DECEMBER 21, 2014
I was a bad horror fan in the late summer of 1995, skipping Clive Barker's Lord of Illusions in theaters during its brief, not particularly successful run. On the weekend it opened, I opted to see Desperado instead, as my horror fan status was eclipsed by my "Oh hey Quentin Tarantino is in this!" excitement (ironically, QT would provide a quote on the Illusions DVD box), and the next week school started and my trips to the movies became less frequent while I got back into the swing of things. But while it's a shame for the movie's fortunes (my matinee dollars could have surely changed it from dud to smash!), there is a silver lining: I've never actually seen the truncated theatrical version of the film. When it came to VHS (!) it was the director's cut, and that's the one that's on this new Blu release from Scream Factory.
...and this was only the 2nd time I watched the film.
Yeah, I'm as shocked as you are. Somehow even though I've always known it was compromised I managed to see Nightbreed two or three times over the years (until Scream Factory fixed that as well), but I just never found the time for a 2nd go around with Harry D'Amour until now. It's a testament to Barker's ability to leave an impression that despite the fact that it's nearly 19 years later, I still remembered certain scenes in detail (the opening in particular) and even a few plot points, such as the fact that Swann's death was staged and that he was discovered by D'Amour after attending his own funeral. The various KNB-addled prosthetics were also crystal clear in my mind, though Fangoria might deserve credit for that one; if memory serves Illusions was the cover story on the first issue that I bought as a guy who planned to get it every month (up until then I just bought random issues when it had a topic I was highly interested in).
So what do I think? Well it might only be my 3rd favorite of the films Barker directed, but it's still a pretty damn good movie. Pitched as "Chinatown meets The Exorcist", I think the central mystery doesn't QUITE compel as well as it should (Angel Heart did the "supernatural meets noir" thing better, in my opinion), since Harry's role in it is largely circumstantial - he doesn't really get full on invested in it until the 3rd act. And apart from possibly Swann's non-death (which shouldn't be, since Kevin J. O'Connor was 2nd billed and anyone who saw the trailer would know there was more to his role than could have been seen prior to his death) there aren't a lot of surprises or twists to the mystery; it's pretty obvious that this guy Butterfield is trying to resurrect Nix and is going after the people who killed him in order to a. get revenge and b. find Nix's body. Large parts of the narrative would occur whether Harry was there or not, so in that respect it could be a bit stronger.
However, crossing these particular genres is a tough thing to do, and kudos to Barker for succeeding. I mentioned Angel Heart earlier, and there aren't really a lot of other options; Cast A Deadly Spell (and its sequel) are among the very few others. It's not surprising that it's a rare beast; a mystery by design is going to be rather talky, with a lot of exposition dumps - the very opposite of what a horror film is often trying to do, which is show not tell. So they don't exactly complement each other as well as, say, mixing comedies and dramas. And I love that Barker gave himself an even bigger challenge - he was working from his own short story, but not adapting it to the letter. The characters are the same (though Valentin, Swann's creepy assistant, was a demon in the story and more of an ally to D'Amour throughout) but the plot is fairly different. Swann's really dead, the plot mostly concerns his corpse, and there is no mention of Nix or any cult. Basically, if Barker didn't write the script himself, fans would be livid that some hack had bastardized their story.
Oddly, even though it's only 60 pages or so, it would have worked as a feature as is, so maybe someday someone will adapt it more traditionally. Since Valentin and D'Amour are teamed up trying to accomplish a task with people on their tail, instead of Chinatown it can be "Midnight Run meets The Exorcist", a movie I'd definitely want to see. On the commentary, Barker never really explains why he significantly overhauled his own work; I can only assume that he had the Nix idea as its own thing and got the idea to add his pre-existing character of Harry D'Amour to the proceedings (he DOES mention, on the making of, that Harry entering one of his stories even surprises HIM sometimes), but this major revision does explain the rather odd setup of a cult leader who is also a magician - the two worlds needed to connect and I guess that's what he came up with. It works OK enough; Nix isn't a major character in the movie anyway (he's really only in two sequences, the opening and the climax) so it's easy enough to forget the odd way we're brought into this world by the time the main plot kicks into gear.
