From sex, to politics, and religion, it's all about bodies and who controls them, but some of this is about remembering.
I was twenty-two when I saw Nightbreed at the theater in 1990 and had come wondering what the hell it was about since 20th Century Fox insisted that it be marketed as a slasher.
When you're that young, you frankly don't know shit, yet paradoxically believe you know everything, you're molten, outside, unassimilated into society at that point--therefore, "dangerous." Obviously, I've changed a lot since then: now I know how little I know and knew then. At that time, romantic love meant everything to me, now, not so much, yet, life being circular, you tend to come back around to things. Experience leavens base innocence. Barker had a very ambitious agenda indeed when he attempted to foist his non-Manichean monster movie onto an unsuspecting American public used to a more black and white storytelling; what you had was a collision of "mindsets" (his term for it) about fictional monsters being fodder for militarized "heroes." In 1990, no one wanted to try to the understand the other whether they were human or a fictional monster. That should be a reminder that there are no others ultimately, and that the monsters we've conjured in storytelling are often mirrors of ourselves to get beyond that screen.
Context being everything, this all came to a head on the eve of the first Gulf War when the public was being whipped into another cycle (see?) of hating the other; additionally, the movie was released just weeks after the illegal invasion of Panama. The Soviet Union was busy collapsing; German reunification occurred just three days before its release, the release of Nelson Mandela from prison after twenty-seven years, less than a week earlier. Old habits tend to continue on anyway, anachronistically.
The timing was bad on all fronts for Barker who was nobly spitting into the cultural trade winds with his film version of his 1988 novel Cabal: unfortunately, the suits at Morgan Creek wanted something more like Hellraiser, the idea of the monsters in a horror movie (really, a fantasy with elements of horror) being the good guys didn't sit well with them, and they rejected it as out of hand and demanded Barker make extensive cuts and reshoots. What it did was to place the psychotic psychiatrist character played by legendary cult director David Cronenberg more at the center of the story; they also demanded that there be more of an emphasis on the menacing qualities of the nightbreed. Not only did they miss the point of most classic monster movies, they just wouldn't listen to Barker, and so, what went out into the world was a confused fusion of his and their ideas. The good side is, they weren't able to remove the sympathy for the breed, outsiders all, but they did incredible harm to the love story between main characters Boone and Lori with all their meddling. A movie that cost $10 million--and a bargain for Morgan Creek at that--made less than nine, and that was that, it bombed, having an afterlife on cable and home video. Part of Barker's legend as a prodigy was that the total cost of Hellraiser had been under $1 million USD.
Say what you want, but he made an epic with his second film, and that's where the money people come in, and serendipitously perhaps, the themes in the original story material got underlined in real life. The failure haunted Barker for years.
The more jaded among us might see one reading the movie as a parable of the modern world crashing into the author's anachronistic fantasy world with sadly predictable results. Occasionally, the universe smiles and throws something unpredictable out there: a small but fundamental victory for the underdog. You could write an entire book on the themes in Nightbreed, from the content of the script, to the theatrical & final cuts, and the politics of the actual making (or, really, unmaking) of the movie itself. Nothing happens in a vacuum. In the end, the breed are history's losers, and conversely, winners, like the heretics of the world religions and every other kind of social rebel that ever lived under a repressive order. You cannot kill the truth. But in 1990, history seemed settled, that seemed to be that, the show was over, and there are very few second chances with motion pictures. Did I mention that homophobia was actually worse than it is today?
However, a lot of us out here felt that something was missing from the theatrical cut, as evinced in the opening titles of that showed scenes which were cut. (Some still are, but now we're fortunate enough to have access to the outtakes in pristine condition.) Beginning with some of Barker's public statements and various rumors over the last twenty-four years, considerable force has been gaining for a new cut. I direct the reader to search out the story of the "Cabal cut" which made a final reconstruction of Barker's original vision possible, a convoluted tale in itself. After years of searching, an announcement was made last year that the lost film elements had finally been found in a storage warehouse in Dayton, Ohio. What was once the detritus of a lost vision had become a global cause via Internet outreach and public showings of the Cabal cut. By 2013, the stage was set and cinematic history was about to be rewritten, and that's a rare occasion. Shout Factory! has made good on that promise and beyond. Its message of universal love is central, but I believe the restoration is also about fixing a work of LGBT filmmaking that advocates the same message of acceptance as Richard Oswald's Different from the Others (Anders als die Andern, 1919), the first pro-gay movie in cinematic history. Both movies were damaged for ideological reasons.
If Barker's Cabal and Nightbreed remind us of anyone in literature, it's Arthur Machen. Machen was a Welsh Catholic who, ironically enough, had an intense fear of forbidden sex, a kind of ritual sex he was made aware of by fellow occultist and American expatriate A. E. Waite, co-author of what is still the most popular version of the Tarot. To be a Catholic in Britain at that time was considered a little eccentric. After Cornelius Agrippa, Waite was also the first to systematically catalog and study the Western inner tradition and was a sworn enemy of Aleister Crowley. When it comes to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, there's plenty of subversive sexuality, inside and outside of the magic circles. I'm not suggesting that Barker based Nightbreed on the politics of esoteric lodges, no, albeit a lodge of that sort could be considered a "cabal" of another kind. Here, we really could go on forever, because that's how the occult works, it's a rabbit hole. Similarly, the Gnostics and other religious minorities and sects were once smeared as sexual deviants; the pagan has been equated with homosexuality; accused witches were blamed for male impotency, and so on. Being different can be dangerous in human society.
The reason I mention Machen is that he wrote similarly weird tales that dealt with shunned races who fled underground from human society. That sounds just like the tale of any human outsider. But is it really metaphor when faced with the incredible fact that everyone who isn't African has a percentage of Neanderthal coursing through their veins? And not so long ago, the bones of "Hobbits" ("homo floresiensis") have been found in caves on an Indonesian island, suggesting that the human story and what constitutes human beings is plastic, always changing, and open to wide interpretation and revision, if not correction. The results of some of that pondering have been catastrophic, such as in the application of eugenics philosophy to social problems, first, in North America, and not much later, Shark Island and in Nazi Germany. Artistic truth can be funny in the way that it naturally draws our attention to these truths of the human experience. A lot of what happens in Nightbreed in its final cut has a lot to do with the first half of the 20th century and the legacy of a long history of genocide.
Machen wrote most of his incredible weird tales about "little people" (and worse) living underground--"where the monsters live."
"This folk," I translated to myself, "dwells in remote and secret places, and celebrates foul mysteries on savage hills. Nothing they have in common with men save the face, and the customs of humanity are wholly strange to them; and they hate the sun. They hiss rather than speak; their voices are harsh, and not to be heard without fear. ... But as I idly scanned the paragraph, a flash of thought passed through me with the violence of an electric shock: what if the obscure and horrible race of the hills still survived, still remained haunting wild places and barren hills, and now and then repeating the evil of Gothic legend, unchanged and unchangeable as the Turanian Shelta, or the Basques of Spain? (from "The Black Seal," 1895)The Basques have been found to have an unusual genetic connection to the Neanderthal. Who are the monsters, and who are the humans? Only action and love as will can tell us.
And now, my memory of Nightbreed is changed forever, and base metal has been transmuted to gold. Being human is to be in the process of remembering and forgetting. Nightbreed is about remembering where we've been.