Clive Barker on ‘Nightbreed’: ‘Where there are monsters, I feel home’

Oct. 30, 2014 | 6:10 p.m.

In 1990, horror novelist Clive Barker released “Nightbreed,” his second feature film as a writer-director. The follow-up to his provocative 1987 study in sadomasochism, “Hellraiser,” “Nightbreed” arrived as an adaptation of Barker’s novella “Cabal” and posited a world in which monsters had been driven to an underground sanctuary called Midian. The city begins to haunt the dreams of a Canadian man named Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer), who is under the psychiatric care of one Philip Decker (David Cronenberg), a therapist with questionable motives and dark secrets of his own.

The movie, which featured artistic contributions from the likes of Ralph McQuarrie and Danny Elfman, opened to middling reviews. Writing for The Times, critic Michael Wilmington observed that there was a “thick, clunky quality” to the film with “remarkable moments scattered throughout — wild nightmare visions and a tingling sound track keyed around Danny Elfman’s music — but it tends to bump along from scene to scene, picking up blood and gore like molasses on a rolling skull. There are illogical leaps, a helter-skelter mood. The presence of two editors, Richard Marden and Mark (‘The Terminator’) Goldblatt, suggests post-production difficulties.”

“Difficulties” is a kind way to put it. After producer Joe Roth left the project while it was still in production in England, Barker bumped heads with Morgan Creek chief James Robinson. “We did not get on well at all,” Barker says now.

Before its release, the movie was re-edited, and the version of “Nightbreed” that made it to theaters was not one Barker stood behind.

A scene from "Nightbreed." (Scream Factory)

A scene from “Nightbreed.” (Scream Factory)

“The movie that was released in 1990 was not the movie I wanted to make philosophically or artistically,” he told Hero Complex in an interview last week, speaking by phone from his Beverly Hills office. “It was closer to it than, say, a ‘Halloween’ movie, but it was not the movie I had written. It was a massive compromise. The only reason I think I put up with it was because it had taken me a year and a half to make it. It’s hard to say this, but I had engaged so much love and so much passion in the thing, I couldn’t leave it alone, I couldn’t walk away from it.”

But in the intervening years, an unlikely thing happened — “Nightbreed” began to amass a vocal fan base that lobbied loudly on social media for Barker’s original vision to be restored. This week, “Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut” arrives on Blu-ray and DVD, marking a significant milestone for the English visionary and restoration manager Mark Alan Miller, who labored for six years tracking down missing pieces of the film to reassemble the horror-fantasy epic.

“We had the monsters on our side,” Barker said.

Clive Barker. (Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic)

Clive Barker (Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic)

Read more of what Barker had to say in the Q&A below, and click through the gallery of images above for a detailed look at “Nightbreed.”

Hero Complex: Were you surprised that “Nightbreed” developed the following that it did?

Clive Barker: Yes, I was astonished by that because it had been such an unpleasant situation, I couldn’t see the movie for what it was. I had no sense that there was anything in there that anybody would ever want. It was the darkest period of my life, so bad I went into therapy and got into some troubling places psychologically. I was 33, I had just been kicked to the curb in the most violent way. Of course, people who make movies expect that, but I didn’t make movies, I wrote books. I had control over those things. I naively thought I would always have that control, the kind of control I had in “Hellraiser.” I didn’t. The “Hellraiser” situation was pretty darn wonderful and very unusual. Nor did I understand how radically unusual the thesis of “Nightbreed” was. I was asking people who funded movies to take on board a funny little movie that actually did the reverse of what that genre of movie normally did — this is a movie where the horror element, the monster elements, are the good guys. That was very problematical for most producers who were not deep thinkers. Here was I saying this movie is not quite like other horror movies you’ve seen, but I think that’s valuable, and they would say, “No, we think it’s confusing.”

HC: Boone is a man who has powerful dreams and is most comfortable with monsters. So … he’s a proxy for you in some ways?

CB: Absolutely. He and I have a lot in common. There is a sort of metaphysical element to Boone. In those early sections when he is having those dreams and burning up his old letters and so on, I frame it so he has a halo around his head. I frame him, I think, in three shots that way. I actually turn him into an angel. The point I’m trying to make there is, he may be a monster to some people, but he comes with news, which could be interpreted many ways. The angelic references are pretty plain, I think. I wanted the audience to see this is a very ambiguous monster. One of my great heroes, William Blake, speaks of one of his enemies; he says, “We both read the Bible day and night, but he reads black where I read white.” When you come into these areas of metaphysics, or the business of evil and the business of good, everything’s up for grabs. There are no certainties. I love the idea that horror, which has classically been a rather dogmatic genre, could actually be [corrupted] into a much more protean form of narrative in which you didn’t have to say categorically, “Oh well, the ugly bad guys are the villains of the day.” All of us have good, all of us have bad.

