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Film / Lord of Illusions

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"Flesh is a trap. Magic sets us free."

Lord of Illusions is a 1995 movie directed by Clive Barker, based on his own short story "The Last Illusion". A blend of noir and horror, the story opens in the early 80s at a run-down cult compound in the Mojave Desert. Nix (Daniel von Bargen), the leader who calls himself "the Puritan," wields magical powers he promises to share with his enthralled followers. Unfortunately for him, some of the group decide Nix has gone too far by kidnapping a young girl. Led by Nix's prize pupil Philip Swann (Kevin J. O'Connor), the rebels manage to overpower and subdue him. They leave him bound in an iron mask and buried deep under the sands of the Mojave, with the loyal followers scattered to the winds.

Thirteen years later, private detective Harry D'Amour (Scott Bakula) is working an insurance fraud case in Los Angeles when he witnesses the murder of Caspar Quaid (Joseph Latimore), one of the group who helped Swann bring down Nix. With his dying breath, Quaid warns that the Puritan is returning.

Shortly after Quaid's death, D'Amour is approached by Swann's wife Dorothea (Famke Janssen) to investigate the killing. He takes the job, and quickly finds himself neck-deep in a battle of magic, illusions, good and evil.

This movie contains examples of:

  • Adaptation Title Change: Lord of Illusions is an adaptation of the short story "The Last Illusion".
  • Almost Dead Guy: Quaid survives just long enough to warn Harry of Nix's impending resurrection.
  • The Antichrist:
    Nix: I was not born to show people the error of their ways, I was born to murder the world.
  • Arbitrary Skepticism: Even after finding out that Swann could do real magic, Harry remains deeply skeptical that Nix will actually be resurrected.
  • Author Appeal: Butterfield's crop-top and extremely tight shorts at the beginning of the film, as well as his skin-tight golden pants later on.
  • Badass Normal: Harry D'Amour may not have magic powers like Nix or Swann but he can fight pretty well, although he gets some help from Swann at the climax.
  • Bad Boss: Nix repays his cultists' blind obedience to him with burying them all alive. No, he's not their or anyone else's shepherd.
  • Balancing Death's Books: After Nix is revived, he notes that he has to give something back to the grave in return. He sacrifices his own minions as a gift to the world of the dead.
  • Big Bad: Nix the Puritan, an Evil Sorcerer plotting to destroy the world.
  • Bittersweet Ending; Dorothea is rescued by D'Amour. Nix and his cultists are gone once and for all. However, Swann sacrificed himself for the love of Dorothea and his body has been dragged into the grave along with Nix.
  • Blood Magic: The mask Swann and the rest use to bind Nix's powers is screwed into his skull, secured with dabs of Swann's blood.
  • Body Horror:
    • Par for the course with Barker; especially noteworthy is the whammy Nix lays on Swann showing him "flesh through a god's eyes."
    • When Nix is resurrected, his body remains partially necrotized.
    • The self-mutilations that Nix's cultists have inflicted on themselves in anticipation of his resurrection.
  • Breaking Out the Boss: The film opens with the Evil Sorcerer Nix being prevented by his closest follower Philip Swann from sacrificing a female child and buried in a magical harness. Nix's cult spends the rest of the film trying to resurrect Nix and succeed at the end. The undead Nix expresses his gratitude to his followers, but then reveals himself to be a sadistic Omnicidal Maniac and promptly kills them all for their blind obedience.
  • Buried Alive: Nix does this to the cultists shortly after his resurrection by turning the floor into quicksand with his powers, and then solidifying it once they're buried in it.
  • Came Back Wrong: Nix was never a good guy to begin with — he originally called himself "the Puritan" and told his followers that they were meant to "cleanse the world" — but his claim that he had originally "wanted to be a god, (but) changed his mind" suggests that he initially had (in his mind) good intentions, and saw this as a righteous task of purification. His time in the grave, however, transformed this into a desire to destroy the world completely. Whether this was due to being trapped in the earth for thirteen years, his new un-dead state, or a corruption caused either by the process of "resurrection" or by something on the other side of death which twisted and warped Nix's mind (possibly even now controlling him), is unclear.
  • Comforting the Widow: Harry D'Amour strikes up a romance with the late Philip Swann's wife Dorothea only a few days after Swann's death and while Dorothea is still mourning over her husband's casket. D'Amour shacking up with his wife majorly pisses Swann off when he's revealed to have faked his on-stage death, and he nearly kills D'Amour.
  • Cowardly Lion: Swann is practically shaking when he goes to rescue the girl at the beginning (and the others with him are even worse) but they still go through with it. In the present day, Swann has faked his death and shows a reluctance to go against Nix's cult, but still does in the end.
