Lord of Illusions (1995)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2014-12-20 06:20

Written and Directed by: Clive Barker
Starring: Scott Bakula, Kevin J. O'Connor, and Famke Janssen

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

"There are two worlds of magic. One is the glittering domain of the illusionist. The other is a secret place, where magic is a terrifying reality. Here, men have the power of demons. And Death itself is an illusion."

When the calendar rolls around to August next year, it will have been twenty years since Clive Barker directed a film. That almost seems unfathomable considering his stature, especially when one recalls his arrival as the genre’s enfant terrible. Frustrated by the adaptations of his screenplays in the mid-80s, Barker took it upon himself to do his work justice by helming Hellraiser, Nightbreed, and Lord of Illusions during a stretch that must have left him increasingly disillusioned. By now, his clash with Morgan Creek over his second film is infamous, but his follow-up effort was met with similar resistance from a studio that cut his vision down.

The story of Lord of Illusions, however, met with a happier ending more quickly, as Barker’s original cut has been available for fifteen years now—a far cry from the nearly quarter-century saga of Nightbreed. During that time, it’s fair to say that it's become a bit of an afterthought; lacking the iconography of Hellraiser and the mythic proportions of Nightbreed, it’s an intimate little thriller by comparison, though no less ambitious in its ruminations on themes that have defined Barker’s career: obsession, the occult, sex, and the suffering of the flesh.

Looking to explore the world of magic—true magic, as is noted by the opening text—the film drops its audience into the Mojave Desert in 1982, where maniacal cult leader Nix (Daniel von Bargen) has kidnapped a young girl for a sacrifice. A group of defectors led by Phillip Swann (Kevin J. O’Connor) thwarts his plans by killing him and burying his body in the desert in the hopes that no one will ever dig him up. Thirteen years later, the curious case of private investigator Harry D’Amour (Scott Bakula) dredges up the past when a series of bizarre events point to the existence of an enigmatic “Puritan” looking to rid the world of filth. D’Amour’s trail also intersects with Swann (now a renowned stage magician) and his cohorts, including his wife (Famke Janssen), and when mysterious and gruesome “accidents” befall them, the detective begins to suspect occult forces are at work.

With Lord of Illusions, Barker was beyond establishing himself as one of the genre’s most exciting directors; however, it does offer proof that he had no intention on resting on any sort of laurels. It’s just as sharp of a departure from Nightbreed as that film was from Hellraiser. Seeking to infuse his supernaturally-tinged narratives with a neo-noir style (much like Alan Parker did in Angel Heart), Barker presides over a twisty, snaking narrative that becomes increasingly convoluted as secrets are divulged and intertwined with sexual trysts. Lord of Illusions has enough twists, turns, and sultriness expected of any film noir, not to mention the aesthetic: this is a grimy, low-key pot-boiler draped in shadows and sweat—it just so happens to also feature enough eviscerated corpses to fill up a slasher film. Frankly, the plot is a goddamn complicated mess (even in Barker’s preferred cut) of expository reveals and tawdry developments, but it has a rhythm and style all its own that allows it to simmer and boil with the sort of pulpy verve necessary for an effective noir (it should be noted that Scott Derrickson would take a similar approach in Hellraiser: Inferno, albeit to lesser effect).

As such, Lord of Illusions is one Barker film that cherishes style over substance; where his previous two found a healthy balance between the two, this one leans heavily on Barker’s preoccupation with the macabre (read: really fucked up, weird shit). While it’s not the effects-laden extravaganza Nightbreed is (nor is it as agonizingly twisted as Hellraiser), it’s suitably audacious in bursts, perhaps even to its detriment at times (exhibit A: some really crude, early CGI work that doesn’t hold up well). As is typically the case with Barker, there’s a lived-in quality to the universe established here—this might be a film that escalates from an insurance fraud investigation to a full-blown throwdown between resurrected cultists, but it’s somehow grounded just enough to work.

Barker’s commitment to characters is also notable. Bakula’s D’Amour is a classically weary but smart-ass noir protagonist, a charismatic cypher for what proves to be an unusual world. It’s hard not to wonder if Bakula wasn’t channeling a little bit of David Duchovny’s Fox Mulder here (the film feels like it could have been an especially gruesome episode of The X-Files), but it works—it’s easy to imagine Harry D’Amour going on to tackle more cases in an alternate universe where Lord of Illusions was a huge hit (related: would that universe even require Sam Rockwell to take over Bakula’s mantle? I digress.). Meanwhile, the film provided the first of two career-defining roles for Janssen in 1995, who found herself inhabiting a femme fatale archetype here and in Goldeneye. There are many great, otherworldly effects in Lord of Illusions, but none are quite as alluring as Janssen, who’s always just somewhere left of center.

There’s a temptation to call Lord of Illusions “minor Barker.” Given that it’s one of only three directorial debuts, that feels disingenuous because they all feel major in their own way—it’s just that this one is maybe the least major. Still, it’s not like it points to some inevitable decline on Barker’s part; certainly, few people were crafting horror films like this twenty years ago, and even fewer are doing so now. With only three films, he proved to be among the genre’s most distinctive auteurs, his voice reflected not only in his screenplays but also in his stylish mix of grisly violence, ethereal set designs, and imaginative staging. It’s a shame he’s only been relegated to a producer’s role for the past two decades.

At least Scream Factory is making the case for his directorial work. Only a month removed from their incredible resurrection of Nightbreed, the company has now lavished similar attention on Lord of Illusions with a Collector’s Edition Blu-ray that features both the theatrical and director’s cut on separate discs. The second disc also features plenty of extras, including an introduction and commentary from Barker, a 17-minute featurette made up of behind-the-scenes footage, an hour’s worth of vintage making-of material, deleted scenes (with commentary from Barker), a 12-minute interview with storyboard artist Martin Mercer, a photo gallery, and a theatrical trailer. Scream needs only to induct Hellraiser into their ranks to complete their definitive treatment of Barker’s directorial work, but I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t settle for a release of Rawhead Rex instead. Buy it!

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