31 Days of Horror: Surviving Nightbreed

I was (and still am) a huge Clive Barker fan. I devoured his “Books of Blood” as they came out. I saw Hellraiser on opening night. And so of course I also saw Nightbreed the night it was released. I remember it was pretty good. I remember it had a guy in it that looked like Mac Tonight. And I remember that it scared me, really scared me – scared me enough that I’ve never watched it again. Here I go again, I give the film another shot, after the jump.

Clive Barker

For most of the world, they were introduced to Clive Barker in the movie previews for Hellraiser, ads that prominently featured the Stephen King quote: “I have seen the future of horror, and its name is Clive Barker.” There was, and is, no better recommendation for an author in the genre than that quote. There was a genre buzz going on about this man in the mid-1980s that was almost unbelievable. I discovered him shortly before this with his masterful short story volumes, the “Books of Blood,” which still stands as a guide to how short horror stories should be done.

Now, with Barker almost in hiding because of various ills, yet still writing to his loyal audience, it may be hard to understand the furor going on in the horror community at the time. King was most certainly the king of horror, but Barker went over the top. All of those extreme horror moments that your imagination wouldn’t go, wouldn’t be allowed to go – Barker went there. He was a little bit King, a little bit Lovecraft, and completely without limits or boundaries. Clive Barker was the original splatterpunk. And we loved it.

Cabal

“Cabal” was a novella featured in the sixth and final volume of Barker’s “Books of Blood.” The story detailed the secret hidden city of Midian, home to monsters, both human and otherwise. The mentally ill protagonist, Boone, becomes convinced by his psychiatrist Decker that he is responsible for a grisly string of murders that he himself has blocked from his memory. Boone, thinking himself a monster, goes in search of Midian, and hilarity and horror ensue, as they say.

The story was powerful enough that not only was it pulled from its original anthology and released as a novel on its own, it was also chosen as Barker’s next film project, one he would both write and direct – Nightbreed. Studio interference would ultimately create something very unlike Barker’s vision, and to the public’s perception, produce one of Barker’s biggest failures. While Hellraiser on the big screen created a mythos that still thrives, unfortunately this project died a quick death in theatres.

One of the original promotional posters.

Don’t Believe the Hype

As I said, I saw Nightbreed, or more accurately Clive Barker’s Nightbreed as the title in the beginning reads, the night it opened in February of 1990, with a group of friends who were all similarly enamored of Barker’s work. The film had so much going for it at the time. Written and directed by Barker, soundtrack by the master Danny Elfman, it had David Cronenberg in a lead role. Doug “Pinhead” Bradley was even in it. This should’ve have been a sure shot, but it barely pulled in eight million dollars in its very brief run, a financial failure.

What went wrong? As mentioned above, the studio and Barker didn’t see eye to eye. Not only did the powers that be make radical edits to the film, their marketing campaign was confusing. If one didn’t know the source material, the advertising for Nightbreed would have suggested a run-of-the-mill slasher flick, when in fact it was much much more – or less rather, once they were done cutting it up, that is. Besides completely changing the story, they cut Suzi Quatro from the film (sorry, I love the little leather rocker), and dubbed over Doug Bradley’s voice. Big losses all around in my opinion.

Second Chance

Craig Sheffer graduates from Hughes to Barker.

Upon re-viewing the film, I wanted to find out what I had blocked from my memory. What scared me so much that I vowed never to watch Nightbreed again? Well, it wasn’t lead Craig Sheffer. I was as unimpressed now with his acting and casting as I was back in the day, although my problem back then was more getting him out of my head as the heavy from John Hughes’ Some Kind of Wonderful. Speaking of acting, David Cronenberg is both a subtle and over the top delight in his role as psychiatrist villain Decker, so much fun for horror fans old and new. And the score by Elfman is one of his earlier, and easily one of his best, in my opinion.

Nightbreed is much more complex and intellectual a film then I thought when first seeing it. Maybe from the promotion, my mind was in just another horror flick mode, but this has depth, a whole mythos, not unlike Barker’s Hellraiser films. The story works on several levels, and despite some scares and chills we’ll get to in a moment, I was stunned and impressed on this, my second viewing. Bravo, Mr. Barker, for what did make it to the screen.

The button-eyed killer…

Scary Monsters and Super Freaks

In the film, Barker created a unique mythology, much like the more current “The Walking Dead,” the real monsters are slowly revealed to be the humans, not the mutants and deviants that just look like monsters. I fear the button-eyed serial killer the most here, but then again, that’s me. I know there are no zombies or vampires, but Tommy from Goodfellas? He scares the hell outta me. That’s David Cronenberg’s job here – he’s the monster, not the ones you would obviously associate with the label by appearance.

Two of my nightmares made flesh…

The Nightbreed, the citizens of Midian, are a strange mix of the uncanny X-Men and the circus folk of Tod Browning’s classic Freaks. Just as they are weird but exciting protagonists and heroes, they are extremely disturbing visually. Their images are definitely what scared me on that first viewing, and I assure you I won’t sleep well tonight. In fact, on this second watch of the film, I was re-introduced to creatures I’ve seen in nightmare but blocked out. Visually disturbing doesn’t cut it, but then again, visually disturbing is what Clive Barker has always done best.

Restoration

I walk away from my second viewing of Nightbreed with a new respect for the film. I liked it a lot, and have to give kudos to Mr. Barker for what he tried to do. Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, there was much meddling with the movie from the studio. What I have seen twice now was not what was meant to be seen as far as Barker was concerned.

However, there is a chance to see Nightbreed as Clive Barker intended. Recently a cut of the film has emerged called The Cabal Cut. It is making the rounds of horror conventions around the US and Canada. Biff Bam Pop! Editor-In-Chief Andy Burns talks about it here. Check it out if you get a chance. I know I will.

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8 Replies to “31 Days of Horror: Surviving Nightbreed”

  1. As always, your articles make me want to run out and watch the movie, even if it’s not normally my cup of tea.

  2. Clive Barker here.I just want to thank you,Glenn,for the re-examination of my movie,’NIGHTBREED’.It has taken the labour of two men-Russell Cherrington and Mark Miller-to get this wounded tale up on its feet again. But it isn’t only fixing the wounds in the flesh of the film which has opened it up to new audiences.The audiences have changed too.We live in a post ‘Twilight’ world,and the idea that the monsters are deserving of something more than our mindless hatred has gained some traction.
    Finally,some small corrections,Glenn.The Cabal Cut did not simply ’emerge’ in its present form.It was painstakingly re-constructed from found elements.And neither Suzt Quatro nor Marc Almond,who were both prematurely announced as cast members,were ever contracted,nor in the end, available.No film was shot of either.
    But these are tiny polishes to your lovely piece,for which I again thank you.It seems the ‘Breed finally found a way home.My very best wishes to you, Clive.

  3. Thanks for dropping by Biff Bam Pop and leaving a comment, Clive. Safe to say, your work has haunted the dreams of all of us on the site. And thanks Glenn, always, for another great piece.

  4. Thank you for dropping by and commenting, Clive, you made my day. Corrections noted, still can’t wait to see the Cabal cut, and you rock! Thank you again.

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