Saturday Frights Presents – Skeletons in the Closet with Liam Sharp!

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This week creeps we are unbelievably lucky, as not only are we joined in the Vault by legendary comic book illustrator (The Incredible Hulk, Death Dealer, Gears of War, Death’s Head II, Spawn the Dark Ages) and CEO of Madefire Entertainment, Liam Sharp, but we are going to be discussing Clive Barker’s Nightbreed, which is especially exciting to me as Barker’s works were instrumental in my choice to become an author of horror fiction, and his novella Cabal (the basis for Nightbreed) taught me that genre conventions are meant to be shattered and reformed in unique ways in order to create breathtaking adventures for your reader. Now enough babbling from me; Liam, take it away!

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Liam: “As the next day dawned, they called loudly upon Baphometh; and we prayed silently in our hearts to God, then we attacked and forced all of them outside the city walls…” Anselm of Ribemont

The Crusaders wrote of him, the Templars worshipped him, but surely Baphomet was older, even, than that? As the enigmatic Peloquin tells us: “Everything is true. God’s an Astronaut. Oz is Over the Rainbow, and Midian is where the monsters live.” Midian, of many gods. Midian, the persecuted. Midian, a place even Moses could not tolerate, (though he sought refuge there for 40 years after murdering an Egyptian, and he even sired a son there,) instigating mass murder on instruction from his god.

Just a sample of the many mythologies buried in the Movie ‘Nightbreed’, written and directed by Clive Barker and based on his novella ‘Cabal’, and one of the reasons it was famously troubled and misunderstood during its production and subsequent release. An exec at Morgan Creek reportedly said ‘You know, Clive, if you’re not careful some people are going to like the monsters.’ Barker later rued this thinking in his response “Talk about completely missing the point! Even the company I was making the film for couldn’t comprehend what I was trying to achieve!”

I had no knowledge of this back in 1990. I’d read ‘Cabal’ because I was, and am, a huge admirer of Barker’s work – both in prose and film at that time – and I thought right away, this is a movie. ‘The Books of Blood’ and ‘Weaveworld’ had captivated me with literate, intensely personal and visual terrors. The low budget but endlessly inventive pleasures and cruelties of ‘Hellraiser’ had thrilled me. ‘Nightbreed’, the movie of ‘Cabal’, seemed to come out of nowhere (I recall zero marketing) but I knew in advance, with a kind of youthful unfettered optimism, that I was going to really love it.

‘Nightbreed’ has been criticized for being too complex, having too many layers, and a supposedly hard-to-follow narrative. Its morality was considered confusing too. The staple of the western horror movie tends to fall into a few well-defined categories: Judeo-Christian narratives like ‘The Exorcist’, ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, ‘The Omen’ and even to some extent ‘The Wicker Man’. These films chew on the grist of faith, and trouble believers with visions of pagan blasphemies, demonic possessions, or the threat of hell on earth. They present their belief systems as actual, tangible truths – There is a god, there is a devil, there is a real war between heaven and hell, and we can get caught in the middle of it. Alternatively there is body-horror, like ‘The Fly’ or ‘The Thing’, where we are confronted with our fear of entropy, the horror of illness, disfigurement, madness, change, sex and age. Also there is the slasher movie, like ‘Halloween’ or ‘Friday the 13th’, in which we fear revenge, or sudden, unexpected violent death. We are reminded of any wrongdoing we have perpetrated, or get a darkly cathartic thrill at the imaginary deaths of those who have wronged us.

There is also the monster movie.

Monsters have long invoked empathy and dread in our collective psyche. From Grendel, dying at his mother’s feet, his arm torn off, to Mary Shelly’s creature of gross hubris in Frankenstein, we fear them – yet suffer remorse at their demise. The monsters linger longer in the mind than the heroes. They are our rejected, imperfect and beautiful children; a knotted guilt in our guts that lacks any definitive source. They repel us and attract us, and we envy their strength as we shrink from the accusation we perceive in their eyes.

‘Nightbreed’ is arguably one of the greatest monster movies of all time. These are not the clamoring, frenzied monsters of the CG age, but the last of the practical animatronic and latex constructs as built by Bob Keen’s visionary team. What the monsters lacked in virtuosity, when compared to the likes of ‘Alien’ or ‘The Thing’, they made up for in sheer numbers, and the richness of their mythology. ‘Night Breed’ was truly epic in its intent, in its reaching for scale and purpose. And these monsters were different in another way – they were not the bad guys. And if not the bad guys, then were they ‘monsters’ in the true sense at all? Were the humans, then, the real monsters?