  • Creepy Good: Swann is constantly on the edge and pessimistic, and Valentin is a silent man who is clearly holding something back most of the time, but both of them are fairly heroic characters.
  • Cult: Nix led one.
  • Cult Defector: Swann, Jennifer, Quaid, Pimm and possibly others all abandoned Nix's cult prior to the start of the movie, being creeped out by his displays of magic (while the rest of the cult became entranced by it). The movie begins with them coming back, but only to save the life of a child Nix is preparing to make into a Human Sacrifice, and to kill Nix.
  • Cut Lex Luthor a Check: Harry feels that Swann wasted his ability to do real magic by using it simply for stage performances rather than solving the world's problems.
  • Damsel in Distress: Dorothea falls into this role twice - once as a child, and again when Butterfield uses her to draw out Swann and D'Amour.
  • Dark Messiah: Subverted. Nix presents himself as a dark savior to his cultists and they remain slavishly devoted to his revelations even after his death. When he returns he sacrifices them without a second thought for being unworthy of him and denies being their "shepherd".
  • Death of a Child: In a brief scene in the director's cut, a former cultist butchers her family, including her young children (though the violence is off-screen, we see the aftermath).
  • Diabolus ex Nihilo: The Big Bad Nix is an Evil Sorcerer with immense eldritch powers, which he states he will soon use to kill all of humanity. Where he came from or how he got his powers is never explored. When someone questions what he is, he simply replies "a man who wanted to be a god... then changed his mind".
  • The Dragon: Butterfield, to Nix.
  • The Dreaded: Everyone who knows Nix is deeply scared of him.
  • Easily-Overheard Conversation: Valentin is always listening in when Harry and Dorothea have conversations.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Nix can't understand why Swann has feelings for Dorothea which he considers "just flesh." At the beginning of the movie, he also believes that Swann has come back in order to learn his magic, rather than to save a child's life.
  • Evil Is Bigger: Nix is a tall and bulky man and of course is pure evil.
  • Evil Mentor: Nix was Swann's master and the source of his (Swann's) powers.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Nix was an evil wizard who had actual magical powers. He sees it as his mission to turn the world into a graveyard. He becomes a lich after his cultists revive him.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Nix's voice is deep and demonic.
  • Expy: Nix and his cult take some cues from Charles Manson and his Family, such as living in a run-down compound in a Californian desert, and committing murders at the behest of a charismatic madman. Harry even compares the cult to Mansons' at one point.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Both Quaid and Valentin, while left bleeding out from Butterfield's attacks take it calmly and try to impart information to Harry.
  • Faking the Dead: Swann tries this after Caspar Quaid's murder, staging his death as a stage illusion gone bad.
  • False Prophet: The Big Bad Nix, calling himself "the Puritan," leads a cult that believes he's the new messiah, and worships him through murder. He's really a sadistic dark magician who plans to wipe out mankind, and he embraces his role after his resurrection.
    Nix: I was not born to show people the error of their ways, I was born to murder the world.
  • Famed in Story: Both Swann (for his revolutionary magic act), and D'Amour (given the outcome of one of his recent cases) are fairly well-known within the film.
  • Fatal Method Acting: In-universe, Swann is gruesomely "killed" on-stage during an escape trick.
  • Fat Bastard: Nix is a little hefty, at least as a human. he is introduced wearing a t-shirt that his stomach sticks out from under, and is a murderous nut job with delusions of grandeur.
  • Fantastic Noir: Blends the traditional elements of a noir detective story with supernatural horror.
  • Godhood Seeker: Played straight in spirit, yet subverted in letter by Nix after his return.
    Nix: A man who wanted to become a god...then changed his mind.
  • Gothic Horror: A typical aspect considering it's the brainchild of Clive Barker after all. Butterfield's appearance would qualify as a gothic.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: At the end Swann lets Nix killing him in order to give Dorothea and D'Amour the time to escape.
  • Hollywood Exorcism: Harry's involvement in one of these is alluded to in flashback, and the experience continues to haunt him in the early part of the story.
  • Human Architecture Horror: The Evil Sorcerer Nix punishes his cult for bringing him back from the grave by briefly turning the floor into quicksand and causing them all to suffocate. Afterwards, some of them are only partially buried, with torsos and arms sticking out of the solid floor. One of them is still alive and conscious enough to grab D'Amour.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Harry is introduced taking long sips from a beer bottle in the aftermath of a case that involved a pretty harrowing exorcism.
