Clive Barker has seemed one of those outlaw artists who pay fealty not to society or to art but only to the mandates of their own id. A horror novelist turned filmmaker ("Nightbreed," the original "Hellraiser"), he's drawn to imagery from the most recondite of sexual practices and is completely unafraid to push the limits of taste. He's a nasty boy, but he's got guts.
But his new film, "Lord of Illusions," isn't the Bosch-stoned-on-peyote masterpiece he seems capable of making. Perhaps the major studio contract and big budget undercut his willingness to go beyond the beyond; perhaps the marketing boys got to him; perhaps he lost his nerve; perhaps the true curse of success is not damnation but banality. Whatever, the film's pretty much of a mess.
It takes off from one of those oh-so-familiar cult sacrileges, where a group of loony tunes in the desert, under the sway of a messianic fruitcake in a white robe, is about to sacrifice a little girl to the gods of wherever. Counter-cult members break in, shoot the place up, rescue the little girl and kill the cult leader. Why does David Koresh and those dead kids make this all seem sort of queasy?
Ten years later, the girl has grown up to be a supermodel (Famke Janssen), and the counter-cultist who saved her a world-famous magician, but there are disturbing signs that the original cult leader -- Nix, by name -- is back among the living and several of his minions are up to no good. A private eye who specializes in the occult named Harry D'Amour is hired, and he begins to poke around.
That's all the movie does, too: poke around. It never finds a straight line through its materials and doesn't feature an escalating torrent of horrendous imagery. Now and then a sequence will stir to life, but more often its elaborate special effects fizzle.
In one, detective D'Amour is chased by a dog of fire and the "Origami Man," but neither illusion convinces, much less frightens -- the first looks more like Tinkerbell with a hotfoot and the second like something that didn't make it into "Terminator 2." And what was the Origami Man going to do anyhow, fold Harry to death?
And Scott Bakula seems seriously miscast as private eye D'Amour. He lacks the edge, the gravitas, the film noir sense of mournfulness that other famous private eyes have had, from Bogart to Mitchum to Mickey Rourke. You keep thinking: What's a nice boy like this doing in a movie like "Lord of Illusions"?
He's not served by director Barker, either; at every crisis, he reaches into his shoulder holster and pulls out his gun and waves it around so frantically that he comes to appear ridiculous and the gun loses all its meaning.
Many of the lesser plot points never quite connect. At one point, Harry has to penetrate magic culture to determine the boundary line between real magic and the show-biz kind. But the culture isn't very well developed, and too quickly dismissed, and the film never convinces us that we're in a special world.
Halfway through his investigation, the magician (played wispily by Kevin J. O'Connor) mysteriously dies and Harry is hired to solve that murder. But there's never any tension or mystery in the film, and the only real hoot is turned in by Barry Del Sherman as one of Nix's slinky assistants. The film isn't nearly as frightening as Barker's first two works: I want fear, not confusion!
"Lord of Illusions"
Starring Scott Bakula and Famke Janssen
Directed by Clive Barker
Released by United Artists
Rated R (extreme violence)