I really wasn’t looking forward to following up Hellbound: Hellraiser II with yet another Clive Barker-related project. Thankfully, I’m glad to say Nightbreed is a better film. Not significantly better, but better. Based on Barker’s 1988 novel Cabal, Nightbreed was as well adapted for the screen and directed by Barker. A film of great ambition, Barker dreamed of making the “Star Wars of horror” with an epic story of man vs monster. Unfortunately, the edit of the film was massacred by the studio and dumped into theaters with little to no marketing. The end result was a bomb that few people liked before it vanquished into obscurity.
Over the years, Nightbreed found new life on DVD. 2009 saw the release of an extended version of the film known as “The Cabal Cut.” Although long (155 minutes), many praised the additional scenes for clarifying the film’s plot and the internal struggles of the film’s characters. In 2014, Shout Factory released another 122 minute “Director’s Cut” with the plot still firmly intact but also with a slightly better pacing than “The Cabal Cut.” The Director’s Cut is the version I watched and though I didn’t love it I have a bloody amount of respect for it.
The film begins with an exceptionally strong credit sequence accompanied by an instantly recognizable Danny Elfman score. Here we see the history of monsters through cave paintings and ancient artwork designed by legendary Star Wars concept artist Ralph McQuarrie. Nightbreed presents us with a world where monsters and man used to live side by side until man nearly hunted the species into extinction. Now the monsters hide in a secret society known as “Midian” where no humans are allowed to enter.
Boone (Craig Sheffer) is a troubled young man plagued by constant nightmares of Midian. Though Craig has no idea if its real or all in his head. Boone is constantly being observed and contacted by his therapist, Dr. Decker (played quite surprisingly by horror director David Cronenberg.) Though it would appear Decker is trying to help Boone, he is, in fact trying to to make him seem as crazy as possible so that he can frame him. Why? Because Decker spends his free time killing people disguised as a masked murderer.
One night, in a drug-fueled haze, Boone is hit by a car and taken to a hospital. There he meets an insane man, Narcisse (Hugh Ross), who not only knows about Midian but knows how to find it. He gives Boone directions and upon his release, Boone arrives at a secluded cemetery on the outskirts of town that acts as a gateway to Midian. Boone is greeted by Nightbreed—can’t really remember their names or personalities, but I remember what some of them look like. In this scene, Boone meets tentacle-head-guy and biker-Mac Tonight. Boone tries to join them but they feel threatened and instead bite Boone and beat the shit out of him.
Boone flees from the Nightbreed only to find that Decker has led the cops to his whereabouts… somehow. Decker tells the cops Boone has a gun and Boone is shot dead. Movie over, right? Wrong. Remember that bite? Well, it turns out that’s all Boone needed to become a Nightbreed.
Meanwhile, Boone’s girlfriend Lori (Anne Bobby) unconvinced Boone is truly dead, goes searching for Midian. She eventually finds it, reunites with Boone and learns to understand and appreciate the struggles of the Nighbreed. What follows is a monster vs man back-and-forth battle with a knife-wielding David Cronenberg wearing a scary mask in the middle.
The film looks and sounds amazing. The sets are good, the makeup is good, the music is good. I even liked the acting, particularly Anne Bobby as Lori. She really nails the difficult middle ground between upset and angry that’s so often taken too far in one direction by less skilled actors. Cronenberg isn’t strong but he isn’t given too much heavy dialogue. Really all he has to do is stand there looking like that one guy on the bus you pray doesn’t sit next to you.
The Nightbreed, although interesting in appearance aren’t very interesting as characters. They are mostly all the same: mad at humans, violent and overly aggressive. You learn to sympathize with them a little, but there’s not much in the way of telling them apart.
Somehow the film really collapses in pacing. It doesn’t seem to matter how many cuts they make, the film feels slow and awkward more often than not. I think I understood all of it, but rarely did I care about any of it. I never bought Boone’s connection with the Nightbreed, it’s a weak relationship.
Overall, Nightbreed is so close to being something truly memorable. It has a lot of talented people doing good work but the source material feels unfocused. I’m sure the story works much better as a novel, as most of Barker’s work does. Still, I’m impressed by Barker’s ability as a director and wish he directed more films. Because good or bad, there’s no one else like Clive Barker.
Cronenberg works hard… and plays hard.