**/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras A
starring Craig Sheffer, Anne Bobby, David Cronenberg, Charles Haid
screenplay by Clive Barker, based on his novel Cabal
directed by Clive Barker
LORD OF ILLUSIONS
*½/**** Image B Sound B Extras C+
starring Scott Bakula, Kevin J. O'Connor, Famke Janssen, Daniel Von Bargen
written for the screen and directed by Clive Barker
by Walter Chaw Clive Barker's too-brief directing career, capping his time as the Stephen King-anointed prince of horror ("I have seen the future of horror and his name is Clive Barker," went King's famous endorsement), produced three cult classics: Hellraiser, Nightbreed, and Lord of Illusions. His Hollywood trajectory traces the familiar tale of enfant terrible allowed full reign on his first project, only to find subsequent efforts bowdlerized by non-believers. Director's cuts of Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions have circulated in some form over the years, with fans claiming--particularly in the case of Nightbreed--that masterpieces had been corrupted, hidden from sight. It's the kind of intrigue that forms the basis of much of Barker's work: the hidden grotto, arcane knowledge secreted away, art too beautiful for human eyes. There's something of the fury of H.P. Lovecraft's cult of personality in this--something more of the cosplay phenomenon. Each of Barker's movies evokes the absolute acceptance that outsiders encounter at genre conventions: they are explosions of the internal, actings-out of repressed desires. Find in this explanation of the coda, surprisingly sticky despite the bad pun, to his short-story anthologies: "Everybody is a book of blood; wherever we're opened, we're red." Clive Barker is the Douglas Sirk of splatter.
I'd be hard-pressed to say that any of Barker's films are actually good, but I would say that they are all completely his. His vision is singular. At one point on the Lord of Illusions Blu-ray, Barker says he gets fifty things right for every thirty he gets wrong and that that's pretty good; you make your art and you move on. I'd bet that's exactly the success ratio. What his films act like are committed drag shows: empowerment melodramas, diaries of becoming--like if Cirque du Soleil ever did grand guignol. It's something that arguably takes form as the stage piece in Lord of Illusions, uncomfortably informed by the sweaty, Frank Stallone-scored opening of brother Sylvester's Staying Alive. Barker's films are right there on that line between camp curiosity and exploitation, if indeed there is a line--the discordance coming in Barker's laudable unwillingness or inability to take anything less than absolutely seriously. His films, then, become like H.G. Wells's Island of Dr. Moreau. They're metaphors--sometimes blunt ones--of transformation, of the corruption of the status quo. He has a message: "Be yourself." (Also: "You have no idea who you really are on the inside.") It's interesting, because Barker in writing is poetry. He shares with Ray Bradbury this thing where the words on paper are magical but translated to celluloid are leaden, even mawkish. Some would say they add to the charm when Written on the Wind suddenly sports pleasure-demons in full S&M regalia.
Nightbreed, some twenty-five years after the fact, found relevance again recently (in 2013) when it was revealed that Fox and Morgan Creek had not discarded the forty-plus minutes they'd summarily excised from a picture they deemed unreleasable. Barker claimed that the idea that the monsters of the film are the heroes was the reason for the powers-that-be's reservations. I would argue that Nightbreed's problems run considerably deeper. There's too much exposition. There's a flashback, there are speeches, there are heartfelt entreaties. There's so much desire to be understood, in other words and ironically, that it all boils down to a scene where one of the creatures, fatally allergic to the sun, reaches out to touch the shoe of a black detective looking on sympathetically. It's too earnest--which, in the grand scheme, isn't the worst problem to have. It has no sense of pace. It has breathtakingly terrible performances, overwritten dialogue, and Barker is so in love with his bogeys that he spends a lot of time just sort of looking at them. But it's less gallery than shrine. It's a collection of dark idols, and there's a point at which it starts to feel static and at the mercy of a YA narrative, something to do with a guy who discovers he's the Chosen One. There's a sidekick named "Narcisse" (Hugh Ross) who rips off his own scalp.
