Clive Barker’s 1990 followup to his cult hit Hellraiser is a film called Nightbreed, based on his own novel, Cabal. Barker notoriously despised the original theatrical release, saying the studio didn’t understand how to market it. They wanted the movie to be a slasher, like Friday the 13th, not a nuanced character study that blurs the lines between good and evil. 25 years later, we finally get to see the film how it was intended to be. This review is for the Nightbreed Director’s Cut.
The story follows a human named Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer), a lost soul who never feels like he belongs among humanity. He receives visions in dreams of a mystical land called Midian. Boone tells his psychiatrist, Dr. Decker (David Cronenberg) of these visions, and Decker then frames Boone for a series of gruesome murders across town, convincing him that he committed them in a hallucinatory state. In reality, Decker is the one going on the killing spree, wearing a creepy scarecrow-like mask that’s almost as creepy as any real monster in this movie.
Now the police are after Boone, who eventually finds and seeks refuge in the real Midian, a land overrun by monsters and freaks–nightbreeds–who will never be accepted by society. They were cast out of the world by humans hundreds of years ago. Think of X-Men meets Beetlejuice. Boone isn’t accepted there since he’s a human, and gets attacked and bitten by one of Midian’s prowlers, Peloquin (Oliver Parker). Upon fleeing from Midian back into the real world, he’s met by the police, who believe he’s armed and shoot him to death. Peloquin’s bite allows him to come back to life, now as a monster, permitting his acceptance into Midian’s community.
Decker, catching wind that Boone has possibly come back from the dead, is on a hunt to find and kill him, getting the local police on his side, which ignites a war between humans and monsters. Decker’s always been out to kill nightbreeds. However, we’re never really given a sound motive for why.
Early on, the film relishes in unclarity and tries finding mystique in the esoteric. The lore continues to be a bit confusing as many of the plot points become only halfway realized.
The real appeal of Nightbreed is how Barker builds the world and the grotesque creatures in it. You can tell the filmmaker and his team had a good time crafting the variety of monsters and the subterranean environment in which they dwell. Makeup and practical effects were peaking in the ’90s, due to the lack of reliance on CGI, and this movie is a perfect example.
Barker’s new version definitely keeps a surprisingly even pace. Around 20 minutes longer than the original, it never drags, even though some details we wouldn’t necessarily miss.
The director does well to flip our often-misunderstood view on reality, but the only problem is his new view shows that he may have as much misunderstanding as the society he’s speaking of.
Barker has the utmost sympathy for the nightbreeds, but doesn’t stop to realize that the reason why humans–Decker and the “real monsters” of the world–do evil things is because of the same power that is now taking care of the monsters, demanding their praise. The humans have been tricked and tempted, yet Barker shows not sympathy towards them at all?
He sets out on a mission as though his notions of “humans are the real monsters” are original. They’re not. He tries to give us a reason to love monsters, or to validate our love for them. But he seems to forget there are plenty of better examples that came years before Nightbreed (see King Kong, Frankenstein, Godzilla). In those cases, the “monsters” aren’t monsters at all. They’re just misunderstood creatures.
In Nightbreed, many of the monsters are, in fact, evil or animalistic–much like the humans that he antagonizes. And then all he’s doing is having an inherently good character, like Boone, taking orders from the evil creatures and following their lore, which doesn’t make any moral sense, thus muddling his message. If this isn’t the case and I’ve misinterpreted things, then it should be made more clear–especially in a film that attempts to cover something this heavy.
When you tell a story that tries to depict evil as good and good as evil, what ends up happening is you just continue labeling each side, and all you’re left with is good and evil again. But Barker wants the two sides to wear different faces. This only makes sense when you don’t paint all stereotypical “good” guys as evil, and vice versa. Otherwise, how is the perspective of your story any different than the traditional one that you’re trying to subvert?
Barker has confused ideas about Christianity. At one point he depicts a priest who says he doesn’t believe in the devil. No priest would say this. The director constantly disguises/buries his misguidedly blasphemous message under a rubble pile of appealing visuals and a blurry antagonist group. Barker’s film is visually appealing–especially to those into graphic horror. He’s conceived creatures so visually stunning it would make George Lucas blush.
Nightbreed‘s world tempts us to believe its notions with its appealing shell, but makes no good arguments for those who possess any sort of wisdom to really stop and think about it. Honestly, I don’t even think Barker is trying all that hard to trick us, since he doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on even the most basic principles of Christianity, himself. Perhaps he’s being driven by another power. After all, the greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world he doesn’t exist.