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.