Nightbreed (1990) — Welcome to a secret underground town of horror

“You are a freak and a cannibal and you’ve come to the wrong town.”

Justin’s rating: Where the wild things are, indeed

Justin’s review: To be honest, I’m not the biggest Clive Barker fan in the world. I’ve read some of his books, seen a few of his movies, and generally came away with an icky feeling that necessitated an hour-long shower to cleanse. I don’t know if it’s his twisted sexual overtones, the extreme gore, or the fact that I’m just more of a Stephen King guy at heart, but he just doesn’t do it for me.

With that said, I have more praise than condemnation for Nightbreed, his attempt at a 1990 dark fantasy epic that was in and out of theaters in a blink, and has struggled for years to gain any amount of recognition. This struggle is due in part to a lack of any major studio support. Right before its release, the studio went and chopped a ton of footage from the print, gave it pathetic marketing (they wouldn’t even spring for an original poster, instead reusing another horror movie’s poster from two years previous), and left it to die in an alleyway. Clive Barker, to say the least, was not pleased.

In any case, we at the Mutant Reviewers Humane Society are all about rescuing stray cult classics and giving them good homes. Would you like to adopt a pet monster?

Nightbreed begins in a bizarrely muddled fashion: Aaron Boone (the ambiguous Craig Sheffer) is having nightmares of being a monster and killing folks, and his psychiatrist, Decker (director/actor David Cronenberg) gets him locked up for his homicidal tendencies. It turns out that Boone is being drawn to a mysterious graveyard that is the doorway to a place called “Midian” – a realm of monsters – and Decker is using him as bait to find it.

Cue some tedious scenes of Boone and his sweater-donning girlfriend Lori (Anne Bobby), and some additional chases around Midian before the plot gets to anything good. Eventually, Boone is killed and returns as a monster Luke Skywalker, the destined one who was meant to lead the underrealm to safety. Lori is just there to look vaguely unsettled at all of the monster getups around her, and Decker is there to put on a Scarecrow-like mask and murders people with knives to get to the truth. It turns out that we – stupid, clumsy, five-fingered humans – are the bad guys, and the monsters are noble as all get out. It’s a neat twist, but nothing to piddle your pants over.

The main problem with this is that the film asks you to believe that the nearby Canadian townies are the biggest bunch of monster bigots in the world, willing to saddle up and commit mass murder and lynching if only given the slightest opportunity. I mean, these monsters never did anything to anyone other than exist, so it’s not like they’re bearing a past grudge that needs revenge. And I can’t speak for Canada the ’90s but I kind of doubt that there were enough people with that many guns who were willing to drop everything and go to war against the things that go bump in the night “just because.”

While Barker apparently wanted this to be the Star Wars of monster movies, the plot and dialogue simply do not bear up to this aspiration. I never liked or cared about any of the protagonists (or antagonists, for that matter), and often I’d be whistling in shared discomfort when awkward conversations would fill up the screentime.

Yet Nightbreed’s greatest accomplishment is something beyond this, as money and love and attention to detail was given to creating the over 200 monsters that fill up the caverns of Midian. Certain scenes featuring creatures are stunningly awesome in imagination and appearances – something I certainly did not expect from 1990 cinema. Instead of characters running through these places all willy-nilly on a mission, I found myself wishing that the movie would slow down to allow more monster interaction and character development. Mos Eisley spaceport has nothing on Midian, believe you me.

I totally love dark fantasy as a genre, and the level of creativity they put into making this world is to be admired. There’s an obvious setup for a sequel, which would’ve been welcomed by me, at least. So as a story, Nightbreed fails, but as a concept, it is wildly exciting. If only I could say that about my breakfast.

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