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‘Nightbreed’ (NR)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 21, 1990

Talk about psychological assault-and-battery mates: horror director David Cronenberg and horror writer Clive Barker, working together on a horror film called "Nightbreed." Unfortunately, Cronenberg is in front of the camera, leaving Barker in the director's chair. And though Barker is one of the genre's great talents, he lacks the tools to translate his stories from print to celluloid.

"Nightbreed" is based on a Barker novella titled "Cabal," but even though Barker himself wrote the adaptation, the story loses what little depth it had. The story line is essentially the same: A young man named Boone (Craig Sheffer) believes himself responsible for a series of grisly murders, a guilt reinforced by his psychiatrist, Decker (Cronenberg). Boone seeks refuge in Midian, a rural necropolis hinted at in his own nightmares and other madmen's ramblings. Midian is "a place where sins are forgiven," but it's not exactly heaven and it's not exactly hell. It's a refuge for the Nightbreed, remnants of the great monsters and mutations that have been driven from the light, and from the world, into the recesses of human consciousness and the depths of an isolated cemetery.

It turns out that Decker's the man with "a secret face" and blood on his hands, but Boone is nonetheless killed by the police. He's also night-bred, and not as dead as everyone thinks. This is not acceptable to his girlfriend, Lori (Anne Bobby), who seems quite willing to chase after Boone right into the lower depths; apparently a good man is hard to find in the wilds of Alberta, where the action takes place. It gives new meaning to the phrase "Wanted: dead or alive."

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.

In "Hellraiser," his maiden effort at directing, Barker chose to drench the screen, and the script, with blood. Here there's less blood, and less context as well. You never have any idea why the characters do what they do, or how they got to be what they are, from Boone and Decker to the moon-faced Kinski or the devilish Lude or the embittered Medusa-head, Peloquin. Even when Lori is confronted by horrible sights she remains remarkably calm, a typical angel rushing in where even fools fear to tread.

Sheffer is adequate to the demands of Boone, and Bobby is unglamorously direct as Lori, but 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." As it is, Barker the filmmaker resorts to most of the horror cliches he chillingly sidesteps in his writing. If you really want to be scared, read his "Books of Blood."

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