Time to cap off the Halloween season with a movie I think really needs to be given a second chance. In fact, it already has. Going back to Clive Barker, he was an interesting man that always too a different approach to horror but in a more fantasy way. Hellraiser could be argued as a Pandora’s Box story but with demons involved. It was his first directing debut and none the less, it was a success when you consider its $14 million gross on a $1 million budget . Clive’s second film was meant to be his break-through feature. But thanks to tons of studio interference and a terrible post-production that left what could of have been the “Star Wars” of horror fantasy became a truncated mess. I’m off course talking about Nightbreed.
The way I discovered this movie is interesting. I was looking at a compilation of Danny Elfman scores and one of them had tracks from the movie. Curious at the title and mystified by the tone of the music, I looked online and my curiosity grew further when I began to learn of its production history and of the film itself. No sooner I would watch that I had no idea what I would be in for. Craig Sheffer plays Aaron Boone, an everyman that has strange dreams of monsters and talks of a place called Midian. The only person who is invested in this is his psychiatrist Philip K. Decker (played surprisingly by famed body horror director David Cronenberg) who listens in to Boone’s talks of a world with monsters.
As it turns out, Midian is really a cemetary but underneath is a world full of beasts and creatures that have been fighting for survival for thousands of years. They are the only remaining kind and wish to be left alone knowing what humanity thinks of them. Boone ends up there after being framed for crimes he didn’t commit but one of the monsters tries to use him as a midnight snack. After bitten, he becomes one of the Nightbreed and learns that he might be the beast’s only last hope. As it turns out, Decker is going around killing people with a button-eyed sack mask with plans to extinguish “breeders” and all sorts of filth. It just so happens that Midian is next on his list.
Thankfully, there is an ally in the form of Boone’s girlfriend Lori (Anne Bobby) who is trying to find out what is going on with her undead boyfriend. Sure enough, she learns of the world of Midian and at first, she is a little unnerved by the unfriendly creatures. But over time begins to understand why they are like this and tries to help them in the final act. The chemistry between Lori and Boone is close to the standards of most romance stories but I feel its more developed. You get a sense of how much they care for each other and will go through all sorts of Hell to see they end up together in the end. Its a bit standard but its the heart and soul of the film.
The Nightbreed themselves are a unique batch ranging from nightmarish to almost like a surreal piece of art come to life. They are scary but yet uniquely designed. I recall a friend of mine saying they are “a Face/Off wet dream.” And it does. There’s so much make-up work to admire that its puzzling to see why it didn’t get nominated for an Academy Award for Best Make-Up. This was early when CGI was on the rise so its nice to see a lot of prosthetic and practical monsters. My favorite of the batch has to be Narcisse. He’s so unpredictable on the first watch and you just can’t help but love his antics. He’s like the Han Solo of the movie. One minute, he acts bat crazy and then the next minute, he’s ripping his face off to reveal his real form. Hugh Ross’s performance really steals the show and you can tell he’s having fun with this role.
David Cronenberg is also a delight to watch as the villain. Its bizarre to see the director of Videodrome and The Fly remake act in a movie. Many viewers feel that Cronenberg’s acting is not the best but I tend to disagree. That monotone voice and quiet personality I feel adds a lot to the character. He’s a psychiatrist so I expected him to act this way. If he started spewing one-liners like Freddy Kruger or acted like an unstoppable machine like Jason, then I would have problems. This differs from the norm of slasher beasts by having a character that can easily manipulate people while also trying to satisfy his urge to “purify” his own take a perfect world. Having him pinpoint the crime on his own clients I think is a clever idea considering how much sanity they question.
