Movie of the Day: Nightbreed (1990)

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The Film: Nightbreed (1990)

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The Principles: Clive Barker (Writer/Director), Craig Sheffer, David Cronenberg, Anne Bobby, Doug Bradley, Hugh Ross, Oliver Parker
The Premise: A great monster movie that defines the humans as the evil ones and the monsters as the heroes.

Is It Good: This is a particularly weighted question when it comes to this movie.  Technically this movie is not very strong at all.  Upon release it garnered mediocre to negative critical responses and didn’t really set the box office ablaze.  Anyone who chose to try the often cited Stephen King literary alternative wound up with a perfect example of the style that set Clive Barker apart from other genre writers and a continuation of the sensual but disturbing imagery he established with his feature length directorial debut, Hellraiser.

The Story and a tale of what how it could have been:

Where Hellraiser was a flat out horror film loosely based on a short story by the writer director, Nightbreed was based off the larger short novella Cabal*.   Where Hellraiser was a unique story that was mostly defined by the film, Nightbreed‘s foundation was the core that the novella established while using the additional time in the film display multiple breed and establish characters that the comic books would continue.

Fangoria Magazine feature Nightbreed for many months leading up to the release, talking about the effects, the concepts and genre favorites Doug Bradley (Pinhead) and Clive Barker.  What failed to be covered was the disgruntled feeling Barker felt about the final product that studio Morgan Creek had effectively forced out while poor marketing from the same studio attempted to bury the film.  Barker has since (probably after all possible future collaborations had passed the point legal obligation) become very vocal about the mishandling of the film and the role the studio played in it.

Any mention of Nightbreed currently must mention that the restored version more true to Barker’s original screenplay currently exists, though it consists of the actual print, workprint footage and VHS post coverted film that was converted back into film.  We may never see the film the way it was meant to be seen, but at some point a version may exist that tells the story that should have been told.  It is currently doing festival tours** and proceeds from the film are being used to fund the Blu-ray transfer, as the studio said they would release it if they didn’t have to fund it.

In preparation for reviewing this film that is so dear to my heart, I read the novella again and started reading some of my comics that haven’t been opened in 15 years.  I looked up the supposed changes to see how they fit with each rendition and what it does to the overall story.

The book is centered exclusively on Boone and Lori.  It tells the story from each of their viewpoints for an almost equal amount of time, though Lori’s is done while Boone is supposedly dead.  Only a few breed are even mentioned individually, and though they do make an impact they have very little time in the story.  Narcisse (the guy who cuts his scalp off) having one of the largest roles, followed by Babette (The deer like child), Lylesburg (the leader) and Rachel (Babette’s mother).  The supporting humans get much more time (the priest Ashberry and the sheriff Eigerman).  In terms of story and how the characters were different, the only one that suffered a substantial change was Lori.  In the book she comes across as a goodie two shoes that is perverted and sick of everyone expecting her to be good.  She becomes turned on by Boone’s dead flesh as she forces herself on him in the jail.  The uncut Cabal apparently touched on her nymphonecrophilia and the sex during the jail scene.  On a side note and not in the Cabal cut of the film is Ashberry being in the slammer for being a drunk while crossdressing which would explains why the bigoted Eigerman looks down on him so bad in the film.

Though very similar, the movie takes no time in establishing itself as different from the book.  Boone wakes from a dream about Midian.  He just happens to stumble across Narcisse in the book, and remembers hearing of Midian but did not know he desired it until Narcisse. Upon arriving at Midian, Peloquin goes from just a breed that bit Boone to possibly the first or second most memorable character in the film.  The main story of Boone and Lori often gets overtaken by showing the creatures and some of their magnetic personalities.  Babette is barely touched on in the film, yet Narcisse and Rachel are lead characters.

The comic format only changed some minor changes (like Narcisse gets beheaded towards the end of the movie adaption) from the original story but the continuing stories allowed many of the other characters to take the center and define the role that Boone was left with at the end.  Ashberry becomes one of the most outrageously perverse and sadomasochistic characters to exist within the comic format, though unfortunately the series never had enough exposure for him to be known to the mainstream public.  The comics even crossed over with other Barker creations, the cenobites from Hellraiser and Rawhead Rex.

The strength of the Breed:

There is no doubt about it, the story is the heart and soul of Nightbreed.  Barker had proved himself to be an interesting director with Hellraiser, but upon close inspection there are cracks buried deep within.  A success that was based mostly of the gruesome imagery, the iconic villains and the Barker staple of mixing sexual pleasure with extremist pain.  The performances in that film are quite varied with some particularly bad.  But it was horror, and we don’t need acting perfection, and sure as hell wouldn’t trade it for dumbing down such a great concept.

The performances in Nightbreed show a lot more flaws, and most of them lay on the director himself.   If this were Nightbreed the stage experience the performances would have been spot on, but being film a lot of them come across as over acted and comedic timing appears to suffer the fate of waiting for audience reaction.  Clive Barker had directed stage shows (and later released a collection of plays he had written in the late 70s) and that sometimes doesn’t marry with film very well.  The plays were also where Barker first worked with Doug Bradley. Figuring that Lord of Illusions would also suffer from more of the same over acting, it can only be blamed on Barker.

