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Clive Barker may not appear on the bestseller lists as often or as prominently as Stephen King, but there are many devotees -- chief among them King himself -- who feel nobody does it better, or raises goose bumps higher, than this bloody-minded Liverpudlian. In his books (The Damnation Game, Weaveworld) and short stories (especially those collected in the volumes known as The Books of Blood), Barker has established himself as a mesmerizing wordsmith with a talent for vividly horrific imagery, and an imagination large enough to describe, and populate, entire alternative universes.

Perhaps even more impressively, Barker is an uncommonly astute translator of his own work when it comes to writing and directing movie adaptations. (King, the hapless auteur of Maximum Overdrive, has yet to demonstrate a similar facility.) In 1987, Barker ripped a few pages from his Books of Blood and gave us Hellraiser, a visceral bad-time story for grownups that made A Nightmare on Elm Street look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Encouraged by the success of his initial effort as a filmmaker, Barker felt emboldened to try something even more outrageous: Night Breed, a gruesomely visionary horror film (based on his novella Cabal) about a race of shape-shifting creatures who reside in a remote Canadian cemetery.

Unfortunately, 20th Century Fox didn't know what to make of this macabre fever dream and dumped the 1990 movie into theaters with no press previews and a singularly cheesy ad campaign. Night Breed eventually attracted a cult following, but Barker was obviously discouraged by its box-office failure. Since completing the film, he has stuck to books and short stories, leaving film adaptations (including Candyman and the various Hellraiser sequels) to other, lesser talents. Until now.

Lord of Illusions, Barker's third effort as a director/screenwriter, is in many respects the most conventional of his films to date. The author has made a serious effort to tone down the full-bore gore that made Hellraiser and Night Breed so off-putting for most mainstream moviegoers. While doing so, however, he may have erred on the side of caution. There is nothing here like the go-for-broke, over-the-top audacity that made Night Breed so nightmarishly riveting. And there is barely a hint of the sadomasochistic perversity that gave the original Hellraiser such a resonantly nasty edge. There are a few indications of last-minute editing, suggesting that things may have gotten more exuberantly out of hand in early versions of the film. We may have to wait for a laser-disc release of a director's cut to see if those suspicions are justified.

So much for the caveats. Now, the good news: Lord of Illusions is easily more satisfying and sophisticated than anything the horror genre has offered since Wes Craven's New Nightmare. In fact, it's a clever commingling of two different genres, a potent mix of H.P. Lovecraft and Raymond Chandler. It may not, strictly speaking, be the best of both worlds. But it is cheeky enough, and creepy enough, to grab your attention and hold your interest.

Loosely based on Barker's 1985 short story The Last Illusion, Lord stars Scott Bakula (of TV's Quantum Leap) as Harry D'Amour, a New York-based private eye who has appeared in several other Barker novels and stories. Like the original story, the film introduces D'Amour as a hard-boiled but humane shamus who periodically encounters the supernatural in his work. Imagine Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer doing a guest spot on The X-Files and you'll get the picture.

While on a routine case in Los Angeles, D'Amour runs across cultists who want to revive their long-dead leader. As the prologue makes clear, Nix (Daniel Von Bargen) was dispatched 13 years ago by Philip Swann (Kevin J. O'Connor), a former acolyte who learned much of Nix's black magic. Now Swann is a superstar illusionist whose stage show features tricks that may not be illusions at all. But even his wizardry may not be enough to protect him and his wife (Famke Janssen) from the cultists, who demand to know where Swann buried Nix's corpse.

Bakula hasn't done much of note in movies before Lord of Illusions, but he proves to be an inspired choice to play D'Amour. His virile good looks, low-key humor and matter-of-fact authority make him an engaging Everyman, the perfect traveling companion for a journey through Barker's nightmare world. Better still, Bakula vividly conveys the anxious dread of someone haunted by past horrors and intimidated by current ones. Early in the film, he hits the perfect balance of tough-guy attitude and rational-minded terror when a friend asks about his most recent case, one that involved an exorcism. Friend: "Was the kid really possessed?" D'Amour: "Yeah." Friend: "By what?" D'Amour: "Oh, you know." (Pregnant pause.) "The usual."

Janssen is beautiful and believable as Barker's version of a femme fatale. Vincent Schiavelli is aptly imperious as a rival magician who's jealous of Swann's success, while Von Bargen is effectively malevolent as Nix, a character who seems to be equal parts Charles Manson, David Koresh and -- well, could it be Satan?

The only false notes are sounded by O'Connor, who lacks the requisite brio to be convincing as Swann. He seems distanced and distracted throughout the film, even when Swann is meant to be the center of attention. Worse, O'Connor fails to convey the dark humor in the central irony that informs the character: Swann, who really possesses supernatural abilities, is content to make a fortune by pretending to be a mere sleight-of-hand artist. This makes Swann a fraud, of course, but his wife doesn't complain. "Illusionists get Las Vegas contracts, Mr. D'Amour," she explains to the wary detective. "Magicians get burned."

Lord of Illusions.
Directed by Clive Barker. With Scott Bakula, Kevin J. O'Connor and Famke Janssen.

Rated R.
109 minutes.

 
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