Say what you will about the quality of his work. Clive Barker, as a writer and a director, is not afraid of taking chances. From uncanny monsters built from human flesh to ancient rituals dedicated to the darkest parts of the collected consciousness, Barker is an artist who does not back down from an unpleasant challenge.
Lord of Illusions is one of his more problematic projects. Even on the page, the real focus of his exploration into the reason for the Magician’s Code didn’t quite come together. The ponderous narrative played with magic and illusion in every sense. A clear through line emerges, but it is one obscured by nightmare logic rather than rational thought.
In the film, a sadistic cult leader named Nix is locked in an iron mask and buried alive by his former magic student Swann. 13 years later, Swann is a world class stage illusionist being trailed by Harry D’Amour, a private investigator working for Swann’s wife Dorothea. Unfortunately, magicians are starting to die under mysterious circumstances while Swann is around. Some fear the return of Nix while others fear sabotage from their fellow illusionists. In a world where magic is real and stage magic is celebrated, what defines reality for the outsiders?
Barker’s gift is creating subtlety through the exaggerated embrace of the grotesque. It’s not enough for Swann to wind up dead the night his wife will confront him; he has to die by his own swords, dropped down in front of a live audience one by one until his blood alone can react to his wife. The betrayal is so deep that only a ritualistic killing, accident or otherwise, can absolve Swann of any wrong doing.
Lord of Illusions is filled with clever moments like this. They just don’t all line up as a coherent narrative. Plot lines aren’t dropped without resolution; they’re just not all connected enough to justify their inclusion in the film.
The result is a procedural-styled horror of great spectacle. This, in itself, is part of Barker’s vision. It’s just too unwieldy to come together as well as it should. Even in the original short story, there’s a strong narrative dying to escape. It is, unfortunately, trapped behind too much smoke and mirrors to hold the audience in awe.
Have you seen Lord of Illusions? What did you think? Share your thoughts below. Always love to hear what you think.