Cult Cinema: Nightbreed - Clive Barker's Director's Cut

Chris Jordan gives an in-depth analysis of Clive Barker's excellent, underrated dark-fantasy cult classic.

Much like the monsters of its title, Clive Barker's Nightbreed is a misunderstood creature that is far more substantial and soulful than it initially appears. The victim of a deeply-troubled post-production fraught with studio meddling, re-shoots, and re-cuts, it emerged in 1990 in an artistically and intellectually mangled state that was savaged by critics and doomed to failure at the box office. It was an extreme case of a studio and a filmmaker disagreeing about what a movie should be: Morgan Creek completely failed to understand Barker's intentions, tone, and themes, and very nearly killed the film in their attempts to reshape it into something it wasn't. 

"Welcome to our cosplay group - would you
like some punch?"

It nonetheless became a minor cult classic thanks to the bits of unique brilliance that still shone through, but even its most vocal fans were well aware how compromised the film had become. Then, also like its supernatural protagonists, Nightbreed experienced a long-overdue resurrection and transformation: in 2014, Scream Factory worked with Clive Barker's Seraphim Films to painstakingly restore Barker's director's cut. The result is in many ways a totally new movie: with 45 minutes of footage added and 20 minutes of studio-mandated reshoots removed, this new Nightbreed focuses in on the social commentary at its core, and tells its story with a substantially different tone and attitude towards genre. The director's cut reveals this to be Barker's most ambitious film, as well as his most allegorical, in a way that feels extremely personal. It is every bit as strong a movie as his better-known directorial efforts Hellraiser and Lord of Illusions, and even improves on a few of Hellraiser's weaker qualities. Its reputation as a cult classic has certainly increased since the release of this new cut, and hopefully it will continue to grow: the Breed definitely deserve to stand alongside the Cenobytes as some of Barker's greatest creations.

Nightbreed is, in essence, a monster movie in reverse: one where the creatures are the heroes, and it is the humans who commit monstrous acts. The film, based on Barker's novella Cabal, tells the story of Midian: an underground city where the last of the world's monsters have formed a safe haven, to take refuge from the humans who have pushed them to the brink of extinction. It is a place where the outcast and dispossessed can come to seek asylum... provided they're willing to leave their humanity at the door and join the Nightbreed. But humanity is notoriously bad at living and letting live, and any compromise of Midian's secrecy brings with it the threat of violence from the world above. Despite the film's marketing, and despite the reputation that Clive Barker built for himself with Hellraiser, this premise should make clear that Nightbreed is not a horror film, but a dark fantasy. It feels very much like a precursor to the work of Neil Gaiman and Guillermo Del Toro, with Midian occupying a similar narrative space as Gaiman's London Below from Neverwhere, or Del Toro's Goblin Market from Hellboy II. This shift away from horror and towards fantasy will be no surprise to fans of Barker's books, as the author had by the late-1980s moved substantially in this direction, into the modern fantasy niche which would characterize most of his literary career. To those who know him mostly from his films, however, Nightbreed will present a very different, and potentially surprising, side of the auteur. The studio was certainly surprised for exactly this reason: they wanted and expected another horror film like Hellraiser, and when they instead got a dark fantasy with its outlandish creatures as the protagonists, they had no idea what to do with it, except recut it into a more conventional genre flick. Perhaps the real problem is that Nightbreed was ahead of its time, a few years before the pop-cultural landscape was ready for it.

