Do you remember the first time you fell in love with monsters? I do. It was somewhere in the midst of Frankenstein, Goosebumps, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and War of the Colossal Beast that I came to love them. I researched them. I wrote about them. I drew them on every blank piece of paper I could find and turned many a school art project into a monstrous vision of blood and blisters, much to the disgust of my teachers. I was separated from my peers for monsters. I went to detention for monsters. My parents were called into conferences for monsters. I loved monsters before I ever knew to be afraid of them.
Clive Barker loves monsters too. He is seemingly possessed by the same drive to create them, to expound upon their mythology, and burden us with simultaneous repulsion and sympathy for these devils. Midian is where the monsters live, but Clive Barker is where they come from. I didn’t discover Nightbreed until the release of the Director’s Cut (the Cabal Cut as it’s known in horror circles). In this tale of Aaron Boone, unjustly murdered by cops at the will his psychiatrist, resurrected as a monster in a land of Midian beneath a graveyard, Barker spoke to a child who grew up on creature features, and the man who was steadily becoming increasingly aware of the world’s injustices. A decade plus removed from a drawing of God battling Godzilla that landed me in the principal’s office, a decade spent in awareness of barely secreted racial divisions, I fell in love with monsters all over again.
Oddly enough, it was Clive Barker’s love of monsters that resulted in his original cut of the film being de-limbed by the studio, out of their lack of understanding that the monsters, in this case, were the characters to root for. Barker’s Nightbreed, based on his novel Cabal, was envisioned as a trilogy, the horror genre’s answer to Star Wars. Nightbreed is built on the foundation of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s journey, but also on a history of horror lore, from films, and stories, and histories founded in a call to fear what we don’t understand. Barker’s monsters of Midian, no two alike, are the successors of the Universal monster movies, Frankenstein in particular. These are creatures have compassion and desire that goes unrecognized by humans who fear and envy them. They even have a culture and religion, one that’s far less dangerous from the ones that humans stake their claim in. Midian is in many ways the promise of Bride of Frankenstein’s Doctor Pretorius’ “new world of gods and monsters.” Nightbreed celebrates the majesty of monsters in the same way those bygone Universal monster pictures did, and the way that Guillermo del Toro still does. Nightbreed is a collective tableau of our horror stories, and human experiences. As the tagline says, it’s “a new reason to fear the night,” only not in the way we’ve come to expect.
Boone (Craig Sheffer, who could easily be David Boreanaz’s long, lost brother) discovers a heritage he never knew as messiah to the tribes of the nightbreed. The discovery of a face beneath his face, a motif the film repeats, is the recognition of his own identity and the dual nature of humanity. Through becoming a monster, Boone discovers his true purpose and a deeper connection the world he lives in. Prior to his death, we get the sense that Boone’s only connection is to his girlfriend Lori (Anne Bobby), but other than his relationship with her he just drifts through the world, afraid that there’s a darkness in him that will drive them apart. Through becoming nightbreed, he escapes the darkness he feared, becoming a fixture for the survival of his species in an act that ultimately strengthens his bond with Lori.
Boone’s journey is paralleled by his foil, Dr. Phillip K. Decker (a pitch perfect performance by David Cronenberg, who could have had a second career as an actor if he’d so chose). Decker, a reference to Phillip K. Dick and the blade runner, Deckard, finds the monstrosity in his humanity. In sack mask with button eyes and zipper mouth that serves as his true face, he hunts the nightbreed, considering himself a purifier. Over the years, a number of writers have pointed out the possibility of a homosexual metaphor in Decker’s hunt for the nightbreed, signifying Decker’s homophobia as a result of his own unrequited feelings for Boone. The idea certainly tracks, and we could see any number of systematic oppression issues brought forth in Nightbreed, whether they be stigmas concentrated on sexuality, race, mental illness, poverty, or religion. Decker’s ability to bring together the military and organized religion against the nightbreed, contrasts Boone’s own ability to unite the monsters against them. This battle, and as a result the overarching potential of metaphor was lost in the original cut, which removed 40 minutes, and likely stopped any traction a sequel would have gained. But the director’s cut makes it explicitly clear, that humanity, armed with their military principles and religious convictions, are what we have to fear.
From my personal experience, I can’t help but see Nightbreed as a race war. “To be able to fly, to be smoke, or a wolf? To know the night and live in it forever? That’s not so bad. You call us ‘monsters,’ but when you dream, you dream of flying, and changing, and living without death. You envy us, and what you envy…” the nightbreed, Rachel says to Lori. Rachel’s statement speaks to the envy of other race’s cultures, a desire to appropriate in which a failure to do so accurately results in hatred. Decker’s desire to exterminate the Nightbreed, stems from his fascination with them, and perhaps his desire to be one of them. He sets up violent crimes for creatures who keep to themselves to be accused of, he turns the police and church against them, all in an effort validate his differences as the norm. I discussed about these notions of horror and blackness at greater lengths in my reviews for Get Out and The Transfiguration, and while Nightbreed is more open-ended with its metaphor, it stills serves as another piece of the ongoing conversation of race and horror.
For those of us who have loved monsters from any early age, it has always been a case of fearing humans more than whatever may lurk in the shadows, whether we’ve been aware of that or not. It’s human war, human beliefs that always see our beautiful nightbreeds brought low by missiles, windmills, teachers who fear black boys even at a young age, or cops and civilians with guns they can’t wait to fire. Nightbreed celebrates the majesty of monsters because it allows many of us, who have faced rejection, outsider statuses, or a stigma, to see ourselves as them. To love monsters isn’t to be violent, or hateful, or lack spirituality. In many cases, to love monsters is to know empathy, and that’s something humanity could use a lot more of.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox