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Cast a Deadly Spell (1991) IMDB description: “In a fantastical 40’s where magic is used by everyone, a hard-boiled detective investigates the theft of a mystical tome.”
Witch Hunt (1994) IMDB description: “In a twisted 1950’s where everyone does magic, a private detective investigates a murder case without it.”
Why I took them off the list: After compiling my list of underrated horror, sci-fi, and fantasy of the 90s, I decided to check out a forgotten film from the same period that I’d been meaning to watch for a long time due to its intriguing premise and bizarre mash-up of the horror/fantasy and detective/noir genres: Cast a Deadly Spell.
As a big fan of both H.P Lovecraft (the film features numerous references and nods to his work) and weird alternate history stories, I couldn’t resist checking out a film set in a 40s LA where everyone casually uses magic for long.
When I realized that the film also had a semi-sequel, Witch Hunt (it features many of the same characters but a totally different cast), I decided to make it a double feature review! So, let’s dig in!
Review of Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)
A candidate for dissection on the ace podcast How Did This Get Made? if ever there was one, Cast a Deadly Spell is a pleasingly bizarre mix of 50’s noir with elements of arcane horror with surprisingly high production values. It’s somehow not based on existing IP but the result of an original screenplay.
It was made for HBO as a TV movie so didn’t have to break box office records, but still, this uniquely strange mash-up with its expensive-looking period setting and elaborate practical special effects would probably never get made today (unless Netflix was feeling in a particularly weird mood!)
Still, the film is hugely enjoyable and is pretty effective at setting up its premise from the start, with a simple title that reads “Los Angeles, 1948. Everybody used magic.” Cast a Deadly Spell then goes on to blend these two disparate genres of hardboiled detectives and magic users in pretty smart and impressive ways. The world-building is convincing as you believe the characters inhabit it even as incredibly out-of-place things go on around them: these magical touches are just mundane happenstance to them.
This immersion is helped by some great casting. Fred Ward makes for a fun, grizzled but somewhat goofy gumshoe detective. A very young Julianne Moore (before Safe (1994) gave her a breakout role) does a good femme fatale routine, and both Clancy Brown and David Warner do their familiar but effective sinister villain routines with fun results.
Some Incredibly Wacky and Fun Scenes, but a Little Convoluted and Problematic
The vibe Cast a Deadly Spell achieves is similar to that of the sadly short-lived series, Carnivàle, also produced by HBO, helped by great production design and cinematography, and some really cool, subtle practical effects. Trays of coffee cups fly unattended through restaurants, typewriters clack away by themselves on office desks, and a car’s mechanical problems turn out to be caused by a bunch of ugly little gremlins living under the hood.
It also features some incredibly out-there and in-your-face action scenes featuring some not-always convincing but impressively crafted practical creature puppets and costumes. These are probably the most fun sequences in Cast a Deadly Spell. A fight with a demon in a restaurant kitchen is wacky, Sam Raimi or Peter Jackon-style stuff, and the best scene in the film is probably the one pictured above, where a demonic figure explodes into a hotel room.
The scene is notable for its sheer what-the-fuckery, as Ward (without much warning and excessively) violently interrogates a suspect. It then fully veers into unintentional comedy gold as the obvious man in a monster suit flies in and struts about the room causing chaos. My feelings towards this particular scene are a bit mixed though, due to the fact that the victim of both Ward and the demon is a transvestite who the film seems to revel in punishing just for being who they are.
Unsurprisingly for a 90s pic, the film is also full of casual homophobia and misogyny, with the final, world-saving ‘twist’ at the end being particularly misogynistic and icky. The film can also be quite boring and convoluted in the overly talky scenes where Ward is doing his detective thing. Nevertheless, it’s worth watching to the end just for those creature sequences and to see the atmospheric, explosive finale featuring an impressively-rendered, Cthulhu-esque monster.
Final Score: 6.5/10
Cast a Deadly Spell (1991): Worth Watching?
Yes, Cast a Deadly Spell is a weird curio that definitely would never get made today (and some parts are outdated and problematic). But it’s a fascinating, mostly entertaining ride that boasts some excellent world-building and production design, and very cool (though sometimes goofy) special effects.
Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)
Directed by Martin Campbell
Written by Joseph Dougherty
Review of Witch Hunt (1994)
Surprisingly directed by the legendary Paul Schrader, this semi-sequel to Cast a Deadly Spell feels much more like a standard-issue TV movie, and looks a lot cheaper. You can practically hear the HBO executives agreeing to it only after a significant budget slash, probably realizing they spent way too much on a bizarre hybrid with a niche audience the first time around.
Where this world was beautifully shot and quite convincing in its predecessor, Witch Hunt is lumbered with garish lighting and sets that look quickly cobbled together. While the camera work was dynamic and quite manic in parts before, this is made up of uninventive staging and static shot composition. Even the score, by the usually great composer Angelo Badalamenti (Twin Peaks), feels uninspired and a bit of an afterthought.
Some of the uses of magic are occasionally still inventive and fun, particularly in a scene at a drive-in movie theatre where real bullets start to fly out of the screen from an in-film gangster flick. But they also decided to use unconvincing, early-90s computer-generated effects that look even more dated than the cheesy practical ones in the last film…at least those had a goofy charm.
Miscast and Mostly Unengaging
Part of the problem with Witch Hunt is that its story is less subtle and creative in almost every way than Cast a Deadly Spell, including the fake newsreel that sets up the world in a far less efficient way than the single line in the first film. The stakes are also much, much lower- there are no world-ending threats here, just a parable of communist 50s witch hunts that is only mildly clever.
Like in the first film, there are far too many talky, exposition-heavy detective scenes, but there aren’t any wild creature attacks to break up the monotony. The heavy misogyny also continues, most notably in a scene where a man uses magic to literally make his date’s boobs bigger.
The performances also don’t really measure up to those in its predecessor. Dennis Hopper is severely miscast as the detective this time around: he looks perpetually bewildered, delivers all his lines in a flat tone, and lacks Ward’s charm in the role. It also doesn’t help that he’s lumbered with an unnecessary, cliche-ridden backstory that fails to generate the emotion they were clearly going for.
Julain Sand is also incredibly hammy as an Irish gangster with a truly terrible accent. Some of the supporting players fare better, such as Valerie Mahaffy as a loopy psychic. Eric Bogosian is effective as the villainous senator Crockett and is especially fun to watch during the finale, set at a fascistic rally gone wrong. This sequence is actually quite satisfying, but it’s too little too late to make sitting through the first hour and a half feel worthwhile.
Final Score: 4/10
Witch Hunt (1994): Worth Watching?
Not really. Witch Hunt has its moments and is another interesting curio, but it’s also visually uninspired, flatly acted, and often quite boring. If you only see one mash-up of noir detective fiction and supernatural fantasy/horror in your life you should probably just watch Cast a Deadly Spell.
Witch Hunt (1994)
Directed by Paul Schrader
Written by Joseph Dougherty