Sunday, July 12, 2015

Monster Team-up Reflection #24: Clive Barker's Nightbreed

One of the best and most eclectic monster-rallies is the 1990 thriller, "Nightbreed", based on the bestseller, "Cabal", by horror maestro, Clive Barker. 

"Nightbreed" was, alas, anything but a hit in its day, though its cult status has grown over the years, to the point where the film has been restored (with once believed lost footage reinserted), matching Barker's directorial specifications. (It is, as should come as no surprise, the restored Shout! Factory edition that the following review is essentially based, but even the rough version conveys the same illustrious meaning and as already stated, was in its own right strong enough to secure devotees.)

The story is really a celebration of monsters, and to those who know and love such creatures, it's a given that they should never be despised, but rather admired, and due to the prejudices aimed at them, pitied: not that any monster worth his salt wants pity. The "Nightbreed" monsters are particularly more apt to fight back than beg for tears: their plight one of courage and justified ferocity. 

Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer) is the story's protagonist: an odd, young man with beckoning visions of a monster haven called Midian. His girlfriend, Lori Winston (Anne Bobby), has encouraged him to seek counseling on the matter through a therapist named Phillip K. Decker (David Croenenberg--yes, the Croenenberg, director of "Scanners" and "Fly '86"; and he even briefly swaps lines with monster-movie icon, John Agar--hot damn). It seems, however, that Decker is far from a compassionate sort; in fact, he's a serial killer coined "Buttonface", who dons a makeshift mask whenever he wishes to slay those he deems impure. 

Decker is a monster in his own right, but a modernized kind: a disciple of the mad slashers who were popular in films at the time of "Nightbreed'"s original release. His presence is twofold in this respect: he, indeed, perpetuates the horror genre, but in another way, acts as an antagonist to aficionados of classic, Gothic horror, which by the time "Cabal"/"Nightbreed" surfaced, had taken a woeful backseat to a long string of knife-wielding maniacs.

The doctor is also the reason Boone flees, for the young man knows that Decker plans to pin a series of murders on him, but when our hero ends up in the hospital, he meets Narcisse (Hugh Ross), a disoriented gent who yearns to touch base with the mythical realm. 

Narcisse claims he's a creature of the night, and to prove such, rips a portion of skin from his head, revealing the monstrous texture beneath. This convinces Boone that Midian may be more than a figment of his imagination. He flees once more (leaving the maddened Narcisse behind) and reaches his destination: a haunting, graveyard expanse, richly embellished by matte-artist, Ralph "Star Wars" McQuarrie.  

Boone plans to hide for a time among Midian's shadows, but then encounters two of its inhabitants, Peloquin (Oliver Parker) and Kinski (Nicholas Vince, known to "Hellraiser" fans as "the Chatterer"). Kinski, whose head resembles a crescent moon, is sympathetic toward Boone, but Peloquin, a devilish looking chap with dreadlock tendrils, wishes to devour him. The best Peloquin manages is to bite Boone's shoulder, but the fateful wound is enough to transform the young man into one of the Breed and much to Peloquin's ultimate dismay, a long awaited savior. 

Winston, meanwhile, goes in search of her boyfriend, unintentionally dragging Decker deeper into the strange adventure, while Boone gains favor among the Midians and reunites with Narcisse. Kinski vows to become Boone's mentor, and the tribe leader, Lylesberg ("Hellraiser's Doug "Pinhead" Bradley), consents to such, but further complications await: Decker's intent to purge the Breed attracts the gestapo-like Captain Eigerman (Charles Haid), who ushers a red-neck raid upon the haven, while accompanied by a perplexed detective (Hugh "Phantom Menace" Quarshie) and a downtrodden preacher named Ashberry (Malcolm Smith), who most likely would have figured prominently in a sequel. 

As if this weren't enough, Midian's mystical sentinel, Baphomet (Bernard Henry), decides to unwind a wall-painted prophesy: that Midian shall be destroyed during this time of assault. 

All hell breaks loose, leaving Lylesberg to unleash Midian's caged behemoths, the Beserkers, to fight back the aggressors. He also accepts the notion that Boone will lead Midian's persecuted to a new sanctuary. It's from this status that Boone eventually gains a new name: Cabal (a nod to his new link with the struggling sect and their shared quest for freedom).  

In truth, the story is an epic essay on persecution, identifiable to any number of factions: those condemned by religious zealots, but also those of a pious inclination, condemned by self-proclaimed intellectuals; those scorned for their appearances and/or cultural backgrounds; those ridiculed for being too traditional in the wake of radical thought. In essence, anyone who's ever been trampled upon, for whatever the cause, will find reason to empathize with Midian's Breed.

The film adaptation is also a tour d' force for the senses. In audio scope, Danny "Batman" Elfman's percussive score stirs a distinct tribal flavor. On the visual side (in addition to the aforementioned McQuarrie mattes, along with Robin Vidgeon's vibrant cinematography), Midian's corridors are as alluring as they are nightmarish: in other words, well worth visitation. In fact, one of the film's best sequences features Winston passing a procession of monsters (and their creepy lairs) as she seeks Boone. (Also, the reconstructed pacing is nearly flawless, though I must confess to preferring the original ending, but still, on the whole, the old certainly can't match to the new.)

Decades prior,  critics (and even some horror fans) missed "Nightbreed'"s profound message. Most likely, some will still miss it, even with its theme more succinctly presented. That's often the way with works of genius, but just as the original built a following despite its flaws, so surely will the "Cabal Cut".  

Barker's works deserve to be read and seen, and "Nightbreed" is one of his finest offerings. It's most inspiring to watch this twenty-five-year-old experiment re-enter the scene and rival the current bigger-budgeted competition with its old-school effects and an old-fashioned respect for monsters in general: a dark gift that any connoisseur of underdog horror will unconditionally accept. 

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