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Reel Life: confronting the horror of Clive Barker

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"There's one of the little girl eviscerated, and there's one of the mother. Oh, Jesus!" says Clive Barker, poring over a biography of Ed Gein, the Wisconsin psychopath who inspired Alfred Hitchcock's Norman Bates. "I'm chilled, really, I'm chilled."

Barker has a professional interest in Gein. This gross-out king is the author of the current best-selling horror novella Cabal and the executive producer of Hellbound: Hellraiser II, a sequel to Hellraiser, his enormously successful first film. Four and a half years ago, Barker was on welfare in London. Now he earns "a million dollars a book." He takes his new responsibilities seriously: Barker is the kind of man who goes to bed at night and thinks it's terrific to dream of demons sticking nails through eyes, skinless people, and icky, mucky pools of blood.

But Barker looks like such a nice man, dressed in pressed khakis and a clean white shirt, seated in his 37th-floor suite and speaking in a pleasant British accent. Where does such a nice guy get these ideas? Why is he fascinated by Ed Gein, a man who wore his mother's skin? "I remember as a child being found in my mother's wardrobe. I would sleepwalk and would go to her wardrobe to hide, apparently from a large grizzly bear," he explains lamely. I don't buy it.

Barker tries a new tack: "There's nothing more dangerous, I suspect, to the workings of the psyche than the repression of powerfully and genuinely held feelings. It's the notion of the liberation of passionate desire. We're all repressing emotions, fantasies, sexual feelings, a whole bunch of excitements because we have to. We can't just go acting on every impulse that passes through our heads, but we have to address the fact that these things exist."

And it's these feelings--the dark, dirty, and fierce ones we all hide--that Barker addresses in his novellas (The Hellbound Heart as well as Cabal) and in his films. But despite all his talk about the psyche, and all the media scuttlebutt about him being "the thinking man's Stephen King," Barker admits that, "In the end I make horror films." He adds almost defiantly: "Hopefully not in the classic stalk-and-slash mode.

"One of the intriguing things about horror movies and horror fiction, and one of the things which is overlooked over and over again, is this thing about love and horror having a paradoxical nature. People think of horror movies as being very head-on good versus evil, but there's often a lot of moral ambiguity being addressed." Dyed-in-the-wool horror fans need have no fear, however: his new film sounds bloodcurdling.

Kirsty Cotton (played by Ashley Laurence) is a young woman whose nightmares never seem to end. In one night, she discovers her father's skinned corpse; watches the life force being sucked from her murderous stepmother, Julia; escapes the machinations of her Uncle Frank, whose body has been reanimated; and eludes the attempts at perverse pleasure made by the demonic cenobites. She later contends with gore-stained mattresses, unholy alliances, seductive women, obsessed doctors, damned souls, and those ubiquitous dark desires.

There's more: a kind of Pandora's box that holds the secrets of ultimate pleasure and unlimited pain. Naturally the obsessed doctor will go to any length to unlock it. Only Kirsty's stepmother knows how to do that, however, and she's dead. So the doctor tries to bring her back to life by killing his patients--gruesome little details!--so she can feed on their blood to restore her flesh.

"Curiosity is major purpose here," says Barker. "Here's this box and if opened it will do me some transforming damage, but I have to open it anyway because it's my only access to the forbidden.

"These stories keep coming around. It's: be careful, you may get what you want."

That's potent enough stuff to get me to shell out $6 (this from a man who fainted in his sophomore sexeducation class). Hellbound: Hellraiser II, opening two days before Christmas, is the perfect antidote to the pink and saccharine Care Bears/Ernest Saves Christmas/Bill Murray crap the studios like to dish out this time of year. "When you have too much goodwill towards men and peace on earth," says Barker, who's not above a little self-promotion, "go see this film."

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