Clive Barker’s Nightbreed Combined Urban Fantasy with Queer Allegory

The release of a brand new Hellraiser film on Hulu this month brings with it a welcome swell of attention towards the works of Clive Barker. Stephen King once lavishly declared the British author and artist to be “the future of horror” thanks to his baroque tales of fantastical violence, surreal sensuality, and the abject hopelessness of life. He’s always been an author willing to go as far as one can go with a torrid tale, as evidenced by his most iconic creation, the Hellraiser saga. The combination of body horror, BDSM, and unfettered deviance helped to shake the dust off horror cinema in the late ‘80s, at a time when the quippy slasher villain ruled the roost. While the franchise eventually fell off the rails, the potency of Barker’s vision was never quashed, not even when the studios tried to dilute it beyond recognition.

As Hellraiser was becoming a money-printing machine, Barker directed another film based on his work: 1990’s Nightbreed. Adapted from his novel Cabal, the film was in many ways the anti-Hellraiser, which did not please 20th Century Fox. The studio wanted more horror; what they got was an earnest fantasy story imbued with a dense queer allegory, so they cut twenty minutes out the final product and left it to languish in theaters while they gave all their attention to White Men Can’t Jump. It’s not surprising, alas. This is a film with greater ambitions than to scare.

Young Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer) is a seemingly troubled man whose dreams are haunted by images of a city called Midian populated by monsters. What scares him most aren’t the creatures themselves but the sense that he belongs among them. Making matters worse is his blatantly devious psychiatrist Dr. Decker (played, of course, by David Cronenberg), a serial killer who convinces Boone that he’s murdered dozens of people. Eventually, Boone finds his way to Midian, a haven for the peaceful monsters of ancient folklore known as Nightbreed who have avoided being hunted to extinction by humans. As he is welcomed into his new life as one of the creatures, war breaks out as Dr. Decker seeks to annihilate them from the face of the Earth.

While Barker’s horror revels in a bleakness about humanity, his fantasy novels are sincere creations with true investment in the power and liberation of otherness. Gruesomeness can co-exist alongside beauty and is often aesthetically indistinguishable from it. There’s honesty in this way of living, a truthfulness that the hypocrisy of humanity can never hope to duplicate. With Nightbreed, the monsters have coalesced to form a new community that redefines their supposed abnormalities as the accepted default. Assimilation is impossible, and not just because of how the Nightbreed look. 

The parallels between the discrimination the Nightbreed face and the persecution of LGBTQ+ people has been noted by every writer and viewer under the son. Barker, a gay man, has always imbued his work with queer subtexts and visuals, and it’s not hard to see why stories of outsiders finding a new home and way of being would resonate so much with his own community. Yet even by Barker’s standards, Nightbreed is extremely queer. Boone’s journey to becoming his true self as a Nightbreed is blatantly contextualized as an act of coming out. While he has a girlfriend, he often seems hilariously uninterested in being with her, even as she chases after him and repeatedly claims that he belongs to her. 

Filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky called Nightbreed “the first truly gay horror fantasy epic.” Writer Harry M. Benshoff noted how many of the monsters are styled with leather, body piercings, vests over bare chests, and facial hair that were defined explicitly as queer in 1990. They’re not simply a marginalized community forced into the shadows; they fight back.

The highlight of the film sees the Nightbreed, in all their weird and ferocious glory, face off against a cavalcade of cops, gun-toting bigots, and “country folk” who all seem to possess enough fire power and baseless hatred to power many a militia. Now, the fight for their lives has gotten literal, and they don’t take it lying down. If they are to be driven out of their home by hypocritical “normals” who have no real justification for their cruelty, they’ll throw an almighty riot and make it even. It’s an absolute blast to watch, full of imaginative prosthetics and some striking kills. What makes it all the more impactful is how it evokes contemporary activism of queer radicals who took on world governments as the AIDS crisis ravaged millions of lives. It’s vibrant, unashamedly raucous, a proud display of force against the establishment’s attempts to commit nothing short of genocide. 

It’s all so insatiably unsubtle that you can’t help but wonder if the unfettered queerness of Nightbreed was one of the reasons that Fox sliced it to pieces and barely cared to release it. Barker was eventually able to put together a director’s cut (known as the Cabal Cut) with the missing footage and that version, available on DVD via the Shout! Factory, is a more fleshed-out version of his vision. Still, even if you can only find the theatrical cut, as messy as it is in a narrative sense, it’s still evidently Barker’s story and a deeply pro-LGBTQ+ one at that. It felt like a miracle in 1990 and it’s still an exception to the rule in 2022. Keep that all in mind the next time someone on Twitter tries to claim that someone’s trying to make the new Hellraiser too woke.

“Nightbreed” is streaming on Peacock and several AVOD services, and is available for digital rental or purchase via the usual platforms.

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