“Everything’s true. God’s an astronaut. Oz is over the rainbow. And Midian is where the monsters live.”
Boone now knew for sure there was no place on this earth for him, no happiness here, not even with Lori. Just as certain, there was no salvation possible for him in Heaven. He would let Hell claim him then, let Death take him there.
But Death itself seemed to shrink from him. No wonder, if he had indeed been the monster who had shattered and violated and shredded so many others’ lives. And Decker had shown him the proof - the hellish proof of the photographs where the victims were forever stilled, splayed in the last obscene moment of their torture.
Neither Heaven, nor Hell, nor Earth was possible. It could only be Midian then - that awful legendary place which gathered to itself in its monstrous embrace the half-dead, the Nightbreed.
Boone made his way there, not knowing, and caring even less, if Decker or Lori would follow. All he wanted was to leave the nightmare behind. But the real nightmare had yet to begin…
(Excerpt taken from Clive Barker’s Cabal 1989.)
First things first, I’m a huge Clive Barker fan. My first introduction to his work was in 1989, with his third novel, Cabal. Being twelve years of age of course meant that I was reading material that I shouldn’t have been. Cabal is hardly subtle in its descriptions, but then Barker is never that. Cabal opened my eyes, as it would any young and impressionable kid. Its world filled with monsters was truly captivating. Sure, I wasn’t particularly interested in what Lori and Boone got up to in that cell (wink wink), though Barker made a good case for it. No, this was about the beasts. Peloquin was awesome, Decker was a shit scary, son of a bitch and the idea of a place where the unwanted or misunderstood went to was enthralling. It wasn’t until years later that I then began to understand the meanings behind Cabal. Though it may not be credited as being so, it is quite a diverse piece of literature. It strays from Barker’s earlier work and despite it being quite an action-packed piece it delivers very moral messages and presents questions that every individual has had to ask themselves at some point in their life. Cabal is the book that dreams are made of, and Barker will surely tell you that his own dreams are incredible influences to him.
So imagine my surprise one day, when I inserted a horror VHS (which my father had rented) into the player, only to find a trailer for Clive Barker’s Nightbreed. “Where did this suddenly come from?” I thought to myself. Yes, it was the greatest thing I had ever seen, and for weeks I nagged and nagged both my father and the VHS man who used to drive to our street once a week in his little van. I picked up a couple of books, such as the “Nightbreed Chronicles”, with all its lovely photos and read as much as I could find on the film. I finally found out the VHS release date, and boy, we must have been one the first people to rent the thing in the UK. So I finally sat down, put the video in and watched the film in awe. When it had finished I thought it was the greatest film ever made. So for many years the film has held a special place in my heart, Clive Barker has remained a huge inspiration to me and to this day he keeps spinning gold - by which I mean paper - if it were the proverbial wheel - and the gold was superbly written stuff.
Forgive me for the overly personal flashback, but it’s important to me when looking at Nightbreed today. What I once considered to be a masterpiece is now a great film with persistent troubles. But you want to know what’s really frustrating? It’s that those troubles are the result of working with a sulky production company. In an ideal world you wouldn’t go from producing two superb examples of screen terror - I refer to Hellraiser and its sequel Hellbound - to being subjected to a nightmarish experience involving bigwigs who didn’t respect your own work. The Hellraiser films worked remarkably well because Barker had a lot of freedom to expand his ideas, in a time when horror was truly a classic staple of cinema and low budgets could be worked around. You could make and release gore flicks without anyone giving a care in the world. Audiences lapped up this kind of material and as video sales will testify, productions such as that did monumentally better, which meant that studios eventually made their money back. So why then was Nightbreed so troubled? Part of the reason is that Barker had huge ambitions for it. This was to be the world’s biggest monster movie ever, in fact make-up artist Bob Keen said so himself, and I think that statement still holds true today. The film has more monsters in it than a can of beans has beans; and that’s approximately way more than a hundred beans (with many being supporting beans). It soon became obvious - Barker’s ambitions were too high. Morgan Creek couldn’t afford to continually up his budget because this time the big boys were in charge, and if this failed then they’d be in trouble. Furthermore they had little grasped what the movie was about - “Monsters as good guys?” one exec was known to have said. Matters were made worse when Christopher Figg (the original producer) had a major row over budget. When he announced his resignation and stormed off set it hit the production hard. It was several weeks into shooting and the entire cast were already pissed due to terrible working conditions. Nightbreed was cursed; it was a film that Barker had to finish but one that he probably shouldn’t have attempted at this early stage in his film making career. He was up against a power that he couldn’t fight. Nightbreed cost a pretty sum to make; it subsequently bombed at the box-office. Barker’s dreams, not only for this film but a possible sequel as well were all but shattered in an instant.
