It is uncanny how completely watching The Lord Of Illusions replicates the experience of reading a Clive Barker book. For all the good and bad that implies. After all Barker's style has always been highly baroque, sexualized and filled with intense imagery. Sensual, intense and occasionally very silly. Very, very, silly.
Like William Peter Blatty Barker has put in equal time as a director as well as an author, which have led to one bonafide, beloved classic of the genre, one cultishly adored studio mangled martyr of a film and... the other one.
Lord Of Illusions opens with four former members of a cult storming their old compound in order to save a little girl that the leader of said cult plans to sacrifice. This being a Barker story the cult leader Nix, played by character actor Daniel Von Bargen (yes the one who recently survived shooting himself in the head; no I cannot think of anything to write about that wouldn’t come off as incredibly unsavory) can actually do magic. This also being a Barker story, his cult consists mostly of androgynous maniacs and a blue assed, large testicled Baboon, who is showcased prominently for little reason beyond, well wouldn’t you showcase a blue assed large testicled Baboon? (Alternate lines could have included a variation on the 800 pound gorilla, “Where ever it wants to gag).
Years later the four rebel members start dying off in gruesome ways that may or may not be related to their betrayal and murder of their former dark master (you are safe betting may). Drawn into this is private eye Harry D’ Amour (goofy names also something of a Barker specialty) when he witnesses one of the members murdered and drawn in further when a second death of one of the members, now a famous magician, also dies under his watch. Onstage. In rather spectacular fashion.
The blending of noir and horror has created some potent cocktails over the years. From the deep carnivorous shadows of Val Lewton, to the gold standard of the sub genre, the darkly fascinating and still disturbing Angel Heart. Barker is playing with some rarified company here and Illusions doesn’t quite measure up. Scott Bakula, who plays D’ Amour isn’t exactly what you would refer to as magnetic, the nineties CGI is eye scaldingly dated. The film was apparently cut down from a much longer cut (and at two hours it isn’t exactly what you would call a model of narrative efficiency) and it shows, subplots are dropped without warning, characters wander in an out (and Bakula never really feels like the main character) the whole thing just feels a bit shapeless.
And yet when the film clicks it really does clicks. The reason Barker so frequently looks silly is because he refuses to check himself. His imagination is unfettered and undomesticated and the imagery he dredges up from it often truly disturbing. Lord Of Illusions is flawed no doubt, but its also ambitious and evocative and it has moments including a montage set to the old Blues song While The Blood Runs Warm In Your Veins that are as genuinely chilling as anything I’ve seen in a horror film.
At the end of the day, if you want to see a really great mixture of Private Eye film and Horror… rent Angel Heart. But if you’ve seen Angel Heart half a dozen times and want something else, you could do worse.