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This weekend marks the premiere of Tim Burton’s latest film Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. I’ve heard the movie is decent but haven’t seen it for myself, though the premise is pretty intriguing. The set-up is essentially X-Men but clothed in Tim Burton’s horror obsessions rather than the colorful palette of mid-‘70s superhero aesthetics.
Basically it’s a movie where a bunch of horror infused super children are brought together to defend their existence from a bigoted outer world. That’s an interesting and worthwhile idea, a fact I mainly know because it’s already been turned into a great horror/dark fantasy flick: Clive Barker’s Nightbreed.
Released in 1990, Nightbreed was the directorial debut of horror author Clive Barker, creator of the Hellraiser and Candyman series. The film was based on Barker’s novel Cabal, which had come out in 1988. Our hero is Aaron Boone, a young man who’s been having strange dreams of a city of monsters that, while terrifying, is also strangely welcoming and absolving.
His therapist Dr. Decker, played by David Cronenberg- the same Cronenberg who directed Videodrome and The Fly, convinces Boone he’s actually a serial killer called Buttonface who’s been slashing up families around town. It’s ultimately revealed that Decker is the real Buttonface and is manipulating Boone to take the fall for him, a tactic that’s pushed Boone to suicidal levels of guilt.
Luckily for our hero, he ends up stumbling upon a way to reach the monster city of his dreams, a place called Midian, where he meets the Nightbreed. It’s revealed that the Nightbreed are a race of misunderstood monsters that mankind systemically drove to near extinction and used as inspiration for our various tales and folklores about devils and demons.
That’s the big, showy core concept at the heart of Nightbreed, taking the standard sci-fi allegory of the oppressed super people and having the super people at hand be a group of cartoonishly grotesque monsters in the vein of the Cenobites from Hellraiser.
There’s a lot more to the actual plot than that, none of which actually works in a meaningful way that’s worth explaining. The film overall operates on a kind of heightened sense of reality like a dream, similar to the vibe of Tim Burton’s Batman films where things happen because of story logic rather than real logic.
For instance, Boone is bitten by one of the Nightbreed at one point, which allows him to return from death and manifest powers of his own before it’s eventually revealed that he was just some kind of sleeper Nightbreed all along. That kind of junky logic makes sense from a strictly visceral story perspective, but it’s seriously convoluted if you try to follow the pretzel logic of it.
Like a lot of Clive Barker’s work Nightbreed is not trying to sell itself on the gripping complexity of its plot but a much more emotional level. This eventually ends up shining through during the scenes of Boone embracing his place within the Nightbreed city and then in the film’s climax where Boone and the Nightbreed have to fight off an army of red necks, thug cops, and white supremacists.
The whole thing is basically a much more pointed X-Men riff but where all the characters are of the Magneto mindset that humanity is made up of jerks who need a good beat down. Granted, the scale of the finale isn’t up there with X-Men as most of the Nightbreed just have generic monster claw or fang powers, but it’s still a pretty great battle, especially when Boone turns the tide by releasing ultra-powerful Nightbreed called berserkers.
Nightbreed is one of those films that’s always stuck with me in that the idea of blending horror monster aesthetics with the structure of a sci-fi allegory for oppression is a great concept that I think is just a little too weird to ever hang together. I mean, I love this movie, and it’s certainly developed a cult following, but I’m not surprised it didn’t gel with mainstream audiences, and not just because of the hatchet job the studio apparently did in editing.
The thing about sci-fi allegory for the oppressed like in X-Men or Twilight is that it comes with the underlying caveat that the oppressed group, be they mutants or vampires, are actually, secretly, superior to the folks ostracizing and oppressing them. We want to be like the X-Men because there’s no downside to being a mutant, same way there’s no downside to being a vampire in the Twilight series.
Nightbreed doesn’t really conform to that set-up. Being a Nightbreed is cool, but it’s not like you get some awesome power out of it, at best you get somewhere around G-level super powers like claws or spines. What’s more, becoming a Nightbreed means you mutate into a freaky, latex monster that can never walk among the likes of society again, which gets to the heart of what Nightbreed promises as the salve to its oppressed allegory.
The Nightbreed’s reward for being oppressed isn’t powers but a community. That’s the crux of Boone’s journey coming to Midian, that he gains a sense of community he never enjoyed before and is able to galvanize that community to defend itself against the onslaught of the outside world.
That particular allegory is tied very much into the film’s gay subtext. In case you didn’t know, writer/director Clive Barker is one of the more prominent gay voices in modern horror, a genre that’s been rife with queer subtext going all the way back to James Whale’s Frankenstein. Previously, Barker’s Hellraiser work had come with a queer approach to terror, hence the leather fetish gear the cenobites sport in that and the way their various mutilations were meant to mirror STD symptoms.
In the case of Nightbreed, Barker re-works his influences into something closer to a superhero narrative of self-discovery and the power of community against the onslaught of the “normal” world. In many ways, it all plays like a precursor to Bryan Singer’s approach to the X-Men in 2000 or even the way Twilight framed werewolves as a gay metaphor in New Moon.
I’m not sure Nightbreed is going to change anyone’s life but it’s definitely worth checking out. It never all hangs together as something greater than the sum of its parts but those parts are all very engaging and the film never lacks for ambition, authenticity, or originality. The monster design is especially marvelous given how much of it is practical FX work and the dream like nature of the film puts in a similar vein to horror classics like Phantasm or Barker’s later film Candyman. What’s more, the recently recreated Cabal Cut from Shout! Factory is now available for streaming on Netflix so check it out for yourself.