Noirvember Chills: ‘Lord of Illusions’ (1995)

Harry D’Amour just wants to live his life, preferably free of occult and supernatural influences. Unfortunately for Harry, he has shit luck. When we first come across Clive Barker’s iconic private detective in Lord of Illusions, Harry is sitting behind his desk in his New York City apartment, downing a bottle of liquor in an attempt to drink away his memories of a recent case that involved a possessed child. Spoilers: it’s not working!

When a friend walks in and hands him what looks to be an easy insurance fraud case on the other side of the country in Los Angeles, he jumps at it. All he has to do is track someone down and prove that he’s misspending his insurance claim funds. Some photographic evidence oughta do it and in the meantime, he can catch some sun and rest. Unfortunately for Harry, he has shit luck and is about to find himself embroiled in an even darker mystery than the aforementioned possession. Sometimes a gig that offers $5,000 a day isn’t actually worth accepting.

All the the typical noir detective tropes are on display here. We have our ragged and alcohol-soaked protagonist. We have a string of murders and mysterious deaths. We have scared widow. And we have plenty of sinister folks residing in the shadows around all of it. What’s your pleasure, sir? Because Lord of Illusions has death, sex, and darkness in (sam) spades.

Scott Bakula (Quantum Leap, Star Trek: Enterprise) is more than capable as our rugged hero, a man who constantly wants to do the right thing, but doesn’t always have the means to save those around him. Famke Janssen has never had a problem playing a femme fatale and she’s in fine form here, as always. The rest of the roster is staffed out by dependable character actors, from Kevin J. O’Connor (The Mummy, Deep Rising) as a David Copperfield-esque illusionist superstar to Vincent Schiavelli (Ghost, Death to Smoochy) as a cantankerous magician to Daniel Von Bargen (Basic Instinct, Malcolm in the Middle) as the devilish cult leader Nix. It’s a great cast, one bolstered by a good script and Barker’s directorial prowess.

Much like Hellraiser, Nightbreed, and Candyman, Lord of Illusions presents a world where the supernatural and the afterlife absolutely exist, albeit untethered from religion. Demons, ghosts, and magic are real, but Satan, God, and all of their big name compatriots are noticeably absent. There is a terrifying darkness that exists beneath the veil of our living world and if there is light as well, it remains silent. You can peel back the veneer of the flesh and glimpse what lies beyond, but you do so at your own peril. What’s staring back at you isn’t pleasant. Hell, it probably wants to destroy you and your entire world.

It really is a shame that Clive Barker only ever directed three films. Hellraiser, Nightbreed, and Lord of Illusions are all staggering pieces of work. The former two are perhaps easier to latch onto for audiences due to their wild monster creations, but I contend that Illusions is just as striking and thematically rich. It might not have the iconography of the others, but the tale Clive is telling packs just as much of a bleak wallop.

It’s also a shame that we never got another Harry D’Amour film, particularly with Bakula reprising the role. A sequel, titled Vipex, was in development in the late 1990s, but unfortunately never came to fruition. The character has shown up in a number of Barker short stories and novels, including the Hellraiser novel The Scarlet Gospels as few years back. He’s also been an on-going fixture of Barker-related comics. Given that Bakula is now free of his NCIS: New Orleans duties and there is a Hellraiser miniseries in the works at HBO Max from the likes of David Gordon Green, Michael Dougherty, and Mark Verheiden, maybe we’ll get lucky and they’ll bring Bakula back as Harry for it? That feels like a pipedream on my part, but we all have to have some things to hope for.

Regardless, Lord of Illusions is a stellar slice of horror noir that has yet to fully receive its due. If you are open to its pleasures, this film has deliciously dark sights to offer. Seek it out and taste the darkness. It’s been waiting for you.

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