Nightbreed: The Enduring Appeal of a Horror Classic

It seems that Nightbreed has always captured the imagination of horror movie fans. And with good reason.

When the push began for Nightbreed, Clive Barker’s follow up to the cult hit Hellraiser,in 1990, the marketing made the film feel like just another slasher film. The confusing advertisements couldn’t seem to decide whether the film’s killer was a button eyed, masked killer or the film’s lead character Boone, played by Craig Sheffer, leaving fans scratching their collective heads over what this coming horror joint was even about. The theatrical posters for Nightbreed read “Lori thought she knew everything about her boyfriend… Lori was wrong!”

A tagline couldn’t have missed the point of Nightbreed more if it tried. The film was a meditation on monsters and fringe dwellers, about what may lie beneath the surface of reality, and the metaphysical meaning of what separates man from monster, not anything expressed on that poster. This was just the first in a series of wrong minded decisions by 20th Century Fox that doomed Nightbreed from the start. Clive Barker’s hardcore fans attracted to the author by Hellraiser weren’t interested in a horror movie centering on “Lori’s boyfriend,” and casual moviegoers didn’t understand the innate oddness of the project or how it connected to an empty slogan.

Nightbreed‘s quest for a marketable identity would continue. Slasher flicks were popular at the time, but nothing appeared to set Nightbreed apart from the myriad Halloweens or Friday the 13ths, perhaps because Nightbreed was about as far from a slasher film as a movie could be. Yes, David Cronenberg’s Philip K. Decker (lovingly named after Philip K. Dick) was a knife wielding thrill killer, but Nightbreed has more in common with an R-rated X-Men than it did with Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees. 20th Century Fox buried the lede of their own film, and box-office failure was assured.

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But those that did see Nightbreed in 1990, those who ventured to see the film because they were already in love with horror’s newest wunderkind from his many novels and short stories as well as the still budding popularity of Hellraiser, saw a film ripe with potential and a dark, fevered creative energy. Literally thousands of horror films have been forgotten since 1990, confined to dusty clearance bins and deep cuts on Netflix, but Nightbreed endures and remains a beloved horror film, not because of what it was, but because of what could have been. In fact, Nightbreed’s fans remained so loyal that after almost 25 years, we finally got a director’s cut of the film, one much closer to Clive Barker’s vision than we ever imagined possible.

The history of Nightbreed is almost as fascinating as the killers and monsters of Barker’s film. So let’s peel back the skin and investigate the secret history behind Midian, the land where the monsters dwell.

For those not in the know, Nightbreed was based on Clive Barker’s 1988 novel, Cabal. Both book and movie center on a lost soul named Boone who searches for the hidden land of Midian. Boone never felt like he belonged, and when he began hearing whispers about the Tribes of the Moon, he set out to find the hidden land of monsters. Boone was framed for murders that were actually committed by his trusted psychiatrist, Dekker. Dekker pursues Boone to Midian and a war ensues between humanity and the monsters of the underworld. Boone’s story was the main event, but the tale’s true attraction was the menagerie of bogeymen and seductive she-beasts that called Midian their home.

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Barker had already produced a hit with Hellraiser but Nightbreed had a budget behind it, and with studio money the director had to deal with nervous studio execs. In a 2012 interview, Barker spelled out the differences between working on Nightbreed and Hellraiser:

“This is a very different situation. So, Hellraiser was what Hellraiser was. It was a $900k movie, and there wasn’t anything I would have done differently. But Nightbreed was taken away from me. It was thought that its meaning wasn’t… Its meaning didn’t chime with the producers. The thought of making a movie in which the monsters were the good guys was just financial suicide.” 

The meaning may not have chimed with producers, but it certainly chimed with fans that were lucky enough to see the film in its initial release. Fans saw the potential of a film with the makings of a horror classic. They saw a rich mythology and some of the coolest creature designs in the history of monster films, but most of all they saw an auteur’s true love of the genre, one that couldn’t be diluted by short-sighted studio decisions…decisions that caused the movie to just gross $8.8 million in its domestic release, a sum well under its $11 million budget.

