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Clive Barker movie adaptations, ranked

Which movie has best captured the imagination that brought us cenobites, 'Nightbreed,' and 'The Books of Blood?'

Image via Hulu

Clive Barker famously burst onto the horror scene with a ringing endorsement from Stephen King. The horror giant singled out Barker’s collection of short stories, growing under the name The Books of Blood, and King claimed Barker was the future of horror.

King may have helped fulfill that prophecy, but he was right. Barker proved to be hugely influential on the genre, dragging modern horror to Hell and back. The effect of the horrors that worked from page to screen in the 1980s and 1990s is still felt today, although there’s no doubt what heads legacy.

The Hellraiser saga has reached 11 installments since it arrived in movie theaters in 1986. Barker adapted and directed the movie from his novella, The Hellbound Heart, published a year before. Four films after he introduced the cenobites to theaters, Barker had left the franchise. Hellraiser staggered on, bringing pain and pleasure indivisible to horror fans for years by bolting Barker’s Hell to spec scripts. The creator was determined to bring his infernal children under his control through books and features, the latter of which finally happened with Hulu’s 2022 reboot. 

There’s a sense of justice in that journey that the cenobites of Hellraiser may like to evaluate, but there’s more to the author, artist, and filmmaker’s work than that saga. Barker’s themes, ideas, and visual horror can be perversely difficult to bring to the screen. Often it’s been Barker who’s taken on that challenge, adapting his own work for him or others to direct. The result is an interesting and diverse blend of movies, drawing in curious creative partners and creating horror experiences that, as far as we know, haven’t needed to be carved into anyone’s skin. 

Here is how adaptations of Clive Barker’s stories stack up.

9. Books of Blood (2020)

Hulu’s attempt to kickstart a Books of Blood anthology wasn’t a great success. The feature combined three movies, each named for a character, two of which were drawn from volume one of Barker’s Books of Blood. The adaptations are pretty loose, and the movie created a rod for its back when it drew attention to its influential source at the start. 

Showrunner Brannon Braga made odd creative decisions, including packing three shorts into the feature. It was also strange to begin the sequence with a brand new tale, albeit with Barker’s involvement. When the adaptations Miles, based on The Book of Blood, and Bennett, based on On Jerusalem Street (a postscript) tried to tie things together, it felt inconclusive. Hulu’s first experiment with Barker’s work didn’t pan out, but they knew they’d be on safer ground with Hellraiser.

8. Rawhead Rex (1986)

It may be one of the better titles for a Barker movie, but it’s not one of his best-regarded works. The writer adapted his original short about a pagan deity rampaging across the Irish countryside for director George Pavlouhad. Onscreen, though, the monster’s design left a lot to be desired. 

Barker has expressed an interest in a remake, feeling that the movie followed his screenplay but lacked weight in the monster stakes. When this awkward creature feature appeared, Barker was just preparing the cenobites for their screen debut and the start of one of the most legendary monster series.

7. Dread (2009)

Another of the Books of Blood, Dread was shot on a low budget in less than a month. However, this twisted thriller starring Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Evans, and Laura Donnelly shines like a diamond among some of Barker’s higher profile movies. 

This lean, nasty, and intriguing tale of a college project studying fear gets wildly out of control. On the way, it nudges on several themes familiar from other psychological horror movies. More adaptations of Barker’s shorts like this would be interesting. 

6. Nightbreed (1990)

Nightbreed has been a labor of love for the writer and director recently. Barker’s adaptation of his own story delved into some interesting places with deep subtext. There’s plenty to be read into the mental illness of protagonist Boone, encouraged by his deadly doctor, and his discovery of the mysterious “Nightbreed” outcasts living apart from humans who may or may not have a connection to Boone. 

Not for the last time, Barker felt let down by the studio, as they marketed it as a slasher during the subgenre’s height. Nightbreed is no slasher, and Barker managed to stitch together a director’s cut in 2014, bringing new attention to the intriguing movie. Of note is the impressive score by fast-emerging composer Danny Elfman and the casting of David Cronenberg as psychopathic psychotherapist Decker.

5. Lord of Illusions (1995)

Harry D’Amour is probably second to Hellraiser’s Pinhead in fan recognition of Barker’s creations. That fame has spread across books and comics but has struggled to gain a foothold in movies. Barker created the occult detective in his Book of Blood and adapted and directed The Last Illusion as the basis for this movie. Intriguingly, he shaped a new story around the characters from the original story. The ever-watchable Scott Bakula was smoother than the gumshoe of the page, and it’s a shame he didn’t receive more outings. 

Barker’s third directorial film was another to suffer studio interference when MGM ordered 12 minutes of footage to be cut from the theatrical release. Although Barker gained a director’s cut, the movie remains one of his least-loved and distinctive movies. 

4. The Midnight Meat Train (2009)

Director Ryuhei Kitamura assembled an eclectic cast that included Bradley Cooper, Brooke Shields, and Vinnie Jones for this adaptation of another of the Books of Blood. The story follows a photographer who regrets tracking down an urban serial killer. Despite a last-minute scale down of its release, much to Barker’s irritation, the adaptation went down well with critics and audiences. 

Meat Train didn’t become the cult classic some expected, but its slick creativity and effective scares elevated it to the top tier of Barker adaptations. Dripping in a growing sense of fear, it may be Vinnie Jones’ career highlight.

3. Clive Barker’s Books of Blood (2008)

Barker’s collections of short stories have contributed the most to this list. The first attempt to craft an anthology on film remains the most successful, although it was typically divisive. Like the later Hulu adaptation, it picked up the titular short and On Jerusalem Street (a postscript)

The Scottish filming locations and pace create a distinctive adaptation, and some have called it one of the best Barker adaptations not adapted by the author himself, although he did produce.

2. Candyman (1992)

Candyman relocated the chilling Book of Blood, The Forbidden, from class-ridden Liverpool to racially and socially charged inner-city Chicago. Director Bernard Rose sculpted a mournful and haunting movie that rightly marked it apart from other slashers. 

Horror stalwart Tony Todd was expertly cast, as was “victim” Virginia Madsen. The Icing on the cake was Philip Glass’ fairytale score. The return of the franchise in 2021 couldn’t be anything else but a sequel.

1. Hellraiser (1986)

The domestic tragedy that introduced us to the Sadomasochists from Beyond the Grave—or would have done if Barker had stuck with the title. The author’s impressive directorial debut was years ahead of its time. Its S&M stylings may seem far less progressive today, but the transatlantic atmosphere reflects the approach of many TV programs in the age of streaming. 
The cenobites, used sparingly, are superbly realized, and Barker’s old friend Doug Bradley remains one of the greatest pieces of horror casting, even if the lead cenobite of the book was intended to be genderless. It’s the movie that spawned a saga, influenced a genre, and we’ll be quoting in horror articles for decades to come.

Matt Goddard
About the author

Matt Goddard

Matt enjoys casting Jack Kirby color, Zack Snyder slow-mo, and J.J. Abrams lens flare on every facet of pop culture. Since graduating with a degree in English from the University of York, his writing on film, TV, games, and more has appeared on WGTC, Mirror Online and the Guardian.