Every decade has its ups and downs when it comes to cinema, no matter the genre. Horror fans love to loft on high the output of the ‘30s & ‘40s, the ‘70s & ‘80s, and the more recent decades. More often than not, however, the 1990s are labeled as the worst decade for the genre. Not only that, but ‘90s horror tends to be written off as a whole, beyond a handful of undisputed classics. The purpose of Exhumed & Exonerated: The ‘90s Horror Project, is to refute those accusations by highlighting numerous gems from the decade. Stone cold classics will be tackled in this column from time to time, but its main purpose will be to seek out lesser-known and/or less-loved titles that I think deserve more attention and respect from fans. Let the mayhem begin!
CAST A DEADLY SPELL
Directed by Martin Campbell
Screenplay by Joseph Dougherty
Produced by Gale Anne Hurd
Starring Fred Ward, Julianne Moore, Clancy Brown, Alexandra Powers, David Warner, Charles Hallahan, Arnetia Walker, Raymond O’Connor, Peter Allas, and Lee Tergesen
Released on September 7, 1991
As much as I love horror, I’m also a big fan of various other genres. Science fiction, fantasy, westerns, you name it. It’s why I’m a lover of genre-bending films, such as Big Trouble in Little China, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Ghostbusters. Pure genre efforts are wonderful, but there’s just something about a healthy genre-mixing piece that really gets me going. All those cinematic flavors mixed together to create something different, yet also something familiar. If done right, it can be a beautiful thing.
Cast a Deadly Spell pulls it off in (Sam) Spades. A deft mixture of crime noir and horror, this HBO TV movie from the early ‘90s hails from the mind of Joseph Dougherty. Primarily working on TV shows for the majority of his career to date, Dougherty has bounced around all kinds of different series over of the past couple of decades. From “Saving Grace” to “thirtysomething” to “Pretty Little Liars”, he’s been all over the place.
What’s most interesting in the context of this piece, however, are his quartet of features at the start of the ‘90s: Steel & Lace, Cast a Deadly Spell, Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman, and Witch Hunt. All are love letters to different cult genres and, save for maybe Attack (which is a remake I have not seen), all mix various genres to craft something new. Furthermore, in the case of three of them, they are helmed by accomplished directors such as Paul Schrader (American Gigolo, Cat People), Christopher Guest (This is Spinal Tap!), and the aforementioned Martin Campbell (The Mask of Zorro, Casino Royale). It’s enough to make one pine for HBO to start making such interesting TV features again.
Cast a Deadly Spell sees a private detective by the name of Harry Phillip Lovecraft (Fred Ward) hired by a mysterious wealthy client, Amos Hackshaw (David Warner), to track down a tome that was stolen from his home. That tome, if you couldn’t guess by our hero’s tongue-in-cheek name, is the Necronomicon. What follows is Lovecraft stumbling through a conspiratorial mystery that leads him in situations involving witchcraft, an old flame (Julianne Moore), and a former friend (Clancy Brown), as well as various creatures of the night.
Martin Campbell’s direction amps up the fun, pulpy nature of Dougherty’s tale by bringing an era appropriate feel to its 1930s Los Angeles setting. The colors and settings all pop, especially in the HD version that has now finally made its way to the streaming internet avenue. Everything oozes classic detective fiction (with a horror twist) from its opening frames to its closing moments. It’s like if Stuart Gordon made a Raymond Chandler movie.
All would be for naught if the cast weren’t game to back up the visuals. Lucky for us, everyone is on point. Ward makes for a perfect down-on-his-luck slewfoot with a soft spot for hard luck cases. Moore was still in the early stages of her career here, but you wouldn’t know it from her performance. She commands her role as effectively as she would now, showcasing multiple facets of her femme fatale-esque part with nuance rarely found in such films since. As for Clancy Brown, who better to play a shady bruiser turned sleazy entrepreneur?
Those who haven’t seen this underseen gem are probably wondering just how far into horror this film dives. The answer is pretty far. In addition to the Necronomicon and uses of dark magic, there’s plenty for a horror fiend to love. There are quite a few practical monsters on parade within. Some are only on hand for short moments (werewolves, vampires, etc.), but others stick around for much longer. Brown’s Harry Bordon has a massive zombie henchman (more voodoo, less flesh-eating) and there’s a particularly nasty gargoyle that targets Lovecraft on more than one occasion. Also, given the obvious Lovecraftian elements, we are treated to an appropriately-tentacled god-fiend during the finale.
Tone-wise, if you aren’t overly familiar with noir fiction, think of it simply as this: it’s The Rocketeer, but with the Necronomicon in place of a rocket pack and Great Old One summoners in place of Nazis. Mind you it isn’t an action extravaganza like that film. After all, this is an HBO movie. Still, it’s not a cheap-looking tale and it nails that pulp adventure tone, making for a wonderfully entertaining viewing. It had a budget of $6 million to play with back in ’91, which today would be the equivalent of almost $11 million. That’s more money than most of our theatrical horror releases today get to play around with!
Previously relegated to an old VHS release, I’m happy to say that it’s now broadcasting in high-definition via Amazon’s streaming services free to Prime members. I’m not aware of any Blu-ray release for it on the horizon, but the fact that it has been given an HD upgrade bodes well for such an event in the near future. I can only hope that more similar HBO fare manages to make the jump to Amazon in HD form as well. That goes double for the aforementioned Witch Hunt, considering the fact that it is a sequel to this!
Up Next: Disturbing Behavior (1998)