Lord of Illusions Blu-ray Review (originally published 2014)
Harry D’Amour (Scott Bakula) is a private detective visiting Los Angeles on a routine investigation. He gets more than he bargains for when he encounters Philip Swan (Kevin J. O’Connor), a performer whose amazing illusions captivate the world. But are they really illusions? Harry isn’t so sure as he is thrust into a nightmare of murder, deception and terrifying assaults from the dark beyond. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
Author/artist/filmmaker Clive Barker’s unique ethos and ambitions were beautifully encapsulated by his first film, Hellraiser (1987). Despite the cache it earned him in the industry, his second film, Nightbreed (1990), proved too ambitious for his studio overseers and was edited until it was nearly incoherent and contrary to Barker’s intended moral message. His third and (currently) final film, Lord of Illusions (1995), was another ambitious project that was somewhat hampered by outside influence, specifically the MPAA demanded cuts for an R-rating and the studio wanted a more contemporary mood. Fortunately, an unrated version, which has been readily available for some time (unlike a Nightbreed director’s cut, which took decades to even sort of meet Barker’s expectations), is supposedly the writer/director’s definitive version, so I believe we can lay the responsibility for its failures directly at his feet. Like Hellraiser and Nightbreed, Lord of Illusions is based on one of Barker’s ambitious and unique stories. There are a lot of horror movies about witchcraft, but not many about the secret lives of magicians. But Baker’s promise of epic intrigue is sabotaged by a convoluted, unfocused narrative, profoundly bland characters, unpolished digital effects, and a laughable romantic subplot (complete with a late nite cabel styled sex scene). The promise of the first act slowly unravels and eventually fizzles out into an underwhelming climax that feels more like an unresolved coda than the end of the story.
Fortunately, Barker is incapable of making a completely uninteresting movie. Despite being his weakest film, overall, there is plenty here to enjoy for its own sake. Chiefly, the manner in which Barker attempts to graft a hardboiled noir storytelling structure onto a horror story. It doesn’t always work, due in large part to Scott Bakula’s flat, doe-eyed performance, but it’s charming and mostly successful from a stylistic standpoint. Additionally, Barker’s penchant for theatricality is beautifully conveyed during a few key set-pieces, especially the flamboyant magic show that culminates in an outstanding death-by-spiraling-swords sequence. Though the violence doesn’t really press the boundaries of the modern R-rating, the gore is effectively gross, painful, and, when needed, carries its share thematic weight (the montage of the murdered families left behind by cult members on pilgrimage, for example). Given the vitality of violence and the threat of violence in the film, it’s disappointing to say that Lord of Illusions’ greatest failing is its feeble main villain, Nix (Daniel von Bargen). Fortunately, Barker throws a lot of enthusiasm behind the many underling villains. Primary henchman Butterfield (Barry Del Sherman), with his genuinely frightening, erotic swagger, is particularly memorable (as is his death scene).
The folks at Scream Factory have included both the R-rated theatrical (109 minutes) and unrated director’s cut (121 minutes) versions of Lord of Illusions with this collection, both in 1.85:1, 1080p HD video. Each cut has its own disc, which certainly helps conserve space. I glanced at the unrated cut, but mostly focused on the director’s cut for this review. This marks the film’s first release on Blu-ray and the results are pretty typical for one of Scream’s MGM scans. There hasn’t been any obvious remastering of the elements or changes to the original color timing (it has been a long time since I saw it in theaters, so my memories are a bit fuzzy). The grain levels appear mostly accurate, but are a bit inconsistent and, at times, thicker than I’d expect from a twenty-year-old source. The print is also slightly damaged, specifically in terms of white flecks sputtering across the screen from scene to scene. It’s nothing substantial. Barker and cinematographer Ronn Schmidt tend to shoot wide-angle images in order to absorb all the intricacies of the busy production design, though they didn’t appear to be interested in maintaining sharp focus outside of a handful of close-ups, so the DVD to Blu-ray upgrade is less apparent in fine details. The real improvements are in the lack of compression effects. Contrast levels seem harsher than the SD version as well, which creates some occasionally crushed shadows, but doesn’t cause issues with edge enhancements. The production and costume design ensures that the color palette is consistently busy, including natural skin tones, subtle landscapes, and a number of more stagey, hyper-vivid scenes (like the aforementioned sword trap death). The most vibrant reds tended to bloom and were plagued with jagged edges – here they occasionally overwhelm the colors around them, but are otherwise cleanly separated from other hues. The gradations can be a bit rough in the darker sequences, though.
Both the R-rated and unrated versions of the film include DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 sound options. Technically, Lord of Illusions was designed for early digital presentation (DTS, specifically), so I believe that the 5.1 is the original mix. Like many of those early 5.1 mixes, this one is less concerned with layering ambience than it is with creating a dynamic, directionally aggressive mix. There is significant multi-speaker movement throughout any action or magic driven sequence and the effects used are consistently big and punchy. The dialogue is clear without any notable damage or problems being overwhelmed by the effects. Dialogue-heavy and non-action/horror scenes tend to be largely centered outside of music, but the stuff moving through frame, like cars or people, tends to have minor stereo involvement. Simon Boswell – an underutilized composer who rarely gets theatrical work outside of Europe – supplies an eclectic mix of poppy and atmospheric melodies that are often mixed pretty low, but definitely shine full-force when given a chance. The chanting chorus during Nix’s resurrection is particularly full of burly LFE enhancements.
Disc one of this two-disc collection contains only the theatrical cut in 1080p. All of the other extras are delegated to the second disc, including:
Commentary with Clive Barker – This commentary original appeared on MGM’s DVD.
A note from Clive Barker (2:00, HD) – Another holdover from the MGM DVD, this is a text-based message from the director concerning the film’s part in his literature.
A Gathering of Magic (17:50, SD) – This vintage featurette includes behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the cast & crew from the set.
Behind-the-scenes (1:02:00, SD mixed with HD scenes from the movie) – Additional on-set footage and interviews. It’s unusually in-depth for a pre-DVD era EPK and pretty informative, despite being a sales pitch.
Deleted scenes with forced commentary from Barker (3:20, SD) – The final of the original MGM DVD extra.
Interview with storyboard artist Martin Mercer (12:00, HD) – A new interview, complete with storyboard to film comparisons.
Photo and image gallery slideshow (15:50, HD)
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.