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Film / Cast a Deadly Spell

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If your eyes look upon it, you will surely go mad!

Cast a Deadly Spell is a 1991 horror/noir movie made for HBO. It was directed by Martin Campbell and written by Joseph Dougherty, and stars Fred Ward, Julianne Moore, David Warner, Alexandra Powers, and Clancy Brown.

The plot follows Hardboiled Detective Harry Phillip Lovecraft (Ward), in an alternate-universe version of 1948 Los Angeles where magic is real, monsters and mythical beasts stalk the back alleys, zombies are used as cheap labor, and everyone, except Lovecraft, uses magic every day. Meanwhile, cars, telephones and other modern technologies also exist in this world. There's some implication that magic has only recently gained widespread use for whatever reason.

Lovecraft is hired by the wealthy Amos Hacksaw (Warner) to recover the Necronomicon, stolen by persons unknown — although their motives probably aren't: the book contains the rituals needed to awaken and summon the Outer Gods. Complicating Lovecraft's investigation is his former partner Harry Bordon (Brown), now a crime boss, who is also looking for the book.

A sequel, Witch Hunt, was released by HBO in 1994; Dennis Hopper replaced Fred Ward as Lovecraft. It more directly parodies the 1950s Red Scare with a counter-revolution against magic use.

Cast a Deadly Spell provides examples of the following tropes:

