In a mere handful of movies, writer Clive Barker made an indelible impression on the world of horror. Hellraiser gets the bulk of the praise, with its puzzle boxes and flesh-shredding demons, but one of Barker’s lesser-known novels was equally imaginative. It was called Cabal, and in 1990 it became a movie called Nightbreed.
A movie that was… not all that good.
However, 1990 was a simpler time. Hill Street Blues had just gone off the air three years prior, so one could appreciate the reappearance of Charles Haid, playing against type as the paranoid Eigerman. CGI characters were still a ways off, so expensive make-up, lighting and set design were not only required, but part of the pitch. And even though he lacked any acting ability whatsoever, beloved body-horror director David Cronenberg was a welcome addition to the cast, as the crazy doctor wearing the mask with no eyeholes.
Nightbreed centers on the hidden city Midian, an asylum for the world’s monsters and cryptids. Whereas most of the creatures in the movie get a walk-on, regardless of their costume’s complexity, each beastie is given a half-page text biography in The Nightbreed Chronicles. This was a glossy companion volume, published by Titan Books. Truthfully, the movie is kind of a let-down by comparison.
Danny Elfman provided the soundtrack, which I still have, even though it sounds more or less like Batman. Everything did until around 1994.
Back to the Chronicles. Thankfully, bland protagonists Boone and Lori are wrapped up in the first handful of pages. Boone was bit by Peloquin, a red guy with pointy teeth and flesh dreadlocks who looks like he belongs in Star Wars*, and slowly becomes one of the ‘Breed. This of course means he’s the chosen one who will save Midian, and blah blah blah. Lori is the girlfriend character who is inevitably imperiled.
*One of the most important contributors to the original Star Wars trilogy, Ralph McQuarrie, worked with Image Animation, the design team for Nightbreed.
The make-up and fabrication aspects of Nightbreed were judiciously budgeted. Some creatures are custom-built monstrosities, and some are extras in dingy rags with doodads glued to their faces. It’s a testament to the imagination and skills of everyone involved that the production achieves the visual cohesion that it does.
“It’s the biggest monster movie ever made! I’ve worked on movies like Return of the Jedi, The Dark Crystal and The Neverending Story, and for pure creatures there’s never been anything bigger than Nightbreed. It has a great chance of breaking out of the genre, which very few horror movies ever do. This offers more in story, more in visuals, and audiences will see something different.”
“Clive had the whole thing inside his head for some time. The original pitch was ‘Let’s do the biggest monster movie ever! I want to do the Star Wars of monster movies,’ and it just grew from there.”
-Bob Keen, special make-up effects supervisor
I would certainly call Nightbreed the Star Wars of monster movies, until Hellboy II: The Golden Army came along in 2008. Without hyperbole, at one point during that film, I exclaimed to my girlfriend “THIS IS SOME FRIGGING STAR WARS LEVEL SHIT RIGHT HERE!!!” Yes, I’m alone. How did you know?
Clive often gets purple with the prose that accompanies the glossy monster photos, but it’s what the man’s best at, so don’t call that a criticism. Barker clearly dreamed up backstories for even the most minor characters. I like to think he hung out while the performers were being made up, chatting and drafting out details during the lengthy application process. Actually, I’ll bet that happened.
Narcisse (Hugh Ross) is the ham actor who scalps himself, in a very effective make-up job. One of Nightbreed‘s biggest issues is that none of the monsters are very likable, but we’re meant to feel empathy for them and their plight. Narcisse is a yucky jerk, which means he went on to be a main character in the Nightbreed comic book, which I collected but sold off long ago.
This is Kinski (Nicholas Vince), who used to wear sunglasses and sing about going to McDonalds during evening hours. Wait, according to the book that’s incorrect:
In pursuit of a woman who rejected his looks, Kinski used Saint-Victor’s compound, which — so rumour went — allowed the user to reconfigure his features as imagination willed. In the fugue state the drug induced, however, he wandered out to gaze at the crescent moon, and it was that image his softening features took as inspiration. He attempted suicide by throwing himself in the Seine. He claims he drowned there, and rose to the surface the following night, when the moon rose. This is most likely nonsense. The Seine simply washed him up alive.
