Following the success of Hellraiser, Clive Barker was given the chance to bring his novel Cabal to the big screen. Unfortunately for Barker, his vision was hacked to pieces by the studio and poorly received by critics and movie-goers alike. This lack of success resulted from the movie being misunderstood due to its complex and multi-layered storyline. Nightbreed is not just a horror movie, nor is it a run-of-the-mill monster movie. One word (although cliché), which can be used to represent Nightbreed is unique.
Nightbreed is one of the most original, multifaceted and sophisticated films out there. The same qualities which make the film unique also contribute to the movie’s downfall. Nightbreed is too sophisticated for the average movie-goer who wants to watch a film with simple characters, plot and conflicts without having to challenge him or herself. While not an elitist film, Nightbreed is more challenging than what most horror/fantasy fans may be accustomed to.
The plot itself is slightly more complicated than what most film-goers might be familiar with. *Spoiler Alert* The picture centers on Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer), who suffers from chronic nightmares about an underground society inhabited by monsters called Midian (Midian is an ancient location referred to in both the Bible and Qu’ran). Boone is in a fragile state of mind due to his frequent and realistic dreams, which leads him to being manipulated by his therapist Dr. Phillip K. Decker (David Cronenberg). Decker convinces Boone that he is a murderer and subsequently frames Boone for a series of brutal murders. Shortly after, Boone is killed by police and is resurrected by the mystical magic of Midian. Boone joins forces with his fellow monsters and attempts to launch a holy war (albeit demonic) against the real monsters: humans.
Within the aforementioned plot lie sophisticated themes such as prejudice and fear of the unknown. It appears that Barker uses the human prejudice against monsters as an allegory for his own homosexuality. After viewing the film it comes off as an advocacy piece of sorts. The monsters are definitely in the minority and the viewer cannot help but empathize with their predicament. Perhaps this notion parallels Barker’s own struggle to find acceptance in relation to his sexual orientation. The film certainly illustrates the stupidity of all prejudices and just how mean spirited humankind can be.
Barker encapsulates his vision throughout a series of great sets and visual effects with the help of Ralph McQuarrie (Star Wars Episodes 4-6, Raiders of the Lost Ark). From the opening sequence onward, the cinematography and visuals are a wonder to behold. Barker’s vision of Midian is truly an otherworldly experience. The gothic sensibilities, coupled with the ornateness of the set create a world which is unlike anything ever captured on screen. This magnificent world is inhabited by a vast array of bizarre creatures that are interesting and engaging to watch. The hand-made sets are a far cry from the CGI overload evident in the majority of today’s films.
Perhaps the creepiest and most interesting character is in fact not a literal monster, but a figurative one. Dr. Decker played by David Cronenberg oozes creepiness and sinister qualities throughout the film. *Spoiler Alert* To top it off, the mask which Decker wears when he is off performing his sinister deeds, is scary as hell. An argument can be made that Decker’s mask should be held in the same esteem as Jason’s hockey mask from Friday the 13th and Michael Myers’ mask in Halloween. Decker’s facade consists of a gray leather material, featuring button eyes and a zipper mouth. The back of the mask looks like the lacing on a football. The button eyes are the creepiest aspect of the mask, because it makes the person donning the mask appear soulless. It is usual horror movie etiquette to see the villain’s eyes in the mask, thus giving him a sense of realism and personality. By taking away the eyes and replacing them with buttons, the character looks like a lifeless doll. The lifeless eyes make Cronenberg’s character the epitome of eeriness and greatly differentiates him from countless other masked villains.
Aside from Cronenberg, Craig Sheffer is effective as the title character Boone. Sheffer is believable in his role and plays the part of a tortured soul quite well. Anne Bobby (Lori) is decent, but not great as Boone’s girlfriend. Charles Haid is great in his role as Captain Eigerman, the officer hell bent on the demise of the Nightbreed. Doug Bradley (Hellraiser) is good in his role as Lylesburg, although his voice was dubbed over.
Another point worth noting is Danny Elfman’s fantastic score. Elfman’s larger than life score nicely suits the grandeur that is Midian. Elfman’s recognizable sound (See any Tim Burton film) adds certain professionalism to the film and makes it more artistically relevant.
The only thing holding Nightbreed back from being a classic is the narrative structure. There are times in which the narrative shifts to frequently amongst the characters which cause matters to be slightly more confusing. There are points in the movie where the story shifts from Boone’s perspective to Lori’s then to Decker’s. Lori is not interesting enough of a character to warrant a narrative. This might have worked in the novel, but this fact did not translate as successfully on film. Perhaps this fact could have been remedied by focusing on Boone’s perspective alone.
Despite this minor flaw, Nightbreed remains one of the best horror/fantasy flicks out there. It is supremely entertaining and unlike anything horror/fantasy fan will ever see. The film proves why Barker is the best horror writer around. With that said, a minor warning should be issued to first time viewers. Although Barker is the man behind the Hellraiser series; this is not Hellraiser. Nightbreed is heavier on the fantasy aspect and lighter on the gore. If anything this film shows Barker’s versatility. Just sit back, relax and behold the visual extravaganza that is Nightbreed.