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The Films of Clive Barker

Clive Barker is best known to cinema audiences as the creator of Hellraiser. While that film is his signature piece, Barker’s career has been prolific with a body of work that spans a variety of mediums and his stories have been the basis for a number of films including Candyman and Nightbreed. Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema looked back at the films Barker directed as well as adaptations of his work.

The Early Films

Clive Barker was born and raised in Liverpool, England in 1952. He studied English and Philosophy at Liverpool University. During his time as a student, Barker began writing stories and comic strips as well as plays which the school allowed him to stage. In the late 1970s, Barker and several of his friends, including Peter Atkins and Doug Bradley, formed the theatre group The Dog Company which mounted productions of plays that Barker had written. It was during this time that Barker started taking his writing more seriously and he began creating short works of horror and fantasy fiction. These stories were compiled into the anthology The Books of Blood published in 1984. Barker’s work caught the public’s attention especially when Stephen King said some extraordinarily positive things about them. Barker would publish six volumes of The Books of Blood. He then moved onto novels including The Damnation Game, Imajica, The Great and Secret Show, and Sacrament. He’s also published children and young adult literature with Abarat and The Thief of Always.

Barker’s writing was distinguished by its intensity both of emotion and of viscera. His stories, and his early work especially, was marked by explicit descriptions of sex and violence presented in a literary style that was occasionally sentimental and frequently visceral. He sought to impact the reader in an emotional way, whether he was describing the passion of sex or the horror of mutilation. Barker was highly visual in his descriptions of fantastical landscapes and creatures. He also had great empathy for his monsters. A few of Barker’s creations were traditionally villainous but often the monsters were misunderstood or proved to be heroic. That quality distinguished Barker’s work from other horror and fantasy writers and it also attracted a dedicated audience who appreciated the underdog qualities of his outcast creations.

While Clive Barker was most prolific as a writer, he was also a visual artist. Several of Barker’s books featured his illustrations and his paintings have been shown at galleries and compiled into a book. Barker also dabbled in comics, creating Marvel’s short-lived imprint Razorline as well as comic adaptations of some of his other works.

Around the same time that Barker was producing stage plays with his friends in The Dog Company, he also started experimenting with 8mm film. Out of that came two shorts: “Salome” and “The Forbidden.” “Salome” was an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play and “The Forbidden” was a riff on the folk tale of Faust. Both were silent art films that featured fantastical visuals and the cast included Barker’s regular collaborators Peter Atkins and Doug Bradley. The two shorts were compiled onto a DVD that was released in 1998.

Underworld and Rawhead Rex

Clive Barker’s commercial film career got off to an inauspicious start with 1985’s Underworld which is sometimes alternately titled Transmutations. The film was directed by George Pavlou and had a respectable cast that included Denholm Elliott, Steven Berkoff, Ingrid Pitt, and Miranda Richardson. Underworld is based on an original script authored by Barker that mixed elements of monster movies and gangster pictures. However, the script was significantly rewritten by James Caplin. According to Barker, most of his dialogue was removed and the finished film didn’t much resemble Barker’s original story. Underworld did not perform well at the box office nor was it well reviewed, to the extent that it was reviewed at all. The film was distributed in the United States by Vestron Video. Unfortunately, Underworld is not presently available on disc or streaming.

Despite the disappointment of Underworld, Clive Barker cooperated with director George Pavlou again on 1986’s Rawhead Rex. An adaptation of one of Barker’s stories from The Books of Blood, Rawhead Rex is a monster movie set in Ireland in which a local legend is freed from its underground prison. Barker is credited as the writer but the final film deviated significantly from Barker’s story, most significantly in the title creature which in the literary source is a phallic worm-like being but in the movie is a bipedal beast that resembles an ape. The film plays like a bloodier version of a 1950s drive-in movie. For Barker and his fans, Rawhead Rex was a disappointment but the movie does have its charms. Taken on its own, Rawhead Rex is not good but it is entertaining schlock.


After the back-to-back frustrations of Underworld and Rawhead Rex, Clive Barker decided that he would try his own hand at filmmaking. He had published the novella The Hellbound Heart which would be the basis for his directorial debut Hellraiser. The movie was about a married couple who move into the husband’s childhood home. The wife discovers the reanimated corpse of her brother-in-law—who is also her former lover—inhabiting the attic. He had been destroyed by the creatures unleashed by a magical puzzle box but he can regenerate by absorbing human blood. The brother seduces his sister-in-law into luring men into the attic to make him whole again.

