Nightbreed is a 1990 dark fantasy film written and directed by Clive Barker, based on his novella Cabal. The film stars Craig Sheffer, David Cronenberg, and Anne Bobby. The film centers on a young man named Boone (Sheffer) who has visions of a city of monsters called Midian, and is disturbed by his visions. He is framed by his psychologist (Cronenberg) as a serial killer, and finds refuge in an abandoned cemetery, discovering Midian and the race of monsters known as the Nightbreed, who live hidden from humanity.
The film may be classified as horror, but it really isn’t. The Nightbreed are monstrous-looking, but are not villains in the story. They are the last of an ancient race that has been exterminated by the Naturals (humans), and when Boone becomes one of them (through a bite that allows him to be resurrected as a Nightbreed following his shooting death by the police), he is split between being of the Nightbreed and wanting to be with his girlfriend Lori, who is one of the Naturals.
The villain of the film is Decker, the psychologist who had been committing the murders, and set up Boone to be captured and killed. Decker uses his credentials as a doctor to get away with describing Boone as dangerous and mentally disturbed, as well as having authority to manipulate the police force based on his intellectual class. Cronenberg, known primarily as a film director, delivers a very good performance as a cold and calculating serial killer with an academic appearance.
Both Sheffer and Bobby deliver endearing and touching performances as Boone and Lori. They are lovers who go searching through Midian for each other, both like Orpheus going into the underworld to find Eurydice to bring her to the surface. Their romance is sweet, and the audience really understands that these two would do anything for each other. They are both very strong-willed, and determined to survive and save themselves and the Nightbreed.
The visual effects are excellent, particularly the designs of the Nightbreed and Midian, with effects led by Bob Keen and Geoffrey Portass. It is obvious that lots of creativity and hard work went into this film, with amazing and twisted designs of an underground race of people. Barker said of monsters, “There's a corner of all of us that envies their powers and would love to live forever, or to fly, or to change shape at will. So, when I came to make a movie about monsters, I wanted to create a world we'd feel strangely at home in.” The Nightbreed are fascinating and charismatic creatures, and have more humanity inside of them than the angry mob waiting outside to torch them. A pertinent quote from one of them to Boone sums up their fraught existence amongst the Naturals: “You envy us, and what you envy, you destroy.” The Nightbreed can be quite likable, and when the epic final battle happens between the Nightbreed and the Naturals, it is thrilling to see the Nightbreed fight back and defend their home from those who want to destroy them.
The music score was composed by Danny Elfman, who was rising in fame at the time as the main composer for Tim Burton’s films. The music echoed the rising and haunting crescendos of his Batman score, and made the film feel like a huge and powerful film, balancing between the horror of the world of Boone in the Naturals and the horror of the threatened world of Midian.
The film has an epic fantasy feel to it, and it was meant to be the first of a series of three films, as the ending leaves the story open for a sequel. But the film bombed, mostly due to the poor studio cut and the marketing of the film as a horror/slasher movie, without interest in the film’s fantasy roots. Just last year, Barker was able to release his director’s cut of the film, and that is the film that is being reviewed here. It is magnificent and epic, a fantasy film with horror elements that is more about humanity than it is about gore. Hellraiser was a groundbreaking film that, while it had elements of gore, was much more a fantasy film than a straight horror movie. It had amazing visual effects, a story of love, death, rebirth, and journeys to and from the underworld, and compelling characters. Hellraiser was an intelligent film in the horror/fantasy genre, and Nightbreed was a fantastic follow-up to it. It is a treat that Barker’s vision has been restored in the version of the film he wanted, and now that it is streaming on Netflix, millions of horror and fantasy fans can enjoy a greatly underrated gem.