In the early 1990s, HBO made a playful film noir paranormal comedy called Cast a Deadly Spell. 3 years later, they followed it up with the companion film Witch Hunt. If you love Lovecraft and comedy with supernatural and occult themes, here is why you might want to hunt them down.
CAST A DEADLY SPELL (1991)
In this timepiece that takes place in an alternate, fantasy version of the 1940s, dollface Fred Ward (he’ll always be Remo Williams to me) is detective H. Philip Lovecraft.
Some rich dude, played by horror icon David Warner (Time After Time, From Beyond the Grave, The Omen, The Company of Wolves, Waxwork) hires him to find a book…the Necromonicon! So Lovecraft begins an investigation in which he has encounters with various paranormal critters, usually inspired by HP Lovecraft stories. Although, Gremlins make an appearance!
This charming film is horror-lite, and most of the comedy comes from Ward’s perfect deadpan delivery as a hardboiled dick. Joining the fun is Clancy Brown (Pet Semetary II, Blue Steel) as a gangster and Julianne Moore as a lounge singer at The Dunwich Room.
Plus, there’s Lee Tergesen playing with the boys pre-Oz…as a drag queen! When he’s attacked by a big gargoyle, Lovecraft warns the creature to “Move away from the fairy.” What do you want? It was the 1940s.
Naturally, an iconic HP Lovecraft makes an appearance during the climax of the film.
WITCH HUNT (1994)
The sequel moves us into the 1950s, and uses magic as a metaphor for the many “panics” that were running rampant in society—sex, homosexuality, communism, etc. All the blame is put on liberal Hollywood in an attack launched by a politician running for office (Eric Bogosian).
A big movie star (Penelope Ann Miller) hires H Philip Lovecraft to investigate her cheating movie mogul husband…who is soon after shrunk with magic then ripped apart by his dogs! Awesome. Suddenly faced with a murder mystery, Lovecraft deals with some old enemies (mostly recast) and new faces, such as Julian Sands (Warlock, Gothic) and Debi Mazar.
He also once again interacts with a drag queen, played by drag personality Lypsinka. The madam at a Tinseltown “whorehouse” Lovecraft visits, she even gets to perform “I Put a Spell on You.” Her orientation is never referenced as Lee Tergesen’s was in the first film, so her character can even be read as trans.
I wish Witch Hunt were as fun as it sounds. Instead, it lacks both the charm and the monsters of the first film. Dennis Hopper has replaced Ward in the role of Lovecraft, and his performance is notably flat. The only time there’s any sparkle is when he interacts flirtatiously with his magic consultant, played by…Sheryl Lee Ralph!
It’s no wonder Hopper comes alive in those moments. Sheryl absolutely saves this movie, perfectly delivering understated quips and carrying herself with the mystique needed for the “sorceress” character. Essentially, the plot ends up focusing around her when the politician publically paints her as a witch, and when she is put on trial, it’s impossible not to see the parallels to the real life “character” of Tituba from The Crucible.
One of the magic highlights comes when Sheryl uses her power to expose the politician for what he really is. Unfortunately, this strong scene isn’t the final battle. That honor is given to an incredibly weak scene involving Lovecraft and a really cheesy series of bad special effects. Witch Hunt pretty much killed the series, which is probably why a third film was never made.