Prior to his career as a novelist, Barker had written and directed plays and so he had a grasp of drama and how to work with actors and had at least some understanding of how movies are made. However, by his own admission, Barker was blessed with a knowledgeable filmmaking crew and a talented cast and Hellraiser’s success was very much a group effort.

That said, Hellraiser is very much a Clive Barker story. It deals with many of the themes that recurred throughout his work, namely violent passion, forbidden knowledge, the limits of physical experience, and the search for transcendence. It also has a grotesque beauty especially in the creature designs. Hellraiser encapsulated much of what made Barker unique and it introduced the creator to a wider audience, leading moviegoers to his books and other works.

Hellraiser was a financial success and even managed to get some good reviews at a time when the horror genre was not so critically appreciated. The movie inspired a series of sequels, most recently in 2022, as well as other media. I’ve addressed the Hellraiser series in greater depth in another post.


After the success of Hellraiser and its first sequel, Clive Barker moved ahead with another adaptation of one of his literary works. 1990’s Nightbreed was based on Barker’s novella Cabal and it was less horrific and more fantastic. A man who is having nightmares about a city of monsters and mutants is mistakenly believed to be a serial killer and is killed by law enforcement. He’s resurrected and joins the community at Midian which soon finds itself under attack by human society.

Nightbreed was a difficult production. The story was ambitious and the film had a lot of complex makeup effects and set pieces. Nightbreed was financed by Morgan Creek Entertainment and distributed by 20th Century Fox and Barker ran into problems with the studios. Following Hellraiser and Barker’s reputation as a writer, the studio executives expected a straight up horror show. Instead, Nightbreed was a dark fantasy in which the monsters were actually the good guys and the human beings were the villains. Barker’s initial cut ran over two hours. The studio required changes, including a different ending, and the theatrical version was cut down to 102 minutes. The movie was sold as a horror picture and it failed at the box office.

Despite its theatrical failure, a passionate cult audience found Nightbreed when it was released on home video. Part of the movie’s appeal was in the way it spoke to marginalized audiences. Some of that was the genre audience; in 1990 horror and fantasy were not cool or mainstream and people who gravitated to those genres also tended to be social outcasts. Nightbreed also had an unmissable gay subtext. Clive Barker was out of the closet at a time when that was not socially acceptable and the film reflects the homophobia of life during the AIDS crisis as well as the post-Stonewall revolutionary spirit. Although Barker’s work didn’t tend to engage with current events, at least not overtly, Nightbreed was a political fantasy.

The Nightbreed fanbase buoyed interest in the film and for years they clamored for a release of Clive Barker’s original version. The boutique DVD label Shout Factory worked with Barker to restore and recut his original version and in 2014 a 120-minute director’s cut of Nightbreed was released on blu-ray. Supposedly an even longer cut of the film also exists.

Lord of Illusions

Following Hellraiser and Nightbreed, Clive Barker only directed one more film, 1995’s Lord of Illusions. Again drawn from Barker’s literary work, Lord of Illusions mixed supernatural horror with a noir detective story. The film introduced cinema audiences to Harry D’Amour, a private detective who specializes in the occult and the uncanny. D’Amour is a recurring character throughout Barker’s work. In Lord of Illusions D’Amour is hired by the wife of a magician who has recently died in a tragic stage accident. D’Amour discovers the magician’s link to a long-deceased occultist whose followers intend to resurrect him.

Lord of Illusions is Barker’s strongest effort as a director. It is more assured and focused than Hellraiser or Nightbreed and scenes are staged with a cinematic skill that exceeds his other films. The movie suffers a few tonal missteps, especially the requisite romance that develops between D’Amour and his client, and a few of the digital effects have aged poorly. But Scott Bakula was extremely well cast as Harry D’Amour and the film’s last half hour is terrific. Lord of Illusions was likely intended to set up a franchise around the detective character but when it underperformed at the box office those plans were dashed.

Lord of Illusions was distributed by MGM/United Artists. They required Barker to cut the film down for its theatrical run but the director’s cut was released to home video. According to Barker’s introduction to the director’s cut, his experience with MGM/United Artists was much for straightforward than his experience on Nightbreed and the director’s cut was finished and released immediately for Lord of Illusions’ debut on home video.


Aside from Hellraiser, probably the best regarded film based on Barker’s writings is 1992’s Candyman. The picture was adapted from Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” which itself is inspired by urban legends of the hook man. With Barker onboard as an executive producer and Philip Glass composing the music, filmmaker Bernard Rose ran with the material and created one of the best horror films of the 1990s.

