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MOVIE REVIEW : The Monsters Earn Our Sympathy in Barker's 'Nightbreed'

February 19, 1990|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

Like many specialists in horror, writer-film maker Clive Barker loves to rip beneath the bland surface of the everyday and watch the rot, filth and hellishness come tumbling out. But in his latest movie, "Nightbreed" (citywide), some of the psycho-sexual plumbing has backed up. The extraordinary and the mundane, the fearsome and the banal, swirl around in a sometimes turbid, tepid flood,

In "Nightbreed," Barker introduces us to a dark world where monsters cavort beneath a Canadian graveyard. They're a wild, coy, nightmare brood. One piercing- eyed growler has dreadlocks of matted flesh and a voice like Darth Vader in an echo chamber. Another chubby, Buddha-like gent has a head growing out of his bellybutton. A jovial sidekick likes to liven things up by tearing his face off.

Most horror specialists would turn this crew into sadistic predators. Not Barker, who, as we know from such books as "Weaveworld" and "Books of Blood" and such movies as "Hellraiser," saves much sympathy for his monsters. Sometimes, as here, they're the freaks, hippies, social misfits or revolutionaries, preyed on by the true villains: in "Nightbreed," a super-rational psychiatrist, obsessed with destroying the deviant (David Cronenberg), and a machismo-besotted police chief. They're the real maniacs.

The cop is gun-crazy; the psychiatrist is a serial killer working in a mask that looks like Claude Rains' "Invisible man" bandages redesigned by Edvard Munch. Faced by these psychoses, the misdeeds of the gamboling nightbreed--biting a chunk out of hero Craig Sheffer's shoulder before he gets killed and joins them or leering at heroine Anne Bobby while pushing her into a coffin--seem trivial.

They're friendly folk, sociable ghouls, less the walking dead than the carousing dead. The jolly and communal forces of darkness against the hypocritical and murderous forces of light: that's the conflict of "Nightbreed."

It's an interesting idea--but not a very good movie. There's a thick, clunky quality to "Nightbreed." There are remarkable moments scattered throughout--wild nightmare visions and a tingling sound track keyed around Danny Elfman's music--but it tends to bump along from scene to scene, picking up blood and gore like molasses on a rolling skull. There are illogical leaps, a helter-skelter mood. The presence of two editors, Richard Marden and Mark ("The Terminator") Goldblatt, suggests post-production difficulties.

Then too there's the presence of master horror director David Cronenberg ("Videodrome," "Dead Ringers") as the major villain. Cronenberg has a wonderful look for the part: saturnine and softly menacing like a young Martin Landau. But his mild, wormy delivery--intended to suggest the polished, civilized creep who works out his own deviance by killing others--has no depth, no intensity.

Cronenberg fans fearful that acting chores may cut down his film making should rest easy. He shouldn't be getting any new roles based on this performance, and, if he does, he should probably turn them down.

The biggest flaw in the film, however, may stem from Barker's one great weakness as a writer: his over-simple, over-stylized, near-monosyllabic dialogue. At his worst, Barker writes airport novel dialogue--six or seven words surrounded by white space and an occasional obscenity--and it often sounds less like William Blake in a Hemingway straitjacket than Jackie Collins trying to do Harold Pinter.

Barker can be a fascinating writer and film maker. He revels in taboo and savage metaphor; for him, the truest horror comes from ourselves or the people who pretend to lead us. Where others see terror, he sees lyricism; where others see fear, he often sees desire.

But in "Nightbreed" (MPAA rated R for sex, language and violence) neither the coyly horrible killers nor the horribly coy monsters register strongly enough. It's a dark beast with a flabby hide.

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