Clive Barker’s collection The Books of Blood caused no less a personage than Stephen King to label the young Brit the future of horror. Yet this presumptive crown never sat easily on Barker’s head. That’s not to say Barker is not a master of horror — Books of Blood, The Damnation Game, and The Hellbound Heart prove he has an unrivaled command of the genre, but these are undoubtedly his lesser works. Where Barker truly shines is in fantasy, though is dark, sensual take on the genre is about as far from Tolkien as you’re likely to get.
The one thing Barker does better than anyone else out there is worldbuilding. He does it with admirable economy, throwing in little asides, painting a picture with hints and tidbits just out of sight. Even The Damnation Game, with its talk of mighty tribes of Razor-Eaters (a detail that doesn’t even factor into the narrative slightly) gives the otherwise slight tome an impressive weight. When he really unleashes his imagination, as he did with his young adult masterpiece Abarat, he makes me wonder why anyone else is bothering with this fantasy thing. Barker’s got it covered.
Cabal is one of Barker’s horror works, scarcely more than a novella, but with enough worldbuilding and backstory to support an entire series of doorstops. Like his lesser imitators, Barker tends to posit the existence of fantastic worlds right next to this one. He seldom leans on the tired Chosen One tropes that bog down other narratives, instead creating far more relatable protagonists who never end up quite as you think they should.
In Cabal, a race of monsters known as the Nightbreed live in Midian, a subterranean city beneath a graveyard in ass-end-of-nowhere, Canada. Driven to near extinction by humanity, the monsters hide out in hopes that the world will kind of pass them by. Boone, a fairly average guy, dreams of this place. They started out as nightmares, but now have an almost comforting air, as though he is being welcomed home. Turns out, he confesses this to the worst person ever: Decker, his therapist, who also happens to be a serial killer. Decker frames Boone, driving the other man to this city, where he’s turned into a monster, and that’s where things get weird.
Barker adapted his own novel for the screen, but found it butchered in the editing room. The 90 minute cut was embraced by fans mostly for the Barkerian worldbuilding flourishes, but was dismissed for its third act transformation into a tired action movie. Recently, Barker was able to create a 2 hour director’s cut, and it is the vastly superior film. While far from flawless, it restores the sumptuous visuals that had to have been Barker’s original motivation for the project. In particular, the several tours of Midian, the camera racing past a dizzying array of Nightbreed, each one distinctive enough to be the star of its own monster movie, are more than enough of a selling point.
Shot in 1990, the film is very much of the time. The effects are practical, bolstered by a few rotoscoping and stop motion effects (that are aging about as well as late ‘90s CGI). The score is a busy Danny Elfman production, not far off from his iconic work on the Batman score. Midian is a gigantic soundstage, with a real sense of place and feel because of it. When the actors are scrambling around the suspended rope bridges like a hapless Broadway Spider-Man, they look like they are really in this bizarre city of shapeshifting monsters. Other shots, including an interstitial of medieval Nightbreed being tortured to death, are done on a soundstage as well, giving it a pleasing theatrical hyper-reality.
While the Nightbreed are monsters, they run the gamut as to their menace. Some seem entirely harmless, while others are canny hunters and mad killers. Regardless, Barker sympathizes far more with his monsters than he does his human characters. While the breed are initially treated with horror, there is nearly always a comforting playfulness to them. They’re not evil, but they can be a little bad. Only the nonverbal berserkers are truly monstrous, and the breed keep them locked up against the world, releasing them only as a nuclear option.
The humans, however, are small-minded bigots who want to wipe out what they don’t understand. One Nightbreed, befriending Boone’s Nancy Drewish-girlfriend Lori, points out that when humans dream they fantasize about changing shape and living forever. Their hatred of the breed is rooted not in fear, but in envy. The human characters are sketched a little broadly — the film ends with a straight-up redneck rampage — but it doesn’t smack of unreality.
Decker, played in the film by the great David Cronenberg, is something between both extremes. As he tells a victim halfway through, he is “death, plain and simple.” With his Liston knife and button-eyed mask, he is a far more creative design for a slasher than this movie needs, and true to Barker’s formidable imagination, is the perfect villain to hang an entire series of slasher pictures on. His most important line is to Lori, when he tells her that everyone wears masks. While he’s referring to his own, it works just as well for the breed, many of whom are at least minor shapeshifters. When Decker learns of the Nightbreed, he wants to kill them, but his madness isn’t rooted in fear or envy. It is what he does. What he is.
The best part about the director’s cut of Nightbreed is that it’s the closest we’re ever going to get to being inside the vibrant mind of Clive Barker. It’s a messy place, certainly, scattered with scorpions, corpses, and the odd slime monster, but it should be a required visit for anyone interested in horror or fantasy. It’s rare to see an author adapt their own work, and it can cause problems, as authors tend to be overly precious about certain aspects of it. In this case, we finally see what Barker had in mind. To paraphrase one of his creations, it’s not perfect, but it’ll do. For now.