The phrase “cult classic” gets thrown around a lot when people are talking about films. Mostly it’s used to describe a film that wasn’t very popular on release but has since become extremely well-regarded. The Big Lebowski is an example of this, making only $46 million at the box office but since then becoming very well-known and many people’s favourite movie. Another usage is “a film that failed financially but is popular as a subject of ridicule”. Plan 9 From Outer Space is the go-to movie for this category. The third definition of a cult classic (and the original usage) is a film that is deeply obscure, that very few people have ever even heard of, but that is fondly remembered by devoted fans. Cast A Deadly Spell, a 1991 movie released directly to television by HBO, is such a film. But is it actually a forgotten gem? If so, it’s a gem with a dark flaw at the core.
Cast A Deadly Spell is a film that blends two old genre traditions in fiction – gumshoe detectives and the Cthulhu Mythos. A “gumshoe” is a classic film noir private detective, such as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. The name “gumshoe” comes from the implication that they wore shoes with soft gum rubber soles, in order to sneak around and find out secrets. The term became synonymous with “hardboiled detective” fiction, combining violent action with mysteries and a generally misanthropic view of the world. A hardboiled gumshoe would often have to deal with organised crime, corrupt police, and femme fatales. As a good man in a bad world, all they can trust is their gun and the bottle of whiskey in their filing cabinet.
The “Cthulhu Mythos”, on the other hand, is a sub-genre of horror fiction. Like hardboiled detective stories, it originated in the pulp novels and magazines of the 1920s. The main creater of the genre was Howard Phillips Lovecraft, considered to be one of the most imaginative writers ever in the horror genre. (And also, it’s important to say, a massive unabashed racist who incorporated that worldview into some of his fiction.) The genre takes its name from his short story The Call of Cthulhu, about an alien god sleeping beneath the ocean and the effect his dreams have on people’s minds. Lovecraft and his friends built an entire cosmology of alien gods and visitors, horrific entities and fictional places, the concept that there are some things the human brain is incapable of processing, and an entire unknown history of earth. Writers like Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell have taken inspiration from the mythos, and in recent years it’s both been an inspiration for videogame aesthetics (Bloodborne and Darkest Dungeon both owe a lot to it) as well as simply being used as the setting or backstory for games, novels and films.
Cast A Deadly Spell wears its influences on its sleeve. The main character is a private detective named Harry Phillips “Phil” Lovecraft, in an alternate version of 1948 where magic is not only real but ubiquitous and a major part of people’s lives. Or as the opening crawl simply puts it: “Los Angeles, 1948. Everyone used magic.” Everyone except Phil, that is. He’s an ex-cop who quit the force when his partner turned out to be corrupt. That partner is now one of the city’s leading gangsters, using magic, zombies and a psychotic henchman to live a life of luxury while Phil is reduced to sleeping in his office and subsisting from case to case.
Phil Lovecraft is played by Fred Ward, a character actor with a laundry list of credits who is probably best known for starring alongside Kevin Bacon in Tremors. His villainous ex-partner is an equally experienced actor, Clancy Brown (who has starred in films from The Shawshank Redemption to John Dies At The End, but is most memorable as the Kurgan in Highlander.) Julianne Moore (in an early role) plays the point of a love triangle between the two. David Warner is Amos Hackshaw, a mysterious collector who hires Lovecraft (because of his aversion to magic) to track down a book that was stolen from his collection. The book is the Necronomicon, and fans of the Cthulhu mythos will know as well as noir fans that this is not likely to end well.
The plot is definitely predictable and cliched, but the real selling point of the film is the worldbuilding. Despite special effects that are cheesy by today’s standards, the film sells the concept of a world where magic has been integrated into everyday life extremely well. Two standout examples are a trio of neighbourhood kids in the background of a scene using magic to vandalise a car, and a mechanic having to deal with an engine suffering from gremlin infestation. The movie has been compared favourably to modern films like Bright, which are much less successful at making their worlds feel real.
Despite this, I cannot recommend Cast A Deadly Spell to modern viewers. The reason is that the protagonist of the film, the man we are supposed to be rooting for, commits a literal hate crime. The film has a minor character who is a trans woman, and anyone who knows 90s films knows that this won’t end well. After a few background appearances, she becomes the focus of a three minute scene in which (spoilers) she is punched unconscious by the “hero”, misgendered repeatedly, called multiple homophobic slurs and then brutally killed off. It’s an incredibly mean and vicious scene that is entirely unnecessary to the plot (serving only as an incredibly predictable “twist”) and it completely drains the energy from the film. The attack is unprovoked (with the implication that being trans is a deception that justifies being attacked). Some might make the excuse that the film is “set in the 40s”, but that doesn’t really hold water given the way it completely ignores the racial prejudices of the time.
At the time, of course, all of this transphobia and homophobia was considered entirely acceptable – enough that the film got glowing reviews in the press and even won an Emmy (for its musical numbers). A sequel called Witch Hunt in 1994 replaced Fred Ward with Dennis Hopper, who was (sorry, Fred) a much more successful actor at the time. But that one hateful scene could explain why it’s so obscure these days, though, and why it hasn’t (like other “cult classics”) turned into a mainstream darling. It’s not even available on streaming outside of America, and in fact I had to order the Spanish version of the DVD online to make this review. Some forgotten films are best left forgotten, remembered for their concepts but not brought into the light to be examined too closely. Sadly Cast A Deadly Spell falls into this category.
All images via imdb.