Leaving the theater after watching horrormeister Clive Barker's Lord of Illusions is like waking from a nightmare that instantly evaporates from consciousness, except for a shiver. The movie is scary rather than truly horrifying; it achieves its most shocking effects through unexpected cinematic lunges. When it reaches for more — by trying to describe the uncertain boundaries between good and evil, the ordinary and the supernatural — it breaks up into a febrile gibberish that's almost campy.
The audience certainly seemed to feel that way. I saw the movie at a sneak preview, and the theater appeared to be full of people familiar with Barker's work; at any rate they applauded when his name appeared in the opening credits. (The crowd consisted mostly of late teens and young adults, most of them in couples: Is this a date film for the 1990s?)
The movie did produce some gasps and screeches, mainly when evil figures rocketed suddenly onscreen to ignite a flurry of violence and bloodshed. (The film is marinated in blood; it's an orgy of red dye No. 2.) But the more general audience reaction was laughter, from scattered tittering to outright guffaws. Barker may be dealing out his half-baked dread with a straight face, but his public plainly regards him as a figure of black fun.
Lord of Illusions commingles a number of cinematic styles, from horror to action to noir romance to adventure. The hero, Harry D'Amour (Scott Bakula), bears a striking resemblance to Indiana Jones in his laconic cragginess. D'Amour is a New York City private investigator burned out by exorcism cases. When his boss offers him the chance to break an insurance-fraud case in Los Angeles, he takes it. (“Catch a tan!” his boss cheerfully advises him as a rainstorm cascades down the windowpanes of D'Amour's New York apartment.)
But there are many Southern Californias, of which the land of sunshine and palm trees is only one. Another is the land of cults and nuts and ritual killings, and because the great love affair of D'Amour's life is with trouble, he soon finds himself drawn toward darkness. He meets a lovely, preoccupied woman named Dorothea (Famke Janssen). She's married to an illusionist named Swann (Kevin J. O'Connor, with ghastly hair). Theirs is a union of respect rather than love, and she makes no attempt to hide this fact from D'Amour. The attraction between Dorothea and D'Amour is powerful and mutual.
Swann, meanwhile, perishes horribly while performing a new illusion; while he's strapped to a large turntable, swords drop toward him, one by one, from far above. He's supposed to be able to free himself from the restraints in time to avoid the swords, but a mistiming leads to a rain of swords and a torrent of blood. The coup de gráce pierces his crotch.
Instinctively D'Amour swings into action. Underneath the turntable on which Swann has died, he encounters a pair of fierce, queerish punks who are like refugees from Diva. He manages to impale the skinhead punk, but the foofier one in satin leotards slips away. The punks are followers of the Puritan, also known as Nix (Daniel von Bargen), the underworld sorcerer who taught Swann his bag of tricks but then died at his hands.
So why did Swann kill Nix? Because he came to see Nix's profound evil? Or because he knew Nix was too infatuated with him ever to accept his marriage to Dorothea?
Nix is not exactly the dream date for eter-nity. It turns out that neither he nor Swann is really dead. Swann faked his grisly demise to try to throw the returning-from-the-grave Nix off the track, but eventually D'Amour finds Swann and points out that Nix will, too.
Meanwhile the evil queen in leotards is busy finding Nix's grave and arranging his exhumation. The resurrected Nix looks like F. Lee Bailey, except slimier. His first act is to drown his sycophantic followers in mud.
“You're like lambs!” he shouts at them contemptuously as they go down. They don't interest him; only Swann, with whom he has “unfinished business,” interests him, because only Swann has any real guts.
Lord of Illusions contains some dazzling imagery, including a fire-breathing gorgon that terrorizes a museum gallery and, in Swann's palatial home, a spectral assailant that is constantly assuming new geometric shapes and colors. (D'Amour, the true New Yorker, keeps blasting away with his pistol.)
The movie pullulates with homoerotic images and implications. Buffed, scantily clad young men scurry through practically every scene — often dripping blood. As in Interview With the Vampire, blood carries a powerful sexual charge. When it drips sensuously from the corners of young men's half-open mouths, or when it's smeared all over their muscular torsos, there's no mistaking the message.
Barker also likes to put strange, eerie faces — of paintings and statues, or are they? — in the background as D'Amour consults with Dorothea or his sidekick. Do the eyes on a painting shift? Or is it not a painting at all, but some demon lying in wait? It's as if the movie were filmed in a fun house.
But the film's evil is disappointingly shallow. Nix isn't the devil or the Antichrist. He's just the leader of a cult, and he knows how to levitate. He spouts a lot of nonsense about the supernatural, but he seems mainly motivated to reclaim Swann as his own. Swann's charms are, to say the least, elusive. But maybe the two of them deserve one another.
The pettiness of the evil shrinks the movie. There's no hell, no history (as there was in Bram Stoker's Dracula), no connection to the great undercurrents of the human psyche. There's just blood and shock and hideousness and a pack of chanting kooks in a shack out in the Mojave.
Even the movie's strongest jolts are like sharp shoves from behind; they induce a moment of dizzy disorientation, maybe a twitch of fear, then vanish. They are basically unconnected. The movie lacks the central imaginative mass whose emotional gravity might have pulled these random moments of effectiveness into a larger, more truly frightening shape.
But then it might well be that people don't go to Clive Barker films to be truly terrified. They just want to squeal a little, laugh a little more, and clutch their dates.
Lord of Illusions opens Fri, Aug. 25, at area theaters.