“I escaped from the grave, so I have to give something to the grave in return.”
A pre Star Trek Scott Bakula stars as Harry D’Amour, Clive Barker’s occult gumshoe who’s often up to his neck in dark and dirty deeds, whether he likes it or not. When the glamorous wife of a world-class illusionist asks for his help, D’Amour finds himself pitted against the entertainment establishment, moneyed interests and a conspiracy of silence surrounding the life and death of a mysterious man known only as Nix. D’Amour is forced to conclude that he has landed in the middle of something a lot more sinister than a few artistic types playing adult Illuminati games.
As seems to be common with many such movies, Barker’s sunbleached story of the life, death and rebirth of Nix’s nihilistic cult received mixed reviews upon its release, but has quietly gained a sizeable following over the ensuing decades. Here we have another example of great work largely ignored by the entertainment establishment, only to be supported by a growing and appreciative audience. Politically speaking, films like Lord of Illusions confirm that the democratisation of opinion is alive and well.
As is so often the case with Clive Barker’s work, this movie’s greatest strength flows from its cast of well-formed and decidedly dark characters. In this world there are no good guys, and the only force which can challenge the psychotic Nix is erstwhile acolyte and confirmed anti-hero Philip Swann, the only living man to have learned at least some of his secrets. These two adepts are supported and opposed by the world-weary D’Amour, the sadistic Butterfield and the elegant yet mendacious Valentin.
Not always easy on the conscience, Lord of Illusions is a dark parody of the archetypal resurrection, of journeying beyond the veil to return as something more than merely human. However, it also makes plain that there is no supreme arbiter of good and evil. There is only free will, and the very human failings that are exposed and multiplied once unbridled power is granted or stolen.
Visually, Lord of Illusions is a great piece of work, and the opening shots of Nix’s dusty domain wonderfully set the scene for the seemingly straightforward yet deeply profound events that follow. There are admittedly some experimental CGI shots that have not aged well, but these are more than compensated for by Barker’s skill in bringing the lawless badlands of the Mojave desert to life. A useful reminder that even the sunshine can be creepy as hell.
The cinema trailer is notable for its Dead Can Dance soundtrack, although it’s given greater prominence in the LaserDisc teaser. It’s also interesting to note that the current standard rental release has been cut, omitting original and some might say unacceptable scenes of familial murder by Nix’s acolytes as they return to the dark church to witness their insane master’s ultimate escape act.
Although not as visceral as Barker’s wildly successful Hellraiser or Candyman series, there is still enough of his trademark toe-curling body terrorism to keep the splatter gang entertained. However, his use of occult symbolism in the right places, coupled with his successful manipulation of archetypal themes mark this movie out as a cut above your average teen slasher or inverted cross shocker. Above all, this is a tale of what happens when seemingly limitless power ends up in the hands of very, very limited people.