Sunday, August 21, 2011

Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)

The Movie: The year is 1948 and everyone uses magic. Well, not quite everyone. Detective H. Phillip Lovecraft (the prolific Fred Ward) absolutely refuses to use it, despite its constant presence and the pressure from everyone around him. That refusal is going to severely handicap him in his latest case.

Uber-rich scholar Amos Hackshaw (David Warner, of many films including the Omen and In the Mouth of Madness) wants Lovecraft to hunt down some stolen property for him. His former chauffer Larry Willis (Lee Tergesen) has stolen the prime book in his collection; a volume on esoteric magics called the Necronomicon. What’s more, Hackshaw needs it back by midnight two nights hence.

The first lead Lovecraft gets a hold of leads him to the club the Dunwich Room; which it turns out is owned by Harry Bordon (Clancy Brown, from Starship Troopers and Highlander, as well as the T.V. series Carnivale), a two-bit crime boss who also happens to be Phil’s old partner on the police force. Even more awkward is the presence of Connie Stone (the prolific Julianne Moore), the femme fatale headliner for the club and Phil’s ex-girlfriend. The more he searches, the more Phil gets drawn into the sinister web of intrigue building up around the book; having to contend with zombie leg breakers, gargoyle hit men, summoned demons, and Olivia (Alexandra Powers), Hackshaw’s hot-to-trot sixteen year-old daughter. All of this is building up to a dark ritual that may destroy the world.

Phil does, however, have an ally in his landlady, Mrs. Kropotkin (Arnetia Walker); a no-nonsense Voudoun practicing witch. Kropotkin is determined to get Phil through the mess with the Necronomicon intact; and the fact that her help isn’t exactly desired is entirely beside the point. However, even with her unwanted assistance; can Phil Lovecraft stand against the rising darkness?

The Review:

It started with a woman. It always starts with a woman…"

I am very tempted to say “not bad for a made-for-TV movie.” However, I will not say that; as it would be both a major understatement and a grave disservice to the movie in question. Cast a Deadly Spell is an HBO made movie, and it’s pretty damn good. I won’t say it’s the best movie ever made; or anything near. Still, it is very well made and, above all, it is a lot of fun.

In essence, Cast a Deadly Spell is two things; it is a noir detective story, and it is a tribute to the great horror author H.P. Lovecraft, in that order. In the latter category, it is only really a tribute. Various names from Lovecraft’s work appear, as does his famous plot formula of black magicians seeking to summon forgotten evil gods back into our world. Cthulhu, Lovecraft’s most famous creation, makes a brief appearance at the climax. And finally, of course, the author’s name is present in the name of our hero.

However, it is as a noir that Cast a Deadly Spell really works. Except for the inclusion of the supernatural, it would fit right into the classic noir’s of the 1940s. All the archetypes are here; the hardboiled detective who won’t compromise his principals, the rich degenerate, the gangster, the femme fatale. The usual themes are very much present as well. The theme of getting by without selling one’s soul is our hero’s primary motivation; albeit presented much more literally than usual. Then again, I find myself more of the opinion as time goes on that Faust got a much better deal than contemporary society is willing to offer me, or most other people. There is also the important theme of moral ambiguity; particularly where a truly immoral act is what winds up saving the day.

The plot’s structure also lines up perfectly with the plot of a classic noir detective story. In all the major particulars, the plot is by the numbers. However, it’s in the little details where this movie comes into its own. The world which the characters inhabit is beautifully crafted, to the point where one could almost believe that it exists. The inclusion of magic and the supernatural also allows some truly fun little details; such as the gremlin infested boarding house where Lovecraft begins his investigation, or the scene at the police station where the hooker in the holding cell reveals a set of vampire fangs. These are just little details that aren’t important to the main plot, but they help reinforce the sense of a living, breathing world.

I particularly admire how the movie handles the subject of magic, itself. As a student of mythology and folklore for most of my life, I have come across many systems of magic. Now, despite what Disney has led us to believe, there is not a single pre-twentieth century system of magic that is simply “wave the wand, say the words, and ‘poof’ it happens.” In fact, every system of magic I have come across is every bit as cause and effect as contemporary Western science. Admittedly it usually works along different principals; Voodoun magic, for example, involves knowing who the right spirits are for the situation and how to get in their good graces; but there is always a system behind it.

Now, Cast a Deadly Spell never actually explains the system behind its magic, but it presents it in a way to suggest that there is something behind it. If you watch the magic-using characters, you will often notice them doing some seemingly odd, and or pointless gesture before the actual magic starts. As an example, in one scene where Harry has his henchman, Tugwell (Raymond O’ Conner of Halloween 4 and Doctor Alien), pay off a flunky that they intend to double cross; Tugwell sucks on the little package that has his “payment” inside. A short time after, when Tugwell corners him in a public restroom to finish him off, it’s the package and its contents that are used to kill the man, giving him a very nasty death by paper cut.

Another way I think the movie employs the subject of magic very well is how it is presented in society at large. It is clear that in this world, magic is the latest Big Thing, and much like Western science in our world all the way back to the Industrial Revolution, there are good and bad sides to this. On the one hand, there’s no denying that it works. However, much like science, the majority of the characters don’t really understand it even though they use it constantly. In our history there have been many examples of how this state of affairs can be misused and exploited to the advantage of a few individuals; Social Darwinism, Dianetics, and Creationism/Intelligent Design to name but a few. This is echoed in Cast a Deadly Spell with the constant refrain of “it’s the way of the future.” And yet, we can often see the limitations even if the other characters can’t. In one of my favorite scenes, Lovecraft’s case takes him to one of the postwar tract suburbs that were going up at this time in history. The saleslady eagerly emphasizes how they are built entirely by magic; but the zombie workmen demonstrate, far better than any line of dialogue could, how just because something is the latest technique, it doesn’t necessarily make it the best one.

Probably the character with the healthiest attitude toward magic is Mrs. Kropotkin. On the one hand, being a witch herself, she does use it. In fact, the very first thing we see after the credits is her performing a divination ritual. There is also a scene late in the movie where she corner’s Lovecraft, orders him to give her his hand, and then puts a charmed bracelet on it. When he protests that he doesn’t use the stuff, she merely responds “I know, that’s why I locked it on.” Kropotkin then proceeds to tell Lovecraft, rather bluntly, that he is a moron for his attitude toward white magic; but he needs what she is providing him, and she’s going to make sure he gets it, whatever he might think of the arrangement.

On the other hand, Kropotkin, unlike the other magic-using characters we meet, does not feel that magic is an end in and of itself. Her reaction to Lovecraft initially asking her about the Necronomicon makes it clear that there are some lines she will not cross. Probably more notable, she’s probably the only magic-user we never see employing magic for minor tricks like making things float or lighting cigarettes. At the end she is gathering supplies to help Lovecraft with his injuries, and when he asks what’s in one bottle she answers that it’s rubbing alcohol, and gives the caveat “I’m a witch, but I’m not a fanatic.”

I must confess that Mrs. Kropotkin is my favorite character. A large part of it is because Walker does such a wonderful job with the character, but also her relationship with Lovecraft kind of reminds me of my own with my little sister. My sister is a major control freak, but she’s right often enough that it’s dangerous to reject her advice out of hand. I find myself identifying with Lovecraft in the scenes where he deals with Kropotkin; it’s extremely irritating that she sticks her nose in, but he’s always grateful for it in the end.

So, in all, Cast a Deadly Spell is a good movie. One small warning, the box might make you think it’s a lighthearted comedy (that certainly happened with several people I showed it to). It’s not; while it does have a sense of humor it’s mostly a very dry, deadpan one. Still, this movie is a lot of fun and definitely worth watching if you can find it. So why the hell’s it not out on DVD yet?

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