I can’t help but feel that the film was released just a couple of years too early. With the advent of Terminator 2: Judgement Day digital effects were breaking out in a big way. Nightbreed had no such luxury; it was a film admirably achieved through the hard work of expert make-up artists, such as Bob Keen and the talented chaps at KNB. It used matt paintings, stop-motion and gigantic sets. One could contest that many of these effects were still in their infancy; new techniques were being sought out and old ones such as animatronics were being utilised, but at the same time I cannot help but think that Nightbreed was ahead of its time. Today Clive Barker could achieve anything, but it’s unlikely that this creation will ever be revisited. With that said the film works remarkably well with its cast. Today we wouldn’t see Craig Sheffer as Boone, Anne Bobby as Lori or even David Cronenberg in a scene stealing turn as the crazed Dr. Decker. Christine McCorcindale wouldn’t grace us with her sexy presence as Shuna Sassi, and Oliver Parker might not be letting lose his dreads - for that I realise that the film would not be better off today. So then we’ve got to appreciate Nightbreed for what it is; despite its production difficulties it managed to triumph as a work of mind over matter. I can respect that and everyone who worked so damn hard on trying to make the greatest picture they ever could. And you know what? Even for its less effective special effects it is still one great looking film.
Starting with its conception then, the film had good things going for it from the start. Clive Barker provided the script treatment, so clearly he knew exactly how Cabal needed to be translated to the big screen. Obviously this meant he needed to tone it down somewhat; while violence wasn’t an issue the sex was, amongst other things. Approximately seven pages detail a graphic sexual encounter between Lori and Boone, which also includes some major dialogue transition; things that might not work so well in the context of the film, and have to be seriously considered when adapting; however the film doesn't quite stress enough of the passion that they share for one another. There are several other examples of course, and most of these are dialogue pieces that in film terms would prevent the plot from developing quicker. Still, I have to wonder as to what extra footage Barker shot. I for one would not scoff at the 25-minutes of footage that Morgan Creek forced him to cut out of the film; important dialogue no doubt, which would possibly have made the film so much better. As a result of studio pressure Nightbreed moves at a rate of knots, jumping from scene to scene like a rabid bunny without a care in the world. There’s no sense of real time; day becomes night in an instant, characters don’t grow and people get from A-B with ease. The plot becomes a mish-mash of innovative ideas and awkward pacing. Barker has already mentioned that he would like to revisit and re-cut his film. There is no doubt in my mind that given the opportunity he could finally present a definitive director’s cut. No film has deserved it more than this (except for Blade Runner). In order to do that the studios involved need to give him access. The footage is definitely out there, but that is for (then distributor) 20th Century Fox and producers, Morgan Creek to sort out. And I feel for Clive Barker’s position, as being a pawn in a larger game involving company scruples and shitty politics. Having read Barker’s screenplay it is most disappointing to note that there are no less than forty-six deleted scenes, according to the official making-of book that was released in 1990 to accompany the film. Presuming that all of these were filmed then that’s quite sickening. Sadly the script I’ve read doesn’t include descriptions for these scenes, only that they’re “deleted”.
