“Multimedia horror maven Clive Barker followed the success of his feature directorial debut, Hellraiser, with this equally surreal effort, based on his novella Cabal. The story involves the plight of Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer), a young man tormented by visions of monstrous, graveyard-dwelling creatures. Seeking the aid of his clinically cold therapist Dr. Decker (played by Canadian horror auteur David Cronenberg) in deciphering his nightmares, Boone becomes convinced that his frequent blackouts are linked to a recent spate of mutilation murders in the area. His frantic search for the truth leads him to the subterranean city of Midian, the dwelling place of a mythical race of undead nocturnal monsters known as the "Nightbreed." But it is only after he is cornered and shot dead by police that Boone's real journey begins -- he finds himself resurrected as one of the Breed. Though Barker's unique and graphic vision is somewhat blunted by choppy editing (thanks to relentless tampering from the studio), this is nevertheless a fine sophomore project from a talented storyteller; the central conceit of presenting the monsters as the "good guys" -- at least compared to the gun-and-bible-toting lunatics who hunt them -- is handled with verve and originality.” – allmovie guide
Yeah, yeah, I know. “Gun-and-bible-toting lunatics.” Booooring. And actually not all that accurate since the gun toters in question aren’t regular Joes, but rather members of some backwoods weekend warrior militia group and the sole bible toter is an inebriated priest of lapsed faith whom they drag out of the local drunk tank and take to fight the monsters against his will. Still, ham-fisted political commentary disguised as movie criticism aside, allmovie’s reviewer gets the general tone of Nightbreed correct. In this movie, the monsters are the good guys, hunted throughout the centuries by humans who hate them because they’re different. Well, that and the fact that some of the monsters do have the small habit of maiming, killing, and eating humans. Not to mention they kind of worship some glowy version of every pagan's favorite symbolic dark god Baphomet. But for the most part, they’re hated because they’re different.
Now I’m not really complaining because Nightbreed's script comes by its persecution complex honestly. Having come of age during that regrettable time when homosexuals were a group of people who regularly got beat up in the streets as opposed to the media sponsored conglomerate of anti-religious demagogues they’ve since become(see, that’s how you do ham-fisted political commentary disguised as movie criticism, with a smile), Clive Barker easily channels his past feelings of being tormented into those of the put upon monsters who live under the mausoleums of Midian. And it works for the most part, although you do get the occasional clunky line of adolescent-tinged dialog like, “They envy us our freedom, and what they envy, they destroy.” Because, you know, we all envy being some dude with a head growing out of his stomach and a taste for human flesh. Yeah, if only I had that going for me, my life would be complete.
But really, who cares about that? While Nightbreed’s story is certainly interesting, especially in the world building it engages in for its protagonists (the flashback to the Middle Ages where some Inquisition types run a sort of Nightbreed torture assembly line is especially notable), it’s not the main draw here. That particular honor goes to the visuals and the music. In fact, if you want to know why Nightbreed has developed such a cult following over the years, you probably need to do little more than watch the ten minute sequence in which the character of Lori descends Alice-like into the depths of Midian, passing through a multi-story labyrinth of rope bridges, scaffolds & mural encrusted old ruins to the strains of what is undoubtedly one of Danny Elfman’s finest scores. As Lori makes her journey, she comes upon literally dozens of uniquely designed creatures, all done with practical effects, and all given their own little bit of personality. There’s a guy who looks like a lump of tumors, a porcupine woman, a man with snake tails where dreadlocks should be, a little werewolf girl, a guy with eyes in his cheekbones, and inexplicably, some guy whose monstrousness appears to consist only of being effeminate and carrying a Boston Terrier. I’m assuming the openly gay Barker wasn’t saying homosexuals are monsters, so he must have been in Midian because of the dog. Which I can completely understand because I once had a girlfriend who owned this incredibly ancient Boston Terrier that had one bulbous protruding cataract and a very pronounced breathing problem. The thing was like a cross between Popeye and Darth Vader and it totally creeped me out whenever I had to pretend to play with it.
But I digress.
Sort of. Because the revulsion I used to feel towards that
loathsome creature dog is pretty much the reaction the members of the Nightbreed receive from those who encounter them during the course of the movie. Even the monsters who aren’t very interested in munching down on us ‘naturals’ never get a cordial welcome. As a community facing such a stigma, the Breed remind me a little of how lepers were treated in ancient times (and still are treated in some parts of the world). The disease of leprosy has been around probably at least as long as written history. According to the 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia, “Leprosy was not uncommon in India as far back as the fifteenth century B.C. (Ctesias, Pers., Xli; Herodian, I, i, 38), and in Japan during the tenth century B.C. Of its origin in these regions little is known, but Egypt has always been regarded as the place whence the disease was carried into the Western world.” And that’s probably where the ancient Jews first encountered the disease before taking it into the desert with them. “From the epoch of the sojourn of the people of God in the desert down to the times of Christ, leprosy seems to have been prevalent in Palestine: not only was it in some particular cases (Numbers 12:10; 2 Kings 5:27; Isaiah 53:4) looked upon as a Divine punishment, but at all times the Hebrews believed it to be contagious and hereditary (2 Samuel 3:29); hence it was considered as a cause of defilement, and involved exclusion from the community.” Which is what we see being discussed in this week’s first reading between Moses and Aaron.
Now the Israelites were hardly the only people who isolated lepers. That was pretty much the common approach to the disease around the world. But like everything else with the ancient Jews, the act of separating the unclean from the larger tribe was overlaid with a spiritual dimension. As noted in the introduction to Leviticus in the 1970 edition of the New American Bible, "Generally speaking, the laws contained in the book serve to teach the Israelites that they should always keep themselves in a state of legal purity, or external sanctity, as a sign of their intimate union with the Lord." So, basically, the external purity of avoiding ‘unclean’ persons was meant to be a reflection of the inward purity of avoiding unclean acts. And while shuffling people off to isolation may sound harsh to modern ears (definitely a lack of concern for self esteem in Leviticus), the spiritual principles behind the practice were most likely understood and agreed to by the afflicted, and so they willingly allowed themselves to be separated from their community.
And that’s where we get to the crux of today’s readings, the fact that sin (as represented by the leprosy) doesn’t just affect us, but damages our relationships with others. We even get to see that play out a bit in Nightbreed. Some of the humans can’t get over their fear and bigotry, and some of the monsters can’t keep their own god’s one law, which is don’t eat people. (I guess we’re just too tasty to resist, although most agree we just taste like pork.) Their sins keep the two groups apart and it ends badly for everyone involved. And God doesn’t really want that. That’s why when Jesus cures the leper in this week’s gospel, he tells him to “Go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed.” By having the former leper go through the Levitical ritual of proving himself cleansed, Jesus not only healed the man of his affliction and forgave his sins, but He also insured that his relationship with his people was restored. Reflecting on the passage from Mark, Pope Benedict sees that “In that gesture and in those words of Christ, is the whole history of salvation, there is embodied the will of God to heal, to cleanse us from the evil that disfigures us and destroys our relationships”.
Here in the states, the current political situation has relationships within the Church a bit strained right now. And, of course, the other side is wrong and causing most of it through their sin. But even so, along with all the other things which urgently need our prayers right now, why not throw one in for Christian unity? It’s hard, I know, because our fellow Christians are so obviously erring by supporting some of the causes they do. But I’m sure we can afford a little charity because, in the end, we’ve all played the part of the monster at some time or another, haven’t we?