A Love Letter To Clive Barker
We know his name. We know his stories. We know his imagination and the world’s he’s created. We know thirty years ago that Stephen King ‘Has seen the future of horror… and it’s named Clive Barker”
Over the years, few masters of macabre have captivated me as much as Clive Barker, both with his writing and films based on said writing, but especially the three feature length adaptations of his own work—Hellraiser, Nightbreed, and Lord of Illusions, each unique and settling atmospherically within the Barker universe in their own special way, have popped up in my life at numerous times, always reminding me why I fell in love with them and why they've continued to be pillars of inspiration for me AND many others in the horror community.
Hellraiser: The Gateway.
By now most of us have watched Hellraiser (probably countless times) but it’s appeal still grows even after numerous sequels fail to hit the mark quite like Clive’s 1987 feature length directorial debut. Based on his Novella The Hellbound Heart, which focuses on a mystical puzzle box and the decimating horror it unleashed on a family unfortunate enough to come across it. Skinless bodies craving blood, a hedonistic love affair drenched in wicked lust, and extra dimensional beings who can reach Earth's reality through a doorway opened and closed using said puzzle box. This isn’t your typical 1980’s horror tale.
Oddly enough, I first watched (half watched) Hellraiser through covered eyes and pulled up blankets in a hotel room on a trip to Disney with my parents where they were watching it on the free HBO. I pretended to be asleep while I was was absolutely horrified by what my parents were watching, I must have been 5 or 6 and was in no way ready for that or the hopeless nightmares that would follow.
Fast forward a few more years and I was knee deep in late night vhs viewing sessions with my cooler older cousin, who was definitely the spark plug in showing me horror films that were a bit more intense than what I was used to at such a young age, and a big part of my obsession with this film and its universe. Ten years my senior, we’d rent everything a budding young fangoria reader would want to see as we’d stroll down the coveted Horror aisle caressing the VHS boxes as I’d piece together whatever craziness I could imagine from what was depicted within the artwork. Suddenly, I came across the first three Hellraiser films, and seeing Pinhead on the cover immediately reminded me of that fateful trip to Disney a few years earlier.
I told him: “THIS IS IT, THIS IS WHAT WE SHOULD RENT!” I felt so confident in my choice, so sure that this was it and that I would be ready especially since I’d seen the majority of the first film. My cousin looked at them, looked back at me and said, “Chill little dude, I don’t know if you’re ready for these yet.” I gulped, that confidence was gone and a sudden rush of fear came over me as distant memories of hooked chains swaying back and forth in the shadows entered my head. “You sure?” he said, to which I said “YEP!”, He devilishly grinned and in a deep voice said “We have such sights to show you.”
We rented all three, bought a pizza (and some RC Cola, heh) and headed back to his place to watch in his dimly lit, highly atmospheric basement (that I still try to replicate wherever I’ve lived). The dread that came over me in the car was a distinct sign that I had made a terrible mistake. That first film, while not frightening to me now, still manages to conjure up some creepy shit in my imagination, especially when I hear that amazing atmospheric theme slowly lead in, and thus my fascination with Clive Barker and Hellraiser began, and my once doubtful decision to explore the realms of Barker’s film led to one of my most memorable interactions with my beloved teacher/journeyman of horror who I looked up to so much. I feel like after this I went from crazed fan of the Macabre to an Explorer in the further regions of experience.
I frequent Alternative ‘Goth’ clubs in the tri-stare area, and the Hellraiser influence—from cenobite themed nights, the apparel (obviously), the countless industrial songs sampling Hellraiser clips, to the dimly lit decor—is vast, and I can’t help but feel my alternative lifestyle and love of things that are just a teensy bit darker is somehow directly linked to opening up the Lemarchand box gateway that Hellraiser was to me. Jesus Wept.
Nightbreed tells the story of a troubled young man who’s drawn to a mythical place called Midian, hidden within the local Cemetery, where a tribe of monsters are hiding from the dangers of humanity. Basically, if you haven’t seen it, Nightbreed is Clive Barker’s Dark Fantasy Horror jam, his X-Men, as he paints grotesque monsters as heroes and human beings as the true villains. Nightbreed isn't the first time this has happened in cinema, but Barker’s Grand Guignol vision of such topics is certainly one of the most unique, and still remains impressive 28 years later, with a clear cut message that will never not be relevant.
