The ‘90s often get a bad rap with horror fans. After the numerous successful slashers and creature effects films of ‘80s, the ‘90s offered a different variety of horror fare. Though there were plenty of hits, hidden gems, and misunderstood classics, the ‘90s usually don’t get the kind of love that other decades get when it comes to horror. It’s time to change that.
It’s so tough to mesh disparate genres. We’ve gotten used to it as cinema has evolved and become even more varied, but it can still be jarring when two well-established types of stories try and play nice with each other. However, it’s extremely satisfying when one genre’s chocolate meets another genre’s peanut butter, and Cast a Deadly Spell is definitely one of those magical successes.
“Magical” is a keyword when talking about Cast a Deadly Spell. The film takes place in 1948’s Los Angeles, but it’s a world in which the use of magic is an everyday occurrence. In fact, it’s considered abnormal not to use magic in some way or another. That’s what private detective H. Phillip Lovecraft (Fred Ward) has decided, but it doesn’t mean he isn’t getting mixed up in a whole bunch of supernatural shenanigans.
Cast a Deadly Spell takes the same approach as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? by blending a hard-boiled LA noir with a fantastical universe. Where Who Framed Roger Rabbit? had toons, Cast a Deadly Spell has witches, warlocks, gremlins, gargoyles, and powerful gods ripped straight from the pages of the actual H.P. Lovecraft. It’s a huge love letter to that sect of horror fantasy and does a good job of blending its cosmic horror with a no-nonsense detective yarn.
What really makes this flick sing is the casting. Fred Ward was born to play a schlumpy, down on his luck ex-cop who gets caught up in a twisted mystery. He’s got the kind of gruff charm that’s necessary for such a tried-and-true archetype. The same goes for everyone else in the cast. The always delightful David Warner is right at home as the devilish Amos Hackshaw, Clancy Brown is the perfect choice for suave crime boss Harry Bordon, and you couldn’t ask for a better femme fatale than Julianne Moore. It’s a stellar ensemble that perfectly jives with the material.
Plus, you get an abundance of fun creature gags and special effects. I won’t spoil all of the movie’s treats, but it should be noted that this movie features an enormous beast at the end that should be more beloved in the horror community. There are also some really inventive uses of magic in the film, including an early murder that gives us a great interpretation of the phrase “death by a thousand cuts.” Even though this was a TV movie produced by HBO, they don’t skimp on the effects work and it’s easily one of the film’s best aspects.
Cast a Deadly Spell definitely feels like a forerunner to other mashup media like Grimm or The Wolf Among Us. It’s a great slice of genre goofiness that manages to deliver on both its pulpy detective elements and its horror inspirations. If you’ve never seen this one, seek it out — it’s available to stream through HBO — and get a little bit of magic in your life.