Clive Barker’s Lord of Illusions is a lost treasure of a horror film. Ignored upon its release in 1995, it is a fantastic mix of dark magic, detective thriller, and pure horrific terrors. A true gem, it is a film that is smart and scary and driven by a solid plot with well-drawn characters.
Scott Bakula, he of the cheesy ’80’s sci-fi series Quantum Leap, stars as detective Harry D’Amour, a street smart New York City gumshoe who’s character would feel right at home in an 1950’s pulp novel. The cases that come his way always seem to involve him in the occult, the supernatural, or other evil doings, with one even involving an exorcism.
D’Amour is offered a job involving “simple” insurance fraud. Of course, this case leads to the most devilish and demonic of places.
It concerns the pending resurrection of a cult leader called Nix who was killed 13 years before by his own followers. Now, most of those who killed him are ending up dead and the main focus concerns an illusionist named Swann, played to creepy brilliance by Kevin J. O’ Connor, who was one of the cultists who killed Nix. Swann is apparently killed on stage during a performance and this takes Bakula’s character into a netherworld of sinister magic of the darkest kind. He learns that black magic is very much alive and being used by sorcerers who pass themselves off as magicians. Nix was a great sorcerer, perhaps the most powerful, and wants to leave his grave and seek revenge on those who put him there.
I will reveal no more important details beyond that, as I feel Lord of Illusions is a film that is quite an experience for horror buffs. It is not a slow build that pulls us in and then unleashes the hellishness in the final act. This film is a powerhouse of terrors and involves the viewer in some of the most macabre moments ever to grace the screen; metal spikes are driven into a man’s head before being buried alive, women chanting in terror as they remove their hair by razor blades, being two grotesque examples. Barker knows how to make us cringe with sado-masochistic gore, as he did in his masterful Hellraiser, and he does it to perfection in this film while balancing his bloody antics perfectly with his story, never letting the gore overtake the telling of the tale.
The characters in the film are well written and the director made interesting casting choices that paid off. I would not have imagined Scott Bakula to be able to carry a film let alone one such as this but he acquits himself well. He plays the character hard boiled and with a past. This man is holding sinister secrets of his own. It is a smart performance and one that made me take notice. Nix is played by Daniel von Bargen who made a career out of playing white collar creeps and antagonists. Here he plays a truly twisted character and sinks his teeth into the role. He is frightening. Famke Janssen, one of the great Bond girls from Goldeneye, plays the wife of illusionist and former cultist, Swann. She is fine but, frankly, her role does not ask for Meryl Streep level acting.
This brings us to the role of Swann. Kevin J. O’Connor has been a character actor on the fringes of film for decades. He has been in a wide range of films from Francis Coppola’s great Peggy Sue Got Married to P.T. Anderson’s 2007 masterpiece There Will Be Blood where he, along with Daniel Day Lewis, exposed us to one of the most soul crushing scenes ever put on film. For me, this is the film which I will remember O’Connor best. His performance is truly bizarre and terrifying and is performed in a very method kind of way. He is not going over the top because he is given license to by being in a horror film. (I’m talking to you Brad Dourif!) His character is something out of Hell and we believe it as he slithers through every scene he is in. He owns this film.
I don’t understand why horror fans ignored this film when it was released over a decade ago. Perhaps it was too gory for audiences at that time. Perhaps they didn’t want a thinking person’s horror film mixed with blood. I will never know. Sadly, the film never did too well on home video either. This is too bad, as horror fans that have not seen it are robbed of a great experience.
The film is smartly paced and creates the proper atmosphere from the beginning, never deviating from its dark, twisted, path. The tone for the film is more sophisticated than most of Barker’s work and it is another plus that factors into its success.
There are two versions of Lord of Illusions, the studio release and the full director’s cut which offers twenty more minutes and fleshes out some of the characters making their actions and motivations more clear.
I find the director’s cut to be the better film but the studio release is very good on its own. Either version will please.
I feel Hellraiser to be Clive Barker’s horror masterpiece, but Lord of Illusions shows us a filmmaker who has grown and can tell a sharp tale filled with complex characters and still scare us with chilling moments of terror and gruesome scenes of violence.
The film is a horror classic and one of the most original film s of the ’90’s. It deserves to be seen.