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.