Clive Barker interview: Dread, Book Of Blood, and the need for no holds barred horror

Half an hour, alone, in a room with a man whose job it is to scare the life out of you. Enter Clive Barker.

Clive Barker is a man whose main purpose in life is to create characters that, were they to sit next to you on the bus or train, you’d change seats and most likely postcodes. But, despite all this, he’s actually one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.

In London to promote Book Of Blood on DVD, Barker was on fine form. Despite trepidation pre-interview that fellow interviewers would have swallowed a Barkerpedia and out-geek me, he immediately made me feel at ease, despite us sitting alone in a room with a glass front that immediately made me think of Silence Of The Lambs.

If only all self-confessed twisted little fucks were like Barker

As we’re settling into our chair and trying to ignore what looks like a croissant breeding far on the table in front of us, we ask Barker if there are many of these interrogation sessions left for him to do on this latest trip to the UK.

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Yeah [lots of interviews] but you know it’s all good. If I feel passionate about something, it’s fun to do. It’s only when you don’t feel good about something that there’s a problem.

Where is home for you these days?

LA, up in the Hills. I have a house, which was built by Ronald Colman. I think he was first a silent film star and then he became known for Lost Horizon and A Tale Of Two Cities. He built the house in the twenties and his ghost still wanders its halls.

You’re originally from Liverpool. Do you like coming back to the UK?

I was here ‘til I was 41. It’s hard to be imprinted by LA because it’s many cities. You go to New York and you’re imprinted by the sky scrapers, right? You go to Paris and you’re imprinted by the Champs-Élysées. LA, I don’t know? The studio gates of Paramount? The Hollywood sign?

To me the city lacks a social identity. As far as I’m concerned, that’s very good because I live in a sort of no man’s land. To me it’s fine. I live up in the Hills away from the traffic and away from the freeway. I drive but I don’t get out from the house very much. I like to paint, I like to do my thing. My life is in the art that I make and I’m very happy with it.

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Does being away from the stresses and strains of modern life give you that time to paint and let your imagination go wild?

To percolate? Absolutely. I owned a house in Wimpole Street. 36 Wimpole Street, opposite the house [owned previously by] Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. I wrote a book called Imajica there, which was the last book I wrote here in England before I went over to LA.

For the last three months, all the furniture and all my books and everything I was taking had been packaged up and boxed – 147 boxes – and sent over to LA. So I was in this huge fucking house on my own. But not doing nothing, because I had the novel to write but that’s all I had to do. And it was bliss. It was fucking bliss because I was detached.

Some people have a negative perception of the word ‘detached’, but I don’t think it’s always negative, certainly not in you’re case.

You’re absolutely right, it’s not. For a writer, and particularly a writer of my genre, which is the fantastical, I think that it’s to my advantage to feel remote from and disconnected from the world of deal making.

Talking of the world of deal making, you’ve not been shy about sharing your thoughts about PG-13 horror and remakes. You’ve said that remakes have their place provided they’re done properly and that PG-13 horror is a bit like having an X-rated Disney cartoon.

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I’m not a fan. I would remain consistent with my view. I don’t like PG-13 horror movies. I think they’re a contradiction in terms. When I was younger and I’d go and see a horror movie, the whole point was to feel like you’re in the hands of a mad man. To pay respect to the originator of that quote, it was Wes Craven who said it. He said that a film viewer, a spectator, needs to come in and feel as though the person behind the camera is crazy. I think that’s true. I think you do want to have a sense that Barker’s probably a twisted, sick little fuck. Because that’s the experience you’re going to look at, right? If you feel it’s all a sham… It isn’t a sham with me. I am a twisted little fuck.

That’s why we’re in the glass room?!

[Laughs] Yeah we’re being watched by cameras!

I’m not ashamed of that. I don’t feel there’s any reason to apologise for having a wicked imagination. I think it’s important as a maker of fantasy and of horror.

Seduth is another example. I said let’s do a 3D comic book. Let’s push further than we’ve been before. I didn’t know how they were made so I said, “Is there somebody we can go to?” There’s this fellow called Ray Zone and he’s the only guy in America who basically does this. I asked Ray what he wanted to do and he made a list and they’re all things we’ve done. I did all the sketches in the back as a reflection of his intentions and my intentions. Big metaphysical images, he never had a chance to do something like that before. To me the chance to work with people who were as talented and as off the wall as that, is awesome.

You said people want to be scared by horror, so you do have to have that mindset when you’re directing, producing or writing. But that doesn’t mean that in your spare time you’re …

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Murdering animals? No, no!

But do you think that sometimes people feel they have to hide the fact that they have this fantastic imagination? I guess it’s reflective of today’s society that the minority can make people of your genre feel sometimes that you shouldn’t talk about things or hold back or do interviews even.

