Jim Vorel and Kenneth Lowe are connoisseurs of terrible movies. In this occasional series, they watch and then discuss the fallout of a particularly painful film. Be wary of spoilers.
Jim: Are you a fan of detective fiction, Ken? I know you’re all up in those Westerns and samurai pictures, which makes me imagine for some reason that you’d also be steeped in Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and whatnot. I basically just need to know how much fondness you have for the tropes that are twisted in such an odd way by Cast a Deadly Spell.
Ken: I’ve cracked the spine on the occasional hard-boiled detective story. And readers may remember I’m a devotee of Hammett, especially in his role as progenitor of some samurai/western classics. So you’d figure I’d have a very poor saving throw against this particular spell, Jim.
As for yourself, I know you’re a self-taught expert in the works of H.P. Lovecraft. It makes me wonder how on Earth either of us have never heard of this deeply strange, laughably ridiculous movie.
Jim: After watching it, I’m all the more amazed that I didn’t know all about Cast a Deadly Spell already, especially for the fact that it’s pretty decently put together most of the time. This may have been a TV film (it aired on HBO in 1991), but it had an actual budget behind it. Not to mention actual actors! I’ve definitely watched cheaper and worse Lovecraft adaptations than this, Ken.
Ken: I’ll admit I know of Mr. Lovecraft more by reputation and his legions of imitators than the original text, but I don’t think I’ve seen a LESS Lovecraftian Lovecraft “adaptation,” if indeed this could be called one.
Jim: You’re right; you probably can’t call this a “Lovecraft adaptation,” because it’s not a straight adaptation of one of his stories. Rather, it’s a mash-up of a half dozen ideas he might have had at one time with every yellowed paperback you’d find in the mystery section of a used bookstore.
Ken: It seems like there was some genuine affection for the various source materials here, I’ll say. I still think it adds up to a lackluster execution and some truly whack-a-doo moments that just send the tone spiraling into non-Euclidean madness.
Jim: This seems to be the product of an interesting moment of the early 1990s, as I get the sense that the general public here still isn’t aware of the tropes of what “Lovecraftian horror” or “H.P. Lovecraft” would entail. It feels like we didn’t really reach a tipping point on that until South Park had a big episode revolving around Cthulhu around 2010? Here, their ability to grab random bits of source material allows them to just stitch a few bits of Lovecraft flavor text onto a story that would be better summarized as “The Maltese Falcon, but with magic.”
Ken: I think in the world of videogames and the like, you had much, much more incursion of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror into our fragile reality earlier than that, but I agree that by 2010 Cthulhu had become more of a household name. What’s clearly going on here, though, is a writer’s room that likes Lovecraft but either a director (Martin Campbell for goodness sake!!) or producers who weren’t on board with it. Film noir is the perfect genre to mix up with Lovecraft. This is Netflix’s Bright, but 25 years early. There are gargoyles and floating tea trays in this movie, Jim. How many of those were in The Shadow Over Innsmouth?
Jim: Oh man, I never considered the Bright connection, but that’s really spot-on. They’re even both in L.A., I think? This movie literally opens with a still screen that reads “Los Angeles, 1948. Everybody used magic.” Does that not sound like the first two lines of a pulpy short story? To think that the guy who directed this would go on to do Goldeneye and Casino Royale! I wonder if anyone ever asks him about Cast a Deadly Spell.
Simple, gets the point across.
Ken: That detail more than any other, I think, makes this qualify as Bad Movie Diaries-worthy. As you point out, this is not incompetently made. It is not particularly painful to watch, although it is at times bafflingly boring, and at others bizarre. And at every moment, if you’re my fiancée, you’re asking, “Why am I watching this, Ken?” and if you’re guys like us, you’re thinking, ‘Why do an alt-history story where your detective who is H.P. Lovecraft is in a world with things like unicorns and living gargoyles? Why would that be a thing?’ Dark fantasy or urban fantasy is not Lovecraft any more than seeking out The One Ring is Conan the Barbarian’s M.O.
Which is to say “Almost, but not at all.”