I like the director's cut that was released by Scream Factory a few years back quite a bit, but the theatrical is still my preferred version to revisit. Nightbreed was always in steady rotation as a teenager, appealing to younger me with not only horror and cool monsters that I rooted for, but with a bit of fantasy as well. Add all those elements up, plus a sadistic David Cronenberg stealing whatever scene he’s in as a psychopathic maniac doctor and you have a prime slice of highly enjoyable 1990 cinema that I’ve always been able to connect with over the years, no matter what my age is.
More often than not, perception of others based solely on looks is all too familiar a subject with people, especially to 12 year old nerdy me who was too busy drawing monsters in junior high while everyone else called me a weirdo, and to 32 year old long black hair-heavily tattooed-Depeche Mode/Misfits shirt wearing-Vampire looking present day me who writes about monsters while still being judged by the residents of the semi conservative area of town I live in. It’s sad that things like that still happen and I’ve grown used to it over the years, easily learning how to brush away obnoxious remarks from (but not limited to) MAGA hat wearing antagonists that seem to know an awful lot about me despite never interacting with me. Nightbreed definitely helped with that, in fact, it still does.
Lord of Illusions: The long lost love—Noir
Besides Horror, one of my favorite genres in cinema is the Film Noir. Captivating pulp stories of seedy villains entrenched in shadow on dimly lit streets, twisting kaleidoscope-like plots, femme fatales, and a downtrodden hero who’s usually pushed to the brink trying to crack a mystery with rarely a happy ending in sight.
During my pre-teen years, my Dad and I would hunt down as many Noirs on home video as we could find, having marathons and checking classics as well as lesser known gems off our list. Turner Classic Movies made this task even easier for us. I still do this with Noir, especially during Noir-vember where I’m usually knee deep in pulpy tales of crime and murder, but for some reason I slacked off on Noir-vember this year, but I began to think about how much I love occult detective noir stories so I popped in the director’s cut of Clive Barker’s Lord of Illusions and decided to watch it in black and white to satisfy my shadowy aesthetic craving.
I was always a fan of this movie, and this is a rare case where I actually prefer the Director’s Cut of a film (that’s a whole other article altogether), the plot flows with much more clarity, the characters are way richer, and the atmosphere is decidedly darker as cinematic white bread art form Scott Bakula plays down on his luck private detective Harry D’Amour (who has a knack for supernatural cases), our guide into a devilish world of black magic wizardry and illusion as he sets of to Los Angeles, unraveling a case involving members of a fanatic cult who are waiting for the resurrection of their leader Nix, and a famous illusionist involved with the murder.
Some of the digital effects are a sign of the times, but luckily watching this in black and white remedies that, but there’s also some fantastic practical effects on display as well. Once again, Barker’s imagination is spilling with world-building creativity, and I hope he’ll continue directing and unleashing his imagination on us. I stumbled on this in the late 90’s whilst in my heavy Noir learning cycle and was fascinated how well horror fits into what is essentially a private detective story. I know others exist (I’m looking at you Cast a Deadly Spell and Angel Heart) but I really wish there were more occult detective noir mysteries with plenty of blood, gold pants, and BDSM. Lord of Illusions is most definitely my jam, and satisfies that hybrid Horror Noir craving quite nicely!
For over 30 years now, the imagination of Clive Barker has been sending powerful ripples of psychological and visual creativity through our minds, posing the question of “Why do we keep coming back to it?” I’ll tell you why, it’s a doorway opener, a gateway if you will, into a dark place not much different from our own world, but fantastical enough to make our minds race with images different from the normal conduits of entertainment intake. From the three mentioned films about impacting my life to the infamous writings of Books of Blood, The Damnation Game, The Hellbound Heart, numerous comic book contributions, 90’s horror royalty such as Candyman, and pieces of art that has been displayed in galleries all around the United States, Clive Barker is simply one of our favorite genres leading creators and contributors. Thank you, Mr. Barker, I think I’d be lost without you.