Friday, October 19, 2018

Life of Illusion

Scott Bakula and Kevin O'Connor in The Lord of Illusions

I was caught up in the hype when Clive Barker's short stories first started to make the rounds in the 1980s. The first three volumes of The Books of Blood made the kind of splash in the horror genre that comes around once in a generation, completely changing the rules of the genre and becoming one of the founding texts of what would become known as "splatterpunk." The cover blurb on the American paperbacks (which had completely horrible covers and not in a good way) read, "I have seen the future of horror...and it is named Clive Barker" and was attributed to Stephen King, who would know about such things you would think. Initially, it was worth the hype, too. The stories in the first three volumes were vivid and angry and genuinely original. No one had read anything like them before. Some of them were repulsive. Some of them were funny. Some of them were both at once. Some of them were decidedly queer and closeted queer me responded strongly to that. It was the one of the first examples of queer lit that I had encountered in a form that appealed to my own literary appetites. I love a good horror story. Barker often built his stories around images rather than around plots, which worked marvelously in short stories. It didn't work as well at novel length, as I discovered when his first couple of novels, The Damnation Game and Weaveworld, appeared. It worked even less well on a movie screen. The first feature film based on one of Barker's stories was Rawhead Rex, which is a masterclass in how to botch Barker's ideas. It rendered images that are terrifying and transgressive on the page ridiculous and vulgar on the screen, not helped by an atrocious monster that looks to have escaped from a Halloween rubber mask store. Watching this monster piss in the face of an Anglican vicar wasn't transgressive so much as it was just tasteless. Moreover, the film was boring, something I rediscovered when I re-watched the film earlier this month. Barker himself was a filmmaker, though, and he parlayed his literary success into a film career. His first feature film, Hellraiser, is much closer to his literary aesthetic, but it is still plagued by the literal nature of the filmed image. It's undone by dodgy special effects, particularly at the end of the film in scenes that are as ridiculous as they are confusing. Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 is arguably more effective, though Barker ceded the director's chair to Tony Randel. Barker's second feature, Night Breed, was plagued by producer interference, and although it has memorable imagery (particularly David Cronenberg's serial killer psychiatrist), it has some of the same flaws as other Barker adaptations. His third film, The Lord of Illusions from 1995 is more sure-handed. Adapting a story from the sixth volume of The Books of Blood, Barker had a bigger budget, better actors, and access to then-state of the art special effects. The result is Barker's best feature as a director. But it's not an unqualified success.

The story follows the conflict between magician cum cult leader, Nix, and his protege, Swann, who is an illusionist. Nix, it seems, can do real magic and he has passed that ability on to Swann. In the film's prologue, Swann and a band of his friends break in to Nix's compound to rescue a kidnapped girl Nix intends to sacrifice and to attempt to bind him so that he can do no more harm. They screw an iron mask, Black Sunday-style, onto his face and bury him in the desert. Years later, we find Swann working as a stage illusionist. He has married Dorothea, the girl he rescued. The friends who helped him take down Nix have been dying under mysterious circumstances, killed, apparently, by Nix's remaining followers who want to know where Nix is buried. Enter private detective Harry D'Amour, who crosses paths with Nix's main henchman, Butterfield, and interrupts him as he interrogates one of Swann's friends. D'Amour has experience with unusual and paranormal cases, and he sniffs out something going drastically wrong. He's on hand as Swann debut's his latest illusion, in which a cluster of swords are released, Sword of Damocles-style, above the bound and rotating magician, and he has to free himself in sequence to avoid being dismembered. Unfortunately, this goes disastrously wrong and Harry is left with the task of finding out who sabotaged Swann's act. This leads him back to Nix's followers. But there's more to Swann's death than meets the eye. And is Nix really dead? Can his followers bring him back to life? And what is Nix's own role in all of this?

Scott Bakula in The Lord of Illusions

Harry D'Amour comes from a long pulp tradition of occult detectives. He's the spiritual descendant of Seabury Quinn's Jules de Grandin, Manly Wade Wellman's John Thunstone, Algernon Blackwood's John Silence, and Dennis Wheatley's Duke de Richleau, though cast more in the mode of one of Raymond Chandler's hard boiled knights-errant gumshoes. Harry is far more clueless in occult matters than his progenitors or even than his contemporaries like John Constantine or the Winchester brothers. Scott Bakula gives a game performance as Harry, who he plays as a lost puppy sometimes. In a perfect world, the film would be structured around D'Amour's investigation. The elements of a hard boiled crime story are there, including the femme fatale and the cast of lowlifes (some of whom inhabit L. A's famed Magic Castle, rendered far more mysterious by the film than the real life attraction, it should be noted) and the circling mystery. One wishes that Barker had more of a background in crime fiction, or more patience for it, because the question of whether Swann's magic is real or not, and the nature of the mysterious Nix, are something the film gives away far to soon. Before, even, we are introduced to the film's protagonist. Bernard Rose's adaptation of Barker's story, "The Forbidden," filmed three years before The Lord of Illusions as Candyman, is a useful comparison, because like The Lord of Illusions, it uses the detective story as its structure (in that film, the detective is a folklorist chasing down an urban legend), but unlike The Lord of Illusions, it conceals its mysteries from the audience and reveals them as its lead character discovers them. The Lord of Illusions is far more interested in placing its mysteries up front. In a way, Harry D'Amour is superfluous to the narrative. He's not the film's primary point of view, though he sometimes shoulders that burden. He doesn't really do much of anything to intervene in the conflict between Swann and Nix (except at the end when he is used by Swann to knock Nix into the abyss, but even then he isn't the prime mover in that action). He's mostly a genre archetype in a film that embraces a different genre than the one to which he would ordinarily belong.

Kevin O'Connor in The Lord of Illusions

For his part, Barker is most interested in set pieces and tableaux here, in which characters pontificate on the nature of reality and god. Barker gives Daniel von Bargen soliloquies as Nix that are echoed by Nix's followers throughout the film. As set-pieces go, Swann's fatal illusion with the swords is memorably nasty, as is the binding of Nix's face with an iron mask. When he is resurrected at the end of the film, Nix takes on the same personality as one of Hellraiser's Cenobites, particularly when he turns on his followers and opens up the ground to swallow them up. As with the Cenobites, there is an element of sadomasochism in Nix's persona, particularly in his unrequited relationship with Swann. There's a stronger vein of homoeroticism in this film than in Barker's other features as well.

Daniel von Ortberg in The Lord of Illusions

In terms of film craft, this is a better film than the Hellraisers and Nightbreed. Barker has better actors top to bottom than he's had in the past, with Kevin O'Connor (doing his best impersonation of a  young Tom Noonan) and Famke Janssen as the standouts. Daniel von Bargen is perhaps miscast as Nix, given that he's primarily a character actor and doesn't have the charisma of either a leading man or of a cult leader. He's a good actor, though, and this role is of a piece with his later performance as The Devil in the Coens' O Brother Where Art Thou. The larger budget allows for better special effects, too, with frequent dabbling in early iterations of CGI. The make-up effects are good, too, with Nix's final form being particularly effective. Given that a large part of Barker's aesthetic is showing the audience more "visionary" dark fantasy vistas, better effects can't help but improve on his earlier films.

The Lord of Illusions

And other films based on Barker, this fails to attain the delirious strangeness of the best stories in The Books of Blood. Every time I sit down to watch a film adapted from those stories, I hope to find the same kind of originality and breath of utter weirdness one finds in the likes of "In the Hills, The Cities" or "The Skins of the Fathers" (which provides The Lord of Illusions with one of its set pieces). Instead, the movie screen robs the bank of the imagination and makes the visionary seem mundane. Like Lovecraft before him, Barker seems to be mostly unfilmable, even when the filmmaker making the attempt is Barker himself.

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