Jim: That’s correct. Actually making H.P. Lovecraft himself the protagonist of an urban fantasy is an odd choice, as his stories are rooted in cosmic, interdimensional, dreamy horror. This is a much more mundane combination of Harry Potter-style “zap!” spells and the occasional monster. To say nothing of the fact that if the protagonist really IS H.P. Lovecraft, he should be a waif-ish, malnourished racist. Rather than a stubbly, handsome P.I. played by Fred Ward of Tremors fame.
Ken: And boy was Lovecraft racist—suffice it to say folks, that all you need to do is google the name of his cat to find out all you need to know. That is nowhere in evidence here, probably for the better. And if we’re talking about characters who aren’t at all like their namesakes, it’s implied Ray Bradbury is a barrel-chested, grizzled detective type, so we’ve truly gone off the reservation anyhow, haven’t we? Why don’t you set the scene for our readers here, Jim. Don’t forget the big Art Deco title cards and constant jazz.
The spitting image!
Jim: The year is 1948! Blood rains from the sky for no apparent reason over the City of Angels, and this is an everyday occurrence that is considered a nuisance by the residents, rather than a sign of the end times. Magic, discovered at some point in the recent past and via methods that are left entirely unexplained, has since been learned by seemingly every human on earth. Every human but one, that is—H.P. Lovecraft, a hard drinking, hard-squinting private dick who solves crimes the archaic way, with good old-fashioned legwork and plenty of booze.
Ken: Phil, to his friends.
This entire movie, Jim, I was waiting for some explanation of why magic suddenly showed up and why Lovecraft so avowedly does not use it. I don’t think either are ever, ever explained.
Jim: I was also expecting some backstory about how dabbling in magic killed his police partner or something. Until we learn that one of the villains actually is his former police partner, that is. Instead, everybody is always just razzing him for owning a single tie and not using magic to make his life easier. You assume he’ll eventually be shown to be correct because magic has some sinister cost behind it, but for everyday uses it seems to be perfectly safe?
Ken: He has one throwaway line, deep in there, about how “Nobody’s got a mortgage on my soul!” but at no point is there an indicator that you pay any sort of price for hurling around spells. We are solidly in the J.K. Rowling camp of magic: no mana, no spell slots, no regulation unless it’s momentarily inconvenient to the hero. It feels like there was something in here that was taken out or never shot in the first place that was going to cause everything to take a really dark turn.
Jim: Which is funny, because other characters seem to mention things like patron deities, like they’re D&D clerics. They really didn’t think out this magic system, did they?
Ken: Nothing about this world seems particularly thought out. I’m watching the Watchmen show right now, which is built on amazing alternate history work, so I couldn’t help but think about all the little ways in which this one fumbles the ball. With the kind of magic they seem to have in this world, why would you need a private eye? You could probably just look into a crystal ball or something, and have your answer.
Jim: We very briefly see the police station in a hilarious shot that is filled with spiritual mediums channeling spirits and assisting officers and whatnot. I have no idea why their magic is less effective than everyone else’s, but it is law enforcement, after all. Tell the people about the hot case that Phil Lovecraft gets hired to investigate.
Ken: After he collars some other guy and gets a stern talking to from “Bradbury,” Lovecraft is summoned to the manse of David Warner, who is playing somebody who is not named David Warner, but who nonetheless is David Warner. This would be right before he started lending his inimitable villain’s voice to Ra’s al Ghul in Batman: The Animated Series, come to think. Even though this likely predates that by just a bit, there’s no way the viewer doesn’t immediately know he’s secretly the villain.
David Warner’s closet is just hundreds of these smoking jackets.
Ken: Warner has a job for him: Keep his virginal daughter a virgin (seriously), and see about recovering a certain book that one of his employees stole before fleeing his service. Of course, we already know that this guy has met his fate. Maybe you should tell us who our other villain is.
