Nightbreed (1990): The Real Monster Might Be the Film

Halloween is a great time for monsters. Everyone loves a good monster, and no one loves them more than Clive Barker. After all, what were the Cenobites if not a group of monsters with a predilection for S&M garb? So when it came time to follow up the success of his 1987 directorial debut, Hellraiser, Barker was attracted to making a film about a “horror mythology from the ground up.” The property that most interested him was expanding on his 1988 novella Cabal. The producers were receptive giving him an eleven million dollar budget for the film (which was more than five times the Hellraiser budget), and they secretly hoped that they would have the Star Wars of horror films on their hands. There was one change they wanted made immediately. They insisted the title Cabal meant nothing to the movie going public, and insisted Barker change it to Nightbreed.

In Barker’s film, Boone (Craig Sheffer) is tormented with dreams of monsters and a place called Midian, and to make matters worse, his psychopathic psychologist, Dr. Decker (David Cronenberg) convinces him that his visions are connected to series of grisly murders plaguing the area. Boone’s search for answers leads him to a remote graveyard where he discovers the inhabitants of Midian, the Nightbreed, and a clan of monsters descended from ancient tribes who were long ago driven underground. The police corner Boone in the graveyard and gun him down thinking he is the masked slasher, and that is where his story really begins. He is resurrected as one of the Nightbreed, and his presence will fulfill an ancient prophecy becoming the breed’s salvation or their ultimate demise.

The free hand that Barker had with Hellraiser was contractually reined this time, and it shows in the final product. He was required to make Nightbreed an ‘R’ rated film, but he also could not make it as graphically gory as his previous film. Through a series of test audiences, filming of additional scenes, and the reworking of special effects sequences, Barker’s film went through the wringer in post-production. Then to make matters worse, his original cut came in at almost two and a half hours, a figure the studio wanted to be cut by at least sixty minutes. His editor left the project in protest, and Barker had to scramble to get the film ready for release. It was not an auspicious debut either. The studio didn’t know what to make of the English writer’s film, and the marketing focuses on the slasher elements which made up only a tiny portion of the finished product. In the end with grosses that did not top nine million, Barker’s sophomore effort was a failure.

I have to wonder what the movie might have been like if it were not for the large amount of cuts and studio influence. So far there has not been a director’s cut issued even though Barker has been keen on the idea for years. It’s hard to tell from the finished product whether Nightbreed could have become a more cohesive film or if it was destined to be a mess no matter what. There’s no reason to linger on what might have been. The film that Nightbreed became is a rambling and often incoherent affair that never manifested the same directing promise that Barker showed off in Hellraiser.

First off, I have to talk about the acting. Craig Sheffer was a major point of contention between the wife and me as we watched Nightbreed. I kept seeing him as a cut rate Richard Marx crossed with Richard Dean Anderson, but the wife insisted that he has that vaguely caveman-ish look that could only be compared to David Boreanaz. Either way, his acting prowess is no where near that of any of those men, even Richard Marx. The character of Boone was considered for both Rutger Hauer and Christopher Lambert, and I could only imagine what a difference that would have made. Sure Sheffer had an amazing mullet, but he weakly works his way through the scenes with a minimal amount of skill.

Someone in the film that does have a lot of skill is David Cronenberg, the director of classic such as Videodrome and Dead Ringers, but the director’s skill does not lay in the acting department. While his character is quite creepy looking, Cronenberg’s skill lies behind the camera. I do have a lot of good things to say about his character design, and perhaps the whole feature would have been better if it was the slasher that the studio marketed it as. The supporting cast fares no better, and there’s really no call to single out any single performance that was not the gift of monstrous makeup. The monsters are where the film has its shining moments. The makeup effects are extremely fine, and they give the film quite a boost. Several of the film monsters, including a blue horned demonic fellow and a red dreadlocked guy who looks like one of the Predator’s relatives, are among the best and my favorites. The problem becomes that much of the makeup is wasted in the final climactic sequence that is so filled with smoke they are all but obscured.

