According to Wikipedia, August and September are considered “dump months,” “when there are lowered commercial and critical expectations for most new releases.” And it has long been conventional wisdom that August is a crappy month for movies, when all the worst summer shit gets squirted out so the studios can be rid of it.
“For moviegoers, August also represents the nadir of Hollywood’s output each year,” writes Chris Hicks of Deseret News, summing up the belief of everybody else and everybody else’s uncle. Back in 2008, Vulture even did a study called “The August Movie: A Theory of Awfulness” which calculated that “the studios have put out 169 lousy movies in the past fifteen Augusts, and merely 26 halfway-decent ones.”
Release patterns have been changing in the years since, and few will deny the success and quality of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, or that it’s starting to become part of the Oscar season (best picture winners and contenders including ARGO, BIRDMAN, 12 YEARS A SLAVE and GRAVITY have come out in August). Last year Josh Rottenberg of the L.A. Times wondered “Is August no longer filled with Hollywood’s dog days?”
But I’m here to tell you that August was always a month full of promise. Sure, pre-GUARDIANS a studio wasn’t about to release a potential blockbuster smash at the end of the summer. But it’s a good spot for things that are a little more interesting, that they think might have potential but are maybe not for mainstream people. In fact, that’s my favorite type of movie. If you look at that Vulture study you can see that it’s based on an elitist mindset that dismisses movies on the basis of being lowbrow genre movies, even if they’re high watermarks for us. Their alleged 169 “lousy” movies included action pictures we love like HARD TARGET, DESPERADO and BLADE. And even a best picture nominee and universally beloved classic like BABE is only allowed to be “halfway-decent.”
For those of us who don’t turn our nose up to those type of movies, August brought the world THE BEASTMASTER, AMERICAN NINJA, LOCK UP, DARKMAN, DOUBLE IMPACT, RAPID FIRE, ONLY THE STRONG, GI JANE, TRANSPORTER 2, DEATH SENTENCE and DEATH RACE. So there was a historical reason for releasing the EXPENDABLESes at the end of the summer. For those who like weird shit it’s the month for WILD AT HEART, BARTON FINK, RAISING CAIN, UNDER THE SKIN. Smart and artful family movies: THE MONSTER SQUAD, BABE, THE WITCHES, THE IRON GIANT, PARANORMAN, THE BOX TROLLS. Interesting comedies: PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, STRANGE BREW, TROPIC THUNDER, PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. Cool indie movies: SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT, SEX LIES AND VIDEOTAPE, MO’ BETTER BLUES, FRESH, DISTRICT 9.
And you’ll notice I didn’t list any horror movies there. I wanted to keep those separate, because every August I swear a horror movie comes out and people ask me what the hell are they doing, don’t they know it would do better in October? But you gotta understand that they’ve been releasing horror movies in August since you were knee high to Chucky. That was the month of FRIDAY THE 13TH PARTs III, VI and VIII, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET parts 4, 5 and VS. JASON, HALLOWEEN H20, plus remake and remake sequel, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, HOUSE II, EXORCIST III, CHILD’S PLAY 3, PET SEMETARY TWO, JEEPERS CREEPERS 1 and 2, both the original and the remake of FRIGHT NIGHT. Also HELL NIGHT, CUJO, THE BLOB, MIMIC, THE DESCENT. And if August was good enough for AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD and THE FLY then what the hell are you complaining about? It’s a horror month.
So maybe they think it’s a dumping ground, but that’s just because they don’t know what they have. We should know better.
Anyway, with all that in mind, somebody at MGM/UA obviously said “Hey, doesn’t that weirdo who made NIGHTBREED have a new one that’s like a horror detective movie? Yeah, let’s release that one in August.” And so we have LORD OF ILLUSIONS, the third and final directorial work of famed horror novelist Clive Barker, and conclusion to our Summer of 1995 retrospective.
This is one of the movies that I watch a few times over the years, always hoping to like it more. I’ve never been able to really let it take a hold of me like HELLRAISER and NIGHTBREED did, but I respect it enough to keep trying. (I feel similar about EATEN ALIVE and SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG). This time, I’m happy to say, was the most I’ve ever liked it. I watched it in the director’s cut, but I’ve probly seen that before, I’m not sure.
I think my problem before had to do with wanting it to be more like the other Barker movies. What it really is is a detective story that happens to take place in his world. A procedural where a guy is gonna go around doing the usual interviewing people and stuff, but eventually he’s gonna come across some fucked up shit from beyond That’s obvious, but you gotta surrender to the mindset for it to work. I never quite did before.
