Come meet the dead of night.
Monster-as-protagonist is a concept that has been very much forefronted in the pop culture by this stage of the game. Decades of properties from Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) — and especially the spin-off, Angel (1999-2004) — to Teen Wolf (notably the modern TV iteration) and the Twilight series (2008-12) have conditioned us to look for the beating heart within the beast, to the point where, if and when a vampire glides, or a werewolf lopes into frame, the savvy viewer expects them to more often than not turn out to be some kind of tortured antihero wrestling with their thirst for flesh and blood.
This was not the case in 1990. Although there were antecedents (Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, one of the key ‘sympathetic monster’ texts, was published in 1976) in the main stage cultural floor show, monsters were still monstrous, and beasts were still bestial. Enter Clive Barker, author and now filmmaker who, hot off the unexpected success of his first feature film, Hellraiser (1987), sought to make ‘the Star Wars of horror movies’ by adapting his 1988 story, Cabal, into the big-budget monster epic, Nightbreed.
History shows that he failed, of course, if your metrics for success involve box office receipts and immediate cultural impact. Nightbreed was hamstrung by a studio, Morgan Creek, and distributor, 20th Century Fox, who had no idea how to market Barker’s transgressive beast feast and was received coolly by audiences who went in expecting a more conventional slasher film, which is how the movie was sold to them. However, like the hidden church of Baphomet featured in its own baroque mythology, Barker’s flawed fantasy has attracted its own acolytes over the years and recently saw two different special editions released — a 145-minute kitchen sink edition known as The Cabal Cut and a 120-minute Director’s Cut — that sought to undo the studio-mandated changes that resulted in the 102-minute original release version. It’s a whole story — you can read more about it here.
But speaking of stories, the narrative framework remained the same across the various cuts. Our hero is troubled, leather-jacketed hunk Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer), who has troubling, monstrous dreams of a secret city he calls Midian. His singer girlfriend, Lori (Anne Bobby) is supportive, but his psychiatrist, Dr. Philip K. Decker (David Cronenberg — yes, Canadian body horror legend David Cronenberg) tells him that the murders he’s also been envisioning match actual crimes that the police have come to him for advice on.
It’s actually Decker doing the killing, and Boone flees to Midian, which he learns from self-mutilating madman Narcisse (Hugh Ross) is a subterranean city beneath a vast cemetery in the remote fastness of Western Canada, wherein dwell the Nightbreed, the last remnants of the monstrous races that humanity has driven to near extinction. Although no killer, Boone is central to the prophesied destiny of the ‘Breed — he is Cabal, their Messiah figure, who will lead them from Midian to a new sanctuary.
Once bitten by the cannibalistic Peloquin (Oliver Parker) and transformed into one of the Nightbreed, Boone leads them in battle against the local cops and militia, who have been turned onto the dark doings in the graveyard by the pursuing Decker. Lori is also tracking down Boone, simply wanting her man back whether he be alive, dead, or undead, and it all comes to a grand Guignol climax as Boone and his horde of monsters tear into Decker and his army of rednecks while Midian collapses and burns around them.
That’s the short version anyway. While the broad strokes of Nightbreed’s story are fairly simple, it’s steeped in intricate detail and a rich, internally consistent, but at times willfully obscure mythology, which is par for the course for peak-era Clive Barker.
It’s impossible to overstate what an important figure Clive Barker was in the horror and fantasy landscape of the late ’80s and early ’90s. He was an absolute creative powerhouse, first coming to prominence off the back of his Books of Blood short story collections beginning in 1984, then publishing a string of highly regarded horror novels: The Damnation Game (1985), The Hellbound Heart (1986), Weaveworld (1987), Cabal (1988), The Great and Secret Show (1989) — and that’s just his ’80s output. He was a playwright and an illustrator as well. Stephen King famously said, “I’ve seen the future of horror, and his name is Clive Barker.” Neil Gaiman was rumored to have gently parodied him in The Sandman #17 (turns out to be untrue, although I heard it from more than one source), while Marvel Comics gave him his own dark superhero imprint, Razorline, in 1993. He was huge.
Barker really popped when he made his feature directing debut in 1987 on Hellraiser, an adaptation of The Hellbound Heart, and the work which most directly and effectively communicates his recurring themes and motifs of sexuality, religion, perversion, and pain, dealing as it does with a supernatural order of demonic BDSM priests, the Cenobites, who are summoned by solving a magical box (the Lament Configuration or Lemarchand’s Box, depending on which version you’re taking in) and hie off the hapless supplicant for an eternity of sexual torture in their dark home dimension.