Aside from the acting, the editing goes very awry in the third act.  When the final fight between the humans and the Breed begins so does the lack of linear story telling.  Often a character is viewed traversing through the underground community only to next been seen on the surface followed by another of them underground again.  It appeared as if they filmed a bunch of scenes and then forced them together instead of having a structure to follow and an order defined.  Once again the disjointed scenes are all tied together in an almost workable manner by using the mesmerizing creatures as the focal point.  Between every segment of story there is a showcase of a breed member using a talent to ward off the evil humans.

Clive Barker had taken on an extremely large challenge when moving from the independent low budget Hellraiser to a much larger budgeted studio film.  While some of the blame about the performances from the actors would fall directly on him, the editing does not.  Everything that has come out since Barker admitted not being happy has pointed to him not having a say in the final cut of the film.  Even in the Cabal Cut that is floating around there can be no mistaking that while closer to his original vision, it was still edited without his oversight.  If you take the source material from the book and look at the transition to film, the book had a very even flow to the pace, slowly building to a crescendo at the end when all hell breaks loose, where the film has a variety of speeds including reaching the finale with about 40 minutes of film left.  I would ultimately hang this on the editor and not the director, as many of the critics did upon the initial release of the film. 

Is It Worth A Look: If you haven’t picked up the fact that despite the problems with this film, I still love it.  I don’t mean a high school crush, I mean I truly love it.  It was never properly handled by the studio and they even attempted to bury it.  It persevered  because it was something different and it had flavor.  I know I said flavor, like it was a tangible food, but that’s what it can be compared to most.  A sloppy mixture of ingredients thrown together to make something that looks bad but gives an elated feeling and makes you crave for it later.

Look at some of the makeup work on the monsters.  Some of them even look edible.  They included a glutton with a head protruding from the belly, a naked porcupine pole dancer, the moon faced man and the guy who carried snakes in his stomach.  Those were all secondary characters, but the main characters were almost all mesmerizing.  The semi skinless Narcisse.  The eight eyed Lylesburg.  Decker’s mask (Buttonface, who was essentially his own character in the book).  The only two characters that didn’t strike me as downright amazing were Boone (the hieroglyphics on his face did not capture the essence of a lion that the book described) and the half naked tattooed man with the pug.  Everyone else was amazing.

For the final two arguments as how someone can love this film, I can easily name two characters that alone make this worth a watch.  Peloquin is the first.  The red skinned dentally challenged rastaferian has arguably the best lines in the film.  Everything this guy says is memorable.  The digitally modified voice transformed what would have been another case of over acting and makes it something so deliciously unique that watching it after a gap of 15 years I knew every single word he said, and rooted for his anti hero qualities.  His character was so well liked above all the other Breed that often when seeing fan art or the press releases for the Cabal Cut screenings that are currently touring, he evenly shares the artwork with the three leads Boone, Lori and Decker.  In reality he has a very small amount of screen time, but makes every second count.  He also became the focus of many of the comic book stories after the film ended.  As a strange aside, his red faced menacing character strongly reminds me of another fan favorite red faced character, Darth Maul.

The other performance isn’t necessarily as iconic a Peloquin, but it becomes memorable for the performance and who played the part.  Decker has some great lines, which I personally feel is topped by a scene where he tortures an old man and tells him to say he is terrifying.  “Say it…. SAY IT…..” stabs the guy, “Then don’t say it.”  The inflection he spoke with while he is preparing to off the old man stuck with me for years.  Anytime I would joke with someone to say something, I would often mimic those lines precisely for how they are delivered with the same tone and timing.  Though that’s definitely not his only great moment as he plays the swarmy good guy shell for a serial killer perfectly.  When placing the actor to the performance it turns it into something completely different.  The actor is master director David Cronenberg.

If you have never witnessed Nightbreed, track it down and watch it.  If you have seen it you may want to revisit it.  Though the digital effects used look like they were done using a commodore 64, the rest of the film holds up extremely well.  Especially the creature makeup.  If you love it like I do, make sure you look for the Cabal Cut on tour and if any more petitions start, make sure you sign them.

Random Anecdotes:

I think I scattered a lot of random anecdotes throughout, so I leave you with the random news that has me feeling optimistic about the future for Nightbreed:

Barker has announced that he is working on developing a TV show based on Nightbreed.  Not much more than that has been released about the project but there is hope that it will be a cable based show so that it can retain it’s adult themes.

Earlier this year there had been a petition to release a restored Blu-Ray that would include the Cabal Cut.  The required signatures had been met, the studio has agreed but requires that the funds be raised from the fans, and we now wait on confirmation from the studio on whether or not it will actually happen.

Cinematic Soulmates: Freaks, Hellraiser, Pan’s Labyrinth, Avatar

*Hellbound Heart was called a short novella and Cabal was called a novella.

**  I have contacted the person in charge of the screenings (Russell Cherrington) to find out what it would take to bring the screening to Atlanta.  I am hoping that if it is reasonable we can attempt to find a way to make it happen.

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