I’ve always been drawn to the horror noir subgenre – a hybrid of horror and film noir that features downtrodden protagonists immersed in a nightmarish, shadowy underworld fraught with danger at every turn. However, instead of the antagonists being simple criminal underworld figures they are quite often beings infused with supernatural powers. Some memorable examples include Angel Heart (1987), The Ninth Gate (1999) and Constantine (2005). One of my favorites is Lord of Illusions (1995), an adaptation of Clive Barker’s short story, “The Last Illusion” by the author himself. The protagonist in both is Harry D’Amour, a private investigator and occult detective that has appeared in several of Barker’s fiction, most notably, albeit briefly, in The Great and Secret Show, a short story entitled “The Lost Souls, and also the novel Everville.
Lord of Illusions starts almost as if we’ve arrived late for another film, right in the midst of its exciting, action-packed climax. Two vehicles arrive at a rundown compound out in the Mojave Desert circa 1982. Inside the house resides Nix (Daniel von Bargen), a powerful magician and leader of a small cult of dedicated followers. Barker gives us a little taste of the man’s powers by showing him casually juggling a small ball of fire while talking to his people about cleansing the world. An illusionist by the name of Philip Swann (Kevin J. O’Connor) and a small group of ex-followers emerge from the vehicles intent on stopping Nix who has kidnapped a child, keeping her tied up in the bowels of the house with a pet mandrill.
Nix’s house looks like the result of years of neglect with its walls littered with graffiti and gaping holes exposing the infrastructure all the while bathed in atmospheric shadows. The exterior is even worse, the ground littered with the carcasses of dead animals, abandoned toys and other assorted garbage. Swann confronts Nix who proceeds to penetrate the illusionist’s mind, twisting his perception so that his friends look like grotesque aberrations. Despite this, they still manage to get the upper hand on the cult leader. Swann binds Nix’s eyes and mouth through magical means and buries his body out in the desert. However, his creepy assistant Butterfield (Barry Del Sherman) escapes.
It’s 13 years later and we meet private detective Harry D’Amour in New York City, fresh from an exorcism case in Brooklyn. It’s left him burnt out and edgy and so a friend of his gives him another job as a form of vacation – a standard insurance fraud case in Los Angeles. Barker makes sure to contrast the drab, rainy New York with sun-kissed L.A. full of palm trees and beaches. The case seems pretty straight-forward until Harry follows his subject to a fortune teller only to see him quickly run out. Harry investigates and comes across a grisly sight – the fortune teller (Joseph Latimore) has been used as a human pincushion by Butterfield. It turns out that he has been tracking down everyone who helped Swann defeat Nix on that fateful day 13 years ago.
Swann has since gone on to become a popular illusionist in the vein of David Copperfield. His wife Dorothea (Famke Janssen) sees Harry in the local newspaper and hires him to help Swann who she thinks is in danger. Intrigued by Swann and dazzled by Dorothea’s beauty, Harry agrees to take on the case and comes to see the illusionist perform one night where he unveils a new act that goes horribly wrong. The resulting fallout sees Harry and Dorothea try to thwart Butterfield’s plans to resurrect Nix.
I’ve always been fascinated by illusionists and magicians. I like how Lord of Illusions makes a point of explaining the difference as Swann’s assistant Valentin (Joel Swetow) tells Harry, “Illusions are trickery. Magicians do it for real.” Barker’s film goes to great lengths to show the difference between showy, Las Vegas-style theatrics and true magic – in the case of Nix, the darkest kind. This all dovetails rather nice into the horror noir subgenre as Barker mixes and matches from both so that we have the world-weary private detective butting heads with a magic-practicing cult leader. There’s the murder mystery merging with a supernatural evil threatening to take over the world.
What I find intriguing about Lord of Illusions is how it follows Harry’s journey from the hard-boiled detective world, mixed with dabblings in the occult, to full-on immersion in the world of illusions, which is typified by one of my favorite scenes where he visits the famous Magic Castle in Hollywood, a nightclub for magicians and magic aficionados. The establishing shot features the iconic building while “Magic Moments” plays cheekily over the soundtrack. Harry saunters in and bellies up to the bar next to an older gentleman (played by none other than famous magician Billy McComb) practicing card tricks, which prompts the bemused private eye to ask him, “Where did you learn that?” to which he replies with a smile, “Oh, this? At birth.” He takes Harry on a brief tour and offers a glimpse of the inner workings. Later on, Harry audaciously breaks in with the help of another magician.
With the exception of Quantum Leap, I was never a huge fan of Scott Bakula, but he is quite good as the burnt-out private investigator with his share of emotional baggage – a prior case that Barker alludes to in brief flashbacks and fragmented nightmares. Like in many detective stories, Harry takes on a case that immerses him in a strange world he knows little of, but becomes acquainted with the deeper into it he delves. Bakula has just enough of an everyman quality to act as the audience surrogate, our gateway into this fantastical world that Barker has created.
Famke Janssen plays Dorothea as a noirish fatale full of secrets, but not ones normally associated with the genre; rather ones that adhere to horror. She’s a striking beauty and Barker makes sure we know it through a series of revealing outfits that show off her gorgeous figure. Sadly she isn’t given much to do except look great and be the film’s damsel in distress until the film’s final moments. The romance that develops between Harry and Dorothea feels a little rushed, even in the longer director’s cut. The two actors certainly have decent chemistry together, but I don’t buy their jumping into bed so quickly. Janssen made Lord of Illusions at the height of her mainstream popularity (it came out after the James Bond film GoldenEye) and I always wonder if its rather lackluster box office receipts (in comparison to the Bond film) was the reason why she downshifted to B and independent films until X-Men in 2000.
