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Author And Filmmaker Clive Barker
Cinema Junkie / October 2, 2015
An archive interview with Clive Barker from 2005 launches a month of horror themed podcasts on Cinema Junkie.
The first thing that strikes you about Clive Barker is the contrast between the man and his work. There’s nothing in his outward demeanor to suggest that he has penned such dark fantasies as “The Books of Blood,” directed the horrific “Hellraiser” and created such perverse sketches as “Throwing the Christ Child Over the Edge of the World” and “Susanna Becomes a Dragon.” Barker strikes one as refreshingly sane and immediately likable. Not exactly the adjectives you’d use to describe his work. But Barker is articulate and intelligent and those are qualities that can be found in his works.
Over the years Barker has became something of a renaissance man as his art expanded to include theater, literature, comic books, filmmaking and even children’s stories. He has even collaborated with Spawn creator Todd McFarlane on two diabolically disturbed lines of toys—Tortured Souls and the Infernal Parade, both of which sold out and can now only be found on eBay and in collectible shops. There was even talk at one point of the two collaborating on a movie based on the characters created for Tortured Souls.
Barker gained literary fame for his groundbreaking “Books of Blood, Volumes One through Three,” and his 1987 bestseller “The Damnation Game.” It was in 1987 that Barker also decided to bring his unique, audacious, pull-no-punches brand of horror to the big screen. A drop of blood seeping through the floorboards of an old attic gave rise to a gruesome Phoenix in “Hellraiser,” Barker’s feature film debut as a writer-director. The film helped redefine the horror genre and catapulted Barker into the limelight. Barker’s Frank and his Cenobite pals headed by Pinhead were a new breed of screen villains. They had complexity, were articulate and in an odd way seductive. What Barker brought or returned to the genre was a disturbing acknowledgment of the seductive side of evil and his villains reflected a dark side that we may all harbor in our souls.
Barker tries not to pass judgment on his characters but rather he tries to capture the essence of what it is that fascinates us about horror. His approach is objective yet he is also able to evoke sympathy for unlikely subjects. In a book like “Cabal,” he takes us into the mind of a serial killer and unflinchingly details that psyche. He also introduces us to a nether world of monsters that he makes human and sympathetic. Many of his sketches and drawings (check out his recent collection “Visions of Heaven and Hell”) offer portraits of evil or horror in which the subjects look directly and unapologetically at you. He confronts the horrific and the unimaginable with a kind of defiantly rational acceptance that makes it seem vividly believable and frequently even erotically charged.
Barker’s macabre sense of humor combined with his bold exploration of the darkest recesses of the subconscious, make his artistic endeavors fascinating. Whether the medium is a canvas, a book or a film, Barker’s works offer compelling and haunting nightmare visions unlike anything else. So to creep you out this Halloween, we decided to take a look at what scares us at the movies. And there’s no one better guide to this nether world of fear than Clive Barker.
BETH ACCOMANDO: Can you remember the first film that scared you?
CLIVE BARKER: We did not see a lot of movies as kids. So I would go to the movies once or twice a year with my parents, and the first movie I remember scaring me was Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, particularly the fires. I was probably four or five. I didn’t remember this until much, much later when I saw the movie on DVD and it was like a recovered memory. I could remember being in the seat and turning my face away from the screen. By contrast I don’t ever remember being scared by books, ever. Books allow you to imagine to the level that you can deal with and no further, so they’re kinder, they’re a kinder form of fiction. Films unreel before you and you have no choice but to go where the narrative takes you, to read the images that the narrative presents to you. And sometimes those can be deeply distressing and not always for the reasons that the filmmaker would have intended.
BA: So do you think movies control your imagination much more than a novel does in horror?
CB: Well it was John Fowles, the English novelist, who called movies a fascist medium and I think that’s essentially true. They tell you what to feel and when to feel it. The music track will be doing that if the narrative isn’t. Turn down the sound on Jaws and see what happens without composer John Williams. Then turn up the sound again and John Williams is telling you every moment to be scared and how to be scared. And how it’s all going to work for you. I think movies are much less co-creator friendly. I think of books as very much a medium, which invites co-creation. You have these words on a page and they are going to be coming to life in your imagination in a way that is very particular to you. If you compare your version of Narnia or Moby Dick with someone else’s version of Narnia or Moby Dick in the particulars of its landscapes or the way the creatures look or the characters look, you’re going to find all kinds of differences, things that have made the book yours. That obviously can’t exist in cinema. Cinema demands that you see and feel one particular way.
BA: So what makes for good horror films, what are the elements it needs?
CB: Commanding those very things. It’s because you’re in charge of the viewers’ experience as director that it’s so easy to scare people. All you need to do is turn the sound down low for half a minute and then turn it up really loud and have a figure jump from out of screen onto screen and you’ll have most of the audience jumping. Now is that a very sophisticated scare? No. But it can actually get the audience’s adrenaline going and excitement going especially in a large audience, I think these movies work best with large audiences rather than viewed at home. Then it can become quite an experience, building scare on scare on scare. This is The Exorcist’s genius. You know the first scare is a silly little thing, you know she goes up stairs because she thinks she hears rats and she has a candle in her hand and it suddenly flares, there’s a noise and it suddenly flares. And the audience jumps, I don’t know how deep into the movie you are, maybe twenty minutes. But our hearts are fluttering a little now. And the movie will gradually intensify our reasons for having fluttering hearts.