There's also David Cronenberg as a serial-killing psychiatrist in a burlap mask with button eyes and a zipper mouth, so it's not all bad. A lot of it, in fact, is good allegory, and I'll confess that when it was announced there would be a "director's cut" to go with the bootlegged "Cabal cut" that screened at, among other places, Fantastic Fest, I was genuinely excited by the prospect. It plays into the cinephile storyline and sutures itself with the fanboy storyline. I had talked about Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions as modern examples of the thing that destroyed Von Stroheim and Orson Welles--and, simultaneously, of the mainstream, jock belief that horror was a ghetto where art couldn't thrive. Barker, an astonishing writer and painter, had made masterpieces misunderstood by the lumpen ruling class. It's a romantic tale. The problem is that Barker is a singular film director yet not a good one. He's committed and that's to his credit, but he has trouble weaving his ideas into a script. I've read every one of his books--a few of them multiple times. I collect his art where I can afford it. But when I tried to collaborate with a friend to produce one of his plays, I found his dialogue to be unspeakable and his stage directions to be guided more by the loveliness of language than by the practicality of execution.
The allegory of Nightbreed is that there is real beauty in difference. That the key to a successful society is in its diversity. That the real monsters are created in the breasts of men who can't acknowledge their difference to a "normal" class that won't suffer it. There are moments where Nightbreed makes the case eloquently, like when a Nightbreed child risks her life to play in the sun. And then there's the rest--as in an interminable, not-good nightclub performance of Joanie Sommers's "Johnny Get Angry" by hero Boone's girlfriend, Lori (Anne Bobby), that joins the stage act in Lord of Illusions as examples of high unintentional queer camp.
Nightbreed in this incarnation becomes an excoriation of normalcy by way of a subterranean society of monsters who are crushingly normal. It's less a celebration of difference than an exuberant declaration of difference--as much a plea for acceptance as a gay pride parade and, politically, as predictably boring. What works about the film is that it provides a fantasy of refuge for an audience hungry for such a thing. In Barker's prose and art, that invitation is velvet allure. On screen, it's curiously flat and underpopulated. I wonder if Barker would be better served by a limitless budget to conjure his heart's desire. He's dependent on the effects and make-up to be equal to the breadth of his imagination, and they never are. He sees something in these Comic-Con floor creations that isn't there. Nightbreed is ostensibly about Boone (Craig Sheffer, mulleted in a specifically Canadian way), just your average, ordinary guy with a soft-spoken therapist, Dr. Dekker (Cronenberg), who may or may not be trying to frame him for a string of murdered families. Credit to Barker that children are often victims in his films. In the opening of Lord of Illusions, he tortures a child for a bit before she graduates to avenging angel. (Have no fear, the young woman he hired to play victim cries in a way so unconvincing that disbelief never suspends.) In the best sequence in any of Barker's films, Dekker invades an ordinary, middle-class home, slaying the wife in the kitchen and showing a trio of tomatoes roll across the floor, leaving bloody trails. It's harrowing for its realism. Barker eschews movie-star pretty (unless he's showing shirtless construction workers digging a trench for no reason) in favour of the absolute mean. It's another page in the empowerment guide, but it's the least obtrusive of his tactics and it's effective here.
Framed Boone discovers that he's one of the Nightbreed: X-Men secreted away and, in flashback, hunted to near extinction by a population that fears their specialness. I like Nightbreed for its passion for this cause. It's directed with a very clear vision. Comparing the "Director's Cut" with the theatrical alternative reveals that Barker has reinserted forty minutes of excised footage but that the time difference between the two versions is only about twenty minutes. (In addition to reinstating Lori's entire nightclub performance, he adds a lot (a lot) of establishing shots of his monsters in their environment, Midian.) But it occurs that the effective version of this film was carried off by Guillermo del Toro and Hellboy II: The Golden Army. That movie's Troll Bridge sequence is a marvel of set and creature design and, in one ten-minute stroll, establishes an ancient community with more skill and completeness than two-plus hours of Nightbreed. It also has that moment where Hellboy, about to kill an Earth Elemental, is reminded that he has more in common with it than with the humans who want him to murder it. There. That's it. That's Nightbreed's entire raison d'être, encapsulated efficiently and effectively within a tight narrative featuring sterling performances. The studio, desperate to make something of Nightbreed's pageant, tried to focus the film on the Dekker drama and away from the flaccid character stuff between Boone and Lori and the languid throwaway shots of the monsters. Barker, given back the reins, restores the languor and the stilted exposition, adding an ending that's shot like something from Coppola's The Outsiders and offering up a twist that mostly cements Nightbreed's status as an all-time camp curio. That's less a criticism than an observation. This is a bad movie that's easy to like, but you could get the same charge people-watching outside any gathering of enthusiasts.
