Spoilers for a 25-year old film. (Trust me: you probably won’t watch it anyway.)
There are many reasons why Clive Barker’s Nightbreed (1990) failed to achieve the same kind of success as his directorial debut, Hellraiser (1987), but, despite his protestations to the contrary, the studio’s cut of the film was the least of its problems.
In short, the film failed to achieve its goal, which was to flip the usual horror dichotomy on its head and show the monsters as sympathetic and the humans as grotesque. In the end, while the protagonists Boone (Craig Sheffer) and Lori (Anne Bobby) are somewhat likable and believable as a young couple in love, the creatures they encounter on their way to Midian, the secret home of the film’s titular Nightbreed, are too poorly drawn for the audience to attach much sympathy to. Because I am a lifelong fan of Mr. Barker’s imaginative storytelling, I saw the original release ages ago and was disappointed. When I heard about the director’s cut, which incorporates lost footage, I had hopes it would give more time to the monsters and reveal something of their personalities and motivations. Sadly, that additional development is lacking.
Still, one can see the depth of Barker’s vision and what he was trying to achieve. The story has mythological underpinnings and a cast of characters that, given the right development, could serve as a sort of macabre, horror-themed X-Men: half-human monsters who have hidden from the persecution of humankind for centuries, with an outsider seeking the refuge of their sanctum as primary protagonist. As interesting as many of the creature designs are, there’s very little behind the latex and fake blood to empathize with.
The underground warren of Midian was obviously intended to seem like a kind of shadowy, exotic Wonderland of sensual pleasures and scares, but budgetary restrictions make it look dingy, dirty and decrepit. While some fun was obviously had with the designs of the denizens of Midian, as seen in separate scenes where Boone and Lori stumble through the labyrinthine corridors, some of the monsters elicit revulsion rather than sympathy (one in particular resembles an angry pile of entrails), which, again, plays against the directors intended purpose. It’s hard enough to illustrate the humanity in human characters; doing so with the most inhuman characters imaginable requires double or triple the effort. It’s not enough to hunt them down with an angry mob, as near the end of the film. The audience has to care about the monsters before you kill them.
Among the movie’s more problematic narrative threads is Boone’s psychiatrist (played in serpentine low key by fellow horror director David Cronenberg) as both master manipulator and serial killer. It’s Dr. Decker’s machinations that send Boone on the road to Midian, but it’s clear early in the movie that he’s also the button-masked serial killer terrorizing the unnamed Canadian city where they live. Decker follows Boone northward toward Midian, leaving behind a ludicrously long trail of victims killed seemingly at random. Not only is the whole “faceless murdering stalker” trope undermined by the fact that his identity is almost immediate obvious, the deaths are telegraphed amateurishly (Is anything plot-driven happening in this scene? Has it gone mysteriously quiet? I guess someone’s about to get stabbed…) and they distract from the film’s main plot lines, which are Lori looking for Boone and Boone seeking acceptance in Midian.
- Why does Lori call her boyfriend by his last name? (His first name is Aaron, but she, like everyone else, calls him Boone.)
- Boone comes back to life after being bit by one of Midian’s residents (Peloquin) and being gunned down by police; the bite supposedly transfers the power of the Nightbreed to him before he dies. Earlier in the film, we are introduced to the character Narcisse, who’s in a hospital raving about Midian. He tries to prove to Boone his devotion to the monsters by mutilating himself, then supposedly dies. Later he shows up in Midian and serves as the film’s comic relief. If he was a human, then died as a result of self-inflicted wounds, why does he come back as a monster? The story violates its own internal logic.
- At the trucker bar near Midian, there are numerous extras sporting baseball caps with cartoonish bull horns on them. (Some kind of local fraternal order?) Later, in the final confrontation between townsfolk and monsters, we see several of these dopes in the graveyard at Midian, wielding shotguns, with the idiotic hats on their heads. This does not have the effect of making them seem intimidating.
- Dr. Decker has literally no set motivation. Early on, he influences Boone using hallucinogens and veiled threats, implying he’s the serial killer the police are looking for. Later, he tells Lori he kills people to get rid of “breeders”. Later, after he finds Midian, he seems intent on killing Boone and all the monsters. So, in summary: he sends away the one guy who could take the fall for his own murder spree, then tracks him down, killing people all along the way, because he wants to find Midian for some reason. Then, suddenly, he wants to kill Boone and destroy Midian. Because … evil?
- Also: why does Decker, who’s played by the willowy David Cronenberg, think he stands a chance against an undead man and hundreds of his inhuman monster friends? Because he was a knife collection and a cool mask?
- For that matter, how does a murderous psychopath hold down what appears to be a highly lucrative psychiatric practice?
- Many of the deaths in the final battle are comically truncated. One oafish local has his eyes torn out by a monster’s tentacles and immediately falls dead. Really, Clive?
- The budgetary constraints are most obvious in exterior scenes of Midian, where gravestones and statuary have a “fiberglass painted with textured paint” look. In several wide shots, matte paintings by legendary designer Ralph McQuarrie fill in the background but are not blended well with character footage.
Nightbreed isn’t all disappointment. The lead actors were well chosen, and their scenes together are believable. Some of the monster designs are quite clever, such as porcupine-woman Shauna Sassi. Baphomet, the towering statue god the monsters worship, is impressively imposing. And there is a room in the bowels of Midian where the walls are covered in murals depicting the history and prophecies of the Nightbreed (again designed by McQuarrie); it’s a shame we don’t get to see more of this art.
There are rumors of a television series based on Nightbreed currently under development. While this could end up being a cynical cash-in that fails to find an audience, the series format is actually a better fit for story and characters. If the writers of this potential remake abandon the original story and feature a new group of monsters who are better realized and more sympathetic, seeing them evolve and interact over a series of episodes is more likely to attract the audience Barker originally wanted. And the improvements in effects after 25 years can only improve the believability.
Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut improves only marginally on the original release, which was a tepid disappointment to begin with.
Good: Some interesting makeup and set design, chemistry between leads. David Cronenberg as the bad guy.
Bad: Poorly drawn characters, superfluous storylines, plot holes, contradictions, bad acting, general confusement.
Should you see it? Only if you’re a Clive Barker completist, and only for a glimpse of what could have been if there had been more money and better decision-making.