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Clive Barker: Demon To Some, Angel To Others


Beth Kelly takes a look into the terrifying, beautiful, twisted world of horror icon Clive Barker...

We’ve seen the clichés time and time again: flesh-munching zombies, deranged hitchhikers, disturbingly naive teenage babysitters, evil cliques of high school girls, whackos off dirt roads in rural America…. However, there are many movies that thrive upon original ideas and unique plots. One of the most imaginative figures in the realm of contemporary horror is Clive Barker. He has always eschewed formulas and clichés in favor of experimental (and often confusing or deceptive) visual storytelling devices and atmosphere.

Barker first formed a theater in London at age 21 to produce the plays he wrote, all of which were recognized for their horrific but fantastical elements. The profoundly unique and imaginative qualities that composed Barker's work is what led his novels to being adapted into films, which then inspired him to direct his own: enter Hellraiser (1987) . Based on his novella entitled The Hellbound Heart, the movie follows the alternate world of horrors unlocked by an exotic puzzle box. A philanderer named Frank (Sean Chapman) buys the box from a peddler, and upon solving the puzzle, he is greeted by Pinhead (Doug Bradley), a member of the sadistic Cenobites who exist in the hellish realm opened by the box. In a fashion that evokes classic vampire lore, Frank can only re-enter the world of the living through consuming human blood, which is lovingly delivered to him by his sister in law Julia (Clare Higgins).

The film is filled with subversive religious iconography. The term "cenobite" means a member of a communal religious order, and Barker was openly critical of organized religions. He expresses this in the organization of his nightmarish cenobite creatures, mimicking their structure of hierarchy to that of a church. The allegory of these monsters being that they are the creators of their own evil, and perhaps Barker believes this to be true for popular faiths as well.

Hellraiser was so successful that it spawned an entire franchise that consists of nine films, as well as a comic book series and other merchandise. There’s even talk now about a Hellraiser TV series. Following the success of Hellraiser, Barker went on to adapt another novella, Cabal, for the silver screen. The film was ultimately titled Nightbreed (1990), and even though it confused most viewing audiences upon its release, it’s been largely re-embraced by horror fans. The film depicts the story of a mental patient who has been led by his doctor (portrayed by David Cronenberg) to believe he is a serial killer, who escapes to a cemetery and finds himself in the midst of a pack of monsters that lurk in the darkness — a nightbreed, as it were. Although the film wasn't an initial hit at the box office, it still serves as a fine illustration of Barker's interesting depiction of horror, as well as the metaphorical parallels he creates to our own reality.

Although he did not sit in the director's seat the third time around, another work by Barker that was adapted for film was his short story The Forbidden. The film, Candyman (1992), was directed by Bernard Rose took Barker's story out of England and into public housing in Chicago's Near North Side. The story plays heavily into the phenomenon of urban legends, with the main character, Helen (Virginia Madsen), completing a thesis on the topic and coming across the myth of "Candyman", a slave artist who was murdered and had his hand replaced with a hook. The student follows the lead of unsolved murders purported to be committed at the hand of the Candyman (Tony Todd), which brings her to the public housing facility that is the center of the film. Helen soon discovers that the line between legend and reality can be thinly blurred, and finds herself in the midst of the exact myth she wanted to debunk. The film was a commercial and critical success, and it’s still shown regularly at midnight screenings and on niche horror networks available through internet & TV bundles. The film was proceeded by two sequels, Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh and Candyman 3: Day of the Dead.

Clive Barker's imaginative take on horror helped pave the way for other filmmakers, proving that it is possible to create all the suspense and terror of a typical slasher film while still following a unique, even fantasy based storyline. His use of metaphors in his literature allowed some of that depth to be carried over on screen, which is a rare and interesting touch in the horror genre and surely a strong inspiration to many others.


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