Friday, 15 March 2013

Clive Barker's Salomé and The Forbidden

My previous post opened with a bit of a boner when I mentioned that Clive Barker made his directorial debut with Hellraiser in 1987. In fact Barker had experimented with film in the previous decade with a series of short, amateur Super 8 films ("pocket money cinema" as Hellbound writer Peter Atkins fondly recalled). The Dark Tower, a sword and sorcery fantasy from 1972 featured crude stop-animation and owed a large debt to Ray Harryhausen, while Jack O Lant, also from 1972 has been described as something akin to a Hammer sketch as a semi-naked bride frolicked around a graveyard. Both these films are most likely lost forever, but two very accomplished Barker films have survived and are well worth investigating.

Made in 1973, Salomé emerged out of Barker's fringe-theatre days when he and his friends staged a production of Oscar Wilde's Salomé, which included an eyeless Doug Bradley, and the bloody severed head of John The Baptist. For the film version Barker marshaled the minimal resources at hand - a super 8mm camera, a single light source and the cold, damp basement of a florist's shop to shoot in and fashioned an eerie, erotic, and strikingly visual adaptation of Wilde's single act play. Made entirely without dialogue the film has a narrative of sorts but a knowledge of the story might help going in: Salomé stepdaughter of King Herod is enraged by the imprisoned John the Baptist’s resistance to her charms. Later Salomé performs the dance of the seven veils for her lustful stepfather in return for the prize of John the Baptist’s severed head. Herod fulfills her request but is so disgusted by Salomé that he has his soldiers crush her with their shields…

Speaking warmly about the film in the early 90's Barker offered the early Warhol films as influence, but the film is best placed among the magickal films of Kenneth Anger and contemporary Underground films like Pink Narcissus and the Super 8 experiments of Derek Jarman. Watching the film it's quite obvious Barker was even at that young stage a precocious talent. His expressionist use of light and darkness quite ingeniously creates the illusion of space in an otherwise cramped one room set and the film is brimming over with strange visuals - in the absence of props and art direction (except for some cabalistic drawings smeared on walls), Barker focuses his camera on the interaction of his actors among the inky shadows. Faces emerge out of the gloom and appear obscured behind plumes of smoke while other cast members are heavily made up (like a sinister gypsy-like Doug Bradley appearing as Herod) or seen wearing unnerving kabuki style masks. It's a hugely impressive work and manages to pack more nightmarish atmosphere into its brief 8 minutes than most feature length Horror films can dream of.

In 1975 Clive Barker acquired a 16mm camera and began his next film project which he worked on and off for 3 years before the film was ultimately abandoned. The Forbidden is a far more esoteric work than Salomé. Barker admitted the film was loaded with codes and symbolism that had little or no meaning to anyone other than its author but described the film as a riff on the Faustian myth. The Forbidden defies interpretation but in the film a man (played by Peter Atkins) is seen indulging in various erotic and sometimes violent pleasures which are later punished by various hands who flay him alive. The skinned man then wanders through a landscape which resembles an etching from a book... It's a tenuous unreliable description at best, made even more difficult that the film was shot in negative which results in an extremely odd visual style - images appear like Rorschach tests and actors swap their humanness for something far more alien.

In comparison with Salomé which merely hinted at the dark eroticism of Wilde’s play, The Forbidden is a far more transgressive work with moments of unsettling violence and sadism. A man is violently strangled and the long flaying sequence is surprisingly visceral (how this effect was achieved is best left unrevealed). Perhaps the most provocative aspect of the film is its sexual content. There’s some heterosexual lovemaking as well as a homo-erotic sequence where a naked man dances in a frenzy brandishing an fully erect cock (apparently Clive Barker himself). More fascinating still is how the film precedes Barker’s later work especially The Hellbound Heart novella and Hellraiser. The frustrated protagonist of the film feels like an embryonic form of the Frank Cotton character from The Hellbound Heart, while the unseen surgeons who perform the flaying are like place-holders for the Cenobites. Throughout the film there are images and ideas that are strangely familiar – the visual motif of light reflecting of upright nails, the protagonist occupied with a jigsaw puzzle, a living skinless man, and animated shots of black birds flapping, an image that reappears in The Hellbound Heart. Barker also reused the title of The Forbidden for a Books of Blood short story, later filmed as Candyman.

In 1994 the existing footage of The Forbidden was assembled and edited into a 36 minute film and along with Salomé was given its first public screening as part of a wide retrospective of Clive Barker’s work. The following year both films were released on VHS by Redemption as part of a program entitled Clive Barker’s Salomé & The Forbidden which featured interviews with Clive Barker, Doug Bradley and Peter Atkins. In addition both films were given excellent avant-garde electronic scores by soundtrack composer Adrian Carson. Redemption’s tape was later upgraded to DVD, as a stand-alone US release, and in the UK as the bonus disc of Anchor Bay’s 2004 Hellraiser box set. I suspect these films will leave the average Pinhead disciple bemused but fans of Clive Barker's work should seek these films out.

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