Cast a Deadly Spell (1991) – For want of a virgin in Hollywood

“Time was you had to look a man in the eye before you could kill him. You owed him that. Now with the nerve and a little know-how, you can do it by tyin’ six knots in a piece of string. Ain’t modern livin’ grand?”

Sitting Duck’s rating: Seven out of 10 virgin sacrifices to the Great Old Ones

Sitting Duck’s review: I’ll lay it out for you. Noir is a genre for which I have no particular fondness. Maybe it’s the pretentious monologues, or the paper-thin archetypes, or the oppressively cynical outlook. It could even be because I think Humphrey Bogart is an overrated actor. Whatever it is, when it comes to crime fiction, I’m more likely to gravitate towards the drawing room whodunits of Agatha Christie and her ilk.

But there’s one way that I can tolerate noir, and that’s by adding some fantastical elements. Whether through traditional horror or the more current urban fantasy, these act as the honey and lemon juice that, mixed with the rancid bathtub gin of noir, makes for a palatable Bee’s Knees cocktail.

One of the earliest examples of the noir variant of urban fantasy was the HBO TV movie Cast a Deadly Spell. I first encountered this thanks to a commercial VHS tape purchased at a local used book shop (now closed, alas). My vague recollection was that it was enjoyable, but the special effects were lacking as you might expect for a TV movie. But viewing it fell out of my rotation once DVDs gained ascendency and the VHS player got too dusty to risk running anything on it. Fortunately, Cast a Deadly Spell has become available for legal streaming. So is it as good as I recall it, or will it fall short?

Our story takes place in Los Angeles in 1948. However, this is not the 1948 Los Angeles you might know. In this one, magic is now a modern convenience, with seemingly everyone knowing at least a few cantrips or possessing a couple of amulets. But private detective Harry Lovecraft (Fred Ward) is one person who refuses to so much as dabble, even when it puts him at a disadvantage. Like most hardnosed private eyes, Lovecraft is a bit short on cash, and his manbo landlady (Arnetia Walker) is getting rather insistent about his rent payment.

His next likely paycheck comes in the person of occult scholar Amos Hackshaw (David Warner), who wishes to hire Lovecraft specifically because he eschews magic. The job itself is quite straightforward at first glance. Recently, Hackshaw gave his chauffeur Larry Willis (Lee Tergesen) the pink slip, as he believed Willis was making unseemly advances towards his sheltered daughter Olivia (Alexandra Powers). Much to Hackshaw’s consternation, Willis took some unauthorized severance pay by swiping his copy of the Necronomicon. Lovecraft’s job is to track down Willis and recover the Necronomicon by any means necessary, and to get it back by midnight in two days. Why such a specific time frame? Oh, no reason.

This job obviously stinks to high heaven. But since the alternative is to have his rent check bounce, Lovecraft quashes his misgivings and takes it. Following the trail of Willis, Lovecraft winds up getting involved in the seamier side of magic and finds himself tangled in a veritable daisy chain of double, triple, and quadruple cross. This leaves him wondering if forty bucks a day plus expenses is really worth dealing with all of this.

With a premise like this, one of the biggest worries is how to handle the exposition concerning the way magic fits in the setting. There is a real danger of the dialogue getting weighed down by massive slabs of infodumps. Fortunately, the demonstration of the magic adheres to the show, don’t tell principle, with it being used for labor-saving purposes in the background. With one or two exceptions, what exposition about magic we get falls naturally into the dialogue.

The acting presentations average out to competent. At the upper end of the spectrum is Fred Ward as Lovecraft. Even with my personal disdain for the noir conventions, Ward really gives it his all as the wisecracking, hardnosed private eye. The resulting portrayal is riveting. Not so wonderful is Alexandra Powers as Olivia. It’s true she looks the part of the naive yet slightly desperate ingenue. But her actual performance is just so wooden. Now I can’t recall having seen her in anything else. So I’m willing to take a charitable view and presume that her Gawdawful attempt at a British accent was too much of a strain on her acting chops. Maybe it would have been better to have cast a British actress in the role. Though I suppose they could have cast an American actor for Hackshaw. But this would mean having the role played by someone other than David Warner. Clearly this would be an unacceptable situation.

While the special effects are a mixed bag, they’re not quite as bad as I remember them being. One thing that helps is that the creatures are mostly kept in dim lighting, so you can’t get a good look at any flaws in the design. Mind you, there is the occasional slip-up. One that stands out in this manner involves Hackshaw’s gargoyle, which is a very well-made puppet. However, in long shots the puppet gets replaced by a guy in a suit which is not so well designed, making for a jarring transition between the two. But for those of you who believe that you can contract leprosy from viewing too much CGI, this production is Certified 100% Practical Effects.

Finally, there’s the actual narrative. When you have a story that centers around an investigation, you’d better have all your ducks in a row and make the string of events connect logically. While this is mostly the case here, there are few glitches that crop up. I believe it may have run afoul of the unforgiving nature of television editing. Unlike a theater release or direct-to-video production, TV movies from the pre-streaming era must fit in a specific time frame with very little wiggle room. In such a situation, it’s easier for a key bit of exposition or the payoff for an earlier scene to get lost in the shuffle. So it’s not too surprising that the narrative is marred by a few hiccups.

One aspect that works better than it might seem at first concerns the climatic resolution. The sequence of events that lead to it hold together a lot better than I recall them doing. The main issue here is that this results in a moral situation that a lot of viewers will find distasteful and will probably be made worse by how the characters make light of it. However, it’s not the deus ex machina it might appear to be at first blush.

But while the issues that plague it are not insignificant, the overall product is one of the better TV movies from the Nineties and is more than worth the trivial amount of cash it would cost to rent or purchase it streaming.

Didja notice?

  • The obligatory monologue
  • But not Cucamonga
  • Those Mob club owners sure play dirty
  • Gargoyles got nards
  • That’s a lot of namedropping in that ritual
  • There was a sequel of sorts entitled Witch Hunt, with Fred Ward being replaced by Dennis Hopper. The less said about it, the better.

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