The illusionist who simulates preternatural feats through sleight of hand and the wizard who actually wields powers not intended for man – both loom large in the human imagination. Since one is a deliberate counterfeit of the other, those occasions when illusionists and wizards share the spotlight in one story always present a fascinating contrast.
“I’ve always loved illusionists,” Clive Barker told Fangoria in a 1993 interview. “There’s always a dark side, and illusionists present them to you. It’s very much life-and-death illusion – you sawed the woman in half, but she’s still alive. They’re presented as breezy, funny, entertaining pieces – but, subtextually, they’re stories of death and resurrection.”
It’s fitting that Barker’s own tale casting illusionists skilled in misdirection and showmanship against real practitioners of forbidden arts features death and the cheating thereof as central themes.
That story is the 1995 feature film Lord of Illusions. Loosely based on a Barker short story, “The Last Illusion”, this film is the third which the author adapted from his own work and also directed. It’s also arguably the most controversial.
Lord of Illusions was released in 1995, so I consider the spoiler statute of limitations to have run out on it. Plot synopsis follows.
Reeling from his involvement in a Brooklyn boy’s exorcism, private eye Harry D’Amour takes an insurance fraud case for a change of scene. He tracks the fraudster to Los Angeles but chances upon a ritual murder connected to Philip Swann, L.A.’s premiere illusionist.
Swann’s wife hires D’Amour to rule out any danger to her shaken husband’s life following his associate’s murder. Instead, Swann’s death from a magic trick apparently gone awry lends posthumous credence to the illusionist’s fears.
D’Amour continues investigating the mounting rash of strange deaths, despite his client’s stonewalling. Papers purloined from one of Swann’s professional rivals reveal Swann’s former membership in a cult back in the 80s, along with his suddenly deceased friends. D’Amour suspects a surviving cultist named Butterfield of inciting the mayhem in his fanatical quest to raise Nix, the group’s leader, from the grave.
This new evidence leads D’Amour to confront Swann’s widow, who admits she married him out of gratitude for saving her from Nix’s cult thirteen years before. D’Amour’s fling with Swann’s wife precipitates the discovery that the illusionist is still alive. When confronted, Swann confesses that he staged his death to divert Nix’s attention from his wife, who helped Swann kill the no-doubt vengeful cult leader. Swann’s guise as a stage illusionist turns out to be an illusion; his powers revealed as actual magic.
Which proves to his and D’Amour’s benefit, since they’ll need all the help they can get to rescue the girl from the cult and its power-mad leader once again.
It’s easy to see why a cloud of controversy hangs over Lord of Illusions. Extensive cuts by the studio resulted in a blink-and-you-miss-it plot that can be confusing if your attention wavers for a second. The visuals are a mixed bag, with the CG unable to withstand modern scrutiny while the practical effects hold up quite well.
There’s also the matter of writer/director Barker being unable to rein his personal demons in, which can make for some distracting – sometimes laughably so – gratuitous displays of degeneracy.
That said, Lord of Illusions makes no secret that its real magicians’ powers come from infernal pacts. Demons are shown to be real – and terrifying – threats to ordinary people. Heaven is also acknowledged as real, and D’Amour even crosses himself upon a supporting character’s death. He also makes sport of a pompous illusionist who declares all miracles fakes which he himself could replicate with sufficient preparation.
The same character does make a point that comes up in another illusionist v wizard film, that being the self-described purpose of illusionists to give people temporary escape from the drudgery of modern life by restoring their sense of wonder. Swann’s widow quotes him as saying that the flesh is a trap, and magic lets us escape.
That admittedly gnostic statement highlights one of the movie’s main themes: death and resurrection. Nix begins as an utterly uncharismatic cult leader who nonetheless commands his followers’ slavish devotion with promises to break the illusion of death. The horrific results when he keeps his promise – “The grave is lonely, but living is worse” – render a decisive verdict in the Illusionists’ favor while condemning real magic as evil.
In the end, Harry D’Amour – think John Constantine by way of Sam Spade – emerges as the movie’s true hero. Swann wasted his gifts on personal fame and fortune. Nix let his degrade into murderous nihilism. Butterfield abused his skills in service to an unworthy master. It’s D’Amour, untainted by the corrupting touch of magic, who repeatedly risks his life for others.
Yes, Lord of Illusions contains its share of gore. It includes Cinemax-tier indecency and a strain of borderline SMRT syncretism fashionable in certain occult-tinged 90s comics. At the same time, it partly balances these strikes against it by driving home the rare and important warning that evil is real, and bargaining for power with its agents must end in spiritual disaster.
Next time, we take a look at an unlikely spiritual successor to Lord of Illusions by an even more unlikely director.
No movie is likely to warn you off consorting with demons today – quite the contrary. That’s why it’s vital to not give money to studios that hate you.
Originally published here.