Review: Lord of Illusions (1995)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #795

Number of Views: Two
Release Date: August 25, 1995
Sub-Genre: Fantasy/Horror
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $11,000,000
Box Office: $13,249,614
Running Time: 116 minutes
Director: Clive Barker
Producers: Clive Barker, Steve Golin, Joanne Sellar, Sigurjón Sighvatsson
Screenplay: Clive Barker
Based on The Last Illusion by Clive Barker
Special Effects: Howard Berger, Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero
Visual Effects: Gene Warren Jr., Tommy Williamson
Cinematography: Ronn Schmidt
Score: Simon Boswell
Editing: Alan Baumgarten
Studios: United Artists, Seraphim Films
Distributor: MGM/UA Distribution Company
Stars: Scott Bakula, Kevin J. O’Connor, Famke Janssen, Daniel von Bargen, Ashley Lyn Cafagna, Joseph Latimore, Wayne Grace, Jordan Marder, Barry Del Sherman, Joel Swetow, Vincent Schiavelli, Susan Traylor

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] PilotMagic”

[2] Simon Boswell “Fire Said To Me”

You learn something new every day. Apparently, there’s a world of difference between illusionist and magician. While one relies on sleight of hand to stymie his audience, the other is far more inclined to conjure something out of absolutely nothing. Practicing the mystical arts may be all well and good, but like any profession that flirts with the otherworldly, it’s all too easy to find yourself venturing down a more sinister path. Black magic doesn’t come with a money back guarantee and neither does it spell out the small print. You simply roll the dice and pray to The Great Alfonso that they decide to fall in your favor. Heaven forbid you get mixed up in some kind of shady cult as this seldom ends well and historically concludes with knocking back poisoned Kool Aid beneath the glow of the full moon or a fate similarly wretched. You see, abracadabra ain’t even the half of it.

“I was born to murder the world”

One look at nefarious necromancer Nix (Daniel von Bargen) and it’s plain to see he’s a wrong ‘un. Nevertheless, his commune in the Mojave Desert is a veritable hive of activity and his many disciples won’t have a crossed word said about their illustrious leader. He pedals a cure for the blindness of mortality, promising to let them in on his trick if they just keep the faith (and forsake any other of course). Nix doesn’t want for much, simply the stature of a God, albeit decidedly unholier than thou. Naturally there are those who oppose his foul reign and former groupie Philip Swann (Kevin J. O’Connor) has seen more than enough to encourage his intervention. With Nix all set to sacrifice young lamb Dorothea in exchange for powers unthinkable, Swann calls in the heavy mob and drops the curtain on his headlining act.

Thirteen years down the beaten track, New York City private dick, Harry D’Amour (Scott Bakula) is enjoying a busman’s holiday in Los Angeles. Hot from sitting in on an exorcism in Brooklyn, Harry has more than a passing interest in the occult, and is about to receive one helluva crash course. After stopping off at a fortune teller’s run by none other than Swann’s main man, Casper Quaid (Joseph Latimore); and being set upon by an undesirable possessing an unconventional degree of strength, it’s time to high tail straight down the rabbit hole.

According to Quaid’s dying words – “The Puritan is coming” – and that should be reason enough for any regular douche to announce it some other poor sap’s problem and head directly to the airport departure lounge. However, Harry ain’t your regular douche and more of the douche with a bone variety.

Before you can say “queen of hearts”, he’s being douched some more, only this time it’s our fully grown sacrificial lamb, Dorothea (Famke Janssen), doing the fisting. Tucked away in her palatial Beverly Hills mansion with only her bearded skivvy Valentin (Joel Swetlow) to tend to her every whim, her paranoia is starting to get the better of her. Swann’s reward for saving her from a one-way trip to the earth’s deepest bowels was her everlasting devotion and she is determined to protect her husband at all costs.

Harry’s pro-boner rates are more than reasonable (one sweaty lovemaking montage for services rendered) so he takes the gig and begins snooping around affairs that really ought not to concern him. It looks like our gumshoe is all set to put the dick in private and there’s no sign of Dean Stockwell to usher him to the nearest available jump spot either. Speaking of Houdini acts, I wonder how Swann is getting on with his latest death-defying illusion.

Well that threw a cat amongst the pigeons. On the plus side, at least Harry can cash in on that sweaty lovemaking montage he is owed. However, private investigators are known for their keen sense of smell and something about this whole sordid debacle stinks to high heaven. Is Swann actually dead or is it just an elaborate hoax? Can Dorothea be trusted any farther than he can toss her panties? And does Valentin ever get a day off?

It’s growing increasingly hard for Harry to ascertain what’s real and what’s not so he heads down to local sorcery hot spot, The Magic Castle, to rub noses with Swann’s green-eyed competitors and further dig for clues. All the while, Nix’s faithful minions are preparing for The Puritan’s second coming and we all know things are about to get decidedly messy.

While Clive Barker’s exclusive skills are more suited to prose than the camera’s lens, his first two efforts helped place the mad dog Englishman squarely on the directorial map. Based on short fable, The Last Illusion, taken from his Volume 6 of his Books of Blood, Lord of Illusions cannot boast the iconography of Hellraiser or the fairy-tale flavor of Nightbreed. That said, there is more than enough grotesque imagery, ritualistic slaughter, and perverse as all hell shenanigans to make up for any deficiency in his screenplay.

Bakula seems right at home in the kind of role he was born to play, Janssen is as ravishing as always, and O’Connor possesses just the right look of Keith Gordon’s illegitimate twin to make his character fascinating to observe. As for The Puritan, well he may not be as indelible a nightmare maker as Pinhead, but von Bargen ensures that we respect his authority, particularly during a typically bunk-ridden and reality bending grand finale that could never be accused of skimping on incident. 

Lord of Illusions is evocative of the kind of fare that horror churned out in the nineties. Time may not have been particularly kind with regards to the woefully dated computer graphics, but if anything, this adds a certain vintage charm to proceedings that reminds us of the good old days. Of the three movies Barker made during his brief flirtation with filmmaking, it’s unquestionably the most slight. However, when a great literary mind such as his dabbles with a topic as rife for the picking as black magic, you just know it will be a trick not to miss. As for Swann, well you may wish to dial your act back to the old rabbit in hat routine son.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: Certain things are a given where Barker is involved and grotesquery just so happens to be one of them. Some of the crude early CGI work holds up somewhat less than well (Nix’s spirit form is represented by an uninspired smattering of flat 2D shapes), but the practical effects are just as nauseating and outlandish as we have come to expect from such a contorted mind. If you’re looking for an endorsement for the suffering of the flesh, then head on down to The Puritan’s private commune as there is always room for one more.

Read Hellraiser Appraisal
Read Book of Blood Appraisal
Read Candyman Appraisal
Read Phantasm Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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