Why isn’t there more horror noir? With the exception of a few movies — 1987’s Angel Heart and the 1991 made-for-HBO film, Cast a Deadly Spell, among them — not many filmmakers have crossbred the horror genre with hardboiled film noir. And yet it seems like such a natural fit: film noir’s propensity for shadowy photography, its fascination with the dark side of human nature and a willingness to be unremittingly bleak all lends itself to horror, which so often embraces similar conventions. And, yet, the horror noir remains a rare animal.
In 1993, author and filmmaker Clive Barker created his own horror/noir hybrid with Lord of Illusions, adapted from his own short story, “The Last Illusion” (from Books of Blood Volume 6). It follows Los Angeles private detective Harry D’Amour (Scott Bakula) as he looks into the murder of a shop owner with ties to the occult. D'Amour’s investigation eventually leads him to Philip Swann (Kevin J. O’Connor), an illusionist who is brutally killed onstage and who years earlier escaped a cult run by Nix (Daniel von Bargen), an evil sorcerer whose power seems to be returning…
Twenty years after it was first released, Lord of Illusions remains Barker’s least-loved film. His first, Hellraiser, has always (rightfully) been considered a classic of the horror genre and his follow-up, 1990’s Nightbreed, finally overcame its own tortured past and had its reputation restored thanks to a long overdue director’s cut released by Scream Factory in 2014.
But Lord of Illusions, Barker’s third and most underrated movie, has yet to experience the same kind of critical reappraisal. Like Nightbreed, Lord of Illusions underwent heavy re-cutting on its way to movie screens (this time by MGM/United Artists), going out to theaters in a version Barker was unhappy with. But unlike Nightbreed, it didn’t take nearly 25 years for audiences to see Barker’s approved cut of Lord of Illusions. From its very first LaserDisc release in 1995, Barker’s director’s cut has been available, restoring 12 minutes of mostly character development and atmosphere — though with some additional sex and violence, of course.
In either version — but particularly Barker’s approved director’s cut — Lord of Illusions offers the best of horror and noir. Despite taking place in present-day 1995, it looks and feels right out of the 1940s. The movie is moody and atmospheric, presenting a cynical world in which the characters have seen it all — that is, until they’re proven wrong when confronted by sights no one has ever seen. As is so often Barker’s way, the violence is brutal and genuinely horrifying, whether it’s Swann’s gruesome onstage fate or a montage in which cult members commit unspeakable acts after being called back into action by their leader.
Barker's film draws on influences ranging from H.P. Lovecraft to Raymond Chandler to Charles Manson, and the result is a horror film that feels like nothing else that was coming out around the time (save perhaps for John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, another movie that took years to find its audience and have its reputation reinstated). Though not a mystery in the traditional sense — after all, Barker basically shows us exactly what happened in the film's opening minutes — there is a sense of discovery as D'Amour tries to piece together what the hell is going on. The story is not afraid to take a few twists and turns, either, though not the kind that redirects the entire narrative or forces the viewer to reevaluate that which came before.
Lord of Illusions just tells a good story instead of being a premise that plays itself out. It pushes in different directions, embracing multiple genres, spanning years and really going for broke in the final act. Horror was stuck in such a rut in the ’90s that it's hard to believe a bigger audience didn't embrace a movie as unique and interesting as this one.
One of the great disappointments with the box office failure of Lord of Illusions is that horror fans were denied any further adventures of Harry D'Amour, a terrific noir detective played with uncharacteristic cynicism by Scott Bakula in one of his best performances. Bakula is a guy typically called upon to be sincere and decent; he's still those things in Lord of Illusions, but adds a world-weariness that suits the character well.
D'Amour is a regular character of Barker's, appearing in a number of short stories and novels (as well as the Hellraiser limited series comic book launched in 2011), but Lord of Illusions remains the only time he has been translated to film. It's too bad someone didn't snatch both the character and Bakula for an anthology TV series in the ’90s, as both D'Amour and the world Barker creates are perfectly suited for serialized storytelling.
The years have been good to Lord of Illusions, as its mixture of ’40s-type noir and hard-edged ’90s gore (and dodgy CGI) prevent it from becoming dated — it remains unstuck in time. Unfortunately, Barker hasn’t directed a movie since — sad, as he established in only three films a voice as one of the genre’s most distinct and visionary auteurs. And while “horror noir” may never catch on as a viable genre, Lord of Illusions will always provide a shining example of what it can be. It’s a kind of magic. And magic sets us free.
[This article originally appeared in our Clive Barker issue of DEADLY Magazine]