Cast a Deadly Spell (1991, Martin Campbell)

“Los Angeles, 1948. Everybody used magic.”

Nice enough TV-movie with some good performances and a great premise: a noir detective story in a world where magic exists. Our hardboiled hero Lovecraft (Fred Ward, the year after starring in Henry & June) who doesn’t use magic due to an incident that killed his partner is hired by a rich guy (David Warner, an HP Lovecraft fan judging from his IMDB resume) to retrieve his Necronomicon. Ward runs into ex-flame Julianne Moore (this might count as her first starring movie role), tries to avoid thug Raymond O’Connor and his zombie, and finally protects Warner’s unicorn-hunting daughter from Warner’s own convoluted world-dooming scheme.

Clearly influenced by Who Framed Roger Rabbit with a lower budget, magic creatures and spells popping up in every scene (accompanied by overdone cartoon sound effects). Campbell went on to make some James Bond movies


Witch Hunt (1994, Paul Schrader)

“For some of hollywood’s biggest stars and studio moguls, it’s time to name names.”

When I heard Schrader had made a sequel starring Dennis Hopper, I couldn’t get a copy fast enough. Unfortunately it’s such a bad movie, it makes me wonder if I didn’t severely overrate the previous one by calling it “nice enough”. This one has fewer puppets, more early (too early) digital effects. And I love Hopper, but he doesn’t seem right for the role, speaking too slowly, looking out of his depth.

Shakespeare is summoned as script doctor:

Eric Bogosian (writer/star of Talk Radio) is a slimy anti-magic senator, starts a literal witch hunt by arresting and arranging to burn Hopper’s witch neighbor (now played by Sheryl Lee Ralph of To Sleep With Anger) for defying “the unnatural activities act”. I don’t know if this is a prequel or what – Hopper has different reasons to avoiding magic than Fred Ward did, and Raymond O’Connor’s zombie is back from the other movie. Penelope Ann Miller (Edna Purviance in Chaplin) is love interest fatale “Kim Hudson”, there’s a movie-star lookalike whorehouse a la L.A. Confidential run by a transvestite lipsync artist, more characters with obvious names (a cop called Bradbury), and Julian Sands with a heavy fake accent. And morphing – remember morphing?

Mouseover to see Hopper vomit a crow:
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The first couple minute are nice though, with clips from 1950’s industrial films recognizable from MST3K and a reference clip of Reagan testifying before HUAC.

“Poets are for each other.”

Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne, between The Keep and Miller’s Crossing) has four friends over to his mansion. They stay up late drinking just tons of laudanum, having sex and challenging each other to write scary stories.

Lord Byrne:

Supposedly this one night spawned Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as well as the first vampire story published in English, so dramatists and horror historians love to revisit it. I haven’t seen the others, but for sheer imagery and inventiveness, it’s hard to imagine anyone topping Russell and this great movie. The actors are into it, throwing themselves histrionically into the fantasy. Fun music, even cartoonish at times, by Thomas Dolby. Things get increasingly traumatic and dreamlike as the night wears on, with apparent murders and accidents and Mary Godwin’s (she hadn’t yet married Shelley) visions of her dead child. Strange ending, as they’re all perfectly fine in the morning, then a present-day tour boat gives a rushed narrative postscript.

Timothy Spall (in his second Frankstein-related film in a row, after appearing in The Bride with Sting and Jennifer Beals) is Dr. Polidori, commissioned to write a biography of Byron. I never quite figured his character out (though I love watching Timothy Spall, so it’s not important), but reading later that he became famous for his vampire story gave new meaning to this scene where he’s harmed from touching the cross on his wall.

Miriam Cyr (only in a few movies, but three are Frankenstein-related) is Claire Clairmont, stepsister of Mary Godwin/Shelley, who had a child with Byron the following year. Miriam may have been cast for her ability to open her eyes unusually wide.

Boyishly energetic Julian Sands (year after A Room With a View) plays Shelley, and Natasha Richardson (Asylum, The Handmaid’s Tale) is Mary. Sands kicks things into high gear early in the night, running naked onto the rooftops trying to catch lightning (definite Frankenstein reference).

Shelley, Mary, Polidori:

They summon a creature during a seance, Sands goes out to the shed and gets spooked, Polidori goes to bed early then appears as a dismembered head on the floor. Goblins, giant snakes and living suits of armor roam the house. There are swords, guns, torches and hangings, and somehow they all end up in the basement covered in filth.

“We’re dead. It’s shown me the torture it has in store for us. Our creature – it will be there waiting in the shadows, in the shape of our fears, until it has seen us to our deaths.”

Ivan Passer filmed a version of this story two years later, with Eric Stoltz in the Sands role, Alex Winter in the Spall role, and Laura Dern as Claire. Also in ’88, the same year he was in Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm, Hugh Grant played Byron in yet another version, with Elizabeth Hurley as Claire.