Three short years after bursting onto the horror scene with his directorial debut Hellraiser Clive Barker adapted his novel “Cabal” into the big screen monster movie Nightbreed. Like Hellraiser, Barker both wrote and directed Nightbreed and, although not a commercial success, the movie has found a cult audience that is rabidly faithful. Nightbreed is a movie about monsters, but it is not a typical monster movie. It is part fairy tale, part mythology and part straight-up horror.
There are two interwoven storylines in Nightbreed. On the one hand there’s the story of a serial killer who stalks and kills entire families. On the other, there’s the tale of a magical underground city called Midian where monsters go to live out their days amongst other monsters, away from the humans that have cast them out. The two plotlines in Nightbreed are stitched together through a character named Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer from A River Runs Through It), a young man who is plagued by nightmares about both the monsters and the murders. Boone’s psychiatrist, Dr. Philip K. Decker (director David Cronenberg moonlighting as an actor), convinces him that he has confessed to the killings while under hypnosis. In a nice twist, the real killer is the good doctor himself. While Decker attempts to frame Boone for the crimes, Boone, believing that he is actually guilty, escapes and finds Midian, intent on living there as the monster he believes he is. Once there, Boone is shot and killed by police, but not before he is attacked and bitten by one of the monsters named Peloquin (played by Oliver Parker). Once at the morgue, Peloquin’s bite gives Boone the power to cheat death, and he comes back to life. He returns to Midian and is accepted into the breed. Meanwhile, Decker learns the location of Midian and becomes intent on destroying it and all of its inhabitants. Boone must lead the monsters in a final showdown against Decker and the humans to save the monsters’ home.
Nightbreed’s high point is its special effects make-up. The monsters are beautifully created and constructed by Geoffrey Portass (the man behind the effects of Hellraiser, Lifeforce and Highlander) and Bob Keen (who also worked on Highlander as well as Event Horizon). The monsters are more than simply make-up and costuming, as their bodies are alive with weaponry and defense mechanisms. For example, Peloquin’s head spits out steam through little hoses that look like dreadlocks when he gets angry. Another monster named Shuna Sassi (Christine McCorkindale) shoots porcupine quills out of her body, while still another named Leroy Gomm (Tony Bluto) has tentacles that protrude from his midsection, alive and hungry. More than half of the primary characters in Nightbreed are monsters, and Portass and Keen’s creations make them come alive.
Nightbreed also features a great early score by Danny Elfman. A perfect mix of suspense and wonder, Elfman’s music fits right in with his scores for Batman and Dick Tracy. The early nineties era Elfman scores provide the link between his more playful Beetlejuice-type soundtracks and his more serious Sommersby compositions, and Nightbreed is a prime example of this. Elfman makes the transitions from the scary killer scenes to the campy monster scenes sound seemless.
Nightbreed seems to not know whether it wants to be a campy monster movie or a terrifying horror flick. The scenes with the serial killer (nicknamed Buttonface because of the creepy S&M style mask he wears) are genuinely frightening in a typical jump-out-of-your-seat way. The monster scenes try to have the same impact, but fall a bit short. While the monsters are visually striking, Barker doesn’t let them get too scary, seemingly to remind the viewer that they are still the heroes in the film. The real monsters in Nightbreed are the humans – Dr. Decker and the police that kill Boone and want to destroy Midian – and Barker makes them the real villians. The film is an uneven blend of fantasy and horror, with less shock and more awe.
Nightbreed is not a typical horror movie. Clive Barker creates a world where appearances are not to be believed, a world where the ugly monsters are the noble characters and the doctors and policemen cannot be trusted. Fans who cheer for Godzilla and cry when King Kong dies will love Nightbreed.