Cast a Deadly Spell turns 25

by Dan Stout

Today marks twenty-five years since HBO’s CAST A DEADLY SPELL was released onto an unexpecting TV audience. A Lovecraftian horror story laced with comedy and cast in a noir mold, it’s a mad mix of genres that preceded both the Urban Fantasy boom in fiction and the rising tide of pop-culture Cthulhu mania.

Fred Ward (TREMORS) plays H.P. “Phillip” Lovecraft, but this Lovecraft is a far cry from the historical author, more Sam Spade than reclusive xenophobe. An ex-cop turned private eye, Lovecraft lives in a world where magic has become commonplace. In fact, Lovecraft may be the only person in 1948 Los Angeles who doesn’t use magic in his daily life.

It’s this abstention from magic that lands him a wealthy new client, Amos Hacksaw (David Warner, THE OMEN). Hacksaw’s former chauffer has made off with a rare book from Hacksaw’s library, and he wants Lovecraft to track it down. Lovecraft takes the case, but before he leaves the mansion he crosses paths with his new client’s beautiful, unicorn-hunting daughter Olivia (Alexandra Powers, DEAD POETS SOCIETY).

The hunt for the book forces Lovecraft to confront his past, personified by former flame (Julianne Moore, THE BIG LEBOWSKI) and a local gangster (Clancy Brown, HIGHLANDER). Raymond O’Conner plays a psychopathic hitman eager to vent his magical fury on Lovecraft, while Arnetia Walker’s Hypolite is the detective’s landlord and reluctant advisor. 

Ward's Lovecraft confronts an array of characters, from hard-nosed cops and werewolves in holding cells to things beyond time and space. The humor elements are a mixed bag, with some flowing naturally from the story and setting while others feel forced or tacked-on. 

Directed by Martin Campbell, who went on to helm Bond entries GOLDENEYE and CASINO ROYALE, the film moves at a nice pace. Screenwriter Joseph Dougherty delivers a tale filled with references to the Cthulhu mythos and hard-boiled detective films, making it a fun watch for fans of either genre, through the magic and comedy might be too much for noir purists.

Dougherty would later pen a sequel, WITCH HUNT, which features Lovecraft (now played by Dennis Hopper) running headlong into 1950’s Red Scare paranoia.

In the intervening quarter century, the public's understanding of Lovecraft has grown to include his explicit personal racism and the xenophobia implicit in his fiction. This film doesn't tackle these issues, but I am glad to say that Hypolite and her cousin Thadius Pilgrim (David Downing) are hyper-competent, smart and funny. 

Although CAST A DEADLY SPELL is far from perfect, it does presage today’s ubiquitous Cthulhu awareness and magic-heavy urban fantasies. It’s never received a DVD or Blu-Ray release, but is available on YouTube and on HBO Go and Amazon Prime.

Have you seen it?

by Dan Stout