The detective is Harry D’Amour (Scott Bakula) of New York City. He’s alot like Eric Bana’s character in DELIVER US FROM EVIL, a normal working man drawn against his wishes into cases involving magic and evil. He recently was involved with an exorcism that’s fucking his shit up, so he’s happy to get hired for an easy insurance fraud job in L.A., but the case (and fate) bring him to the door of a psychic-for-hire name Quaid (who I really thought was Captain Panaka, since he was in NIGHTBREED, but it’s another actor named Joseph Latimore – I apologize) right when he’s about to die from a HELLRAISER-worthy flaying. So Harry gets drawn into a bunch of intrigue involving the former members of a cult whose actually-magic-powered leader Nix (Daniel von Bargen, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: THE RETURN) was killed 13 years ago in the prologue.
Here’s where I always had a problem: the case revolves around Swann (Kevin J. O’Connor, VIRTUOSITY), who has used powers learned from Nix to become a famous illusionist. His act is extra Clive Barker weird, but still… it’s kind of a cheesy scene. Harry finds out more information by going to a magician’s private club called The Magic Castle, which I didn’t know until this viewing was a real thing. He just hangs out with a bunch of magicians and I guess they believe he’s one of them for some reason and let him ask a bunch of suspicious questions.
But that’s the detective movie part. He says he’s “digging,” so he goes and talks to different people (including a woman in a mental institution who walks around the grounds with him, like on any procedural show), breaks into a place, finds a hidden safe, gets tricked by a monster that turns out to be a projector (for which I assume he was sued by Magic Castle), gets attacked by a Nazi skinhead with sharpened teeth (Jordan Marder, VIRTUOSITY) who hangs out with a gay guy (Barry Del Sherman, INDEPENDENCE DAY). And along the way a couple people end up dead, including (SPOILER) Swann in a horrific magic accident. I give Barker extra credit for not underlining that the falling swords resemble the tarot card Harry turned over at the dead psychic’s place.
At the time, Barker wanted to start the rare horror series where it’s the hero that returns each time to face different villains. LORD OF ILLUSIONS is loosely based on the short story “The Last Illusion.” The character later showed up in the novels The Great and Secret Show, Everville and The Scarlet Gospels. Apparently there are Hellraiser comics where Pinhead escapes from Hell and is replaced by Kirsty and then Harry as the lord of hell. That’s weird.
In the movie he’s kinda tough. He has an occult back tattoo, wears a McClane style undershirt and holster, and there’s a good fight scene where the skinhead breaks through a door like a monster and Harry punches him out a tall window. But I don’t think he has much of a personality. This could be said about some of the other Barker heroes too – Boone in NIGHTBREED definitely seemed lacking last time I watched it, although Laurie was a little improved in the director’s cut. And maybe some would say Kirstie in HELLRAISER, but she’s just a young person rising to the occasion when she gets pushed into a horrible spot. D’Amour is not as reactive, he’s supposed to be a weathered adventurer who’s been through some shit and who willingly goes seeking answers. The villain isn’t even alive until the end of the movie. It’s all on Harry.
And the female lead, though beautiful since she’s played by Famke Janssen (MODEL BY DAY), gets even less. She’s not even a femme fatale, she’s just an innocent with a pretty easy to guess secret. This came out about 3 months before GOLDENEYE, by the way, so there were no expectations for her.
But the incidental characters and the glimpses into another world… in these parts Barker succeeds. The siege on the cult at the beginning, kind of like Barker’s version of a Branch Davidian dispute, is good stuff. In this 1982 flashback Nix is worshipped by his followers in a garbage-strewn ranch that could’ve been decorated by the Texas Chain Saw family. One detail to notice, there’s a beat up old Cabbage Patch Kid in the dirt. If this was 1983, when people were rioting in stores trying to get the little fuckers for their kids, it would be a sign of the cult’s disregard for material items. But since it’s before the dolls even hit the market it’s a sign of Nix’s immense power.
Anyway, Nix has “gone too far this time” by kidnapping a young girl for a sacrifice, so Swann, Quaid and some other exiles show up with guns. Nix may be full of shit, but he actually can levitate and shit and in a scene that seems crucial to me but that apparently was not in the director’s cut he sticks his fingers into Swann’s head and makes him see humanity “without illusions,” which means everybody’s skin seems to rip off before his eyes and they’re revealed as just a bunch of muscle fiber and goo.
