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TV Reviews : ‘Cast a Deadly Spell’ Plays With Film Forms

It’s an immediate bad omen in the TV movie “Cast a Deadly Spell” (tonight at 9 on HBO) that Fred Ward, as a hard-boiled ‘40s private dick, turns out to be playing a character with the unlikely name of H. Philip Lovecraft--as in Chandler’s mystery-solving Marlowe, as in the supernatural writer H.P. Lovecraft. No soothsayer is needed to immediately suss that this will be a genre hybrid and it won’t be subtle.

The detective-centered film noir and the horror film--the forms getting an unwieldy welding here from writer Joseph Dougherty--have been mixed before, most notably in Alan Parker’s creepy “Angel Heart.” The oil-and-water blend here, though, is really closer to “Ghostbusters” in its ultimately comedic intentions. Finally, despite the film’s best straight face and cleverest intentions, it crosses well over the line between homage and parody.

Every cliche from either genre has deliberately found its way in, with a twist borrowed from the other. Ward, as Lovecraft, is a struggling private eye who can’t pay his rent; is pining for an old girlfriend, a brunette torch singer; refuses to give in to the corruption of his former partner; is hired by a mysterious millionaire with a beautiful, sassy blond daughter; gets pushed around by huge thugs, et al, et al.

The difference is that, as we’re informed in the opening printout, “in Los Angeles in 1948, everybody used black magic.” Herein lies the conceit of Dougherty’s script: Lovecraft’s landlord is a licensed witch; his former partner (Clancy Brown) has made his fortune with the help of the black arts; the millionaire (prototypal arch villain David Warner) wants his hands on a book, the Necronomicon, that will spell the end of the world; the huge thugs are glassy-eyed zombies. And Lovecraft’s refusal to give in to corruption here translates to a refusal to adopt the witchcraft appropriated by virtually everyone else in the scenario.

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Not since the heyday of the ‘70s series “The Night Stalker” have so many supernatural creatures gathered around one gumshoe. Gremlins and gargoyles are seen as commonplace by the denizens of L.A. Down at the station, police lieutenants routinely question vampires and werewolves, muttering, “God, I hate full moons.”

For ex-lifetime subscribers to Famous Monsters of Filmland, this will no doubt be funny stuff, and Dougherty does have a witty way with satirizing hard-boiled dialogue. (“You couldn’t lay off,” a jaded pal tells Lovecraft. “Not you, Public Conscience No. 1. Who died and made you Jiminy Cricket?”) Ultimately, though, the chuckles come from poking obvious fun at movie conventions, and Dougherty and director Martin Campbell can’t quite bring the absurd conviction of a Zuckers/Abrahams project to the effort.


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