The final third of the movie is where things start to heat up as a group of people that act as the angry mob cliche ride in and attempt to destroy Midian. Its one adrenaline rush of a finale as they blow up the place and gun down the poor monsters. Its gripping and this is where you really feel sorry for the Breed. Its here that Clive Barker wanted something different from the typical monster movies of the past. He wanted a movie where you could root for the creatures. Make them the good guys and have humanity be the true beast. This is an angle I don’t think has been attempted before at the time and doesn’t come off as feeling preachy. Because that is what this movie is. A straight up love letter to monsters and why we love them. This is such an important entry to the fantasy horror genre because we never for once had any sympathetic feelings for something inhuman. That is if you count Bride of Frankenstein, but Nightbreed pushes it further by having these poor ground dwellers wanting nothing more but to live life. No war, no conflict. We start to wish that perhaps some things are best left as they are and wonder just how monstrous we can truly be.
I’d go into deeper detail about why Nightbreed is such a great movie but no review can do it justice. I never even got to talk about how Doug Bradley of Pinhead fame plays the head of the creatures or even the individual monsters like Peloquin and the seductive Shuna Sassi. I never got to talk about how enjoyable over the top the southern sheriff is or the priest Ashberry who keeps questioning his faith. There’s so much to talk about this movie and yet too much to even give away. If you really want one heck of a thrill ride, by all means give this one a good watch.
Now, I should probably talk about the Director’s Cut or else I will never get the chance. First, a quick history lesson. Clive Barker had a certain vision in mind but unfortunately the powers that be at Morgan Creek and test screenings really came down on the final cut. The final result was a very hampered edit that removed key subplots and confusing character arcs. This footage was said to be lost but recently, but in 2009, Mark Miller who co-owned Barker’s production company, found two VHS tapes containing two different workprints of Nightbreed. These two where fabricated into a composite cut called the Cabal Cut which was said to have run at over 150 minutes and played at many conventions.
This sparked much fan interest in a push to get this version to DVD and Shout Factor seized the opportunity. But it gets better. When they started on the restoration project, there was discovered 16 hours of footage from what I heard containing a good bulk of what Clive Barker originally intended and MANY scenes that were removed from the theatrical cut. As you can imagine, this was a dream come true. Not only were fans able to see the original cut but even Clive Barker was able to get his original vision out there. And I’m happy to say, this director’s cut ranks high.
I won’t give too much away behind what was restored as I wish to give new viewers an opportunity to see this movie so I’ll only summarize the important things. The love relationship between Boone and Lori is greatly expanded on as we also get to see their daily lives a bit more. We get a sense they are everyday people instead of generic star crossed loves while learning why Lori won’t give up on her love no matter what. My favorite new addition has to be when Lori belts out a rendition of “Johnny Get Angry” at a live show. Its amusing but also a nice little moment to see Lori really show what kind of girl she is. We also get to spend a lot more time with the Nightbreed as we learn more about their culture and even seen new monsters that were left on the cutting room floor. Its again nice to see so much craft on so many amazing designs while delving into this strange world and its mythology that was only scantly talked about in the theatrical edit.
The most obvious alteration is the entire finale. What felt like a battle feels like an all out war with more violent action scenes and even certain key characters have different fates. I won’t spoiler what goes on but I will say it ends a whole lot better than the cliffhanger they reshot for the other version. Nightbreed ends on a more hopeful message that doesn’t feel like the urge for a sequel is needed. It ends in a way that we can see this as a stand-alone film that is enjoyable and remarkable in its own right. Its a feeling of satisfaction to know that after so much Hell this movie when through that due to the power of its huge cult fanbase where able to make this possible. Hopefully this movie will get a larger audience in future and considering its Limited Edition set from Scream Factor is already sold out, it makes me wonder what else is planned down the road. Time may tell but for now, I couldn’t be happier to say that Clive Barker’s Nightbreed is truly a must see movie for the monster lover in all of us.
This concludes the first annual Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon. I hope you enjoyed my little trip down this massive line of horror films and I can’t wait to do it again next year. But for now, may the tribes of the moon embrace you….
Stephen King once claimed to have “seen the future of horror, his name is Clive Barker.” Indeed, Clive Barker is a different kind as his style more delves into the darker aspects of fantasy while giving viewers and readers a creative nightmare that we wish to revisit. While most of his work was adapted to film, his earlier adaptions where not crafted by him. He did the screenplays for 1985’s Underworld and Rawhead Rax but he was disappointed by the final results. When it came to adapt his novella The Hellbound Heart, Clive took it upon himself to take the director’s chair and give his own personal spin on how his adaptions should be.
