The 13th Floor

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

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 movies, books, comics, and 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, it comes as no surprise that Barker’s work champions the outsider, the marginalized and nowhere is that sympathy more evident 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. And it’s taken a long time to get this all down on paper.

Because 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 on those they deem as “lesser”. So while the time is ripe for another viewing, the reasons have changed. By now, most of you are familiar with the story, so a recap would only seem redundant.

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The antagonists in NIGHTBREED come from all corners of entrenched patriarchal systems – science, law enforcement, organized religion. And this is not an arbitrary choice. In the B-movies of 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. And as those who would attempt to subjugate and harm make their presence known in the real world, it would be a good time to look at those forces, as portrayed in this monster-mash cult classic.

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For Phillip Decker (David Cronenberg), 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 the 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.”

He maintains an image of cold, sharp control. One perpetually struggling with the vicious killer inside him, the one he brings out every time he puts on that zippered mask with the button eyes. For him, The Breed are the apex of his war against variegation. Wild, chaotic, a threat to the cold and clinical order that he values so dearly. And like any true conservative, his sins and crimes are not his. Not completely. Not when he can blame his psychotic tendencies on The Mask – that voice that whispers to him to take lives and spill bloods. Decker is the very model of conservative repression writ large, and one of its most terrifying examples.

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But where Decker is tightly-coiled, Chief William Eigerman (Charles Haid) is most certainly not. While not as refined and polished as Decker, the lawman is kith and kin of a sort:  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 from German 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’ every wish, partly out of fear, but mostly out of respect.

A classic fascist strongman, Eigerman has a way with the people of his town, but has no love for outsiders or any challenges to the status quo. Having a real and monstrous enemy – one that no one would ever blame him for ever going to war with – gives Eigerman the excuse he needs to gather his army, break out the arsenal and flex his muscles. He’s been waiting for this moment all his life, a war with The Other, and he takes to it with malicious enthusiasm. He also sees himself as the only one who can win the day, a down-home Van Helsing. His perception of Decker  as a big-city ‘intellectual’ who would never deign to get his hands dirty, let alone carry a gun, is of course wrong, but in his eyes, bravado, an iron will and brutish cruelty are what separates the weak from the strong.

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But the greatest threat will be found in the least likely of this trinity, Reverend Ashberry (Malcolm Smith). Brought along as holy ammunition in this war against “evil”, ( “We’re going in with God on our side” as Eigerman puts it) he’s openly denigrated by Eigerman, Decker and the assembled mob of The Sons of the Free as weak, “a drunk” and “faggot”. The town’s holy fool, if you will. 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 he explained in the out of print 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.”

Much to the world’s regret, the world underestimated Hitler, as well as other such demagogues, which makes this analogy all the more prescient.

There’s never been a doubt where Barker’s loyalties lie, even in the original “butchered” theatrical release, and no scene makes that clearer than the Bosch-like montage where we see man’s inhumanity to The Breed through history. Crucifixions, burnings, decapitations – a catalogue of atrocities with echoes of The Spanish Inquisition and The Nazi concentration camps – all committed in the name of “normalcy”. It’s a powerful scene and the clearest illustration of who the true monsters are, in Barker’s eyes. It’s not subtle, but he’s never been interested in subtlety. He’s interested in making his point as crystal-clear as possible: it’s always the outsiders among us who are the first to go to the wall.

Here’s the thing about horror: we celebrate the unorthodox. We embrace that which “normal” people find repulsive, disturbing. We admire and emulate The Other, because we find an affinity with them. And right now, there are people, the same ones Barker described above, who have been looking for a reason, or an excuse, to indulge their basest instincts. They have declared open season on anyone they deem “not them”. It’s happening in Britain, it’s now happening in America and, no matter your political leanings, you should be horrified and angered by this.

Things are going to get tough, that’s for sure. The angry and fearful have been given a voice, a force and been emboldened to use it. But even now, the resistance is forming. People are uniting to protect those who need protecting, to stand up in the face of intolerance. So there’s hope.

There’s something to be said about a film that celebrates variegation, especially when diversity is threatened. In a way, The Director’s Cut has come along when it might be needed most.

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