The scariest part of the scene is they have a mandrill on a leash. Those fuckin things are terrifying! When it roars at the girl somebody says “I think he’s in love,” which might just be a taunt but might indicate their actual intention. Jesus.
This might Barker’s only movie as a director that isn’t over-ambitious for its budget. But that mainly means his imagination is more restrained than usual. Still, the visions of people “as they really are” are effectively creepy, as are the FX shots during the finale when Nix magically attacks Swann and we see his bones and brain breaking from inside. There’s another less successful but interesting apparition done with early CGI and involving an abstract geometric figure. Like JOHNNY MNEMONIC‘s cyberspace avatar earlier in the summer this is a rare case of doing something strange and artistic with computer animation instead of attempting photorealism like everybody else.
I also want to mention the excellent score by Simon Boswell, which adds an extra threat even to scenes of sunny Los Angeles. And the musical menace lasts into the end credits, when a song bizarrely crooned by Diamanda Galas scares away any normal people who somehow made it to the end.
There’s a fucked up gut punch of a sequence where Nix’s scattered followers sense his impending return and dismantle the normal lives they’ve set up for themselves. You see them getting ready while ignoring the murdered family members strewn about their kitchens. One dude busts all the snakes out of the reptile house at the zoo and loads them into the back seat of his car.
They all come together and do weird rituals like messily chopping off their hair with knives, putting it on a fire and smelling it. When Nix is resurrected they prove their dedication to him by covering the floor in broken glass and falling to their knees. He’s not impressed, and has a novel way of getting rid of them, which involves creating a series of extreme weather patterns inside the house. At least one victim has the presence of mind to yell “FUCK YOU!” and flip him off for the betrayal. Most deceased cultists aren’t allowed that dignity.
I think this is the key thing that makes Barker’s horror different: it’s usually about mere mortals facing a new reality beyond their comprehension and not being equipped to handle it. People do tend to get chopped up in his movies too, but that’s not the main fear at all. Instead it’s about facing the existence of a reality larger than our own, whether it’s sadomasochistic demons who torture people to get them off, an ancient monster god going on a rampage, or a history of monsters living beneath us, either to hide from our persecution or accept us as sacrifices to keep the world running. And often there are people who know of these secret beings and presume to get close to them, only to find that they are so, so, so very fucked. What were they thinking?
In the case of HELLRAISER I think Frank knew what he was in for, but stupidly thought he could take it. Here the cultists are clueless. Their expectations are not met at all. Even before Nix goes pillar of salt on their dumb asses there’s a great scene where Butterfield (sorry for just referring to him as “a gay guy” earlier, he’s a pretty developed weirdo character) brings the body back to life and then doesn’t know what to do when this resurrected god is confused and disoriented like a guy waking up from a coma. Kind of a human moment for an inhuman character. They don’t know how to react to his vulnerable side, but of course his other side is worse.
I like to joke about Barker’s priests who, the second they see a real monster, drop their life long faith and start worshiping that thing (see RAWHEAD REX or NIGHTBREED for examples). But that’s part of this theme. Barker likes to show characters encountering sights that change their entire understanding of existence and force them to rethink their lives. The world you live in is just a sugar coated topping.
Here that’s Nix’s main threat. He’s hard to kill, but he’s vulnerable to bullets, and to screwing metal things on his face and burying him. But be careful, because he can destroy your illusions, show you human life as insignificant, ruin you forever, make you want to become a famous illusionist.
It’s my least favorite of the movies directed by Barker, but it’s one of a kind, and worth taking the time to get to know it.
I guess this is a case where audiences weren’t excited for a detective/magician movie from the guy that did HELLRAISER. It opened in 5th place, behind A WALK IN THE CLOUDS in its third week, and ultimately made about $13 million (not that much more than MORTAL KOMBAT made just that one week). But the Clive Barker name was enough to keep it alive for horror fans. On video Barker was allowed to release his preferred cut (unlike with NIGHTBREED, where they had to piece it together decades later), and it recently got the deluxe treatment from Scream Factory, an honor for any horror movie. And as I mentioned earlier the character of Harry D’Amour returned in Barker’s fiction. Lack of interest in the movie did not kill his stories, as was the case with NIGHTBREED (the book, Cabal, was intended as a trilogy, but never got a follow up).
But Barker has not directed since, and Bakula – a major star from TV’s Quantum Leap – was not launched into leading man movie star status. He’s done some good work as a character actor, though, and returned to television as the captain on Star Trek: Enterprise.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.