Cast a Deadly Spell is interesting as a historical artifact. While the film wears the trappings of the Cthulhu mythos, with the Necronomicon being the focus of the plot, and the protagonist bearing the name of H. P. Lovecraft (though with a different first name than the spectacularly racist author), it has almost more in common with the Hardboiled Detective variety of Urban Fantasy that we now associate with books like the Harry Dresden series. It’s not by any stretch the first urban fantasy work – Mike Resnick’s John Justin Mallory novels and War for the Oaks pre-dates it, with Resnick’s series also being hard-boiled detective fiction. But by being a movie made for HBO, it provided the genre a level of visibility that it had never before seen. But is it good?
The film follows Harry Philips Lovecraft (Fred Ward), who is, as the lead-in indicated, a hardboiled PI. He works in 1948 Los Angeles, where magic has become commonplace, but where Harry personally eschews it. Harry ends up being hired by wealthy person Amos Hackshaw (David Warner) to find a stolen copy of the Necronomicon, and ends up facing off with a Mobster, Harry Bordon (Clancy Brown), who was also Harry’s former partner when he was back on the force, who also has an interest in finding the book.
Let’s get the baggage out of the way first – Cast a Deadly Spell starts to interrogate its setting, but never quite does it well. The rampant development around Los Angeles that happened in the post-war period here is being carried out rather than by underpaid and overworked POC labor, it’s instead being done by literal zombies (of the Voodoo variety, not the Romero variety), shipped in from Haiti. It’s very lightly commented on, but the racial and economic implications are just quietly ignored. One of the significant characters in the film is a Trans woman, and while the script paints her as a very sympathetic figure, she’s also frequently misgendered in dialog by Harry, and ends up getting killed off after she’s fulfilled her role in the narrative.
On the one hand, yes, this is the late ‘40s, going into the ‘50s, and things were a less tolerant time. On the other hand, Peter Gunn came out 10 years after this film was set, and well before this film was made, and Gunn treated discrimination against people of color far more seriously (complete with PoC characters turning to Gunn for assistance explicitly because they could not turn to the police due to systemic racism within the police department). That said, on the other side of things, the film does have Lovecraft’s landlady, who is a practicing witch who is also very Polish, played by a black actress, so, points for that.
Similarly, the film’s cast is fantastic – Ward is a tremendous actor, and while he’s replaced by Dennis Hopper in the sequel, most of my encounters with Hopper’s work as an actor have not impressed me, and I suspect it would be a step down. Otherwise, the rest of the cast is great – Clancy Brown and David Warner are tremendous actors no matter what they’re in. The film does fall into the issue of casting a cis actor in a trans role, which is another issue that was not uncommon for the time.
Ultimately, I thought this was a fun, though somewhat problematic, film, and there are plenty of other more problematic films that fare far worse in hindsight. I’d say this is worth giving a watch.
Currently most of the physical releases of Cast a Deadly Spell are out of print, but the film is currently available for streaming (in HD, which none of the physical releases are) on HBO Max.
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