There exists a fine line between being a fan of an artist's work who is satisfied with being familiar with the highlights and some of the more obscure offerings and a fan who desires to understand the creator's process so deeply they are willing to seek out every piece of art, finished and otherwise. I'd definitely classify myself in the former category when it comes to the work of Clive Barker. Most know Barker through the "Hellraiser" series, although recently, a more complete vision of his underrated 90s cult film "Nightbreed" has made it to the public eye through a fantastic Blu-Ray release and appearance on Netflix. Barker is also known to others as a writer, with most of his cinematic output actually having origins on the printed page. However, nearly a decade before Barker's first published novel, "The Damnation Game" came to fruition, Barker created a few experimental films, "Salome" in 1973 and "The Forbidden" in 1978. Both have been released as extras before on UK editions of "Hellraiser" and now both arrive as a standalone release for American audiences, begging the question, "do we need every work of an artist, rough, polished and in-between available?"
1973's "Salome" is an 18-minute wordless short supposedly based on Oscar Wilde's play of the same name, which in turn is roughly based on the biblical story of Salome, whose alluring dance won her the head of John the Baptist as a prize. Barker's direction is obtuse at times largely due to "Salome" being an experimental film (Barker wouldn't direct "Hellraiser" until 1987). Keeping that in mind, "Salome" is a rough experience, it is full of atmosphere and some great use of lighting throughout; the plot though, to a viewer unwilling to look into the backstory of the adaptation, is nearly incomprehensible. Salome dances an alluring dance, seduces a man we assume to be John the Baptist and it's all over, well 18-minutes later. At its core, "Salome" is Barker truly experimenting with cinematic themes and techniques to create more atmosphere than coherence and this is perfectly ok. Is it for everyone? Absolutely not; even as a minor Barker fan, I'd argue the most fervent Barker fan will be satisfied with one viewing of Barker's 1973 effort.
"The Forbidden" on the other hand, shares a lot of characteristics with "Salome" in terms of raw independent spirit, but definitely shows a growth in Barker's skills as a visionary in the five years between the productions. Around double the length, although just as narratively confusing (it's supposed to be based on "Faust"), "The Forbidden" is like a rough draft for themes and visuals Barker would implement in "Hellraiser." There's a recurring theme of the square and triangle, with one of the film's characters methodically reassembling a strange tome into a grid pattern which evokes the iconic Puzzlebox. The film assembles Peter Atkins (a frequent screenwriter/collaborator with Barker), Doug Bradley (Pinhead himself, who also has a role in "Salome") and Barker himself. It's a visually striking piece shot in negative that gives Barker's work here a feeling of being ahead of his time. The film also more overtly explores Barker's integration of sex and violence, with a final ten minutes that are bizarre and unsettling.
At the end of the day, it's a tough task to give a definitive assessment of "Salome" and "The Forbidden." Each film is unique, while managing to still shine with the touch of Barker's aesthetic vision; "Salome" with just a little bit of pre-research is a far more accessible short, although feels a little bloated, even at 18-minutes. "The Forbidden" on the other hand, is nightmarish and alluring at the same time; it is likely going to be the most revisited entry for the biggest Barker fans. That said, I still question the release of these as a separate entity and feel they would have been better served as extras on a US "Hellraiser" release similar to the UK release.
Both shorts are shot in black-and-white in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, reproduced here in full. "Salome" has all the hallmarks of an 8mm production with a jittery image, a fair share of print damage and grainy detail. Contrast is admirable give the age and format and overall, the transfer allows Barker's atmosphere to shine through nicely. "The Forbidden" is in better shape, shot in negative, it takes a while for the eye to adjust to the creative choice; overall detail is in the average range and like its predecessor, the transfer provides a clear focal point into Barker's nightmarish style.
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 audio track feels entirely unnecessary given the film's sole source of sound being a strangely ethereal and haunting score. The score is clear and at times warm; it is merely serviceable and a few notches above the video quality.
An archival interview from Barker and others involved in the main feature that looks like it was shot in the late 80s or early to mid 90s talking about their early experimental film days is the lone extra and a mandatory supplement to the feature.
An interesting curiosity, "Salome" and "The Forbidden" offer the earliest glimpses into the mind of an artist who has left an indelible legacy in the horror genre. Rough in execution and rough in presentation, this release is really only for those who would consider themselves Barker scholars. Rent It.