The director's cut of Lord of Illusions, available again for the first time since debuting on LaserDisc, sees Barker's supernatural gumshoe Harry D'Amour (Scott Bakula) investigating the bizarre death of illusionist Swann (Kevin J. O'Connor) during one of his wildly popular Vegas stage shows. It's hard to take this very seriously, not only post-Gob Bluth (in particular the sequence where Harry is told in no uncertain terms that Swann is an illusionist, damnit, not a magician) but also because it's all presented as a glama-gala more satire than representation. I don't think it's satire, though. When, after a group of skintight body-stockinged dancers paves the way for our Swann to emerge from a cocoon of bad CGI and Swann's wife Dorothea (Famke Janssen) leans in to Harry and says, "You haven't seen anything yet," it comes off as earnest and unintentionally hilarious for it. Later, when Harry is confronted by a hologram of a demon meant to dissuade burglars, it's so impossibly shoddy-looking that the crisis becomes whether Harry is taking any of this seriously, either. The parts that are good concern an apocalyptic death cult, led by charismatic Nix (the late Daniel von Bargen) in prologue and denouement. Barker finds some footing here in describing the atrocities committed in the name of religion. There are echoes of his prose in scenes of true believers mutilating themselves and accepting the dire judgment of their elected lord. I'm reminded of the sequence in his short story "Rawhead Rex" where a priest allows the beast to piss on him. Alas, there aren't enough of these moments in the film (though the Director's Cut does allow us to linger longer on the elaborate set design), which spends altogether too much time with Harry as he does the ratiocination thing ("This isn't your car!" he deduces in a deadening sequence early on), the romantic lover thing (Barker is very, very chaste and heatless with his heterosexual sex), and ultimately the hero thing.
What's compelling about the Harry D'Amour character in the story "The Last Illusion" and again, if dilute, in The Scarlet Gospels, is this idea of a '40s-era Chandler dick navigating the supernatural. He's introduced here as having just presided over the exorcism of a child, and there's some hay made at the outset that the recently-evicted demon is maybe going to be the villain of the piece. Yet for the rest of it, D'Amour seems the skeptic. Starting as Mulder, he ends as Scully. It's disappointing. Too, it's ground more effectively covered by Harry Angel in Angel Heart and then in Vertigo's '90s run of "Hellblazer". It's done better--frankly, much better--by Barker himself in his writing. Maybe Lord of Illusions would have been more effective as a period piece. What distinguishes it from Nightbreed is that this is clearly Barker swinging for a mainstream audience. He's not trying to breed acceptance for his bogeys, nor is he, save a few embarrassed minutes inside Hollywood's Magic Castle, showing a subculture of outcasts achieving community. What he's doing is pandering to the ruling class. Bakula, to his credit, appears to be both aware of the not-goodness of Lord of Illusions and committed to giving it his all regardless. He deserves a better showcase. In a just world, he'd have been an A-lister. Select images compel, the resurrection of Nix after a bloody vanquishing is memorable, and Janssen is stupid-beautiful. Beyond that, the picture is paced poorly, written awkwardly, and, worst, hardly about anything. Like him or not, Barker is usually about something.
THE BLU-RAY DISCS
Scream Factory presents Nightbreed in a two-disc set containing the long-awaited Director's Cut on Blu-ray as well as the accompanying DVD. A separate three-disc Collector's Edition includes the theatrical version; we received only the former for review. Prefacing the featutre is an introduction from Barker and the new cut's champion Mark Alan Miller (5 mins., HD), who express their gratitude for the groundswell of support that resulted in a proper restoration of Nightbreed. Not a lot to say except that Barker, a genuinely good person, looks and sounds a little beat up. I hope he's well. Sourced from the negative, the movie's 1.78:1, 1080p transfer boasts luridly-saturated colours, a tight grain structure, and a depth of black that generally impresses, never crushing but sometimes flattening out shadow detail. One side effect of the film's newfound clarity is that the makeup effects can appear plastic at times--there's something to be said for the diffusing effect of inferior formats. (Even a 35mm print might better serve the makeup.) DTS-HD MA tracks come in 2.0 and 5.1, the latter a modest remix. Either way, there's not a lot of dynamic range or rear-channel usage, but I view it as honouring a dated source. All is clear and smooth and Danny Elfman's ur-Batman score packs some punch.
Extras begin with "Tribes of the Moon" (72 mins., HD), a 2013 documentary gathering together key cast members such as Doug "Pinhead" Bradley, Sheffer, and Bobby, for starters, to reflect on collaborating with Barker and the auteur's body of work. Talk turns eventually to studio interference, including the Greystoke move that led to Bradley being overdubbed and the lamented original ending, which makes its way back into the director's cut. Barker is noticeably, oddly absent, and I would've loved to have heard from fellow no-show Cronenberg as well. "Making Monsters" (42 mins., HD) focuses on the creature designs for Nightbreed, arguably the reason you watch Nightbreed. Special Makeup Designer Bob Keen anchors the proceedings, offering up what he believes the film is about ("It's an epic love story") and speaking like a true monster-maker ("They're sexy--they're what you want to be"). Soon enough, other members of his team chime in, agreeing on Barker's genius before going into detail on how to design stuff like the Berserkers. I appreciate the artistry, but in practice, so many of their applications look cumbersome and unconvincing. "Fire, Fights, Stunts" (20 mins., HD) meanwhile delves into the hows and wherefores of aerial shots and fight choreography. It's fine.
Barker and Miller record a feature-length commentary packed with anecdotes and enthusiasm. Ralph McQuarrie's work is referenced early on as equivalent in some way to the work of Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel's ceiling, selling this yakker to me immediately. Barker's passion is obvious. I'll never not be a fan of his vision, even imperfectly expressed. His glee at Bobby's musical number almost sells it--it's that vehement. ("The hairs on the back of my balls stood on end!") I like his genuine admiration for Cronenberg, too--a respect that's reciprocated. By about an hour in, the discussion mostly centres on the betrayal of the re-edit and the perils of filmmaking. Barker is a lively raconteur. I like the bit where he says that directors shouldn't be too pretentious. His laugh is infectious. The degree to which he's moved seeing something closer to his original vision exhibited in this form is genuinely touching. Nightbreed's theatrical trailer rounds out the presentation, in HiDef.
Scream brings Lord of Illusions to BD in another two-disc set, this one devoting the second disc to the Director's Cut. (The first comprises the theatrical cut and supplementals.) Contrary to the box designation of 1.78:1, the film is presented in 1.85:1 in 1080p transfers that are basically identical across the two versions. Though only mildly grainy, the image doesn't have a denoised appearance. I expected a touch more vibrancy from the movie's palette, but reds are suitably intense while dynamic range is reasonably good. (That said, clipped whites highlight the primitive CGI compositing.) Aside: Note that the set decoration for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre remains the touchpoint for the type of thing attempted in the picture's prologue and that it's probably unwise to remind of it unless you're prepared to surpass it. The audio is again in 2.0 and 5.1 DTS-HD MA, though unlike Nightbreed, Lord of Illusions played theatres in DTS. Still, it was fairly early in the history of digital sound and the discrete soundstage doesn't get the anticipated workout. Barker provides a solo commentary that unfortunately tends to scene narration; I have to think you need to be a fan to maintain attention for the entire track. It does help that I share his admiration for Bakula, but I can't help thinking that Barker is better with a moderator. His memory is dazzling and it leads him sometimes to empty reverie.
"A Gathering of Magic" (18 mins.) launches the featurettes: a vintage behind-the-scenes heavy on B-roll and rehashing the commentary to no good end. Bakula's calm and lack of false modesty are affecting, however. "Original Behind the Scenes Footage (62 mins., HD) is a hyper-extended EPK composed entirely of B-roll and talking heads, glimpses at makeup sessions, interviews with cast and crew, and shots of Barker being delighted while watching monitors. I did like the part where the mandrill that appears early in the film is led around on a leash, to the consternation of a few extras. Janssen is beautiful. Did I mention that already? Mostly, this is an hour-long trial. Four "Deleted Scenes" (3 mins.) feature optional commentary from Barker. The first is a nice little bit with a naked cultist painting in blood on the wall; the second is another naked cultist suggesting deviant sex; the third is an embarrassing expository shot and a good choice for elision; and the last is a scene in the Magic Castle's repository. All were snipped in the interest of time and pacing, and in toto they recapitulate the idea that the best parts of Lord of Illusions concern the cult. "New Interview with Storyboard Artist Martin Mercer" (11 mins., HD) is just that. Split-screen comparisons of Mercer's art with finished product confirm that storyboards were used on the production. A Photo Gallery (15 mins., HD) encompassing production and marketing art plus behind-the-scenes and promotional stills rounds out the package.