Clive Barker is a powerhouse of imagination. He is an accomplished horror author with great works like The Books of Blood and The Hellbound Heart, as well as a great fantasy author, with the Abarat series and books like Imajica and The Great and Secret Show. Yet he is also a fantastic painter and a successful movie producer who has produced films like the Academy Award winning Gods and Monsters. He has even worked in comics (Hellraiser, Next Testament) and video games (Undying, Jericho) yet it will probably always be the Hellraiser series for which he is most widely known. This is a bit ironic, as he has written over thirty novels but has only directed three films. Still, this never stopped his work from being adapted. One of the distinctions between Clive Barker’s filmography and most other horror authors is that Barker always tries to be involved. Whether it be as screenwriter, director or producer, he always tries to have a hand in whatever work of his is being brought to the screen. Sometimes he’s not allowed this (see the later Hellraiser sequels) and sometimes the project is doomed from the start (say, for example, Rawhead Rex). But here are ten films that avoided all this to become worthy of truly being touted as ‘from the mind of Clive Barker.’
Unrelated to Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” which was the basis of Candyman, these two experimental films go hand in hand. They’re not for all viewers. They were made by a very young Clive Barker when he was just starting out and are 8mm art house productions. Yet they’re fascinating to watch, especially to see the development of one of the masters from the earliest stage. And even though these are not Hollywood productions with much (or really any) budget, they still feature some familiar Clive Barker faces like Doug Bradley.
The Book of Blood
This one is based on the wraparound story from The Books of Blood, which naturally means it suffers a bit in adaptation. The story focuses on a young con man who tricks people into believing he sees ghosts but is then turned into a highway for the dead to tell their stories. They do this by writing them down on his skin, turning him into a literal book of blood. In the collections, these stories that the dead carve on his flesh form the stories inside The Book of Blood, so it loses something without that. There are a few references to some of the other stories, but nothing very solid. Still, the movie is atmospheric and well acted.
Haeckel’s Tale is one of the most recent films as well as one of the most recent stories of Barker’s to have a film adaptation. It was created as a part of Showtime’s Masters of Horror and was directed by John McNaughton, a director who earned the title of ‘Master of Horror’ for his earliest film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. This is a very different feature from that in a lot of ways, which only shows McNaughton’s strength and versatility as a director. It also sticks very close to the short story, which is about Ernst Haeckel, the man who questioned the laws of God and wondered if man could do better, if man could create life from death. In his travels, he falls in love with a woman who lets him stay at her cottage and cannot understand why he can’t seem to catch her interest. The short answer is that living men simply don’t do it for her. It’s a very Clive Barker take on a zombie story, complete with undead orgies – of course.
Dread is a very interesting story in the Clive Barker canon. Like most things on this list, it’s a story that originated in The Books of Blood, but it is the only realistic story that Barker ever wrote. The story could very well have proven some early inspiration for Saw as well. It’s a psychological horror picture about a university fear study to tap into the greatest dread people have ever felt in their lives and convince them to overcome it by recreating it. The film expands the story in smart ways and is superbly shot and acted for such a tiny production. The intimacy is what makes this one work, though.
Valerie on the Stairs
Barker’s second piece for Masters of Horror, this time with Mick Garris at the helm, was a totally original story. He submitted a treatment that was basically a short story, but it wasn’t based on any pre-existing Clive Barker work. This one is about a man who moves into an apartment building that is a commune for unpublished writers. They can stay there until they make their first sale, and after that they’re out. Most of them have been there a long time. The protagonist begins to see a beautiful woman on the stairway and at first believes to building to be haunted. It’s much stranger than that. She’s a haunted piece of fiction who never saw the light of day. A story created by some of the building’s inhabitants, now abandoned and unloved along with the monster (played by Tony Todd) that claims ownership of her.
The Midnight Meat Train
An early starring role for Bradley Cooper, The Midnight Meat Train sparked a resurgence in adaptations of Barker’s work. The movie sticks close to the suspenseful story of a butcher who does his business on the last train that runs through the New York subway every night. It’s inherently unnerving, but the movie adds to it a great visual style and excellent cinematography. Vinnie Jones gives a great performance without the benefit of dialogue. The ending proves loyal to the short story, as it was guaranteed to be alienating to audiences unfamiliar with the text, but the movie chose to take that route anyway. In the end, people accepted it and the film has been largely embraced by the people who have discovered it.
Lord of Illusions
Barker’s last film as director brought one of his most important creations to life. Harry D’Amour is as important a character in the Barker mythology as Pinhead is (and the two will actually face off in Barker’s The Scarlet Gospels, coming next May), he’s a private detective who takes some colorful cases who has appeared in many of Barker’s stories. This one is loosely based on the first story to feature D’Amour, “The Last Illusion.” It’s about the apparent death of a magician, the cult he abandoned to begin his career, and the very nature of magic itself. Some of the optical effects are dated, but the story is well crafted and the acting is great all around.
For many years, Nightbreed was a dark spot in the Barker canon. It was a good enough film, but it was supposed to be one of his best. The film was hyped up when it was in production (which was right after the huge success of Hellraiser) as being “Star Wars for monsters.” But studio involvement bogged the film down. They simply didn’t get it, nor did they really want to. Barker was desperate to make his movie and they were desperate to make money, which they believed to be a completely conflicting interest. Huge chunks of the film were cut out, more intense action sequences were added. What resulted was a jumbled film that was what neither Barker nor his producers had set out to make. Now, however, the movie has been restored to the glory it should have had twenty-five years ago, in a Director’s Cut Blu-Ray that has restored footage that was thought to be lost for decades.
It’s one of the best horror films of the 1990’s if not the best and it’s one of the greatest adaptations of Clive Barker’s work, bar none. Barker worked closely with director Bernard Rose on bringing the film to life, and Rose had a great visual style and sense of direction for bringing the story to the screen. The location was changed from the ghettos of London to the projects of Chicago and it works just as well if not better. Helen Lyle is a woman working on a thesis exploring urban legends, studying the story of the Candyman. The story suggests that if you say his name five times in front of a mirror, Candyman will appear behind you. Helen doesn’t believe, so the Candyman is obliged to come and change her mind. It is a film about the nature of urban legends and why we tell them. It’s about the nature of stories in general. If a story is told enough times, it becomes widespread belief, it’s accepted as fact. It takes on a life of its own, and that is exactly what happens in Candyman.
He may have tried to climb his way out of the shadow of this film for years, but Barker has since seemed to embrace Hellraiser, as he has now gone back to finish The Scarlet Gospels, co-write a Hellraiser comic book series and write a draft of the Hellraiser reboot. The original film was one of the most original horror pictures of the 1980’s and is simply one of the best horror features of all times. It’s expertly made, especially for a first time director. It’s such a layered film that something new can be found almost every time you watch. The story is a dark, twisted romance. Frank and Julia make for great antagonists, but it’s the Cenobites with their five minutes of screen time and superb designs that really steal the show.
*Updated October 2, 2019