Friday, August 7, 2015

Nightbreed (Director’s Cut): Where The Wild Things Are

Monsters are, undoubtedly, central to horror film, as the antagonists of some of the earliest and purest examples of the form. We’re afraid of the Other, of what’s in the dark, of what we don’t understand, so that’s one very direct route of the nightmare center of the brain. That said, if monsters are the oldest trirck in the book, the question of who the monsters really are in is at least the second-oldest. Sympathy for the putative “monster” of the film goes all the way back to Frankenstein, and the presentation of the so-called “good guys” as somehow even worse monsters still show up even today in films like 28 Days Later and The Devil’s Rejects. It’s one of the most basic questions we can ask: What makes something a monster?

Nightbreed is an overly ambitious attempt to examine the concepts of humanity and monstrosity, and its reach exceeds its grasp.

It is largely the story of Aaron Boone, a troubled young man who suffers from nightmares in which he runs from unseen pursuers toward an overgrown cemetary, where he is beckoned by bizarre-looking creatures. Horned and spined things who run alongside him but don’t appear to be the ones chasing him. Apprently, this is a recurring thing for Boone, to the point that he’s developed an elaborate mythology around these nightmares, claiming that they concern a legendary city of monsters, an underground world called Midian. His girlfriend Lori suggests he contact his therapist, Dr. Philip Decker, about these dreams, and Decker also thinks it would be a good idea.

You see, Aaron Boone apparently has a tendency toward blackouts, and as it transpires, his last blackout coincided with the murder of an entire family. 

So here we have our first setup - Boone dreams of monsters, and may be a monster himself. Decker wants to help Boone get better, but as becomes apparent very quickly, Decker has an agenda of his own. as psychiatrists in horror films often do. And really, the strongest through-line in this film is the relationship between Boone and Decker, and Decker’s cool, unflappable demeanor provides a nice counterpoint to Boone’s more rough-hewn personality and his connection to monsters. It’s a conflict between the old ways and the modern rationality that seeks to erase it in the name of improvement. And if that were the primary conflict here - modern medicine versus ancient mysticism, we’d have a pretty good movie. But it’s just one piece of many.

Boone versus Decker would be a good movie, the search for Midian would be a good movie, one about one young man’s attempt to reconcile the pull of myth with the real-world implications of his obsession. Hell, even Boone’s relationship with Lori would be a good movie - how much do you worry when the man you love keeps talking about some bizarre inner world he has and people keep dying? - but all of these things end up crammed together in a single film, and as a result, it especially becomes a bit of a mess in the back half. Yes, as it turns out, Midian is a real place, and Boone and Decker are of two minds about what that means. So there’s one conflict, but there’s also Boone exploring Midian, getting to know its inhabitants, who, although monstrous in the sense that they are bizarre-looking, have very human motivations and feelings and desires and mannerisms, which makes them feel less alien than just exercises in makeup effects, for the most part. And then we have Lori looking for Boone when he goes missing, so now we have to divide our time between Boone exploring Midian, Lori looking for Boone, and Decker trying to track down Midian with the aid of law enforcement, which ends up as these storylines all converge, becoming confusing if not downright incoherent in places. 

Once the police get involved on a large scale, the film also turns downright cartoonish in its portrayal of humans as well as monsters. - The local police department are a parody of gun-toting yahoo masculinity, and so the final act of the movie discards any sense of horror or fright or menace to basically become a B-grade action flick with a lot of elaborate makeup effects. That this is still the case in the director’s cut (which adds about 45 minutes back into the film) suggests that it was a problem all along.  At that point, it’s not horrifying, it’s not scary, it’s just action with a different set of rules, and it’s sort of a jarring shift in tone from the first, and even to some extent second act of the film. It’s also not clear how Lori fits in other than she loves Boone and wants him back - at no point does she seem utterly overwhelmed by the monstrosity around her, her entire point in the back half of the film seems to be to just keep telling Boone she loves him as some kind of remedy for everything else, and there’s little attention paid to how she must feel about trying to reconcile the Boone she knew with what he becomes over the course over the movie. She just sort of stands next to him and looks up at him adoringly. 

The problem of ambition and overreach extends to practical aspects of the movie as well. Because it’s a film about monsters, there are a lot of practical makeup effects, and because this film was made in 1990, the effects aren’t espeically believable. It’s really tough to do monster makeup believably, even today and under the best of circumstances and there are so many monsters in this movie that quantity compromises quality. Some of them might have been effective at the time but just haven’t aged well, but some were downright silly even then. Again, this leads to a sharp contrast between the first part of the film, where there’s a real sense of menace, and the second, which verges on bloody slapstick, everyone a caricature.

The strength of creator Clive Barker’s work in written fiction is the way it conveys the idea that there is something mysterious and ancient underneath the everyday world. It’s the idea that just around the corner or behind that door or in a clearing somewhere in the wilderness, the ruins of long-forgotten civilizations and the battlefields of forgotten arcane wars and the keepers of long-forgotten stories and secrets are hiding in plain sight, and our world is basically just a polite, mundane skin over something roiling and ancient and incomprehensible. But telling those stories on the screen requires a lot that his films have pretty much never been given, in terms of time and, frankly, budget (the adaptation of his Lord of Illusions suffers many of the same problems of this film, albeit at a smaller scale). And in some ways, they work best as smaller stories with glimpses into larger realms - Hellraiser (probably the most effective adaptation of his work) is a very contained story about one intrusion of the supernatural into a family’s life. When it’s grounded in the “normal” and we just get peeks into the terror beyond, that’s when it works well. When the terror beyond is the focus and laid out for display, as here, it gives too much away, and then making the whole “humanity are the real monsters” point so blatantly on-the-nose doesn’t help either.

In its attempt to make monsters more human and humanity more monstrous, the depth and feeling of the film suffers and nobody comes off as anything so much as props, exercises in effects and cliche. Old monster movies are objects of derision for the shoddiness of their work, visible zippers on costumes giving the game away. Here, you can see the zippers on the monsters and the people alike.

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