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[In Defense Of] Clive Barker’s ‘Lord of Illusions’

In the mid-1980’s, English author Clive Barker released his six volume “Books of Blood” series, which brought together 30 short stories that tackled various horror subjects, from demons creatures to pure body horror and everything in between. It was a collection of pure, unadulterated terror that saw the author become an overnight sensation, even going so far as to earn the praise of renowned author Stephen King, who hailed Barker as “…the future of horror.”

In the sixth volume, there was a short story titled “The Last Illusion”, which introduced readers to Harry D’Amour, a private detective who also happens to have experience dealing with the supernatural. To quote Quaid as he sits dying at the tarot table of his fortune-teller shop in the film, D’Amour is, “…drawn to the dark side. [He walks] the line between Heaven and Hell.”

While D’Amour has had some interesting dealings since his creation, including facing Pinhead in “The Scarlet Gospels” and even taking his place in the BOOM! Studios “Hellraiser” comic series. But it all started in “The Last Illusion”, which was the basis of the 1995 noir-horror film Lord of Illusions, a film that I myself struggled to enjoy upon my first viewing. However, after repeated visits, it now ranks as one of my favorite horror films of the 90’s and definitely one of my favorite horror films in general.

Released in 1995, Lord of Illusions opened against the family film The Amazing Panda Adventure, the drama Beyond Rangoon, the now cult classic action film Desperado, the comedy Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde, and a limited release of the noir vampire thriller Nadja. It also came a week after the release of Mortal Kombat, which spent three weeks at #1 at the box office, becoming one of the highest grossing 25 films of the year.

Already up against a lot of options, Lord of Illusions failed during its theater run, earning just over $13 million domestically on its $11 million budget. During the mid-90’s, original films were coming out pretty frequently. If we look at the 10 Highest Grossing Films of that year, we’ll see that there are two films that were part of a franchise (Batman Forever and GoldenEye) and one sequel (Die Hard: With a Vengeance). Apart from that, every film was something new, something fresh. It wasn’t like 2015, where the numbers were essentially flipped with only three original films. That was an era where originality was expected, not something to be surprised by.

So when Lord of Illusions came out, it was an original attempt that year for the horror noir genre.* While something like it would get endless tweets and articles about how we “need to support original horror” today, back then it was normal to get original titles, so word didn’t spread. While I mourn that the film didn’t find an audience in theaters, I’m also somewhat glad for that fact. To be completely honest, the theatrical cut of the film was bad. It was full of plot holes, there were jumps in the story that felt jarring, and it simply felt like an incomplete film. While it held the foundation for something great, it took the director’s cut, which was 13 minutes longer, to really flesh out and fulfill the original vision of Barker, who also adapted and directed the film.

As I said earlier, I didn’t really like the film at first. It turns out that this was because I had rented the theatrical version. Several months later, after getting a strange itch to revisit the film, I rented it once again, only this time I stumbled across the director’s cut. It was like flicking a switch from ‘off’ to ‘on’ in my brain. This was the movie I was hoping to see. This was the vision from Clive Barker that felt right. Since then, it has become a film that I revisit with regular frequency, delighting in the battle between “…divinity and trickery.”

What makes Lord of Illusions so great is that there is a playfulness amidst its gruesome and haunting exterior. The actors know that magic isn’t real and yet it’s presented in such a serious manner that there has to be a little bit of levity thrown in, even if they don’t react to it like we would hope. For example, when D’Amour rips Swann’s “jaw” off in the coffin, revealing a fake body, there is something so shocking and over-the-top about it, that it put a smile on my face. Or Nix’s “third eye”, which is rather grotesquely “turtle-heading” in and out of his forehead, making for a visual that falls under the “it’s gross, so I’ll laugh” gag.

The story itself feels rich and thought out. Cabals of magicians and illusionists, secretly aware of the reality of magic yet using it as a means of fooling audiences. A cult that is bred out of fear of death rather coming to terms with it and seeking its embrace. A private detective whose past haunts him yet also fills him with the knowledge he needs to prepare and steel himself against all incoming threats. A terrifying villain who appears only in the beginning and end of the film, yet still his presence is felt like a cloying cloth throughout the middle. Barker richly adapts his short story into something greater, something more passionate, creating a character in Harry D’Amour that has become one of my favorites in the horror genre.

I would be remiss if I were to post this without spending a little bit of time talking about Simon Boswell’s absolutely magnificent original score. Since the film mixes both supernatural elements with film noir, the score blends the two almost effortlessly. While “You’ll Like LA / Discovering Quaid” uses that sexy, yearning saxophone that noir is known for, “Miller’s Exit” is a sweeping yet dynamic presentation of eerie terror, featuring screeching violins and bombastic percussion before settling into a subtle, almost whispering specter that haunts from afar.

