Lord of Illusions
No stars (Worthless)
Directed and written by Clive Barker
With Scott Bakula, Kevin J. O’Connor, Famke Janssen, and Daniel Von Bargen
** (Worth seeing)
Directed and written by Gregory Widen
With Christopher Walken, Elias Koteas, Virginia Madsen, Eric Stoltz, and Moriah Snyder.
Evil fascinates. Whether it’s Jeffrey Dahmer eating his victims’ flesh, Charles Manson ordering his zealots to massacre Hollywood celebrities, or Adolf Hitler murdering millions, it seems a killer will always have his fans. Judging from the enthusiastic audience response to a trailer for yet another Halloween sequel, Michael Myers–like Hannibal the Cannibal in The Silence of the Lambs–is a modern-day folk hero, someone we envy for his absolute power, his ability to make others submit to his will. Such characters are the id run amok, playing by their own rules rather than society’s. Their power lies in the fear they generate, and horror movies imply that we can share in their power if we can share in their evil. For two hours we do.
Clive Barker’s Lord of Illusions partakes of this fantasy, linking power with the ability to provoke fear. In the film, which takes place primarily in LA, good magic (that practiced by the prophets in the Bible) is “glittering” and false, merely a magician’s trick. True magic is dark and evil. The prophet with real power in Lord of Illusions is a Hell’s Angel gone to seed: Nix (Daniel Von Bargen) is a sweaty, grizzled guy with a beer gut who tosses fire from hand to hand and is immortal. The story is that Nix has kidnapped a girl for sacrifice (and enjoys letting his pet baboon terrorize her). A former protege, Swann (Kevin J. O’Connor), is offended by this latest ugly turn and decides to save her. Years later, detective Harry D’Amour (Scott Bakula) is drawn into the whole mess.
Barker’s focus is on blood rather than shadow, viscera rather than paradox, gory slayings rather than enigmatic sayings. Lord of Illusions opens with a legend across the screen that’s a patent absurdity masquerading as an insight: “Death itself is an illusion.” This may be true in a metaphoric or religious sense, but Lord of Illusions makes the statement ridiculously literal. When a character says that Nix gets inside people’s heads, he means he sticks his fingers through their skulls. Immortal Nix must be killed so that he can rise from the dead; but since death is an illusion, how can this be done? Barker’s chosen method involves a metal hockey mask with screws that bore into the skull, presumably a more fatal solution than decapitation.
Clearly Barker is attracted to the masochism of Christianity–for the kinky thrills, though religion gives his fascination “depth.” When Nix says “Will you suffer to come unto me?” he relishes the word “suffer.” He then claims to have the wisdom of the grave, but after announcing in portentous tones “Here is my wisdom!” all he does is levitate (even David Copperfield can do that, and he’s not as pretentious about it). Barker extracts every sliver of dramatic potential from the act of removing shards of glass from one’s body. He squirts blood everywhere, as if emulating Jackson Pollock but using bodily fluids. If one imagines that the characters have horrible allergies, however, and mentally replaces the blood with nasal mucus, then Lord of Illusions becomes a gross-out comedy. A movie’s genre should not be determined by the substances spurting about.
These days the horror film is practically a bankrupt genre, its practitioners are so obsessed by gore and visual and aural special effects and have so thoroughly banished narrative and emotional coherence. It’s as if they expect the sheer quantity of explosions and deaths to bludgeon us into a reaction, to overwhelm us with the villain’s power. But with nothing to engage us mentally, we drift off. Just look at the marketing “hit” Batman Forever, which according to a recent Entertainment Weekly poll was the summer’s most sleep-inducing film. This is a warped achievement of some import when one takes into account the movie’s sheer decibel level. Lord of Illusions is like Batman Forever, as loud as it is boring.
Lord of Illusions is based on one of Barker’s own short stories, but Gregory Widen’s much more ambitious The Prophecy is loosely based on Milton’s Paradise Lost. After a seminary student named Thomas (Elias Koteas) loses his faith, he becomes a cop. Years later, while investigating a murder, he’s drawn into the second war of the angels, trying to protect a young girl (Moriah Snyder) from the angel Gabriel (Christopher Walken). Gabriel is after the soul of a vicious war criminal, which he believes the good angel Simon (Eric Stoltz) has hidden in the girl. It’s not your usual story line, but Widen makes it sufficiently plausible; unfortunately, the film’s fireworks ending isn’t as subtle or spooky as the rest of the movie.
