31 Days of Hell: Clive Barker's Lord of Illusions – Reviewed

Horror and dark fantasy maestro Clive Barker celebrated his 64th birthday this week, and Halloween is right around the corner, so the time could not be more perfect to take another look at one of his films. In fact, I will be as bold as to say his best film. No, not Hellrasier; what can be said about that iconic shocker that hasn't been said already? And besides, I would not call that his best: while there are things about it that are truly fantastic, it is also quite uneven, and his skills as a director definitely improved as his career went along. The distinction of being his finest work I would instead give to his third (and so far, final) film as a director: 1995's supernatural film noir Lord of Illusions. It is easily his most consistently strong movie, and he directs with a sure hand that allows him to juggle an ambitious mash-up of genre elements. Rather than a straightforward horror movie, he has created a dark and brooding detective story, with elements of the horrific and otherworldly lurking in the shadows, waiting to creep in.

In true film noir fashion, Lord of Illusions follows the investigations of private eye Harry D'Amour (Scott Bakula) as he is hired by the wife (Famke Janssen) of a secretive celebrity magician (Kevin J. O'Connor), who fears that someone is plotting to murder him. The case soon takes him in deep over his head, into a world of very real magic and a Charles Manson-like cult who will kill to protect it. With a combination of shadowy pulp-detective style and visually-intense Gothic mysticism, Barker's tale fulfills the demands of both genres very well. The narrative device of the detective story allows the mystery to unfold in surprising and compelling ways, and Barker does a good job of keeping the audience as in-the-dark as the overwhelmed D'Amour, only gradually revealing details as the sleuth uncovers them. The world of dark magic that he creates is fascinating, both in its gloriously stylized smoke and mirrors and in the tantalizingly mysterious hints of otherworldly danger lurking underneath. As with (the director's cut of) Nightbreed, this world reflects the style of Barker's novels a bit more accurately that Hellraiser: less horror and more dark fantasy, less a descendent of Stephen King and more a predecessor to Neil Gaiman.

This feels like the film where Barker truly hits his stride as a director, and is able to iron out the the inconsistencies of his previous work. As much as I like the Hellraiser series (well, the four theatrical films, anyway), that first film is pretty uneven: the Lament Configuration/Cenobite story arc is truly brilliant stuff, but the Frank/Julia/Larry arc is dragged down by some very wooden acting and flat characterization. Nightbreed (in its director's cut form) is a better film overall: wonderfully ambitious in both story and visual style, and thematically rich at its core (see my in-depth review/analysis of the film for more on that). But it too has some tonal inconsistencies and moments of oddly over-the-top characterization. The third time proved to be the charm for Barker as a director. His direction clearly improved from each film to the next, as he learned from the flaws of both, and Lord of Illusions has a much more self-assured, confident tone, with none of the unevenness of his previous efforts. It may not have the menagerie of practical effects or the depth of social themes that made Nightbreed so unique, but it is a really, really well-crafted dark-fantasy/thriller, and you can't ask for much more than that.

"We all float down here!"

The look of the film is pure Clive Barker, filtered through the aesthetic of film noir. There's lots of deep shadows, dark alleys, and smoke, like you'd expect from any hard-boiled detective tale, but it also has the striking use of colors and outlandish otherworldly images which not only filled his previous films, but are also evoked in his writing. As with Nightbreed, the higher budget allows him to create and control an entire world of sets that are as beautiful as they are creepy, and his eye for style and atmosphere is impeccable. Creating a society of magicians – both real ones, and Vegas-style entertainers – Barker is like a kid in a candy store, and he assembles some pretty spectacular set-pieces, not the least of which is the awesomely over-the-top stage show by the film's celebrity illusionist, Philip Swann. He brings just as much visual panache to the horror aspects of the story, blurring the line between reality and nightmares in some truly hallucinatory scenes.

Unfortunately, while the film looks great in most ways, the special effects are really a mixed bag. The practical effects are great, as is always the case in Clive Barker films, but he made the unfortunate choice to use CGI for a few of the more ethereal visuals... and the early-90s computer animation has aged very poorly. The ironic result of this is that while Lord of Illusions was his most expensive film, it is also the one with the most flawed effects work. This is just one of a couple ways in which the film feels very much anchored in the first half of the 1990s (although this is the only area in which that is not really a good thing). The other very-90s thing about the movie is the character of Philip Swann himself, who is unmistakably the sort of Vegas celebrity magician who was huge in the first half of that decade, but faded from prominence shortly thereafter, as the likes of David Blaine and Criss Angel changed how the public viewed magic shows. This is not a bad thing, though; it just means that the film feels very much a part of the pop-culture landscape of its time. In a way, this '90s-ness is a somewhat endearing quality, and aside from the dubious CGI it doesn't stop the film from still holding up really well as a great genre entry.

"...no, really - all of us."
Lord of Illusions was intended to be the first in a series of paranormal detective films featuring Bakula as Harry D'Amour, but alas, it was not to be. Not only did it fail to get a sequel, it also proved to be the last film (so far) that Clive Barker would direct. Perhaps it was the weak box-office performance of this film, despite the certainty that it would launch a franchise, that contributed to Barker leaving directing. Perhaps it was because Lord of Illusions was his second film in a row to endure major changes at the hands of the studio before its release (although unlike with Nightbreed, Barker ensured that MGM would allow him to immediately debut a director's cut on video), and perhaps this frustration was exacerbated by the notorious studio mangling of Hellraiser: Bloodline just a year later. On the other hand, perhaps with all of those headaches he simply decided that other forms of art, like his writing, were more worth his energies, as they give him full creative control. Whatever the reason, it is at once a shame that he stopped making films just when he had really hit his stride, and a great thing that if he had to end his directorial career, he at least got to end it on such a high note. It may not have the iconic mythos and images of Hellraiser or the social allegory of Nightbreed, but in many ways Lord of Illusions is Clive Barker's best film, and certainly his most mature and fine-tuned. It is also possibly the most successful of cinema's several attempts to mash up film noir and horror. Don't miss it.


- Christopher S. Jordan