As if the lackluster acting and the heavily chopped film were not setbacks enough, Nightbreed also sports one of the most annoying scores ever put to film. Danny Elfman is a very talented musician and composer writing impressive scores for Tim Burton’s Batman and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, but the tunesmith needs to learn how to keep his crescendo in his pants. The score is overpowering and pointlessly overdramatic during scenes which called for a quiet moment. It had a the same relentlessly quirky cute quality that works in Burton’s films, but a more reserved tone could have enhanced the scenes rather than trying to create a false sense of tension and drama.

Barker’s second film ultimately has to be judged a failure, and it would be five years before he went behind the camera again for his feature Lord of Illusions (a film that also has as many fans as detractors). Nightbreed is a great concept with its underlying themes of monsters as heroes and humanity as the real villains, but poor execution on all levels of the film ruined its chances. While I will always be interested in Barker as a writer and director, Nightbreed is a film that is forgettable at its best.

Bugg Rating


  1. It seems like this movie has picked up a bit of a cult status. But I, too, only remember it being boring. I love the comment, by the way, about David Boreanaz looking Caveman-ish. That is 100% correct.


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  3. nightbreed is a film that when people ask what is my favorite horror film is i always say this... it being only a partial story from the book of "cabal"... it streams along well that it has all the elements... monsters, miguided and the maladjusted... i might be alone on this... it just holds deep in my heart, black as it might be...

    so thanks for the time you gave it!
    2vs8 [jeremy]

  4. Hmmm, I remember loving this one, but I haven't seen it since it first came out. I may need to give this one another try and see what I think now. I just watched Phantasm II, another film I liked as a kid, but I was really disappointed with it.

  5. I hear ya Rev. One of the reasons I chose this film was because I used to love this in the early nineties. i recall endlessly pouring over Fangoria articles about it, but this time, with older eyes, I could see how it would have appealed to my adolescent self more.

  6. Wow, I actually LOVE Nightbreed. I last watched it around this time last year, and at that point I hadn't seen it in many years. I was a little worried but I ended up liking it a lot. Great review, though, and I can see how people wouldn't particularly care for this one. I keep hearing rumors about Clive Barker attempting to find the lost footage so that he can release HIS version of it, but who knows if that'll happen anytime soon, if at all.

  7. I watched Nightbreed when it came out and loved it, however, I recently saw it again and thought that it hadn't aged terribly well. What stood out to me most the second time I watched it is probably the barely disguised gay subtext with the monsters clearly serving as a stand-in for the gay community (or parts thereof). Nothing wrong with that in general, but I think instead of making a horror movie with a gay subtext, Barker essentially turned in a movie that is mostly about the plight of gay communities with the horror elements almost becoming an afterthought at times. Unfortunately, it seemed to me that he hasn't a lot to say on the issue (other than that we should all try to get along) and that's what ultimately kills the movie - too much subtext for a horror or monster movie and not enough depth for a message film.

    In a way this makes Nightbreed quite a typical sophomore effort - there's a great story in there, but the movie tries to do too much and its scope seems to have been far beyond the talents of the director.

  8. I was not a big fan of this film when it first came out and was disappointed by how inferior it was to HELLRAISER and hated Craig Schaffer's acting but over the years I've warmed up to this film and actually quite enjoy it. Yeah, it is a bit of a mess but considering the post-production trials and tribulations that's hardly surprising. I hope that one day Barker will be able to re-construct his director's cut. All the elements are there, according to his official site, the studio just has to be willing to pony up for it.

  9. I enjoy Nightbreed, but it was written to be a huge epic in fantasy horror and is never given the chance to succeed as such. Love the mythology, love the makeup, hate the shallow storyline and hasty editing

  10. I loved this when it came out, but I haven't seen it since...but I have been meaning to, but now you've sort of scared me off.



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