The Books Of Blood Advent Calendar
The Last Illusion
The Last Illusion
“Amongst a certain set Harry D’Amour liked to believe he had some small reputation – a coterie which did not, alas, include his ex-wife, his creditors or those anonymous critics who regularly posted dog’s excrement through his office letterbox. But the woman who was on the phone now, her voice so full of grief she might have been crying for half a year, and was about to begin again, she knew him for the paragon he was.” – Clive Barker
First, a word of caution. I’ve heard the rumors, of course, that spoilers bleed, but you will find a couple of them here. Not to worry. I’ve done my best to limit them in terms of what they reveal and how many there are. Besides, this will all be over before you know it. So let’s begin …
Our first hint that there’s a difference between Clive Barker the writer and Clive Barker the film director is that none of the three feature-length movies he adapted from his own source material bears the same title as its property. With good reason, too. Hellraiser is not The Hellbound Heart. Nightbreed is not Cabal, exactly. And Lord of Illusions is certainly not “The Last Illusion.” Yet all of these titles are clearly the work of a singular visionary. An artist who can’t help but innovate and eschew convention. A writer, painter, and filmmaker with a vision so unique and genre-shattering, in fact, that its stamp appears indelibly on everything he puts his hand to.
In retrospect, if he were to have retained the original title for one of the three adaptations mentioned above, it might well have been the one we’re here to discuss. Not because Lord of Illusions is so much more faithful to its origins than the other two films—by far, the opposite is true—but because sticking to the title The Last Illusion would have made for such a fitting farewell to Barker’s years spent directing movies, just as it’s the perfect title for the (almost) closer to Books of Blood.
“The Last Illusion” tells the story of private investigator Harry D’Amour’s encounter with a deceased master illusionist named Swann, and the gang of demons, or Gulfs, who are after his soul. A hard-boiled occult tale, if you like. In the story’s transformation from page to screen, a version of this core idea is nearly the only thing rescued. Even the setting of New York City, itself a character in the original story, is cast aside early on in the movie.
I recall Barker commenting in an interview years ago that test audiences found the desert cult at the heart of the movie to be its most distressing element. Audiences today might strongly agree, with QAnon and the Cult of Trump raising the bar on blind devotion and anti-intellectualism. But let’s be clear: Nix, the figure to whom the cult in Lord of Illusions prays, makes populists like Donald J. Trump resemble impotent jesters by comparison—not that they usually need a lot of help.
Beautifully played by the late Daniel von Bargen, Nix (a.k.a., the Puritan) remains one of my favorite horror movie villains from the 1990s. That’s a big payoff, considering that Barker did away with the story’s band of infernal musicians who use repurposed corpses as instruments, a light-shedding thing known as the Castrato, and a fearsome, machine-like demon called the Raparee—trading them all in for the powerful and horrifying Nix. He and Swann are the only characters in the film with supernatural abilities at their disposal. The short story, on the other hand, is teeming with otherworldly nuisances.
Despite obvious differences, though, one key trick is central to both story and film, if more implied than explicit in the latter. Swann has made a deal with the devil, so to speak, in order to graduate from illusionist to magician, but when he learns that the powers he’s won are limited, he gets his petty revenge by using them to enhance his staged illusions and thereby taking credit for them as masterful acts of trickery but nothing more. It’s a marvelous joke on the demon classes, though the story isn’t played for laughs the way “The Yattering and Jack” is elsewhere in Barker’s Books of Blood.
Some of the occult aspects from the story are missed more than others. Valentin lacks a little something for being merely human in the film, but it’s more than made up for with the transformation of Butterfield from the buttoned-down, demonic middle manager of the story to the feral, walleyed, effeminate assassin/sycophant we get in the movie, complete with bleached eyebrows. Similarly, the role of Swann’s wife, Dorothea, is greatly expanded for the film, but I’d have to be a demon myself to spoil that. My point is that all the differences between the two versions of the story speak not only to Clive Barker’s uncanny ability to reinvent his own worlds and conjure a seemingly endless parade of unique characters, but also to his fundamental understanding of the subtle differences between the narrative demands of fiction and cinema.
As for similarities, there is an exorcism that figures into Harry D’Amour’s past in both “The Last Illusion” and Lord of Illusions, but even that is altered. In the short story, D’Amour is haunted by the memory of an incident involving a woman and her demon-lover. In the movie, it’s the recollection of the possession of a young boy that won’t leave D’Amour alone. That brings us to Swann and his motives. He is an illusionist in both the story and the film, but there’s a great deal added to his back story for Lord of Illusions. His relationship with Dorothea is deepened as a result, but his connection to Nix ends up being very different from his connection to the Gulfs of the original story. For one thing, he doesn’t die in the opening moments of the movie.
Aside from the fecundity of Clive Barker’s imagination, there is another observation that could be made here. There was a sense of play to Clive Barker’s movies that is seldom present to the same extent in his written work. The movies are excellent in their own right but also seem to have given him the freedom to retreat from the rigors of writing literary tomes like Weaveworld, Imajica, The Great and Secret Show, and Everville. There are glimpses of his playful side in some of his shorter fiction, of course (I’ve already mentioned “The Yattering and Jack”), but we’d have to wait more than twenty years to see a similarly playful vein pulsing beneath the skin of one of Barker’s novels for adult readers. Sadly, any discussion of 2007’s Mister B. Gone must wait for another time.
In addition to numerous stories and poems in small-press anthologies, Pete Mesling currently has in print a horror collection (Jagged Edges & Moving Parts), an assassination novel (The Portable Nine), a crime collection (The Wages of Crime), a volume of poetry (Imperfect Lodgings), and—most recently—a fantasy novel for children (The Maker-Man of Merryville). Pete lives with his wife and daughter in Seattle, Washington, and promises that another horror collection is coming in 2022.
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