"Clive Barker? Yeah, he's pretty good.
His stuff could use some more
body-horror, though."
Coming in a cinematic age of slasher flicks and creature features where the villains were uncomplicated in their grotesque evilness and the heroes were attractive young (human) people, Nightbreed was like no other movie of the time. Here we have a story where it is the monsters who are charming, intelligent, and attractive (though still plenty grotesque), and where the villains are the outwardly-respectable police chief (Charles Haid) and doctor (filmmaker David Cronenberg, in a rare acting role). The people aren't all bad: the film still centers around two human protagonists, a young couple played by Craig Sheffer and Anne Bobby, whose personal journeys into Midian provide the emotional focus as well as the catalyst for Barker's philosophical parable. But it is understandably the monsters who really steal the show, as a larger-than-life ensemble whose wild appearances are matched by their eclectic personalities. Dozens of different creatures appear in the film, and Barker has convincingly created an entire society for them to inhabit. We see their culture, their laws, and their social structure, meeting everyone from reserved political leaders (Doug Bradley as the philosopher-monk Lylesberg) to the anarchic troublemakers living on Midian's fringe (the rock-and-roller wild-man Narcisse and the animalistic loose cannon Peloquin). Using far more visual storytelling than spoken exposition, Barker gives us a fascinating window into a fully-formed world that could have been explored in a whole series of movies without ever running out of material. In fact, it leaves us wanting more: I know that the movie had a story to tell, and a pace to maintain, but I can't help but wish that it slowed down to explore the nuances of Midian just a bit more, because it's all so unique.

At the end of the day, though, indulging in the stylistic coolness of the most monster-packed monster movie of them all is simply not why Clive Barker is here. Viewers come to Nightbreed for the insane funhouse of creatures, but stay for the multiple layers of themes that the plot explores. Firstly, Barker's story is concerned with the ways in which power structures can corrode morality and discourage critical thought. Both of the film's main villains, the sociopathic doctor and the violently macho police chief, are traditional figures of authority and public trust, who know that they can abuse their power without repercussions. Rather than questioning their ethics or motives, the people around them simply fall in line and do as ordered, because their positions place them above suspicion or doubt. A villain with the right credentials is easily assumed to be a hero by those who don't think critically enough. In a way, the opposite is true in Midian: Doug Bradley's benevolent Lylesberg leads the Nightbreed with a noble philosophy of strict pacifism towards the world above, and his authority is followed unquestioningly... even when his nonviolent approach leaves them sitting ducks against the brutality of their enemies. He is a voice of the status quo, which is not always the same as a voice of reason; even a good leader and a good philosophy can become harmful when followed dogmatically and without question. A better school of thought is symbolized by our heroes Boone and Lori: they are torn between the worlds of humanity and the Breed, and thus struggle to find a balance between the humans' violence and Lylesberg's religious law. Their journey, then, takes them to a place of personally-negotiated ethics, rather than the comfortable following of leadership or dogma.

The other major thematic arc of Nightbreed is as an allegory about 
the struggles of LGBT people in a heteronormative world. Strip away the fantasy trappings and this is basically the story of a misunderstood minority trying to build a support system against the bigotry and persecution of mainstream society. The Breed aren't monsters, despite their looks; they are just judged as such by people who meet them with heavy preconceived notions. In essence, they are hated and feared for not fitting into a socially-prescribed normal. This metaphor of Midian as a tight-knit queer community is made more explicit by the fact that several of the Breed are clearly played as gay or bisexual, openly without fear of social stigma. This is in stark contrast to a subplot involving a priest who is bullied and abused by the police chief because he is gay, and thus in the chief's eyes deserving of punishment for violating their conservative town's heterosexual norms. The victim of the chief's homophobia being a priest is an ironic tie-in to the first theme; a jab at those who use religion as a justification for their bigotry without stopping to realize how badly that misses the point of the whole “love thy neighbor” message. While both sides of Nightbreed's thematic arc tie in with Clive Barker's recurring philosophies, the story's queer themes seem especially personal. As a gay man who at that point in his career still did not feel comfortable being out of the closet in his public persona, the story of Midian's safe-haven being at odds with the bigotry of society at large almost certainly drew from his personal experiences, in a way that he could only write about at the time behind layers of fantasy.

