This week as we focus on the reconstruction of Nightbreed, helmed by Russell Cherrington and Mark Millar and known as Nightbreed: The Cabal Cut, we’re going to hear a lot about the shortcomings of the original film. (Cherrington, along with cast members Simon Bamford, Nicholas Vince, and SFX crew Shaune Harrison, Mark C. Jones, and Mark Coulier, discussed this point in yesterday’s interview.) So was it really that bad? Or has history just looked upon it unfavorably? To get better perspective, we’re taking a look back at actual quotes from Nightbreed reviews back in February 1990.
Click the headline of each review to read the full thoughts from the critics.
In the novella, Barker played off the humanity of the Nightbreed and the inhumanity of the authorities who try to exterminate them. It’s a compelling paradox, but in the film it’s reduced to physical confrontations between stupid monsters wearing uniforms and sensitive humans wearing bizarre makeup. Sure, the visual effects (by Image Animation) are quite wonderful, but in the end, Barker seems to have expended all his energies on masks that cannot hide the terminal deficiencies of his script.
…Cronenberg is a major disappointment as the psycho-psychiatrist Decker. Looking like an older Matthew Modine, he plays the role flatly; it’s apparent that Barker deferred to him, because his acting seems directionless. In his own horror films, Cronenberg often melds the physical and the psychological into a visceral sucker punch. Between laughs and groans, you have to wonder what he could have done if he’d been the one in charge of “Nightbreed.”
Night Breed (1990) Review/Film; Taking Refuge in a Little Town of Horrors, The New York Times
Caryn James, February 17, 1990
If you sell enough horror novels, as Stephen King or Clive Barker do, eventually someone will let you turn them into movies and direct them yourself. This will probably be a mistake; the latest evidence is Mr. Barker’s second film, ”Nightbreed.”
…The town is populated by creatures who can change shape at will, though they always manage to do this off camera… There is a creature with an elephant-man forehead and a porcupine-woman with steely spikes sticking out of her head. (This could be a homage to the central character of Mr. Barker’s first film, ”Hellraiser,” a man with rows of pins in his scalp. Or maybe the director is just partial to the pinhead look.) The film’s one intriguing twist is that David Cronenberg, the director of ”Dead Ringers,” plays the murderer with a coldness that might have been effective in one of his own films. ‘
MOVIE REVIEW : The Monsters Earn Our Sympathy in Barker’s ‘Nightbreed’, Los Angeles Times
Michael Wilmington, February 19, 1990
Like many specialists in horror, writer-film maker Clive Barker loves to rip beneath the bland surface of the everyday and watch the rot, filth and hellishness come tumbling out. But in his latest movie, “Nightbreed” (citywide), some of the psycho-sexual plumbing has backed up. The extraordinary and the mundane, the fearsome and the banal, swirl around in a sometimes turbid, tepid flood…
Barker, who, as we know from such books as “Weaveworld” and “Books of Blood” and such movies as “Hellraiser,” saves much sympathy for his monsters. Sometimes, as here, they’re the freaks, hippies, social misfits or revolutionaries, preyed on by the true villains: in “Nightbreed,” a super-rational psychiatrist, obsessed with destroying the deviant (David Cronenberg), and a machismo-besotted police chief. They’re the real maniacs.
…It’s an interesting idea–but not a very good movie. There’s a thick, clunky quality to “Nightbreed.” There are remarkable moments scattered throughout–wild nightmare visions and a tingling sound track keyed around Danny Elfman’s music–but it tends to bump along from scene to scene, picking up blood and gore like molasses on a rolling skull. There are illogical leaps, a helter-skelter mood. The presence of two editors, Richard Marden and Mark (”The Terminator”) Goldblatt, suggests post-production difficulties.
…Cronenberg fans fearful that acting chores may cut down his film making should rest easy. He shouldn’t be getting any new roles based on this performance, and, if he does, he should probably turn them down.
So what do we learn by looking at these reviews?
- At least some critics (like The Washington Post) recognized that the source material of Cabal was greater than the cinematic output.
- The specter of David Cronenberg loomed large. Each of these three reviews not only points out Cronenberg’s casting, but uses it as a jumping off point to meditate on the mastery of Cronenberg as a filmmaker. And subsequently to create an unfavorable comparison to Clive Barker, who they seem to rank as out of league. To get some context on that, Cronenberg had been on fire the entire last decade. The eighties had given us Scanners, Videodrome, The Dead Zone, The Fly, and Dead Ringers. But Nightbreed was only Clive Barker’s second directorial appearance (his first being Hellraiser in ‘87), and he was still mostly regarded as a mere horror author. Point being: the legacy of Clive Barker outside of his books may have still been in its infancy.
- One observant journalist deserves kudos. In the pre-internet gossip era of 1990, Michael Wilmington of the Los Angeles Times zeroed in on the theory that the film must have suffered in post-production — by noting the presence of multiple editors.
- Critics seemed to (mostly) be impressed with the makeup and monsters. The same stuff that stuck with most fans, who would later see the potential in reconstructing the film as The Cabal Cut.
- Critics are silly. But boy, they didn’t like Nightbreed.
One last review.
Through the works of the fanbase of Occupy Midian and devoted individuals, Nightbreed’s been given another chance. But as early as November 1990, some critics were already recognizing that the film had greater potential.
The most original horror film in years, Clive Barker’s Nightbreed bombed in theaters. Now this instant cult classic is getting a second life on video.
The images that tumble from the head of best-selling-novelist-turned-cult-filmmaker Clive Barker are strange, mossy, and forbidden. But that’s not why his delirious monsterama Nighbreed belly-upped in American theaters. It’s just that the geeks who market Hollywood movies have no idea how to handle something that sympathizes with the living dead at the expense of the police, the army, and the entire psychiatric profession. That’s also why the ad campaign for Nightbreed positioned it as a standard slasher film (with artwork taken from another movie, no less), when in reality it’s a flamboyant gob in the face of dice-and-slice complacency.
It’s pretty good stuff, right? The article goes on to include an interview with Clive Barker.
Unfortunately, eighteen months later, even SPIN would refer to Nightbreed as “ludicrous” in their May 1992 issue. Guess it’s best to leave these things best understood to the fans — and not the critics — after all.