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Flashback: Clive Barker’s Nightbreed

May 25, 2009

In 1990, I was a senior in high school, working at Dairy Queen, in a relationship I wasn’t ready for, hanging around with friends I wasn’t that comfortable with, and generally in a malaise.  The two things I spent most time with were Rush and Horror Movies. Clive Barker had become my discovery.  Fangoria had introduced me to The Books of Blood, and I read them all.  And then came Hellraiser. Finally, a horror genius who could also make kick ass, thought provoking monster movies. 


baptism in Midian

baptism in Midian

By the time Nightbreed was released, I had seen Rawhead Rex and read The Damnation Game.  The Damnation Game was the first novel of his I had read, and I liked it, but I think at that age I may not have fully understood it.  There are stories that I go back and read now, movies that I saw 20 years ago, that seem to have taken on new meanings. And then I read an interview just recently of Barker discussing revisiting Nightbreed by re-cutting it with some original footage that went unused. He feels that Nightbreed was “probably ahead if its time” and that he is very proud of it. 

It had been a long time since I considered Nightbreed. When I saw it, back in 1990, I was extremely disappointed. I thought the acting was poor, the look was amateur, and aside from a few cool creature designs, most looked plastic and corny.  Midian seemed too accessible and visible. Everyone was able to find it so easily.  It disturbed me.

The only thing that had really stuck with me was the idea of Midian and the theme of this tortured population.  So now I am revisiting Nightbreed and ideas are flooding in.  First of all, Schindler’s List didn’t come out until 1993, I didn’t find out Clive Barker was gay until Tony Timpone wrote about it before the release of Barker’s deeply personal novel, Sacrament, and I was freaking out about my own place in the world while nearing high school graduation. 

The theme in Nightbreed is a simple one really.  There is an ancient tribe of shapeshifters living among the population.  The myths all say that they are vile demons who kill any “natural” humans who cross their paths. The legends say that in order to be a part of their tribe, where the monsters go to feel safe, one has to be as evil and brutal as they supposedly are. This fringe belief drives “insane” humans to commit unspeakable acts. 

exterminating the creators

exterminating the creators

So we have Boone, who sees a therapist because of terrible nightmares of monsters and a place called Midian.  Dekker, the therapist, is helping Boone unravel the story in his nightmares, hoping to help Boone find the answers hidden in his dreams. Dekker, however, believes that the residents of Midian are vile and disgusting and so must be exterminated.  The race to Midian is on. 

And here is where as an 18 year old Jew who still has not had an emotional connection to the Holocaust gets a little bored and disconnected from the movie.  At 18, I saw cheesy looking monsters, poorly acted characters, very little dialogue, and I just let the story get away.  In watching it last night, I was able to see all the reasons again why I reacted this way, but I also watched the movie and followed the story, and I am feeling a sense of excitement about Clive Barker again that I hadn’t felt since Everville.  Nightbreed opens with powerful images and doesn’t let up.  It is relentless.  We meet the creatures and Boone through beautiful imagery and detail within Boone’s nightmares.  We meet Dekker’s evil “Nazi” through a brutally unflinching murder of a family, including a terrified little boy, by his masked alter ego. 

Dekker manipulates Boone into believing he is the actual family slasher and gives him a hallucinogen to increase the effect of the revelation.  Dekker has been slashing families who have produced these shape shifters, and using the images to get Boone to lead him to them. 

Boone is then taken to a psychiatric hospital, where a man rips his face off in front of Boone in hopes of being taken to Midian.  Boone, now in the land of the ‘breed, encounters Peloquin, a gracefully evil looking creature who attacks the “unnatural” Boone, tearing a chunk of flesh from his shoulder.  We learn here that the creatures of Midian live by a code, and this changes the entire movie.  We have just learned that our monsters are not monsters, but people persecuted for their differences.  Generations have been eliminated by a fearful, envious populous. 

self actualization

self actualization

On his way out of Midian, Boone is machine gunned down in a twisted scheme pulled off by Dekker.  Boone’s body is stolen from the morgue.  Now we are in the land of the monsters.  It is a claustrophobic tunnel winding downward like the hell described by Dante.  And it does seem the deeper we get, the more outrageous the creatures become.

By the time the angry mob arrives behind Dekker’s murderous alter ego, we have come to love the monsters and their very strict code.  They are not monsters, but individuals born differently from Ortega y Gasset’s masses, and now they look much different to me. They are beautuful, unique, and graceful.  They all look so comfortable in these skins; I get it now.  Once the genocide begins, it is almost too much to take. The emotional connection has been made, and like Hellraiser, the revelations are so much more difficult to take when we see the horror, the true horror that Barker has always been consumed with

Nighbtreed never lets up, never loses its focus, and thus presents a lesson to all of us about the power of horror to unearth the brutality committed out of fear and ignorance.

Watching it now, at 37, has given me the opportunity to reevaluate how I arrived.  I understand what Barker did here only now because of how I got here.  I think the trick is to continue to move forward on the spinning wheel while slowing down just enough to adjust the speed and direction without falling off. 

from Midnight Meat Train

from Midnight Meat Train

Clive Barker has directed 3 films:  Hellraiser, Nightbreed, and Lord of Illusions.  Like Hellraiser, Barker envisioned Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions as the beginnings of multiple sequels in which he would be able to build on each mythology.  Unfortunately, like me, the public was not ready for what Barker had to say and how he knew how say it.  But I am 37, and everyone who grew up on Hellraiser, Nightmare of Elm Street, and David Cronenberg are also my age.  I know I am ready now to listen, and judging by the amount of things Barker has in the works and all of the films being made from his stories, I would guess that everyone else is too.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 25, 2009 4:16 pm

    “And here is where as an 18 year old Jew who still has not had an emotional connection to the Holocaust gets a little bored and disconnected from the movie. ”
    ^ great line.

    i have noticed that you have been posting these and didn’t know if you wrote it or if it was a blog that you just read often for fun. i have to say, i like it. it is very well written (duh) and it was interesting to finally hear some personal views on things.
    i am now a subscriber sir. well done lol =]

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