Lord of Illusions has, once you look into it, a hell of a production history. Witten, directed, and partly produced by horror grandmaster Clive Barker, it should have been a shoo-in for a classic reputation as part of the mid-90s Premillennial apocalyptic gothic-horrors. However, instead of riding the wave of Hellraiser, Nightbreed, and Candyman, it got bogged down in budgetary constraints and bitter disputes over final-cut issues. Then again, it also had a nifty set of promotional images and thus caught my eye when dredging through the lower portions of Netflix.
The film opens, quite strongly, in medias res of a dispute within a strange hippie death cult in a desert. The leader of it, William Nix (Daniel von Bargen) wants to sacrifice a kidnapped child for some kind of sinister reason, and Swann (Kevin J. O’Connor), along with a small entourage of other cult members, doesn’t, because even if you’re in a death-cult, you can have standards. There then ensues some gunplay, a lot of hippy types being menacing, and some quite strong and trippy horror moments intercut with some now quite dated CGI that probably made the original audience go “Wow!”
Cut to Now (well, a different “then” I suppose, this is a 30+-year-old film) and Dr Sam Beckett Harry D’Amour (Scott Bakula) is in New York being an extremely Private Eye. World-worn look, check. White wife-beater top with over-arm gun holster, check. Office-slash-apartment looking out onto grey buildings and lots of rain, check. All clichés are present and correct, when the plot turns up to interrupt Harry’s drinking over the last case and offer him a chance to go to LA, which quite possibly involved a possessed child. Harry says “yes” and we instantly cut to what we know to be LA because it’s got sunlight and palm trees.
From there on it’s a magical murder road movie, with Harry being both our point of narrative and bit of rough for the ladies. The job he was there for gets caught up in some crazy voodoo death, we meet a shark-toothed Nazi and his genderqueer and 90s-alt-rock boss, and there’s blood, gore, with an unsettling sexy shine to everything. We eventually meet the now-older Swann, who has become a high-class stage magician by just doing real magic in front of an unsuspecting audience, and Jamike Janseen as the girl who was saved from the compound in act one.
Bodies stack up, horrible things happen, we get shown around the clubhouse of LA’s Magic Circle, that is halfway between a bordello and the Red Lodge from Twin Peaks. Danger, often in the form of the shark-toothed Nazi, lurks around every corner and arses get shown alongside more CGI. We slowly learn more and more about what’s going on, whilst pretending that we didn’t see the first act, as that would just be rude to point out given how much effort everyone is going to to be spooky, and it all heads towards the inevitable showdown you can see a mile off.
Plot-wise, it’s slow and drawn out. But individual moments, and a lot of the performances, have enough tension and menace to keep the overall effect interesting. It’s also got enough of a mythos, as well as discussion about the general human condition, to get you through the gradual slow dropping-of-breadcrumbs to the next exposition. There is a bit of detective work for Sam to do, mostly involving waving his gun at people, but his job is pretty much to bang the hot girl and make sure the rest of the cast get to monologue at him about everything he doesn’t know or understand.
Thankfully, all those monologues are wonderfully light and often well presented or they would get tedious. There are also enough twists and turns in the happenings to keep you guessing on what’ll happen next, even if you aren’t given enough information to really work it out for yourself and the broad direction of it all is laid out from the start.
The final act is the strongest, having built up a set of tepid emotional expectations from the characters and then deciding to really light the fires under them. It’s also got one of the best bits of motivation I’ve seen in a bad guy for ages, with a monologue that boils down to a remarkably truthful “I’m just a twat, because I can be and I am”. The effects also ramp up, really dishing out both innovative and conceptually unpleasant gore, although the CGI continues to show its age.
It’s a bit of a coin toss as to if you’ll find it all worth it though, as the middle section is quite uneven and carries you along by the nose. It’s also lacking the sinister charm so much of Barker’s other work, hinting and suggesting at a world of the uncanny, rather than shoving you into it head-first and heart-pounding. But it has some moments of undeniable excitement and horror, and overall tells a coherent and different story. So by its own rules, it squeaks into being a Treasure, even if you’ll skip many of its scenes when trying to convince others to give it a go.
NB – a director’s cut does exist, and many people have said it’s better.