Tuesday, November 1, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: LORD OF ILLUSIONS (1995)

Lord of Illusions

Starring
Scott Bakula as Harry D'Amour
Kevin J. O'Connor as Philip Swann
Famke Janssen as Dorothea Swann
Joel Swetow as Valentin
Barry Del Sherman as Butterfield
Joseph Marder as Ray Miller
Joseph Latimore as Quaid/Fortune Teller
Daniel von Bargen as Nix



Cinematography by Rohn Schmidt
Original Music by Simon Boswell
Editing by Alan Baumgarten
Production Design by Steve Hardie
Art Direction by Mark Fisichella and Bruce Robert Hill
Costume Design by Luke Reichle
Written, Directed and Co-Produced by Clive Barker


NOTE: This review is based on the Director's Cut version of the film.

"I have so much power to give you. All you have to do . . . is beg."

Lord of Illusions is a blend of noirish paperback detective story and writer/director Clive Barker's very own brand of gruesomely sublime horror fantasy literature.

In the 1980s, Barker wrote a series of short story collections known as The Books of Blood wherein he created a highly literate yet stomach-churningly gruesome aesthetic of horror literature. Barker's stories aren't about silent slashers with faces hidden behind Halloween masks or athletic gear or radioactive mutants or aliens clawing their way out of your chest. Barker's horrors are tied to desire, to sex, and to the obsession with power and transformation. His villainous characters, especially, often seem obsessed with accumulating great power, with imposing their rigid wills upon reality.  There's also a strong influence of BDSM, most obviously in the novella The Hellbound Heart, and its gruesome movie adaptation, Hellraiser. Anyone who's seen Hellraiser is familiar with Pinhead, the body-piercing fanatic from another dimension, who is still to this day, for better and for worse, Barker's most enduring contribution to the pantheon of horror cinema's memorable monsters.  Barker's characters often seek oblivion in the pursuit of taboo pleasures. He further expanded the scope of his vision with novels like 1987's Weaveworld, which brought his style of extreme horror to an epic fantasy adventure saga of hidden worlds and magical beings.

Lord of Illusions is a brilliant synthesis of the gruesome side of Barker's horror with the literary aspect, creating a world where mundane reality and hidden worlds of magic co-exist, interpenetrating each other in ways subtle and spectacular.

Sometime in 1982, a death cult led by a man named Nix (Daniel von Bargen) was plotting its very own Helter-Skelter out in the Mojave Desert. But Nix has a one-up on Charlie Manson: real magic derived from occultic powers of destruction. Nix can levitate, summon a living entity of fire, and, most insidiously, get inside people's heads. A group of armed ex-cultists show up to put the kibosh on Nix and rescue a young girl held hostage within the cultists' hideout.

One of these ex-cultists is a man named Swann (Kevin J. O'Connor). Swann used to be Nix's most fervent disciple. Swann confronts Nix. During the confrontation, Nix puts his fingers into Swann's skull, and manipulates his mind. But Swann's allies manage to come to his rescue with a shotgun and some pistols. After a shootout, in which the cult leader is wounded, Swann uses a strange mask which he screws into Nix's face and skull to magically bind the dark magician and seal his evil away forever. The implication is that Swann used his magic talents to construct the bizarre mask, talents that Swann no doubt learned from Nix. Some might call this ingratitude, but sometimes one must do a little evil to do a lot of good.

Years Later: enter a New York private detective, Harry D'Amour, who battles villains mundane and occultic and is played with a mix of two-fisted competence and surprising compassion by Scott Bakula. D'Amour has a history of dealing with otherworldly powers, and his most recent case involved some sort of exorcism in Brooklyn. The details are vague, but the case, which involved a bloody-mawed albino demon possessing a child, has left D'Amour burned out on occultic cases. A plain clothes detective from central casting shows up at D'Amour's apartment to offer him a case and a chance to get out to the West Coast: a fraudster has skipped out of the Big Apple for California. D'Amour takes the case.

But anyone who's read a Raymond Chandler book knows that the first mystery is just a lead up to the second, and so it is with this case. D'Amour trails the fraudster to a fortune teller's office. D'Amour is coming up the stairs when the dude comes tear-assing back down the stairs. D'Amour senses something strange is going on, and so he draws his gun and charges into the palm reader's office. The palm reader, Quaid (Joseph Latimore), is there, but has been turned into a human pin cushion by a psychopathic torturer, Butterfield (Barry Del Sherman). Butterfield likes to stick people with blades crafted from surgical steel. D'Amour gets jumped by a neo-Nazi thug(Joseph Marder) with filed down teeth, and Butterfield makes his escape while the detective sends the skinhead on a pilgrimmage through the window to pay homage to the pavement three or so stories below. D'Amour tries to figure out what's going on with the palm reader, but the man is mortally wounded. He only has time to give D'Amour a palm reading and an ominous clue about the "coming of the Puritan" before he expires.

