Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)

CastADeadlySpell

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)

HeadHunterTexting

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.

UnlikelyDuoCrusin

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.

Of Mice and Simple Plans

Twenty years ago a high school buddy and I went to see A Simple Plan. We went into the theater with short sleeves on and, leaving through the windowless stairwell exit, we were shocked to discover everything had been covered in snow by the time we came out. It was as if the movie had literally transported us to its dreadfully claustrophobic winter land.

Weather coincidences aside, A Simple Plan is an extremely effective crime thriller. It may even be my favorite book-to-film adaptation. The most you can hope for from a typical adaptation is it won’t change too much. Scott Smith, who has only published two novels, didn’t write an adaptation so much as he wrote a leaner, meaner draft of the original story. (His second novel, The Ruins, is one of the few long books I’ve read in a single day.) In the movie, his characters became a lot more human and sympathetic.

I chose the short trailer because the long one gives too much away. Do not—I repeat: do not go looking at related Youtube videos if you haven’t seen the movie yet.

Bill Paxton plays Hank Mitchell, a man of average intelligence and, in the beginning, of average morality. He’s the smart one compared to his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thorton) whose literary cousin could very well be Lennie Small. Though Hank is the smart one, at times snobbishly so, there are key scenes in which Jacob reveals he knows a lot more than Hank suspects, particularly regarding family matters and accurately reading the cards life dealt ’em. (There’s a scene in which Jacob talks about the only girlfriend he’s ever had and it’s at once funny and heartbreaking.)

While searching for their dog in the snowy Minnesota woods, the brothers discover a crashed plane containing millions of dollars. Unfortunately for Hank, Jacob’s dimwitted buddy Lou (Brent Briscoe from Larry Clark’s Another Day in Paradise) is also wrapped up into the plot; he plays the wild card who’s integral to these types of movies and he’s scarily good at the job. Described as “a forty year old high school dropout who’s proud of people calling him the town drunk,” he can cause the whole thing to come crashing down at any moment.

The plan, as it should be, is simple: Hank will sit on the money until spring, at which point the snow will melt and the plane will be discovered by the authorities. Then they’ll know who’s looking for the money and adjust the plan accordingly. Hank warns Jacob and Lou not to tell a soul. Hank proceeds to race home and blab about the money to his wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda).

The expression on Sarah’s face, when Hank dumps the money on the kitchen table, is pure movie magic. No matter how good a person you think you are, nothing can prepare you for staring at a load of cash like that. And nothing can prepare you for how it changes everything. Sarah is the dutiful wife who becomes the mastermind of the increasingly complex plan, acting as the puppet master for everything that follows. She becomes so immersed in the plan she becomes sinister in her tweaking of it; even as the nurse hands her her firstborn child, she immediately whispers conspiratorially about what Hank should do next.

Naturally, the plan is never as simple as it seems and, a mere twenty minutes into the film, Hank finds himself helplessly cornered by unforeseen consequences. In that regard, the film is a lot like Fargo (my favorite film of all time) and Blood Simple, and it’s no wonder the directors of those films and the director of this one have had their careers cross paths at times. Listen, I’m a guy who grew up watching the Evil Dead franchise about a billion times so I don’t say this lightly: this is Sam Raimi’s best movie, period.

The similarities it shares with John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men didn’t occur to me until recently, when I happened to read one and watch the other on the same day. Those comparisons can’t be said of Smith’s source material, which is yet another reason to cherish this movie as something special. And when you learn it was a commercial flop, a double whammy on the heels of Raimi’s disappointingly goofy The Quick and the Dead, you can kind of see how such a visionary movie director eventually got lost in Hollywood mediocrity.

This is what you get: a suspenseful plot, an excellent cast, and wonderful dialogue. I adore crime movies and consider this one among the best.

Aging Warriors and Knowing Shadows

Do you know how much I love The Shadow? In general, he’s just about the baddest ass character I can think of, not to mention the reason I spent so much time on “The Silver Shroud” missions in Fallout 4. The 1994 movie isn’t the greatest adaptation in the world, but it’s certainly not as bad as a lot of people think (my girlfriend included). Besides, I would kill to own the pinball machine which came out for the movie.

I do see the problems, however, and I agree: you’d think the screenwriter of Jurassic Park and the director of Highlander would produce something a lot better than this. Jonathon Winters does absolutely nothing for the plot, Tim Curry seems to have been told to “yuk it up,” and the romance between Cranston and Margo Lane is entirely uncooked. The lab sets are laughably unscientific, even by Hollywood standards (When was the last time you saw a Jacob’s Ladder in a modern movie?) and they even do the ol’ ticking time bomb routine. (Red wire or green wire? Just shoot me now so I won’t have to decide.)

