“Someone at Morgan Creek said to me, ‘You know, Clive, if you’re not careful some people are going to like the monsters.’ Talk about completely missing the point! Even the company I was making the film for couldn’t comprehend what I was trying to achieve!” – Clive Barker
As children we are scared of the things that go bump in the night or the monster that lurks under the bed. When we grow up we are taught to no longer fear these things but this didn’t seem to happen to novelist Clive Barker. He went on fearing and even identifying with the monsters, celebrating them in his art. After the success of Hellraiser (1987), his directorial debut, anticipation was high for his follow-up Nightbreed (1990), based on his novella Cabal about a secret society of monsters and the troubled young man who seeks them out. While his first film was made independently, this one was backed by a major Hollywood studio – 20th Century Fox – but made under its chairman’s production company Morgan Creek. The end result is a fascinatingly flawed film botched by indifferent handlers with little to no respect for or understanding of Barker’s vision. Despite the studio interference and compromises that he was forced to make, there is a sense that a good film is fighting to get out. Over the years, Nightbreed has developed a small but dedicated following who continue to speculate about the film that could have been and might still be if Barker can ever wrestle the excised footage away from Fox and assemble the film he originally envisioned.
Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer) is a young man plagued by troubling dreams of a nightmarish place called Midian populated by monsters but that he believes is where all of his sins will be forgiven. He’s seeing a psychiatrist named Dr. Decker (David Cronenberg), who, in his spare time, moonlights as a serial killer that slaughters entire families. He proceeds to pin these murders on Boone and convinces his patient that he is the killer. Decker drugs Boone who leaves his office and gets into an accident. In the hospital, Boone meets a fellow patient who speaks of Midian as a place “where the monsters go.” He tells Boone where it is in exchange for accompanying him there. However, the guy also happens to be as crazy as a loon and proceeds to scalp himself in Barker’s first show-stopping gore effect.
Boone finds Midian and meets its denizens and this is where the film really takes off as Barker introduces all kinds of fantastic looking monsters, chief among them Peloquin (Oliver Parker), a fiend that looks like he just came out of the Cantina in Star Wars (1977), only much more evil-looking than anything in George Lucas’ film. Peloquin is Boone’s introduction to Midian and he also gets to speak most of the film’s memorable lines with that great deep voice and cocky attitude that is reminiscent of Bill Paxton’s scene-stealing vampire in Near Dark (1987). In pursuit of Boone are his girlfriend Lori (Anne Bobby) and Decker – she out of love and the good doctor – well, he wants to find the Nightbreed and kill them all because they are freakish aberrations that must be completely wiped out.
The most fascinating bits of Nightbreed are Boone’s initiation into the Breed and the glimpses that Barker gives us of life in Midian, an underworld populated by all kinds of creatures. They used computer-controlled animatronics but only where necessary. Bob Keen and his crew had two months to play around with ideas before doing any modeling work. There are all kinds of levels to Midian, complete with nooks and cranies – places where these creatures live. At one point, Lori looks for Boone in Midian and we are introduced to various members of the Breed. The deeper she goes, the more interesting looking the creatures are that she encounters.
It goes without saying that David Cronenberg is perfectly cast as Decker. It was Barker’s idea to cast him in the role after seeing the Canadian filmmaker in a documentary. There has always been something slightly ominous about the man, even in interviews. He looks like a psychiatrist as opposed to a legendary filmmaker and Barker taps into that, creating a truly unsettling psychopath who is a more horrific monster than anything that lives in Midian. Cronenberg brings just the right mix of mundane creepiness and subtle menace to the role. Decker is the pure incarnation of evil, driven by his own trivial power fantasies, or, as he puts it at one point, “I’m death, plain and simple.”
