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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!

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