Of monsters and monasteries: A critical review of “Nightbreed” (1990)

Writer-director Clive Barker’s “Nightbreed” (adapted from his own novel “Cabal”) is the kind of movie that could only have come out at the end of the 1980s. A few years earlier, and it would have lacked the kind of overblown pathos it exhibits; a few years later, and it never would have been financed. Indeed, the movie was fraught with creative control issues, particularly commercial ones, and it has gone on to rival “Blade Runner” in terms of different prints available. Still, whichever version you find yourself watching, you will be viewing a flawed, albeit interesting and intelligent, piece of horror cinema.

Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer, who ends up in “Hellraiser: Inferno”) thinks he’s better now. His nightmares of an otherworldly city called Midian are on the back burner thanks to some pills he’s popping that have been prescribed by his psychiatrist, Dr. Philip K. Decker (David Cronenberg, yes, that David Cronenberg, who ends up directing “Naked Lunch,” “eXistenz,” et al). Of course, he’s not better, because what kind of movie would that be? Instead, Boone has become fascinated with bizarre murders that he believes he’s been pulling off. Maybe he has. The cops think so, because they end up gunning him down outside of an abandoned cemetery just outside of town.

After Boone is killed, Lori Winston, his girlfriend (Anne Bonny, who ends up voicing Brigid Tenenbaum in the Bioshock series), steps in to investigate. She discovers that neither Aaron nor the cemetery are entirely what they appear to be; indeed, the cemetery houses a secret city of monsters who, after centuries of pressure from humans, have chosen to separate themselves from the rest of the world to live in strange peace and contemplation. Of course, the presence  of Winston shakes up the city of monsters, attracting unwanted attention and quickening their ultimate purpose.

I want to quickly mention the music, which is by the always solid Danny Elfman and is suitably big, brash, Gothic and fun. I actually didn’t know going into the movie that Elfman–one of my favorite film composers–wrote the score, and I liked it before I realized he was the man behind the baton. I always find it rewarding when something like that happens.

Also, the cast is familiar and oddly brilliant. Cronenberg is a great choice; as a kind of mad scientist, he’s a perfect mix between dispassionate and informative. Doug Bradley—you know him as Pinhead—is buried underneath makeup, but his presence is well felt.

So in case you couldn’t tell, what we have here is classic Barker. The direction is solid, the photography is clean and professional (the cinematography is by Robin Vidgeon, another Hellraiser series alum) and the costumes and creature effects could keep a monster fan happy for days. In fact, you could watch the entire film for that and be satisfied, but you’d be missing out on Barker’s intelligent, if scattered, script.

Barker is commenting on marginalized groups in this film–how society marginalizes people, how they form groups accordingly and react to marginalization–but he’s also creating a mythology. Created mythology courtesy of Barker tends to go one of two ways: it’s either elegant and compelling, as in the novella “The Hellbound Heart,” or it’s messy and confusing, hopefully as much to the author as to the audience, as in some other works I could mention. Although the mythology presented in “Nightbreed” seems like it ought to go south, it never does. Perhaps it helps that Barker seems to be taking cues from 19th century English artist and poet William Blake. Like Blake, Barker’s mythology here is not strictly dualistic but polyistic and cyclic.

Regarding religiosity, the film is not anti-faith or pro-faith per se. Again, like Blake, Barker seems to be suggesting that in order to understand our place in the cosmos, we need to toss off the shackles of organized religion’s more militant and senselessly ritualistic elements to get at the real heart of the matter. The seed of religion is more compelling than any kind of garden we can prune it into. This is relayed through the small but intriguing character of an alcoholic priest (Malcom Smith, who was not in any of the Hellraiser movies) who loses one faith only to pick up another, far older, one in the final act of the film.

Which is perhaps part of the problem with “Nightbreed.” Not its outlook, but its evolution. Barker is toying with these great themes, but he seems hesitant to discuss them; however, once they’re in the open, he shoves them forward in a rush. Coupled with some slightly flat characters, “Nightbreed” suffers from a case of style over substance perhaps…but I’ve always been a style man, and what a style it is.

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