I’ve always had a soft spot for Clive Barker's Nightbreed. I am well aware it's not the greatest film in movie history. But it's stuck with me all these years. I first watched it in 1991, after it was released to VHS. By then I'd already read the book it was based on, Cabal, which I'd picked up at my local library.
It wasn't my favorite read from Barker, I'll admit. I had already gotten used to his more detailed works like Imajica, The Damnation Game and The Great and Secret Show. Epic works of dark imagination and world-building. I was hoping for more. In that respect, I'd felt it didn't deliver. It was my first experience with my own hype and anticipation causing disappointment.
When I saw the movie, Clive Barker had won me over again.
I think what I'd responded to most was what I felt it was trying to accomplish, to make the monsters into sympathetic characters and humans the villains. I appreciated that rather than focused on what it lacked. Even as a kid, I knew there was something fundamentally flawed about it but I held firm to my love for Boone and the monsters of Midian and—maybe more so—to the coldblooded serial killer Dr. Decker. I’d often found myself fumbling to defend the movie I knew it could have been, not the film they’d given us.
Later interviews revealed Barker’s bickering with studio heads who had liked Hellraiser (or at least the money it had made them against its relatively low budget), but felt audiences wouldn’t “get” a movie with monsters as the heroes. They thought it would be too confusing.
The finished film suffered greatly for their tampering. To Barker's fans, the studio had entirely missed the point. Barker himself said of the theatrical cut, “The movie that was released in 1990 was not the movie I wanted to make philosophically or artistically."
Still, Barker's monsters shone through despite the deeply flawed theatrical cut. Barker has not only created some of the most iconic creatures in cinema history (Hellraiser's Cenobites, for example, or Candyman), but also the most complex. Barker's script based on his own novel, Cabal, doesn't paint these monsters as either wholly evil or tragic victims of an oppressive society.
There are shades of gray here, as there are among any group. You understand the "monsters" and even sympathize with them.
The first citizens Boone meets in Midian ("where the monsters live," according to several characters) are Peloquin and Kinski. Peloquin merely sees the human interloper as "meat for the beast," but his friend reminds him of Midian's laws.
In essence Midian is a fully functioning society of "monsters" with all the flaws, culture, history and beliefs of any civilization. The only real difference is they must live out of sight for fear of human judgment and terrorism. Because of how they look. Because of how they live. And it's not an irrational fear, as events prove in the latter half of the film.
Visionary director Alejandro Jodorosky called Nightbreed “the first truly gay horror fantasy epic.” There are people who want the monsters of Midian hunted down and exterminated. Think about that. This movie was made and released during the tail end of America's AIDS epidemic, when many people erroneously believed it could be passed along simply by touching someone, and some still considered it a "gay disease." Magic Johnson had yet to reveal his diagnosis, which some saw as a turning point in the AIDS scare, putting a human face (a very famous human face) on the tragedy.
I can't say whether or not Barker had this subtext in mind while making the film or if Jodorowsky was reaching, but it does add an interesting layer that makes Nightbreed transcend its flaws and the trappings of the "Creature Feature" subgenre. An intended theme is that humans are the true monsters. Another, that our fascination with monsters leads some to wish to be monsters and live among them. Barker spoke about this in a 2014 interview: "Why would you not want to change into an animal? Why would you not want to fly? Why would you not want to live forever? These are the things that monsters do."
This adds layers to the Creature Feature aspect of the movie not found in many others. In addition to the "normal" monsters, we have Boone (do I need to say "spoilers"?) who is psychic-driven by his psychiatrist, played wonderfully icily by David Cronenberg, into believing he's a serial killer. When he hides out in Midian he is bitten and transforms into the monster he thinks he is.
We have a man Boone meets in the hospital who so eager to become a monster that his cuts off pieces of his own face to join them in Midian. He seems to be accepted into their group without question, and later we see several more humanlike "monsters" below the cemetery where Midian lies.
We have the most heinous monster of them all Cronenberg's psychiatrist, who kills families under the guise of his "buttonface" mask.
We see glimpses of Midian's citizens through the eyes of Boone's partner Lori as she travels the underground city in search of Boone. Small lizard-like creatures feast on carrion. A sabretoothed woman drums out a beat on a wall for some unknown reason. Monsters wash the penile humanoid head of a lumpy creature whose body resembles the Kool-Aid Man. A bulbous, greasy Jacob Marley lookalike limps around on a cane scaring people for fun. Another monster feeds his own blood to a jar of live eels. (The music that plays under this scene is phenomenal by the way, quintessential Danny Elfman. Watch the scene here.)
Later we encounter their religious leader Dirk Lylesberg, played by Doug Bradley (Hellraiser's Pinhead). They even have their own god, Baphomet: a giant living statute far below the earth.
Other monsters have been imprisoned in the bowels of Midian, called the "Berserkers." These slimy behemoths with football player padding are never explained. They could be criminals or protectors or both. Whichever they are they are let out to charge the intruders, easily overpowering them.
In its creature creation, Nightbreed is difficult to top. The sheer amount of thought and imagination put into this world and its inhabitants are a creature designer's wet dream. Lori's descent into Midian in particular calls to mind the cantina scene in Star Wars: A New Hope, one of the most iconic establishing scenes in movie history.
Nightbreed definitely has its flaws (the Director's Cut fixed most of them while adding others; see my review of the Director's Cut here), but as a Creature Feature I'd list it among the best.
If you've yet to read it, my dark crime thriller Where the Monsters Live is free for subscribers of my mailing list. In a way it was slightly inspired by Nightbreed (hence the name), though I didn't realize it at the time I was writing it. It's about a father seeking revenge among a commune of sex offenders for the assault of his daughter. Real-life monsters instead of the creatures found at Midian. Give it a look here.
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