I knew it. I fuckin knew Dave Cronenberg was up to something. All due respect to him as a consistently great and unique filmatist across three decades, but you gotta admit the guy is suspicious. I mean, CRASH had me wondering. And eXistenZ raised my eyebrows. Possessing in-depth knowledge of tooth-firing gristle guns isn’t a crime in and of itself, but you gotta wonder why he knows so much about the topic, right?
And then DEAD RINGERS. I mean, for crying out loud, DEAD RINGERS. So sonofabitch, why am I not surprised when I watch Clive Barker’s NIGHTBREED and there’s Dave Cronenberg as a masked “baby slasher” murdering families around Toronto?
His name is Dr. Decker and he’s got a creepy mask with button eyes and a zipper mouth, but he wears a nice overcoat and chain mail gloves, he’s not wearing overalls or a mechanic’s jumpsuit. He wants you to know he’s higher class than Jason or Michael.
Sure enough his day job is as a psychiatrist, and he decides to frame one of his patients (Craig Sheffer) for the murders, basing the crimes on the guy’s bad dreams, recording him talking aobut it, and dosing him with hallucinogens to get him into trouble. I can see why he’d consider this guy an easy mark, too. His name is Aaron Boone but even his girlfriend just calls him “Boone,” like they’re in P.E. class or something. He’s kind of a brooding Kevin Bacon type in a leather jacket, and his answering machine message just says, “This is Boone. You know what to do. Add-i-os.”
But there’s one important piece of information Dr. Decker didn’t know about: Boone is not just some chump in a leather jacket. He’s some chump in a leather jacket who’s destined to be the Chosen One for the people of Midian, a secret town hidden beneath a cemetery where the surviving members of ancient monster tribes take refuge. They got weird lizard people, devilmen, a guy with a moon-shaped head like Mac Tonight, a woman who can turn into smoke, a fat guy who thinks it’s amazing that tentacles come out of his belly and likes to make puns about it. They got a statue-like demon god named Baphomet and a Moses-like dude who keeps telling them what the laws are and a fenced off area for “berserkers – mad bastards who’ll bite off your head and shit down your neck.” This is the rare case where that’s probly meant literally, but unfortunately you never do see the berserkers shitting into any necks. Maybe in the fabled director’s cut.
Boone heard some rumors about Midian being a place where sins are forgiven (what happens outside Midian stays outside Midian) so he tries to check it out and gets bit by some asshole monster who likes to eat “Naturals.” Turns out this is lucky though because then he gets set up and shot by the cops and the monster-infected bite brings him back from the dead sort of like a vampire. And I like how the guy who bit him is happy and claps for him at the ceremony where he’s accepted into the monster club. So that guy’s not as much of an asshole as you expect.
But oh shit, nobody shoulda let Decker find out about monsters. He saw himself as some kind of cleanser, killing off bloodlines of people he considered filth. Now he finds out there’s monsters, he joins a long line of witch hunters in oppressing these poor Nightbreed. I mean, I’m glad if it takes the heat off the working class Canadians, but you hate to see a guy getting off on genocide like this. Basically he lets the cat out of the bag about Midian and the monsters have to take a stand against redneck cops and local loonies. I don’t know what the cops thought Decker meant when he said “something’s breeding there,” but after they see a guy explode in sunlight the shit is on.
It’s a real ambitious horror fantasy, lots of scenes seem like the cantina in STAR WARS, just all different kinds of monsters, all in the pre-digital age, crazy latex makeup, occasional crude stop motion, and when somebody’s eyes or wounds have to glow you see that extra care that goes with painting it directly on the frame. Lots of mythology that they put lots of thought into, plus little moments that would only come out of Clive Barker’s perverted imagination (not even Cronenberg’s).
For example the porcupine lady. There’s this weird gal with no nose and a back covered in 10″ poison quills, but she’s supposed to be real sensual and erotic. When the cops are pulling a Waco on Midian she starts making suggestive tongue gestures to one of the officers, and he follows her. Barker’s point is that we all secretly yearn to explore the dark sides of our sexuality. My point is that nobody’s that hard up for a blow job that they’re gonna stop mid-siege to make it with a
porcupine monster. I mean at the very least he would stall for a while and act like he doesn’t want it and then wait ’til his friends are gone to hit it. But I guess that might be in the 50 minutes that I read the studio cut out of the movie.
NIGHTBREED’s biggest weakness is that its hero is the least interesting character. There’s not much to him except a bad boy pose, and he doesn’t have the Steve McQueen type of charisma to make that work. But his girlfriend Lori is more sympathetic, and alot of the movie is through her eyes. The movie also gets a little choppy as it escalates into full on human vs. monster combat, and I’m sure it would benefit from the longer cut.
But to me the uniqe qualities of this one make its weaknesses not all that important. I love this movie. These monsters have a genuine exoticness, they don’t seem like other movie monsters you’ve seen. Barker has one thing in common with Cronenberg and that’s that he seems to have some actual madness in there, and he’s not ashamed of it. So he does things (including the porcupine seduction) that you can truly say nobody else would think of. And the unpredictableness adds a real feeling of danger. You root for the monsters but can’t trust all of them, because you can’t honestly say they don’t bite. Some of them do, we’ve seen it.
Barker’s brain bubbles over with visual imagination like he left the burner on too long. The budget and technology are crude compared to most genre movies today, but he was able to get more imagery out of his head and onto film than in any of his other movies. He seems better at the designing than at moving the camera, but he does pull of a couple good tricks. I like the frenzied glimpses of the monsters in his nightmares, and they fit exactly with the busy Danny Elfman score.
And Cronenberg makes a great villain. I’m sure my knowledge of his movies adds something to it, but I think he really gives a convincing performance as a sicko. You gotta love the shot of him sitting in his office with a bunch of masks on the wall and a table covered in machetes laid out ritualistically. It makes you think – the Canadian health care system seems tempting, because you could actually get therapy and not have to do without it because your health insurance doesn’t cover jack shit. But then what if you get stuck with this nutball as your doctor? Doesn’t seem so great anymore, does it?
Man, what would be the closest modern comparison to NIGHTBREED? Would it be UNDERWORLD or something? They just don’t make ’em like this anymore, and they didn’t before. I wonder where those guys went, anyway? It was obviously meant as chapter 1, it’s too bad it’s probly too late to do a follow up. I mean, unless they skip forward a bunch of years, and the porcupine lady’s got a bunch of kids, they’re all fat and wrinkly, the moon-faced guy looks like he’s had work done. And then all the fans would complain if they used any CGI, they’d say Clive Barker seduced their childhood and shot poison quills at it.
Oh well. Barker was trying to make “the STAR WARS of horror,” but I guess it wasn’t meant to catch on like that. But it’s an interesting oddity and as long as we know about it that’s enough. We’ll always have it on a shitty no-extras DVD, a freaky outcast living under a cemetery avoiding daylight.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.