New World Pictures
In 1986, Stephen King staged a challenge to the many respected directors who had envisioned his famous books as films: he posited that a horror writer could best any horror director given their supposedly unique relationship to the subject matter. The result of this challenge was the insanely entertaining but not at all scary Maximum Overdrive, a fascinating but notable failure of a creator’s attempt to move from one medium to another.
A year later, another horror writer tried his hand at filmmaking to considerably different results. Clive Barker, who King famously christened “the future of horror,” made himself known as a force to be reckoned with in cinematic fear with Hellraiser. Barker is perhaps better known in many circles for his novels, plays and video games than his feature films, as he has only helmed three, with his most recent released almost twenty years ago. But Barker’s imagination has had a serious influence on horror cinema, producing images of violence and monstrosity that have resonated, as evidenced by the strong legacy of his work as well as his notable influence on other filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro.
So here is some free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from an artist who has made a career out of raising a bit of hell.
Make Your Own Laws
Lucy Snyder: “When you were starting out as a writer, what preconceptions did you have about becoming an author, and how did they stand up to the reality you’ve experienced?”
Clive Barker: “I had no preconceptions, absolutely none. I didn’t know any writers, I didn’t actually think about that. It’s interesting you should ask that; nobody has asked that before. I’ve always written, and I’ve always made paintings, and on my door I have a quote from William Blake: ‘Make your own laws or be slave to another man’s.’ And I think that’s how I’ve always made art, and if that sounds a little simplistic then it probably is.”
Barker didn’t go about writing or filmmaking in terms of what he thought a given work or the artists behind it should be, but has instead approached an array of platforms as a powerful means of raw self-expression borne out of a need to make a restless imagination manifest. Whether on the page, in front of a camera or on a stage, Barker has found some means to articulate what’s in his head on his own terms.
Later in the same interview, Barker mentions how this instinct played out in his childhood, in terms of storytelling by any means he can:
“If I had not been able to go to a place with theatre, I would have done what I did when I was eight: I would have made a public theatre. There was a double-door at the back of our back yard that led onto the alleyway and opened inwards. I was able to put a little puppet theatre there. And over three or four summers starting when I was eight, I was able to put on afternoon shows twice a week…”
Never Leave It to the Imagination
Earlier in this 1987 interview, Barker states that he wanted his short story collection, “Books of Blood,” to be like Woody Allen’s Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), except for horror: an exploration of the most depraved and terrifying scenarios he could think of. This line of thinking clearly extended to his filmmaking.
Be Your Spectator’s Mad Man
“I don’t like PG-13 horror movies. I think they’re a contradiction in terms. When I was younger, and I’d go and see a horror movie, the whole point was to feel like you’re in the hands of a mad man. To pay respect to the originator of that quote, it was Wes Craven who said it. He said that a film viewer, a spectator, needs to come in and feel as though the person behind the camera is crazy. I think that’s true. I think you do want to have a sense that Barker’s probably a twisted, sick little fuck. Because that’s the experience you’re going to look at, right? If you feel it’s all a sham…It isn’t a sham with me. I am a twisted little fuck.”
Let Your Subconscious Erupt into Form
Your subconscious is telling you something when you dream and when you suffer from nightmares. It’s best to listen to it.
Sexuality and Social Difference are People’s Greatest Fears
In his 1997 appearance on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, Barker, the onetime “future of horror,” actually debates co-habitation laws with a onetime witch.
Examine Barker’s use of the term “fear” after the three-minute mark, and how he calls out O’Donnell’s homophobia as an unacknowledged fear of sexual difference. We don’t tend to equate social phobias and prejudices with the explicit objects of fear presented in fantastical horror films, but Barker’s work explores this territory repeatedly.
In his short story “The Forbidden,” adapted as Candyman, Barker makes the object of fear someone who resides in an economically impoverished tenement, thus dealing head-on with class-based prejudice. In Nightbreed, Barker uses a monster underground as a sledgehammer of a metaphor for social pariahs, making the outcasts the heroes of the story and staging an inter-species romance at its center (an aspect of the film reportedly emphasized in the recently released director’s cut). In a less coherent representation of sexual minorities, Barker’s costuming for Hellraiser’s cenobites was inspired by BDSM culture.
To varying degrees, Barker’s work uses the potential for allegory in genre filmmaking in order to explore layers of fear both evident and unacknowledged.
Final Thoughts: Time is Kind to Generic Work
This statement is certainly true for Barker, whose Hellraiser has only grown in stature since it made its debut as a curious cinematic object 27 years ago. Nightbreed is enjoying a peak of reconsideration, with its director’s cut revealing a story that was far more invested in the lives of, and differences between, underground monsters than the slasher/action film it was misleadingly advertised to be. Works of genre, in particular, might be invisible in the present, but can reveal a sensibility ahead of their time in the future. Barker’s reputation has varied across his years of work within various media, but it is a reputation that has endured by the very fact that such a varied body of work exists.
Point being, time can do a lot of good for art, and works that are ignored or misunderstood now can become vitally important in the future. If your work doesn’t connect now, don’t fret. Keep going back to your equivalent of a backyard puppet theater and make more art, in whatever form you see fit.