HC: That brings to mind a key phrase from “Hellraiser”: “Angels to some, demons to others.”

CB: We actually say in “Nightbreed,” “God is an astronaut, Oz is over the rainbow and Midian is where the monsters go.” There’s a lovely sense in which there’s a simple thesis being played out here. These are things you understand as a child out on the play yard. There are places you can go which are miraculous and strange and when you get there you won’t really know what’s bad and you won’t really know what’s good, but it won’t matter because you’ll be home. And in places where there are monsters, I feel home. I think a lot more people do than will perhaps own up to it in a public venue. We are in love with the dark in ourselves. As Rachel says in “Nightbreed,” Why would you not want to change into an animal? Why would you not want to fly? Why would you not want to live forever? These are the things that monsters do. I don’t think I’m telling an untruth there. The desire to be something protean is a common desire, I think. The desire to fly — my God, show me a person who doesn’t want to fly and I’ll show you a bird. What she’s saying is, these are desires that you human beings all have and you punish us because we have them.

HC: David Cronenberg is a magnificent villain. How did you decide to cast him and what sorts of conversations did the two of you have about that character?

CB: Absolutely none. I was terrified of him because I was afraid he’d give me instructions. He was terrified of me because he was worried I’d give him instructions. I’m joking of course, but we were very respectful of one another. He said to me on the first day, “I will not tell you where to put the camera,” and I said, “Well, I will never give you a line reading,” and that’s the way it played out. He’s not that man, he’s not Decker, but he can play that role effortlessly. It startled me how effortlessly he stepped into the role. I was very lucky.

David Cronenberg wears a mask as Dr. Decker in "Nightbreed." (Scream Factory)

David Cronenberg wears a mask as Dr. Decker in “Nightbreed.” (Scream Factory)

HC: Did you turn to him for advice on how to handle the conflict over the direction of the film that erupted during production?

CB: I did once. He gave me a piece of advice. He said, “The sad thing is when we get to the end of a movie, we all want a father figure. We’re all exhausted. We need someone to guide us, we need somebody to look after us. And that’s the time they come after our throats.” And that’s exactly right. Filmmakers, you get tired at the end of a movie. You want somebody to say, “Listen, we’re on your side.” Sometimes they are and sometimes unfortunately, they’re not. The person who was on my side was the person in the room with me, Mr. Miller. The person who 25 years on became the much younger father figure.

HC: Alejandro Jodorowsky described “Nightbreed” as “the first truly gay horror fantasy epic.” Did you have a political subtext in mind while making the film? Do you know Jodorowsky well?

CB: I don’t know him. I respect him hugely. As a gay man, how could you not have that subtext in mind? When I think back over the history of the terrible things done against the outsiders of this world, whether they be done through the instigation of the Inquisition or of the SS, these were things that were done because people were outsiders, because we looked different, because we made love in a different way. Jodorowsky is a wonderful creator and a very insightful man about human nature, and I think he simply saw — he was making that comment about the movie which we put out in 1990 — something in that movie which spoke to its creator’s homosexuality.

HC: On a final note, what’s the status of the new “Abarat” books? Should we expect one soon?

CB: I’m finished with the paintings for “Abarat” 4 and most of them for “Abarat” 5. I still have some text to do on Book 4, but it’s definitely on its way to conclusion and then I will go after that to Book 5. We’ll be finished. It has been another big journey. It will be something like 700, 800 oil paintings and 500,000 [to] 600,000 words. It’s a big narrative.

Clive Barker, famous for his horror stories and movies, spends much of his time now in his Beverly Hills gallery painting the demonic and fantastic. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Clive Barker in his Beverly Hills gallery painting the demonic and fantastic. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

HC: You tend to work best on a grand scale, don’t you?

CB: I sort of do. I was always aware of the ticking clock of time, always. I was very aware that I had a lot to do and I wanted to do those things in the best possible way that I could and probably the biggest way I possibly could. I’ve got a few things coming down the pike which are probably bigger than anything I’ve attempted so far. They’re pretty radical pieces of metaphysics even by my own standards. There’s a lot of really tired storytelling out there — a lot of sequels to sequels to sequels. I want to be able to still surprise myself, even shock myself, whether it be sexual content, whether it be about the theological content, whatever. I want to be able to knock myself sideways. Otherwise, what a waste of a life that would be.

— Gina McIntyre | @LATHeroComplex

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