Staff Pick

Love a Genre Mashup Like Westworld? Try Cast a Deadly Spell

By Nick Nadel

The supernatural film noir takes place in a hardboiled, alternative Los Angeles where magic and monsters are as commonplace as traffic jams and palm trees.


From Cold War thriller meets romantic fantasy The Shape of Water to the cowboys and robots action of Westworld, genre mash-ups are all the rage in Hollywood. But the combination of supernatural horror and film noir was still a novel idea when Cast a Deadly Spell premiered on HBO back in 1991.

Directed by Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) and produced by Gale Anne Hurd (Aliens), Cast a Deadly Spell takes place in a hardboiled, alternative 1940s Los Angeles where magic and monsters are as commonplace as traffic jams and palm trees. Fred Ward (Tremors) plays private detective Harry Philip Lovecraft, a square-jawed gumshoe who refuses to take the easy way out by using magic on the mean streets of the City of Angels (and demons). His latest client, a wealthy gentleman with a willful daughter who hunts unicorns, hires Lovecraft to recover a missing book — the demonic Necronomicon.

Lovecraft’s investigation leads him to his devious ex-partner on the force (Carnivàle’s Clancy Brown, an actor who knows a thing or two about playing bad guys) and his former flame, a sultry lounge singer played by future Oscar-winner Julianne Moore. Along the way Lovecraft runs afoul of werewolves, gargoyles and other nasties that go bump in the night.

Joseph Dougherty’s script, which kicked around Hollywood for a decade before ending up on HBO, deftly blends film noir tropes (smoky rooms, tough-talking dames, a private dick who washes down his sorrows with booze to a jazzy score) with references to acclaimed horror author H.P. Lovecraft, the inspiration for Fred Ward’s character. (Moore’s crooner performs at a nightclub which shares its name with the creepy town in Lovecraft’s short story “The Dunwich Horror.”) The twisty plot echoes noir classics like The Big Sleep and Chinatown as Det. Lovecraft is drawn deeper into a conspiracy with potentially world-ending ramifications.

The cast, which includes Charles Hallahan (The Thing) as Detective Bradbury (a nod to horror/sci-fi scribe Ray Bradbury) and Arnetia Walker as Lovecraft’s landlord and “spiritual” guide Hypolite Kropotkin, perfectly nails the script’s pulpy tone. Clancy Brown brings menace to his role of a nightclub owner with a zombie bodyguard on his payroll, while Moore’s smoldering performance recalls classic film noir femme fatales like Lana Turner and Lauren Bacall. (Two years after appearing in Cast a Deadly Spell, the then up-and-coming actress would star in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and be on her way to the A-list.)

Adding to the film’s Sam Raimi-by-way-of-Sam-Spade charms are its gruesome pre-CGI special effects. In one memorable scene, a hitman dispatches his prey with a nifty floating paper trick, while Ward’s grizzled P.I. faces off against puppet monstrosities that can best be described as The Muppets on acid.

Cast a Deadly Spell proved popular enough to warrant a follow-up, 1994’s Witch Hunt, with Dennis Hopper playing Det. Lovecraft in a 1950s LA where the “red scare” involves magic instead of Communism. (Adding to the weirdness, the sequel was helmed by Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader.) But while it developed a cult following on VHS and HBO, Cast a Deadly Spell never received a proper DVD release. For anyone who likes a little noir mixed in with their scares, this groundbreaking genre bender is a dark alley worth strolling down.