"Awesome! Totally awesome!"
These levels of thematic depth are the key to Nightbreed's success; the things that allow the film to resonate as a very human story, and be more than just a good fantasy/horror movie. But on top of that, it also is a very good fantasy/horror movie – and that is what makes it so much fun, in addition to being interesting. As a visceral thriller, the film excels: Hellraiser and Lord of Illusions earned Clive Barker the reputation of being a visually stunning director who knows when to let loose the unrestrained madness, and we get more of that here too. While the Breed are not by nature monsters in the conventional sense, when they need to get out their teeth and claws and be monstrous, they can certainly deal some damage; and at least a couple of Midian's more anarchic inhabitants really enjoy it. This film deliberately does not have the same level of gore as Barker's other two, but the clashes between the Nightbreed and humans really pack a punch, both in terms of thrills and in terms of the brilliant special effects used to realize them. It cannot be overstated how awesome the creature effects in this film are. As a showcase of practical monster makeup alone, it's a dream come true for fans of that ghoulish art form. Seemingly every creature is very different, right down to some insane creations who are basically just walk-on extras. The star monsters are all fantastic, but great love and care was also put into characters who only appear for seconds, because that is what makes all the difference in making the world of Midian feel real. Fans of creature effects will be reaching for the pause button to admire the artistry, and will devour the makeup effects featurette on the blu-ray. The set design is similarly spectacular: the sprawling, multi-level Midian set is worthy of an Indiana Jones movie, and the fact that it and the monsters were all created on a ten-million-dollar budget is pretty unbelievable.

Then there's the matter of David Cronenberg, whose presence as an actor has surely lured as many cult film buffs to Nightbreed as the monsters. He is great, giving easily the strongest performance that doesn't come from one of the Breed. For someone known for such insane films, he gives a remarkably restrained performance; plenty of actors would have chewed the scenery like crazy as the villainous Dr. Decker, but Cronenberg instead takes a less-is-more approach, to the extreme. He is all soft-spoken menace, with threats hidden just behind a calm and sophisticated exterior; truly chilling. Between him and the more intense members of the Nightbreed, stars Craig Sheffer and Anne Bobby very nearly have the movie stolen out from under them, though both are solid enough leads. Sheffer's brooding Boone seems uncannily like a predecessor to David Boreanaz as Angel, though he sometimes is about as wooden as Boreanaz could be in Buffy's early seasons. Bobby gets to show a good deal more range in a role that even gets a musical number; her character, Lori, sings in a band. The rest of the (non-Nightbreed) cast is fairly uneven: some deliver pretty good performances, while others are either on the wooden side, or are way too over-the-top. A couple of the police officers in particular almost border on outright parody, which feels very out of place in a story with such thematic ambitions.

As this unevenness in the cast shows, Nightbreed is by no means a perfect movie, despite its strengths. The weak points in its cast are its most visible flaws, but are not the only ones. The story has some pacing issues, occasionally accelerating through plot points that could use a bit more room to breathe. The director's cut runs a full two hours, but even so, it would have benefited from another ten minutes to even out the pacing. Ultimately, though, this flaw is the result of Clive Barker's ambitiousness with the story, as there is so much he is trying to do and say that he doesn't have any time to waste. In the end, this is pretty easily forgivable given the strengths on display, though I continue to wish that the film could have slowed down and taken more time to explore Midian.

"Hi there- you ever drink Bailey's
out of a shoe?"
Nightbreed is a very good film, both as a fantasy/horror tale and as social commentary. After the iconic but uneven Hellraiser, this is the film that sees Clive Barker find his stride as a director, with a more consistently strong end result. Of Barker's three films, this is easily the most ambitious, both narratively and thematically, as he works to build a massive, fully-formed world unlike any other. It is such a shame that we had to wait almost 25 years to see the film as he intended it. If Nightbreed had come out as his director's cut in 1990, maybe it would have been a hit, and maybe we'd now have several sequels further exploring the Breed's fascinating world. But alas, it was not to be. We will have to be content knowing that we can at last see the real film, not just the shadow of its former self that was previously available. Already since this new version was released it has grown from an underdog favorite with a small but passionate following to a full-fledged cult classic, and hopefully this growth will continue. The Nightbreed deserve to be just as iconic as Barker's Cenobytes; a light to their dark side in the balance of the horror auteur's great monsters.


- Christopher S. Jordan