While sex and horror have gone together like bacon and eggs since at least the gothic potboilers of the Victorian era, Barker made the sex challenging, provocative, evocative, and dangerously alluring again, weaving in his own experiences as a gay man and a heaping helping of BDSM culture to boot. Murdering horny teens with a machete for going against Puritanical American sexual mores was passé; far scarier was the notion that not only was the leather-and-latex-clad Pinhead (Doug Bradley) going to haul you off to julienne your genitals but that you just might like it.
This was a hell of a change from the culturally conservative horror status quo, where the disruption of normal society by the monstrous and malign was the dominant threat. In Hellraiser/ The Hellbound Heart, the Cenobites might be a threat, but they weren’t really malevolent, only coming when they were called and inflicting their painful pleasures on generally willing supplicants (even if said supplicants didn’t quite know what they were in for). The film was a surprise hit, allowing Barker to embark (heh) on a sadly short feature directing career.
Nightbreed came at Barker’s core thematic concerns from a different and, I’d argue, more accessible angle than Hellraiser. Rather than the dispassionate, grotesque Cenobites, we have the freakish Nightbreed, who are actually the protagonists of our tale. The religious elements are explicit and tied directly to the story spine; the Nightbreed worship a living God, Baphomet, a dismembered giant suspended in a column of fire, and Boone/ Cabal is the Chosen One, his agent in the field as it were. The Nightbreed themselves are a panoply of colorful characters and creatures, a riot of shapes, forms, teeth, fur, tentacles, quills, claws — you name it.
This is one of the main appeals of Nightbreed as a film — the explosion of creative energy that comprises the ‘Breed as a species. While the short novel Cabal lightly sketches its various characters and relies on the reader’s imagination to do the work, that simply doesn’t fly in cinema. Instead, Barker literally stops his film dead at a couple of points to take us on a visual tour of Midian’s candle-lit catacombs and the denizens who dwell therein. It is, to use a technical term, an absolute hoot for horror fans: we get deformed drummers, blue-skinned demons, lumbering obese ogres, and more. Elsewhere there’s a little girl, Babette (Kim and Nina Robertson), who transforms into a catlike creature, the tentacle-haired Peloquin (Oliver Parker), the moon-faced Kinski (Nicholas Vince), the witchy Rachel (Catherine Chevalier), the quill-covered Shuna Sassi (Christine McCorkindale). Brought to life by an army of makeup and special effects artists working under conceptualist Ralph ‘Star Wars’ McQuarrie, the Nightbreed are a wonderfully weird bunch, compelling and repelling by turn, not so much vampiric or lycanthropic but representing monsters that could have inspired our notions of vampires and werewolves — the supernatural light casting the shadow on the cave wall. From a modern perspective, there are some effects efforts that no longer cut the mustard — a stop motion creature here, a rubbery prosthetic job there, the odd optical animation — but measured against the standard of the day and with the relatively limited budget kept in mind ($11,000,000 US) the creation of both the creatures of Midian and their home itself is a remarkable effort of craft and imagination.
In service of what? Call it diversity in perversity if you like — there’s a theory that says Nightbreed is about the disparate communities and identities in the LGBTQI+ and kink diaspora coming together in order to survive oppression by the straight world, and it’s not a particularly long stretch, although like Marvel’s mutants they can stand in for any given Other you care to mention. Certainly, by contrast, the film’s villains are remarkably vanilla. Cronenberg’s Decker is a vision in his button-eyed killing mask with his collection of knives close to hand, but his steely affect, soft speech, and talk of his revulsion at ‘breeders’ marks him as curiously sexless, almost sterile. He finds families revolting to the point that he is driven to murder them, and we get families — conventionally at least — through sex. Decker’s fuckophobia extends, naturally, to a deep loathing of the Nightbreed, a chthonic race caked in dirt and burial cerements, who revel in their physicality and carnality (there are multiple shots and scenes of the various ‘Breed dancing, cavorting, caressing, and kissing). And so, he sets his sights on exterminating the Nightbreed, the animalistic antithesis to his razor-edged and clinically clean ideal world.
The allies Decker gathers are equally emblematic of the ‘straight’ world: redneck sheriff Eigerman (Charles Haid), who comes complete with not just deputies but a local gun-totin’ militia called the Sons of the Free and alcoholic local priest Ashberry (Malcolm Smith), who is roped into the crusade against the Nightbreed, so the modern-day Inquisition has God on their side. Ashberry’s a little less clear cut as a character — there are allusions that he’s some kind of deviant, and he argues against Eigerman’s wanton slaughter of Nightbreed children — but as a symbol, he fits right alongside Decker’s clinical killer and Eigerman’s badge-wearing bigot.
