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Nightbreed (1990)

nightbreed_2Nightbreed (1990)
AKA Clive Barker’s Nightbreed, Cabal

Starring Craig Sheffer, Anne Bobby, David Cronenberg, Charles Haid, Hugh Quarshie, Hugh Ross, Doug Bradley, Catherine Chevalier, Malcolm Smith, Bob Sessions, Oliver Parker, Debora Weston, Nicholas Vince, Simon Bamford, Kim Robertson

Directed by Clive Barker

Expectations: High.

Nightbreed might be a little disjointed and hard to penetrate for some viewers, but this is one of those movies I watched because I finally read the book upon which it is based, in this case: Clive Barker’s Cabal. So I watched Nightbreed with a huge grin across my face almost the entire time. The film is a fantastic adaptation of the novel, bringing Midian and the monsters of the night to life in ways that I didn’t think would be practical or possible. Clive Barker once again surprised me in ways I never dreamed, proving that his imagination knows no bounds. Barker’s vision of horror and fantasy defies genre labels and Nightbreed exemplifies his ability to drop us into a colorful, nightmarish world without much exposition (not unlike Philip K. Dick, another of my favorite authors).

Nightbreed starts as the story of Boone (Craig Sheffer), a troubled man plagued with dreams of monsters. Boone visits his therapist, Decker (David Cronenberg), for some relief, but instead Boone learns that he’s actually been murdering families during periods of blackout. So now, as an outcast and a murderer, Boone ventures to the one place where he knows he can find refuge: Midian, a place where the true monsters of the world, the Nightbreed, seek shelter and peace. That’s the basic beginning to the plot, but it only scratches the surface in describing Nightbreed. The film is about Boone ultimately, but the central plot is almost secondary to the periphery elements. Boone is a small, but important player in a larger narrative, one that’s been going on for thousands of years. The way Barker explores the other Nightbreed and their shared mythology, man’s compulsion to ridicule and exterminate those who are different, as well as indulging our own fascinations with the creatures of the night, is what makes the film the powerhouse I found it to be.

I’ll admit that it’s a strange story that does not follow traditional narrative or character structure. Attempting to judge Nightbreed against these tired tropes makes it clear why the film was a critical and commercial failure upon release. Even if the studio didn’t cut almost an hour from Barker’s cut of the movie, I can’t imagine mainstream moviegoers embracing a movie that features dark, villainous creatures of the night as the heroes of the tale. Even horror fans are likely to question the film, as it’s wholly unlike anything else out there. To enjoy Nightbreed requires a true love of dark storylines and unhinged, imaginative fantasy bold enough to tread new ground.

No matter where you side on the film’s storytelling, there are two aspects of the film that are undeniably great: the FX work and David Cronenberg’s performance as Decker. Having just read the book, I imagined the film would cut corners and limit the amount of monsters to keep the budget in line. To my surprise, Nightbreed is teeming with incredibly realized monsters of all kinds. From shape-shifting children to alien-like berserkers, Nightbreed is a wealth of grotesque, darkly stimulating creature designs, all brought to stunning life through the magic of makeup FX.

David Cronenberg’s role was perhaps one of the hardest to bring to the screen: a doctor with murderous tendencies brought on by a mask with buttons for eyes and a skewed zipper mouth. In the book the mask talks to Decker and eggs him on to kill, but in Nightbreed the mask is simply an object. While this changes the character slightly, through Cronenberg’s performance the mask becomes more than an object. The mask is a window into the character’s dark soul, representing his soul’s true face, while the fleshy mask of humanity is actually the manipulative ruse. Cronenberg embodies the menace of Decker flawlessly.

You may not agree with me, but I absolutely loved Nightbreed. The last half-hour is somewhat choppy in terms of storytelling (because there is A LOT going on), but everything up to that is a near-perfect, monster-filled thrill ride of dark delight. It’s not for everyone, but if you harbor a wonder for the things that go bump in the night, Nightbreed is a unique film that is just as much a love story and a fantasy as it is a horror film. I am thoroughly stoked for the late 2014 Blu-ray release of the Extended Edition from Scream Factory, restoring the film back to the film it was originally intended to be!

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