Lord of Illusions (1995)
While I have only ever seen two films directed by macabre horror writer Clive Barker, he is actually one of my favorite filmmakers. Hellraiser was the first reason, but this film, Lord of Illusions, is the biggest reason. Released in 1995 in the midst of a bad stretch of time for the horror genre, Clive Barker was ambitious in telling a film noir detective horror story. Theatrically, the film was not well represented with a lot of pertinent, quality scenes cutout for a tighter runtime, and box office was not very lucrative. I cannot find a record for the film’s budget, but I’m sure it exceeded the box office gross of $13 million. Thankfully, the home video market allowed Barker the opportunity to release his definitive director’s cut of this excellent film, and I can’t imagine anyone watching this film in any other way.
New York private detective Harry D’Amour (Scott Bakula) finds himself repeatedly drawn into disturbing supernatural events, much to his strong reluctance. He takes an insurance fraud case in Los Angeles as a change of pace, but soon, he finds himself in the world between illusion and true magic. The world’s greatest illusionist Philip Swann (Kevin J. O’Connor) is killed in a graphic on-stage accident, and Harry is driven to discover the truth behind it. Hired by Swann’s gorgeous wife Dorothea (Famke Janssen), Harry delves deep into the secretive world of magic, and encounters dangerous foes including the peculiar, yet lethal Butterfield (Barry Del Sherman). What Harry uncovers is that a cult leader named Nix (Daniel von Bargen), who could perform real magic and taught Swann to do so as well, is feared to be able to defy the grave that Swann and Dorothea put him in, and will return to exact horrific revenge upon the world. What Harry D’Amour may come to realize is that death is the ultimate illusion.
The film sets a very dangerous, foreboding tone right from the outset. A series of grim images of a decrepit, desolate wasteland open the picture telling you that dark, evil forces await us. This opening sequence shows Swann and his friends confronting Nix and his followers in the Mojave Desert thirteen years prior, and sets the stage for where Harry D’Amour will enter their unsettling lives in the present day. It clues you in on exactly what horrors Nix was capable of, and why Swann and his estranged friends now fear his return so gravely. The production design of Nix’s stronghold is perfectly macabre and disturbing. It has that dead-on Clive Barker dark, gritty style with a sort of grotesque beauty. It is photographed with a generous amount of shadow using the light to accentuate only certain sections of the environment. This style carries over into all the visually darker scenes creating a gorgeous film noir style. This is just a beautifully shot movie in any condition of light or shadow. While cinematographer Ronn Schmidt doesn’t have much in the way of high profile films to his résumé, I can surely tell he had a major wealth of artistic potential when coupled with the right director.
Clive Barker magnificently proves his talent and worth as a filmmaker here. I think Lord of Illusions really is a masterpiece of supernatural noir horror. It’s a greatly intelligent film that blends two very comparable genres together in a beautiful way. The film sets up the horror elements first with that amazingly chilling opening sequence, but doesn’t really explain anything to the audience. So, as Harry D’Amour is pulled into this plot, we still have questions that need answering, and it is a dangerous path for Harry to walk to reach those answers. There are plenty of secrets that many would kill to have or to keep hidden, but Harry is an intelligent enough hero to see through the spook tactics and walls of deception to get to that truth. The moments of horror are powerful such as the flashes Harry has of the exorcism he was involved in. The sight of the stark white demon is nightmarishly striking. Dorothea also has visions of blood and death which tell her that Nix’s return is soon to come. Butterfield’s strange lackey Miller also provides much in the way of savage gore and violence. How he survives a third story fall to the pavement enhances the bizarre nature of the film’s foes. Clive Barker knew how to use film as a canvas for brilliant brush strokes. Melding so many different complex aspects of this story would not be easy to do, but he had a clear and vibrant vision which he was able to realize. Not to mention, he brought us one of his absolute best creations ever.