When I first saw Nightbreed I can remember not being too thrilled with Craig Sheffer’s performance. I found him to be stiff and miscast in the role of Boone. He wasn’t how I pictured the character when I read Barker’s novella. Many years later and his performance has grown on me. He seems credible as a confused young man who puts his trust in a psychiatrist that is clearly bad news from get-go. Maybe it is because of the footage that the studio removed, but his motivation for wanting to seek out Midian and join the Breed is not established very well. All we get is him dreaming of the place and his desire to seek it out when he meets with Decker. I get that Boone’s desire is to find refuge in a place where all of what he perceives to be his sins will be absolved. The cruel irony is that he’s an innocent only to be brought over to the other side by one of the Breed. But this is not really the strongest foundation for him to go to the lengths that he does in the film.
Sadly, the weakest performance in the film is Anne Bobby as Lori, Boone’s girlfriend. She does little in the film but act as a damsel in distress and I don’t know if it is the script or Bobby’s performance but she comes across as quite bland. One wonders why Boone goes to lengths that he does to save her from Decker. Maybe it is Bobby as she gave a bland performance in Beautiful Girls (1996) as well. Of course, up against a formidable ensemble cast like the one in that film, it’s no wonder, but in Nightbreed she adds little to the film except serve as a plot device.
As Barker finished writing Cabal, he realized that it would make a good film that he would direct himself. He always loved monsters and felt that “there’s a corner of all of us that envies their powers and would love to live forever, or to fly, or to change shape at will. So, when I came to make a movie about monsters, I wanted to create a world we’d feel strangely at home in.” He was interested in creating a “horror mythology from the ground up” and developing characters that would live on in sequels. His goal was to make the Star Wars of horror films. The monsters in the novel are represented impressionistically over two or three paragraphs and Barker had to visualize them in much greater detail for the film.
Nightbreed was the first of a planned three-picture deal with Morgan Creek that included an adaptation of Son of Celluloid and a sequel to Nightbreed. Hellraiser had a budget of $2 million while Nightbreed had one of $11 million, a considerable difference which allowed Barker to realize his ambitious project. The first compromise Barker made was to change the title to Nightbreed because Morgan Creek insisted on a more commercial title and told the filmmaker that they thought Cabal didn’t mean anything. He used three soundstages at Pinewood Studios and shot on location in Canada. For example, the final confrontation between Eigerman’s (Charles Haid) troops and the Breed was shot over a two-and-a-half week period at Pinewood. Towards the end of principal photography, Barker brought Star Wars concept artist Ralph McQuarrie into paint mattes for the Necropolis sequences and to design the history of the Breed in a symbolic way painted on an enormous mural across a 60-foot space on the set at Pinewood, which was subsequently used in the opening credits.
In late July 1989, the studio announced that the release date for Nightbreed was being pushed back from its original autumn 1989 date to early February 1990 instead. The press release cited “the complex demands of the film’s ground-breaking post-production optical effects,” but also included McQuarrie’s mural and matte paintings, and a week of additional shooting in late August that would see key parts of the narrative re-shot. Barker shot extra scenes over three days in Los Angeles in late 1989 which included additional scenes with Cronenberg that expanded and clarified his character. Barker was also contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated picture and couldn’t make it as a gory as he had done with Hellraiser. Doug Bradley (Pinhead in Hellraiser) was cast as Lylesberg, the Breed's self-elected lawmaker, but in post-production they dubbed over his voice with someone sporting a German accent, much to his chagrin.
Barker previewed his first cut with a temporary soundtrack that did not go well because people were confused by the characters’ motives. He made some changes and a second test screening took place. According to Barker, it was much more successful. However, the ending with Decker’s death was not well-received and Barker changed it. The final director’s cut ran two-and-a-half hours and Fox asked for almost an hour to be cut, prompting editor Richard Marden to resign in protest. The film was cut to two hours and then to a 102 minutes.
