Nightbreed (1990)


Nightbreed is a perfect combination of creepiness and cheesiness. The acting is not that great, the dialogue is a bit clunky, the production design shows its limitations, and the story is full of holes… BUT, there’s this sinister undercurrent of Clive Barker creepiness that makes it totally watchable, especially at a late night art house screening, which is where I saw it most recently.

I got a VHS of this way back in college (probably in a Halloween care-package from my mom) and immediately noticed something odd and engaging about this bizarre little movie. I’ve since come to learn that it was heavily edited, much to the chagrin of Clive Barker, but I think that’s exactly what makes it so special.

It’s what we don’t see that makes this movie fascinating. We know very little about the creatures, we don’t always understand the motivation of the characters, and we have to fill in all of those blanks with our own creativity and imagination. It gives the movie the feeling that there’s a much bigger world behind this story, and it keeps us hungry to know more. It keeps the mind in a state of mystery and wonder, which I would argue is the exactly what the characters in the story are feeling most of the time.

If you’ve seen Nightbreed, just imagine if scenes played out longer and the characters’ motivation was spelled out more clearly. Ugh. I don’t even want to think about how awful and drawn out this movie could have been if Barker had gotten his way. And that’s an odd thing for me to say, to be happy that the creative vision of the filmmaker was compromised.

But some filmmakers are idea people; they have trouble with the execution. (George Lucas comes to mind. When I read about how Han Solo was supposed to be a huge green-skinned monster, I’m very happy that the original Star Wars had the limited budget it did.) Film is a visual medium. If you tell the audience too much, it feels heavy-handed. It’s not like in a book where telling more can be a very effective way to get into the character’s inner psychology; there’s an intimacy in prose that film must achieve more subtly.

If you don’t want to risk spoilers, stop reading now. Otherwise…

David Cronenberg’s character is a great example of this difference. The less we know about him, the creepier he is. By far, my favorite part of Nightbreed is Cronenberg as the unethical shrink by day and sinister serial killer by night. This was, in fact, my introduction to him. I did not see any of the films he’d directed until many years later. People criticize his acting, but I find it extremely enjoyable. He has the oddly gentle voice, a higher pitch than you’d expect from someone of his height, combined with the body language of a child predator. Totally creepy.

And I love the ending. A total curve ball that has nothing to do with the main character or the story we’ve just seen. It’s like Barker suddenly had this idea for a sequel, and it works as the perfect set-up to the second act of a much bigger story. Again, I’m grateful we never got that sequel. Nothing could compare to the wonderful mystery that my mind creates in response to the movie’s final shot.

I remember David Lynch saying something about how he loves mystery stories because they engage his creative mind, but he hates the end because the mystery is resolved and that creative wonder is ruined. That’s why so many of his recent films have open-ended (or circular) narrative structures. I agree with Lynch. Some of my favorite TV series have been canceled before they could resolve their stories, and although it’s disappointing, I think I prefer that to the common alternative of shows running too long and just becoming bad. Less is more, as the cliche goes, and I think that’s true for Nightbreed.

More info at IMDb, RottenTomatoes, and Amazon.com.

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