Nightbreed is a 1990 Clive Barker joint based on a Clive Barker novella by the name of Cabal. This thing was an absolute, stone-cold flop when it was released but has since clawed its way into the maybe aspired to pantheon of cult classic. Why was it so maligned when it first came out? Why is it at least somewhat revered by genre fans today? Why does the cover look like if the kid from Monster Squad grew up and collected a posse of monsters along the way to probably compete in some Space Jam-style tournament? Well, you’ll need to read on to see if I even attempt to answer any of those questions in my spoiler-filled review. Hate reading (why are you here?) Click on that podcast button to listen to some #content instead.
Reviewed by: Jake
Foreword: I’m going to skirt by some things here because woof...
Aaron Bone (not this one - Craig Sheffer) is a dude who suffers from dreams/nightmares about a place called Midian. It’s a land where monsters live in harmony and instinctively flock like the salmon of capistrano. Naturally, his girlfriend, Lori (Anne Bobby) gets tired of hearing his delusional bullshit and encourages him to see the local Calgarian psychotherapist, Dr. Decker (David Cronenberg) about it. Decker tries to convince Boone that he is actually serial killer and uses evidence of a spat of murders going around to try to make him a believer. Decker (who is the actual serial killer) then doses him with some LSD and urges him to turn himself in. When Boone goes to the police station he encounters a dude who is also speaking of Midian. When he confronts the guy, whose name is Narcisse, Narcisse proceeds to cut off his own face with razor blades as a way of proving his worth into Midian. Boone promptly bails.
Boone seeks out Midian, and discovers it as a city underneath a giant cemetery in the Alberta mountains. He then finds some of its inhabitants, the “Nightbreed”, who do not accept him as a monster worthy of admission into their crew. One tries to eat him. As he escapes he's confronted by the police who re led by Decker. They light him up with about 700 rounds and haul his body to the morgue. He wakes up on a steel table and escapes back to Midian.
This sets off about three separate, intertwined plotlines. First we have Boone trying to gain acceptance into Midian (he succeeds). Next we have Decker trying to murder everything and convincing law enforcement to form a militia to hunt Boone and the inhabitants of Midian down while covering his own murderous tracks. Finally we have said militia of cops, dudes in flannel with guns and insane police Captain Eigerman (Charles Haid) who are hellbent on cleaning up the monster scourge. Things go bananas.
In the end we learn the Nightbreed are historically a peaceful species who were nearly hunted to extinction by humans. Boone’s arrival was foretold as a signal of the end of the Nightbreed’s home of Midian and their old god, Baphomet explains to Boone that he is now in charge of finding a new home for the Nightbreed and renames him Cabal. Lori kills herself with a blade but Boone bites her to also resurrect her as a Nightbreed.
What the Movie Does Right
This movie is unique. I’m betting you haven't seen anything quite like it. From a story perspective, most of its plot is a serial killer story/slasher via Decker’s character, but it weaves in a ton of its action through the Nightbreed element. The end result is completely bonkers and is best exemplified through a sequence where the police militia is attacking the Nightbreed in Midian while Decker is running around in his mask trying to kill Lori in the middle of the fray. It is fucking insane.
Speaking of Decker, though he doesn’t take up a ton of screentime, his character is far and away the best in the film. His mask is absolutely terrifying. Look at that thing. Yikes. He also has the best line in the movie when he explains to a man while killing him that “I am death. Plain and simple.” Cold as ice. Plus, look at his lair. What. The. Shit.
Finally, it would be a mistake to not talk about the effects in the film. This was a $9 million movie, afterall. To put it simply, there are a lot of practical effects here. Barker goes nuts on developing a ton of different monsters for the movie and there are definitely some showcases of top notch, gross-out practical on display, particularly when Lori explores Midian for the first time.
What the Movie Does Wrong
I’m just going to throw plot in as a sweeping complaint with this flick. This is one of the most difficult to follow films I’ve seen in some time, and I don’t care about all the stuff bout studio interference. Barker made a director's cut that is also bonkers AND though I haven't read Cabal, I hear this is a very faithful adaptation of the story. Wow, Clive. Honestly, I think it boils down to something where there should have been a different director. Barker had to carry a lot of the load for this one and it didn’t pan out. The insane end product may be interesting to look at today which definitely helps with its cult status, but that doesn’t make it even close to a good movie.
There’s also a quick shoutout that needs to be given to the marketing team because they definitely played a hand in fucking this up. Nightbreed is really a dark fantasy film with a heavy dose of serial killer/slasher. When this came out it was marketed almost exclusively as a slasher. That’s a recipe for unmet expectations and critical panning, guys.
Finally, this movie is too fucking long. It ties in with the above points but is worth mentioning in its own right because it is one thing to have a convoluted plot. It’s another to be overly long. It's another entirely to maintain a level of inexplicability for as long as this does. Honestly, I’m impressed with how little actually happens in the movie given there is a cut out there that is over two and a half hours long. I mercifully watched the two hour director’s cut.
Story: 2 - As mentioned, there is basically nonsensical plot here. There is a lot happening, but none of it really makes any sense when it is playing out. You can take a 30,000 foot view if you want but even then you have to ask if it was all necessary.
World-Building / Immersion: 3 - I hate double jeopardy but the insanity of this one really rips you out because you will spend quite a bit of time wondering if you are missing something. There is some glee to be had in the final 30 minutes because that battle is bonkers, but the lead up is a slog.
Scare-Factor: 2.5 - This is more a dark fantasy movie but it’s escaping a total bottom of the barrel-type score because Decker’s mask is creepy as hell.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 7 - The practical Barker employs is pretty tremendous. The only big criticism here is that there are so many monsters that you can literally see when he starts to run out of ideas. I’m looking at you, girl with a hand for a chin… Also, the painted backgrounds are dicey.
Overall: 4 - I can understand the cult status of this one. I can see watching this with your friends over some beers to be pretty fun as well. But as far as a horror experience, I definitely can’t recommend it.