The Prophecy is blessed with a remarkable cast. Sometimes an actor’s work is cumulative–a single performance can depend on previous performances for its impact. Eric Stoltz has gradually acquired authority, not so much for his acting, which is accomplished, as for his track record in a choosing scripts. If Stoltz is in a film, you can be fairly certain his dialogue will be interesting. And in a sea of Hollywood mediocrity, his intelligence makes him a performer we can trust. Slightly distracted, with an aura of detached coolness, he floats through his movies; and his mellow line readings and beatific countenance ironically give weight to the dialogue.
Though he’s less discerning about his roles than Stoltz, Christopher Walken is one of our best actors. It’s a shame he isn’t given “normal” parts more often; his quirkiness would enliven the material that other actors make dull and conventional. He almost seems typecast here, but no one could make a better angel. Walken’s face is a flat plane, a sun disk, and his dead eyes flicker with a preternatural awareness. He can be compared to another good strange actor, Dennis Hopper, but Walken is more distinctive, more surprising, and in a decent role he recontextualizes the language with his unorthodox line readings, words bursting from his body like coughs. His advice to a group of schoolchildren–study math because “it’s the key to the universe!”–has a darkly comic allure.
In sharp contrast to Barker’s film, The Prophecy finds marvelously logical explanations for the most bizarre phenomena. The angels are jealous of mankind because, though we’re nothing but “talking monkeys,” we’ve been given souls. (And since the eyes are the mirrors of the soul, in certain scenes the angels’ eyes are black holes.) Our souls grant us immortality, which the angels don’t have, and because of our souls we have God within us and he loves us above all other creatures. The archangel Gabriel leads a revolt against God, but some angels remain faithful to their master; so the second war of the angels, which has been going on for centuries, is in a sort of deadlock. Gabriel hopes to steal the soul of the most evil of men and enlist him on his side of the battle because “man knows more about war and treachery of the spirit than any angel.” Gabriel wants to “open the gates of heaven,” but Lucifer himself intercedes on mankind’s behalf because he knows Gabriel cannot create a new heaven, only another hell. And he doesn’t want the competition.
Widen not only creates a logical structure for his story, he also modernizes it by bringing in such uncomfortable issues as abortion and child abuse. When Gabriel’s “lower soldier,” Usiel, is killed, it’s discovered during the autopsy that he has the blood of an aborted fetus. When the angel Simon is injured, he hides in an abandoned schoolroom and befriends a third-grader. In his soft voice he tells her to come closer, instructs her to close her eyes, and kisses her full on the mouth. The explanation for the scene–he’s giving her a soul–doesn’t make it any less creepy. Later Widen exploits our anguish about the dead by having Lucifer explain that the gates of heaven have been closed because of the war in heaven, and all our ancestors are “worm meat.” (Hell, on the other hand, is always open–just like the White Hen.) Widen communicates a sense of life’s unending horror when he has Gabriel, confronted by Thomas’s confusion, give this comforting response: “I kill firstborn. I turn cities to salt. I rip the souls out of little girls. And the only thing you can count on, from now until kingdom come, is never understanding why.”
Lao-tzu, a Taoist philosopher, says: “When the people of the world…all know good as good, there arises the recognition of evil.” Both Lord of Illusions and The Prophecy are fascinated by religion: to believe in Satan, it seems it’s necessary to believe in God. When the devil decides to help mankind, he gives Thomas “angel-fighting” tips, telling him that “what holds an angel’s whole being together is faith.” If Thomas stops believing, he can still live despite the loss. But for an angel the loss is fatal: if the foundations of Gabriel’s faith are shaken, his existence is over.
The angels in The Prophecy are never shown flying; we see their wings only as shadows. But Nix in Lord of Illusions, who doesn’t even have wings, is able to fly off a cross and across a cavernous cell. Barker wants us to surrender our reason almost as soon as the movie starts (just as his characters surrender theirs). But there are rules to be followed even when the subject is mystery and magic–as Milton wrote, “Our reason is our law.” For a movie about the second war of the angels, The Prophecy is surprisingly logical, which accounts for its emotional coherence.
Yet ultimately The Prophecy goes beyond reason. When Thomas leaves the seminary, he demands answers to his questions; not hearing a “voice,” he in effect banishes God from his life. It’s as if we create our angels and our devils through belief and can destroy them through doubt. But the film ends with Thomas accepting the limitations of his mind, surrendering his hold on rationality. Art films often conclude with their protagonists thwarted and baffled, and usually this is treated as a loss. The Prophecy ends with the protagonist happily admitting his confusion, affirming his faith and his lack
of understanding simultaneously. Thomas embraces the limits of his mind because they’re what make him human.