Saturday, July 29, 2017

Lord of Illusions


***

I can tell you that back in 1995 I was among several excited horror fans upon learning Clive Barker was releasing a film considering he directed so few and many of us had to see Hellraiser (1987) through borrowed VHS. Even renting Hellraiser was difficult. I do remember getting to rent Nightbreed (1990), watching it with great intrigue. So in the 90s both these films were popped in the VCR whenever the chance presented itself (summers when the parents were at work; we lived in rural Mississippi in a quiet neighborhood and I was a responsible teenager, so renting, borrowing, and watching horror wasn’t as difficult). When I learned of Lord of Illusions, it was quite an exciting time, anticipating its release on home video. What is so crazy is the film was released on my birthday and I had just turned 17! Wow, to think that has almost been 23 years ago astonishes me. So I had just turned the age where you could see R-rated films but Lord of Illusions, if I remember correctly, didn’t play down here in the south so I didn’t get the opportunity to watch it. So as I often did as a teenager, I waited patiently for its release on home video, renting it immediately. I recorded it to a blank tape and proceeded to watch it a few times the next couple years anyway. Was it as worthwhile as his other films? I can’t say I watched it as many times as Hellraiser or Nightbreed, quite frankly, and eventually as time passed it kind of faded into horror fan purgatory until it woke me back up. On an early Saturday afternoon, no less. To tell you the truth, while watching this much of it was new again. So a lot of it wasn’t necessarily retained, but that’s okay because I have watched a lot of content since this movie last popped into a VCR. Being that it is 2017, it’s been a while.

I had read a piece of trivia that said the ending in the Mojave Desert, as Scott Bakula and Famke Jannsen retreat from the graffiti-walled, crumbling, dustbowl compound of cult magic wizard (sort-of god), Nix (Daniel von Bargen), was a homage to Fulci’s The Beyond (1981). Well, it is funny but I felt the ending certainly has this Fulci air about it as Barker goes for quite a surreal climax where he turns Nix loose to conjure all types of bizarre, supernatural wizardry, as dark clouds bring rain, electric-fueled walls send off sparks, and a hole from the deep of the earth opens. The cult that so patiently awaited Nix’s return cut their hair (and their own flesh, it seems) and willingly kneel in broken glass at his command. What do they get for their troubles? Nix has the earth swallow them whole, turning them into dust-consumed corpses reaching out for help that won’t respond. Even Nix’s most loyal disciple, Butterfield (Barry Del Sherman), is tossed aside (kicked repeatedly for telling him that his most treasured protégé, Swann, was dead). Nix indicates that he’s to be a “murderer of the world”, not a god to be deified. He wants Swann (Kevin J O’Connor) to join his side as he plans to lay waste to the world. Swann loves his wife, Dorothea (Jannsen), though. This, to Nix, is unacceptable. Nix even plunges his fingers into the “mind” of Swann and PI Harry D’Amour (Bakula) at different points in the film, producing grisly hallucinations which rip the flesh away of those they see. A lot of these strange developments did remind me of Fulci, although I realize this film is gleaned from Barker’s own work. It all just has that kind of inexplicable quality to it that can’t quite be described appropriately in written form. Once again, his film was taken and certain moments were cut, with Barker’s version eventually released in a director’s cut. His generation of filmmakers just endured that, time and again. Directing film just seemed to discourage Barker and this is the last film he had given us in his career. And it wasn’t like he was busy directing a bunch of films before Lord of Illusions. He had made Nightbreed five years prior, and Hellraiser three years prior to that. So Barker was more associated with serving as a producer or creative inspiration, an artist and writer. He’s given to the horror genre at any rate. Too bad his name is associated with a lot of less-than-quality content.


So Bakula is this “grizzled PI” (an archetype) in New York City who had just suffered and survived an exorcism case. He gets a case in LA but while following the guy he’s assigned to investigate encounters a former member of Swann’s entourage brutalized by Butterfield in his tarot card office. Butterfield has an accomplice that seems impervious to pain and mutilation, even getting tossed out a window, getting up from the sidewalk! So you just know this won’t be the last time D’Amour sees him again. Of course this leads to D’Amour meeting Swann’s wife, Dorothea and assistant, Valentin (Joel Swetow). When it appears Swann dies during an illusionist show sword act, D’Amour is to track how it all relates to Butterfield. Before succumbing to his injuries, Quaid (Joseph Latimore), in his tarot office after Butterfield made sure to mutilate him enough to bleed out, informs D’Amour that Nix is going to return. Nix is nicknamed “The Puritan”, and such a prophetic statement is certain to come to fruition. Barker wasn’t about to plant that seed and not see it burst from the ground with great pomp and circumstance.

Nix is eventually found in the ground thanks to Butterfield’s efforts, kidnapping Dorothea (of course) and threatening to scalpel out Valentin’s eyes if he doesn’t assist. He’s in that ghoulish state of decay with this iron plated mask over his rotted face thanks to Swann. It was a teenage Dorothea that was responsible for weakening Nix through gunshot wounds and Swann who [temporarily] subdues and silences him. But Butterfield is determined. Too bad such devotion wasn’t reciprocated. At least he wasn’t impaled on a stage prop like his bald, homicidal, seemingly indestructible henchman. D’Amour took care of him. Butterfield has an assortment of oddly-designed cutting tools, missing D’Amour’s head, hitting a wall in the Mojave Desert compound wall, and getting a nice, lengthy jolt for his troubles.

Unfortunately a lot of Bakula’s charm is missing from this PI. He’s sadly going through the motions. He just doesn’t really summon the instruments in his performance to sound off the jazz that might have helped ingratiate himself to us. He’s essentially on the case or romancing Jannsen (who could blame him really? She’s such a babe), avoiding death and dark magic. He is often wiping blood off the wounds of his face, though. This trip to LA wasn't without its battle scars. Jannsen has this amusing scene where she’s covering her face and eyes as Butterfield removes the iron work from Nix, unable not to look although she’d prefer to be anywhere else. O’Connor (who is such a hoot in Deep Rising (1998)) doesn’t have a lot to work with here, either, basically playing Swann as haunted and unsettled, but he’s heroic if often powerless to stop Nix. A great moment in the film at the end shows him skinned alive to skeletal remains, while levitated off in mid air, left open on the floor as what presence still exists of Nix makes sure he’s no longer flesh. Because “flesh is a trap and magic sets us free.”

Butterfield reminded me of Cronenberg’s psychotic from Nightbreed (1990). He is perfectly capable to hideously deforming anyone so he can have Nix, his god, returned to him. Swann’s associates who helped him retrieve Dorothea and put away Nix get the twelve years the film allots them, as they fled the Mojave Desert in 1982 and time is projected to 1995. Butterfield explains that it took him this time to learn his craft. He makes up for lost time. Quaid and Valentin would tell you that had they survived.

Nix has minutes at the beginning and end to leave an impression. Through Daniel von Bargen, Nix is a manipulative, self-indulgent, disregarding, dangerous cult figure, somehow securing magic power, willing to use it for insidious and sinister purposes. The fire, mind control, and levitation are just some of what Nix can do. But Swann was quite a treasured pupil so Nix bestowed upon him (I think) the same gifts. That seems to be why Swann is so preferred while those most loyal to Nix are considered “sheep unworthy to worship a god who chose to remain a man”. Barker makes sure he doesn’t go out without a bang.




 




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