Aaron Boone (protagonist) played by Craig Sheffer
Psychiatrist Doctor Decker (antagonist) played by David Cronenberg
Lori (single name girlfriend of Boone) played by Anne Bobby
Directed by Clive Barker based on his novel Cabal
Rated R 1 hour 41 minutes 1990
Music by Danny Elfman
Nightbreed is a monster flick written and directed by Clive Barker who is mostly known for his novels (since the 1980s) and his breakout movie, Hellraiser. Before even viewing this movie ask yourself: 1) do I want to know more about the history of American horror movies and 2) do I like a cheesy aesthetic that can only look way out of date? If both of your answers are yes then proceed with a pinch of salt. It is difficult to determine the budget for this movie because at once there is top-notch music, explosions and an extreme variety of monsters. On the other hand, (besides David Cronenberg in an acting role) there are only lesser-knowns running this show although the acting is decent. In many ways, Barker (who wrote and directed) turns expected combinations on their heads. For example, the male is the one imperiled, the female is the hero and the monsters are the victims. Woven within the story (based on Barker’s 1985 novel Cabal) are various themes. Here is what I found.
One of the themes of Nightbreed is misplaced trust in authority. In a way, this movie is based upon the premise that we should always seek a medical second opinion. If our protagonist, Aaron Boone, (Craig Sheffer) had refused his psychiatrist’s assessment that he must be repressing memories of murderous rampages he would have at least appeared to have a mind of his own. Then Boone is given some unknown pills by the evil Doctor Decker (David Cronenberg) who just happens to have them in his desk drawer. Boone immediately downs one of the pills without even asking what they are! This is one of the illogical drawbacks of the story. Doctor Decker then begins working with the police in an effort to frame Boone for a spate of recent murders. Why do the police believe in and consistently work with the doctor? This is another unexplained misstep within the story. In effect, we have authority (the police) trusting authority (the doctor) and they never question each other. Is that the normal tacit agreement between white men in suits and uniforms? In Nightbreed, one should always question authority because they are hiding sins much greater than those with less power. The ones with power in this story are serial killers and violent instigators. A mob forms towards the end of the movie made up of stereotypical rednecks and hicks who each bring a truckload of arsenal to the monster fight. The police and fathers in the mob would ideally be peaceful citizens enjoying their homes and families. Too much faith is placed in these authority figures to do the right thing.
These men of power must destroy that which they don’t understand. To “other” is to set oneself apart from those who differ from the self; moreso in a hierarchical format where the norm is believed to be better than the unique. The evil Doctor Decker wants to destroy all; for everyone has become sick in his worldview. Instead of helping those with mental disorders, he comes to view them as irredeemable cretins and decides they need to be wiped from the face of the earth. Ironically, Doctor Decker becomes more sick than his patients and takes up a side gig as a serial killer. In addition, there is a very dynamic and gruesome scene reminiscent of the Christian Crusades–the ultimate act of othering. This short sequence shows us how the monsters (the others) were killed, beheaded, crucified and burned due to the fact that they did not look like the majority. They were driven underground and eventually rebuilt their own society away from the judging eyes of the “naturals” living in the sunlight. The monsters progress to build their own culture. They seem to live in peace within their underground gated and guarded community. It is only when the protagonist draws attention to the group that the transgressions against their way of life begin to repeat history. The monsters are living underground where no one (except the few who are “called”) knows about them. Why take the time and effort to destroy a community hitherto unknown? It is the deliberate seeking out and killing of the other that Barker highlights placing the monsters squarely in the category of underdog for whom we cheer. The theme of good vs. evil within this story is a turnabout: the monsters are good (although a bit blood-thirsty and strange) and the evil ones are the men in power who destroy those around them for no reason other than a vulgar display of power.
We cannot forget that the driving force of the story-telling thread woven throughout is the love between Aaron Boone and his faithful girlfriend, Lori (Anne Bobby). In a welcomed flipping of gender roles, it is Boone who is in trouble and Lori who sets out to save him. While Boone believes mad doctors, swallows unknown pills and feels he is being called to hell through his dreams, Lori is the sane and stable force that figures out various ways to locate and save Boone from himself. She finds Midian, the underground lair of monsters that seem to be calling Boone in his nightmares. She passes her first test by picking up what looks like a skinned cat to return to mystery woman, Rachel (Catherine Chevalier). This thing is super gross, but Lori is brave enough to perform this request in order to gain access to the underworld. Lori does get an assist from Boone when Narcisse (Hugh Ross) gets overly amorous, but she plays an important role in being our eyes when we flashback to see how the monsters were driven underground. Lori is also our guide through the underground highrises of the monster world which is one of the highlights of the movie. She doesn’t scream, tremble, cry or fall down while running away. Lori is determined to find Boone and that is what she does. Lori also owns her sexuality and can be a little kinky. While making out with Boone before leaving his jail cell she says she is not afraid of him. As they begin to make out, she pulls away to look at his face which is turning into a beast. She doesn’t care; she digs it! Let the girl get her freak on! Lori survives the entire story and gives Boone the strength to carry on and rebuild Midian. Note that the monsters hailing Boone as their new leader is a third misstep in the logic of the story. Yes, perhaps Baphomet was calling to him in his dreams, but if Boone had stayed well away from Midian their home and culture would still be intact.
