Fred Ward had the right stuff. He could play charming, tough, or funny with aplomb. In some cases, he embodied all three in a single role. Tremors is the most obvious example, but Cast a Deadly Spell is another that’s too often overlooked. Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit with eldritch monsters and magic instead of cartoons, the 1991 HBO original is film noir by way of H.P. Lovecraft.
Set in an alternate Los Angeles in 1948, magic exists and is embraced by all… that is, except Harry Phillip Lovecraft (Ward). The hardboiled private investigator is notorious for his refusal to use magic (for “personal reasons”), which is precisely why he’s hired to retrieve the stolen Necronomicon. Unfamiliar with the powerful grimoire, Lovecraft uses old-fashioned detective work to solve the mystery, leading him on a fantastical investigation.
Cast a Deadly Spell is, by definition, a TV movie — but as the classic HBO slogan goes, “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” Shot in Los Angeles in 37 days on a $6 million budget, it’s far richer than a stagnant movie of the week. Director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale, Green Lantern), writer Joseph Dougherty (Pretty Little Liars), and producer Gale Anne Hurd (The Terminator, Aliens) shepherd a pulpy, imaginative experience.
More than just a namesake; Lovecraft permeates the world of Cast a Deadly Spell in ways both big (summoning the Old Ones) and small (a nightclub named The Dunwich Room). Akin to Stuart Gordon’s Lovecraft adaptations, Campbell and Dougherty use the author’s work to lay the groundwork for weird fiction of their own.
Much like how Bob Hoskins nimbly grounds the otherwise zany Roger Rabbit, so too does Ward in Cast a Deadly Spell. But he’s not alone: Julianne Moore embodies the archetypal femme fatale as former flame Connie Stone; David Warner (The Omen) is perfectly smarmy as Amos Hackshaw, the wealthy warlock that hires Lovecraft; and Clancy Brown (The Shawshank Redemption) is in top form as Lovecraft’s ex-partner-turned-crime boss Harry Bordon.
A host of other characters are embroiled in the plot: Charles Hallahan (whose detached head is the centerpiece of The Thing‘s most iconic scene) as a detective named after Ray Bradbury; Raymond O’Connor (Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers) as Hacksaw’s henchman with a voodoo-zombie bodyguard; Alexandra Powers (L.A. Law) as Hackshaw’s daughter; and Lee Tergesen (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning) as the chauffeur believed to have stolen the Necronomicon.
With enough gumshoe sleuthing, double crossing, and voiceover monologues to make Raymond Chandler proud, Campbell fully champions the noir tropes. It extends to the shadowy cinematography by Alexander Gruszynski (Tremors, The Craft) and bombastic score from Curt Sobel (Alien Nation). Sobel and lyricist Dennis Spiegel earned an Emmy for Outstanding Music & Lyrics for “Why Do I Lie?,” an orchestral number that Moore questionably lip syncs (with Darlene Koldenhoven providing the actual vocals).
Tony Gardner (who brought Chucky to life in the last three movies and the new TV series) serves as special effects supervisor. Among the menagerie of monsters are tentacled gods, gremlins, and a gargoyle played by Michael Reid MacKay (who was The Mummy in The Monster Squad). Stuntman George P. Wilbur (who donned The Shape’s mask in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers and Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers) has a blink-and-you-miss-it role as a restaurant cook.
One has to imagine that the success HBO found with Tales from the Crypt — at the height of its popularity circa 1991 — helped Cast a Deadly Spell get the green light. The two are similar in tone; although they rarely attempt to be scary, each one embraces monsters and blood with a sense of humor. In fact, Cast a Deadly Spell feels more like a Tales from the Crypt movie than any of the titles that were produced under the banner.
Cast a Deadly Spell spawned a quasi-sequel in 1994 titled Witch Hunt. Directed by Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader, it stars Dennis Hopper as Lovecraft alongside Penelope Ann Miller and Eric Bogosian. Despite Dougherty returning to pen the script, it’s more of a reboot with little connection to the original. Set in 1954, magic is cleverly used as a metaphor for communism, but the end result is not as entertaining as its predecessor.
Cast a Deadly Spell never made its way past VHS and LaserDisc in the US. While a special edition Blu-ray would be magical, I’m pleased that the film is streaming in high definition on HBO Max. With the resurgence of interest in Lovecraft, coupled with the modern recognition of his problematic views, the property is ripe for a revisit. HBO could easily turn it into a cosmic horror version of True Detective, as long as they don’t abandon the practical effects.