The cops show up, and since this is Movie Reality, they let D'Amour go after a few preliminary questions. Actually, that guy who D'Amour threw out the window? It seems he just got up and ran away, so I suppose the cops don't have any good reason to hold him for questioning. D'Amour intuits that some very strange shit is happening, and, soon enough,  after his name and picture are printed in the paper in connection with the torture-murder, he is contacted by a  fastidious man named Valentin (Joel Swetow) on behalf of Dorothea Swann (Famke Janssen). It seems that the dead fortune teller has a connection to Dorothea and her husband, Philip Swann (Kevin J. O'Connor), who is a David Copperfield-scale professional illusionist.

Dorothea meets D'Amour in a graveyard, and the private dick is immediately smitten with her beauty.(I imagine anyone driven to a graveyard under mysterious circumstances only to find themselves face-to-face with Famke Janssen would probably have the same response.) Dorothea wants to figure out why the fortune teller was murdered and what, if any, threat may be posed to her husband, the illusionist. Dorothea tells D'Amour that Philip has some connection to the slain palm reader, and she wants to know what that is.

D'Amour takes the case.

Lord of Illusions is a mystery, and I suspect that I am already giving too much away, so I'll try not to summarize the plot anymore. What I like about this movie is that it is a hybrid of several different genres, mystery, horror, and fantasy, and it mixes these elements with great skill. The mystery draws you in, the horror gives weight to the violence and death within the mystery, and the fantasy elements suggest a whole other plane of reality that is manipulating the mundane world for mysterious purposes of its own. It explores the concept of magic as something which is just beyond our everyday experience, but not impossible to attain. There is also the danger, in this world, that the evil forces that also use magic can sweep out of the shadows to destroy you mind, body, and soul. Magic is a power that can be used to liberate humans from their humdrum existences, or it can torture us with madness. It would also seem that those who use magic can develop a lust for power. The movie offers a pretty sophisticated take on how magic works and how it affects the hearts and minds of those who practice it. There's no escaping the consequences of magical actions for good and for evil.

I also like the cast of this movie. Scott Bakula does the action hero stuff well, but he also brings a sense of vulnerability to the part. There are a number of scenes, usually after brutal physical combat, where he is seen lying in bed with bottles of booze and painkillers nearby, recovering from his injuries. Arnold would just shrug off the pain, maybe even walk through a plate glass window just to relax. D'Amour's also a decent detective, and he knows that even when dealing with the occult it's still those mundane clues, that book of contacts in the drawer, that used cigar in the ashtray, the offhand comment that reveals the hidden depths of a person's motivation, that makes the case and saves the day. Bakula displays a fair amount of compassion, too. He seems credibly upset at the loss of life, which happens a number of times in this movie. Overall, Bakula makes for a smart, compassionate, two-fisted champion in the face of dark forces.

I believe this was one of Famke Janssen's first major roles in a movie. It's certainly the very first movie I ever saw her in when I was a teenager watching way too much cable television without parental supervision during the 1990s. Nowadays she is famous for playing Jean Gray in those X-Men movies. She's obviously a very beautiful woman, and that beauty is used skillfully in counterpoint to the essential fear and sadness at the heart of the character of Dorothea. Why is a woman this beautiful and wealthy this unhappy? What is she so afraid of? Janssen isn't afraid to bring a creeping fear bordering on paranoia into her performance. It makes you wonder what's going on inside her mind. What is she hiding? Why?

Daniel von Bargen is utterly unwholesome as cult leader Nix. He relishes fucking with people's minds. He luxuriates in his own corruption, gleefully tormenting a twelve year old girl with a vicious baboon on a chain, or sticking his fingers right through the flesh and bone of someone's skull--no doubt utilizing some long forgotten technique of torture learned from some forgotten tome. The role is a standout for Daniel von Bargen, who is usually cast as cops and other authority figures on account of his solid, fatherly presence. Here, he dresses in rags, makes doom-laden pronouncements, and embodies all sorts of malevolence physical and spiritual.

Kevin J. O'Connor plays Philip Swann as a man unable to enjoy his success in life. He is perennially distant from his beautiful wife, Dorothea, and cannot accept the acclaim lavished on him by his audiences. Is it because he feels guilt about building a fortune as an illusionist who uses real magic? Real magic that he learned from a man that he murdered? O'Connor doesn't so much play this kind of anhedonia as he does embody it. The way he piles himself in a chair, listlessly sucking on a Havana cigar, it's all routine, all just keeping up appearances. O'Connor's performance is strikingly natural for such a fanciful movie.

Joel Swetow plays Valentin, who is Philip Swann's stage manager in a number of senses. Swetow plays him as a fastidious man, bordering on the obsessive-compulsive. He is equally devoted to Dorothea and Philip, but he is another character who seemingly has something to hide. He is instantly put off by D'Amour's slovenliness and trades some amusing one liners with him during their scenes together. Swetow is one of those actors I don't think I've ever seen in another movie aside from this one. I looked him up on IMDB and I was pleased to find he was still working. He's got a demo reel on his IMDB page, and it looks like he's been cast in a lot of supporting parts: villains with accents, a supernatural being in a black trenchcoat, and even one of Randy Weaver's neighbors in a made-for-TV movie about the Ruby Ridge standoff.