If using a scale from one through ten with ten being the best, I would have to break that in half to say that any grade under five would be a waste of time. Any movie over five I would recommend with either more or less drawbacks. I would rate Nightbreed a six. The music is top-notch and the acting is not too bad. Narcisse’s cutting of his own scalp and the flashback to the Crusades-like scene are worth a viewing. Horror movie fans, especially of flicks from the ‘80s and ‘90s, along with long-time Clive Barker fans, will be interested if only for the vast and spectacular city of monsters to be paused and played again to wallow in all their gory glory. Don’t worry too much about logic; just have fun.
Detailed synopsis with light commentary:
Aaron Boone (known by his last name) has nightmares of hell. His psychiatrist, Doctor Decker, is calling him…always a bad sign. Elsewhere, a masked man is stabbing a family of three. The mask is super creepy and creates a feeling of dread. It pulls over the head with button eyes and an off-center slit for the mouth. It seems to be made of a pliable, extremely grungy light canvas. During Boone’s first meeting in a long while with his doctor, the psych brings up Boone’s nightmares. Weren’t those dreams of a hellscape called Midian? (Midian is a true spot on the map mentioned in both the Hebrew bible and the Quron. In the Hebrew bible, Midian is related to the Israelites.) The doc asks what sins Boone was seeking forgiveness for; possibly murder? Six families have been slain in ten months. For some reason, Boone puts up no resistance to the idea that he may, without his own knowledge, be a serial killer and asks what he should do. Doc pushes unknown pills on the young man and he immediately takes one. (This movie seems to be based on the premise that one should always seek a second opinion.) Boone ends up in the hospital after a hallucination. Upon waking, he hears a fellow patient desperately calling to be taken away to Midian “where the monsters go. It takes away the pain.” When Boone approaches, he asks directions to Midian (since he’d been dreaming of this place). The crazy guy’s name is Narcisse. He thinks Boone is his savior there to take him to Midian so Narcisse must show he is worthy of entry. Narcisse has rings with shark-fin-like talons. He puts them on and at 14:01 into the movie we get our first gore…and it’s pretty good for 1990! Unexpected and extremely gross. Narcisse begins cutting around his own face which makes one think he is going to pull it off, but eventually he ends up scalping himself. For the rest of the movie we see his bloody skinless head. Narcisse is meant to be our comic relief as he continues to appear throughout the movie, but he’s never very funny. Humor is not Clive Barker’s strong suit. When Boone sees Doctor Decker who deliberately gave him hallucinogens, he runs. Decker begins building a murder case against Boone. Our protagonist then takes the basic directions Narcisse gave and finds a cemetery known as Midian. The headstones suggest it is a safe place for satanists and their deceased. Boone has trouble getting into the underground lair of Midian. He wants to commune in hell with other serial killers. When he is confronted by the monster watchmen they test him and find Boone innocent which leads dreadlock monster (who looks to be played by a professional wrestler) to take a bite out of him: “Meat for the beast.” (There is also a moon-faced monster played by Nicholas Vince. Although his costume looks dumb in this film, he played the stuff of nightmares three years earlier in Hellraiser when he was the Chatterer Cenobite.) When the cops show up to apprehend Boone the evil doctor says the young man has a gun so Boone is shot multiple times. (Why does this doctor keep showing up with police? Why are they allowing him to tag along and share all their information?) The bite Boone incurs is imbued with magical powers allowing him to escape the coroner’s table. “In Midian I live forever.” Doctor Decker sees his plans begin to unravel. Lori is Boone’s girlfriend. At most, I heard her name twice in the movie while the name Boone is said about a million times. Lori is on the trail of Boone. She meets Narcisse who becomes her guide. Boone passes a monster test and is accepted into the underworld of Midian. Lori asks a beautiful mysterious woman, Rachel, (played by Catherine Chevalier) to take her to Boone, but “what’s below remains below.” Lori must enter the subterranean world. She only makes it to the bottom of the stairs; innocence is not allowed. When Lori returns to her friend who’s been waiting in the car she finds her dead and bleeding tied to a tree. She sees the canvas masked killer and runs back to Midian. (Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place.) It is around this point that the audience knows Doctor Decker is the serial killer and is trying his best to deflect attention. Boone’s new powers allow him to sense that Lori is in danger. He fights monsters to get above ground. Boone confronts Doctor Decker who stabs Boone, but the dead can’t die. When Decker runs, Boone inhales a cloud of wispy magic in order to shape shift into a monster. (The cloud-like magic air is very cheesy.) Boone shifts back to hot guy to