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The Star Wars Of Horror: 30 Years Of Nightbreed
Mat Colegate , February 1st, 2020 13:30

Clive Barker changed the face of horror in a curious way with the release of Nightbreed in 1990. From Guillermo Del Toro to Alejandro Jodorowsky, his fanbase remains strong, finds Mat Colegate

In a recent interview with horror historian Stephen Thrower, I asked what he thought had been writer and director Clive Barker’s most lasting influence on the genre.

“In a funny kind of way I think the genre might not have picked up the challenge of Clive’s work,” Thrower said. “He didn’t end up influencing as many people as one would have hoped…”

Today, that assessment seems no less true. Barker’s influence remains puzzlingly slight. Although every creator of horror worth their salt will pay lip service to the creator of Hellraiser and The Books of Blood, his specific tone – sensual, theatrical, mired in the flesh and a certain cruel spirituality – is almost nowhere to be seen. Today’s horror, for all its outré pretensions, is a largely sexless affair. It’s shocks rooted in slasher-style violence and familial trauma. Barker’s infinitely more complicated worlds, with their blending of seduction and grotesquery, are too complicated and ambiguous to gain traction.

Or maybe Barker’s vision is just too gay? The filmmaker is openly homosexual, and had no fear of letting his sexuality colour his work. It’s very possible that the major – and also overwhelmingly straight - creators of contemporary scares don’t see themselves as having much in common with the creator of the Cenobites. Preferring to admire from a distance rather than attempt to create anything of similarly transgressive power. This is a shame, both for what it reveals about the cowardice of a certain type of creator - maybe stymied by worries of appropriation, maybe by fear of portraying the act of sex itself – and for what it reveals about a conservative film industry, where the sad truth is that you can show as much violence as you like, but show an erect penis and you can say goodbye to your funding.

This state of affairs is no fault of Barker’s own, however. Through a bewildering array of novels, short stories, paintings, video games, comics and films he has constantly stayed true to his vision, one that has bought him the kind of success that most artists of his extremity can only dream of. However one project of Barker’s is particularly interesting as regards why this vision has failed to set the world ablaze on a more mainstream level, and that’s Nightbreed: the bizarre, beautiful and outrageous 1990 failure that, through mishandling and studio meddling, consigned his chances of cinematic acceptance to the furnace.

Following on from the surprising success of his directorial debut in 1987 Hellraiser, adapted from his own novella The Hellbound Heart, Barker decided to adapt another one of his stories for the big screen. This time, however, given the budget to achieve a more ambitious vision, Barker set his sights on adapting his novel Cabal: a less straightforward tale than his debut, with copious lore, numerous protagonists and locations and, most importantly, a whole slew of monsters that would need to be fully realised. Barker set out to make, in his words, “The Star Wars of horror”.

Nightbreed, as the film became titled, tells the story of Aaron Boone, a typically leather-jacketed and large haired outsider of the type so popular during the period. Boone is suffering from visions of a place called Midian, where monsters shunned by society hide from humanity. Coerced into believing himself to be a multiple murderer by his psychiatrist, Dr Dekker - himself the masked killer - Boone takes flight to the mythical underground city, pursued by his girlfriend Lori, and inadvertently brings death and destruction to its inhabitants.

Nightbreed offers a tale of the outsider versus society, and an exploration of the tensions that arise between polarised groups. On one hand there is ‘straight’ society, epitomised by a rogue gallery of cops, psychiatrists, priests and rednecks, all of whom are shown to be utterly and reprehensibly evil and who eventually converge on Midian, torching it and massacring its inhabitants. On the other hand, there are the monstrous Nightbreed. Hiding in the shadows, the ‘Tribe of the Moon’ are outcasts, desiring only to be left alone to live in their catacombs with their own codes, rites, lore and lifestyles.

The metaphor is not particularly subtle. Released in 1990, after Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had overseen a mass cultural reinforcement of ‘family values’ conservatism, Nightbreed’s message was timely. A plea for tolerance delivered with the force and subtlety of a flamethrower. No less an outsider hero than Alejandro Jodorowsky called it “The first truly gay horror fantasy epic”.

Despite, or more likely because of, this lack of subtlety, the production company, Morgan Creek, had no idea what to do with Nightbreed. As Barker remembered: “Someone at Morgan Creek said to me ‘You know, Clive, if you’re not careful some people are going to like the monsters’”.

