You’re invited to a dinner party hosted by none other than Clive Barker (Books of Blood, Hellraiser). The guests are a ghastly group of horror geniuses from both fiction and film: John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing), Roger Corman (The Poe Cycle of films for AIP), Ramsey Campbell (Hanging Moon), Lisa Tuttle (Windhaven), and Peter Atkins (screenwriter Hellraiser 2, Wishmaster). What’s even better than getting to sit in on this group discussing the ins and outs of genre and what qualifies as “scary”, you’ll actually witness their creative process. The task they’ve set for themselves is to “create the ultimate horror movie for the end of the millennium, the year 2000.” Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is their jumping off point. With that, you have the setup for this highly captivating special originally broadcast by BBC Late Night on September 15th, 1990.
I’ve seen almost every horror special that’s ever surfaced on YouTube, but somehow this golden nugget had eluded me until now. I’d just finished a fairly intense, non-stop, two week long creative process and I was mentally drained. I needed something to spark the light of inspiration within me and just like magic (or some overly complicated algorithm) there in my “Recommended” column was a grainy broadcast image of young Clive Barker and a title that read Horror Cafe. I had no choice but to click the link, obviously.
After a quick opening that reveals rather gruesome meal-prep in a quite literal “Hell’s Kitchen”, I was treated to an hour and a half “behind the curtains” style conversation among the six talented creators. Despite the blatant studio setting (the stage is dressed in German Expressionist style), the conversation flows very naturally and feels completely unedited as if you’re witnessing a real-time brainstorming session over a three course meal. In truth, the group apparently filmed for over three hours, only to have it whittled down for air. I would certainly be ecstatic to find on uncut version pop up online one of these days.
So do they manage to crack the “ultimate horror movie”? No. Not really. The final conceit is a bit of a jumbled mess due to the conflicting styles of horror from each creator. Carpenter is mostly interested in creating a “popcorn flyer” thrill ride. Barker’s focus is on exploring the fantastical, while Corman is more concerned with the social subtext of it all. That said, some of the images they manage to conjure up are truly haunting and one can’t help but wonder what this idea may have looked like brought to life on screens. Intriguingly, one can compare elements of their Millennial saga to what ultimately became Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness only four years later. Both stories share an apocalyptic WTF-ness that seems far from coincidental.
So, if the combined efforts of such fantastic minds doesn’t end with the greatest horror story never told, what can we gleam from Horror Cafe? It seems, the answer is, plenty. The discussion starts early about audience’s love of the macabre. As Carpenter so succinctly puts it, “Why do they watch our films and read our books? Because they want to feel SOMETHING.” He further breaks down the two main types of horror, “left wing” and “right wing”. The right’s fear is of something evil coming into “our tribe” but the left is afraid of the evil already inside us all. Through it all, Carpenter maintains the more pragmatic voice of the bunch…which should surprise no one.
When the concept begins leaning into a more intellectual, heady direction, Carpenter is quick to point out, “I’m not scared yet.” And with this statement an age old Hollywood Horror push and pull is acted out in the microcosm of a dinner party. That is, “smart” horror can not in fact be successful. The opinion being, the masses prefer more simplistic, straightforward monsters. Carpenter describes a teenage girl after a test screening of The Thing being upset with that film’s ambiguous ending. When told she was to use her imagination, she responded with, “Oh, I hate that!” Barker expresses concern that youths are called upon to use their imagination less and less. This, of course, was long before the over saturation of social media. It’d be interesting to hear his thoughts of today’s youth culture.
Humorously, the table finally settles on making a “good” film if not inherently a runaway blockbuster smash. Afterall, as Corman points out, “…there’s a difference between a work of art and an Oscar.” Ultimately, no real headway is made on the story until the group decides to take turns, each telling a small piece of the story and leaving it up to the next guest to continue where they left off. This is where the special truly takes flight. Watching these horror masters spitball is both exciting and humorous. Not all of the ideas land, but this might be the closest one can get to actually seeing the creative process in its infantile stages. I can’t recommend this enough for all you out there who want to be the next Barker, Carpenter, or Ramsey.
What a shame this didn’t become an ongoing series of specials. Each episode could’ve highlighted a different group of creative minds given a unique brief to inspire their ideal horror movie. In the least, It’d be truly amazing to see a follow up piece, reuniting Barker and crew to brainstorm another film concept for today’s vastly different market. I’m sure that’s a farfetched wish. Nonetheless, a nerd can dream. Do you find inspiration in any horror docs or behind the scenes specials? If so, which ones do you turn to for that creative spark?
Check out Horror Cafe right here.