Candyman differs from “The Forbidden” in several respects, most importantly changing the setting from working class Liverpool neighborhoods to the Cabrini-Green public housing development in Chicago. In doing so, Rose introduced a racial element; the specter of Barker’s original story is not specified as black but the race of the Candyman in Rose’s film is central to the character’s identity and the film’s themes. Candyman uses the gothic convention of the terrible place and the horrors therein to comment on the way mainstream white society views poor and predominantly black neighborhoods and the people who live there.

The title character of Candyman has entered the pantheon of the great horror monsters. As played by Tony Todd, the character possesses malevolence but also melancholia. He’s comparable to both Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and Boris Karloff’s performance as Frankenstein’s creature in that he’s a romantic figure but also a tragic monster. 

Candyman was followed by several sequels. 1995’s Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh was also executive produced by Clive Barker with Bill Condon directing. This impressive sequel moved the action from Chicago to New Orleans where it deepened the racial themes of the original film by explicitly connecting the Candyman’s origin story to the history of racism. Barker worked with Condon again on 1998’s Gods and Monsters which was a biographical film about Frankenstein director James Whale. Condon has gone on to have a successful career as director of Kinsey, Dreamgirls, and 2017’s Beauty and the Beast.

Clive Barker had no involvement with the following Candyman films. Tony Todd reprised the role in 1999’s Candyman: Day of the Dead. The film lacked the intelligence or style of the earlier films nor did it feature Philip Glass’ music. A direct sequel to the original film was released in 2021 and directed by Nia DiCosta who cowrote the script with Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld. This movie returned to the Chicago neighborhood of the original film and offered a thoughtful take on the themes of the 1992 picture.

Other Films

In addition to the films Clive Barker directed, many more were adapted from his work and Barker had varying degrees of involvement in their productions. Many of these films were adapted from Barker’s Books of Blood story collections with two films using that title. The 2009 film Book of Blood adapted the eponymous tale in the first volume of Barker’s short story collection and “On Jerusalem Street (A Postscript)” which is the last story in the final volume. The 2020 film Books of Blood was an anthology horror film consisting of three stories. One of the stories was an original work and the others again adapted the stories “The Book of Blood” and “On Jerusalem Street.” Barker had producorial credit on both films.

Barker’s work was also filmed as episodes of horror anthology television shows. The Showtime series Masters of Horror featured an adaptation of his story “Haeckel’s Tale” and Barker wrote an original script for the episode “Valerie On The Stairs.” His story “The Yattering And Jack” was adapted into an episode of Tales from the Darkside.  

The 1997 horror anthology Quicksilver Highway featured two segments connected by a wraparound story. The first segment is an adaptation of Stephen King’s short story “Chattery Teeth” and the other was based on Clive Barker’s story “The Body Politic,” about a man whose hands develop a mind of their own. Quicksilver Highway was originally broadcast on television but when it was released on home video the order of the two segments was reversed. Barker was only credited with the source material on Quicksilver Highway although he does have a cameo.

Clive Barker created the comic book series Saint Sinner for Marvel’s imprint Razorline. Barker had been unhappy with the way the comic turned out and he produced the 2002 television film that shared the same name but was otherwise unrelated. The film Saint Sinner concerns a monk who hunts demons.

One of the more savage of Clive Barker’s short stories was “The Midnight Meat Train” which was adapted into a 2008 film of the same name starring Vinnie Jones, Bradley Cooper, and Leslie Bibb. Cooper plays a photographer who discovers a pattern of murders occurring in the subway system. Barker was a producer on The Midnight Meat Train and he spoke highly of the film. Unfortunately, the release was mishandled and it didn’t get a proper marketing campaign or a theatrical release by Lionsgate.

The 2009 film Dread was based on Barker’s short story. Dread was much less fantastic than other films based on Barker’s work. The story concerns a group of university students studying the effects of fear and one of the students pushes things too far. Barker was a producer on the film.


Like any writer whose work has been adapted to film, Clive Barker’s filmography is wildly diverse with some great films and a few terrible ones. But Barker has the distinction of directing several of the best adaptations of his literary works. His movies have contributed new iconography to the culture and the visual vocabulary of horror and fantasy. Barker’s work has also revealed the possibilities of those genres. One of attractions of fantasy and horror is the possibility of transcendence and revelation and in the best cases Barker’s work has provided that. And significantly, Barker connected the acquisition of that knowledge to the body and the celebration and destruction of the flesh, putting Barker’s work at odds with a lot of fantasy that has been ascetic. The backstage drama of his films illustrates the struggle to achieve that kind of artistry and ambition in a corporate media environment.

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  1. […] episode of Sounds of Cinema looked back at the films of Clive Barker. An earlier post covered the various films adapted from Barker’s literary work and the three films he directed. This post will cover the Hellraiser series with which Barker has had a complicated relationship. […]

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