Clive Barker was famous proclaimed the “the future of horror” by Stephen King in the mid-‘80s. However, that doesn’t mean he had an easy time translating his style of horror to the silver screen. Despite a killer debut with Hellraiser, he experienced a stumble with the unwieldy Nightbreed — and as for other filmmaker’s adaptations of his stories: the less said, the better. 1995’s Lord Of Illusions is Barker’s last directing venture as of this writing — and it occupies a flawed but interesting middle road between the transgressive charge of Hellraiser and the epic aspirations of Nightbreed.
The hook of Lord Of Illusions is that it weds Barker’s otherworldly take on horror with the film noir style of detective story. The protagonist is Harry D’Amour (Scott Bakula), a private eye who has had some dealings with the supernatural. While on a case in Los Angeles, he finds himself caught in a battle between Butterfield (Barry Del Sherman) and Swann (Kevin J. O’Connor, a pair of magicians with all too real abilities. He also finds himself getting romantically entangled with Dorothea (Famke Janssen), the wife of Swann. The solution to the rivalry has to do with the mysterious death of legendary magician Nix (Daniel Von Bargen), who might not be as dead as he seems.
Lord Of Illusions is an improvement over Nightbreed in that it has a tighter storyline and a consistent tone. However, once you get past the interesting fusion of horror and noir, the storyline’s a bit too simple for its own good: the noir element relies on familiar, oft-predictable tropes and the horror components are surprisingly straightforward for a story that gives a lot of lip service to the mysteries of magic. Barker doesn’t always know who to cast or what to do with his actorly resources: Bakula is decent but miscast as a dark private eye while Vincent Schiavelli gets too little to do in what amounts to one-scene role. Janssen fares better and Del Sherman makes a memorably unnerving weirdo-villain.
That said, Lord Of Illusions can be fun for the viewer who is more interested in texture than surprises. Barker’s direction is confident and focused, maintaining a decent pace as he offsets scenes of noirish dialogue with bombastic shocks that are perked up by freaky makeup effects and Simon Boswell’s bombastic score. It’s a slow burn to the finale but there are some nice setpieces along the way, including a magician show that takes a grim turn. The best moments are the prologue and finale that bookend the film: Barker gets to delve into Hellraiser-esque territory in these places and unleashes a barrage of freaky imagery and makeup effects that make up for some familiar story beats.
To sum up, Lord Of Illusions is not as visionary as Barker’s pedigree suggests it could be but still shapes up as an interesting genre-bender with a few memorably strange sights to please his fans.