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Film Noir Meets F/X : ZOMBIES, MYSTERY AND SUPERNATURAL IMAGES PUT HBO MOVIE IN A MAGICAL CATEGORY

Nancy Mills is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who covers the entertainment industry

Imagine Raymond Chandler’s private detective Philip Marlowe operating in a Los Angeles pulsating with supernatural powers. “Cast a Deadly Spell” is not quite “The Maltese Falcon Meets Ghostbusters,” but HBO’s first major special-effects movie mixes elements from both genres.

Picture a 1948 Los Angeles where magic worked and everybody used it. Everybody, that is, except H. Phillip Lovecraft (Fred Ward). The real H.P. Lovecraft was an early 20th-Century horror-story writer. Ward’s fictitious Lovecraft is a detective who wears the ugliest ties in town and depends solely on his investigative skills. He has his own methods for dealing with the zombies, unicorns and demons he meets.

“Lovecraft is the quintessential private eye,” Ward says, “but because he doesn’t use magic, he suffers for it. Financially he’s not very successful. Maybe that’s the fate of someone who wants to stick to his own standards.” Ward, who recently played erotic novelist Henry Miller in “Henry & June” and may be best-known for his portrayal of Gus Grissom in “The Right Stuff,” is sitting in his dressing room, waiting to go out and face down a monster. Because special effects are involved, he anticipates a long wait.

Fifty yards away, in a San Pedro airplane hangar converted into a sound stage, a giant crane is repositioning some lights just under the roof. The scene being lit is a volcano that suddenly appears in the middle of a housing development. Experimental lightning bolts illuminate the vintage blue Hudson and the yellow and black Rolls Royce parked in front of some new homes.

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A large man, his zombie makeup completed, stands on the grass blank-eyed, looking for a grave to crawl into. Not far off, four team members of Gargoyles-R-Us are assisting a fifth into his monster costume. Two are holding up the motorized wings, the third is positioning a grotesque foam rubber head, and the fourth is gluing the back seam together.

“I’m not a real fan of monsters,” Ward grumbles, “but I like other parts of the film. I enjoy the smart-aleck dialogue. It’s very Chandleresque. A lot of the mystical stuff comes out of H.P. Lovecraft’s books. In his world, special effects and magic-for example, floating cocktail drinks-are common occurrences. “My character has morals. Occasionally he gets the girl,” Ward says. “He knows both sides of the law and he gets a bit dirty, but basically he’s clean.”

In “Cast a Deadly Spell,” Lovecraft is hired to find a priceless book of magic that has been stolen from the home of a wealthy business magnate (David Warner). His search leads him through nightclubs and seedy hotels to a new housing development carved out of the fruit orchards of Orange County.

Warner, who plays an evil purveyor of black magic, has done his share of special effects films, including “The Omen,” “Time Bandits,” “Tron” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II.” “The effects here take only two or three days,” he says. “But it so happens that I’m the one who deals with them.”

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A stage-trained British actor who made his film reputation in “Morgan-A Suitable Case for Treatment” in 1966, Warner has lived and worked in Hollywood for 13 years, usually playing villains. “I get knocked off quite regularly,” he says. Most recently he was gunned down on “Twin Peaks” after theatening Josie Packard. “It’s a way of earning a living,” he says.

“You have to have a sense of humor when people come up to you and say, ‘I wanted to kick your butt because you were so nasty,” ’ he added with a pained smile. In “Cast a Deadly Spell,” Warner has just a few meaty scenes, including the one about to be filmed. It’s the climactic sequence, where his character comes face to face with a vile creature sporting 10-foot-long appendages. “As you can imagine, we’ve had a lot of naughty tentacle jokes,” he says, “off-camera.” “This isn’t a spoof,” Ward emphasizes, Rand I’m not sure that it’s an homage. I see it as a romantic story set in the 1940s with a sexy jazz score. Something inside me responds to the style. It reminds me of my childhood in New Orleans, when my mother was a waitress and I was out every night playing pinball and listening to jukeboxes.”

The noir-ish aspects of “Cast a Deadly Spell” also appealed to fantasy filmmaker Gale Anne Hurd, producer of “Aliens,” “Terminator 2,” “Alien Nation” and “The Abyss.” “This film is in the tradition of ‘The Two Jakes,’ which was not a box-office giant,” she says. “But we’re opening new ground by having a fantasy element intertwined with a detective plot.” (Well, almost new ground-"Blade Runner” was a gumshoe sci-fi story, too.)

HBO obtained the rights to “Cast a Deadly Spell,” written by Emmy-winning “thirtysomething” writer Joseph Dougherty, and brought Hurd the project. The producer co-wrote and produced “The Terminator” in 1984 for a mere $6.4 million. Her budget here was slightly less. “We were all nuts,” she says “but it turned out.”

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“Cast a Deadly Spell” airs Saturday at 9 p.m. on HBO. Nancy Mills is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer who covers the entertainment industry.


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