The Test of Time: Lord of Illusions (1995)

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

We all have movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? So…the point of this here column is whether or not a film stands the test of time. I’m not gonna question whether it’s still a good flick, but if the thing holds up for a modern audience.

Director: Clive Barker
Starring: Scott Bakula, Kevin J. O’Connor, and Famke Janseen

Clive Barker. Much like John Carpenter and Wes Craven (among others) before him, Barker became a big freakin’ name in horror in the late 1980s, probably helped by the fact that his name was usually included in the title. Barker’s movies always played twisted, perverted, and mostly humorless. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but while Carpenter and Craven always found moments of lightness in all that nasty dark shit, Barker never used a light switch, keeping his brutal worlds dark. 

After his feature debut with the S&M world of HELLRAISER and the strange NIGHTBREED, Barker seemed like a director here to stay. But 20 years ago, he made a movie with that guy from Quantum Leap…and then never directed another major motion picture. Barker left a lasting impact on horror, so his movies catch the label of classic. But does his final film hold up against the Test of Time? 

Under the examination: LORD OF ILLUSIONS.

Seems like a dangerous job. 

THE STORY:  New York private dick Harry D’Amour (Scott Bakula) has had better days. In fact, he needs to get out of town so he takes a routine case (aren’t they supposedly all) in Los Angeles where…things end up anything but routine. He encounters a sort of magic cult, and a magician named Swann (Kevin J. O’Connor), who 13 years ago helped kill off cult leader Nix (Daniel von Bargen). Swann is killed on stage during his act, leaving D’Amour in the arms of his wife Dorothea (Famke Janseen). The deeper D’Amour digs into the world of magic, the more nuts he finds within it, and shit only gets weirder. 

Bakula didn't expect to wake up in this movie. 

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: If I’m a sucker for any genre, the private eye/hard boiled formula always gets me. Something remains appealing about the loner, hard luck investigator who never seems to catch a break but keeps on detecting because that’s all a good P.I. knows how to do. Yeah, it’s an old formula and probably worn out, but a damn good one. With LORD OF ILLUSIONS, Barker takes that same old idea and throws his poor sucker D’Amour into a world filled with jealousy, obsession, and deadly magic.

Now it has probably been 15 years since I’ve seen LORD OF ILLUSIONS and I doubt if ever finished the thing. Most likely, it went over my head, but even now it mostly remains that way. That’s not a complaint because most detective plots are stupidly complicated, and that’s something I dug here. Barker brings us into the magic world that is already filled with mystery and general weird shenanigans, so why not add a sleuth and a cult ready to kill all of mankind?

I’m not sure there’s been a director before or after Barker who was able to capture darkness and brooding evil like him. While HELLRAISER truly showcased that visual style (even if the movie bores me), LORD OF ILLUSIONS seems it was made to appeal more to the masses. The detective angle means we get to follow the outsider into a world of cults and real magic, which is the most interesting stuff in the movie. At the same time, the acting is pretty good all around. Bakula is a strong lead, though I wish his character had something more to do. I really only knew Daniel von Bargen from Seinfeld and O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, but the guy makes for a great villain with that kind voice of his. And Famke Janseen is pretty as ever, though I doubt anyone could have predicted that she’d have a bigger career than anyone else in the movie. 

Best effect of the movie. Right here. 

WHAT BLOWS NOW:  Clive Barker remains an important name in horror…as a writer, not a director. He keeps the tone painfully dark, but his pacing always drags while his plots seem way more complicated than is necessary. But as I said before, complicated storylines define the genre, as many film noir plots don’t make a ton of sense, but a viewer shouldn’t have to read a summary to fill the gaps.

With that said, most of the time no one gives a damn about the plot because we become all wrapped up in characters. I like Bakula’s performance, but D’Amour isn’t that interesting. We’re given some clues that he’s haunted by his past and that he might dig the occult, but the character still plays flat. Give the poor guy some personality. At the same time, the great and powerful Swann is perhaps the biggest wimp ever put on film. Here’s a guy who killed a cult leader and rose to international fame as a real magician, (SPOILER) but after he faked his death, his character ends up worthless, unable to do anything, scared to even step out of a car. (END). 

Watch out, Famke! Bad effects near you!

What wounds LORD OF ILLUSIONS most comes from dated effects. Not all bad (the gore and splatter look great) but anything beyond practical effects (like when Swann performs his magic act) resembles mid-1990s CGI at their worse. The most painful moment, something no doubt shown to all digital animation students as to what NOT to do, comes when D’Amour and Dorothea hang out around Swann’s coffin, and a ghost made out of lackluster digital triangles attacks. It’s just…bad. 

THE VERDICT: LORD OF ILLUSIONS is an example of a movie that sounds more interesting than it is. Moments exist that make it entertaining, but a classic? No. It’s notable for being Mr. Barker’s last directing effort, but it’s a solid work of B filmmaking. 



Barker tells Bakula where to get short shorts. 

Source: Arrow in the Head

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