The UKHS Ecstasy & Agony Showcase #21:
The Ecstasy of NIGHTBREED (1990)
I can’t quite remember any more if my first experience of Clive Barker was Hellraiser or this: the utterly fascinating Nightbreed. What I do remember is the effect Nightbreed had on my young mind, and how it was the start of an obsession I have with Barker and all of his works that still grips me to this day. I had no idea at the time I saw Nightbreed that Barker was a prolific author; I was movie obsessed and didn’t read that much at what must have been thirteen or fourteen years old. Suffice to say at that age I didn’t fully understand all the points and nuances that Barker was trying to convey with the film, I just thought it was cool. But the brilliance for me has always been the fact that I have always found something new to discover; whether it is unearthing the various subtexts or noticing the many visual details and flourishes that thrive in the backgrounds of many scenes. It has its weaknesses and certainly isn’t a perfect example of narrative cinema, but it has more ideas and creative spirit than most movies (horror or otherwise) can ever hope to dream of.
I sadly have yet to see the now famous ‘Cabal Cut’, but that doesn’t really affect anything here as the most important version in terms of my initial love for the film is the theatrical cut. With a notoriously troubled production and a studio that completely misunderstood the material, Barker was forced to release a greatly shortened version of the tale with greater emphasis on the slasher elements rather than the monsters of Midian. So Barker’s attempt to create the Citizen Kane of horror became more a Heaven’s Gate. But like Heaven’s Gate it has gained its fans and become far more appreciated as time has passed.
Based on Barker’s novel Cabal it is the story of Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer) a man haunted by dreams of a place called Midian, a place where ‘the monsters live’. Manipulated into believing he is a notorious murderer by his psychologist Dr. Dekker (David Cronenberg) he searches out Midian and discovers that: “It’s all true. God’s an astronaught, Oz is over the rainbow, and Midian’s where the monsters live.” Bitten by the beast-like Peloquin (Oliver Parker) he is gunned down by police at the gates of Midian. He rises from the morgue and returns to Midian to become one of the Nightbreed. But soon his ‘natural’ life begins to intrude on his new sanctuary and the forces of ‘Man’ begin to threaten the very existence of The Nightbreed.
As a young teenager I think I loved Nightbreed because of the monsters. They were just awesome, and it was fun that they were the good guys in a way. But as I have grown up with it I have come to understand how much I related to them at that time in my life. A celebrant of those who stand outside the accepted norm and add colour and diversity to the world, Barker has always been a story teller with a difference. Daring to go places that many artists wouldn’t dream of his stories are often journey’s into the dark fantastique that try to remind us that just because something is different or challenging, doesn’t mean it is evil or wrong. To a younger me who always seemed to stand apart from the crowd this was something that I found I could really identify with, and with Nightbreed a love of Barkers fiction, and a much deeper affinity with horror, was born.
At one point in the film one of the many Nightbreed remarks that ultimately we envy them as they can do things we only get to dream about like fly, change shape, become invisible… But what we envy we destroy. This makes it wonderfully ironic that the film was so misunderstood by its producers and strangely fitting that the version that would make it into cinemas was something of a misunderstood monster itself. The theatrical cut undoubtedly suffers a little because of the interference of its producers, but it is a testament to the strength of Clive Barker’s voice that the film still manages to be heard. Despite their attempts to mould it into a slice and dice movie where David Croneberg’s mask wearing killer Dekker is more prominent it still manages to really be about Midian and its monsters. It does become convoluted and a little lost in its own ideas towards the end, but there is so much in every frame to enjoy that its shortcomings become almost irrelevant.
It also stands as a wonderful piece to bring together two different eras in horror. I have always loved horror as a whole genre and have never really had a preference in terms of sub-genre or era. I love the Universal movies of the 30’s as much as Slasher films from the 80’s and here Barker brings the two together. He admittedly lands on the side of The Universal Monsters era, presenting his beasts sympathetically and with character. But in Dekker he has created one of the most over-looked villains in horror. Whilst David Cronenberg may not be a great actor (he once remarked that he wouldn’t cast himself) he gives Dekker a cold detachment that is incredibly believable and chilling at times, and had Nightbreed been released under different circumstances that mask with buttons for eyes may well have become iconic.
Nightbreed stands proud as a testament to horror fans and their passion for the things they love. It has taken more than 20 years for the ‘Cabal Cut’ to surface and it is through the tireless efforts of fans of the theatrical cut that it has eventually seen the light of day. It may not have been possible in the pre-internet years, but I can’t recall ever experiencing such a passionate charge to find the footage and restore a director’s original vision to the screen. I have yet to see ‘The Cabal Cut’ and am eagerly awaiting the announcement from across the pond as to when it will finally make it to DVD and BLU-RAY. But until then we have this version that like the monsters of Midian is an underdog that has survived against the odds.
In fact I love this film so much that I had ‘We are the tribes of the moon’ tattooed upon my back!
Read all the previous Ecstasy & Agony pieces by clicking them: