Midian is Burning: Clive Barker’s NIGHTBREED and Hatred in the 21st Century

 

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Artwork by Rich Kelly, courtesy of Light In The Attic Records

Originally Published November 18, 2016 for blumhouse.com

I have long been a fan of Clive Barker’s work. It started in high school with THE DAMNATION GAME and continued all the way though his collected works: movies, books, comics, video games. One of the main reasons his work has stayed with me, and I with it, is his celebration of “The Other”: a sympathetic and humanizing view of the monstrous with a subsequent demonization of man’s baser, crueler impulses. As an openly gay male, Barker’s work champions the outsider, the marginalized and nowhere is that sympathy more evident out-front than in 1990’s NIGHTBREED.

The plan was to write a piece on Barker’s self-professed “hymn to the monstrous” and its place in queer-positive cinema. A celebration of the film’s underlying messages and how far we’ve come as a society in the nearly three decades since its release.

This is not that article.

Events in the past few days have altered the content, because we’re now waking up to the notion that maybe we’re not as far along as we thought. In less than a week, we’ve watched the veneer of civility and progression slip and fall, revealing the ugliness and hatred underneath that, perhaps, we’ve known was there all along. But there is nothing noble or admirable about this kind of monster. It is the worst of humanity – the fearful,violent and small-minded who prey  So while the time is ripe for another viewing, it’s the reasons that have changed.

“I just so much wanted the film to work. And not because of artistic reasons, but because of philosophical reasons. I believed in the story. I believed that it was the closet where the homos live and that the door needed throwing open. I still do.”

Clive Barker

The antagonists in NIGHTBREED come from all corners of entrenched patriarchal systems – science, law enforcement organized religion. And this is not a random arbitrary choice. In the 1960s, this trinity would be the good guys, the forces of normalcy defending us from the weird and monstrous. Barker flips that notion on its head, turning these forces into puritanical crusaders for maintaining the status quo and the elimination of the “commies, freaks or Third World y-chromosome mutants” that threaten it.

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For Phillip Decker, psychiatrist and serial killer, it’s a class thing. With his impeccable fashion sense, his ornate office and his penchant for hunting the lower classes of society, Decker is a dark personification of the one-percent. Decker’s motivation is spelled out in no uncertain terms as he tortures a local for information.

“See, I’ve cleaned up a lot of breeders. Families like cesspools, filth making filth and I did it over and over and over again, but it was all leading me here. I was born to destroy Boone and The Breed together.”

 

bossybottomWilliam Eigerman , while not as refined and polished as Decker, is cut from the same cloth:  a man of violence and toxic masculinity, masquerading as the face of respectability – in this case, Shere Neck’s police chief. Eigerman is a fascist through and through ( his name roughly translates to “Man of Stone) with the one-two punch of “just folks” charm and brute force. His constables, loyal to the last man, eagerly follow their boss’ evry wish, partly out of fear, but mostly out of respect. Eigerman’s relationship with his troops (and presumably with the townspeople)

ashberrytempleBut the greatest threat will be found in the least likely of this trinity, the Reverend Ashberry (Malcolm Smith). In many ways, he’s the town fool, openly denigrated by Eigerman, Decker and the assembled mob of The Sons of the Free as weak, “a drunk” and “faggot”. But that all changes when Ashberry is “touched” by Baphomet, The Breed’s god-protector, during The Battle of Midian. Scarred and reconfigured by this encounter, Ashberry is a changed man. Rejected by both his god and The Breed’s, he serves a new purpose: the eradication of The Tribes of The Moon. When the wounded Eigerman begs Ashberry to take him along, the priest snaps his former tormentor’s neck without a second thought and leaves the ruins to fulfill his new destiny. While his story, and The Breed’s, was never continued in cinematic form, Barker had very specific plans for this new enemy, as seen in this passage from NIGHTBREED: THE MAKING OF THE FILM:

“There are people out there in the world who have been waiting for Ashberry. Just as there are people out there who have been waiting for Boone. Secret orders who have been waiting for their particular Lucifer. Armies waiting to rise who want a leader, and Ashberry is going to walk into their lives like I guess Hitler did; to stir up some deep feeling.”

While the director’s cut does paint a more sympathetic view of The Breed and a more damnable one of its human antagonists, there’s never been a doubt where Barker’s sympathies have always lied. In one of the movie’s most striking scenes, Lori is given a glimpse of The Breed’s suffering at the hands of man – a Bosch-like setpiece which shows the monsters being tortured and executed. It’s gruesome and unsettling and brings Lori to tears.

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