[Review] Nightbreed (1990) by Garrett Collins

Starring: Craig Sheffer, Anne Bobby, David Cronenberg, and Doug Bradley
Directed by: Clive Barker

It’s hard to think about now, but back in the mid 80s, Clive Barker was known as horror’s next big literary and motion picture giant. With his Books of Blood collections and a film called Hellraiser, he had started placing his stamp on the genre, and I remember covers of his books having the quote from Stephen King saying that he “has seen the future of horror. And his name is Clive Barker.” I must say, as more than just a casual fan of the genre, I was tending to agree. Even as films such as Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th had all the makings of something parents hated, Barker’s Hellraiser took this notion to whole new levels.

Full of brutal fantasy violence, sadomasicistic overtones and a main villain that doesn’t even show itself till the very end, Hellraiser was the first movie that, as a child, I felt ‘naughty’ for watching. Flash forward a couple years, and going into his next project called Nightbreed, an adaptation of his ever eccentric novel Cabal, I was excited to say the least. Then, the articles started showing up. The studio that made the film, Morgan Creek Productions, wasn’t too keen on Barker taking the monsters and making them the good guys, so to speak (something Tim Burton would use to his own perfection in his two Batman films). They wanted, as had been so popular around that time, a horror film. A film with slasher qualities. In other words, a film that, Barker has made clear on a number of occasions, he didn’t want to make. And, I can’t believe I am about to say this, but you really can’t blame them. After all, would you want to invest in a movie where your main character is shot 20 minutes in, and comes back as a monster? Who would you root for? So, the big question remained: does the scuffling that went on during making of Nightbreed compromise the film as a whole?

On the most part, I sadly would have to say that the answer to that question is yes. While there are definitely a number of great scenes and beautiful drama enhancing gothic imagery, Barker’s film seems compromised from the start. The vision is unclear from the start, as just coming off scoring the original Batman, Danny Elfman opens up this film with a great main theme that sets up the film beautifully. Some drawings on walls that outline almost each and every creature we are about to come in contact with in the course of the following 102 minutes, and the evil carnival sounding score by Elfman was on the surface uncanny, but in the end perfect addition to Barker’s vision as a whole. In fact, the theme that plays during a scene where the character of Lori (Bobby) is walking through the Midian underworld seems like it could have been pulled straight out of a Burton film. Barker’s vision is almost that of a Terminator-esque world of doom and gloom & the inevitable end of the world. And, in beginning scenes, when the character of Boone (Sheffer) has ‘bad dreams,’ it sets up what we are about to see so well. And, Barker doesn’t hold back. There are slasher type kills (were they his?), there are characters who slice their own face open with two razors on both sides. And, there is a character who is debating on whether these nightmares about this new place called Midian are real, or if he is the one doing the killing. Very telling stuff, and while at least one of those things were a staple in the horror genre back then, Barker was at least trying to set up that Nightbreed would be different.

In order to follow through on the promises this world brings us, Barker had to have actors he could count on to bring his vision to life. I would have to say, that as far as this particular order of business, the people in place here do a pretty good job. Sheffer, who almost looks like Josh Brolin, does a good enough job as the lead Boone. And I went back and forth on Cronenberg. Granted, the guy is a director first and it was only through Barker’s constant efforts at persuasion that he said yes to the part of the ‘evil’ Dr Phillip K Decker (an obvious homage to author Phillip K Dick), and there were times when his sensible, dry line deliveries worked. But for the most part, I literally cringed when he spoke. The guy really was better off to stick to directing, and I felt it was a mistake casting Cronenberg here. The real marvel discovery from this film that I had quite frankly completely forgotten about was Bobby. She was astounding as Lori, Boone’s girlfriend. I feel that she represents the audience, as she literally is in WTF mode almost the entire film. This is the kind of part that can come off as looking cliché, but I really liked how she pulls it off, even coming off as strong at times. Which, back in 1990, was extremely rare. It’s a shame she didn’t have a bigger career than she did (although I did enjoy her bit part in Born on the Fourth of July).

Where Nightbreed excels, predictably, is in the visual aspects. Barker brought in Ralph McQuarrie (Star Wars) to help with the overall look of Midian, and, considering this was before computer effects, the sets look astounding. I loved every corner that was turned, because I literally didn’t know what was lurking behind it. And, of course, there were also a ton of creatures meandering about (only in Clive Barker’s universe is a pug a dangerous creature). These were a ton of frightening designs (including a very creative one, which was a girl with porcupine quills), but my favorite by far was Peloquin, a creature with dreadlocks who ‘hulks out’ when pissed and on the prowl. Barker, armed with a much bigger budget than his previous ‘Hell’-infested feature, is also very good at accentriating these visuals. He does a marvelous job of using light and nightmarish imagery to his advantage.

Nightbreed is an interesting film to look back on. Barker had originally envisioned it as his ‘Star Wars Trilogy’ with monsters. An epic journey into the monstrous macabre. And, I think it is unfair to compare it to Hellraiser. Hellraiser was made to literally frighten the daylights out of you while at the same time making you think if God is the only thing one should worry about they sin. Nightbreed is in a class of its own. However, again, its unevenness, combined with Cronenberg’s line deliveries, really hurts it. Barker’s outright message of ‘what you envy, you destroy’ is gravely shaken by his studio’s insistence on advertising it as a slasher film. Nightbreed is not a slasher film, folks. It is a film that asks us exactly what kind of face is buried underneath our own. What kind of worlds are out there in which creatures such as these exist? It is a place called Midian. And, it is my hope that the upcoming Cabal cut of this film will make all of that seem plausible, and even out its bumpy surface. After all, Midian is where ‘the monsters go.’

Rating:

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