The lack of studio understanding resulted in Nightbreed receiving an editorial butchering, with Barker’s original cut hacked down by more than half an hour, and scenes reshot to emphasise the character of Dekker – played with insectoid blankness by director David Cronenberg, no less – in an attempt to reframe the film as a more traditional slasher. What was left was a confusing mess of hanging plotlines, indistinct motivation and poorly overdubbed dialogue that satisfied no one, audiences included. It did gift us the theatrical version’s unintentionally hilarious tagline, “Lori thought she knew everything about her boyfriend… Lori was wrong!” which, given the gay subtext, reads very differently to how one imagines it was intended. But that won’t have been much comfort to a director whose original vision had been so comprehensively scrubbed from his own project.

Looking back from our 21st century vantage point, with God knows how many X-Men movies behind us, it’s hard to understand how the idea of the sympathetic monster was such a difficulty for the studio. It’s not as if the idea was without precedent, with classics from Frankenstein to King Kong having provided us with the spectacle of beasts misunderstood and scapegoated by the intolerant since the early days of cinema.

What makes this all the more ironic are the accolades more recently handed out to a director who has taken the idea of the holy monster and used it as sacrament throughout his career. Guillermo Del Toro is probably the most recognised disciple of Barker’s approach, and his films have received critical acclaim and awards in equal measure. Nearly all of his movies, from Hellboy to The Shape Of Water, revolve around the idea of the beast representing the misunderstood other; the outsider that society fears and attempts to destroy. It’s an influence that Del Toro – ever gracious – has acknowledged, and one that Barker has noted as well. “You’ve seen Hellboy 2,” he says. “There’s a sequence in the middle where for 15 minutes they go into this lusciously rich world of very strange creatures… It’s the same beat as appears in Nightbreed.”

This is not to say that were Nightbreed made now Barker would be beaming from the Oscar pulpit. His film is too imperfectly crafted, even in its restored cut, and clearly the work of a director out of his depth. Also Barker’s approach is more specific and red-blooded than Del Toro’s, whose films are successful precisely because of their nebulousness. Everyone likes to imagine themselves as an outsider, and Del Toro flatters these delusions with his inoffensive parade of sensitive freaks and outcasts.

Barker – the author of The Books Of Blood, lest we forget – has a much crueller vision. His Breed are never mere victims, and are more than capable of holding their own when it comes to violence. Unlike Del Toro’s Hellboy, the Midianites don’t wish to be understood, they just want to be left alone. One of the film’s pleasures comes from watching them rise up against the avatars of normal society to take bloody revenge. An outsider power fantasy made gloriously real.

The Breed are also specifically codified as gay, not necessarily through how they’re written, or their incredibly varied and beautiful designs, but through how the characters around them react to their presence. What makes Barker’s vision more compelling than Del Toro’s is his insistence that there isn’t anything that ‘straight’ about the supposed paragons of ‘straight’ society. Dekker’s fascination with Midian and exterminating monsters is clearly motivated by sexual self-hatred and prurience, his mask’s zipped up mouth and button eyes indicative of the character’s throttling repression. His violent outbursts are those of a character desperate for sexual release; his obsessive pursuit of Boone indicating a fascination with supposed deviance that drives him to ever more violent extremes in defiance of his nature. In short, Dekker is a textbook violent homophobe.

But subtext aside, it’s the film’s visualisation of Midian and its varied denizens that it will be remembered for, with each character’s distinct look fully fleshed out and realised, despite the relative paucity of some of their screen times. Lori’s first awestruck entrance into the bowels of the city is a moment in monster cinema up there with the cantina scene in Star Wars or the audience’s first glimpse of Giger’s Alien, and the use of concept artist Ralph McQuarrie’s painted backdrops give the location a looming gothic presence that can compete with some of the best settings in fantasy cinema. The film’s opening dream sequence might look a little Cirque De Soleil to contemporary eyes, but it puts front and centre Barker’s focus and obsession: the monsters are the rude, cackling life of Nightbreed and the director doesn’t seem as interested in anything else, hurrying the audience through the first third of the film and into Midian at breakneck speed.

30 years on, Nightbreed stands as an out-of-its-time testament to the shadow cast by the monstrous over the imagination; a complex, flawed and furious railing against humanity’s hypocrisy. That such a vision could be so misunderstood by the culture at large is as much a damning indictment of mainstream society as anything contained in the film itself. As Breed member Rachel says to Lori on her first entrance to Midian:

“To be able to fly, to be smoke, or a wolf? To know the night and live in it forever? That’s not so bad. You call us monsters, but when you dream, you dream of flying, and changing, and living without death. You envy us, and what you envy…”

“… We destroy.”