Patience and a strong stomach are a must for Clive Barker’s “Lord of Illusions,” a horror/detective thriller hybrid I resisted for years before finally becoming a fan after a fourth viewing. Here’s the thing: if you’re a fan of imaginative, layered horror films and aren’t especially squeamish, this will work for you. If you’re feeling like an adventurous filmgoer, know this: the first twenty minutes of “Lord of Illusions” are pretty disgusting, full of gag-inducing imagery that made me want to abandon ship. Then, the story begins to take hold, the tone takes a no-kidding modern film noir approach and the really gross and disconnected elements start to cohere.
The story opens on a Charles Manson-like cult, living in the desert and lingering on every word of the devilish Nix (the late Daniel von Bargen), who knows real magic. Swann (Kevin J. O’Conner), an ex cult member, storms Nix’s hideout, guns blazing and both frees an abducted prisoner and battles Nix using his own methods of magic. The establishing scene, involving Nix’s grotesque followers, Nix flying through the air and an angry baboon, is so intense, it’s hard to watch. The way Nix is subdued and placed under controlled is, likewise, not fun to witness. The story then jumps ahead years later, with Scott Bakula introduced as Harry D’Amour, a detective who specializes in the supernatural. His latest case involves a connection to a former member of Nix’s cult, as well as the reemergence of Swann as a famous stage magician. Harry comes across a murder victim who has been impaled with more utensils than a Cutco sheaf. This visual, of a ritual killing survivor, made me ready to give up, say “uncle” and bid adieu to Barker’s uniquely grotesque visions of modern horror. To my surprise, the story settled down, the characters became richer and my endurance was replaced by true fascination.
For starters, Bakula is wonderful as Harry, carrying this bizarre vehicle with a presence and style that’s a striking difference from his goofy, affable turn on “Quantum Leap.” Then there’s Famke Janssen, in her other ’95 breakout role in a United Artists film (her Bond Villain in “Goldeneye” being the other one). She’s a 100% proof femme fatale, making a striking entrance and holding the screen every bit as entrancingly as Bakula. Playing the truly vile Nix, von Bargen is terrifying, arguable the scariest on-screen Barker villain. The weak link is O’Conner, a good actor who fails to make Swann a dynamic figure, both on stage and as a threat. Yet, the character seems like a precursor to Kriss Angel as much as Nix is clearly a warlock variation on Manson.
There’s a scene set in the Hollywood Magic Castle club for magicians (a real place my brother once spent an evening in). Barker deliciously sets this scene up with Erasure’s “Magic Moments” playing on the soundtrack. We get a view of the club members, enthusiastic but glib magicians who are both fearful and in awe of Swann’s abilities. At this point, I could see where Barker was going with this, melding the world of stage illusionists with the suggestion that real magic and actual power can only corrupt the soul.
The most famous sequence is of Swann’s stage show, in which a spectacular illusion goes awry and becomes a messy form of performance art (the CGI during these and other scenes are primitive but enjoyably stylish). Then the earth-shaking, kitchen-sink-and-everything-else grand finale, which is wild, excessive, and completely nuts. There have been more thoughtful, psychologically complex depictions of those who perform magic as a profession, and Barker’s unflinching depiction of sadistic violence makes this difficult to recommend for casual moviegoers. Even those who tell me they “can take” graphic violence may not be ready for Barker; his onscreen bloodletting is uncannily off-putting though, come to think of it, that may be the point and a good one at that. There is a rich, thoughtful, go-for-the-throat approach to cinematic storytelling in Barker’s films. “Nightbreed” may be his masterpiece but “Lord of Illusions” is an equally memorable sleight of hand.