When my DVD player/VCR died a while back, that left my VHS tapes more or less orphaned. Sure, I could get down my backup VCR and swap it out with my BluRay — our TV space doesn’t lend itself to having both hooked up at the same time — but practically speaking that’s unlikely.
Staring at my VHS copy of 1991’s Cast a Deadly Spell, I went online to see if it was finally out on DVD (not that’ll play on an American machine) and wound up accidentally renting the streaming version on Amazon. But that’s a happy accident because it reminded me what a terrific mash-up of fantasy and hardboiled PI noir this 1991 film is. I wrote about it as a first-rate urban fantasy on my own blog, but here I’d like to look at it as a classic hardboiled detective story. Well, classic except that it’s set in 1948 Los Angeles and everyone uses magic. Everyone except hardboiled PI Phil Lovecraft (Fred Ward).
We never learn how the world got so magical, but they do such a good job making it believable I don’t care. People are constantly lighting smokes or chasing unicorns and everyone accepts it as normal; magic, as I said on my own blog, is simply a cool new technology like plastic or TV or cell phones. Everyone’s excited about it … except Phil.
Nobody owns Phil Lovecraft —nobody — and as far as Phil’s concerned, using magic means you’re giving up a piece of yourself. This doesn’t seem to be how magic works — nobody has to make pacts with dark powers unless they want to — but it fits the incorruptible PI concept so well, I’m not bothered. Lots of people in the film are, though. Phil’s former boss on the LAPD thinks he’s a chump and probably slitting his own throat (“Black magic from the pit of Asgaroth and you don’t even carry a rabbit’s foot!”). His corrupt ex-partner Borden, now a crime kingpin, thinks Phil is a loser for playing it straight, which leaves Phil struggling to make ends meet. Borden, by contrast, has money, power, zombie enforcers (they don’t get big ideas), a pet magician and Phil’s former lover, Connie (Julianne Moore), who also thinks Phil’s a fool. Clancy Brown does a magnificent job playing Borden as an arrogant, smug dick who makes you yearn for the moment he gets his.
Phil’s current client, Hackshaw (David Warner) thinks he’s an idiot, but a useful one. While they don’t spell it out, it’s obvious Hackshaw hired Lovecraft precisely because he doesn’t know enough magic to worry about being asked to recover some book called the Necronomicon.
Phil is not, however, an idiot. And he’s a man in the Raymond Chandler mold, willing to go down those mean streets and be neither mean nor afraid. A subplot involving Phil and Hackshaw’s daughter Olivia (Alexandra Powers) shows he really is a good guy.
Olivia plays the bad girl when they meet and comes on to him; he knows she’s a virgin (otherwise she wouldn’t be hunting unicorns) and only sixteen so he turns her down. When they meet again later, it turns out that while she does want to get laid, she’s really a sweet girl; Phil treats her nicely, which is more than her creepy father ever did.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to BluRay this; HBO has never seemed that keen on monetizing it (they’ve shown more love to the mediocre sequel Witch Hunt, with Dennis Hopper as Lovecraft). But if I get the itch, $4 to rewatch it isn’t a bad option.