Thursday, October 18, 2012

Lord of Illusions

31 Days of Horror, post 12
I have had an odd interest in Lord of Illusions ever since it was released in theaters, back in 1995.  I haven't read the novella that the story is based on.  I am not a fan of Clive Barker's movies.  In fact, the only reason I am aware of this film at all is because it was heavily advertised in the comic books I read as a teen.  At the time, I had never seen a horror movie, but there was something about the title and advertisement that drew me in.  In a way, it was inevitable that I would track Lord of Illusions down and finally watch it.  However, my knowledge of movies in general (and horror movies in particular) immediately points out some potential weak points in this film.  For starters, the villain is the bad guy from Super Troopers and Scott Bakula is neither traveling through time or playing football with Kathy Ireland.  Hmm.  This one might get painful.

Lord of Illusions begins with a statement that there are two types of magic; one is illusions, the other is magic as reality, which can be powerful and make death an illusion.  Which would then be the other type of magic, I guess?  The story opens with a group of friends entering a secluded building in the middle of a desert.  They are there to put an end to Nix (Daniel von Bargen), a cult leader who professes to have magical powers.
Fire is nice, but real magic would give you a longer T-shirt
The interlopers were actually once followers of Nix, but realized that he is evil/batshit crazy, so they decide to kill him.  They don't do a good job, but a fluke of timing and circumstance leaves Nix with a bullet wound in his head and various other perforations.  But he's still not dead, because MAGIC!  The rebel leader, Swann (Kevin J. O'Connor), pulls out a sort of Vic Rattlehead S&M mask and screws it into Nix's face.  Team Killcult then decide to bury Nix so deep no one can ever find him.  Meanwhile, Nix's Number One toadie, Butterfield (played by J. Trevor Edmond and Barry Del Sherman), does his best his best Gamorrean impression.

And all of that was just the prologue!  Jump forward thirteen years and meet Detective Harry D'Amour (Scott Bakula), a hard-boiled private investigator with a nose for the supernatural.  While working another job, Harry stumbles across a dead body and winds up fighting the presumed killer.  It turns out that the corpse is one of the people who helped kill Nix.  When news of his fellow murderer-for-a-good-cause dying reaches Swann, his wife, Dorothea (Famke Janssen), decides to hire Harry to investigate the death because they think that Butterfield and other Nix-lovers are behind the murder.  And hiring a private investigator when you think you know the guilty party is better than telling the police because...?  Oh, and in the future, Swann is the most famous magician in the world.
Now you know where Criss Angel stole his act
Harry agrees to take their case and attends Swann's next magic spectacular with Dorothea.  During the show, something goes wrong and Swann dies.  What's with all the killing?  Well, it seems that Butterfield is trying to resurrect Nix, which naturally means that he is putting the only people who know enough to stop him on their guard.  So what can Harry do?  If you said, "Try to avert the resurrection of a evil warlock," then you might just be on to something.

The acting in Lord of Illusions tends to be a little campy, but isn't too bad.  Scott Bakula was miscast as the grim noir-ish hero; he works against his strengths here, trading his signature everyman charm for pseudo-tough talk.  Famke Janssen deadpans most of her lines and wears inappropriate clothing for most of the film. her Scott Bakula stole
 Kevin J. O'Connor was just plain odd; he did a pretty good job acting like a master magician, but was melodramatic in the rest of the film.  Daniel von Bargen was similarly over the top, but he did look like the product of a man's passionate love for a salamander.
Fact: Evil is moist
In fact, the only actor in the entire movie that I actually enjoyed was Barry Del Sherman.  Of all the cast members, he seemed to flourish the most under this story's campy subtext.  To put that in context, he was the most entertaining actor, despite having a wardrobe that consisted primarily of a leather vest and snakeskin pants.  Oh, and a crushed velvet shirt for the truly special occasion of resurrecting a dead magician.
Because if you're going to dress up, you've gotta go all out

The reason I don't mind the acting in Lord of Illusions is because most of the actors fit the tone of the movie pretty well.  Written and directed by Clive Barker, there are moments in this story that would have fallen completely flat if they were handled with utmost seriousness, but Barker managed to get the actors play their parts (except for Bakula) with a tiny bit of goofiness.  The choice to camp this film up, just a little bit, is what saves it from being dreadful.  This is kind of a film-noir-meets-neon-camp style, if that's a thing.  As far as Barker's direction goes, the acting and sets were a little ridiculous, but I thought the violence and gore we handled pretty well.
The special effects were also pretty imaginative; the digital effects don't look great by today's standards, but they are still clever.  I really liked the weird origami/fire thing that confronts D'Amour after he romances Dorothea.  The practical effects stand the test of time far better.  Some of them were gory, some of them included full costumes, and some were fairly subtle by comparison (like Nix's fingers entering someone's skull), but they all looked pretty good.
Maybe a little silly, too, but that's the price you pay for wearing rubber suits

My biggest problem with Lord of Illusions was Clive Barker's writing.  The story is inherently melodramatic, so I'm glad that he added some camp into his script.  That doesn't forgive the poor focus or logic.  It is obvious that Scott Bakula's character, Harry D'Amour, is the main character in the film.  He gets top billing and is the point of view character for the audience to identify with as the story gets progressively weirder.  And yet, Barker spends a lot of time making Kevin J. O'Connor look like a mysterious bad-ass.  Heck, this story doesn't even adhere to the basic idea of having the main character play the hero; D'Amour is an observer when it comes down to Swann vs. Nix.  I also don't understand the magicians in this film.  Swann kills Nix and buries him, but is afraid that Nix may someday return from the grave.  Shouldn't the script at least mention why dismembering Nix's remains and/or cremating him is not an option?  And if you're going to hide a body in a desert, shouldn't it be harder to find?  It seemed as though that was the easy part for Butterfield to accomplish.  And what was up with Nix's followers?
"Join us and get a free Summer haircut"
I can understand a charismatic guy leading a cult and convincing them to do many things.  I find it hard to believe that the exact same people would all re-enlist in the cult after thriteen years of not having a charismatic leader to guide them.  Sure, some would return, but everyone seems pretty unlikely.  And I can't comment on this movie without pointing out Nix's stated goal that earned him a cult following: "I was born to murder the world.  You can help me if you like."  Okay, one: that's a pretty awesome villain line.  Two: wait, what?!?

Lord of Illusions doesn't quite work as a straight horror film or a campy one, but balances uncomfortably between the two genres.  The strangest thing about Lord of Illusions is that it is not difficult to sit through; the sum of it's odd parts is actually halfway decent.  I have an idea.  Instead of remaking classic horror movies, filmmakers should look at a movie like this, one that has good moments but got the big picture wrong, and update this.  I can imagine a version of Lord of Illusions that falls a lot closer to Angel Heart than Dracula A.D. 1972.  Then, maybe, we could enjoy a horror movie about magic that isn't mediocre at best.

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