Jim: The David Warner character’s name is “Amos Hackshaw,” which is too good to not include. He suspects his former employee stole the book—yeah, you guessed it, the Necronomicon—to fence it to club owner and crime boss, Harry Bordon, played by the hardest screw to ever walk a turn in Shawshank, Clancy Brown. I will admit that I was shocked to see Brown’s initial appearance here, as I’ve never seen him in a role where his character would be described as suave or debonair. It’s weird to see him letting other guys do his dirty work for him, but his stubby assistant is particularly talented with murder spells.
“If I hear so much as a mouse fart in here the rest of the night, I swear by God and sonny Jesus you will all visit the infirmary!”
Ken: We get a scene where Brown’s character realizes that Hackshaw’s former employee has passed him a fake book, and then we watch as said stubby assistant does indeed murder the crap out of the employee (after he stashes the book of course). I will admit that I found Lovecraft’s attempts to unwind this tale confusing at best.
Jim: I love the manner of murder here—he causes a bunch of newspapers to turn into a maelstrom surrounding the guy and he’s sliced to death with 10,000 paper cuts. Cast a Deadly Spell has a few such moments that are actually pretty gory, which can be tonally weird. Like 95% of it is definitely not a “horror” film, but there’s a few brief spikes where that’s what it feels like, in between segments of detective drama.
Ken: There is also a lot, and I mean a lot, of costume and puppetry work. It really feels like this movie was taking advantage of some of the know-how of HBO’s Tales From the Crypt. Some of it looks really gnarly.
But seriously, it gets legitimately bloody.
Ken: Of course, Lovecraft wouldn’t be a private dick in a film noir story if he wasn’t barely scraping by. Tell us about his landlady.
Jim: I feel bad for saying that I couldn’t understand half of what she was saying because she’s a heavily accented, dark-skinned Caribbean woman, but that’s the truth. Judging from her mannerisms and little fetish objects, she practices something like voodoo, which raises the question: Are all manners of magic just equally workable in this world? Does divination with tea leaves work, as well? Or scrying from animal intestines? Hilariously, she rents out her building to Lovecraft in one office, and a ballet studio in the other.
Sort of a “raggedy voodoo Ann” doll.
Jim: The creature effects, as you said, are widespread and most look quite good, although I think I saw the literal arm of a puppeteer during a brawl sequence in the back of a restaurant.
Ken: Ha! I missed that. If this all sounds like it’s far too good to be a feature here, though, I want to talk about some truly cringe-worthy moments, starting with Hackshaw’s daughter. It’s a common trope that every woman in the movie must hit on the straight-laced detective, but we have established young Olivia is 16, and she pursues Lovecraft almost as doggedly as the unicorn we see her chasing as he rolls up to Hackshaw’s house. Their scenes together are just cliched dialogue, over and over.
Jim: She’s your classic “sexpot who is also a virgin, somehow,” and she voraciously pursues pretty much any man who comes into her field of vision. It is unsettling.
Ken: Readers: Do not forget that she is 16.
Jim: The most cringe-worthy thing in here has to be Julianne Moore lip-singing as Lovecraft’s former flame, though. I felt bad for her; the way they shot her close-ups there were not flattering in the least. And when you make a young Julianne Moore look bad on screen, you have done something wrong.
It’s hard to imagine that Julianne Moore would recall this shoot fondly.
Ken: Oh goodness, can we talk about that? The song is awful. Her framing is awful. What on Earth happened?
Jim: This movie in general gave me serious Who Framed Roger Rabbit? vibes, and I seriously think they pitched this to her by promising that it would make her look like Jessica Rabbit in one of those sultry lounge-singing numbers. Instead, it’s a sedated, droning number that falls flat on its face.
Ken: This scene occurs as Lovecraft follows a few leads on the missing employee, leading him first to a deeply weird encounter at an apartment building where the landlord gets in a Bugs-vs.-Elmer-Fudd type of slapstick routine with a gremlin, and then shows up at the club Clancy Brown owns and Julianne Moore sings at. They trade a few barbs—again, Lovecraft is ribbed for not using magic—and we gather the three have a history. Of course, Lovecraft starts running afoul of the folks who don’t want him to find the Necronomicon.