  • Informed Attribute: Butterfield claims that Swann and Quaid's friend Maureen Pimm is dead and that she "knew the Puritan was coming home" (possibly implying she committed suicide), but this isn't brought up again, and Pimm's friends (who would have kept in relatively close contact with her and also had access to news sources) have no knowledge or awareness of this. Butterfield also claims that Jennifer Desiderio has disappeared, when Harry is able to find out where she is relatively easily, making it somewhat ambiguous as to Pimm is really dead, or Butterfield simply believed she was and/or was trying to intimidate Quaid by mentioning this.
  • Insistent Terminology: Swann's assistant Valentin is adamant that Harry understand his boss is an "illusionist" — he does not perform real magic.
  • Ironic Nickname: The sadistic sorcerer Nix names himself "the Puritan". He doesn't even aspire to purity, except maybe pure malice.
  • It's Not You, It's My Enemies: Swann states that this is why he faked his death.
  • The Jeeves: Valentin is more of an aide than a butler, but fills this role for Swann even helping him fake his death, and knowing where Nix is buried.
  • Large Ham: Nix, who even before death seems to have No Indoor Voice. Swann's rival magician Vinovich is also pretty uptight and flamboyant.
  • Left for Dead: Swann, Quaid, Jennifer, Pimm and Dorothea thought they had managed to put Nix down for good. Turns out, not so much.
  • Light Is Not Good: Nix always dresses in a white robe, calls himself "The Puritan"...and he's a psychotic and murderous sorcerer bent on bringing destruction to the Earth.
  • Look Both Ways: Jennifer Desiderio freaks out and runs into traffic while D'Amour is asking her about Nyx.
  • Love Triangle: Between Dorothea, Harry and Swann. The latter is quite angry when he knows about it, having faked his death to escape Nix's cultist.
  • Made of Iron: Butterfield's goon, who takes repeated blows to the head, crashes through a window, falls two stories and walks away.
  • Magicians Are Wizards: Philip Swann passed off his real magic as stage illusions, and explains to the man investigating his "suicide" that "Illusionists get Vegas contracts ... Magicians get burned." (A more modern reaction might see Swann strapped to a lab table rather than tied to a stake, but either fear would likely seem rational to Swann, given that his teacher was a Straw Nihilist and an Omnicidal Maniac. In the original story, Swann pretended to be a fake simply as a Take That! to the infernal powers he bargained with.)
  • Maniac Monkeys: Nix keeps a vicious pet mandrill.
  • Master of Illusion: Nix can project images into people's minds. He makes them see flesh with a god's eyes... as it horribly mutates into undead and alien shapes.
  • Men Can't Keep House: Private detective Harry D'Amour's New York apartment is a mess, with his employer noting that the place needs a woman's touch. D'Amour bitterly notes that he tried marriage before.
  • Mind Rape: The "Flesh With a God's Eyes" illusion mentioned above.
  • Mysterious Backer: Loomis, the client who first sends Harry out to L.A. (albeit on an unrelated case) and seems to have some kind of history with him. Billy Inferno also provides aid to Harry in a combat cryptic fashion.
  • New Old West: The opening scene has shades of this, showing a group of reluctant rescuers driving to save a child from a criminal group out in the desert.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Dorothea is pretty polite to her maid.
  • No One Could Survive That!: D'Amour knocks one of Quaid's attackers through a second-story window, but the thug shakes it off and disappears before the police arrive.
  • No Ontological Inertia: After Nix is destroyed for good, his late follower Philip Swann who died minutes before him is stripped to the bone as Nix was the source of Swann's magic, and the hole in the Earth he created also closes back up.
  • Occult Detective: Harry D'Amour is a noirish private detective in the present day who has investigated several paranormal cases, including an exorcism that he recently performed. Mostly by accident he is then introduced into the world of magicians and wizards.
  • Omnicidal Maniac: Nix believes it is his mission to "murder the world" and show everyone the wisdom of the grave.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: In-universe; Swann's rival Vinovich feigns a strong Russian/Slavic accent, but drops into pure Brooklyn when D'Amour's taunt reveals he wasn't fooled.
  • Our Liches Are Different: Post-resurrection, Nix is a zombified revenant, but no less evil a sorcerer. His mission? Murder the world.
  • Power Floats: Nix uses his powers to levitate and walk through the air several times, including standing on top of a near-bottomless chasm holding one of his victims.
  • Private Detective: Harry D'Amour, of the worn-down, worldly-wise sort.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: Nix shouts "WILL...YOU...EVER...LEARN ?!" as he slowly kills Swann breaking the bones in his body.
