Horror novelist and filmmaker Clive Barker offers a potent mix of H.P. Lovecraft and Raymond Chandler in “Lord of Illusions.” Pic should scare up some respectable coin in late-summer release before realizing its full potential as a homevid rental item.
Barker has toned down the full-bore gore of his earlier directorial efforts, which will be appreciated by mainstream auds drawn by “Quantum Leap” star Scott Bakula. Even so, there’s still enough gruesome stuff here to delight genre fans and unsettle everybody else.
Loosely based on Barker’s 1985 short story “The Last Illusion,””Lord” features Bakula as Harry D’Amour, a New York-based p.i. who has reappeared in several subsequent stories and novels by Barker. Like the original tale, pic introduces D’Amour as a hard-boiled but humane shamus who periodically encounters the supernatural in his work. Imagine Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer doing a guest spot on “The X-Files,” and you’ll get the picture.
While on a routine case in L.A., D’Amour runs across cultists who want to revive their spiritual leader. Prologue reveals how 13 years earlier the diabolic Nix (Daniel Von Bargen) was dispatched by Philip Swann (Kevin J. O’Connor), a former acolyte who learned much of Nix’s black magic. Now Swann is an immensely popular illusionist whose elaborate tricks really aren’t tricks at all. But his wizardry may not be enough to protect him from the cultists, who demand to know where Swann hid Nix’s corpse.
Dorothea Swann (Famke Janssen) hires D’Amour to look after her husband because she’s worried about his safety. Unfortunately, D’Amour isn’t able to do anything when, during an elaborate stage performance, Swann winds up on the wrong end of several falling swords. Nix’s followers continue to menace Dorothea even after Swann’s apparent demise.
Bakula proves to be an inspired choice to play D’Amour. His virile good looks , low-key humor and matter-of-fact authority make him an engaging Everyman, the perfect traveling companion for a journey through Barker’s nightmare world.
Janssen (in the James Bond pic “Goldeneye”) is believable as Barker’s version of a femme fatale.
O’Connor lacks the requisite brio to be completely convincing as Swann. He seems distracted and unfocused, and fails to convey the dark humor in the central irony that informs the character. Swann, who really possesses supernatural abilities, is content withbecoming wealthy by pretending to be a mere sleight-of-hand artist.
In many respects, this is a much more conventional effort than Barker’s earlier outings. Certainly there is nothing here like the go-for-broke, over-the-top audacity that made “Nightbreed” a cult favorite, nor barely a hint of the unbridled perversity that gave the original “Hellraiser” such a resonantly nasty edge. There are a few indications of last-minute editing, suggesting that things may have gotten more exuberantly out of hand in an earlier version.
Even so, “Lord” is more sophisticated and satisfying than anything the genre has offered since “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.” And it is the first horror pic in recent memory that has a hero who’s more charismatic than the villain.
The craftsmen responsible for the grisly special effects perform far beyond the call of duty.
No matter how “Lord of Illusions” does at the B.O., don’t be surprised if Bakula comes back as Harry D’Amour, in either a sequel or a TV spinoff.