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You don't have to be a horror/mystery fan to like oddball movies, but if you ARE a horror/mystery fan and you like oddball movies, CAST A DEADLY SPELL may be right up your darkened alley.
Imagine an alternative Universe earth: An alternate history if you will, where one of those, oh let's say, terrible magic spells - the kind that only come along once every millennium - gets released by a nefarious character for unsavory purposes.
Let's say something like that happened.
Lots of horror books paint such a scenario. The hero or anti-hero rushes up just in the nick of time to stop the forces of evil, or magic, or evil magic (after he/she has got in touch with their own humanity first, of course) just as the demon is about to establish their dominion on earth.
In CAST A DEADLY SPELL, the hero/heroine was possibly in the john at the time and the forces just went ahead and got released, at least in Los Angeles, California in the 1940s.
This movie has nothing to do with any adventure that may have come before. This is all about what came after - way, way after society adapted itself to the change and life goes on as usual, even if a bit customized.
Life in 1940s L.A. is the kind where everybody has magical powers. Since magic has become the great equalizer (like the gun of the old American West) folks with powers that would rule our real world, find themselves working the same old 9 to 5 with everyone else. Not everyone, however, has an equal ability with magic. Those who dedicate more of their time to harnessing and building their power are more likely to have greater powers (like the gunslingers of the old American West or politicians), while those with less interest in putting so much of their time into practicing their magic, have very little.
This is Noir, of course, which means that our hero, Detective Harry Philip Lovecraft (Fred Ward: TREMORS, TREMORS 2) is the outsider to all of this. He is the broken down detective of this tale (is there any other kind?).
Magic? He has none at all. Like an alcoholic swearing off the stuff, he refuses to have anything to do with magic. He prefers to keep his soul^, and for that he must accept his severe handicap in a city where magic and miracles are as common as streets and sidewalks.
Harry is neither the engine of the story or the actual hero. As the outsider - like us and like all Detective Noir stories - he serves as our guide to unravel the mystery that is as unknown to ourselves as it is to him. He is there, like us, to go from one place to the other, revealing the city, the characters, and watching the tale unfold. His devotion to his own natural humanity makes him honest in some people's eyes, a chump in the eyes of others, but a hero to none.
Harry is called to the stately mansion of one Amos Hacksaw, whose lovely and under-aged daughter Olivia (Alexandra Powers: THE DAY AFTER [TV], UNHOLY MATRIMONY [TV]) spends her time on the family estate, working out her raging teen hormones by hunting Unicorns. The part of her father (Amos) is played by David Warner (TRON) so you know he's a bad guy. David is ALWAYS the bad guy with the exception of THE OMEN and THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS.
Amos is in need of a book, the great end all, be all Necronomicon (yet another bow to H. P. Lovecraft, who created both the fictitious author Abdul Al Hazrad as well as the book the "Mad Arab" wrote). There are two copies, one fake, one real. Both have been stolen from Mr. Hacksaw's home and it is vital that he get them back.
We already know that the man who had the book stolen is Harry Borden (Clancy Brown: STARSHIP TROOPERS) so you know that HE is a bad guy too! He is ALWAYS a bad guy with few exceptions as well.
In this case Harry is a mob figure, former cop, and former partner of H. P. Lovecraft (this is a 1940's Noir detective story, didn't you know that good old Lovecraft used to be a cop? Come on now!). Borden is a dimbulb, but through the use of magic and thuggery he has turned himself into a well to do dimbulb complete with flashy pimpclothes, greasy hair, and a pencil thin mustache. He is not smart enough to use the Necronomicon, but he knows enough to keep it out of the hands of those who do until he gets his price.
As with all mystery detective stories, Lovecraft is going to chase down a lot of red herrings. This doesn't waste our time as it gives us a chance to explore the magical world of this alternate L.A. One where the miracle of magic is used for such mundane tasks as paying your bill at the diner or instantly finding the right file in the file cabinet before you even reach it.
Hypolite Kropotkin (Arnetia Walker) is Lovecraft's Landlady. A VooDoo priestess who may or may not love him. She cares for him and watches over him like a mother hen.
The late Charles Hallahan is remembered by horror audiences for starring in John Carpenter's THE THING as well as minor roles in NIGHTWING, TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, and WARLOCK II. In this film he plays Detective Bradbury (yes, another nod. This flick is stuffed with them) of the L.A.P.D. Something weird is happening in his town and it's not just the werewolves pulled in off the street for disorderly conduct. While Bradbury also uses magic, it hasn't made his life any easier. A quick trip through his squad room reveals all manner of new denizens to add to the Noir of future detective movies including streetwalking succubi and zombies. So Bradbury wants Lovecraft to do a little sniffing around for him. Since Lovecraft doesn't use magic, not even so much as a lucky rabbit's foot, folks using spells of protection won't pick him up on their radar.
Produced by longtime Science Fiction and Horror movie afficionado Gale Anne Hurd (THE TERMINATOR, ALIENS, TREMORS, ALIEN NATION, TERMINATOR 2, THE RELIC, VIRUS) and Directed by Martin Campbell, CAST A DEADLY SPELL is a droll comedy, one that prefers to make you smile rather than laugh. The tight script by Joseph Dougherty (WITCH HUNT [TV]) is flush with excellent lines, asides, and comebacks. Dougherty captures the independent, wise-cracking nature of the jaded 1940's Private Dick wonderfully:
Hackshaw: "You don't believe in magic?"
The Detective and Mystery novels and movies we have come to know are wrung for every drop of phrase they ever uttered. Lovecraft's L.A. is truly a place where "Nothing is as it seems".
Fred Ward's dog weary face gives the perfect blend of regular Joe and sarcasm to his role as Harry Philip Lovecraft, delivering his cutting wit with casual aplomb.
Olivia: "I'm being serious!"
Harry knows his world, a world where the working minority of choice are African zombies imported from the West Indies "where they're cheap" (living African Americans enjoy equal status with white folk in 1940s L.A. Hey, would YOU want to try some shit with a kindly VooDoo priestess whose power was real and oh, so, very immediate?); where those who look like people aren't necessarily people, and the sexes aren't even necessarily the right ones (that part is just like real life, actually). Lovecraft neither loves it or hates it, he is just passing through.
Stand out performances include Julianne Moore (JURASSIC PARK: The Lost World, HANNIBAL) back when she was a nobody. Even in 1991 her talent and star quality are obvious and Julianne shines in every scene by nothing more than her mere presence. She plays Connie Stone, who naturally is "The Dame" and she is of course the thug's "Moll", but since this is also mid-twentieth century detective Noir, let us not forget that she and Lovecraft once had "Something".
The cinematography by Alexander Gruszynski (TREMORS) is perfect both in its handling of daytime as well as night scenes. Those who feel they must create a spooky mood with only night time settings could learn a thing or two from Gruszynski.
CAST A DEADLY SPELL was originally released as a direct to cable HBO movie. HBO has a fine tradition of making top Horror movies like NEAR DARK and series like TALES FROM THE CRYPT and this film is another notch in their belt.
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