Movies like ‘Baskin,’ ‘The Void,’ and now ‘Mandy’ show that Clive Barker has a big role to play in the future of horror nostalgia.
If you’re like me, you watched the trailer for Panos Cosmatos‘s Mandy and thought it was only fair that 2018 seems to have gotten something right. While critics who caught the film at Sundance have been singing its praises for months now – our own Rob Hunter referred to the film as “a fever dream of color, tension, and unease” – this was the first chance for many people to see footage from Mandy, and many were instantly taken in by the motorcycle-riding creatures that seemed ripped from a Hellraiser sequel. In fact, I couldn’t get the Clive Barker-inspired character design out of my head for hours after watching the trailer, and it led me down a rabbit hole I had to write about: when it comes to horror icons, are independent filmmakers about to make Clive Barker the new John Carpenter?
It’s easy to scroll through Clive Barker’s IMDb profile and walk away with an understated view of the filmmaker’s contributions to the horror genre. With the exception of the Hellraiser series – now approaching its 25th year of pop culture domination – Barker’s output as a filmmaker has been sparse. As a director, Barker only has four feature-length films to his name; hell, a big chunk of Barker’s writing credits post-2000 belong to video games and short films. Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll discover a career as a writer and visual artist that hangs with the best of them. Barker’s Books of Blood collections have become a source of inspiration for countless television shows and movies; several of the shorts in those collections have been adapted into feature films, and diehard horror fans of the early ’90s were as apt to cut their teeth on Barker’s books as they were the works of Stephen King.
And now, decades later, Barker might be poised to eclipse Carpenter as the horror icon du jour for independent filmmakers. Part of this is just the nature of nostalgia. While Carpenter and Barker are only separated by a few years in real life – Carpenter was born in 1948, Barker in 1952 – the two directors peaked about a decade apart. Ignoring the contemporary definition of success, Carpenter’s run began with Halloween in 1978; with all due respect to In the Mouth of Madness (1994), the filmmaker settled into a downward trajectory after the release of They Live in 1988. Meanwhile, Barker’s burst into the mainstream in 1984 with the first of his Books of Blood collection and made himself a horror icon to moviegoers with Hellraiser (1987), Nightbreed (1990), and Candyman (1992). If we accept the 30-year cycle proposed by video essayist Lindsay Ellis as an accurate measurement of nostalgia cycles, then we’re quickly moving from the era of peak Carpenter to the era of peak Barker.
But if part of it is nostalgia, then part of it, too, belongs to their difference in ethos as a filmmaker. Like Barker, Carpenter often played in the sandbox created by H.P. Lovecraft and presented humans beset upon by otherworldly creatures. Unlike Barker, Carpenter’s sympathies always lay in the act of rebellion. They Live, the lynchpin of modern scholarship on Carpenter, has slowly become one of the most essential acts of subversion by a mainstream filmmaker. In his 2014 Rolling Stone essay on the film, Joshua Rothkof described They Live as “a near-wordless piece of sociocultural smackdown smuggled into a sci-fi flick,” echoing modern depictions of Carpenter as a disillusioned filmmaker pushing back on the capitalist system that helped end his career. In many of his movies, Carpenter’s are the ones who fight against oppressive systems; sometimes they win, sometimes they lose, but at least they are able to go out on their own terms and remain true to themselves.
Not so with Barker. In his 2013 guest column at The Hollywood Reporter, Barker wrote about a period in his own life where depression and anxiety stripped him of his ability to engage with horror as a genre. What brought him back was the monsters, not the humans. Barker describes his love of the genre as being synonymous with his love of the monster. “It’s horror, after all,” Barker wrote. “It’s not supposed to be pretty, or comforting, or humane. It’s a confrontation, in the end, with something we’re half-afraid to see, and half-afraid not to see. Death. Madness. Loss of Control. Chaos.” In another interview with The Hollywood Reporter – this time in support of a collection of his artwork – Barker discussed his love of humanity transformed. “I draw human beings, or that is to say, variations on the human being — mutations, transformations, abstractions — pretty consistently,” Barker said in the interview. “In fact, it’s arguably the only thing that I’m really interested in.”
That’s the difference between the two. Carpenter shows us being overwhelmed by the monster; Barker shows us turning into the monster and leaving our standards of humanity behind. If the films of Carpenter are bleak, then the stories and art of Barker are bleaker, a combination of blood, mutilation, and transformation that rarely allows for a happy ending. For better or worse, this speaks to the political and cultural era in which we live, and filmmakers are taking note. Baskin, a 2015 Turkish horror film by Can Evrenol that features a tortured underworld of twisted almost-humans, was often compared to Hellraiser in reviews. The Void, a 2016 release with similar themes of the occult and body horror, is another newer release frequently compared to Barker’s landmark film. And then there’s Mandy, the much-anticipated new surreal horror-thriller that wears its respect for Barker’s creature designs on its sleeve. If Mandy catches on with mainstream audiences to any degree, this could lead to a major appreciation (or re-appreciation) for Barker as a horror icon.
So bring on Mandy, bring on leather-clad demons from another realm, and bring on cultists who would rather mutilate their own bodies than let down the unearthly masters they serve. If I were a Hollywood producer living in this moment, I would snap up the rights to make or remake as many of Barker’s properties as I could and wait until Hellraiser peaks as an inspiration for 30-something filmmakers. John Carpenter will never stop being The Master, but a new era calls for a new blast of nostalgia, and it’s time for audiences to rediscover the works of Clive Barker in a big way.