  • The Chanteuse: When we first see Connie Stone, she's singing a song in Harry Bordon's nightclub.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Detective Grimaldi's romantic interest for Olivia eventually becomes useful when she is offered as a sacrifice for Yog-Sothoth, but is then refused when the monster realizes that she is no longer a virgin.
  • Chewing the Scenery: Hackshaw
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Lovecraft asks if Lilly met Mickey at "a fag party."
  • Diesel Punk: 1940s technology with Lovecraftian magic.
  • Does Not Like Magic: Lovecraft refuses to use magic because it conflicts with his own moral code, a form of Screw the Money, I Have Rules!. It seems to be of the Faustian bargain subtype, judging by his "nobody's got a mortgage on my soul. I own it. Free and clear" line.
  • The Dragon: Tugwell, to Bordon.
  • Dungeon Punk: Lovecraftian magic with 1940s technology.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Amos Hacksaw is attempting to summon Yog-Sothoth, who in turn will summon the rest of the Outer Gods.
  • Evil Former Friend: Bordon used to be Lovecraft's partner when they were on the police force.
  • Evil Is Not a Toy: Lovecraft's take on magic.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Amos Hacksaw, a sorcerer intent on sacrificing his daughter to summon the Old Ones so he can become a god.
  • Fallen Hero: Bordon, he used to be Lovecraft's partner before turning crime boss.
  • Fantastic Noir: Film Noir but instead magic is real, monsters and mythical beasts stalk the back alleys, zombies are used as cheap labor, and everyone, except Lovecraft, uses magic every day.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Bordon acts friendly and casual even as he's subjecting people to gruesome deaths.
  • Femme Fatale: What would a Film Noir pastiche be without one? It's Connie.
  • Gayngster: Another Film Noir staple. Mickey and Larry fit the bill.
  • Griping About Gremlins: They cause problems in vehicles, just like "real" gremlins. Their design is an obvious homage to Joe Dante's films.
  • Groin Attack: To a gargoyle. And it works!
  • Hardboiled Detective: Lovecraft, complete with narration.
  • Hollywood Voodoo: The opening scene has a voodoo doll as a murder weapon. Voodoo-style zombies are also used as cheap labor.
  • Homage: The gremlins are obviously based on those from the film Gremlins.
  • Hot Witch: Hypolita Kropotkin.
  • Jailbait Taboo: Lovecraft chides Grimbaldi over his affair with Olivia (she lost her virginity to him), who's only 16, explicitly calling her jailbait. She brushes the matter off-he's more worried that his wife will find out.
  • Just Desserts: Hackshaw is eaten by the creature he summons.
  • Kitchen Chase: After a restaurant owner tries to put a written curse on him, Philip Lovecraft goes after him into the kitchen to return it. The curse manifests when a demon comes out of a pot on a stove. Lovecraft joins forces with a cook to defeat it.
  • Lovecraft on Film
  • Magical Barefooter: In the opening scene of the first movie, one can see that Hypolita Kropotkin goes barefoot. She is also a Hot Witch.
  • May–December Romance: Olivia is 16 years old and proclaims that Cleopatra succumbed to passion at 14. Grimaldi is an adult police officer.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: A stolen book leads to a plan to destroy the world.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Connie fills out her shiny, green lounge singer dress very nicely and exudes classy, Old Hollywood sexiness in general.
  • Necronomicon: The MacGuffin. It wouldn't be a Lovecraftian tale without it.
  • Occult Detective: Lovecraft is specifically chosen because he doesn't use magic.
  • Our Demons Are Different: A big slug-thing with a long, insect-like tongue.
  • Our Gargoyles Rock: Hackshaw employs an animate stone gargoyle as a spy and occasional assassin. It's Immune to Bullets, but not a Groin Attack.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: Mostly they hang out in West Hollywoood.
  • Our Werewolves Are Different: They're the reason Da Chief hates full moons.
  • Our Zombies Are Different: Zombies are shipped in from the West Indies to serve as manual labor and muscle. They last about three months before they rot away.
  • Paper Master: Tugwell.
  • Perp Sweating: Lieutenant Bradbury does this to Lovecraft when he won't cooperate with him. We also see him doing this to an uncooperative werewolf.
  • Pretty in Mink: Connie has a mink coat.
  • Public Domain Artifact: The Necronomicon.
  • Running Gag:
    • Phil accidentally giving people Mrs. Kropotkin's business card for her dancing school rather than his own.
    • People makes jokes about Phil's loud tie.
    • Mrs. Kropotkin takes every opportunity to bemoan the fact that if she had any sense, she'd be packing up and heading to Miami.
  • Save the Villain: Lovecraft tries to save Hackshaw when he gets grabbed by Yog-Sothoth at the end. His grip slips.
  • Scary Black Man: Being a zombie makes it even worse.
  • Screw The Magic, I Have Rules
    Connie Stone: Dammit, Phil, everybody's gotta compromise!
    Lovecraft: That's what I keep hearing.
    Connie: And what makes you so special?
    Lovecraft: What makes me special is I'm my own man. When I started out I said there were things I'd do and things I wouldn't do. A lot of guys start out like that, and a lot of them sell out along the way. But the more who fall, the easier it gets. "See, look, everybody compromises, everybody cheats, everybody uses magic." So they empty their ideals out of their pockets and get down to the job of sticking it to their neighbors before they stick it to them, because that's the way it's done. To all of which I say nuts. My collar may be a little frayed, and maybe I need a shoeshine. But nobody's got a mortgage on my soul. I own it. Free and clear.
  • Searching the Stalls: As Mickey is trying to escape Tugwell in the train station, he goes into the bathroom and tries to hide in the last stall. Tugwell uses a magic spell that lights a fiery trail to him and blows him out of the stall.
  • Sexy Backless Outfit: Connie's shiny green dress.
  • Shout-Out
  • Smug Snake: Bordon and Hackshaw, since their plan horribly fails at the end.
  • The Sociopath: Amos Hackshaw, a sorcerer who is willing to sacrifice his own daughter and summon the Old Gods to destroy the world so he can become a god in return.
    • Considering that he’s a former detective turned ruthless crime boss who is perfectly fine with having people murdered in horrible ways, and is knowingly and willingly working with the above in exchange for power, it’s safe to say that Harry Bordon is one as well.
  • Spanner in the Works: Olivia Hackshaw, the teenager who was going to be a Virgin Sacrifice, lost said virginity to the cute idiot cop who has appeared on various scenes throughout the film. Cue her father Amos getting torn apart by a pissed-off Old One.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: Connie's defence of her life takes on this edge after Lovecraft's Screw The Magic, I Have Rules speech:
    Connie: I'm not gonna apologise for my life.
    Lovecraft: I didn't ask you to.
    Connie: I'm happy the way things are.
    Lovecraft: Glad to hear it.
    Connie: You gotta look ahead. You can't drag around the past. There's nothing you can do about it!
    Lovecraft: Sounds like you got a real good grip on things.
    Connie: [Breaking] Dammit, Phil, why'd you have to walk back into my life?
    Lovecraft: Why'd you walk out of mine?
  • Too Spicy for Yog-Sothoth: Olivia lost her virginity, so she loses her spot as a Virgin Sacrifice. Her father discovers this at a very bad moment for him.
  • Un-Sorcerer: Lovecraft, who has sworn off the use of magic.
  • Urban Fantasy: 1940s Los Angeles with magic.
  • Utility Magic: People are seen using magic to light their cigarettes and retrieve files.
  • Virgin Power: Olivia uses her "power" to hunt Unicorns. Also, the Old Ones can only be summoned by using a virgin as part of the ritual.
  • Virgin Sacrifice: The Big Bad's plan requires one.
  • Weaksauce Weakness: As Lovecraft demonstrates, zombies may be strong tough, but they're easily out-maneuvered through lateral movement.
  • White Magic: Kropotkin the witch landlady specializes in it.
    "I have henbane, mandrake root, Eye of Newt... and Mercurochrome."
  • You Have Failed Me: Bordon to Tugwell.