I think the “Mac Tonight fallen on hard times” story was better.
This is the dude that bit Boone, Peloquin (Oliver Parker). Clive Barker has a real talent for naming these monsters, and for hilarious, subtle jokes within the bios. (And doesn’t Peloquin look like he could fit right into Return of the Jedi?)
If a rock is possessed of a cleft, [Peloquin] says, then it demands his affections.
Peloquin is so horny that he’ll fuck a hole in a rock, but he can’t pass on his bloodline that way. He can only breed with his bite. Clive Barker is a goddamn genius.
Leroy Gomm! You remember Leroy; he gets a bit more screen time than his buddies, as his belly-tentacles awkwardly extend, and he has a softer voice than I expected. You might have even confused him with Otho, from 1988’s Beetlejuice. Nope; that was the late Glenn Shadix. Leroy was played by Tony Bluto.
Leroy was the scion of a celebrated clown troupe, who preserved their comic gifts through severe incest. You can see how well that went.
This is Saul. Saul isn’t listed on IMDb, so I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that they glued a fish’s eye on Clive Barker and painted him blue. Notice that Saul has no blue ring-around-the-collar. These folks were damn good at their jobs.
See? Look at these uggos:
BLECCCHH!!! It’s like an old photo of the Clintons!!!
That’s Giblin and Veale. I don’t know which is which or who plays who. In 1969, a meteorite hit their farm, made the pigs fly, and turned them into that. Their mouths look like infected assholes.
This is Chocolat, not yet the title of a forgotten Johnny Depp film. Apparently her make-up and nails are kid-proofed, and not traumatic in any way. I could be wrong, however; that kid’s gotta be full-grown by now, and who knows how big a kook he or she is. Needless to say, you can’t really take pictures like this anymore.
Not all of Midian’s denizens are fully successful in execution. Otis & Clay, pictured above, are an example; meant to be a writer and critic in one body, they instead more resemble a deformed man, which places the movie concept on less comfortable ground. Otis & Clay evoke John Hurt in The Elephant Man, or Eric Stoltz as Rocky Dennis in Mask, and his brief appearance in the film tends to generate snickers.
However, yet again, Barker spins twine into gold.
…the critic Nicholas Clay took as his special target the novels of magic realist Otis Upmann. The writer responded with The Cycle (1955), in which a reductionist critic is killed and reincarnated six times, each life more banal than the previous one, until he’s finally reborn as a full stop at the end of a book called The Cycle. The novel’s final full stop is, of course, missing.* Seeking to confront writer and critic, an intrepid researcher from the BBC discovered these warring identities occupied the same body, a revelation that drove Otis and Clay into hiding in Midian.
See how much more interesting the character is now, how its flaws only add realism? You could argue that Otis & Clay (and their portrayer David Young) got the short shrift, with their blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo. You could spend your time more wisely, however.
*A full stop is a period, to us Yanks. Also, I’d like to believe that Barker actually wrote this book, as a meta-fiction. It’s a brilliant idea, and I wouldn’t put it past him.
Say hello to MRS. BOOGERMAN! HOCK-PTOOEY! WHY ARE HER LIPS SO WELL-DEFINED!?!
This is actually Kolca Threeflies, who, despite her name, has no flies on her. She hasn’t bathed since the death of her tribe twenty years ago, so her Western outerwear is probably extremely odoriferous. That fur collar under her bloated nape must reek like a corpse’s perineum.
As a movie, Nightbreed is a bit of a mess, but it’s a beautiful one, thanks to the sheer bulk of imagination involved. Once Midian is fully revealed, every frame is packed with living, breathing monsters, crawling in their own filth, being monstrous. It looks like so much more than people playing dress-up. In static color photographs, like a spread in National Geographic, it looks real.
Here are the grotesques and freaks, the noble beasts and exquisite transformers who populate the hidden city of Midian, created by craftsmen and then brought to life by actors and actresses to whom, finally, these fantasies became another kind of reality.
-Clive Barker, Pinewood Studios, England, September 1989.