Dir. Clive Barker
Written by Clive Barker
Starring Scott Bakula, Kevin J. O’Connor, Famke Janssen, Daniel Von Bargen
Boy, I remember when this movie came out, can you believe that? I was in fifth grade at the time, and for some reason I got it in my head that this movie had to be the single scariest fucking thing in the history of the world. The ominous title, the special-effects-driven trailers, the association with something called “Hellraiser” which I didn’t know what the fuck it was but sure sounded depraved and scandalous. I begged my parents to let me watch it, and their flat refusal on the (correct) grounds that it was a terrible idea just furthered the mystique for me. This may actually be the only movie ever that my parents forbade me to see.
Well, sorry Mom and Dad, it took me a little under twenty years but guess what, I finally did it, I saw LORD OF ILLUSIONS. And also, guess what, not the scariest fucking thing in the history of the world. In fact, not even the scariest fucking thing in the room I saw it in (there was a bottle of blue MD 20/20 on the table). But it is sort of interesting, mainly for Clive Barker’s interesting attempt to wed Noir conventions to his typically twisted horror tropes. I said interesting, not good. But it has it’s moments.
Scott Bakula plays Harry D’Amour, private eye. He’s recently gotten off a weird case which may or may not have been supernatural in origin (actually, I just realized the film never does resolve that -- surprising restraint there) and is gradually drawn under the employ of Phillip Swann (Kevin J. O’Connor in a rare role where he’s only kind of an asshole), a stage magician who may just be the real deal. Turns out Swann learned his tricks from a creepy cult leader named Nix (Daniel Von Bargen) who was abandoned and killed by his former pupil on account of being such a child-murdering psycho asshat, but who may not have stayed quite as dead as we all might have hoped.
|Bakula rocks the man-tramp-stamp.|
Though nowhere near their technical equal, Barker’s penchant for imaginative, unique horror creations is the rival of luminaries like H. P. Lovecraft, David Cronenberg and Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Few horror writers are as willing and able to craft complex, fresh scenarios to creep you out rather than relying on old standards like zombies, vampires, ghosts, etc. Unfortunately, Barker’s imagination typically outpaces his technical chops by a considerable distance (HELLRAISER being the only real exception) and as a result his nightmares are usually conceptually superior to their chintzy execution. Such is the case here; there’s some creepy stuff in here, but mostly it feels like the same old over-lit under-directed special effects laden cheeseball 90’s schlock that you’d probably expect. Nix is good and scary and O’Connor is pretty interesting as the morally ambiguous Swann, but Bakula overplays his Noir persona to a level bordering on parody, wasting his natural likeability and never coming across as remotely hardboiled. There’s some fun parts, including a witheringly snide Vincent Schiavelli as a rival magician and an attack by -- maaaagical colored polygons! Early CG effects are so cute.
Really, though, the film is more Noir than horror, and suffers enormously from Barker’s slack storytelling and inability to conjure a convincing (or consistent) atmosphere of mystery. It’s convoluted but uneventful, meaning by the time we get to a decent horror scene or two, it’s already too late. It’s earnestness and 90’s nostalgia might earn it a little goodwill, but it’s a long, long way from being a good movie, let alone effective horror. Guess Mom and Dad were right after all. Still, there’s some promise in it’s fluid handling of two somewhat rigidly structured genres -- for a much better example, see Tommy Lee Jone’s 1998 Noir ghost story GOTHAM. Barker’s got a righteously sick mind, but he might need a little help getting it to work properly on the screen.