H.P. “Philip” Lovecraft

Created by Joseph Dougherty

“Hey, buddy, Need a light?”

“The omens are bad. Me, I’m going to Florida!”
— you know things are bad when the landlady threatens to call it quits 

Raymond Chandler‘s mean streets were never like this!

A pleasant surprise was Cast a Deadly Spell, a pulpy, tongue-in-cheek 1991 HBO offering that took the world of the hard-boiled Hollywood detective sale and populated it with werewolves, witches, demons, vampires, crooked cops and other denizens of the netherworld. And then decided to add the secret ingredient: CHEESE!

But that’s part of the fun.

It’s 1948, and almost everyone in Los Angeles uses magic to make life a little easier. Everyone, it seems, but stick-in-the-mud private dick H.P. “PHILIP” LOVECRAFT, that is. Philip is principled–he rejects black magic and everything it stands for. He prefers to be his own man, even if it means working out of a rundown office in Hollywood while the rest of the world looks down on him as some kind of sap. He just may be the last honest man in town.

A rumpled and rubbery-faced Fred Ward played Lovecraft to perfection, in a suitably deadpan style that showed a lot of affection for the character. The scenes with Hypolite Kropotkin, his highstrung landlady (a dance instructor and “Licenced Witch,” according to her business card) and Julianne Moore as a lounge singer are particularly fun. But the whole thing has a sense of wink-wink goofiness about it, from the cop called Bradbury (where do they get these names?) to the jail scene where the cops are rounding up that night’s herd of vagrant werewolves, drunken gargoyles and vampire hookers. The made-for-TV flick garnered enough positive response that HBO even coughed up for a sequel that eventually made it to the tube three years later.

Sadly, Witch Hunt, while not quite up to the original, replacing Ward as Lovecraft with Dennis Hopper and replacing director Martin Campbell with Paul Schrader, still had some good bits, although it definitely took itself more seriously than its predecessor, letting some character development in and invoking the communist hysteria of early fifties Hollywood, with an ambitious congressman (Eric Bogosian of Talk Radio) doing his best Senator McCarthy, trying to purge Hollywood of magic (“Have you now or ever performed a card trick?”).

A few of the monsters in both films (these were made for television, remember) could have been more convincing, and the shout-outs are about as subtle as a crowbar to the head. Like, in case you missed it (and how could you?), H.P. “Philip” Lovecraft’s name is meant to conjure up images of both Chandler’s famous knight errant and 1930’s horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Yeah, the name-dropping and shout-outs can get too cute at times, and there’s a scene or two that may not play out well with modern audiences, but these two hard-to-find and almost forgotten films are nicely done little diversions well worth the cult that has sprung up around them.

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  • CAST A DEADLY SPELL | Buy this video Buy the DVD Watch it now!
    (1991, Pacific-Western/HBO)
    Written by Joseph Dougherty
    Directed by Martin Campbell
    Produced by Gale Anne Hurd
    Starring Fred Ward as H.P. “PHILIP” LOVECRAFT
    Also starring David Warner, Julianne Moore, Clancy Brown, Alexandra Powers, Charles Hallahan, Arnetia Walker and Raymond O’Connor
  • WITCH HUNT | Buy this video
    (1994 HBO)
    Written by Joseph Dougherty
    Directed by Paul Schrader
    Produced by Michael Joyce
    Executive Producer: Gale Anne Hurd
    Music by Angelo Badalamenti
    Starring Dennis Hopper as H.P. “PHILIP” LOVECRAFT
    Also starring Penelope Ann Miller, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Julian Sands, Eric Bogosian
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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