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It becomes apparent that ‘monstrous’ means a great many things in ‘Nightbreed’. In the denizens of Midian it’s superficial, and surface only. It’s perception-based, no more than skin deep. Even the rebel Peloquin can be no more considered a monster than a wild animal, letting loose a ‘beast’ that craves meat, and quite reasonably despises the humans. The humans, on the other hand, are monstrous on the inside. They are filled with holy, jealous and righteous loathing, deep-seated prejudice, or they are simply cold, clinical sociopaths. One even has to wear another face – his true face. Humans have to die to be redeemed as monsters on earth, an inversion (or parody) of western belief systems. There’s no heaven and hell here after death – not the one we might expect at any rate!

The quandary of ‘Nightbreed’ is that it is not just a monster movie, it is rooted in Judeo-Christian mythology, it is a body-horror movie, and it is also a slasher movie. And for all its grand-guignol spectacle, it’s also an action-adventure movie, a fairytale, and a story about prejudice, redemption and love.

In 1990 the freaks and geeks were just starting to inherit the world. Now they dress in the clothes of the jocks, they have stolen their girlfriends; they wear their suits and drive their cars. They act like their former oppressors, and are equally lacking in empathy or imagination. Back then, however, we geeks, nerds, gays, oddballs, social-misfits and kooks thrilled to wish-fulfillment fantasies – we were the misunderstood and oppressed Midianites. So ‘Night Breed’ had yet one more classic genre attribute – it was allegory. Indeed midnight theatre pioneer, director Alejandro Jodorowski, described the movie as “the first truly gay horror fantasy epic” – Not that Jock-run Hollywood understood such a concept at the time!

‘Night Breed’ was made for 11 Million dollars, and Barker was still early enough in his career to enjoy the blissful ignorance of inexperience with regard to the ambition of his vision. But it was the transitional sophomore nightmare of cliché too. Hollywood revealed its own monstrous self behind the glamour and sheen. They took what he made and hobbled it with edits, reshoots, changed endings and a total inability to understand what kind of a movie they had. In a sense the movie represented the experience of itself: Hollywood, the persecuting, misinformed and monstrous humans; ‘Nightbreed’, the hounded, tormented and misunderstood Midianites. Barker himself was not unlike Boone, the movie’s protagonist – straddling both worlds, but his heart and destiny alongside the monsters.

And just how broken are the lovers at the center of this saga? Boone, as Barker once noted, gets sexier and sexier the more dead he is. He is a rebel with a cause not of his own authorship, burdened with terrible deeds he didn’t perpetrate, and then further laden with the role of savior of a people he has never know. The seeds of a true epic are sewn, the birth of the ‘Star Wars’ of monster movies – except we never got the sequels.

My association with the film was to be greater than I could have ever guessed. The year it came out a group of us dressed as characters from ‘Night Breed’ in Whaley Bridge – a small, Midland town in Derbyshire that had, over successive years, adopted dress-up on a grand scale for New Year’s Eve – for no other reason than it was fun. I was the flesh-dreadlocked Peloquin because I thought he had the best lines and was the sexiest of the Breed. A year later I moved to London and was soon working alongside Nicholas Vince at Marvel UK. Nick was writing Warheads and I was drawing Death’s Head II. I was amazed to discover that he had been both The Chatterer in ‘Hellraiser’ and Kinski in ‘Night Breed’, and that he was an old friend of Barker’s. And at the 1992 San Diego Comic Con I was lucky enough to have lunch with Clive himself – which I endured in near-mute and youthfully self-conscious admiration, while Clive regaled us with stories that I have no memory of, so intent was I on keeping my cool. Jump forward a few more years and I was offered a job at Bob Keen’s Image Imagination Studios – which I very sadly had to decline.

