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‘Lord of Illusions’ (R)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 25, 1995

Horror and film noir can mix effectively—witness HBO's "Cast a Deadly Spell." Unfortunately, they don't in "Lord of Illusions," Clive Barker's first directorial effort since his compromised 1992 film "Nightbreed." Both films were based on short stories by Barker, the new King of fantasy horror. But like Stephen, Barker is at his spookiest and most visceral in cold type.

Here, Barker melds the hard-boiled detective tradition of Raymond Chandler to the fantasy terror of H.P. Lovecraft to examine the dichotomy between magic and illusion—and, indirectly, between good and evil. But even when Barker writes the script himself, the transition of his tale from the page to the screen is not well realized.

"Lord of Illusions" begins with a headlong rush into the Mojave Desert, where Nix (Daniel Von Bargen), a satanic cult leader with a genuine mastery of the black arts, is about to sacrifice a kidnapped 12-year-old girl. At the last moment, he's stopped by a small group of disenchanted cultists led by his former acolyte Swann (the flaccid Kevin J. O'Connor). After the child nixes Nix with a bullet, Swann traps his evil soul with an industrial-strength death mask and buries Nix deep in the desert sand.

Or so he thinks.

Thirteen years later, Swann has become a hugely successful illusionist a la David Copperfield, hiding the real magical power he stole from Nix behind a mask of razzle-dazzle entertainment. When his old helpmates start dying, Swann begins to worry that Nix isn't dead enough.

Enter Harry D'Amour (television's Scott Bakula in a quantum hop of a career move). A recurring character who has loomed small and large in Barker's fiction over the last decade, D'Amour is a scrambled detective drawn to the dark side—mostly against his will. This time, he's hired by Swann's wife, Dorothea (the perfectly fatale Famke Janssen). But he can't prevent her husband's onstage demise in a falling-sword trick that goes awry.

Or so we're supposed to think.

With a little help from his fiends (Jordan Marder as a psycho skinhead masochist and Barry Del Sherman as an androgynous sadist), Nix is resurrected, crowing, "I was born to murder the world!" Nix wants to revive his cult, too, but it doesn't work out, and eventually he buries a gaggle of bald newcomers with the epithet "You're not worthy."

Now the battle boils down to Swann and D'Amour vs. Nix (with Dorothea as an unconvincing pawn)—though Barker grasps for some apocalyptic implications. But there's no magic here, just slight-of-plot, a bag of old tricks dressed up with effects that aren't particularly special. Worse, the very things that give Barker's fiction its chill are absent. "Lord of Illusions" is neither disturbingly violent (despite occasional blood-red herrings) nor psychologically bizarre, and its horror never reaches out to grab your throat. Once past the opening sequence, the film slows to a crawl as matters devolve from the slime to the ridiculous.

Playing the antihero D'Amour, Bakula is appropriately rumpled but seems emotionally uncommitted, and his out-of-the-blue bedding of Dorothea is laughable. More problematic is the villain: Despite some gross burned-skin makeup and nasty-as-he-wants-to-be attitude, Nix is scarry, not scary. Compared with such Barker horror icons as Candyman and Pinhead . . . he's not worthy.

After Swann's apparent demise, a fellow magician notes that "illusions are tricks. Magic is real." That's true about entertainment and art as well.

Barker, who also produced "Lord of Illusions," seems torn between his great gifts as an author and his aspirations as a moviemaker. Until he figures out how to finesse a convincing transition, Barker is doomed to creative purgatory.

Lord of Illusions is rated R for profanity and graphic violence.

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