Reviews

'Lord of Illusions' Is Clive Barker's Horror Style Filtered Through a Noir Lens

Lord of Illusions is at its best when it balances noir mystery with supernatural elements without veering too far to one side or another.


Lord of Illusions

Director: Clive Barker
Cast: Scott Bakula, Famke Janssen, Kevin J. O'Connor, Daniel Von Bargen
Distributor: Scream Factory
Rated: R
US DVD Release Date: 2014-12-16

Are you in the mood to sit on your couch and watch a supernatural detective story starring Scott Bakula? If the answer to that question is yes, you’re in luck, as Clive Barker’s Lord of Illusions is now the subject of a special edition Blu-ray release, including an extended director’s cut, courtesy of the fine folks at Scream! Factory. If you’re familiar with their work, you know that means you get an awesome movie and a fantastic package of extra goodies.

An awesomely ‘90s Day-Glo noir, Lord of Illusions has everything you want. There’s a hardboiled private eye, a sprawling mystery, and a femme fatale, and it just also so happens to be horror-themed. This particular P.I., Harry D’Amour (Bakula), always finds himself embroiled in the occult. As is said, he “Walks the line between heaven and hell”. That’s how the story begins. The New York gumshoe is drinking off memories of his last case, a child possessed by a demon. He’s broken and haggard -- and did I mention drunk? But maybe this new case that will take him to Los Angeles is just what he needs, and he trades the gloom and rain of NYC for the California sun. Tasked with a simple insurance fraud case, it isn’t long before D’Amour stumbles into the shadowy world of magic, illusions, and a cult trying to raise their leader from the dead.

Not that anyone has been watching it, but you can find definite shades of Lord of Illusions on the NBC program Constantine, at least for a while longer, until that ill-fated show is cancel. The lead is more deeply entwined in the dark arts, but he’s very much a detective in this vein, and the mood and feel are similar. For a filmmaker with only three proper features to his name as a director -- though he is a prolific writer of books and movies -- Barker has a long and reaching influence on horror.

D’Amour isn’t the only one here who walks between two worlds, and that duality, that sense of appearance versus reality, is an important piece of the Lord of Illusions puzzle. Swann (Kevin J. O’Connor) is a celebrated illusionist in the style of David Blaine -- but there's a kicker. Unlike Blaine, he uses real magic, deceiving his audience even more than they realize. Married to the sultry Dorothea (Famke Janssen), their marriage is not what it looks like from the outside. A cult of outwardly normal people -- some of them hide in plain sight, others not so much -- seeks to recall their fallen master Nix (Daniel Von Bargen), who is not quite living, but not exactly dead. Even the primary antagonist for much of the movie, Butterfield (Barry Del Sherman), exudes a kind of androgyny, straddling strict lines of gender.

Even nearly 20 years later, Lord of Illusions holds up relatively well, at least for horror fanatics. Non-genre fans are likely to dismiss this as hokey and outmoded. Barker fills his film with stark and startling imagery, especially early in the film; he’s not afraid to get grim, doing things like killing a child from time to time. Many of the special effects are especially dated; this is certainly an artifact of the '90s. However, if you can get past that, the filmmakers add an external layer of camp and cheese to solid horror-infused, hard-boiled noir, one with surprisingly goofy undertones. An occasional Loony Tunes style auditory cue, maybe a wobbly sproing, isn't out of place when used from time to time. No one is ever going to accuse Bakula of being a total badass, but he has the haggard, world-weary investigator bit down.

There are some flat notes in the middle of the movie that take place at a kind of magic roundtable discussion, as D’Amour tries to penetrate the inner circles of the illusionist world. Outside of this, however, as he pokes around trying to discern the actual magic from the trickery, Barker creates a rhythmic tension. Lord of Illusions is best when it builds like this, staying a mystery with supernatural elements while not veering too far to one side or another.

If you’re familiar with Scream! Factory, the genre arm of Shout! Factory, you know this two-disc set is going to be full to bursting with bonus features. Disc one is the 109-minute theatrical version of Lord of Illusions, while disc two is home to a new HD transfer of the director’s cut, with an additional 12 minutes of material originally left on the cutting room floor. In addition to that, there’s an extensive collection of deleted scenes that fill out the story even more.

There is also a featurette called “A Gathering of Magic”, as well as a compilation of behind-the-scenes footage from the set that gives you a glimpse of what went on beyond the frame. A new interview with Martin Mercer, the storyboard artist, is a nice bonus, but as usual in these cases, it’s the commentary track with Barker that is the real selling point for this package. Writer, director, and general author of this entire world, he’s in a unique position to offer insight into his work and choices, and he’s never been shy about offering up information.

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