This is a huge subject. There are cameras everywhere now. The telephone that you’ve got in your back pocket probably has a camera on it. We are able to make reports of what’s going on in the world around us in a way that we were never able to before. So if someone does go loopy at work the chances are there’s going to be a camera there somewhere to see it. What I’m getting at is I’m not sure that people are any crazier than they ever were.

The interesting thing is in the times I was going to watch horror movies the world has changed out of all proportion. I had a friend called Norman Jones and Norman and I, on our way back home on a Thursday night, would pass a place where posters for the next week’s movies had been plastered up. I don’t think they do that so much anymore. When there was a Hammer double bill. I couldn’t go see the movies. I was too young.

But Norman – and this will make you laugh – was overweight and looked older than he was. I was also overweight but bespectacled and rather nerdy and didn’t look 12 when I was, in fact, 14 or 15. Norman looked 17 or 18. I put balled-up handkerchiefs in my shoes so as to look taller and then the two of us went in to see a double bill of Psycho. And this was a friend called Norman by the way, how perfect could that be?!

It was a double bill of Psycho and War Of The Worlds. I was perhaps 14 or 15 and I was scared shitless. I was so fucking scared. Not by War Of The Worlds, which I thoroughly enjoyed and still love, but because of Psycho. We mis-timed getting into the movie they were showing in cycles and we actually came in at the end of the first showing when the Vera Miles character goes down into the apple cellar thinking she’s going to find Mrs Bates. She says, “Mrs Bates, Mrs Bates” then she touches the body and the body swings round and the hand hits the light and the light swings backwards and forwards. You get that big close up of the skull and then he comes in and [makes Psycho stabbing noise]. I thought I was going to have a frigging heart attack and thought if this is what horror movies are like I won’t be able to stand it!

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Later on, of course, you are able to contextualise all of this. You realise this is one of the greatest scenes of all horror movies. But at the time, it was like fuck me! I miss that frisson. It isn’t because film makers can’t do it because they can. The bottom line is it’s all about this [rubs fingers together to signal money] all the time.

It’s very easy to gross me out still. I can still find scenes of abyseration and so on deeply distressing. And I said that in an admiring kind of way!

That in mind, you’ve got contemporaries where you’ve seen some of their work and it makes you feel as it should do?

Absolutely. And you want it to, right? I don’t want my horror movies to be safe little Disneyfied experiences. And I’m disappointed by the fact that some of it is about the price of movies. When Sam Raimi came back to do horror movies again I didn’t want him to make it PG-13. I wanted Drag Me To Hell to be a no holds barred. Does that make sense?

You’ve had frustrations in the past about how your work has been interpreted on the screen. You’ve then taken charge of that.

Tried to, yeah.

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Who inspires you, then?

Del Toro, Frank Darabont. Some of these people I became friends with. There are amazing talents out there who are still doing, I think, ground breaking work. Guillermo’s work is challenging intellectually and emotionally. Pan’s Labyrinth contains some of the most viscerally distressing material – the wound in the face thing. One of the things del Toro has brilliantly been able to do is synthesise the fantastic with something about the history of his country and his own autobiography. I don’t think there’s so much of that in American filmmaking, or indeed I have to say English filmmaking, and I wish there was more of it.

In my sex life I practice S&M. Practice, I’ve practically got it right! Because I’m a fan, a practitioner, of S&M, I have put that into the movies. I think Hellraiser is very clearly an S&M movie.

In fact, the first interview I ever did for Hellraiser was for a magazine called Skin Two. It was a wonderful magazine for the pan-sexual: rubber, fetish, leather, cross-dressing. The lady who was interviewing me said “Our readers really love your movie because it’s given them ideas for their dungeons.” And I thought, “fuck” as that is the ultimate [compliment].

To actually be able to use the stories that you’re telling as ways to liberate parts of people’s lives is awesome. It does not get any better than that.

You’ve done many things before and since Hellraiser. While your hardcore fans know everything you’ve done, sometimes even before you’ve done it, the mainstream – if they’ve heard of you – associate you with just that? Does it frustrate you?

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Everybody has one thing. If you say Stephen King, probably people are going to say Carrie perhaps or maybe it’s going to be The Stand. Obviously, if you say Tolkien, they’re going to say The Lord Of The Rings and Tolkien did a lot of things beside Lord Of The Rings. Everybody has a breakthrough thing. If you said del Toro to most people they wouldn’t give you Pan’s Labyrinth, they’d said Hellboy. And I’m sure it would make Guillermo proud, as I know he is of those movies. I think he’d probably wish it were other.