Death's Head II

Death’s Head II

In 2013 I was invited to attend a screening of the Cabal cut of Nightbreed in LA – I almost embarrassed myself begging for an invite from Mark Miller, of Clive Barker’s Seraphim Films (and the man most responsible for the restoration), at Comic Con earlier in the year. I was so determined to go, but it wasn’t to be, and I confess I was pretty gutted. It seemed to me like part of the circle that hadn’t been closed. This was a matter of destiny somehow, more than passing moments over a span of years. Clive’s work had become part of my own. I had digested it, and it had inspired and put shape on elements of my own prose. In my novel ‘God Killers’ vile-space is a riven flesh hell right out of a Barker story. I owed the man a debt of gratitude for three decades of inspiration.

However, Mark very kindly mailed me a DVD to watch at home…

It’s amazing how film has the power to wash the years away. How quickly and how easily I was taken back to 1990, 24 years ago. From the fast edits of monsters, to Ralph Macquarie’s mural of the prophecy, to the breed fleeing through the night to Midian – I was grinning like a child!

The Cabal edit contains unseen footage – an amazing 45 minutes worth – and while the quality is poor (found on an old VHS tape, the original film stock long ago destroyed) there’s a real sense of what could have been. Strangely, much of the ‘rough’ footage was familiar to me – I’m unsure if there was an alternative European edit – and it should be noted that the Cabal cut is not a director’s cut, it’s a work in progress. It needs restoration, and it needs trimming. Certain of the removed elements were very much ‘of their time’, in particular a very snoggy opening, and Lori’s singing scene – which actress Anne Bobby delivers strongly, but the wanting-her-man-to-be-a-caveman lyrics are pure cheese, and the audience watching her is almost static, limply clapping along. David Cronenberg’s Decker now has a much more present alter ego with a voice of its own – an extra layer that doesn’t really add anything, and isn’t scary either. But then this isn’t a scary movie, and it never was.

Where the film greatly benefits from the newly included material is in the final act. In the original it never felt quite big enough, but now there is shot after shot of relentless, pointless slaughter. It feels like extermination, as though the Breed are vermin – or worse: Blacks or Jews. The allegory is at its most potent here. ‘Nightbreed’ is finally gifted true horror, and it is by far the most unsettling part of the whole movie. The white men with their guns are having way too much fun, and they show no compassion at all. Tellingly it’s the black Detective Joyce who sees the breed for what they are – just another race of humankind. What’s also clear is that the breed put up barely any fight at all, allowing numerous unarmed characters to walk freely amongst them. The best they can do is to flee the flames and guns. For all their powers they are helpless, deer in the glare of headlights, the trained red laser spot of a hunter’s gun. Only the crazed berserker’s, unburdened by any sort of compassion or empathy, make a real dent in the invading army. “They’ll rip off your head and **** down your neck,” says Narcisse, quoting from ‘Stand By Me.’

‘Nightbreed’ is an unbelievably ambitious movie, but the movies we love are not necessarily the best movies. I can think of no other movie with as many layers, and it boasts many more than perhaps it needs. Characters show up late and bloom into larger roles than is typical – Charles Haid, in a highly entertaining role as Captain Eigerman, and Malcolm Smith as Ashberry the priest, come to mind. Some of the scenes are campy and comic – as in the fetishistic handing out of guns from an enormous police arsenal – and they jar. There are nods and winks a plenty, and central characters vanish from the screen for surprising lengths of time. But even with the clarity of hindsight, and the critical faculty that comes with age; even with the sweeping changes in fashion and technology and taste that come with the passage of two and a half decades – I still really love this movie. It is carried along by Craig Sheffer’s stoic and committed performance as Boone, with a gleeful Hugh Ross as his sidekick. I still tear up when one of the characters is caught in the sunshine and turned, agonizingly, to dust. I thrill at the parade of lovingly crafted monsters. I applaud the sheer audacity of it. ‘Nightbreed’ may be flawed, but a young writer-director possessed of an astonishing imagination, ambition and drive made it. A man who really loves monsters.

‘Some stories, it seems, refuse to surrender to decay and neglect. They bide their time, waiting for the dawning of a different day. ‘ Clive Barker.

Thank you so much for sharing these amazing experiences and observations with us Liam!

Daniel XIII

Daniel XIII: equally at home at a seance as he is behind the keyboard. Raised on a steady diet of Son of Satan comics, Kaiju flicks and Count Chocula comes the proprietor of The House of Thirteen Doors. What arcane knowledge lurks behind the preternatural eyes of the Ouija Board Kid?

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