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'Lord of illusions' (1995): Putting the cult in cult classic (movie review)

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Lord Of Illusions

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Scott Bakula is most commonly associated with Sam Beckett, his easily recognizable character from the television show “Quantum Leap.” He also enjoyed a stint as Captain Johnathan Archer in “Star Trek Enterprise.” While his TV appearances may be more well-known, Bakula has relished his share of box office appearances. 1995’s “Lord of Illusions,” based off of prolific writer Clive Barker’s short story The Last Illusion, finds Bakula assuming the role of Barker’s long-running private investigator Harry D’Amour. Featuring a unique noir-horror narrative, intriguing special effects, and a healthy diet of humor, “Lord of Illusions” is a gratifying romp through the underbelly of magic.

The film begins in 1982, where a cult leader called Nix (Daniel von Bargen), self-nicknamed “The Puritan,” prepares to sacrifice a small girl (Ashley Tesoro). A party of his previous cult followers arrive, led by Philip Swann (Kevin J. O’Connor), to halt Nix’s plan. Swann is accompanied by Maureen Pimm (Susan Traylor), Caspar Quaid (Joseph Latimore), and Jennifer Desiderio (Shelia Tousey). During the intervention, Nix addles Swann’s brain, temporarily bestowing upon him a vision of humans with the flesh stripped away. The young girl shoots Nix, and Swann locks a metal mask over Nix’s face before burying him deep in the Mojave Desert.

Flash forward 13 years, and we meet private detective Harry D’Amour (Bakula). The New York PI is exploring fraud, though the case quickly blossoms into a seedy, twisted carnival funhouse of deception. On a routine stakeout, D’Amour finds Quaid, now a fortune teller, mortally wounded. Soon after Quaid’s murder, Swann, a renowned illusionist, contracts D’Amour to investigate Quaid’s killing. Both Swann and his wife Dorothea (Famke Janssen) fear Nix may be back from the dead. During a show in LA, Swann dies during an illusion. After Swann’s demise, D’Amour, Dorothea, and Swann’s aide Valentin (Joel Swetow), scramble to prevent Nix faithful Butterfield (Barry Del Sherman) from resurrecting his former master.

“Lord of Illusions” delivers a refreshing noir-horror element, evoking a “Chinatown” coolness mixed with “Hellraiser” (another Barker production). There’s a pleasant, jazzy soundtrack which creates an eerie atmosphere when paired with lavish magic shows, grisly murders, and “The Evil Dead” style graphics. What’s unique is that the author, Clive Barker, served as director/screenwriter for the film. Thus, he maintained substantial control over bringing his story to the big-screen. Visually, the sets pop with vivid detail: Nix’s graffiti adorned cult quarters, The Magic Castle filled with mirrors and trap doors, and a Vegas-proportioned illusion act. Similarly, special effects provide colorful sequences of flesh melting away from bone and muscle, an earthen floor turning to mud, and a kaleidoscopic chase scene.

Acting, however, propels “Lord of Illusions” from a visually stunning flick to cult classic. Primarily, Scott Bakula spices up the plot with his balance of humor and bravado. In true Bakula style he never seems to take himself too seriously, which as a PI with a fondness for the paranormal, seems fitting. Scott Bakula thus establishes a likable and genuine character, breathing life into D’Amour. Famke Janssen lends Dorothea a quiet, introspective demeanor, emulating Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray. Philip Swann is mastered by Kevin J. O’Connor who offers a brooding, hardened magician. As his menacing adversary, Daniel von Bragen gives Nix a real-world quality, like that of actual cult leaders such as Charles Manson.

Though an engaging plot, bolstered by solid acting and a life-like backdrop, “Lord of Illusions” doesn’t manage to conceal all of its tricks. Especially during the finale, a few key plot points are fairly obvious, and though they’re not necessarily intended to surprise viewers, the predictability causes the film to stumble. Additionally, the love scenes between D’Amour and Dorothea feel a tad forced, as if included merely to enhance the noir aspects. Occasionally the script falters, and there are a few mundane lines peppered throughout the movie. Thankfully, they’re sparse, but nonetheless noticeable. Ultimately however, “Lord of Illusions” presents a gripping, one-of-a-kind genre meld that forces squirms, nurtures chuckles, and leaves the audience satisfied when the final credits roll.

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