Lord Of Illusions

Michael Chabon's book The Yiddish Policeman's Union introduced me to a new term: zugzwang. Zugzwang describes a specific circumstance in chess where every possible move that is available to a player would worsen their position, and because the rules of chess don't allow you to pass when it's your turn that player has to hasten their own ending by making a bad move. Chabon applies the term to detective stories because they tend to reach a point where the gumshoe has unraveled the mystery he was hired to solve but the bad guy remains  unpunished. In theory he could walk away - and in fact walking away is probably the safest option - but the detective is in too deep and he has to see it through to the end. If self preservation were in the detective's nature he would pass, but justice is in his nature, so instead he presses his luck.

Lord of Illusions is part mystical horror movie and part detective movie, and it is semi-competent as a movie about warlocks and terrible as a movie about a private eye. The movie opens with a long scene where a Satan worshiping wizard is magically bound with a metal faceplate and buried in a shallow grave by his slightly less evil apprentice. Then we fast forward 15 years to meet a detective who is hired to work an insurance fraud case in L.A. Now, we in the audience know that sooner or later this detective is going to stumble across these Satanists and then shit's going to go down, but naturally we have to assume that the trail that leads towards the Satanists is going to be long and involved because there is a mighty big jump between insurance fraud and bloodthirsty warlocks.

Anyway, the detective goes to L.A., where he finds his mark very quickly. The detective follows his appointed target from a skeevy hotel to a nondescript apartment complex, but the guy runs out of the apartment complex immediately after he enters it. At this point the detective has to make a choice about what to do: follow the guy he was paid to follow or investigate what in that building made a grown man run away screaming. His curiosity gets the better of him, so he sneaks down the hallway till he enters a room where an eyebrow-less weirdo in gold pants and a man with nothing but fangs in his mouth are sticking what look like butter knives into a screaming hostage. (They could be surgical knives but it's hard to tell from their handles.) A fight breaks out between the detective and the weirdos. The detective kicks the vampire out the window, gold pants flees and the hostage dies.

At this point the only rational thing for him to do is to re-evaluate the choices that have led him here. He didn't start off on solid ground and slowly find himself sinking in quicksand - he started off doing a mundane investigation and immediately stumbled onto something violent and freaky on accident.There's no reason for him to want to stay in L.A. because he has yet to meet the femme fatale who is going to suck him in deeper, he has nothing emotionally invested in the people who are in trouble / causing trouble (because outside of the two who tried to kill him on first sight he hasn't met them yet, either), and the amount of money he's been offered is not nearly enough to justify further tussles with a stabby vampire toothed maniac. This being a movie he (of course) makes the decision to follow the breadcrumbs that will eventually lead him back to the Satanic cult, but why in the fuck would he do that? The only possible outcome from that choice is to have more fights with supernatural forces that definitely outmatch him, and idle curiosity about the occult is not enough of a reason to run that risk.

In other words, the ramp-up to the point where the detective is debating whether to stop or continue was handled completely ineptly because it happened two scenes into his story. You can't be at zugzwang that early in the game; at that point you either have too many options for good moves or else you've stopped playing normal chess, and if you've stopped playing normal chess you should probably walk away from the game. The instant the detective realized that levitating fire breathing people had been moved onto the board he should have said fuck it and walked away because why should he follow the rules of the game if his opponent won't?

Keep in mind: that wrong turn is in the first act. By the time we get to the third act even the supernatural parts of the story are off the rails. (In the final battle we watch someone's brain explode from the inside of their skull and then five minutes later this brainless character is talking again.) Is there a chess term for "should have quit halfway through"? If so, it definitely applies to this movie. 

Winner: The Cat

Lord of Illusion on IMDB