My favorite performance is by Barry Del Sherman as the sadistic Butterfield. Del Sherman is another actor I could not remember from any other movie, but, upon looking at his IMDB profile I discovered he'd actually played small roles in a handful of movies I had seen before, such as Suicide Kings, Alien Nation, American Beauty, and There Will Be Blood. Del Sherman plays Butterfield as simultaneously detached from most human emotion yet with a penetrating intellectual concentration on his goal. He isn't a torturer just because he's a sadist, but because he believes it's the only way to reveal truth. And what is his goal? I can't reveal that, but I can tell you that he is very much a detective, a kind of diabolical foil to D'Amour. Sherman has a very intriguing moment late in the movie where someone asks him about his bag of tools, and he provides a surprisingly understated yet substantial answer. He isn't the usual cackling cinematic sadist, but comes across as an intensely intellectual, disciplined, yet totally ruthless man, who has been on a long journey, and done a lot of dark things. Watching this movie again, I wondered if Butterfield had ever in his journeys spent time hanging out with John Yoo, David Addington, or Dick Cheney, maybe spent some time as a consultant to a Neoconservative think tank . . . the imagination does wander . . .

Lord of Illusions has effective special effects, using a mixture of practical mechanical effects, makeup, and some ambitious, if not wholly effective, CG. The CG elements consist of a strange figure made of geometrically folding and unfolding  . . . sheets of paper? Paper cranes? And then the figure turns into a kind of flying fish, I think, but the whole thing doesn't quite come off, but I think I get the overall idea. A strange presence invades a house, and the people there have to contend with it . . . see the movie itself for the full story. The best special effects are in the opening and climatic scenes of the film wherein the magical forces in play are allowed to clash in full force. The climax, wherein the evil force behind everything is unleashed is spectacular. It's an orgy of madness, a battle to the finish, and a confrontation with the past all in one.

There's another quality to this movie that I like that's a little harder to pin down. It's a very writerly movie. Cliver Barker is not just a filmmaker but a novelist, short story author, and a playwright for the stage, as well as a visual artist. You can see some of his drawings and designs in some scenes. But with Lord of Illusions, Barker elevates the usual characterizations one finds in horror cinema with something that he no doubt learned as a novelist writing long form narratives: a sense of history, a sense of emotional complexity, moral ambiguity, and the way people change, or don't, over stretches of time. None of these are the usual values one expects or even demands from horror flicks. I think most people, certainly most people I know, go to horror movies for the snuff movie aspect: they want to see people geeked in novel ways. A machete to the head. A scythe up the ass. Coils of intestines on a meat hook. A chainsaw to the genitals. Barker himself is no stranger to outrageous gore, as anyone who has read his horror short stories, The Books of Blood, or seen the first two Hellraiser movies could tell you, but I appreciated the fact that he decided to go for something deeper, and more ambitious with this film. The characters in Lord of Illusions don't just exist to be hacked to death by some lumbering boogeyman. They seem to have existences beyond the cruel exigencies of the horror film, and each one's suffering and potential death counts for quite a bit. Even the villainous characters evoke a certain amount of empathy, and failing that, fascination. We want to see even the evil ones live just to find out what novel horrors they will bring into the world.

Horror movies nowadays consist mostly of remakes of played-out slasher film franchises, the kinda bullshit you think audiences would've consigned to the straight-to-DVD market at the turn of the millennium. But Freddy and Jason and that endless stream of Saw sequels keep on coming. The Saw series in particular is about the purest form of the geek show in American horror cinema that I can think of, almost majestic in its single-minded desire to derive entertainment from the sounds and images of human beings getting tortured to death.

My point is that Barker proved himself to be a much too intelligent filmmaker for standard horror fare with Lord of Illusions. Which is why he hasn't directed another film since. It hasn't helped that all three of Barker's major directorial efforts, Hellraiser, Night Breed, and Lord of Illusions, have met with resistance from production executives, and varying degrees of censorship from the MPAA. Hellraiser is probably the one movie of the three which was able to reach audiences with an R rating and be relatively uncompromised, yet it is also arguably the most simplistic of the three. Night Breed was butchered by clueless executives who wanted more of a pure monster movie, but is still a fascinating piece of work, very ahead of its time. Lord of Illusions was released theatrically in a compromised cut, but is now widely available in a Director's Cut on DVD. Maybe Barker is just sick of dealing with the endless compromises inherent within the Hollywood machine. As a writer and a painter he can create without mindless interference and the inevitable evisceration of substance which follows the ordeals of test screenings and focus groups and other art-by-committee atrocities. Still, it would be nice if Barker got back in the saddle for one more directorial effort. It'd be all the better if it was something of the flavor of Lord of Illusions, another supernaturally themed mystery-thriller, maybe another outing with Harry D'Amour, a little older, a little wiser, a little more scarred. One can hope.


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