Hellraiser is probably the easiest to recognize because of its setup that feels like a different take on Pandora’s Box. Outside of the basic gore and bloodshed, what viewers remember the most is the underlying theme about the dangers of pleasure. Pleasure from love, murder and most of all sadism. What I find interesting is the how the universe is set up along with the supernatural beings to go with it that really hold this movie together.
Sean Chapman plays a self-absorbed Frank Cotton who obtains a strange puzzle box that if solved will unleash a set of demons called the Cenobites. Sure enough, he solves it and his prize to claim is getting torn to bits by the masochist beings. Years later, his brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) takes refuge in the house Frank lived at while his wife Julia (Clare Higgins) is revealed to have an enormous affair with the vigorous sibling. However, all is not lost as Frank is resurrected after a few drops of blood hit where he stood rendering him as a skeleton with some guts. Julia finds out its her old fling and decides to help by bringing fresh male victims so Frank can get more energy.
The reason Frank is in hiding is that he manged to escape the Cenobites somehow and fears they will come after him again. At this point after consuming some date bait from Julia, he develops flesh and blood while trying to remain alive and well. Meanwhile, Larry’s daughter Kristy (Ashley Laurence) thinks somethings is up as she finds her uncle Frank to be nothing more but bones and flesh minus the skin. At one point, she obtains the puzzle box and comes face to face with the Cenobites who promise no harm unless Frank is delivered to them.
As said before, the whole movie is very much one creative yet twisted nightmare that feels never ending. Elements of surreal nature like Frank’s status as a body without skin and the world of the Cenobites really add to the dream like nature. Unlike Nightmare on Elm Street where its a battle between dream and reality, Hellraiser is the dream that we wish to escape but can’t help but admire how dark it is. I find it interesting how Julia wishes to serve her love but is stuck between a living corpse in the attic and her own spouse. My only problem is that we spend so much time seeing the chemistry between Julia and Frank that Larry feels shoved off to the side. You could argue the movie is more about the consequence of giving in to twisted pleasures but when we feel Larry is going to be on the chopping block, there is little care here. We don’t get to see much of Larry or have a handle on how developed this character should be. There are moments when we don’t want to see him die but that’s very much because of how “goodie” of a character he’s played out to be.
While the story has a few clinks, the biggest star of all is the special effects and make-up work. This truly is a technical achievement showing how well practical effects can be utilized from a skinless corpse to freaky demons that snap their jaws at you. Despite being dated, if you take into accord the $1 million budget here, its impressive already. The cinematography has a very slick approach that is hard to match. You have to give credit for such craftsman ship here.
Viewers might disappointed to read that the Cenobites don’t fully show up for the last third. The focus of the story is more on Frank and his dilemma while Pinhead (Doug Bradley) and the gang feel more like a plot element at times. But even in their first carnation, they look very intimidating. I like the different desings that alomst play off how “evil” they can act. Theses are the kind of demons you don’t want to make a deal with seeing how much they go back on their promise of saving you. The final is a notable highlight as hell literally breaks loose and our main heroin has a lot of monsters to get through before making it out alive.
Hellraiser is a unique movie that can’t be doubled again. Its really warning us about the dangers of giving into deeper desires as Frank keeps feeding on life in hopes of being fully human again. There’s not much negatives to think about aside from the fact that the Kristy character doesn’t come in till halfway. There’s so much focus and attention to the Frank and Julia storyline that it doesn’t mean much when we cut to a different character. There’s some images that will never leave my head but I can’t say this is a “hands-down” master piece. That goes to another of Clive’s films which I talk about in the near future. Hellraiser is no classic but its a memorable that feels like a throwback the Grim tales of the past or ones we’ve heard of before. All in all, this is a crowd pleaser that houses few negatives to pick on.