I really love the Harry D’Amour character as portrayed by Scott Bakula. He is endlessly fascinating to me. A hardened private investigator who gets caught up in all manner of supernatural danger is so ripe with potential. The fact that he is reluctant to be wrapped up in this world, but is inevitably drawn to it makes for a great character dynamic. He’s a man that has subscribed to many faiths in his day, possibly to attempt to find answers or solace for the evil he has faced. It shows he’s a man of a wide open mind, but not without his skepticism. True to being a detective, he accepts nothing purely on face value alone. He has a probing mind with a keen intellect that makes him an interesting hero to follow. He’s intent on unraveling a mystery in a world built upon secrets. Scott Bakula gives a warm, soulful quality to D’Amour that comes to life opposite Dorothea. He also shows Harry to be a capable and confident man of action making him a very well-rounded character. He’s smart and perceptive as well as having a good heart that contrasts the darkness he’s engulfed in. Bakula did research the role, and helped add in more traits of what Barker had previously written for the character. The tattoo on Harry’s back resulted from that research and collaboration. Scott Bakula does an excellent job with this role that I wish fortunes could’ve allowed us to be exposed to beyond this film, but nothing is ever truly impossible. One can still hope for another prime opportunity to arise for Bakula and Barker to reunite.
When Clive Barker saw the headshot of Famke Janssen during casting, he knew he had found Dorothea. Her air of class and elegance truly shines through in this role. When Harry first sees her its in the golden late afternoon sunlight, and she couldn’t be more captivatingly beautiful. She easily captures Harry’s heart, and that leads the two down a very passionate path. Bakula and Janssen have a seductive chemistry that is captured magnificently by the camera. Their love scene is gorgeous. I like the fact that Lord of Illusions came just before Famke became a villainous Bond girl in GoldenEye. Thus, it gives Barker some special credit for recognizing her talent and beauty before her breakout role. As Dorothea, she is both vulnerable and strong creating a fine mix to make her a damsel in distress, but not one that’s afraid to fight for herself when the opportunity arises.
I have to admit that I love the character of Butterfield. He’s perfectly androgynous with a slinking quality that makes him very serpent like. Barry Del Sherman uses his body language fluidly as he slipped into the skin of this peculiar villain. It’s wonderfully written as a dangerous, off-beat character that one might not take seriously at first glance. However, Butterfield quickly demonstrates a lethal, sadistic quality that he uses in calculated fashion. He truly takes deep pleasure in the torturous methods he uses, and Del Sherman absorbs himself fully into that mindset. He portrays a wonderfully charismatic and juicy villain. It’s also an interesting dynamic that Butterfield aspires to be Nix’s one and only apprentice, but even Nix acknowledges that there is no one else worthy but Swann. While Swann gets to bask in the limelight of fame, Butterfield slinks his way through the dark underbelly of the world to prepare for Nix’s return, and he gets no respect for his loyalty or hard work from Nix.
Daniel von Bargen is a hell of a diverse actor that I have gained immense respect for over the years. He can do drop down hilarious comedy, but also, put in a frighteningly charismatic performance as Nix. What he does in the first few minutes of the film resonate throughout the rest of the picture. His horrific power haunts Swann, and that fear translates over to the audience very sharply. He is an awesome villain full of commanding presence and intense malevolence. The power von Bargen throws into this role is masterful creating something that could truly haunt your nightmares in terrifying fashion. He clearly had a fun time portraying this intense, chilling character.
Another amazingly diverse actor is Kevin J. O’Connor. You may know him from his turn as the cowardly Beni from Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy, or from the Patrick Swayze television drama The Beast. As Philip Swann, he gives us a very unique performance. I like how the film opens without presenting a clear hero to you. Swann is not a confident or particularly stable person, and not the type to gravitate to as a protagonist. He is very shaken by fear, and later on in life, he’s not a content man. He has fame, wealth, and a beautiful woman at his side. However, it’s the creeping knowledge of what Nix vowed he would do, defy death, that endlessly troubles him. If he can do that, Swann cannot imagine what greater terrors he could unleash. Even with all the power Swann possesses, he knows that Nix is more powerful, but most importantly, he has the will to do things Swann never would. Nix messed with his mind once, and he’s never been able to shake that. O’Connor passionately displays the depth of those turbulent emotional and psychological elements so well. He makes Philip Swann a greatly fascinating and fractured character that maintains the foreboding tone of the film.