Jim: Fred Ward tries to deliver some pithy one-liners throughout here, but the writers aren’t doing him any favors. At one point, he says the following: “I’ve heard more intelligent sounds coming out of a pair of corduroy pants.” I can’t even tell; is this a fart joke or what?
Ken: For all we know, corduroy pants talk in this world.
Ken: At some point, Lovecraft awakens from a lonely night in his office to find Olivia right there. How do attractive young women always just have the ability to phase through protagonists’ walls, Jim? The next scene involves the two going out to breakfast, where Lovecraft is spotted by Brown’s stubby assistant. Jim, what happens next veers into the disturbing. Describe to us what happens here.
Jim: They’re having breakfast at a greasy spoon, and the assistant/hitman scribbles some magical gibberish onto a scrap of paper, pays off the proprietor and tells him to give it to Lovecraft, presumably to curse him. Lovecraft sees the scrap of paper and immediately goes into full-on combat mode, resulting in a completely chaotic kitchen brawl, wherein a dishwasher accidentally glances at the paper and somehow summons a demon that rises from a pot of bubbling soup and tears his throat out.
Jim: This is all evidence that it would really suck to live in a world where people can assassinate you by slipping you a piece of paper.
Ken: Does the post office check for demon summoning murder cards? Is there a demon-gram service like a candy-gram/telegram?!! How has every president or ex-husband not been assassinated???
One of the chefs gets mauled to pieces but, at the end of the scene, gets up to burble a bit before dropping dead again. Is it a gag? The tone is all over the place.
Jim: The gore is really gross there, too. Meanwhile, the tone is very much the opposite when Lovecraft goes hunting for a lead about the original book thief at a suburb that is under construction by zombie laborers. This is all slapstick from top to bottom, with zombies having boards broken over their heads and falling face-down into wet cement. He does get a promising lead, however, that leads him to another of the film’s oddball characters.
Ken: Oh man, this scene. The employee who nicked the Necronomicon has a girlfriend, only it’s a transvestite man. This is not played with OVERT disrespect, but this character survives for about five seconds before somebody else summons a heckin’ gargoyle, who busts into the room and kills Lovecraft’s lead in the goriest way possible. And then we get some slapstick as Lovecraft’s gun proves totally ineffective against the creature and it pulls a “Really?” pose in front of him.
The most “human” expression I’ve ever seen a gargoyle strike.
Jim: Bullets? No effect. Swift kick to the stone dick? That works just fine. Classic movie logic. The swings between comedy and gore here are almost Evil Dead-ian.
Ken: It’s really tough to figure out what we’re going for here, isn’t it? Martin Campbell is a director, Jim.
Jim: One who had made six features before this, although none of them are his best-known works.
Can you spot which of these posters contains spooky clip-art?
Ken: He directed The Mask of Zorro! That’s a movie with serious and light-hearted moments that never seems like it’s going tonally wild.
Jim: Question for you: Was it ever clear to you what had happened that lead to Lovecraft and Bordon (Clancy Brown), former partners, both ending up off the police force and turned into rivals headed in opposite directions? Because if this was explained, I missed it.
Ken: I can’t remember perfectly, but I think there may have been a line about Bordon going on the take or something like that. Again, I was bracing for it being that Bordon sold his soul to go whole-hog into magical power or the like, but nope.
Jim: You know how it is. First, you take a harmless little bribe. Then you try and steal the Necronomicon to become god emperor of the death dimension.
Ken: At some point, by the way, we need to mention that Lovecraft gets yanked into the precinct for Bradbury to sweat him about what his case is about. (This is in the wake of the gruesome restaurant mauling.) The police station is a veritable Star Wars cantina of creatures, in which we learn that vampires and werewolves are a thing, as are levitating tea trays and the like. So apparently there’s no need for low-level labor in this world, either. What’s the server at the diner doing when his job could be handled by a sentient short order notepad and a floating serving tray? Same with the zombies. You can just use dead labor??
He’s in for a leash law violation.
