Watching HBO’s 1991 Original Film Cast a Deadly Spell, a comedy-fantasy-film noir mashup re-imagining H.P. Lovecraft as a private detective, reminded me of a recent Jason Blum quote about Netflix. It came during Blum’s interview with Recode Media during SXSW. Since Blum’s production company does plenty of business with Netflix, the conversation turned to the streaming service’s recent run of high profile films which feel more like straight-to-video B-movies. The host pointed out that while Netflix is spending hundreds of millions on cranking out its movies not a single one has broken through the mainstream the way a House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, or Stranger Things did. What gives? Blumhouse replied simply: “They’ll get there.”
When pressed for specifics, he expanded, “Give them a chance. In six months, in 12 months, they’re going to have that movie. It takes time. Movies, you get to the Get Out, or the culturals that were the hits. You have to have a slate. And in six months, they’re going to have it. Or in 12 months, they’re going to have definitely the movie equivalent of Orange Is the New Black or House of Cards on Netflix. For sure.”
I was reminded of this quote because Netflix, in many ways, has modeled itself after HBO, starting out as a home for older, acquired programming before moving into original films and TV shows as a way to stand out from the competition and hook viewers. And back in its infancy, HBO’s Original Films division floundered a bit as well. Cast a Deadly Spell, for example, is almost like HBO’s very own Bright: It’s a fantasy spin on a well-known genre – buddy cop drama for Bright, film noir for Cast a Deadly Spell – and depicts a world exactly like our own just with magical creatures around. Both seem at least somewhat clever at first, but you quickly realize how completely surface level it all is.
Admittedly, it’s a strained comparison. Bright is big budget and is headlined by Will Smith, once one of the biggest film stars in the world; even though it was a step up from what HBO had been doing to that point and features a young Julianne Moore, Cast a Deadly Spell is certainly of more modest means (reportedly just a $6m budget, the equivalent of $11m today) and lacks the same star wattage. Moreover, Bright is somewhat annoying in its poorly thought out, high school-grade attempt at allegory and social commentary; Cast a Deadly Spell is but an amusing lark, a fun little spin on the familiar that was likely just made to cash in on Roger Rabbit’s “it’s like a detective movie crossed with fill in the blank” formula.
The perfectly cast Fred Ward plays H. Philip Lovecraft as a Bogey-like gumshoe, quick with a quip, stuck in his ways, and forever tempted by the femme fatale. The year is 1948 and everyone uses magic, the opening text bluntly informs us. Everyone except Lovecraft, who refrains on principle. That makes him the perfect person to track down a missing book which holds the key to great power. Any normal, magic-practicing person would be tempted to use the book rather than return it. Not Lovecraft. So, David Warner, as a mysterious rich old man, hires him to locate something called the Necronomicon.
Except, of course, we’re meant to know exactly what that it is. Before it ever became one of the centerpieces of the Evil Dead franchise, the Necronomicon was a Lovecraft creation. A grimoire containing an account of the Old Ones and spells to summon them, it features prominently in several of Lovecraft’s stories. Including it in Cast a Deadly Spell speaks to the film’s general aim to be a love letter to all things Lovecraft. Similarly, you can certainly bet that Cthulhu will show up or at least be mentioned.
The Necronomicon is used here as the story’s MacGuffin. It’s the thing two seemingly feuding parties are after. On one side is Clancy Brown as a corrupt club owner; on the other side is Warner as a wealthy man with wicked intentions. Stuck in the middle is Fred Ward. Julianne Moore factors in as the sultry club singer who used to date Ward but is now shacked up with Brown. Gremlins, goblins, unicorns, werewolves, zombies (used as slave labor), vampires, and witches all pop up on the periphery.
From a script by TV writer Joseph Dougherty (Thirtysomething, Judging Amy, HBO’s Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman remake), there’s a definite playfulness to Cast a Deadly Spell. Any movie, after all, which includes a line like “Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a virgin in Hollywood?” is clearly having a bit of a laugh.
Some of the humor, however, plays surprisingly broad. For example, similar to Will Smith swatting away a literal pixie fairy as if it was a particularly annoying bug in Bright there is one sequence where an old man working on a car complains of gremlins under the hood only to open it up and see literal gremlins. They look like producer Gale Anne Hurd somehow got them on loan from Joe Dante’s Gremlins 2, which filmed a year earlier, and the one that looks just like Goofy from The New Batch actually moons the old man (to Lovecraft’s immense delight).
There are also some regrettable, possibly sign-of-the-time moments, such as when Lovecraft casually refers to a cross-dressing homosexual as a “fag” and “fairy’ in the same conversation. That’s after he’s roughed this person – a key, non-hostile witness – up for, really, no good reason. It plays into the film noir source material, and the language is certainly era-appropriate. It just caught me off guard since with all the fantasy creatures around I briefly forgot we’re watching something set in ‘48.
That bit of oddness aside, director Martin Campbell (Goldeneye, Casino Royale) gives Cast a Deadly Spell all the film noir visual it needs, and when the inevitable Lovecraftian horror bits come into play he doesn’t hold back. The (practical) creature at the end is suitably hideous and tentacle-heavy.
Like Bright, Cast a Deadly Spell did well enough to earn a sequel, 1995’s Witch Hunter which tackled the Red Scare and recast the Lovecraft role with Dennis Hopper. By the time it arrived, HBO Films had moved past its troubled early years and entered into a period of prolonged success, producing hits like Barbarians at the Gate, And the Band Played On…, and Miss Evers’ Boys and winning the Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie every year from ‘93 to ‘99. The landscape today is obviously different, and Netflix wants Oscars for its movies, not Emmys. Still, if HBO could turn the corner like that maybe Netflix can do, as Blum said. Either way, I know that even with its lesser visuals and reduced star power I’d much watch Cast a Deadly Spell again than Bright.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The merging of Lovecraft with Raymond Chandler is an inherently fun idea. It gives us a universe where when it rains outside the weary detective’s office it rains literal blood and nobody bats an eye. But it also means most of the fun of the film comes from recognizing the references, appreciating the work of future bigger names, and making do with a workmanlike plot that only pops because occasionally a gremlin pops up to annoy. Still, as an early example of a genre mash-up Cast a Deadly Spell holds considerable charm.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHT
- SPOILER Angel’s fantastic episode “Guise will be Guise” was the first time I had ever seen the virgin sacrifice trope undercut by a “what if she isn’t actually a virgin?” punchline. I had no idea Cast a Deadly Spell played the same gag over a decade earlier.
The Alamo Drafthouse once screened Cast a Deadly Spell from an old VHS copy because there was no DVD or 35MM print. Thankfully, HBO has rectified this. Kind of. There is now an HD version streaming on HBO Now and Amazon Prime.