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Lord of Illusions

Harry D’Amour (Scott Bakula) is a private detective visiting Los Angeles on a routine investigation. He gets more than he bargains for when he encounters Philip Swan (Kevin J. O’Connor), a performer whose amazing illusions captivate the world. But are they really illusions? Harry isn’t so sure as he is thrust into a nightmare of murder, deception and terrifying assaults from the dark beyond. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)

 Lord of Illusions
Clive Barker’s unique ambitions were perfectly encapsulated by his first film, Hellraiser. It was smart without overcompensating its nasty streak and achieved major studio production values on a minuscule budget. His second film, Nightbreed, proved too ambitious for his studio overseers and was edited down to a nearly incoherent, but sort of loveable mess. His third and (currently) final film, Lord of Illusions, was another ambitious project that was somewhat hampered by outside influence – the MPAA demanded cuts for an R-rating and the studio wanted a more contemporary ‘mood.’ But the unrated version, which has been readily available for some time (unlike Nightbreed, which took decades to even sort of meet Barker’s expectations) is supposedly the writer/director’s definitive version, so I believe we can lay the responsibility for its ultimate failure at his feet. Like Hellraiser and Nightbreed, Lord of Illusions is based around an ambitious and mostly original concept. There are a lot of horror movies about witchcraft, but not many about the secret lives of magicians. But Baker’s promise of epic intrigue is sabotaged by a convoluted, unfocused narrative, profoundly bland characters, underwhelming digital effects (the practical effects are great, though), and a laughable romantic subplot (complete with a sex scene worthy of The Red Shoe Diaries). The promise of the first act slowly unravels and eventually fizzles out into a flat-line climax that feels like an unresolved coda.

But Barker is just too interesting a guy to make a completely bad movie. Despite its many shortcomings – enough to make it his weakest film, overall – there is plenty to enjoy. First up are the director’s charming attempts to graft hardboiled noir storytelling structure onto his horror story. It doesn’t always work, due in large part to Scott Bakula’s doe-eyed performance, but it’s probably the most successful merging of the styles for the time (the ‘90s, post Angel Heart). Otherwise, Barker’s penchant for the theatrical is on display in full-force during a few key set-pieces, specifically the hyper-flamboyant magic show that culminates in a most outstanding death-by-spiraling-swords sequence. The gore is flashy and splashy, specifically in the unrated version. Though the violence doesn’t really press the boundaries of the modern R-rating, it is successfully gross, painful, and, when needed, carries powerful thematic weight (the montage of the murdered families left behind by cult members on pilgrimage, for example). The film’s greatest failing is probably its disappointing and feeble big bad, Nix (Daniel von Bargen), but Barker throws a lot of enthusiasm into the cartoonish underling villains. Primary henchman Butterfield (Barry Del Sherman), with his genuinely frightening, homoerotic swagger, is particularly memorable (as is his goopy death scene).

 Lord of Illusions


The folks at Scream Factory have included both the R-rated theatrical (109 minutes) and unrated director’s cut (121 minutes) versions of Lord of Illusions with this collection, both in 1.85:1, 1080p HD video. Each cut has its own disc, which certainly helps conserve space. I glanced at the unrated cut, but mostly focused on the director’s cut for this review. This marks the film’s first release on Blu-ray and the results are pretty typical for one of Scream’s MGM scans. There hasn’t been any obvious remastering of the elements or changes to the original colour timing (it has been a long time since I saw it in theaters, so my memories are a bit fuzzy). The grain levels appear mostly accurate, but are a bit inconsistent and, at times, thicker than I’d expect from a twenty-year-old source. The print is also slightly damaged, specifically in terms of white flecks sputtering across the screen from scene to scene. It’s nothing substantial. Barker and cinematographer Ronn Schmidt tend to shoot wide-angle images in order to absorb all the intricacies of the busy production design, though they didn’t appear to be interested in maintaining sharp focus outside of a handful of close-ups, so the DVD to Blu-ray upgrade is less apparent in fine details. The real improvements are in the lack of compression effects. Contrast levels seem harsher than the SD version’s as well, which creates some occasionally crushed shadows, but doesn’t cause issues with edge enhancements. The production and costume design ensures that the colour palette is consistently busy, including natural skin tones, subtle landscapes, and a number of more stagey, hyper-vivid scenes (like the aforementioned sword trap death). The most vibrant reds tended to bloom and were plagued with jagged edges – here they occasionally overwhelm the colours around them, but are otherwise cleanly separated from other hues. The gradations can be a bit rough in the darker sequences, though.

 Lord of Illusions


Both the R-rated and unrated versions of the film include DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 sound options. Technically, Lord of Illusions was designed for early digital presentation (DTS, specifically), so I believe that the 5.1 is the original mix. Like many of those early 5.1 mixes, this one is less concerned with layering ambience than it is with creating a dynamic, directionally aggressive mix. There is significant multi-speaker movement throughout any action or magic driven sequence and the effects used are consistently big and punchy. The dialogue is clear without any notable damage or problems being overwhelmed by the effects. Dialogue-heavy and non-action/horror scenes tend to be largely centered outside of music, but the stuff moving through frame, like cars or people, tends to have minor stereo involvement. Simon Boswell – an underutilized composer who rarely gets theatrical work outside of Europe – supplies an eclectic mix of poppy and atmospheric melodies that are often mixed pretty low, but definitely shine full-force when given a chance. The chanting chorus during Nix’s resurrection is particularly full of burly LFE enhancements.

 Lord of Illusions


Disc one of this two-disc collection contains only the theatrical cut in 1080p. All of the other extras are delegated to the second disc, including:
  • Commentary with Clive Barker – This commentary original appeared on MGM’s DVD.
  • A note from Clive Barker (2:00, HD) – Another holdover from the MGM DVD, this is a text-based message from the director concerning the film’s part in his literature.
  • A Gathering of Magic (17:50, SD) – This vintage featurette includes behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the cast & crew from the set.
  • Behind-the-scenes (1:02:00, SD mixed with HD scenes from the movie) – Additional on-set footage and interviews. It’s unusually in-depth for a pre-DVD era EPK and pretty informative, despite being a sales pitch.
  • Deleted scenes with forced commentary from Barker (3:20, SD) – The final of the original MGM DVD extra.
  • Interview with storyboard artist Martin Mercer (12:00, HD) – A new interview, complete with storyboard to film comparisons.
  • Photo and image gallery slideshow (15:50, HD)

 Lord of Illusions


Lord of Illusions is one of those movies I keep revisiting, hoping that time will help me enjoy it more. In the end, it’s still a unique premise that doesn’t really go anywhere beyond some cool set-pieces and flamboyant gore. Scream Factory’s Blu-ray collection is, as yet, the only version available in HD and includes both the R-rated theatrical cut and the preferred, unrated director’s cut. Both versions show some wear, but are generally solid visual improvements over previous DVD versions. The DTS-HD MA soundtracks are true to the original mix and the extras are pretty expansive, despite not including a lot of brand new material. This release is definitely recommended to established fans looking to upgrade their standard definition discs.

 Lord of Illusions
Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.