Those clear binary oppositions are the stuff of great, resonate modern mythology. It’s all about the Yin and the Yang, Order, and Chaos — i.e., Batman would be nothing without The Joker. In his best work, Barker excels at communicating the nape-prickling feeling that vast and ancient powers are tussling in the relatively contained scope of his stories, that we as readers or viewers are peeking over the precipice at something deeper and stranger, more wondrous and terrifying than anything the waking world could contain, and so it is here. The Nightbreed are the last of the wild and weird left in the world, and in the battle for their survival more is at stake than the lives of a few dozen leftover boogeymen.
That sort of thing holds great appeal for me. Perhaps it was seeing Highlander (1986) at a formative age (only four years earlier than Nightbreed, mind you), but the idea that there are hidden vistas of magic and wonder and terror concealed under the skin of the world, accessible simply by turning down the wrong alley or visiting the right cemetery, is irresistible. It’s not a million miles away from the inherent appeals of religion and superstition — do this ritual say this prayer, throw this salt over that shoulder, and you’re tapped into or perhaps protected from something vast and old and cosmic and mysterious. This kind of fantasy — and while Nightbreed is horror it’s also fantasy — concretizes that desire, makes that longing for ecstasy real, gives it fangs and scales, and projects it on the big screen at 24 frames a second.
So why did audiences reject the film?
On initial release, Nightbreed only grossed $8,900,000, and contemporary critics were less than kind — even now, it only rates 38% on Rotten Tomatoes. The accepted wisdom is that the studio-mandated cuts made to Barker’s submitted version crippled the film, and some of the reviews at the time reflect that assessment, calling the film incoherent. Honestly, though, they leveled similar accusations at Highlander, and neither film ever struck me as difficult to parse. The long-awaited Director’s Cut of Nightbreed does little to really clarify matters; while scenes are extended, and new sequences added, there’s nothing particularly revelatory that changes the essential story, apart from a couple of character deaths and a change to the final sequel hook.
It’s easier to pin it on poor marketing, then — Fox pimped the movie as a typical slasher and refused to screen the film for critics, arguing that horror fans did not read reviews. The image on the original poster was not even from Barker’s film, but rather an unrelated slasher flick (I want to say 1989’s Intruder, but Google has failed me). In shying away from embracing Nightbreed’s outré elements, Fox effectively hid it from its potential audience and alienated those who saw it under what were effectively false pretenses.
Still, I suspect that like other recent ‘hidden’ world fantasies Highlander and Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Nightbreed was simply ahead of the curve. These films were Openers of the Way, and as evidence, just look at the preponderance of urban and wainscoting fantasy now. I can’t imagine that critics today would dismiss any of these films as incoherent; we’ve been taught to speak the language of intricate fictional mythology, but whether we could have arrived at this point without films like these simply existing back in the day is an interesting question — and probably one without a definitive answer, really, but it’s worth pondering.
Not that Nightbreed, in any of its iterations, is faultless. When you get right down to it, the least interesting figures in play are our central pairing of Boone and Lori. For all that we’re told of his psychological demons, Boone lacks interiority, and Craig Sheffer, A River Runs Through It (1992), can’t make the underwritten hero transcend what’s on the page. We never plug into exactly what Boone’s catharsis is, what he gets out of journeying to Midian, and joining the Nightbreed — we are only told it or asked to infer it from his actions. His transformation from brooding hunk to Chosen One Monster Messiah never quite convinces. Lori fares better, with Anne Bobby, Beautiful Girls (1996), giving a convincing performance as a woman trying to figure out what exactly happened to the love of her life and facing the terrifying wonders she uncovers with open eyes, but she’s solving a mystery we already know the answer to — the audience is always a few steps ahead of her. To be brutally honest, the singing scene she gets in any of the extended cuts is just a groaner, adding nothing to the film and stopping it dead in its tracks for no narrative, thematic, or character purpose.
Yet Nightbreed persists beyond its limited initial success. It aches for expansion, for — dare I say it? — franchise treatment. The world that Barker let us glimpse is too enticing, too intoxicatingly, terrifyingly alien, and seductive. There have been minor artifacts released over the years — The Nightbreed Chronicles tie-in books are well worth tracking down, and while neither the Marvel Epic comics series that briefly existed following the film’s initial release nor the more recent Boom! Studios effort are much chop, they have elements that will please fans. Over the years, there have been occasional stabs at a sequel, a remake, some kind of large-scale addition to the mythos; most recently there’s been talk of a TV series over the past half dozen years, with Barker himself involved and original production company Morgan Creek producing for Syfy. Still, it’s been a long time between drinks.
Which is a crying shame. I don’t know if Nightbreed is the best example of its type, but then again, I don’t think there’s much else out there quite like Nightbreed; its flavor is unique amongst modern dark fantasy, its concerns more cerebral, and somehow simultaneously earthy and esoteric. During production, one worried studio suit cautioned the director, “You know, Clive, if you’re not careful, some people are going to like the monsters.” And he was right — I really, really do.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson