Clive Barker's Nightbreed movie - which was only his second feature film as director, after Hellraiser - didn't exactly rake in the dough when it was released in 1990. This was partly due to a studio that was looking for another slasher franchise and didn't know how to market what Barker gave them instead, and partly due to early movie reviews that didn't exactly dazzle potential audiences. It didn't help that the studio demanded extensive changes to the film, resulting in a theatrical release that was only 100 minutes long - when Barker's original vision had clocked in at more than two hours.
Over the years, Nightbreed's mythic parable of a close-knit tribe of creatures who live beneath a sprawling necropolis has attained a cult following - which is good, because it just might be Barker's masterpiece. While Hellraiser is intimate and claustrophobic, Nightbreed is sprawling and ambitious - and packed to the gills with monsters.
The film tells the story of Boone, a man who believes that something must be wrong with him, and dreams of a city called Midian, where even monsters find a home. When his therapist makes him believe that he is actually a serial slayer who has been targeting families for months, Boone begins an odyssey that ends with him inadvertently bringing down the city of Midian and helping the monsters within find a new home.
It's also a love story, as Boone is pursued into exile by his girlfriend Lori, who braves the dangers of both Midian and the world of "naturals" in order to be by his side. Turning typical movie plotlines on their heads, Barker makes the monsters the good guys. It is the hypocritical, sadistic, and cruel humans who are the real villains here, led by Decker, Boone's therapist, who is actually the slayer that he wants people to think Boone is.
"I always think the whole thing about the 'lost tribe' is Biblical anyway," Barker said about the plot of Nightbreed, "as is the idea of a lost tribe being found and led to safety or salvation - or attempting to but failing as in this particular case..."
Those familiar with Barker's other works will probably not be surprised to find religious imagery being employed in the narrative - after all, Barker's bibliography includes books with titles like Sacrament and Galilee. "There's a kind of religious subtext, an iconographic thing going on," Barker said of all of his work.
In Nightbreed, the Biblical touches go beyond subtext. The name of Midian is, itself, drawn from the Bible, which we see in a scene where the drunken priest Ashberry quotes scripture about going to battle with Midian. At one point, Lylesburg, the leader of the 'Breed, is called Moses, and the 'Breed's broken god Baphomet is referred to as the Baptizer. Perhaps the most strikingly Biblical element of the film is the main plot of Boone, who rises after perishing, inadvertently brings disaster down on Midian, and ultimately delivers the surviving 'Breed from their oppressors.
In making Nightbreed, Barker wanted to create something that was just jammed to the absolute rafters with different monsters - what he called "a ride through the space between my ears, a trip through Clive Barker's skull."
"Nightbreed is a hymn to variegation," Barker said in the film's press kit. "No 'Breed looks like any other 'Breed. In the same way the cantina sequence in Star Wars worked the first time you saw it, I want audiences to have the impression that there is this great gathering of creatures and they are never quite sure they've seen them all."
To that end, Image Animation created a bevy of creature designs (many of them adapted from Barker's own sketches) using all kinds of practical effects, from makeup and prosthetics to stop-motion animation. The 'Breed are littered throughout the movie, and not saved until the end. In one of the film's most striking sequences, Lori descends through the depths of Midian and sees many of its monstrous inhabitants for the first time by peering into chambers that are set up like individual theatrical productions or rooms in a Halloween haunted house.
Within these thresholds, as Barker explains, are "creatures that are monstrous and beautiful in the same moment, which has always been my favourite condition for any creature."
Barker has said repeatedly that his intent with Nightbreed was to create a film that asks the audience to "cheer the monsters." Most stories and movies that do this achieve their ends by bowdlerizing their monsters, but not Barker. The 'Breed are sympathetic, certainly, but not at the expense of what makes them monstrous. They're still scary, dangerous, and powerful, but they're also humane, and ultimately just people, with their own fears and hopes, dreams and desires.
Humanity, on the other hand, as "represented by priest, cops and analysts - the three forces of authority - are absolutely, unreservedly b*stards," Barker says. The monstrousness of the human characters is hypocrisy. They wear false faces (literally, in Decker's case) and revel in their cruelty, all the while feeling justified in their hatred of those who are different from them.
At the beginning of the film, we see a mural that shows the history of the persecution of the 'Breed by humanity, and later two of the 'Breed show Lori just a glimpse of that persecution. They tell her that the Nightbreed left in Midian are the only remnants of the once-plentiful Tribes of the Moon. "You call us 'monsters,'" one of the 'Breed says, "but when you dream, you dream of flying, and changing, and living without death. You envy us, and what you envy..."
"We destroy," Lori finishes for her. It's a line of dialogue that could have easily been uttered by Barker himself, who says, of the Nightbreed, "I enjoy the monsters and I want them to be as life-affirming as any human beings."
Most entire movie franchises don't manage to cram in as many different monsters as Nightbreed does. There's a porcupine woman, a guy who has weird eel-like things that come out of his stomach, a moon-faced guy, a girl who turns into a strange little dog puppet when sunlight hits her, and a woman with fingers on her chin. Basically, if you can imagine it (and even if you can't), chances are you'll see it somewhere in Nightbreed. And that's all before they let the Berserkers out.
"Mad b*stards," as one character calls them, the Berserkers are the members of the 'Breed who are too monstrous, too uncontrollable to be let loose into the general population - which, once you see the general population, you realize must be quite something. In practice, they look sort of like Swamp Thing as a football player, but there's a whole pile of them and, of course, they get loose during the film's epic final conflict.