Jim: Lovecraft eventually retrieves the book, but at the same time, he learns what it will be used for: David Warner wants it for a ritual to summon the Lovecraftian entity Yog-Sothoth (Cthulhu was booked solid), which will somehow result in David Warner also “becoming a god.” Of course, the ritual will also require a virgin sacrifice, in the form of his own daughter Olivia. Yes, Dad wasn’t concerned that she’d have her heart broken by some boy; he just needed to preserve her maidenhood so it could be consumed in an eldritch ceremony!
Ken: Meanwhile, we should mention that Lovecraft bribes the young cop who Bradbury sends to tail him, sending him off to keep an eye on Olivia. That is a sentence I just wrote.
Jim: A sentence that will by no means pay dividends within the next few paragraphs.
Ken: Not in the least.
So that suburban development we saw earlier is actually Hackshaw clearing the area for a Yog-Sothoth summoning. Lovecraft hides out for a sexy evening with Julianne Moore, and Clancy Brown comes by to nab the book. He’s trying to bargain it to Hackshaw in exchange for being made ruler of the world. As Hackshaw points out, it would be a ruined insane, destroyed world twisted under Yog-Sothoth’s slimy tentacles, but hey, Bordon would still be nominally in charge.
Jim: It’s a pretty pathetic desire. So pathetic that Julianne Moore shoots him and removes him from the story quite neatly.
Ken: The urban renewal/suburbification covering up the villain’s evil scheme is actually a very clever way to employ that L.A. detective fiction trope, I’ll grant.
Jim: They embark on the summoning, and a big crack in the ground opens up to reveal … I’m not sure how to describe Yog-Sothoth. It looks like a giant toad, covered in an unfathomable amount of KY Jelly.
Ken: I legit thought it was attempting to be Cthulhu until David Warner started repeatedly shouting Yog-Sothoth’s name. You know more of the Old Ones than I, Jim. Is he … er … it? an accurate representation of Yog-Sothoth?
Jim: To even attempt an “accurate” representation of one of these beings is in fact very un-Lovecraftian. They’re all supposed to be so much grander, vaster and more mind-blowingly strange than the human mind can conceive. Actually embodying them is always a very difficult task for film.
Ken: So, not that good, huh?
Jim: Not good, Ken. Bad, in fact.
Ken: What follows is my favorite moment in a while, when it comes to this series. Yog takes one quick tentacle grope of Olivia, spits her back out and then eats David Warner instead, and peaces out.
Wait for it, folks:
Olivia is not a virgin.
Tucked in the back of the car where he was knocked out when she was captured is the dopey young cop Lovecraft bribed to watch over her. Apparently they got busy.
Jim, remind our readers how old Olivia is?
Jim: Let the court be made aware that she is in fact 16. This is a film where the world is saved by an adult man deflowering a minor.
Do you, an adult man, take you, his child bride, to further defile, in the sight of Yog-Sothoth?
Ken: Statutory FTW, everybody! Also, Yog-Sothoth is the type of Yelp reviewer who doesn’t just send his steak back if it’s not done enough, he also shoots the waiter.
There was a lot going on here, Jim, but I want to talk a bit about how wrong the framing of the story is in general, if you’re talking about a Lovecraft homage. Your post-war Los Angeles detective fiction, Jim—L.A. Confidential, Chinatown, and the like—is very much about how the city is an overwhelming and impersonal place, where systems that are fast growing outside anybody’s control have the ability to shatter lives. Sound familiar?
Jim: I guess here, the additional system would be “magic.”
Ken: It’s just a pure oddity that, in the various ways it is either lazy, poorly thought out, or tonally ridiculous, adds up to what is just undeniably a bad movie, Jim. Have we ever unearthed such a specimen before?
Jim: Never have we done anything for this column with such a star-studded cast, that’s for sure. Fred Ward, Julianne Moore, Clancy Brown, David Warner? Usually we’d be over the moon if a film we did had one of these. Not to mention Bradbury, by the way, who was Norris (the guy whose chest transforms into alien jaws) in John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Ken: And yet Jim, in strange aeons even they may make a bad movie.
Jim: May we find something better, when the stars are right.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer, and you can follow him on Twitter. Kenneth Lowe is a contributing writer for Paste, and you can read more of his writing at his blog.