June 20, 2011

Within the last year, a young English horror writer named Clive Barker has risen from cult status to become a best-selling author and a first-time moviemaker. Stephen King, who ought to know from such things, as called Barker “the future of horror.”

Barker is indeed an original writer. He’s in the tradition of Poe and Lovecraft, but he pushes his images and effects past even their abnormal limits; he mixes up some frequently complex ideas with astonishingly graphic violence and sex. His short story collections are called, rightfully enough, The Books of Blood.

I don’t know how Barker got away with directing his own movie. Many writers never get a crack at it. (Stephen King had his fling last year, with the fizzled Maximum Overdrive.) But here is Hellraiser, and, for a first film, it’s quite a good outing—one of the best horror films of recent years, in fact.

It’s about a couple (Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins) who move into an old family house, where unbeknownst to them, something terrible has happened. It seems Robinson’s brother had been experimenting with a magical box in one of the upstairs rooms, and conjured up some evil spirits (“explorers in the furthest reaches of experience,” they call themselves). The brother was blasted apart and dragged down to hell, or some reasonable approximation, but he is revived when the couple move in.

Higgins had had an affair with the deceased, so she helps him reconstitute himself, by bringing in victims for him to feed on. The gore quotient is fairly high, mainly because the dead guy walks around without any skin.

It builds to an explosive finale. But by then, Barker has kept up the tension throughout; this is an unusually relentless horror movie, with almost no dead spaces. And it avoids the formula of recent years, consistently coming up with original situations.

It’s not as ambitious as many of Barker’s stories, but its straightforwardness is really an asset. The main thing Barker can be faulted for is the unevenness of some of the acting, but that’s a predictable problem of debut films. In most other ways, Hellraiser is an absolutely solid horror film, and it promises much for the immediate future of that genre.

First published in the Herald, September 23, 1987

When those Books of Blood first came out, it was cause for real excitement; Barker is a smart person with some fiendish visions in his head. As much as I enjoyed Hellraiser and find some of Barker’s other movie projects somewhat interesting, it does seem as though Barker has never quite got a grasp of how his particular gift might come to life in a truly vital way on screen, and his movie career must stand as a disappointment. So far, that is: he’s supposed to direct again this year. He came to Seattle for interviews (for Lord of Illusions?) and came across as an ingratiating guy with a cheerfully debauched air about him. In other words, trouble.