  • Pure Is Not Good: Nix preaches to his followers that he has been named "the Puritan" by holy decree. His loyal minions get to find out just how purely evil this guy is when he kills them for being mindless slaves not worthy of a being as 'perfect' as him.
  • Quicksand Sucks: Justified, as a wizard literally did it. The freshly-resurrected Nix kills his followers by turning the ground beneath them into this trope, and waiting for them to sink fully before solidifying it. One manages to survive but is trapped from the waist down.
  • Re-Cut: A director's cut was released after the movie landed on home video.
  • Red Right Hand: Butterfield's blind right eye.
  • Red Eyes, Take Warning: Nix's eyes appear bloody red in D'Amour's mind after Nix hypnotizes him with the "Flesh With a God's Eyes".
  • Rescue Romance: Dorothea with Swann after he rescues her from the cult, and later with Harry following the final showdown with Nix.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: The binding that should have killed Nix doesn't quite do the job, but it does keep him pent up for thirteen years.
  • Seeks Another's Resurrection: The surviving members of Nix's cult are seeking to bring their dead master back from the dead. When they finally do so, he rewards them with death.
  • Seen It All: The LAPD detective investigating various crimes related to the case talks to Harry without judgment or skepticism, while showing a certain world-weariness.
  • Sexophone: "Harry's Theme", which includes a saxophone performance, is prominently featured during Harry d'Amour's love scene with Dorothea.
  • Sexy Surfacing Shot: There's a scene with Dorothea coming out of a swimming pool while wearing a swimsuit with cleavage.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: Swann's assistant Valentin tends to wear better suits than his boss.
  • Sidekick: At various times throughout the movie the role is occupied by Billy Inferno (a magician who helps out Harry), and Valentin.
  • The Sociopath: Nix. A pure evil sorcerer bent on turning the world into a living cemetery, he considers people "just flesh" and also kills all of his own minions for having him "waited like lambs".
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: A 1950s-style upbeat jingle about being a good Christian plays during a montage of Nix's old cult members having murdered their relatives and taking off to witness their master's resurrection.
  • Stage Magician: Swann rises to stardom after the cult breaks up, using the skills he learned from Nix to juice up his "illusions" and ultimately to fake his own death.
  • Stripped to the Bone: After Swann sacrifices himself to stop Nix, his corpse is stripped to the bone by the power that he received from Nix.
  • Supporting Protagonist: Despite Harry's central role in investigating things making up the story it could be argued that the movie's conflict is really between Swann and Nix. When Harry arrives to face Nix in the climax, the villain takes one look at him and says "You're not Swann. Who are you?"
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: When Swann and his allies arrive at Nix's compound to rescue the girl, they are not the Big Damn Heroes you'd typically expect. They're scared amateur wizards about to take on a god-level Evil Sorceror; they're in over their heads and they know it. In fact they almost fail in their rescue attempt, because they're so afraid and unprepared.
  • This Is Unforgivable!: Nix kidnapping a kid caused Swann and his friends to turn on him.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Nix's cult has spent the better part of 15 years trying to revive him from his imprisonment in the afterlife. Upon his resurrection he murders them all for having proven themselves unworthy of him.
  • Vagueness Is Coming: A dying Quaid warns Harry about this, referring to the Puritan's return.
  • Villain of Another Story: Tapert, a highly sleazy insurance fraudster who Harry is investigating at the beginning of the movie, before abandoning that investigation upon stumbling into the Swann case. As he puts it.
    Harry: Tapert's got nothing to do with this. He just came to get his palm read.
  • Where It All Began: The film opens in the Cultists' compound in the Mojave desert before moving to Los Angeles, and the climax takes us back there when Nix is revived.
  • Would Hurt a Child: At the movie's opening Nix's Establishing Character Moment is letting his savage mandrill attack a young girl he keeps as a prisoner. It's also hinted the girl was meant to be a sacrifice.
    • The cultists murder their co-workers, friends and family once they learn that Nix is returning. At least one of them murdered her own husband and children. Butterfield's lackey implies a murderous dislike for children as he refers to the child whom Harry saved from demonic possession as a "little bastard" and seems annoyed that Harry saved them.
  • The X of Y: Lord of Illusions
  • You Have Failed Me: Nix pulls this after his return, but not on the one responsible for his earlier defeat - rather he lashes out at the slavish, sycophantic cultists.
    Nix: You're not worthy...You just waited like lambs. I'm not your shepherd.
  • You Will Be Spared: Nix confesses to Swann that his intent (unsurprisingly) is to "murder the world", but rather charitably offers to kill Swann last if he helps Nix with said murder.
    Nix: Now you know I will kill you when we're done. I have to.