The Test of Time: Nightbreed (1990)

We all have movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? So…the point of this here column is whether or not a film stands the test of time. I’m not gonna question whether it’s still a good flick, but if the thing holds up for a modern audience.

Director: Clive Barker
Starring: Craig Sheffer, Anne Bobby, and David Cronenberg

I have a confession. I haven’t seen every horror movie ever made. I know. Wow. Luckily, however, I grew up back in the day when video stores still existed, where I could roam the aisles picking up one movie box after another. Some I didn’t rent because of prejudice (I judged a few too many movies by their cover). Some I didn’t rent because I knew they stunk. What’s interesting is revisiting all those films I skipped back in the day 20+ years later without expectations. Movies like one such film that came from the 1980/90's horror king Clive Barker. Now I’ve never been much of a Barker fan, but I fully understand that some view him as a horror god. But do his films hold up for the modern horror fan?

Under the examination: Nightbreed

And the prom is tomorrow!

THE STORY: I’ll explain the plot best I can. Aaron, a guy with some major psychological problems (Craig Sheffer), dreams of murder and death, along with a mystical place known as Midian, a place where an oddball collection of monsters and freaks live in darkness. they hide from all those assholes who claim to be part of humanity. When a series of murders leaves Aaron fingered as the killer, he goes on the run ending up in…you guessed it…Midian. From there, things get weird as his girlfriend Lori (Anne Bobby) wants him back, his doctor Philip K. Decker (David Cronenberg) isn’t much help, and a stereotypical small town sheriff plays a typical small town sheriff.

Scarecrow is getting extra work.

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: As stated earlier, I’m not a huge Clive Barker fan. I respect the man’s talent, his ability to really produce horrific images. Back in his prime, no one created darker, more disturbing, more f*cked places. He pushed the envelope with grotesquely memorable characters and stories that really aimed to screw with the viewer’s head.

With Nightbreed (by the way, I watched the Director's Cut, which put back 20 some minutes of carnage), we get all that stuff, and I dig those elements, specifically when it comes to his masked killer (who looks like Batman’s Scarecrow). The dude is damn frightening, stabbing and slitting throats without mercy. I can't remember if he's given any motivation for his murder (I won't spoil the killer's ID), but he looks good. Even fact, if Barker had wanted to, the entire film could’ve focused on the killer and probably could’ve made another franchise out of it. Too bad he didn't. 

And while the story and characters of Midian don’t always work (more below), at least Barker strived to do something different. The man knows how to do his research and Midian feels like a complete world, one that could’ve been explored more if the movie had focused on them and not fragmented the plot. 

They look fun. 

WHAT BLOWS NOW: If Nightbreed needs to be defined in simple terms, I’d go with uneven, ambitious, confusing. Any of those would fit. Clive Barker has never created easily digestible material as he stuff isn't made for the masses. I’d say his work is for hardcore horror fans who like their shit unrelenting, without humor, and a vague sense of coherency. To me, even the most gut wrenching horror flick manages to entertain. Maybe not in the traditional sense, but it should scare the shit out of me, interest me, or compel me. Nightbreed doesn't do any of those and doesn't equal entertainment.

Usually, I’d offer a stupid amount of compliments for Danny Elfman, always one of my favorite film composers. I actually had no idea he provided the score for Nightbreed, and as the movie progress I kept thinking some asshole ripped off Elfman's 89 Batman score. Makes sense after the fact has he scored it directly after Batman. Maybe Elfman quickly got used to that Batman-sized paycheck and let some effort slip, because it sounds recycled and honestly, doesn’t fit the tone. It sounds like a Tim Burton fantasy, not matching Barker's gore. 

This guy likes to tickle. 

Speaking of tone, Nightbreed plays pretty damn unevenly. At times, I was watching a gritty serial killer film and then at times I was watching Labyrinth Part 2: More Weird Shit. The two worlds didn’t mesh. The creatures in Midian look cool (even that Avatar looking thing and the fat guy with the Doc Ock arms), but it's genre-bending at its worst.

THE VERDICT: For the modern horror fan, Nightbreed doesn't hold together. If it had been about the killer and the psychological elements, perhaps it would, but the combination of the serial killer and near-magical elements don't work. The effects still look great and the makeup isn’t dated (the gore is brutally good), but the end product is a slow, confusing burn (most modern fans will probably jump ship at the 30 minute mark).



Director directs the director!



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