BA: What then separates this basic something jumps out of the dark kind of scare and more sophisticated horror? What takes the horror to the next level?
CB: I have to say that it comes down to our old friend subtext. It’s about what is the movie about beneath its costume and make up and cheap frights. David Cronenberg has been extraordinarily good at combining very basic frights, at least in his early films, gross outs in fact, your basic issue Grand Guignol, with something else, with something that stimulates the head, with something that makes you think about the movie after you’ve stepped away from it.
BA: So what do you think is our fascination with horror, it seems like we almost need it?
CB: We do need it I think. This is the big puzzle, isn’t it, we need it as much as we ever have even though our news reports are perhaps more horrific than they have ever been. I get a lot of fan mail from soldiers in Iraq about how much they love to watch the Hellraiser movies or Night Breed or read the books, the horror stuff that I write.
BA: So what were they telling you in these letters in terms of their appreciation for your work?
CB: They just like monsters. I think the love of monsters is a sort of universal. Maybe what monsters do is allow us to find a focus for our fear, a place where the fear can go, a vassal, and into that vassal go all the things that wake us up at three o’clock in the morning in a chilly sweat. And because they’re all put in one place, safely put in one place, they can be dealt with there.
BA: Do you also feel that there’s a rush that you get from going to see a film that does scare you?
CB: Oh yes but it’s such a disappointment that so few of them give you that rush any more. And I don’t think that’s me being an old fuddy-duddy saying movies were scarier in my day, they were. We’ve had recently a lot of very stylishly made but very empty PG-13 pictures. No horror movie worth its name should be PG-13. It’s got to be R rated, we’ve got to be taken to some taboo area, some place where forbidden images are put before us, if we’re not on the ride to forbidden what are we on the ride for?
BA: But do you think horror does serve some sort of psychological need for us?
CB: I think there’s a reason young people go to see horror movies, I certainly think we’re back to that issue of the forbidden certainly, testing the boundaries. There has been some very good writing about the initiation elements of a horror movie—dare you see it, can you see it. I remember very powerfully at the age of 14 or 15, going to see a double bill of Psycho and the original War of the Worlds, the good one. And my friend and I snuck in to see something we shouldn’t have been seeing and the sense of the forbidden act in going to see this stuff, particularly Psycho. So it was really a wonderful double bill for me, it could not have been more perfect for a horror fantasy writer to be introduced to the forbidden experience of horror movies and science fiction movies all in one glorious night.
BA: Do you feel that horror has changed over the years in film in terms of the things that scare us?
CB: Not enough. It hasn’t changed enough in my estimation. I think we should be bolder in our confrontations with fear and our sources of fear. When I wrote the Books of Blood which were my first venturing into this area, twenty years ago the first thing I did was drag sex kicking and screaming into horror fiction where it had been conspicuous by its absence. And yet it remains conspicuous by its absence except in the most coy and giggly sort of way in our contemporary horror movies. I think we have a lot of pretty scared filmmakers out there actually and scared in all the wrong ways. Scared of their producers, scared of not getting their films made. David Cronenberg is an honorable exception to this. David has his own sweet, yes sweet way throughout his career and made movies that didn’t always do well at the box office but he could proudly say were unlike any other kind of movies being made and how often can you say that about movies. So often movies today represent warmed over versions of what was better twenty years ago.
BA: Do you see anybody else besides Cronenberg who does get it right?
CB: yeah I think we’ve seen a whole bunch of Japanese and Korean filmmakers get it right. I think Del Toro gets it right, his Spanish movie The Devil’s Backbone for instance I thought was an extraordinary movie. Cronos, another movie by Del Toro, again really wonderful, made for a quarter of a million dollars. I think sometimes the slickness of the American products undercuts it. The remake of The Amityville Horror and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, were in my mind undone by their slickness.
BA: Are there any films that scare you now?
CB: Ahh, very few, very few, I’m much more likely to be, I’m not even going to say scared but moved in an interesting dark way by something that appears on the news frankly than I am by movies. I’ve been watching horror movies now for almost forty years, I’ve been watching these movies for a long time so there are very few tricks left up very few sleeves I suspect. Which I don’t crow about at all I’m just rather disappointed quite frankly I’d much rather prefer to be a virgin again and be able to enter the theater… well it suddenly comes back to me as we speak, I remember going to see the first Cronenberg movie, They Came From Within, its reputation had my hands clammy before the movie started to play unfortunately there aren’t any movie that can do that any more.
BA: I wanted to mention one of your drawings that I love, that depicts a young boy, hands thrust defiantly in his pockets, looking unflinching up into the face of a monster who wears a devilish grin as he appears to be sizing up his next meal. The sketch seems to sum up your approach to horror.
CB: Yes it sort of does, thank you for that, that is a very old painting, it’s a black and white, a brush drawing, I want to say that it’s 1977 or 1976, but the boy is looking up at the monster as if to say I’m not really that scared of you, and the monster which is vaguely dragon-like, has its arms crossed on its chest like a really irritated parent who can’t get the kid to be scared of him. And yes I think that’s very much my relationship with horror, it’s go on scare me, scare me, I very much want that, that appetite has not gone away, I’m in my fifties now and I am still waiting to be, still hoping to be scared every time I go see a horror movie, the appetite remains intact.
Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place