Barker casts Kevin J. O’Connor and Daniel von Bargen wonderfully against type as a jaded illusionist and an evil cult leader respectively. O’Connor certainly has played all kind of roles in all kinds of films as varied as Steel Magnolias (1989) and The Mummy (1999), but I would have never thought to cast him as a brilliant illusionist. Conversely, von Bargen is often cast as douchey authority figures (see Super Troopers and Seinfeld), but in Barker’s film he’s called upon to play an incarnation of evil magic and is quite convincing as a deranged cult leader – imagine if Charles Manson practiced magic. Barry Del Sherman is quite memorable as Butterfield, an androgynous sadist that talks a little like John Malkovich and dresses like a stereotypical rock star. The actor has an unusual and captivating presence whenever he’s on-screen.
The impetus for making Lord of Illusions came from the fact that Clive Barker hadn’t seen a good scary movie in awhile and this had “truly gotten under my skin,” as he said in an interview. He felt that the world of magic would be a fertile arena for a horror film because, “People have eerie feelings about magic, illusion. And despite the wholesome image of Mr. David Copperfield, illusion is a fruitful area of a horror movie to begin in.” Barker liked magic and had affection for the character of Harry D’Amour, who appeared in several of the author’s books. According to the author, Harry was not “a Van Helsing, defiantly facing off against some implacable evil with faith and holy water. His antecedents are the troubled, weary and often lovelorn heroes of film noir.” He felt that films like Hellraiser (1987), which were dominated by their antagonists, had run their course and decided that if he was going to make another series of films it would focus on a hero.
That being said, Barker still wanted the film to have an interesting antagonist, but one that was identifiable to audiences: “Nix is a villain I think we can relate to; he’s not unlike Charles Manson … The craziness of Waco, the craziness of Jonestown, the Manson stuff – Nix is the embodiment of the charismatic leader who says, ‘Follow me to death,’ which is something that’s part of our culture.”
It had been several years since his last film, Nightbreed (1990), which he had a horrible experience on in terms of dealing with the studio, but decided to try again because of Lord of Illusions was “a modestly scaled project, which gave me the security of not being micromanaged.” Barker went to work on the screenplay as early as August 1991. The budget for Lord of Illusions was a lean $11 million with a short shooting schedule. Barker wanted his film to look double what it cost to make so he storyboarded the entire thing in order to be prepared every day.
When Scott Bakula first met with Barker, the filmmaker told him that Lord of Illusions was influenced by films like The Exorcist (1971) and Chinatown (1974). When filming began, the author was impressed by how much the actor embodied the character he had created: “When he stepped on set, in costume for the first time … I thought, ‘This is wonderful – this is the man I’ve been writing about for 8 years.” Barker has subsequently said that whenever he writes about the character he imagines Bakula.
Barker had no problem casting Bakula as Harry D’Amour, but United Artists balked when he wanted Famke Janssen as Dorothea. The producers saw approximately 40 actresses and were looking for an unknown because of their limited budget. They liked Janssen for the haunted look on her face. She got her start as a model and had only done a few small roles on television shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Melrose Place. Barker did a screen test with her and the studio allowed him to cast the actress in the film. Barker’s instincts were validated when, a few weeks into filming, she was cast a Bond girl in the next James Bond film, GoldenEye.
The first test screening for Lord of Illusions did not go well with the audience balking at the explicit nature of the sex depicted in the film. They also complained that the running time was too long and that there was too much talking. Barker cut out a few scenes and toned down the sex and the second screening went much better: “They said it was the scariest movie they’d ever seen,” he recalled in an interview. After this screening, Barker toned down some of the violence.
Predictably, Lord of Illusions received mostly mixed to negative reviews from mainstream critics. However, Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and wrote, “What I liked – enough to make me recommend the movie – wasn’t so much the conclusion as the buildup, with D’Amour developing a curious relationship with Dorothea and Valentin, and penetrating into the inner circles of black magic.” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “the gore quickly becomes as tiresome as the overheated dialogue in which the characters blather on about the difference between ‘divinity and trickery’.” USA Today gave the film two-and-a-half out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “Barker’s visual side dominates its literary equivalent this time out, resulting in a time-killer that may amuse fans until illusion is shattered by the rolling of the end credits.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “D-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman found it to be “turgid cop-thriller nonsense.” Along with Ebert, the Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas provided one of the rare positive reviews: “Lord of Illusions belongs to Bakula, but he gets staunch support on both sides of the camera.” Finally, in his review for the Washington Post, Richard Harrington felt that Barker was “torn between his great gifts as an author and his aspirations as a moviemaker. Until he figures out how to finesse a convincing transition, Barker is doomed to creative purgatory.”
The title card at the beginning of Lord of Illusions states that death is only an illusion and in the film’s world of magical madmen this is certainly true as both Nix and Swann dabble with this concept. Barker’s film plays with our perception of what is real and what isn’t. After all, what’s a film, but just another illusion? He has certainly improved as a filmmaker with Lord of Illusions. It looks better and tells a more coherent story than his previous effort, Nightbreed, which was marred by studio interference. His direction in this film is more confident and he gets good performances out of his cast, especially Kevin J. O’Connor and Daniel von Bargen, while his script unfortunately shortchanges Famke Janssen. It’s a shame that Lord of Illusions wasn’t more of a commercial success as it could have been the start of many Harry D’Amour films, but alas it wasn’t meant to be, but at least we have this cinematic incarnation and the character continues to live on in Barker’s fiction.
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“The Making of Lord of Illusions” Sci-Fi Channel documentary. Lord of Illusions Laser Disc. 1996.