The opening text crawl of CAST A DEADLY SPELL (1991) tells us it’s 1948 in L.A. and everybody uses magic. We never learn where or when that started, but the movie makes the premise so real I don’t need to know more.
Everyone takes magic as a given; like plastic or television in the same era, it’s an exciting new invention that’s changing the world and everyone’s on-board. Well, everyone but protagonist Phil Lovecraft (Fred Ward), whose refusal to work magic marks him as an oddball, like someone who refuses to get a cell phone when landlines are so much better. For Phil, it’s part of his stubborn, incorruptible streak: he’s his own man and can’t be bought or controlled. Magic gives someone or something else a small piece of your soul, and Phil can’t stand anyone owning his.
Magic is everywhere in this movie. In a police station scene we see a typewriter printing a report by itself; file cabinets open and manila folders fly out when the secretary needs them. In other scenes people light cigarettes by touch (Phil uses matches) or levitates cocktail shakers. Sneering crime boss Borden (Clancy Brown) has replaced his regular goon squad with zombies: no need to pay them, they don’t get any ideas about double-crossing the boss and when they start to rot he just orders more from Haiti. There’s also a neat little detail I didn’t catch on first or second viewing: one newspaper has a front page article on magic eliminating LA’s smog right next to coverage of Robert Mitchum’s then-infamous pot bust (Mitchum gets the headline).
Lovecraft is your classic hard-drinking chain-smoking PI, hired by Hackshaw (David Warner) to recover a lost copy of the Necronomicon. The first time I watched this I agreed with Borden that it seemed like pure coincidence Lovecraft got entangled in this case. Rewatching it’s obvious that Hackshaw picked Phil because he knows the gumshoe doesn’t use magic. When Hackshaw drops the name of the Necronomicon and Lovecraft doesn’t react, Hackshaw smiles; he’s found a detective who’s ignorant enough to turn over the book and won’t try to tap it for himself. And won’t suspect why Hackshaw wants it turned over no later than midnight in a couple of days.
Leaving the Hackshaw estate, Lovecraft encounters his new client’s daughter, Olivia (Alexandra Powers) whom we first see hunting a unicorn. She comes on to Phil like a classic noir bad girl but he sees through her (if she wasn’t a virgin, she wouldn’t be trying to hunt unicorns). Later in the film, when he gets to know her, she turns out to be quite sweet, though restless at the way her father keeps her locked away from the world.
Meanwhile we see the ill-fated weasel Mickey (Ken Thorley), a former employee of Hackshaw’s, deliver the book to Borden. It turns out to be a fake copy (Mickey plans to sell the real one back to Hackshaw) but the packet of money Borden paid him with is just paper. Then Borden’s sorcerous aide, Tugwell (Raymond O’Connor) whips up the paper in a small magical cyclone and kills Mickey by literally the death of a thousand (paper) cuts. That’s another thing I like about the film: magic is colorful and interesting. Things like the paper cuts or Tugwell “setting the runes” on Lovecraft make even mundane TK tricks like levitating files seem magical rather than psi.
The struggle for the book is more personal than Lovecraft expects because Borden’s his corrupt former partner, from when they were cops together. Not only that but Borden got Phil’s lost love, Connie (Julianne Moore) in the breakup. Borden and Connie both think Phil’s a fool for being so incorruptible but Connie’s not immune to that old feeling they had. But Hackshaw’s deadline is approaching, Borden’s playing hardball, and Lovecraft’s landlady and sort-of friend Kropotkin (Arnetia Walker) is seeing signs Los Angeles is ground zero for the apocalypse. Lovecraft, however, will not back down, not from man, gargoyle or god …
I highly recommend this movie. I do not, however, recommend the sequel Witch Hunt, which replaced Ward with Dennis Hopper and made the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s into a real witch hunt. It’s much less interesting than a world in which magic is amazing, yet taken for granted.
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