Frankly, I think it would be perverse to complain about the fact that I wish I was known for something different. If Hellrasier is what made people open the door and then they found Weaveworld or Seduth or whatever else, I’m fine with that. Whatever it takes.

You’re very busy. What’s next?

I’m going to come back over here for Dread sometime in March. Dread is a picture I’m very proud of. Somebody who came in as an intern [at Seraphim], Anthony DiBlasi, ended up adapting it and directing it. I was very proud of the fact our apprenticeship system worked very well.

Right now I’m up to my neck in Abarat 3, which I’ve just delivered to HarperCollins and I’m waiting for their notes before I do my final polishes on that. Then, a book of very radical short fiction called Black Is The Devil’s Rainbow, which contains a huge – I forget what the numbers are when a short story becomes a novella, I think it’s somewhere in the region of 18,000 – number of words. So [that will contain] a couple of novellas, one called Jehovah’s Bitch and the other called Grail, which kind of speaks for itself. So that’s going to be a big collection of short fiction, which is almost going to be a little bit of reaching back to the intense tone of the Books Of Blood.

[That is] very sexual and that’s actually the thing we haven’t talked about yet. I think it’s very clear John [Harrison, the director]wasn’t afraid of letting Jonas get naked. And God bless Jonas for getting naked, because he looks wonderful. As a gay man I’m very happy that that’s going on!

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I think too often that horror movies have fled from the issue of sexuality. I regret that and we’ve got to do something about it. So that’s another of the things that I shall be doing next year. I have a big exhibition of erotica when I get back to LA of photography called Imagining Man. I’ve taken 90,000 photographs to put together what I hope will be a definitive Clive Barker collection of male nudes.

There is a large element of horror and fantasy in the pictures. There’s some very intense, sexy dark stuff there. Let me send you some. I want you to have some fun seeing how connected these still nude photographs are to the stuff I’m doing in the movies.

You wear a lot of hats (writer, producer, director, photographer, painter and so on). Which one would you choose if you could only do one?

I think I do one. It’s imaginer. Yes, they’re different hats, but the root energy comes from exactly the same place. All I’m doing is following it through different what I suppose technicians would call delivery systems, whether it’s still photography or a movie or a book. What’s happening is we’re seeing books turning into computers; these delivery systems are closing in on one another and becoming a single item. It will be possible, in fact it is, to pick up something the size of two phones and see my photographs, my books, run my movies.

In other words, even though they seem to be lots of different hats as you rightly say, the passion that feeds these things is exactly the same from project to project. Which is how do I push my imagination into places where it’s never been before?

I don’t think anyone would doubt you have a massive imagination! Where would you like to take it next?

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There are lots more surprises to come. It’s not so much about the technology of it because I’m a technophobe. I hand write everything and you’re doing the same thing, which is very reassuring. Yes, I have my computer and all that but I know how to turn it on and how to turn it off and that’s about it. I’m not very sophisticated where that’s concerned at all. The thing that really moves me, that really gets me going is the idea that you can actually get to people in their own houses with very high levels of intensity. Midnight Meat Train on Blu-ray, on my little mini portable DVD player, for example. I was watching it in the dentist’s waiting room and thinking, “My god this is such an amazing experience” because there I am plugged into this thing watching this pristine, beautifully rendered image on a screen which is five inches by seven inches or whatever.

If somebody had told me with the flick of a switch I could go to Kindle and bring up one of my novels or another flick of a switch and I could go to my website and I could see 800 of my paintings… I think my job is to step out of the way. To get the fuck out of my own way. It’s not to intellectualise or over think things, but to simply allow the material to do its own thing.

You’re a very intelligent man with a very open imagination that can go in any direction. Are you also your biggest critic?

I don’t look. I couldn’t bear to look. I once saw Orson Welles – he was an incredible creator – on the David Frost show. Frost said, “When you watched Citizen Kane, Mr Welles, how did you feel?” He said, “I don’t know because I haven’t seen it.”

I think Frost was a bit incredulous and didn’t really believe that. This was a long, long time ago and I saw this through Frost’s eyes and thought, “Yeah, that’s bullshit.” But now I realise it’s not bullshit. When you become well known for one particular thing the worst thing you can do is obsess on it. So what I try to do is move on.

That’s because you don’t want it to affect or inhibit? The latter being a word not many people associate with you!

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You’re exactly right. You were searching for that word ‘open’ before. Uninhibited is a good word. I’ll go wherever instinct or my balls tell me to go. It’s my head, my heart, my balls. Not necessarily in that order.

So what would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?

I’d be in a mad house.

Anything else you want to tell us?

This has actually been a conversation that hasn’t covered things I’ve previously talked about so that’s quite nice. Christ, there are so many things [people don’t know about me].

Clive Barker, thank you very much!

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Interviews at Den Of Geek