protect his girl and the monsters are getting upset that he has brought attention to their happy, quiet gated community. While Decker continues killing, Lori wakes up underground in a coffin with Rachel and her daughter, Babette. Rachel explains that the nightbreed are weirdos, shape shifters, who had been driven underground by those who did not understand their differences. The nightbreed do not feel they are any less than those who persecuted them; instead, they feel they are the things of dreams and to be envied. When Babette takes Lori’s hand she is able to see the past and how the nightbreed were forced underground. The scene is definitely intended to evoke the Christian Crusades (from 1095-1291). The “weirdos” (the other) were slaughtered, crucified, and beheaded. Great job on the wicked scenes of genocide. Dark, blustery, red, filled with torturous imagery. There is a central figure of the nightbreed called Baphomet. Lori asks the entity for Boone’s location. There is a great visual juxtaposition when we see Doctor Decker in his ugly mask while wearing his business suit; perfect combo. Decker explains to an extraneous character that he got sick of treating sick people who went on to have sick children and the sickness would leak from one generation into the next. If he is so disgusted with treating the mentally ill, why does he turn into a serial killer? Does he want to become the king of the mentally ill? Decker becomes “death, plain and simple.” Lori travels through the underworld on her quest to reunite with Boone. This is an excellent part of the movie where we travel past window after window of monsters just hanging out at home. They are all different; the sheer variety is extremely impressive. Where did they get this budget? The cops are still listening to Decker. Why? Lori and Boone finally reunite. Although Boone feels he can’t leave, Lori convinces him they are meant to be together. They escape to a motel to rest and re-group. Boone can smell blood and sees that Decker has increased the body count in the room next door. When Boone smells blood he shape shifts (very vampire-esque) and has to have a lick. One hit of magic breath and he is back in human form. The cops find Boone at the scene, call him a “freak and a cannibal”, and beat him up before shoving him into a cell. Meanwhile, a posse of small town folk and all the police within a ten-mile radius are at Midian kicking monster ass. One can see a clear message when one of the monsters named Ohnaka (played by Simon Bamford who was the Butterball Cenobite in Hellraisers I and II) reaches out to touch the shoe of a black cop as Ohnaka is being beaten. He makes eye contact with the cop as if to ask, Don’t you feel my pain? The cop moves his foot back and the monster is killed. This cops sees the monsters burst and turn to dust in the sunlight. While the town is distracted with monster killing, Narcisse releases Boone from jail. Lori runs to his arms saying she is not afraid of him. They begin kissing and he turns to beast. She sees his monster face, but continues to make out. She’s digging it! The mob vengeance being pummeled on the monsters is reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster and the ending of Night of the Living Dead. The townspeople use all their explosives to blow up Midian. Boone becomes a leader: “If we want to survive, we can’t hide. Brother and sisters, it is time to fight.” One female monster named Shuna Sassi (Christine McCorkindale) uses her exposed breasts to entice a couple of distracted cops; so easy. Then she showers them with giant porcupine quills that sprout from her skin. Pretty cool. It is all-out war; even Baphomet seems to want to give up, yet “we are the tribes of the moon.” In this monsters vs. “naturals” war the sympathy is squarely placed in the court of the monsters. They are the ones persecuted by the normie white men who don’t understand their kind. Deep within the heart of Midian a cell door is opened and a gaggle of super beasts is released. Clive Barker throws in little fun things like a female monster who bends to get some blood on her fingers then wipes a little on her bare breast before taking it to her mouth. Doctor Decker and Boone meet in the underworld. When Decker stabs, Boone turns to monster. Boone removes Decker’s mask and pushes him off a ledge. Baphomet is then reanimated and speaks. Boone begs him to rebuild and save the monsters. “You are Cabal!” (According to Merriam-Webster, a cabal is “the contrived schemes of a group of persons secretly united in a plot [as to overturn a government].” One could also “unite in or form a cabal.” In Clive Barker’s novel Cabal  Baphomet baptizes the protagonist: “He was no longer Boone. He was Cabal. An alliance of many.” Another title associated with Cabal in the novel is he “Who Unmade Midian.”) Boone, Lori and a core group of monsters make it out of the burning underworld. Boone becomes a legend. Why? His coming there leads to their destruction! Decker remains in hell, but he has his acolytes as well. When one evil worshiper imbues Decker’s flayed gut with secret sparkling sauce, he is reanimated. A surprise ending to set up the next battle between good and evil: Aaron Boone the shape shifter vs. Doctor Decker the serial killer!