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John’s Horror Corner: Nightbreed (1990), Clive Barker’s epic dark fantasy adventure pitting the “unnaturals” against the evils of man.

May 14, 2022

MY CALL:  It may not have had the budget to be recognized as such, but for me this is a horror Star Wars (1977) or The Fifth Element (1997) or Legend (1985) as it creates a world I want to spend more time exploring. Great and diverse monster make-up, an excellent and compelling epic story, intriguing world-building and a civilization-razing war. If you haven’t seen this yet, do yourself the favor.  MORE MOVIES LIKE NightbreedFor more of Clive Barker’s world-building horror, I’d recommend the double feature of Hellraiser (1987) and Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988).

Based this on his novel “Cabal,” director and writer Clive Barker (Hellraiser, Lord of Illusions) is no stranger to crafting underworlds and populating them with twisted angels or sin-feeding fiends rich with mythology. And this film offers a diverse menagerie of monstrosities to scratch any monster movie lovers’ itch. But it also captures a strong sense of dark fantasy adventure.

Haunted by mysterious nightmares of monstrous, demonic humanoids from a world called Midian, Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer; Hellraiser V: Inferno, Fire in the Sky) keeps his therapist Doctor Decker (David Cronenberg; Jason X) concocting hypotheses to explain Aaron’s guilt, his sins, or his need to escape himself. Oddly manipulative and presumptive of Boone’s dreams, Decker feels like he could be a villain of sorts in a movie entirely his own. A subplot has a zipper-masked murderer summarily slaughtering families in their homes, following patterns described in Boone’s dreams. Decker suggests Boone turn himself in for the crimes.

After his tragic death, Boone awakens somehow alive and is welcomed to Midian, which is like a horror Neverland but with ancient laws like a religious faction led by a sage (Doug Bradley; Hellraiser I-VIII, Wrong Turn 5) you’d find in undead Shaolin Kung Fu movie. So many things about this movie smack of a dark fantasy about the rise of a cursed hero. Their underworld civilization is well-realized, a mixture of ancient and medieval, complete with a temple to Baphomet in the most abyssal recesses and prophecies painted on walls—some of which seem to  parallel Boone’s recent history.

This film pulls no punches. We see a man slice open his own face and peel his scalp from his sinew-covered skull while screaming and holding chunks of hairy scalp in his desperate hands. Latex wound work is graphic, mangled and oozy. The monsters come in all shapes and sizes like a horror Star Wars cantina, with all manner of mask and face make-ups, prosthetics, odd appendages, some amorphous, even some puppetry.

The plot yanks Boone back and forth between his new life in Midian, and his former human life with his girlfriend. Amidst this, many humans begin to discover the existence of freaks dwelling below the surface and desire to exterminate them to Biblical scale, and with only the soulless ferocity that we may compare to genocide.

The magic of this movie for me, like a standalone horror Star Wars, is that so many of the characters and creatures of Midian are memorable, have their moments, or have their representation of something of Midian’s way of life.

We are led into an action-packed finale pitting men against unnaturals, creating a collapsing fiery hellscape of Midian’s cavernous city. The battle manages to capture grand scale, and the desecrated ruins of the aftermath smack of Revelations steeped in sacrilege. Yet keeping this story more in line with fantasy than horror, is that the unnaturals are our protagonists and, despite the razing of their only sanctuary, we end with the hope that their new savior will rebuild with them. So this is basically an “episode one” for a dark fantasy adventure epic where the “monsters” turn out to be the heroes with a prophesied, Christ-like savior who must help them rebuild their civilization after their own Revelations-like war with the evils of man. Epic concepts!

Whether you love horror or hard-R fantasy, I offer my strongest recommendation. In many ways, as I’ve said again and again, I liken this to a chapter of horror Star Wars. It packs big concepts and paints a detailed world. It truly hurts me that this was not part 1 of a grand trilogy helmed by Clive Barker’s genius.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 15, 2022 5:09 am

    I really liked Nightbreed and the book, Cabal, its based on. Clever Barker has always been one of my favourite horror writers, and he also did a fantastic job directing this movie. The sheer scale of imagination and work building it achieves is stunning, and the gory horror is spot on. A great film.

    • John Leavengood permalink
      May 15, 2022 9:28 am

      I’d love to see this approached as a Netflix series. There’s so much rich story to be told about the civilization and history of Midian.

      • May 16, 2022 2:30 pm

        Yes, it’d be great to see a TV series to continue the story. I think there was a short lived comic book Nightbrreed sequel from BOOM! Studios a while back that was pretty good as I recall. That did continue the story after film.

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