TheShadow

But even if the exceptional cast is wasted (John Lone, who plays the last living decedent of Genghis Kahn, should be in a lot more movies while Penelope Ann Miller is more believable in the time period than anyone else), you get a rousing adventure with awesome music and some exceptional visuals. Besides, it’s the freakin’ Shadow. The last time I heard Hollywood talking about a Shadow movie, Sam Raimi had dropped out and the director of a Twilight sequel had stepped in… so, yeah, it doesn’t look like we’re going to get anything better in the foreseeable future. (Which reminds me: Doesn’t the recent news of a Gremlins reboot just churn your fuckin’ stomach?)

So I’ve always wanted to read The Talisman. I finally did and now I don’t know what to think of it. I suspect I just read it at the wrong time in my life. Considering everything else I’ve ever enjoyed, I should have loved this book. I didn’t. I didn’t dislike it, either, but I found it a bit hard to pick up at times, particularly after the Sunlight Gardner’s School subplot wrapped up. The older I get, the more I have trouble getting into “epic” fantasy (I hope this is just a phase I’m going through).

Legend

David Gemmell’s mostly self-contained Legend, on the other hand, is one of my favorite fantasy stories. It’s not long, it’s certainly not epic, and you don’t have to read the entire series to get a satisfying conclusion. This is what happens in Legend: good guys are in a great fortress. Bad guys want to get into said fortress and kill everybody. The bad guys have some pretty mean mofos on their team, but the good guys have this legendary warrior on theirs. The problem is the legend is aging and he’s not quite what he used to be.

I later learned Gemmell wrote Legend when he believed he was dying of cancer (it later turned out to be a misdiagnosis). When you read the story it’s not at all apparent that’s what he’s writing about, but it is kind of apparent in retrospect. It’s one of the purest stories I’ve ever read in the sense that it primarily exists to entertain, but you sense it’s about something bigger than what it purports to be even though you can’t quite put your finger on it. I love that kind of stuff. I typically find it much more satisfying than a story with obvious metaphors and morals.

In other news, I’m stoked to learn Joe Bob Briggs, one of the most authentic and intelligent people I can think of, is FINALLY returning to host silly movies for a 24-hour movie marathon on Shudder. They haven’t released an official date, but Briggs said, “It’ll start on a Friday in June, although we don’t know which Friday yet.”

Hellspawn and Creep Shows

A three-chapter sample of Corpus Evil is coming soon. I expected to have it online this week, but I decided to get a mailing list set up so that anyone who reads it can choose to be notified when the novel releases. The problem is setting up mailing lists is much more complicated than I expected. (It’s probably not complicated at all, but it is boring if you’re expecting a set-it-and-forget-it solution.) That and I really don’t know what my newsletter would entail, other than: “Hey, the novel’s out. Um, bye now.”

So I’ve been reading a ridiculous amount of Spawn lately in an effort to catch up. I don’t give a damn what people say, I still love 90s comics and I even like (fight me) Rob Liefeld because his stuff reminds me of what I tried to draw when I was a kid. (On second thought, this connection is probably a chicken-and-egg situation.) I never cared much for moderation and 90s comics were gloriously excessive.

Todd McFarlane was the king of this stuff. I drew Spawn and Violator about a million times growing up and I still doodle ’em to this day (uh, that sounded raunchy but you know what I meant). As much as I love McFarlane’s art, I keep thinking the same thing whenever I read his writing: I wish Spawn comics didn’t take themselves so seriously. (For context, I’m currently working my way through the Jim Downing issues and his name might as well be Debbie Downer.)

Then I crawled out of bed this morning and discovered RLM uploaded a serendipitous video (see above) in which they review Faust, a Brian Yuzna film about a “superhero” who’s suspiciously similar to Spawn. I quite like Yuzna and special FX wizard Screaming Mad George, but I somehow missed this pairing. In other words, I know what I’m watching this evening.

If you live anywhere near The Circle Cinema in Tulsa, you should probably check out their 35mm showing of Creepshow this June. Creepshow is a huge influence on Corpus Evil; I listened to John Harrison’s soundtrack for the film more than anything else while I was writing it. In fact, I think Creepshow is a more enjoyable Tales from the Crypt adaptation than HBO’s Tales from the Crypt.

Horror Talk (via an /r/horror post) drew my attention to an unproduced script for a Friday the 13th sequel. Here’s the direct link. I haven’t started it yet, but I’m keeping it open in a spare tab for light reading.

The weather here is stupid. Clouds are stupid. Chances of rain are stupid. Everything is stupid.