What more does that leave us with? Well the crux of the story is still intact. The issues that Barker raised in Cabal can be seen on screen in some form. The film’s final act consists largely of the “Sons of the Free”’s attack on Midian. While most of the act is quite silly in its execution and forceful in its editing, its themes are predominantly rich in subtext. Reading Cabal or watching Nightbreed instantly brings another perspective to the reader/viewer. “The Sons of the Free” are really nothing more than an allegory for racism, who fear change and the things that they do not understand. Barker’s social pressures resonate in as much as we’re seeing things that we’re far to accustomed to; we live in a world where racism is still prevalent and where men in white hoods abuse their fellow neighbors because of the colour of their skin, while elsewhere the physically disabled are mocked because of things that are beyond their control. Barker keeps the truths intact and merely substitutes the white hoods for black ones. The disabled or physically different looking are heroes in the eyes of their lord and the guys we should be looking at in disgust are nothing but ill-educated fools. I sincerely feel that Nightbreed is misunderstood in many respects. Sure we can say “Well don’t we know this already? “Does Barker need to push these messages in our face?”, but then at the end of the day, yes he probably does. After all, have we actually learned from the obvious in the past?
Nightbreed shows a lot more in terms of innovation. Clive Barker helms the film with a good idea of what he wants. He sets up some impressive shots throughout, which helps lend the film greater scale. As a true visionary, bringing Midian to life is another ambitious effort for Barker. Realistically it had to be compromised; this meant chucking in plenty of matt paintings for wide shots, which today look incredibly dated. As a means to disguise some of this we can see how Barker has used perspective to the advantage of some key introductions. Moving to Midian’s cemetery we see huge gravestones and other structures, which have been blended in non-too seamlessly, while close ups prove to show some serious flaws. The advantage is that they have a real presence, but unfortunately they’re not 100% believable. But it’s inside Midian that generates the most interest; this was the biggest set constructed for the film and it later becomes involved during the final act’s major set piece. Rope bridges and tight walkways weave in and out of the underground city, generating a good sense of size, but where some areas are suitably atmospheric others are quickly thrown together with a few sheets and splashes of paint. Still, Barker does well in taking us on a tour through his feverish creation and we can truly believe that this is how the breed would live in squalor. Though for good guys they seem to enjoy living in such a hellish looking place; then again I don’t suppose underground is all that sexy really. When it comes to exposition Barker’s direction sometimes borders on lazy; there are many static shots and when certain scenes raise their levels he doesn’t quite capture the moment, but then it isn’t entirely surprising when seeing how he shot Hellraiser; however Nightbreed isn’t supposed to be quite so intimate. For his second film then and one which is under enormous studio pressure, along with a hefty budget it seem as if rushing through was the name of the game. The final act which descends into action proves to echo these sentiments; it’s loud and choppy and has very little originality or awareness. That’s not to say that Nightbreed is incompetently filmed, but it does say that Barker could have provided so much more. One thing is for sure though, he learned from this outing and he would prove five years later to be a solid director when not under fire for his third studio feature, Lord of Illusions.
Let’s look at how well Barker approached his subjects. Our protagonist, Boone in the novel is deep in terms of character, but his physical appearance isn’t dwelt upon to a great extent. He’s quite ambiguous in that you could consider any number of actors to portray him. He’s an emotional figure with spiritual ties to a place that he doesn’t yet understand, and for that you need a little more than just a pretty face for the character to shine onscreen. Casting Craig Sheffer in the role was a good decision on Barker’s half, because he is able to grasp the fundamentals that his character is built upon. He’s also fairly generic in his appearance. Boone is a simple shirt and jeans man, with a leather jacket and sun shades. He’s an average Joe, but at the same time he’s different. He doesn’t belong where he is, and Sheffer channels his emotions well, so that Boone is more than just your typical hero of the piece. More interestingly is that Boone is a flawed man. In his search to find answers he ultimately ends up bringing destruction to Midian; only then does he understand his importance of being a saviour. Sheffer is able to get under the skin of his character, and despite one or two ropey scenes he proves to be a fine lead who shares a solid chemistry with two of the film’s key characters, Lori and Decker.