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In addition to Barker’s vision, fans saw other masters of the genre pour their heart and soul into building the world of Nightbreed. From Mark Coulier’s (Harry Potter series, Iron Lady, X-Men: First Class) masterful make-up effects, to creature technician Robbie Drake (Da Vinci’s Demons, Attack the Block), who brought all the creatures to life that make-up could not, to an amazing score by Danny Elfman. The masters of the genre were in place, the builders of the macabre were ready to do something special, and they did…until 20th Century Fox blinked and cut the movie to shreds, forcing Barker and company’s vision to narrow into what they thought contemporary horror needed to be: limited in scope and predictable.

Watch Nightbreed on Amazon

The film’s potential magic, suffocated as it may be, was also on display in the cast Barker put together, which included Hugh Quarshie, Hugh Ross as Boone’s confidant Narcissus, the legendary Pinhead himself, Doug Bradley, as the leader of Midian, Lylseburg, Oliver Parker as the vampiric alpha male Peloquin, and Christine McCorkindale as the seductive porcupine woman, Shuna Sassi. In a 2012 interview, actress Ann Bobby, who played Boone’s girlfriend Lori Winston, revealed why the cast worked so well together. “I think Nightbreed was a very sort of sterling example of what happens when a gifted director puts together his sort of cast that he knows will work well together that speak the same language. When I say language I almost mean a shorthand. There was a lot of freedom on that set in many ways.”

But it was David Cronenberg who stole the show as the button eyed killer, Dekker. Already a horror legend behind the camera, Cronenberg delivered a manic performance that really set the tone for the film. Dekker was the ultimate human monster and the perfect antithesis to the real monsters of Midian. He was the beast even the beasts rejected and Cronenberg made Dekker one of the genre’s most chilling killers. Barker said about what Cronenberg brought to Nightbreed:

“He’s cold, man! He’s not an actor, no, but what I liked was that there was a weirdness to him. An actor would have played a villain, whereas David didn’t. David played David. When he’s talking, he’s so plausible… I’m a big admirer of David’s, and I asked if he’d do it, and to my astonishment he said yes. When he wasn’t working he’d just sit around and write his William Burroughs script. He was great fun to have around.”

The problem is that Fox ignored horror history: people didn’t go see Frankenstein and Dracula for the human players, they wanted to experience the monster. Everyone else seemed to know that Nightbreed should have been something special, including Marvel Comics who published a Nightbreed comic through their Epic imprint for a number of years after the film had bombed.

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In a 1990 interview with Cinemafantastique written by Alan Jones, entitled “How Fox Bungled Nightbreed per Clive Barker,” Barker said:

“The lesson I’ve learned [making ‘Nightbreed’] is that a lot of people don’t want anything different. They don’t want you to have a unique vision. But why make movies anybody else could have done? Well, I’ve paid the consequences, but I’m unrepentant. Again and again I listened to deprecating comments about low literacy levels. There was supposedly no point showing ‘Nightbreed’ to critics because the people who see these movies don’t read reviews, in brackets, even if they can read at all! Immediately it was disqualified from serious criticism. Therefore it had to be sold to the lowest common denominator. Nobody cares for the product I, and a host of other horror directors, make. One [old] guy at Fox never saw it through because he felt it was morally reprehensible and disgusting – the two very things it’s not. Their imaginations are limited and they have a very unadventurous sense of what to do.”

Barker hasn’t kept mum about how the movie went off the rails; he revealed many times over the intervening decades that the movie was heavily edited by hands other than his own. If Barker had his way, what might have the film that brought so many horror icons together looked like? The Nightbreed director’s cut became as difficult to find and unlikely to see the light of day as a chupacabra. Until recently. Thanks to the recent release from Scream Factory, fans can finally see something a little closer to his original vision.

Nightbreed love is so strong that a television series is in the works, and is in continued development. We have a few more details on that here.

Barker’s original intent, as stated to Cinemafantastique was to make “a movie that made people think twice about why they love monsters.” 20th Century Fox told him,  “You know, Clive, if you’re not careful some people are going to like the monsters.”

Little did they know that people have always loved monsters.

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