The head of marketing at Morgan Creek never watched Nightbreed all the way through because it “disgusted and distressed” him, according to Barker. The studio didn’t understand it, because it had no movie stars, it was violent, and played around with genre conventions too much for their liking. The marketing department found the film difficult to classify because it had elements of both fantasy and horror which they saw as a weakness but which Barker, of course, saw as a strength. So, the studio marketed Nightbreed as a slasher film with television teaser trailers that were confused and did represent it well. It didn’t help that the T.V. trailer that was sent to the MPAA was rejected 12 times. They forbid any monster footage and so it was cut down to someone being terrorized by a razor – representing only five minutes of Barker’s film. They did not promote it well with posters that misinterpreted the content. When Barker saw the way they were selling the film, he “freaked out and said, ‘What are you doing? This isn’t the movie,’ and was given all kinds of excuses... ‘Well, there isn’t time to change it, we have to release it now.’” Looking back, Barker realized that the studio was better at promoting films like White Men Can’t Jump (1992) but “not so good at selling the quirky stuff.” Barker should commiserate with Mike Judge who ran into all kinds of interference with two of his films, Office Space (1999) and Idiocracy (2006) that the same studio had no idea how to sell it and also treated indifferently.
According to Barker, the studio argued that there was no point in showing Nightbreed to film critics because the people who see horror films don’t read reviews. Therefore, the film had to be sold to the lowest common denominator. The studio refused to preview it for critics which only angered them. They were not kind to Barker’s film to say the least. In his review for the Washington Post, Richard Harrington wrote, “Unfortunately, Cronenberg is in front of the camera, leaving Barker in the director's chair. And though Barker is one of the genre's great talents, he lacks the tools to translate his stories from print to celluloid.” In her review for The New York Times, Caryn James wrote, “But surrounded by Mr. Barker's visual clutter and lack of narrative energy, Mr. Cronenberg's presence only highlights the difference between a gruesome but first-rate psychological horror story like Dead Ringers and a mediocrity like Nightbreed.”
The Toronto Star’s Henry Mietkiewicz wrote, “Nightbreed might have been a monster movie milestone, if Clive Barker's directorial abilities had kept pace with his skill as a master of British horror fiction. Unfortunately, Nightbreed probably will be remembered as much for its haphazard plotting and underdeveloped characters as its delightfully daring concept.” The Guardian’s Derek Malcolm wrote, “It is neither direct nor subtle enough as a piece of film-making. It is difficult to suggest that evil is human and monsters have souls within the context of a mountain of special effects. The result is patchy in the extreme and not always capable of transcending a genre that has become less and less intriguing as less and less is left to the imagination.” Entertainment Weekly magazine’s Owen Gleiberman gave the film a “C+” rating and wrote, “Barker spins grisly fantasy out of sexual obsession, yet his style here couldn't be less obsessive. It's cluttered and rather incoherent, as though the trailers to four different horror movies had been spliced together.”
What’s interesting about Nightbreed is how Barker reverses the stereotype perpetuated by many horror films. In this one, it is the monsters who are the sympathetic protagonists that we root for and it is the priests, police and analysts – what Barker calls “the three forces of authority” – that represent the film’s antagonists. In this respect, Nightbreed harkens back to classic horror films of the 1930s, like King Kong (1933), Frankenstein (1931), and its sequel, Bride of Frankenstein (1935), that all feature sympathetic monsters we end up caring about. With Nightbreed, Barker tried to “get at something which I think is the subtext of an awful lot of horror and fantasy movies – that the forces of darkness, the things that are supposedly morally repugnant – are the things we really like.” His film is successful in the sense that we root for the monsters and hope that their society survives while we want to see Decker destroyed.
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Ferrante, Anthony C. “Barker Looks Back.” Bloody Best of Fangoria. September 1993.
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Jones, Alan. “Clive Barker's Nightbreed.” Cinefantastique. November 1989.
Jones, Alan. “Nightbreed: The Trials and Tribulations of Clive Barker.” Starburst. September 1990.
Nightbreed Presskit. Morgan Creek. 1990.
Salisbury, Mark. “Chains of Love.” Fear. December 1988.
Salisbury, Mark. “Flesh and Fury.” Fear. October 1990.
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