Of all the holidays celebrated worldwide, no single day is loved by the Substream staff more than Halloween. With October’s arrival, the time has finally come to begin rolling out a slew of special features we have prepared in celebration of our favorite day.
31 Days Of Halloween is a recurring column that will run throughout the month of October. The goal of this series is to supply every Substream reader with a daily horror (or Halloween-themed) movie recommendation that is guaranteed to amplify your All Hallows’ Eve festivities. We’ll be watching every film the day it’s featured, and we hope you will follow along at home. Reader, beware, you’re in for a… spooky good time!
Day 10: Nightbreed (1990)
To call Nightbreed a horror film is a little bit of a cheat. Yes, it was written and directed by Clive Barker, one of the eternal greats of the horror genre, and it does prominently feature the bodily modified monstrosities that he is known for. However, those aren’t the foundation of the terror in the film, and the aim doesn’t seem to be so much to terrify the audience as it is to make a point about who exactly we should all be afraid of. Perhaps this is why the film’s production company, Morgan Creek Productions, recut the film for its theatrical release in order to play more as a conventional slasher flick than as a piece of social commentary, but thankfully, two years ago, Shout Factory released the director’s cut of the film, the truest representation of what Clive Barker intended in bringing his creation to life.
Aaron Boone is a normal guy who starts to have prophetic dreams of a place called Midian, a haven for monsters and mythical creatures. His girlfriend, Lori, convinces him to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Decker. Little does Aaron know, Decker is secretly a serial killer, who feeds Aaron hallucinogens as medication and convinces him that he is the one who actually committed the murders. The delusional Aaron decides to seek out Midian as refuge, but runs afoul of one of the demonic residents and is bitten in the altercation. In his flight, Aaron is gunned down by police, only to awaken in the morgue as one of the Nightbreed. With Aaron’s body missing, Lori decides to investigate Midian in hopes of discovering what exactly happened to her boyfriend.
All the trappings of a Clive Barker creature feature are here. The monster designs are some of the craziest put to film, and they are all the more impressive considering the effects work necessary to pull them off in 1990. Barker’s trademark use of natural lighting and shadow to wrap his creations in mystique is also here, as is his use of a mobile camera and wide angle shots that still somehow hide surprises just outside the frame. In short, the film is very much shot like a horror picture, but it certainly isn’t scary in the traditional sense.
That’s because the big twist of Nightbreed is that the Nightbreed are not the story’s villains. They certainly seem so at first, and their mysterious nature and Aaron’s first encounters with them don’t make for good first impressions, but there’s a much deeper reason for their isolation: They’re social refugees. What are now known as the Nightbreed are actually the last remaining members of the tribes that humanity wiped out centuries ago, simply as a show of social dominance. On the whole, the Nightbreed are a peaceful people, content to live away from humans and follow a set of isolationist laws for their own protection.
Does this sound at all familiar? Well, given the time period the film was made in and the social dynamics at play, it should. Here’s a hint: Clive Barker is gay.
Yeah. Nightbreed is a social commentary on how society at large treats the LGBT community. The pieces all fit. Aaron’s psychiatrist, the film’s actual antagonist, tries to convince him that he is an immoral murderer by giving him medication that alters his perception of reality, much like how the psychiatric profession in the United States has a horrific history of attempting to convert homosexuals through conversion therapy. When the police become involved, their instincts are to brutalize Aaron in an isolated cell, treat him as a freak, and use his differences to justify gathering a posse to hunt and kill the Nightbreed. Even the presentation of the Nightbreed themselves and their home of Midian is oddly reminiscent of a gay bar, from the eccentricities of the residents to the dark and layered atmosphere meant to hide its true nature from potentially unfriendly eyes.
The third act blowout confrontation between the Nightbreed and the sheriff’s assembled crew of gun-toting rednecks is a wonderfully cathartic bit of fantasy action as only Clive Barker could deliver it. Mauling, gutting, and maiming are par for the course for the creatures of Nightbreed, so those who came to the film for Barker’s usual body horror chops aren’t bound to be disappointed. However, the clever stroke of genius to the film is that the monsters are not who we should be afraid of. This can be read as more than just a parable for the gay community, but as a demonstration of how hegemonious majoritarian powers can oppress and destroy minorities. And that’s more terrifying than any made-up movie monstrosity.