Nightbreed (1990) from Tuna and Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and an anonymous reader

Tuna's comments in white:

Nightbreed (1990) is a Clive Barker film about a community of outcasts of different types, mostly undead, under attack by a psychotic psychiatrist and a bunch of rednecks. Craig Sheffer is Boone, patient of the evil shrink, who dreams about Midian (the community of freaks) and tries to join. He is turned back at the gate, because he is still alive, but is bitten by one of the Nightbreed. When he is later shot, he comes back to life and is accepted into the community, which he ends up saving.

The film is long on atmosphere, great make-up, special effects and visuals, but has too many characters and too muddled a plot to hold your attention. Fox required Barker to trim the film by 25 minutes to make it less explicit, and remove what they thought was unnecessary plot and character development. Perhaps the film would be better in the directors cut. C-, only because it looks so good. From a plot standpoint alone, it would be lower. 


Catherine Chevalier plays a mutant who bares her breasts to distract a young cop.

A porcupine woman is also bare-breasted, or appears to be.

Scoopy's comments in yellow:

Send in the Clowns, and Set Free the Berserkers ....

It really isn't a very good movie as it stands, and I think Tuna nails the main reason in his comments. Too many characters. Half of my watching time was occupied with a single thought. "Now who is THIS guy". Confusion reigns.

There are other reasons as well. 

  • The definition of the Nightbreed dwellers is hazy, and I just didn't understand the mythology. They are apparently members of other races who have been on the planet, or something, and they have different vulnerabilities: some can be shot, others burned. If they are all different, why do they all live underground? Is this community only derived from the other races who were allergic to light? Where can we find their counterparts who were not bothered by the sun? Or are all non-humans bothered by the sun? Is the sun also bad for all dead humans, like Boone? We know that other natural humans tried to get in (we meet a guy whose application was denied), so are there others who are former humans, or is Boone the only one? Or is Boone himself a member of another race who didn't assume this form until his human life was over? Or was Boone able to become one of them only because he was bitten by one of them? Can any one of them make future members by chowing down? Has Pelloquin bitten others who will join them later? Or what? More confusion. Frankly, I didn't quite know what was going on. 
  • It breaks the Scoopy Prime Directive of horror/fantasy, namely "A grotesque, heavily made-up creature, glimpsed fleetingly in the shadows, can be intensely frightening. A long close-up of the same creature in good light will probably start to provoke giggles". Give me the night and shadows, and some quick cuts, I can make the Fordham Ram scare the shit out of you, but in the daylight he's just another silly, mangy sheep.
  • What was clear was that the mostly harmless and reclusive band of Nightbreed was threatened by the violent humans. That was cool, but what wasn't cool was that it all climaxed in the usual shootouts, explosions, and fistfights, like any cop film except that (1) some of the combatants were wearing a lot of make-up, and (2) we were rooting against the cops.

And those flaws are a genuine shame, because this movie had the potential to be a work of sheer genius, a spin off of Shakespeare's mythological plays, like The Tempest and Midsummer Night's Dream, combined with elements of horror films like Nightmare on Elm Street, and Clive Barker's own Hellraiser.

It starts off in a wild mode, with the pseudo-Shakespearian characters speeding through the night toward a gate, then passing in various ways through a spooky portal, which was soon closed by macabre hands. This was a dream - the dream of our protagonist, Boone. It turns out that these are creatures of our imagination and dreams, but that the dreams are not really based on sheer fantasy, but rather on some very real living beings that are of flesh and blood of some kind, and live in a real corporeal city underneath a cemetery in a remote part of Alberta, Canada. (As I mentioned earlier, I can't give a tight description of who they are exactly, because the mythology is loosey-goosey and pretty confusing.)

Like our own race, these beings are not all nice and not all nasty. They have their problems with violence and rage and hunger for meat, just as humans do, but they also possess nobility, gentility, reason, co-operation, humor, their own forms of art and architecture, and their own methods to protect their community from outsiders and dangerous insiders. In general, they are harmless, thoughtful, and reclusive.

Cut back to our hero, who senses that his dreams are real, and wants to become part of their world. He finds their city (It's on all the good Canadian maps), but is denied membership because he's a natural - a living human. The plot needs to find a way to get him dead.

Enter his psychiatrist. Oh, Boone is only seeing the shrink because these dreams seem so real to him, but the shrink himself is actually a violent mass murderer, and thinks that he can easily find a way to blame all of his own murders on Boone. It doesn't hurt that, in his role as a psychiatrist, he is dealing with Boone's subconscious anyway, so he's actually able to convince Boone that he is the murderer. Boone dies in a shootout with police, and is now able to join the Nightbreed. This really confuses the hell out of his girlfriend, who actually follows him into the depths of the Bosch painting in which he takes up residence, and demonstrates an amazingly casual attitude toward the wonders there. In fact, the human police and townspeople seem to have equally surreal casual attitudes. Oh, yeah, a bunch of monsters from hell just out of town? Let's get our guns and shoot 'em.

The world of the Nightbreed is a beautifully and richly imagined alternate universe of widely differing species, scary rope bridges, hands reaching through cages, ancient runes, cabalistic rites, macabre bazaars, and multi-limbed deities. Perhaps there is too much detail for a two hour movie because, as I said earlier, I was pretty confused by the whole deal.

The real conflict in the movie is this: because of plot twists too complicated and nutty to detail, the maniac psychiatrist (played by horror director David Cronenberg) and an equally loony hoser sheriff decide that they must destroy the home town of the Nightbreed, and the Breed finally decide that they have to fight back. The ultimate irony in the battle is that the monsters have virtually no chance to defeat the violent, armed humans, so we find ourselves rooting against our own species in this battle, even though our opponents are ugly, deformed, and frightening by our "normal" standards.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

  • no significant features

They had something good goin' here, but they couldn't quite package it all neatly and tightly enough. It has the look of what it is, a novel brought to the screen by its author, acting as both screenwriter and director, and not wanting to lose any of the details that he thought were important. As Tuna says, the unavailable extra 25 minutes may provide plenty of much-needed characterization and detail, but I'd much rather see them try this again with as much imagination and a tighter screenplay. 

You do have to love the idea that the source of all of human fright is actually a bunch of "regular guy" beings who live in a little town near Calgary. So those Canadians are responsible for all of our worst nightmares. Damn their fiendish revenge! I knew we should have taken their change in our vending machines.

Put it on your list of might-have-beens. It should have been a genre masterpiece like a gentler version of Barker's own Hellraiser, but in its current avatar, it's just OK.

Reader response:

I read with interest your thoughts on Clive Barker's Nightbreed, as I also consider it a muddled classic. Had a couple of thoughts I'd like to share. First, your Unity about things being scary in the dark but not scary when they are defined is dead on -- but that, I think, was Barker's entire point. Themes of persecution and rejection are very common throughout Barker's work, as is his obsession with the underdog. The major theme of Nightbreed is that the 'breed themselves aren't monsters per se -- they're just different. Only a few are meant to be scary, and those few, it's worth pointing out, are almost never shown in clearly-lit shots. So it isn't inappropriate for the 'breed to look unthreatening, even downright silly when devoid of their menacing context, because that's more or less an accurate depiction for the balance of them. And as silly as they all looked, they all looked more or less real at the same time -- which underscores just  how bad these effects often go in lesser films.

However, I feel I must disagree with your interpretation of the mythos of  the 'breed as depicted in the film. I feel all the important elements are there. They are monsters -- they use more eloquent terms for themselves, and they may have evolved from the same primordial soup as the rest of us, but they wound up on a radically different evolutionary path, one of the side effects of which was a taste for human flesh and a vampyric side-effect that their victims are reborn as 'breed. This is why Pelloquin is reminded in no uncertain terms that eating Boone is "against the law" -- the law in this case being the law of Midian, not the law of men.

The key here is that the only real explanation we ever get about the 'breed is told to us by the 'breed themselves -- and more importantly, from their own perspective. Of course they're going to couch it in terms of nobility and oppression! One of the brilliant subtleties of the film is that the 'breed are never clearly  delineated as heroes or protagonists, but rather as oppressed underdogs, leaving it up to the viewer to interpret for themselves who is in the right,  if anyone.

The cops, I agree, there are no excuses for. That said, my girlfriend lived in a similarly BFE region of Canada when I met her, and the prevailing attitude among the cops there was pretty similar: "Hey lookee thar, Bubba -- wazzat?" "I dunno Jeb...let's shoot it!" It could either be lazy  characterization or commentary on small town life in Canada. I'm honestly not sure which.

If you are interested in an attempt at a director's cut, you might want to take a look at the graphic novel, which I believe was published by Dark Horse but I could be mistaken. Said graphic novel was based on the original script, and judging from the differences between the two, most of the cut material come from the sort of native American ghostwoman's expositional tale and the ending, which is radically different in the novel. It also goes much deeper into the psychologist's hatred of Midian and does a better job of explaining his motivations.

The Critics Vote

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 5.7/10
  • With their dollars ... it took in $8 million domestically 
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C (Scoopy) to C- (Tuna)

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