Unfortunately, Lori is a little more skewered. Anne Bobby does her damn hardest to make Lori work on screen, but there’s just not enough for her to work with. Bobby’s emotional moments work very well and her onscreen charm is certainly enough to make her likeable. The main problem is that there are too many other elements to concentrate on, which means that Lori has to get pushed to the side on occasion. Moreover when it comes to accepting Boone’s death and subsequent resurrection she takes everything considerably well, which is through no fault of Lori as an actor, but instead highlights the problems with removed exposition and narrative points.
But the most surprising of all is director, David Cronenberg, whose acting amounted to little more than bit-parts prior to Nightbreed. Under any normal circumstances you wouldn’t expect him to get cast in a major part, but then that’s where we have to thank Barker for trusting his instincts. As a result, Cronenberg is intense. This is a man who is the real monster of the piece; an unremorseful psychotic who by day helps those with psychological conditions and by night moonlights as a masked serial killer, with a huge obsession for knives. Decker needs to be played as if he was normal, and Cronenberg sells it immediately. His portrayal is sickeningly reserved and quiet, not to mention highly amusing. Decker’s calculating and manipulative methods are never turned into ridiculous situations; there’s a line drawn between calm and crazy. In the end Cronenberg plays Decker for all he’s worth and churns out a great performance as a real creepy bastard. It’s funny then that the man known for being very dry didn’t exactly receive any acclaim for his performance, of which dryness and lack of being as it were was the whole point. And here I must give extra points to Ann Hollowood, for her costume designs. If there was an award for scariest mask ever then Decker’s would justly get it. Behind that “sewing-box doll” face, with its button eyes and zipper mouth, Cronenberg miraculously oozes presence.
And then you have the tremendous support. How hard is it to make a film with dozens of monsters and then have to give them sufficient screen time? It’s very hard, which is why Barker wisely sticks to his main ones and features the rest for background shots and showing off the scale of the movie. Cabal already had its major characters set in stone, so it’s no surprise that the movie remains faithful, but keeps characters to a minimum. Narcisse, Peloquin, Kinski, Rachel, Lylesburg, Baphomet, Shuna Sassi, Lude and Leroy Gomm use up the most screen time. They’re also selected to provide different levels of emotion for the film. So Narcisse (Hugh Ross) lends his warped, comical persona to things; Hugh Ross is having an absolute blast; it’s almost as if he’s emulating Jack Nicholson throughout most of the film, but he offers a very entertaining performance. Other comical interests are Tony Bluto’s Leroy Gomm, who really doesn’t do much more that spout the occasional one-liner, while Lude (Vincent Keene) acts - well, lewd. Doug Bradley (famous for portraying the cinematic icon, Pinhead) goes under the make-up once more, this time to portray Lylesburg in a somewhat underused part. This is the guy who practically runs the place and whose moments amount to just a few minutes. Peloquin and Shuna Sassi are perhaps the most impressive creatures in terms of physical appearance, and they remain amongst the most memorable, while Kinski’s (ex-Cenobite, Nicholas Vince) moon face is certainly interesting. As Rachel, Catherine Chevalier provides good female support in a predominantly male film, and whose character is the bringer of the wisdom in which humanity fails to seek. Of course there are others, each with weird and wonderful names, and each with their own unique history; but unfortunately that’s something which Clive Barker is all too happy to keep to himself, that is unless you’ve read some of the film related publications. Also, you’re not even going to know who anyone else is by the time the credits roll as very few names are actually assigned on screen. Trawling through Nightbreed‘s closing credits is a game of guess who for those unversed.
...But hey, that’s part of the fun.
And finally, how can I leave without mentioning Danny Elfman’s fine musical contribution? Elfman elicits Nightbreed‘s themes by conjuring up a grand score which lends itself to the storytelling. Nightbreed is something of a romantic film; not just in terms of Boone and Lori’s relationship but also in the way that the Nightbreed and their existence is romanticized. Elfman provides a magical feeling which brings out its deepest fantasy elements and moments of eroticism.
Warner Bros brings us Nightbreed on a DVD that was to be expected really. It’s going to be a very long time, if ever, before we see any kind of “MEAT”-y release. So all we get is the theatrical release that we all know so well on a respectable disc. It’s a shame we have no behind the scenes material or interviews, or even a commentary from Barker, who has been all to willing to record them in the past. The DVD comes in the much loved snapper case from Warner Bros and features a pretty ugly cover, truth be told. It simply looks like a rushed cut and paste job, featuring characters in poses that were photographed for individual biography purposes. Here they’ve been collected and placed together in one picture, before having the life drained out of them.
Presented anamorphically in a ratio closer to 1.78:1, Nightbreed is therefore not the promised 1.85:1 original, as advertised on the box. Curiously it states that the transfer is “matted” in order to preserve the original theatrical ratio. Still, it looks pretty good for a fairly standard release, which has had no remastering whatsoever, but does appear in an “All-new Digital Transfer” (as quoted on the box). The film stock is naturally grainy and shows up plenty, but by no means distractingly on digital disc. Detail is generally good for the most part; however the image tends to be a little soft for several of the film’s wider shots. As such, some equally heavy Edge Enhancement has been applied, which is just totally unnecessary. Otherwise the colour palette is extremely rich; skin tones are spot on and the many monsters looks great. Black levels are deep, with superb shadow detail and good contrast levels to accompany it. The transfer tends to shift in terms if quality, but is not to be held responsible due to the budget and nature of filming. Matt shots are usually a little darker and much grainier, while certain stop-motion effects show slight blurring. This transfer clearly shows up Nightbreed‘s age in terms of technical issues, but as far as authoring goes it isn’t half bad. We should bear in mind that it more than likely won’t look as good as this.
For sound we get a 2.0 Stereo track, which will please purists, while Warner’s have thrown in a remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround job for the home cinema crowd. The 5.1 mix is fairly impressive, making good use of the surround speakers, even if it doesn’t test them to their limits. Some of the rear effects don’t resonate as well as they probably should, but the forwards do a far better job in terms of carrying dialogue and providing certain ambient effects. There’s some decent bass workout and strong clarity, along with Danny Elfman’s score being put to good use, in order to draw the viewer into Barker’s world. All in all this a pleasant enough listening experience.
Yes, this is the original trailer (presented anamophically) used for theatres and subsequent VHS releases. Here you’ll find a few extra shots that didn’t make it into the theatrical cut, along with getting to hear Oliver Parker’s real voice, prior to post production. Voice over man does a good job in selling the film, and it‘s nice enough to have been included at least.
Cast & Crew Film Highlights
Booooring. This is nothing but padding. If you’re not going to put out extras in the first place then don’t waste time in providing stuff like this to make it look like the disc has something going for it. There are no cast and crew biographies here, just a list of films that they’ve appeared in. Hardly worth while.
Nightbreed was a financial failure; nevertheless it was an interesting one. I hope that one day Clive Barker gets to revisit his creation and put together his ultimate cut; I hope someone important reads this review and realises what a great opportunity it would be to allow him to do this. After all these years it is still one of the greatest, flawed monster movies of all time, which deserves its just desserts. With Morgan Creek and Fox more than likely having better knowledge as to the whereabouts of Barker’s deleted footage it seems unlikely that Warner would be able to do much more as long as they hold home video distribution rights.
7 out of 10
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