We lost Daniel Von Bargen on March 1st. He had dozens of acting credits, Seinfeld’s Kruger arguably the most famous. I write to remember his underappreciated turn as Nix, the black magic cult leader in Clive Barker’s Lord of Illusions (1995).
The best horror films, I observed last time, disturb our moral reality. In America’s moral reality remains decidedly Christian. And, as Protestants (culturally, if not by affiliation), we (in the words of Illusions’ hero, Harry D’Amour (Scott Bakula)) “[c]an’t have too many saviors.”) We’re always open to new messiahs, either religious (snake handlers, peepstoners, faith healers) or informally so (Tony Robbins, Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Oz). Charisma conquers reason, and suddenly we’re in love again. Lord of Illusions examines what happens when we fall for the wrong messiah.
Nix presents as a redeemer. Calling himself “The Puritan[,]” he promises that death is an illusion and that he and his followers will “cleanse the world.” Sound familiar? As often happens with captivating leaders and credulous minions, it all goes to shit. Spurned by his chief disciple, Philip Swann (Kevin J. O’Connor), Nix becomes an anti-Christ who “could eat your fucking soul[.]” He confesses that he “wasn’t born to show people the error of their ways,” but rather “to murder the world.” Von Bargen triumphs by adducing more sympathy for Nix the spurned lover than fear or loathing for Nix the mass murderer. We want to hug our would-be destroyer. For, without love, Nix is “a man who wanted to be a god, then changed his mind.” He discovers that “[t]he grave is lonely,” but, without Swann, “[l]iving is worse.” And he declares, before finally incarnating evil, “I’m going to be rotten shit from now on.” There, there.
The film opens at a squalid, Manson Family compound in the Mojave Desert. Its décor mixes Jean-Michel Basquiat and voodoo palace. Within, Nix, part scattered uncle living on mom’s couch, part homicidal megalomaniac, holds forth in elastic-banded leisure pants to his awestruck followers. Enter his apostates, led by Swann. They’ve returned to rescue Dorothea, a twelve-year-old girl Nix kidnapped for nothing good. Before Swann subdues him, Nix magically plunges his fingers into Swann’s brain, showing him “his best trick[:]” “No illusions, just the truth.” That truth: When seen with “a god’s eyes[,]” people are just “jelly” or “shit” beneath their skins. Here’s Christian self-hatred without God’s redeeming love.
Los Angeles, thirteen years later: Swann is the world’s most famous illusionist. Dorothea (a scrumptious Famke Janssen) and he are married, but not together. Less fortunate are Swann’s apostate compatriots, Caspar Quaid and Jennifer Desiderio. He’s a fortune-teller whose face has more piercings than skin; she’s mad and institutionalized. Enter D’Amour. A private investigator tracking an insurance fraudster to L.A., he stumbles into efforts by Nix’s chief apostle (Butterfield, a perfect Barry Del Sherman) and a neo-Nazi cohort to resurrect him from the dead. Extended intrigue follows: Quaid, Desiderio, and Neo-Nazi don’t survive it; Swann fakes his own death. Meanwhile D’Amour, whom Dorothea hires to investigate Quaid’s murder, slowly discovers who Nix was and why he’s so feared. In a world of illusionists, Nix was a magician.
Shortly before locating Nix’s remains, Butterfield bids Nix’s minions, now scattered, return. They do. But first they murder their families. Bonus points: The preppy minion, now a mail carrier, conceals his strangled wife in their bedroom closet while wearing his postal uniform (including striped shorts). And there’s a cat drawing above his marital bed. Upshot: Beware anyone with a cat drawing above his marital bed.
Act three returns us to Nix’s compound. While Nix’s minions indulge a weird orgy of haircutting and self-mutilation, Butterfield revives him. More bonus points: Butterfield’s resurrection garb mixes a form-fitting gold velour top with black-belted, skin-tight gold leather pants. Nix, now full-on anti-Christ in a white robe, asks his followers (in a play on Matthew 19:14): “Children? Will you suffer to come unto me?” They crawl across broken glass to join him, only to be sucked into the earth as payment for Nix’s passage from beyond: “You just waited like lambs. Well … I’m not your shepherd.” Never has a more deserving group of useful idiots got what was coming to them. Just before Swann and D’Amour vanquish him, Nix’s humanity subsides into black, ballooning filth blossoming from his body. “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” (Matthew 7:15).
Nix is arguably Von Bargen’s signature role. Von Bargen’s growly stentorian and disconcerting eyes suggest menace belying an otherwise amiable (if unkempt) appearance. Few actors could sell a pot-bellied apocalypse in elastic-banded leisure pants. Von Bargen succeeded, owning Nix’s absurdity and terror while evoking empathy for his brokenness.
May he rest in peace.