Week 26: “The Dreamscape & Nightmares of Clive Barker”
I’m a huge fan of novelist Clive Barker. I’ve read most of his books and comic books based on his characters and stories (and even the ones he’s written) and I’ve seen all of his films as a director including those also associated with characters and worlds that he has created. Barker’s unique talents for creating dream-like worlds and nightmares have inspired writers and artists for generations. Despite having only directed three feature length films and a couple of shorts he’s produced lots more and most all of his characters and worlds have been translated in various other mediums.
For right now, I’m just going to focus on his three films as director – Hellraiser (1987), Nightbreed (1990), and Lord of Illusions (1995). Trying to tackle every Barker film or associated with him would include the entire Hellraiser franchise, the films based on the Books of Blood, the Candyman franchise, and the various side projects that he’s produced, executive produced, or just provided a screenplay, not to mention the video games and the thousands of pieces of artwork that he’s produced.
I came to Barker via my older brother and his Books of Blood. He had them all because of a paper he was writing for school. He knew I was big into horror (even in middle school) and handed me one of the volumes of the Books of Blood. I devoured that first book. At the time I was a huge fan of Stephen King so being introduced to Barker was naturally the next step. I quickly read the other two volumes. I was introduced to Hellraiser the same year the second film Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988) was released. I saw the first film and then immediately wanted to see the second film (but unfortunately I was too young to go see it in the theater so I had to make do with the first film). I was aware that Barker had written and directed the first film but I had not yet read The Hellbound Heart on which the film is based (I’d read that novel around the time that Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, 1992 was released).
Hellraiser was unlike anything I had ever seen before. I had a healthy diet of films based on stories by Stephen King (i.e. Carrie, 1976; Salem’s Lot, 1979; Christine, 1983; Cujo, 1983; Children of the Corn, 1984; Firestarter, 1984; Silver Bullet, 1985; Cat’s Eye, 1984; Creepshow, 1982) and Barker was the next novelist I was aware also was associated with films. It was a dark and violent film yet the gore was presented in a very beautiful way. It was never a film that was suspenseful, in my opinion. The only scene that really put me on the edge was Frank’s rebirth scene in the attic which seemed like the most painful scene in the entire film. Even now, knowing how that sequence was actually achieved it gets to me. For me the Cernobites were cool! They were dressed all in black and when Pinhead spoke it was poetic. I never had any fear of him. Instead. I had fear for Kirsty (Ashley Laurence). She seemed like an “everywoman” just like Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978). Kirsty loved her father but disliked her step-mother and was thrown into this otherworld when she’s first assaulted by her uncle Frank. Even after all these sudden revelation she finds the courage to do the right thing in order to save her father (a journey that would continue into the second film). Hellraiser was a film with something to say in its complex and broken family atmosphere shrouded in the fantasies of hell. It was a great debut feature from a talented writer.
Hellraiser was a tremendous success and the sequel Hellbound: Hellraiser II would be released only a year later. Barker would only executive produce Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth and Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996) before having nothing else to do with the franchise.
It wouldn’t be until 1990 when Barker’s next film as a director would be released. Nightbreed (1990) had a lot more trouble reaching the screen than his previous film. By this time I had read The Damnation Game, Weaveworld, The Hellbound Heart, and now Cabal, which was the basis for Nightbreed. I was highly anticipating this film! My brother was still a Barker fan and saw this film on opening night. I had to wait to go see it with a bunch of my friends. We bought tickets for some PG-13 film but snuck into the theater to see the violent and monster filled Nightbreed. Now anyone who knows about the history of this film will know that Barker and the studio went head-to-head in regards to his film. The budget was smaller than Barker’s vision so he had to make a lot of compromises. His director’s cut was longer than what the studio wanted to release into theaters and the studio marketed the film as a run-of-the-mill slasher film. All of this contributed to a film that unfortunately tanked at the Box Office. Critics were mixed about the film and general audiences didn’t know what to do with a film where the monsters were the good guys and the cops were the bad guys. The film quickly disappeared from theaters but that would not be the end of this film audiences would discover it on video.
Hearing about all the controversy surrounding the film and rumors of a longer director’s version of the film, Nightbreed’s cult status began to grow. Audiences gave the film new life and eventually a Nightbreed: The Cabal Cut surfaced at film festivals with footage never before seen and scenes restored in order originally intended by Barker. I was one of the fortunate people to see this version as I helped bring it to Georgia at the 2013 Gwinnett Center International Film Festival, where it would have its Georgia Premiere (it would also screen at DragonCon later the same year).
Nightbreed like all of Barker’s stories is a world filled with amazing creatures and a vast mythology that screams to be told and seen and it is an acquired taste. This is one of my favorite fantasy films as for me it is more fantasy than horror (as are most all of Barker’s novels) as well as my favorite Barker film.
We return to the world of “cool” with Barker’s next feature Lord of Illusions (1995). Since Nightbreed’s release several other films associated with his name would be released such as Candyman (1992) and its sequel Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995), and Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, so the world was getting plenty of Barker. Lord of Illusions would be a different type of film as it would take place in the world of magic and illusions as well as that cults, monsters, and horror. Starring Scott Bakula (from TVs Quantum Leap) and former Bond Girl Famke Jennsen (whom I’ve always had a thing for) I was dying to see this new film. I saw it on opening night and was not disappointed. Despite being a mystery film filled with magic and illusions it was still a Barker film that also had a Jamestown-like cult at the center and many people who would meet grisly ends. It is also the first time that Barker’s broken private investigator Harry D’Amour would be brought to the screen. As much as I loved this film, it doesn’t seem that mainstream audiences liked the film as it only made $13.4 million at the Box Office which ruined the chance of any further big screen adventures for D’Amour.
Lord of Illusions also had its problems reaching mainstream audiences as it was also a hard film to market. Its mixture of horror, mystery, cults, monsters, and other strange paranormal things confounded audiences and critics once again. It wasn’t until the film reached video that it found its true audience.
Hellraiser is Barker’s only film that has a huge mainstream following and with nine films in the franchise it has a life of its own. Candyman is the only other film with its own franchise while most of the other properties associated with Barker has had mixed results to best. My favorite has been the films associated with the Books of Blood series which is Dread (2009), The Midnight Meat Train (2008) and Book of Blood (2009). These have all been some excellent films that stay true to the spirit of Barker’s stories.
For those of you who didn’t know, Barker also directed two “official” short films prior to Hellraiser. I say “official” only because Barker wrote and directed lots of stage plays and probably directed more short films than the two I’m about to mention. Salome (1973) and The Forbidden (1978) are the two short films you can easily find. There’s such a huge gap in between these two shorts and his first feature that it’s hard to believe that he didn’t do anything else. These are both disturbing visions from a director trying to find his voice and style in the film medium. More a curiosity for Barker fans than anything else as he adapts two of his own stories.
Barker may not have directed a lot of films in his long career but there is no denying his lasting influence can be seen and felt in the vast worlds that he has crafted and which others continue to inhabit and play in.