once the ritual starts, they can’t leave the house until their work is finished. Otherwise, they will suffer fates worse than hell itself.

Despite his authentic-looking grimoires and steadfast conviction, Joseph may be full of shit. And for a woman as vulnerable as Sophia, their pairing could be a deadly combination. She’s already demonstrated she’s willing to do whatever it takes, short of forgiving those responsible for her child’s death, and the abusive rites Joseph concocts are highly suspect from the get-go. By the time the rituals show any sign of working, you could just as well believe Sophia’s last trace of sanity has reached its breaking point.

I saw A Dark Song several months ago, which made me a little hesitant to write about it now, but it’s been fresh in my mind ever since, sometimes pestering me at night when I’m trying to sleep. I’ve seen a lot of movies in the months since, but few have been as memorable. Both of its actors are fantastic. Like The Head Hunter, which I wrote about last week, this movie makes the case that underfunded filmmakers should build their casts on quality as opposed to quantity.

Catch it while it’s still on Netflix.

The Head Hunter (2019)

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In Evil Dead 2, Ash Williams gets sucked into a time portal during an attempt to banish his world of demons. The film ends on a cliffhanger: our unlikely hero inexplicably finds himself in the medieval ages which, for a time, felt like it could be a resolute ending—the story had already come full circle because Ash made the startling realization he was the hero foretold by the book of the dead. We didn’t need any more of an ending than that—but didn’t it get your imaginative juices a-flowin’ at the time, wondering what Ash would encounter in medieval times?

You could be forgiven for conjuring up an adventure that was far more horrific than the sequel we eventually got. And watching The Head Hunter, which wears its Evil Dead influences on its sleeve, I couldn’t help but feel Army of Darkness might have been better served with the extra helping of horror which wasn’t missing in the previous two films. Don’t get me wrong: I really like Army of Darkness, but I love the first two Evil Dead films. And The Head Hunter is a damn good Evil Dead film in its own right, gruesome and inventive.

The Head Hunter opens on a medieval warrior in wicked-looking armor who marches across the woods to do battle with a monster off screen. Most of the encounters in this movie take place off screen. We often see the warrior get geared up and head into action, but rarely see the action itself. There are times we can only hear the action, and the sound design is excellent, but the aftermath of the unseen spectacles is plenty gruesome. Whenever we see the warrior come home, towing the head of a mythological monster in a sack, he is never without nasty wounds.

Yes, the real reason the action takes place off screen is the filmmakers probably couldn’t afford to shoot it. But the locations, the set design, the makeup effects, the acting, the costumes, the camerawork, and especially the sound—every bit of it feels like it came out of a movie that was a lot more expensive than this one. The director’s first feature was ThanksKilling, a ridiculously cheap, ridiculously stupid, and ridiculously enjoyable horror movie that was entirely shot on consumer-grade video. It was nothing if not ambitious and no doubt the reason The Head Hunter finds its limitations so navigable.

In that opening scene mentioned above, we learn the head hunter’s daughter has been killed by a beast and now he wants revenge. You really don’t need to know anymore than that. Each scene is about discovery—what’s he doing? Why’s he doing it? What’s the deal with that horn blaring in the distance? All you need to know is this movie might have just been titled The Medieval Dead.

Warlock (1989) [Midnight Movie]

Julian Sands speed reader

I said I got bored blogging about movies, but apparently I just needed a break. Today I have a recommendation for a movie I don’t see discussed much anymore. Now this is coming from the only person on the planet who genuinely enjoyed The Wishmaster 2, so my opinion on anything should be taken with a grain of salt: I rank Warlock among the best witchcraft movies ever made. Warlock may very well be where my love for the subgenre began in the first place.

In 1600s Massachusetts, the meanest warlock in history eludes execution by casting a spell which whisks him away from the tower where he’s contained. Witch hunter Giles Redferne fearlessly chases the villain through the portal, but it turns out the spell is amiss and the two find themselves stuck in 1980s Los Angeles. The hero has a much harder time dealing with the culture shock: when the LA police arrive to question him, he lamely attacks them with his whip, which is no match for a stun gun.

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As the warlock travels the countryside in search of a book which will allow him to undo creation, he casts a spell on the female lead, a spunky young woman named Kassandra: she’ll age twenty years everyday, which means she’ll die in half a week, tops. Hair graying and face wrinkling, Kassandra teams up with the witch hunter to reclaim her youth and save the universe. One of the many things that sets Warlock apart from the sensibilities of its era is that its lead female appears in old age makeup for a sizable chunk of the running time. Meanwhile, most of the horror scenes take place in broad daylight.

That’s exactly what makes Warlock so fun: its creativity. The warlock keeps a pair of eyeballs which look in the direction he needs to go; later, the prude witch hunter is faced with desecrating his own grave due to the plot’s time traveling shenanigans. During an amusing chase sequence across a Mennonite farm, the witch hunter reveals that hammering nails into a warlock’s footprints causes him pain, which is a bit of lore that feels like it belongs in a classic fairy tale. The movie is intentionally goofy at times, such as when the witch hunter insists on carrying a weather vane onto a commercial airliner, but though it plays it fast and loose with the logic you never feel insulted… except maybe during the scene in which Kassandra defeats a credit card machine by simply unplugging it.

High as a kite

A lot of people compare Warlock’s time traveling plot to The Terminator, but I feel the spirit of the movie is a lot more like Time After Time, the fun fantasy film in which HG Wells (Malcolm McDowell) follows Jack the Ripper (David Werner) into 1970s San Francisco. This film, like that one, features two great leads cast against type: Julian Sands and Richard E. Grant, who are far more entertaining to watch than the teenage leads who normally populate films like this.

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This is what I’m into at the moment: single page comics. Other than a handful of three-panel strips, this is my first stab at sequential art since about ’98, when I attempted an ongoing comic on notebook paper (it was terrible). Obviously there’s a strong Jack Kirby influence on this one. I’ll be posting more of these one-pagers in the near future so subscribe to this blog if you’re interested (the button’s on the right for desktop users and on the bottom for those browsing on mobile).