It’d been a lot of years since I first saw “Lord of Illusions”, and it’s maybe not as good as I remembered it. Definitely not up there with “Hellraiser”, but then, what is, horror-wise?
“Lord of Illusions” has its moments but a lot of it is frankly silly. And not silly in a wink, wink, nudge, nudge way. There are some so-so special effects here and there, and the overall concept is pretty good. “I was born to murder the world!” is a line any supervillain would love to own. And Nix himself, played nicely by Daniel Von Bargen, a name I didn’t recognize at all but a face I associate with the military school commandant in “Malcolm in the Middle”, was a lot of fun. Von Bargen apparently was a character actor in a whole lot of TV and movie in the 80’s and 90’s.
Scott Bakula, aka Captain Quantum, was creditable enough as a tough P.I., a kind of macho version of John Constantine. Exorcisms a specialty, apparently. As a private detective, well, almost everyone he comes in contact with ends up dead, usually in some unpleasant way. He looks good enough in 1930’s style shoulder holster, waves a .357 around until someone takes it away from him yet again. If he had a snap brimmed hat, he’d fit right into a film noir pastiche. With the supernatural, he’s so-so. But he can absorb a beating every fifteen minutes or so, which is good since every evil guy around beats him like a rented mule. If I needed an investigator, I don’t know that I’d hire Bakula’s Harry D’Amour.
But Famke Janssen does. She lives up to her potential as a so-so actor with a first-rate name. Famke. Janssen. What’s not to like? Well, as the romantic lead, she’s disinterested at best. A strangely numb performance, as if she had no idea what sort of movie she’d signed on for. Apart from a totally awkward “love” scene with Bakula, she mostly stands around as if waiting for something to happen. And when she’s on screen, frankly, so do we. We came here for unspeakable evil and unstoppable magic boogity-boo, not Janssen swanning around in a filmy negligee. Never thought I’d find myself writing that. But she slows the movie’s momentum down when it needs to dig in and get moving.
Also, she has terrible fashion sense; generally, one does not wear a backless and bra-less red sheathe to one’s husband’s wake, however many weird buttons it sports. And maybe in L.A. it’s customary to show that much cleavage at one’s husband’s funeral. But that don’t fly in Minnesota, Famke.
My favorite was Barry Del Sherman as the mononymous Butterfield. I guess when you’re evil enough, you get to be like Beyonce or Madonna. No other name required. Del Sherman is great, just oozing malicious nastiness and creepy insinuation. And he really knows how to rock a pair of skin-tight pleather pants. He and Von Bargen really carry the whole picture. Things just crawl along when one or the other isn’t on screen. Serpent-like, Del Sherman gets a whole movie’s worth of insinuated perversity into a few hissed lines.
David Copperfield-ish stage magician Philip Swann is done by Kevin O’Connor, who’s also been in a whole lot of movies and TV, most notably the gawdawful police procedural “Chicago P.D.”. Here, he’s a good counterpart to Famke Janssen, since he, like her, seems to be playing someone mildly sedated and staring blankly into space. Of which he does a lot. He does sport one of the great foreheads in cinema, though. Seriously, if I.Q. is related to the size of the frontal lobes, O’Connor would be right up there with Blaise Pascal. That is some brain there, Copernicus! To be fair, Swann is supposed to be traumatized by the whole first encounter with super-evil magician Nix. I would be, too. Particularly if I’d begun to suspect that Nix isn’t quite entirely dead. Just mostly dead. It’d take a miracle!
Which we then get. The resurrection scene is a nice bit of practical effects. Something I like about these older pre-CGI movies; somebody had to build these animatronics and pulsating brains and quicksand and holes to the center of the earth. Seriously, we get to see a hole to the center of the earth! Cool! I wish we could’ve taken a better look at some of these puppets and gloppy peeled faces. I’m sure they represent the labor of months for the EFX people. In “Hellraiser”, the gory effects were half or three quarters of the fun and the camera lingered on their gooey glory. Why rush past them so fast in “Lord of Illusions”? And when’s the last time you got to see a mandrill baboon in a movie? That is one cool ape!
There’s a long and really pointless (and ridiculous) sequence where Bakula and some other guy break into the double secret magic room at the magicians’ clubhouse. It drags on and on, serves only to showcase a truly bad primitive attempt at a hologram thingie with a "Mars Attacks!" bulging bare brain. This and other shenanigans take up time that could’ve been spent with Nix and Butterfield and neat supernatural stuff. Suffice to say that Harry D’Amour is not much a burglar, the Magic Castle has no security system, and the Secret Door is lame-o. Cut that whole sequence and spend more time out at the Manson Ranch with the cultists, be my advice. Wacky cultists are way more fun.
Still, it’s enjoyable. Competently made on a smallish budget, it mostly moves briskly along from one set piece to the next. Philip Swann’s on-stage magic show is kind of hokey but kind of fun. And kind of gay; there’s this emphasis on buff shirtless guys all the way through the magic act, and through the whole movie. Nix’s minion Butterfield not only camps it up, but basically teabags a guy. And once Nix gets rejuvenated, what’s the first thing he wants to know? Much to Butterfield’s jealous pique, I might add?
“Where’s Swann?” Nix really has a thing for Swann. I mean, after the massively foreheaded Swann does show up, is Nix vexed about having that iron mask screwed onto his face? Or being buried for thirteen years? Or being shot a few times? Nope, all’s forgiven. All Nix wants is for Swann to keep him company in the dark after all the world murdering is wrapped up. They do magic stuff together, destroy humanity, braid each other’s hair. Now that is true love!
So when Swann admits he still has a thing for Mrs. Swann, well Nix goes all jilted lover on him. Jealous. Brain-exploding, wall smashing jealous. What happened to the love they said would never die? I mean, literally never die?
It died. Maybe it’s just me, but “Lord of Illusions” just seems a lot more gay that when I saw it decades ago. Except Butterfield, he always came off as gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, it really works for him. Maybe it’s that the heterosexual romance between Bakula and Mrs. Swann is so utterly unconvincing and spark-less and off-putting.
A few minor kvetches. The Magic Castle has less security than a Kwik-E-Mart despite all the dark secrets it’s got secreted. The police seem initially at least slightly interested in all the bodies dropping, but then the feisty detective vanishes from the picture completely. She seemed to have been dropped in from a completely different movie. Like the first half of a supernatural police procedural was mashed together with the back part of a body horror pic. When Swann does his death not-quite-defying finale, I’d have thought that maybe somebody backstage should be standing by to pull a circuit breaker on the sword dropping wheel thing if the trick started to go wrong. Safety measure thing. But then, no plot, so let it go.
We do see some nice old cars, a Chrysler LeBaron, Bakula almost gets a Buick dropped on him, big old Thunderbird of the reviled four-door variety. I kind of like those huge ungainly Fords, but I’m in a small minority on that.
Amazon’s streamed version looks pretty good, not HD good but not bad. And not the Director’s Cut version, for sure. I seem to remember some bits that didn’t make it into this edit. But, good enough. If you can appreciate a somewhat cheesy old-fashioned horror picture without many actual horrors, this one is a little more intellectual than most, and Nix is a great villain.