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Entries in Nightbreed [1990] (1)

Saturday
Nov052011

Nightbreed (1990)

Social Distortion

Nightbreed is an oddity. With characters comprised mostly of underground-dwelling, elaborately weird monsters, one might think that writer/director Clive Barker had created a follow-up to his wildly successful S&M nightmare, Hellraiser. But, no--Nightbreed is a gentle parable about social acceptance, wrapped in a loose-fitting skin of tribalism and serial murder.

Confused? Don't be. Barker eases us into the story of Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer), a troubled young man whose criminal past has landed him in the care of Dr. Philip Decker (David Cronenberg--yes, that David Cronenberg). Boone talks about intense dreams of a city called Midian, where all the monsters of world live. Decker encourages him to explore his fantasies in the hopes of actually finding the city--which both men believe to exist.

Parallel to this story is a police investigation of several brutal homicides. A man in a dark suit, wearing a burlap mask with button eyes and wielding impossibly huge knives, has been invading homes in the area and butchering families. The cops come to suspect Boone, who--with the aid of a fellow believer he meets in a hospital--travels to Midian and discovers that his visions are real. Before long, Decker shows up with a contingent of police and sells Boone out as the killer (two guesses as to why). Thirty bullets later, Boone is dead, and Decker has found a new, secret playground for his sick hobby.

Fortunately for Boone, his destiny is to be resurrected and given new life as one of the Nightbreed, Midian's ragtag assemblage of creatures who have been persecuted and cast out by religious orders for centuries. Presided over by the ancient deity, Baphomet (Bernard Henry) and guided by the wise elder, Lylesberg (Doug Bradley), Midian's denizens erected an elaborate city for protection from the outside world. They have various weaknesses--most notably, the sun--but for the most part that's not an issue because few people have ever come looking for them.

Before joining the Nightbreed, Boone had a girlfriend named Lori (Anne Bobby). Decker uses her as bait to draw him out. Before long, Boone has been hauled before the police again, this time presented by the evil doctor as a zombie. The film's climax sees an army of cops and concerned rednecks storming Midian with heavy weaponry and pickup trucks to rid the world of this freakish menace. They don't realize, of course, that while Midian's people are mostly peaceful, they have many devilish abilities with which to protect themselves. Ohnaka (Simon Bamford), for example, can produce large, deadly eels from his belly, while Rachel (Catherine Chevalier) uses her shape-shifting abilities to materialize inside her victims.

Nightbreed is Clive Barker's X-Men, and Boone is his Wolverine. Both mythologies deal with gifted freaks hiding from a society that holds itself up as being morally sophisticated--but which is more monstrous on the inside than its alleged foes are on the outside. Strip away the crazy cowboy who cuts most of the flesh off his head and the hard-to-stomach implications of what Decker does to children, and you're left with a classic "outsider reluctantly joins righteous rebels to take down a corrupt system" story.

But since we're dealing with Barker, that overly familiar plot skeleton has been clothed in an eerie, imaginative tapestry of strange creature designs and hints of an elaborate mythology that doesn't have to be fully explained in order to feel like an organic, integral part of the story. Cinematographer Robin Vidgeon and production designer Steve Hardie perfectly execute Barker's bold visual sensibilities, which often involve sinister events happening behind closed doors. From the inside of Decker's office to Midian's sub-subterranean temple--and even the mundane shots of the Canadian countryside--the film has its own wholly believable reality in which truly unreal things unfold.

My one issue with Nightbreed is that it came out in 1990. It's unfair to criticize a movie for the era in which it was released, but Nightbreed suffers from a degree of Ironic Hindsight Charm. For every cool shot of Baphomet's temple and the secret history implied in its strange architectural details, we get a look at Craig Sheffer's unfortunate 50s-fetish, poofy hair and greaser wardrobe, or the horned demon running around in what looks to be a silk letterman's jacket and jeans. There are also way too many random shots of monsters that showcase what were--at the time, I'm sure--cutting edge practical monster makeups, but which look plain silly today. Again, this isn't a jab at the film's quality, necessarily, but I felt twinges of embarrassment while watching it.

That quibble aside, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Nightbreed. Thanks to the Hellraiser franchise and films like Midnight Meat Train, moviegoing audiences typically associate the name "Clive Barker" with horror, and it's refreshing to see a different aspect of his imagination on the screen. The film has its share of unsettling moments, but they're balanced by really touching ones. You have every right to be skeptical, but I promise you'll be surprised at what turns up on the journey to Midian.