But that brings me to what I considered the biggest revelation I had while watching: Barker is a phenomenally good director. Since Hellraiser was so low-key and Nightbreed a studio product that was compromised early on, it's hard to gauge his skills as a filmmaker from those two alone; after all he was working from solid source material of his own design. But here, he's basically telling a whole new story for the first time while balancing two very different genres, and he does a damn good job at it. Again, the mystery elements aren't exactly Raymond Chandler-esque, but even with all the talk he keeps the pace up (it's 121 minutes long but only felt like 90 to me), and gives us a wide variety of interesting characters - any one of them could have been the lead in a story. In fact he gives us so many intriguing types that he doesn't even have time for all of them; I mentioned Nix is only in two scenes, but that's twice as many as Vincent Schiavelli's pretentious illusionist that Harry fucks with - I would have loved more from him (plus I just miss Schiavelli in general). And Butterfield is just as creepy as Decker; he doesn't have a mask but for some reason while I think it's kind of alluring on a woman, heterochromia (two different colored eyes) creeps me out on dudes.
My only other gripe I could have made in 1995 - the CGI FX are decidedly CD-ROMish, and that's being polite. The fire serpent is OK, but that origami thing and some of the other visions are just terrible, and having the film on a pristine blu-ray doesn't do such moments any favors. They don't overwhelm the film like a few other 1995 horror films (Hideaway, anyone?) but for a movie that's all about making people believe in illusions, I sure wish they could have done a better job with these sequences. Then again, origami-man shares his scene with Famke Janssen, so even if it was Jurassic Park level photo-real it'd still pale in comparison to one of the finest visual effects ever created.
There's a surprising amount of vintage bonus material on the disc, most of which was from the special edition laserdisc - so much that Scream didn't really have to add much to it. Barker's commentary is fantastic, dividing his time equally between production info, the themes of his script, and general thoughts on horror itself, making it a must listen even if you hate the movie for some reason. Only near the end does he kind of run out of steam and occasionally just narrate the on-screen action or take pauses, but for a solo commentary on a 2 hr movie that's to be expected. There are three deleted scenes of minimal value (with forced Barker commentary drowning out the dialogue), and a fluffy vintage making of for your nostalgic pleasure. But the real perk is an hour long documentary that was newly created/edited using the existing behind the scenes footage and EPK interviews. It's a solid look at the film's production, with minimal repeated insight from Clive and priceless set footage - I particularly liked watching poor O'Connor patiently hanging on a wall (for the scene where Nix slams him into it; he's got some sort of rig attached to his back to keep him suspended) while the DP and camera operator argued about lenses.
The only all new material is an interview with storyboard artist Martin Mercer, which I found to be pretty interesting. It's not often they get to talk at length about their role, and Mercer touches on something that I never really considered - his job could find him at odds with the film's DP, as part of storyboarding is framing and specific camera movements, which is the other guy's job. But storyboarding can be a crucial element in securing a green light for a film, and that's the sort of thing that happens before a DP is hired anyway (for the record, he says that on this particular film he didn't have any such issues, just something he's encountered on other shows). We get to see some side by side comparisons of his frames with the finished product, always the least interesting special feature in the world to me so I just fast forwarded those parts until he started talking again. It's a bummer they couldn't get Clive or any of the actors to talk about the film in retrospect (might be the first SF release to lack a new interview with one of the actors), but since the wealth of this material was previously unreleased, it's still a good reason to upgrade from the DVD (the all new transfer is another perk). And for completionists' sake, the theatrical cut is offered on a 2nd disc, so you can enjoy the movie without two of its best scenes (both in cars, oddly; one is Valentin driving D'Amour to the funeral, the other is D'Amour driving Swann to his house) and also without the film's most disturbing sequence: the cult members getting ready to go to Nix's compound, after killing their families.
I hate that Barker never directed another feature; I assume his health problems played a part in it, but with two box office disappointments in a row (and more compromise than he was comfortable with, though he doesn't seem as frustrated by Illusions' cuts as Nightbreed's, presumably because he got to present his preferred version almost immediately, albeit on video) it's not likely he'd have much luck within the studio system again anyway. The independent scene would/should have embraced him if he was up for it, and perhaps someday he will be. He's certainly provided filmmakers with a wealth of material to draw from (I would LOVE a feature of "Son of Celluloid", personally), and post-Hellraiser he's had pretty decent luck with other people adapting his work (Dread, Midnight Meat Train, and obviously Candyman are all worthy adaptations; Book of Blood is the only non-sequel stinker that I can recall). But with Lord of Illusions he proved that he can deliver even when drastically changing from the source material, and I think we'd all prefer that if someone were to revise his prose, then there's no one better to do it than Barker himself.
What say you?