Lord of Illusions
Scott Bakula is New York private investigator Harry D'Amour. Harry's problem is that no matter how mundane a case he tackles, they always curve towards the dark side, again and again.
While investigating a routine case in Los Angeles he stumbles upon the members of a dead cult. He finds a palm reader mortally wounded by the cult members, and he sets D'Amour on the trail, which leads to Dorothea (Famke Janssen), the wife of famed stage illusionist Phillip Swann (Kevin J. O'Connor). She hires Harry to track down the cult members who she believes are trying to kill her husband.
Predictably, Dorothea only tells Harry as much about the cult as she thinks he needs to know, and Harry's investigations lead him to discover that among stage magicians, Dorothea's husband is universally loathed, despite the fame and fortune his incredible shows have generated. It seems the other magicians (no, illusionists) believe that what Swann does on stage is 'tainted' -- by real magic.
A white-haired, elderly stage magician explains to Harry that illusionists (like himself) are harmless tricksters; men and women who bring wonder and delight to people's mundane lives. Magicians are in a whole different category, trafficking in dark powers that allow for the use of the real thing.
Harry delves deeper, trying to determine the roots of the cult, and why Dorothea and Swann's marriage seem so stable and yet so loveless. His investigations take him to the 'Magic Castle' - the campy, guild headquarters for illusionists, where Harry believes information about the cult leader's identity can be found.
Harry discovers that the leader of the cult was a man named Nix, and illusionists fear to even speak his name. Nix had two proteges, one was a man named Butterfield. The other was Swann, who turned against his evil master and 'bound' the cult leader after killing him. Swann fastened a metal mask to Nix's face, preventing him from coming back to life -- death having being declared an 'illusion' by Nix.
Swann's actions ended the cult, which could not survive without its leader, its members breaking off from the cult's forlorn, broken-down compound in the desert. They wander away to begin more mundane lives. Butterfield, however, continued his studies in the dark arts, swearing to destroy Swann and resurrect his dead master. So it is Butterfield (played androgynously by actor Barry del Sherman) who Harry encounters again and again as he tries to murder Swann.
Before Butterfield can kill Swann, the master magician is killed onstage when one of his elaborate escape tricks goes horribly wrong. Butterfield, in the meantime, discovers where Swann buried Nix's body and begins the preparations necessary to bring the cult leader back to life. Can Harry stop Nix before he revives his cult?
Lord of Illusions is one of those movies that succeeds because it has a relatively clever idea as a premise: magic is real, and stage illusionists know this and steer well clear of it. The film also works because as fantastic as the premise may be, Barker successfully exploits the very real, sometimes very dark psychological topography of human belief. Magic isn't real, but men who control and manipulate others into a fanatical loyalty are very real. Nix is clearly derived from men like David Koresh and even moreso from Jim Jones, of Jonestown infamy. Both men had a terrible level of control over their followers, and Barker exploits the inherent horror of men and women (willingly) debasing themselves for a belief.
There are places in India and Africa where Christians flagellate (whip) themselves in annual celebrations of Christ's crucifixion, death and resurrection. Other Christian's faith is so great that they will even allow themselves to be ritually crucified. This might seem extreme, but all faiths seem to have examples of extreme zealotry -- shariat law, for example. Barker successfully leverages this aspect of cult worship to make Lord of Illusions work.
For example, when Butterfield finds Nix's body and begins exhuming him in preparation for his resurrection, he sends out letters to the former cult members that it is "time to come home." Barker then shows us images of the former cultists packing their bags and preparing to return to the compound. In one scene a female cult member tidies up her kitchen, after having murdered her husband and two children, who still sit at the kitchen table, their throats slashed. In the same montage a former cultist is a postal worker who (while packing his bags) nonchalantly opens his closet where he has stashed a dead body. It may have been fifteen years since Nix was stopped, and they may have raised families or had normal lives, but their belief in Nix has never wavered.
Barker is known for being very skilled when it comes to dishing up strange, discomfiting imagery. The film's opening sequence starts out in the desert where the cult compound is located, and pans past the littered garbage just outside the compound: barbed wire, discarded dolls, the corpses of small animals. Everything speaks to moral decay and evil idleness. The graffitti scribbled on the compounds cracked and crumbling walls is also suggestively creepy. Tie that in with subservient cult members and you've got your chills.
Barker's villain, in the grizzled, sweaty, disheveled, overweight Nix is also nuanced and clever. It's as though Barker knows the subject material so well he's noticed that these modern day Rasputins are never much to look at, are they? Also, Nix's belief system is different from most 'evil sorcerer' types in that Nix has no evil deity to pray to or supplicate. He's not a devil worshipper, he's not a Satanic cult leader -- his spiritual power is based in a completely self-assured nihilism.
While able to make a ball of fire float in his hand, Nix's creepiest 'trick' is to put his fingers through a person's forehead, as though grasping the person's mind. He then withdraws his fingertips and the victim is then able to perceive the world as it truly is -- nothing. His victims are then tormented by images of what other people really are -- rotting mounds of decaying filth. As the victim flails around for assistance, the people who try to help appear to warp, twist, and turn into piles of excrement. So Nix sort of shares his nihilism with others.
Kevin J. O'Connor is great here as Swann, Nix's former apprentice who betrayed him. He brings Swann to life as a conflicted, weak man who manages to have strength just when he needs it the most -- a man who realizes the terrible price he will pay for doing what's right, and does it -- but quakes all the while in fear.
Overall, Lord of Illusions is not particularly terrifying, but it is interesting. There are some scares, but mostly this is a horror movie of the psychological variety. It has elements of mystery and a few unexpected surprises, but isn't especially gory for a Clive Barker film. I recommend it.