Eldritch Adaptations is a series of reviews of movies based on or heavily inspired by the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft—better known as H. P. Lovecraft—an American horror writer who produced numerous stories during the 1920s and ’30s. His works have influenced the horror genre and inspired major writers and directors like Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and many more.
Remember my most recent review in this series, the one on The Unnamable (hint: you can read it by clicking above)? I praised the writer and director for seamlessly melding schlocky 80s horror and the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft. As a result, I got my hopes up just the slightest bit for 1991’s Cast a Deadly Spell, an HBO movie directed by Martin Campbell—of Goldeneye and Casino Royale fame—that melds film noir and Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. I should have known to remain cautious, so maybe my disappointment is my own fault.
Nah, it’s definitely the movie’s fault. My theory is that someone gathered every single noir cliché they could think of and just threw them all together in a script with no insight, nuance, excitement, or cleverness. Then, someone looked at it and said, “This is totally inoffensive, so it could probably be a TV movie. Maybe we should throw something else in it so people don’t get too bored, though.” Voila, Lovecraft comes into the picture.
The basic plot is that a Hard-Boiled Detective (named Phillip Lovecraft, played by Fred Ward) is hired for a job by a Shady Business Man, and must for some reason talk to that guy’s Sexy-But-Innocent Daughter. He also has an ex that is a Femme Fatale Lounge Singer (played by a vastly overqualified Julianne Moore), and needs to avoid the Evil Powerful Gangster and his Menacingly Meek Henchman. The only difference between this and a movie you watch at three in the morning because you can’t sleep is that the people use magic.
The magic is supposed to be the Lovecraft connection, and the writer, Joseph Dougherty, uses this opportunity to throw in tons of references to the Cthulhu Mythos. But the magic and Cthulhu elements are not at all utilized, and the story plays out as a typical noir, just with some uses of magic and creatures rather than guns and interesting evil humans. Think about that: someone decided to incorporate elements that allow for a story that transcends our reality, and uses it to tell a story we’ve heard a hundred times before. That’s amazing, and makes the Lovecraft connection even more offensive, because it is an incongruous crutch that intends to elevate this film, but instead makes it feel not just boring but nonsensical.
I cannot capture how exceedingly average this film is. It is milquetoast. It is the second Transformers movie. It is Nickelback. It is so subpar and useless that its only entertainment is in watching it with some friends and laughing at how poorly and lazily it attempts to reflect the familiar. The dialogue reads like a college freshman’s rough draft in Intro to Fiction Writing that he or she wrote after the second class in an Intro to Film course, where he or she just saw The Maltese Falcon for the first time. The cinematography is competent, but what exists in the frame is so silly that I don’t think anyone could have done much to salvage it.
I find these types of Lovecraft adaptations particularly offensive because they attempt to incorporate a disparate element in order to elevate a terrible concept. Lovecraft’s ideas should either be the heart of the adaptation, or something that comes naturally to what exists already in order to benefit our understanding of both the author and the film at hand. This type of filmmaking is lazy and uninteresting, which is truly the most offensive a film can be outside of the actively distasteful. If you’re in the mood for something with little thought behind it, then Cast a Deadly Spell is made for you. If you enjoy noir and/or Lovecraft, then stay far, far away.
Also, how could the writers have missed a chance to call this movie Noirlathotep? I mean, come on; that’s a pun opportunity on a silver platter.