Written by Monster Awareness Month team member: Sharon Ring
Clive Barker’s next outing as a director was with the movie Nightbreed (1990), based on his novella, Cabal. In Hellraiser Barker had loaded the film with morally ambiguous characters, getting them to commit monstrous acts but leaving the viewer with nagging doubts about just who was the real monster in the film. With Nightbreed there was no ambiguity: Barker knew exactly where he wanted us to place our sympathy; with the creatures living under the cemetery at Midian, the Nightbreed.
Working with the make-up and effects team who had brought Frank Cotton and the Cenobites to the screen in Hellraiser, Barker created a spectacular grotesquerie for the inhabitants of Midian. This was imagination unleashed, with Barker and his team enjoying the process of creating these characters so much that they continued to come up with new ideas and creatures right through the film shoot.
When the film’s protagonist, Boone, arrives for the first time at Midian we’re left in no doubt that he is viewed as an undesirable, a natural. He’s not wanted and is, as a natural, considered by one of Midian’s residents to be nothing more than meat. Boone has journeyed to the cemetery in the hope of finding somewhere he can belong, with people who will accept him for the killer he believes himself to be. To discover he has no place here, among this most dispossessed of communities and more, to find out he is not even a murderer, places him between two worlds. Shunned by the world of monsters, hunted by the world outside Midian, Boone’s death at the cemetery gates comes hot on the heels of his rejection by the Nightbreed.
Though the shots which kill Boone are fired by police officers, the man behind Boone’s death is his psychiatrist, Dr Decker (played by David Cronenberg). Decker is a serial killer who has been grooming Boone to take responsibility for the murders he has committed. The life he leads in the public eye is of a charming and sophisticated doctor, concerned for his patient and attempting to bring Boone to justice with no further bloodshed. Behind this façade is Decker’s other personality, one which comes fully to life when he dons a mask to commit his crimes, Ol’ Button Face.
Decker’s rage at the world leads him to kill indiscriminately, slaughtering entire families in his desire to rid the world of those he believes have no right to exist, “I’ve cleaned up a lot of breeders. Families like cesspools: filth making filth making filth.” Although Decker is the real monster in this film there are plenty of other characters who fit the role of monster quite neatly. The lynch mob mentality of the local police and the brutal condemnation of Boone as an abomination at the hands of a priest set them apart as the modern embodiment of what the Nightbreed have had to deal with throughout their existence. The world is conditioned to trust what it knows, the institutions of civil society such as the medical profession, the police, the priesthood: it’s also conditioned to revile and destroy that which is not known or which doesn’t fit the norm, hence the Nightbreed’s withdrawal into a subterranean sanctuary of its own making.
As an aside, in the novella, the priest, Ashbery, was actually a transvestite being blackmailed by the local police chief, Eigerman. The studio was adamant that this be changed and so Ashbery became an alcoholic, as this was deemed more acceptable to US cinema audiences. It proves the point somewhat that we condemn what doesn’t fit our idea of what makes for a normal person and refuse to allow it in our society. Alcoholism is just fine because “everybody loves a drunk” but to depict a priest with a penchant for wearing ladies’ lingerie was a step too far in a film containing a crazed serial killer?
In the short documentary, Raising Hell, Barker says Nightbreed was “a very troubled movie even though it’s a movie I actually kind of like.” I couldn’t agree more. It is deeply flawed but, for all its imperfections, it ties in beautifully with Barker’s innate ability to make us take a fresh look at the mythology of monsters. You can’t help but think of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) when you watch this film: the deep-seated capacity for cruelty demonstrated by humanity in the face of what it deems undesirable and unwanted runs riot through the movie and it is plain to see that Barker wants to evoke project a similar atmosphere in Nightbreed.
“In the Thirties you felt sympathy for King Kong and the Frankenstein monster, but there haven’t been many movies like King Kong and Freaks and Bride Of Frankenstein lately. There’s no trace of that earlier, much richer tradition and that’s what the inhabitants of Midian represent.”
So, we began with Hellraiser and the issue of just who is the monster here. The Cenobites, Frank and Julia all took on the monster moniker to some extent but their monstrosity was questioned at every turn in the narrative leading us to contemplate the boundaries between love, death and the limits of human experience. In Nightbreed Barker took his audience a step further, showing us a darker side of ourselves as a species as opposed to the individual cruelties of Frank and Julia. The history of the human race teems with persecution and genocide: what we cannot tame or neuter we will always seek to destroy.
In part three I’ll be talking about Candyman and the politics of transformation.
[With thanks to Phil and Sarah Stokes. Quotes in this article from Clive Barker can be found on their website.]