The premise behind Cast a Deadly Spell — an attempt to combine the hard-boiled detective story with supernatural science fiction — is at once so juicy and so problematic that I’m amazed its creators have pulled it off. Spell stars Fred Ward (Miami Blues) as a 1940s private eye named H. Phillip Lovecraft. Lovecraft is a shamus right out of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett — he keeps a seedy office in Hollywood and is a cynical cuss who delivers his voice-over narration in a confidential murmur: ”It started with a woman — it always starts with a woman. ”
But our protagonist’s name — a blend of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and 1930s horror writer H.P. Lovecraft — offers an obvious clue right from the start that this is not your standard detective story. Something is a little wonky: Everyone around Lovecraft practices magic, and Los Angeles’ underworld is dominated by creatures from the netherworld. Lovecraft’s landlady (Arnetia Walker of Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills) is also a witch who runs a tap-dancing studio; when our hero visits his local police precinct, he finds vampire prostitutes behind bars and a cop grilling a howling werewolf (”God, I hate full moons,” sighs the weary flatfoot).
Lovecraft is the only guy in town who doesn’t indulge in hexes and mumbo jumbo to get through life, and in the intricately witty script by Joseph Dougherty (thirtysomething), his resistance to black magic renders him the city’s last honest citizen. ”I’m my own man…nobody’s got a mortgage on my soul,” he rasps at one point, and it’s strongly implied that the head of the mortgage company he’s talking about is Satan.
Lovecraft’s code of honor makes him a much sought-after private eye, and he’s hired by a wealthy creep, played with campy glee by David Warner (Time Bandits), to find a priceless how-to book of black magic called the Necronomicon. Warner’s character understands that Lovecraft is the only person he can entrust with this task, because the detective is the only person around who won’t be tempted to use the book’s power for himself.
Dougherty, working with producer Gale Anne Hurd (Terminator 2) and director Martin Campbell (Criminal Law; Reilly: Ace of Spies), sets himself a formidable task, because not only does he have to keep juggling his two genres to create a new one — call it horror noir — but he also has to compete with our memories of a movie that has already attempted this sort of thing: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a 1982 box office bomb that has become a widely admired cult film.
Blade Runner’s horror noir had the advantage of big-budget, wide-screen visions of the future, but Hurd, overseeing a $6 million TV movie, does a darn good job of both summoning up the atmosphere of postwar L.A. and deploying special effects that include a cement gargoyle come to life and a monster that rises out of a vat of oatmeal.
More crucially, Spell has what Blade Runner lacked — a coherent, fully thought-out script. Dougherty makes you feel that the wonderfully overripe dialogue he cooked up here was a great way to let off steam after the quiet, firmly realistic stories he told on thirtysomething. While he never allows his story to become a spoof, he’s also not afraid to be funny. No writer since S.J. Perelman has parodied hard-boiled dialogue with such accuracy. Ordering a drink, Lovecraft rumbles, ”Bourbon — show it some water but be discreet.” When a sultry babe makes fun of his garish necktie, Lovecraft says, ”Hey, what’s wrong with this tie?” ”Nothing,” coos the woman, ”if you like vertigo.” Best of all, the climax of Spell turns on an immensely clever variation on an old joke: the inability to find a virgin in Hollywood.
Starring in a story that could easily have spun out of control, Fred Ward centers Spell with just the right combination of world-weariness and self-mockery. Ward’s gravity contrasts neatly with Warner’s madcap air, and both receive strong support from Julianne Moore (Tales From the Darkside: The Movie) as Lovecraft’s still-hot old flame and Clancy Brown (Shoot to Kill) as a mobster who smokes a big cigar that Lovecraft refers to as ”a smoldering chair leg.” An image like that, and oatmeal monsters too: What a great way to spend an evening. A