The weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft has become something of a cornerstone in horror, especially over the past few decades. Ever since he began publishing (just before 1920), Lovecraft’s dark view of mankind’s isolation in the universe – his existential cosmic horror – provided fertile ground not only for his own work, but became inspiration for writers – and eventually, filmmakers – from all around the globe (ironic, given his overwhelming racism and xenophobia). His openness to allow other creators to borrow and expand upon the ideas and beings he wrote about is perhaps the most inspired aspect of his legacy. It is probably the main reason that his influence continues to grow today. We can all dip our toes into the deep, dark waters of Lovecraft’s paranoia and dread, taking inspiration where we can, and crafting our own visions of horror outside of time in virtually any environment or style. Which is exactly what HBO did in 1991 when they debuted Cast a Deadly Spell. By ’91, Lovecraft on film was starting to fade a bit after the brief glory of the mid-Eighties back-to-back splatterfests Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986) – both directed by Stuart Gordon. There was clearly a Lovecraftian influence on other feature films that weren’t direct (or semi-direct) adaptations – most notably in the work of John Carpenter – but it was screenwriter Joseph Dougherty who first brought Lovecraft into the realm of film noir (if we don’t count the almost-lost 1965 TV pilot, Dark Intruder, which is set in 1890 but follows Leslie Neilsen as an occult detective). Okay, it wasn’t straight noir. More of a noir-flavor, if you will. And it was more light-hearted than pretty much every prior use of Lovecraft’s mythos, having as much in common with Tales from the Crypt as with The Call of Cthulhu. But in 1991, it was a breath of fresh air for horror fans. The film stars Fred Ward as ex-cop turned gumshoe, Phil Lovecraft (in what is perhaps the least accurate version of Lovecraft-the-person on film). Set in an alternate 1948 where magic use is common, vampires and werewolves fill the jails, gremlins brought back from WWII are an active menace to mechanics everywhere, and where Phil Lovecraft is the only person in town who doesn’t use magic at all. When he’s hired by a rich eccentric occultist (played with verve by the always-reliable David Warner) to find a mysterious stolen book – the Necronomicon, of course – he gets drawn into a web of deceit and betrayal as his past comes back to haunt him. His ex-partner, Harry Bordon (the also always-reliable Clancy Brown), is now a big-shot club owner who is also trying to get his hands on the Necronomicon, and to complicate things even more, Julianne Moore plays Phil’s ex-girlfriend, lounge singer Connie Stone – who works for and is involved with Harry now. Dougherty’s script is lively and never boring, although it errs on the side of exuberance when it comes to cliché noir dialogue. This could be a sticking point for some viewers, but all the actors are totally committed to work so while it’s stylized, it’s also just plain fun. The script enthusiastically embraces conventional noir tropes, so there aren’t a lot of surprises. Again, it’s the execution that really makes Cast a Deadly Spell stand out. Martin Campbell, the man who reinvented James Bond twice (with Goldeneye and then again with Casino Royale), directs with a loose and fun approach and the special effects are almost entirely practical which also adds to the entertainment value for old-school fans. The same can’t be said for the sequel, Witch Hunt, which aired in 1994. Although also written by Dougherty, none of the original cast returns, with Dennis Hopper playing Lovecraft, Sheryl Lee Ralph taking on the role of Hypolyta Kropotkin, and Christopher John Fields taking over the role of Detective (now Lt.) Morris Bradbury. Arnetia Walker’s Kropotkin in Cast a Deadly Spell was also Phil’s landlord who looked out for him when he didn’t know any better. Both actresses do fine jobs with the role, but Fields is a poor substitute for veteran character actor Charles Hallahan. At least this time around the apparently obligatory cross-dressing character is played by an actual drag queen (John Epperson, billed as Lypsinka). And while Hopper is a high-dollar upgrade for Fred Ward, he glides through the film as if he’s never really sure why he’s there. Ward embraced the role and gave it life, whereas Hopper feels like he’s just cashing a check. The same could be said for director Paul Schrader. After the highs of directing American Gigolo and Cat People and writing Raging Bull in the early Eighties, Schrader hadn’t been affiliated with a mainstream hit in a decade. He brings no flair or energy to Dougherty’s script, which is interesting enough, substituting witchcraft for communism in 1953 Hollywood. But if you’re looking for actual Lovecraftian references, there are none. This film is all about straight-up, old-school, traditional black and white, God and Devil, magic. All of which is a bit boring, I’m afraid. There’s also too much reliance on cheap (although maybe it was expensive at the time) CG, with the few practical effects being even cheaper and less effective. Eric Bogosian is all right, if a bit too obviously slimy as the villainous McCarthy analog Senator Larson Crockett, with his witch hunt targeting literal witches in this alternate Hollywood. But witches and magic are the only real demonstrations of the supernatural in this film – and it suffers for having no werewolves or vampires to liven up the backgrounds. We still have a gigantic black zombie slave though. We also get the backstory for why Lovecraft doesn’t use magic and it’s pretty boring, too. All in all, Witch Hunt is not a worthy successor to the extremely entertaining Cast a Deadly Spell, and if you’re interested in Lovecraftian film experiences, it can be skipped entirely. Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.