Slipped Discs: Cast A Deadly Spell (1991)

Cast A Deadly Spell
Director: Martin Campbell // 1991, HBO [VHS]
Cinema 4 Rating: 7

There came a point in my youthful exuberance for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where simply memorizing the lyrics to the thing became less of a sticking point, and owning all of the movies either referenced in or inspirational to the film became far more important to me. As time wore on, as others sang about me or tossed toast over my head at the screen, I would sit there, increasingly annoyed at the people who would jump the gun on lines or were just assholes in general, and think about the visual and lyrical references scattered throughout the show, and remind myself, "Oh, I've got to find a copy of that!"

I think that I eventually did it -- collected all of the tagged flicks within that film -- though I haven't checked for an awfully long time. If I didn't own all of them, I had, at least, seen all of the films mentioned. And, I believe that I reached a certain immersion point within my collection where it didn't matter whether or not I owned all of them; I had seen and read enough where just knowing the reference was enough. Simply knowing about The Day of the Triffids (actually a favorite film and book since childhood, with an odd history within my family) became more important in the long run than actually seeing or reading it, though I would never want one to miss out on seeing "Janette Scott fight a Triffid that spits poison and kills." Some things are better experienced, but simply "getting" references can take you a long way in enjoying something along the lines of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Yes, I know people who have told me they could not get into it because they didn't get the jokes, but I know other people who love the show even if I have to explain an obscure nod to a mid-'70s television commercial or Nabokov pun to them. Besides, and it kills me that people don't do more of this in real life, but I take the opportunity when confronted with something I don't know or understand to find out more about the subject. If I don't get a joke or reference, I try to figure out why I didn't get it.

This leads to both my reverence for a delightful film that HBO aired endlessly throughout the '90s (and even made a sequel to it due to its popularity), Cast A Deadly Spell, and my disgust with why this Emmy-winning cable-original film is not available on DVD (as of yet). Top-loaded with references to -- what? everything? -- movies, books, short stories, the occult, film directors, writers, film noir, Cast is led by a gruff and charming performance by Fred Ward as Harry Phillip Lovecraft, a washed-up P.I. who just happens to be the only person in a fantasy 1940's L.A. that refuses to jump onto the bandwagon and use magic to advance his career or seemingly better his life. Everyone uses magic in the same manner that everyone in our world does something as mundane as watching television or eating cereal. It is simply a fact of life, but Lovecraft, for various personal reasons, refuses to join the trend. This, of course, makes him the perfect choice for David Warner's sketchy millionaire (who has a hot daughter who hunts unicorns with a bow and arrow in her spare time when she is not flirting with every man who comes into view) to hire Lovecraft to track down the accursed volume known as the Necronomicon. Lovecraft has to battle his way through numerous encounters with monsters, zombies, gremlins and rune-wielding gangster wizards, all the while juggling a renewed affair with his old flame, played with lip-quivering smokiness by Julianne Moore. What do you do when you are stuck in a town where the unreal is an everyday occurrence and no one is ever what they seem to be? Throw back a slug of whiskey, keep your wits about you, and hit 'em hard where they least expect it.

But, all of the clever references in the world don't necessarily measure up to true wit -- example: The Lost Boys, a film I loved when it first came out, but now can't stand at all, except as a ham-and-cheese festival -- but Cast has a sharp tongue beyond the name-dropping and cartoon-like makeup and special effects. There are a multitude of throwaway lines in nearly every scene, and everyone, even his friends, takes a verbal crack at Lovecraft. But, Ward's character has soul, too, and while the film doesn't let us take it too seriously, we do get a strong sense for the deep, abiding betrayal and hurt that Lovecraft feels. (The noir atmosphere helps immeasurably in this area, as well.) Add genre favorite Clancy Brown to the mix, and early and able direction from the now well-known Bond director, Martin Campbell, and what more could you wish for?

Well, had I magic resources at my fingertips, I would wish for this to come out on DVD. My long-out-of-print VHS copy is getting rather worn and jumpy, and sincerely, I don't remember the color scheme of the film as it was shown on cable being as suffused with red as the copy I have been checking out every year or so for the past decade. They can release it on a dual disc with the inferior sequel, Witch Hunt (with a miscast Dennis Hopper in the Ward role), and I wouldn't care. As long as it comes out on disc. Much like my worn-to-the-nubs Rocky Horror VHS, which eventually found sweet release thanks to the advent of DVD, this one needs to arrive in the nick of time. I'm afraid that the VCR is going to eventually tire of my searching out each and every last reference in the film...


matt fosberg said…
Absolutely one of my favorites as well!

Thanks for reminding me of it, as well as introducing me TO it!

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