The supporting cast really put their all into their roles. They add to the eclectic flavor of these textured and distinct characters. Joel Swetow makes Valentin a very sophisticated but shady character. He furthers adds to the mysterious and treacherous aspects of the plot. All of the characters appearing in the Magic Castle sequence, portraying illusionists of all sorts, also really boost those spooky and colorful qualities of the film. It’s just a damn solid cast that Barker put together. There’s not a single weak link anywhere at all.
Clive Barker turned to the absolute masters of special make-up effects in KNB EFX Group for this film. Their work has been unparalleled. Whatever they do, big or small, severe or subtle, it always hold weight on film. What they did here is bring the gory and challenging imagination of Clive Barker to perfect life. The make-up on the resurrected Nix is purely, excellently disgusting, as it should be. The protrusion in his forehead is something I still cannot stomach to look at. Conversely, the digital visual effects are damn well up to standards. The early scene of Nix juggling fire is seamless and convincing, and the effect of Swann levitating a car over Harry’s head is quite well handled. Of course, I’m sure many would contend with the later scene of the apparition that attacks Harry and Dorothea late in the film, but Barker wanted it to look as it did. He did not want those effects to be dead-on realistic. He wanted a dream-like, unreal quality to them, and to a point I believe it worked. I’m sure something a little more refined could’ve benefitted the sequence better, but I generally have no criticism about it.
The film has a very strong, haunting score by Simon Boswell. It’s an excellent piece of work that regularly keeps the tension and ominous qualities present, but it also has its moments of beauty as with the Harry and Dorothea love scene. A sensual saxophone chimes in to delve into that seductive passion. The music during Swann’s stage show is marvelously theatrical. In its most climactic moments, the score is powerful and darkly operatic. Overall, it’s an immensely effective composition for a film with such diverse qualities.
Lord of Illusions has its generous share of heightened tension and frightening danger. The opening and ending sequences with Nix bring the full boar horror in all its macabre glory. In the bulk of the film, though, we have action based excitement with D’Amour, and some gory visuals that re-instill the haunting, chilling aspects of the story. This is not a splatter film with some brutal threat stalking the characters. It’s very supernatural with a more ominous threat stirring up their deepest fears. The atmosphere is very strong regularly keeping an audience on edge, and keeping them enthralled as each new layer of the mystery is pulled back. With lives being lost as he gets deeper into this and becomes more invested in Dorothea, Harry can’t just walk away. It’s a great way to wrap the hero up in the story, and drive him forward in the face of ungodly horror. Harry never gives into fear, and remains determined in even the darkest moments of the film.
The final act is powerful and amazing. It serves as the proper climax to this story which pits apprentice against master in a chilling and grotesque confrontation that still manages to keep D’Amour relevant to the outcome. It bookends the film smartly bringing Nix back in a far more chilling state than before. The disturbing cultist aspects of the movie really are driven home by this point, and have an ironic, vile pay-off here. It further sells the grave lethality and power of Nix. This entire prolonged sequence is like a slow decent into the horrific depths of hell, and there is no one better suited for the task of realizing that than Clive Barker. This ending will leave you still unsettled as the end credits roll.
If there’s one horror film that has inspired me as a screenwriter more than any other, it would be Lord of Illusions. This would be the genre I would want to play around in because Clive Barker realized it so well here. There’s a vast untapped potential for this supernatural noir genre, and this film is a prime example of that potential. Barker wrote a brilliant screenplay based on his short story The Last Illusion, and turned it into one of the best, most original and intelligent horror films I have ever seen. Thus, it is one of my favorite films of all time. This film far exceeds expectations realizing every element and aspect with amazing, top notch quality. It is only a shame that the studio difficulties Barker faced with this film caused him to turn away from ever directing another film again. Fortunately, it has not ceased him being a producer on a number of film adaptations of his written work. I think Clive Barker is one of the best masters of horror because has never let me down. If this turns out to be the final film he ever directs, no one could ask for a better final bow than Lord of Illusions.