Released in 1990 as horror author slash director Clive Barker’s follow up to his superlative Hellraiser, Nightbreed was hyped up on set as the Star Wars of Horror movies. Now, obviously that particular piece of hyperbole failed to come to pass but it certainly wasn’t down to a lack of vision. Massacred by a studio that couldn’t get it’s head around the concept that the monsters were the good guys and the humans were, mostly, intolerant bastards (in the wake of Avatar and pretty much everything Guillermo Del Torro has had anything to do with, surely Nightbreed’s a movie staggeringly ahead of it’s time) and subsequently clumsily recut, Barker’s adaption of his own novel Cabal has it’s fair share of problems, but like the titular denizens of Midian, the movie refuses to stay underground.
Troubled young man Boone seems to be finally getting himself together. With the help of his devoted girlfriend Lori, he seems to have gotten a handle on his extreme emotional turmoil and dehabillitating nightmares and for the first time is looking to the future with a sense of hope. Enter Boone’s shifty psychiatrist Decker (we KNOW he’s shifty because he’s played by David frickin’ Cronenberg) who informs Boone that his nightmares prove that he’s the one responsible for the rash of murders that has plagued the area recently. Boone eventually ends up at Midian, a graveyard necropolis that hides the Nightbreed, a tribe of monsters and creatures that have taken refuge from man – think of them like a hippy commune who’s members either explode in sunlight or eat people instead of hash brownies – but is attacked and munched on by tentacled Breed bad boy Peloquin and then subsequently is cut down in a hail of police bullets and thoroughly killed.
However, Peloquin’s bite has restorative properties (or as he calls it “The bite that mocks death” – humble one, that Peloquin) and Boone comes back from the dead with the ability to transform into a stronger and more blood thirsty form who sports decidedly un-human patterning on his skin and returns to the Breed. A heart broken Lori follows, unaware of what she’ll find but is stalked by the true serial killer, Decker, who, appalled at what he finds, rounds up the local militia (it’s America so they have one of those) and wages war on the surviving tribes of the moon. Can Boone adjust to his new life and embrace his existence as Nightbreed despite still loving Lori while still becoming the savior of his new people or will Decker and his succeed in the slaughter of every single creature in his path?
Whatever form you watch Nightbreed in, there’s a definite sense of it being a piece of unfinished work. The original print is jumbled and crowded and where the director’s version (released decades after under the title The Cabal Cut) finally allows the expansive story to breathe but still has a distinct feel that Barker maybe was not an experienced enough director to reign in the expansive tale and the sheer mass of disparate characters on show here. In fact, virtually every supporting character feels like they each need at least an extra twenty minutes of screen time EACH to make them fully blossom – especially the more fun members of the ‘Breed and the villainous small town members of the Sons Of The Free militia – leading to surmise that a 13 episode remake on Netflix or Amazon Prime would be the preferred medium for a story with so many complicated parts.
And yet what Barker achieved back in ’90 remains fiercely original and consistently intriguing with numerous memorable visuals, characters and concepts flying at you sometimes to quick to grasp.
Cronenberg’s Doctor Decker and his murderous, family slaying persona known as The Mask (no, not THAT one!) is a fascinating villain and SO many of the ‘Breed stand out, be it the arrogant, swaggering, rebellious Peloquin to the Jack Nicholson-esque Narcisse (an actor convinced another “face” lurks under his own), to the crowd pleasing Bezerkers, heavily armoured, mindless engines of destruction.
However, while a lot of the movie’s rushed concepts hold up impressively well, some of the effects and set pieces haven’t. With some wonky stop motion and some obviously rubbery face masks marring some of the crowd scenes, plus the climactic battle is frantically edited chaos with you frequently confused at to which scenes are set above or below ground as you are repeated battered by random explosions.
And yet – and I can’t emphasize this enough – there is something marvelous locked in this film; after all why else would anyone dedicate so much time restoring a forgotten monster movie from the late eighties?
Be it the truly insane array of creatures or a central concept that is ridiculously relevant now more than ever (the Nightbreed are virtually every kind of social “outcast” imaginable containing species that transcend gender, sexuality, religion and standardised physical norms) Nightbreed, despite all it’s flaws, deserves to be rediscovered by a whole new generation that will hopefully be far more receptive to it’s charms than a confused studio and a misleading ad campaign.