So you're a pubescent boy alone at night in a house that has HBO back in the '90s. You're just waiting for the regular programming to end so episodes of Real Sex can begin. It would have to be a pretty powerful film to slow down your obsessive quest for boobies. Cast a Deadly Spell was that film.
Premiering on HBO in 1991, Cast a Deadly Spell was the story of a hard-boiled private detective working in a world where vampires, werewolves, witches and magic are commonplace. You may recognize that premise as 90 percent of current literature and television. Well, Cast a Deadly Spell was there before they were, and it's ten times better because of one very important word: Cthulhu.
The film's protagonist is H. Philip Lovecraft (Fred Ward), but not the frail, secluded author of weird tales you may be familiar with from Call of Cthulhu. No, set in 1948, Lovecraft is a hard-drinking dick who's quick with a pistol and a good line for the dames. He's one of the few people in the world who refuse to use magic, and it's this peculiarity of his that gets him hired to retrieve the stolen Necronomicon sought by an unscrupulous millionaire who needs the book to herald the return of the old gods.
The film quietly mirrors Raymond Chandler's the Big Sleep, complete with a slightly unhinged society daughter, rare books and a sultry femme fatale played by Julianne Moore. By today's standards the creature effects are a little hokey, but if you enjoyed the work that used to come out of Tales from the Crypt, you'll feel right at home.
If the film were made today, Hollywood would take every feasible horror demographic, ask, "Will it blend?" and throw it at you with a crappy soundtrack full of covers. That's not what you get here. When Joseph Dougherty penned the script, he eased it along the same perfect pulp fiction path that made Lovecraft and Philip Marlowe famous in the first place. It's modest, or as modest as any film where Cthulhu rises to feed on humanity can be, but it is also so wonderfully sincere, imaginatively executed, and such a perfect mixture of realism and surrealism that it remains an unheralded classic.
Unheralded is the key phrase. HBO finally released the film on VHS in 2001, but it has otherwise dropped completely off the radar. Luckily, Alamo Drafthouse is bringing the film back for a screening as part of their Graveyard Shift series. This may be your only chance to ever see a gem such as this on the big screen, and it happens this Saturday at the West Oaks location.
Incredibly, we actually got the chance to talk to Dougherty about this awesome, awesome flick. Click over to page 2 for the interview.
Art Attack: How on Earth did you manage to change Lovecraft, one of the most stereotypically frail writers in the world, into a hard-drinking detective?
Joseph Dougherty: The original conceit was not so much about turning H.P. Lovecraft into a detective (I think he would have come out much more like Poe's C. Auguste Dupin than Chandler's Marlowe), but to imagine a literary world where H.P. Lovecraft wrote for Black Mask and Raymond Chandler wrote for Weird Tales. Poaching on each other's territory.
The only thing Lovecraft the character shares with Lovecraft the writer is a certain fatalism about the world and the powers that run it. If Lovecraft the detective had read more Lovecraft the author, he would have known a lot more about the mystery than he does at the start of the movie. Phil Lovecraft has a certain arrogance about the world of magic and the Old Ones. He's got a lot to learn and he has to learn it in a hurry.
AA: What was the bigger influence, the Cthulhu Mythos or The Big Sleep?
JD: This is definitely the mythos filtered through the American detective story and not the other way around. Chandler is a stronger influence than Lovecraft, but that's at least partially because of the reality of how the two men approached storytelling. So much of Lovecraft is atmosphere, so much of Chandler is propulsive narrative.
I may have written a mashup before anyone knew what a mashup was. I wanted to have the maximum amount of fun with both genres, taking the things I loved best in each and putting them together in unexpected ways. There are places in the movie where the two worlds mesh perfectly and create something different. The scene in the Owl Wagon when a fistfight is interrupted by a demonic creature rising out of a boiling pot of oatmeal is an example of that.
AA: We've been telling people for years that Jim Butcher, Kelly Armstrong and all the other people who have been penning supernatural detective stories were just ripping off Cast a Deadly Spell? Agree or disagree?
JD: Does that mean somebody owes me money? I don't think I can take them to court; they may be ripping off Cast a Deadly Spell, but I'm "ripping off" Chandler and Lovecraft, so it's not as if I'm without sin. I will say, writers have come up to me in the 20 years since the film was made, thanking me for blazing a trail through this particular wilderness of cross-genre storytelling. If somebody saw my movie and said, "Wow, I didn't know you could do that!" then went out and wrote something they love, I can't feel anything other than pride about it. But, if they'd like to send me a check, maybe some baked goods, that'd be nice too.
AA: One of the things you can't really miss in the writings of Chandler and Lovecraft is a definite, casual racism. So you think that attitude would still exist in a world where magic was commonplace?
JD: Not to cut an ethical doily around two writers I like, but Chandler and Lovecraft both lived in worlds of casual racism. It seems a little nastier on the Lovecraft side of things, and I think that's because of his self-imposed exile from human company. Chandler was less of a hermit, but he kept himself apart from the hoi polloi as well. Making the good witch in Cast a Deadly Spell a woman of color was a deliberate choice, but it's not about affirmative action. I wanted to get as far away from Glinda the Good Witch of the North as possible, so I created Hypolite Kropotkin, a cultural gumbo of a woman. And she is an unquestionably powerful woman.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
As for the zombies in the picture, they're "classic" zombies, appropriate to the period; more Val Lewton than George Romero.
AA: What's next for you?
JD: I've got a short story in the new anthology Hell Comes To Hollywood that should be available for Halloween. You can find out about that on Facebook. In the mashup area, I wrote a short book last year, Psychopomp, that's about a nice teenage kid who goes to work for Charon, taking the dead across the River Styx. It's the best job he's ever had. That's available at Amazon.com, as are all my books. Right now, I'm writing Hitchcock for Teens on the ABC Family series Pretty Little Liars, and developing projects for TV and features.
Cast a Deadly Spell screens at 10 p.m. Saturday at Alamo Drafthouse West Oaks, West Oaks Mall #429.