Clive Barker may be most known for Hellraiser, which is a stunningly wonderful film in its own right. But, for me, Lord of Illusions will always be my favorite of his films. It feels more complete and I simply enjoy it more. To those who haven’t seen the film in a long time, I urge you to revisit it. To those who have never seen it before, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy to give it a chance.

*Seven, which could also easily fall under this classification, would come out later that year but would also have more star power behind it in the form of Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman.



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COMMENTS

25 Comments
  • Dan Warren (Forgottenretroworl

    This is a much-underrated flick. Good review.

  • nicholasmwalker

    i think another issue with it not doing well in the box office was its rating… i specifically remember seeing a sign up in my local theater that said you would not be allowed in if you were under 18, with a guardian or not. i was 10 at the time so naturally i didnt see it, but it already achieved a mythic status in my mind because i had never heard of a film like that before. not sure if this was just the choice of my local theater or if it was like that everywhere. anyway i love this movie

    • justin anthony

      Even the VHS was unrated, I had to have a parent with me to rent it from Blockbuster when it came out.

  • justin anthony

    I have loved this movie since I was a kid. To this day I still think Nix is one of the most truly evil villains in horror. Also tht scene with the mandrill at the beginning of the movie is badass.

    • Kori Batchelor

      Daniel von Bargen played Nix with such power and controlled lunacy. It didn’t hurt that he was given some great lines from Barker. But, man, his performance is just so good!
      Also been a fan since I was a kid. Hell, I saw it at the theatre when it was a new release (am I that old?!?)

      • justin anthony

        I was only 9 when it was released and couldn’t talk my step-dad into taking me to see it (got him to take me to Hellraiser:Bloodline tho lol) but rented it from Blockbuster when it came out . But ya Nix was ferocious in the movie, he has so many classic evil quotes

        • Dan Warren (Forgottenretroworl

          “You’re not… WORTHYYY. None of youuu…”

          • Kori Batchelor

            My personal fave…”I was born to murder the world.”

      • Mr. Neutron

        I first remember von Bargen playing George Costanza’s boss in Seinfeld for a few seasons. Amusing. *Then* I saw him as Nix in Lord of Illusions. Horrific! Amazing!

  • Moe Long

    Great to see this criminally under-appreciated flick get some attention! Here’s my take http://cupofmoe.com/film/lord-of-illusions-review

    • Brian VonDerahe

      Great article Moe, thanks!

      • Moe Long

        Cheers!

  • Dr. Decker

    but the ending is awful.

  • Brian VonDerahe

    I rented this movie on VHS when it was a new release. I was in high school and remember loving it. After a recent revisit I still love it. It’s different and interesting and a movie I look forward to watching again. Thanks for the critique and the well deserved praise!

  • JackLantern13

    No defense needed. Great movie.

  • Raul Calvo

    The first time I saw the movie was the director’s cut, so I always loved it. You can have a great thematic trilogy with Lord of Illusions, Michele Soavi’s The Sect and Andreas Marchsall’s Tears of Kali.

    • Dan Warren (Forgottenretroworl

      The Sect is another underrated work of art. So many creepy scenes. That bug going up the nose… I don’t know Tears of Kali.

      • Raul Calvo

        Tears of Kali is more like a Lucio Fulci movie. 5 minutes in, a girl cuts her own eyelids. It’s also about a sect, but not as stylish or creepy as The Sect.

  • The Wolf

    I loved this movie since I first rented it ages ago (and bought it on DVD some time back). At some point I really need to fork over the cash for that Scream Factory Blu-Ray. Repeating what others here said, Bargen’s Nix is a masterful villain.

  • Werewolf

    This film has quite a cult following inside and out. Even if the critics had compared watching it to falling from a third story window and breaking half your bones…

    I don’t think we’d have given a shit. 😉

  • Vincent Kane

    I always liked this movie as well and have been drawn to watch it again. I also felt there was just something missing to it. I’ll will definitely check out the Director’s Cut.

    One thing that always hurt this movie in my mind is whenever I think about this movie all I see is Nix’s belly in the short shirt. It always threw me off. Haha

    • Dan Warren (Forgottenretroworl

      Man, I’ve only ever seen the Director’s Cut, and I highly recommend it. I still own it on DVD. Screw the other version.

  • KSE1977

    I agree and approve of this movie’s inclusion. I always had a soft spot and I need to revisit my blu ray today!

  • Zapepper

    I preferred “Nightbreed, The Director’s cut”.

    • Dan Warren (Forgottenretroworl

      That was better, to be honest. More of a romance. Unless you count Swann and Nix as a gay romance.

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