Lord of Illusion
A film review by Joe Parra
Rating: 2.5 out of 4
Harry Houdini, probably the world's greatest magician and illusionist,
said that he had spirit guides who propelled him through his marvelous
feats of legerdemain. In Lord of Illusions, Clive Barker tells us
that there are two sorts of magic at play with all really superb
illusionists: excellent trickery and deadly reality (real magic).
The real magic, says Barker, is only granted to a select few; and they
are, at best, an unpleasant lot. They are the cold and calculating, the
man-turned-monster, and (at the other end of the spectrum) the anti-hero.
Harry D'Amour is Barker's supernaturally-inclined gumshoe (that's "private
detective" to those of you who neither read nor watch detective fiction).
Harry is doing a routine observation job when he is suddenly propelled
into a nightmare world of black magic and blacker magic. His quarry
wanders into a fortune teller's parlor in Los Angeles at a most inopportune
time - the "fortune teller" is being horribly tortured into revealing the
burial place of a great warlock. Exit Harry's mundane case; enter a new
terrifying one. His investigations lead him to Swann (a sort of morose
David Copperfield) and his wife and man-Friday. Whim leads to fancy; and
Harry finds himself drawn to the wife and magician, both of whom are in
great danger from the mad killer who had earlier tortured the fortune teller.
Swann is about to perform his act at the fabulous Pantages Theatre when
the maniac and his horrific toady (who takes sado-masochism to new and
disgusting heights) turn up backstage. Swann is killed; but was it the
doing of the maniac and his toady, or was it something else? Harry's
investigations further recall the film's opening incident, when Swann and
four others storm a commune run by Nix, the malevolent warlock (killing
Nix and rescuing a waif he was holding hostage). But monsters don't go
down so easily, especially if they have pals....
The illusions in the film are quite good. Both
the magic tricks and the special effects are up to snuff. In fact, a couple
of instances are outstanding: (1) when a ghost or monster attacks our protagonists
in geometric proportions in Swann's home; (2) when the warlock walks on
air and breathes fire. Now I know these don't sound particularly
original - indeed, they aren't - but I don't recall them having been done
so convincingly ever before. The performances are just alright. Scott Bakula
(Quantum Leap) plays Harry D'Amour. The impression we're supposed
to have of D'Amour is that he and Philip Marlowe could be cousins. Unfortunately,
Bakula is just a tad too energetic, which marrs what would otherwise be
a nice portrayal. Daniel Von Bargen does a nice job as the evil warlock
Nix (in a role Barker must have planned for Donald Pleasance). The other
performances are adequate to OK.
The problem with Clive Barker on film (especially as directed
by Barker) is that proper understanding (even real enjoyment) of his material
requires a familiarity similar to that gained from watching a soap opera
on a regular basis. You can't tell who's what or what's who without a scorecard.
This is really a shame, because if you're in on the tale through prior
readings, Barker's narrative and sense of flow as a director works quite
well. He gives his film a nice, expensive B-movie feel. I know that sounds
like a contradiction in terms; but imagine the sense of tightness of one
of your favorite movies (whatever it is), but with a bigger budget. United
Artists gave Barker what he wanted, and vice versa - a summer shocker,
WITH a gay twist that I won't give away in this article! Enjoy!