Today, Clive Barker’s wildly imaginative Nightbreed celebrates its 25th anniversary. While that is a remarkable feat in itself, the journey that the film has taken over the years has become the project’s enduring legacy within the horror genre. The recent Director’s Cut release of Nightbreed has been the ultimate vindication for Barker, who saw his vision snapped away decades ago from producers who believed they understood the world of Midian- and all its monsters- better than their creator.
Of course, that wasn’t the case, as Nightbreed received a disastrous response when it arrived in theaters, maligned mostly for its lack of subtlety and nuanced storytelling that was found within the pages of Barker’s original novella, Cabal. When Barker decided to move forward on adapting his work for the big screen, he was quick to rely on his some of his very closest friends to bring many of his vividly unique characters to life.
For Hugh Ross, his character Narcisse was actually based on work that he had done some years prior during Barker’s days running The Dog Company Theatre Group. “I had met Clive socially through mutual friends during his Dog Company days. I was also acting in the theater at the time and had done this really over-the-top version of Mother Goose, which I think tickled Clive the right way because that planted the seeds for the character of Narcisse in some ways, he once told me.”
“We had kept in touch throughout the 80’s and, then suddenly, I had this screenplay that showed up out of the blue one day with my name on it and it just all came together from there for Nightbreed. The great thing about Clive is that he’s extremely loyal to his friends and whenever he was working on one of these things, he’d always try to find ways of involving us.”
Barker also called on several of his Hellraiser brethren when it came time to put together Nightbreed, including Doug Bradley, Nicholas Vince, and Simon Bamford, who had all portrayed Cenobites in the visionary filmmaker’s first feature. According to Bamford, Barker’s second movie allowed them all more of a chance to do some real performance work, a dream for the aspiring actors that performing under their Cenobite costumes never allowed them to fulfill.
“To have the opportunity to really act in Nightbreed was incredible and such a wonderful experience for me and I think for all of us who were involved with Hellraiser too,” explained Bamford. “It was also a very exciting time for Clive because there was such a buzz around the project as we went into production- people were calling it the Star Wars of the fantasy horror world and we all truly believed it. The screenplay was so beautiful, it made me weep the first time I read it and I knew after that, this was going to be a very special milestone for my career.”
When it came time to cast Nightbreed’s hero, Barker found his Cabal in Craig Sheffer, an up-and-coming actor who had recently starred in Howard Deutch’s Some Kind of Wonderful as the film’s resident rich kid bully. Another rising star in Hollywood would also be cast in Nightbreed, Anne Bobby, who had recently appeared in films like The Pick-Up Artist and Born on the Fourth of July. Bobby was hired to play opposite of Sheffer as his love interest and the one person in the world who believed in him and his love.
Bobby recounted how she landed the role of Lori and the various elements to the script that initially piqued her interests. “I had a pretty run-of-the-mill experience for Nightbreed; the script came across my agent’s desk and I thought it was really interesting. I went ahead and read Books of Blood before I met Clive and then I had a meeting with the first casting director, Todd Taylor, and Clive in the same day. We all hit it off and while I was completely drawn in by his creativity, I think what I responded to the most about Clive was his theatrical background and his vision for that kind of performance art. He has this amazing improvisational approach with his actors and I loved his willingness to just let us all go for it.”
“I was also obsessed with mythology and the classics and I think the story having this kind of Homeric aspect to it was something that caught my interests. I also probably gravitated towards this story just because Lori also has a journey to take in Nightbreed too which made her a hero also. That was great because that doesn’t happen much in movies as most times the love interest to the film’s hero never gets their own fully realized storyline but that’s what made Clive’s work so special. Every character mattered and I loved the fact that Lori had to walk through the fire so that she could find her man and also find her own purpose as well.”
“Another thing I liked about Lori was that she became this kind of gateway for Boone to his humanity so that he never lost sight of who he was in either form of his being. There’s still a humanity to him and his actions even after he crosses over reflect that, and I think that only made him a much more complex and compelling hero in Nightbreed,” added Bobby.
To Ross, he saw Nightbreed as an opportunity for him to do something completely liberating as a performer, but the project would also allow Barker room to play more as well- at least at first.
“I found working on Nightbreed a thrilling experience because Narcisse was such an amazing character to be able to play around with and Clive gave me all the space I needed to really find just who this guy really was. It was a completely liberating experience for me. I also think it was an amazing experience for him initially and also a bit daunting too. Hellraiser was a small picture that was containable for him. It was mostly within the house so that restriction helped him in some ways. For Nightbreed though, the budget was much larger and the worlds were much bigger in comparison to that first experience he had directing.”
Creating those bigger worlds that Barker’s ambitious story needed was left to production designer Steve Hardie who was tasked with bringing Midian to life. While Hardie had worked on several high profile project previously, this was his first time handling the production design for a feature film.
“In hindsight, everything on Nightbreed was really ambitious but I just didn’t necessarily recognize it at the time,” explained Hardie. “I think my ambition on the film was fueled by my naiveté actually (laughs) so I didn’t know any better, really. I recognized though that movies like Nightbreed weren’t being made at that time so I knew this was going to be something special because we were going to be creating these amazing worlds and I wanted to be a part of that, badly.
“And Nightbreed was a huge deal for me though, to be able to create these bigger than life sets at Pinewood, and I knew that the design aspects would have huge challenges. The pressure was on. And I remember that the other movie shooting at the studio at the same time as us was Tim Burton’s Batman so I was on cloud nine for the entire shoot.”
Despite the fact that Hardie was relatively untested at this level of production design, he discussed how Barker was relatively hands-off when it came time for him to get to work on the film. “Clive surprisingly gave me a lot of freedom. Despite his prolific artistic output, which would make people immediately think that he was going to have to sign off on every little detail of Nightbreed but he didn’t do that at all. The script didn’t really offer me much to go off of when I started conceptualizing Midian but the novel was very instrumental. That’s where Clive gave us all his written clues as to this world and how it should be created. There was definitely a sense of artistic collaboration on Nightbreed too as I worked often in Bob Keen’s area so he and I would often bounce ideas off of each other.”
“I took a pragmatic approach because I knew what we had to work with and I knew what we needed to accomplish so I just got creative on making everything work. We’d recycle pieces of the set a lot; the columns you see in Baphomet’s chamber were recycled in several other locations inside Midian which we knew we could get away with and it wouldn’t appear cheap, either. The texture of Midian was important too and because that stayed consistent throughout, we knew we could reuse walls and design elements like that for different shots. We wasted nothing on Nightbreed.”
“The biggest challenge for me on Nightbreed was that I had to create this elaborate underground world but I didn’t want it to feel claustrophobic,” added Hardie. “It needed air and it needed room for these characters to exist within the confines of the space. I used the design of a coffin for inspiration which I thought worked perfectly; because a coffin has six sides, I thought it would be cool if everything had this sort of hexagonal design to it so that the look of Midian would have a cohesiveness to it.”
Despite overcoming budgetary restrictions, Hardie’s successes were almost short-lived as before filming began, disaster struck the set of Nightbreed. “The main set of Midian actually caught fire before we even shot a single frame of Nightbreed; it was pretty crazy. I can’t remember where I was exactly but all I remember was hearing these fire engine sirens getting closer and closer to us and then someone yelled, “FIRE!” and apparently one of the studio lights had burst and part of the set burst into flames. It wasn’t a total disaster though just because they were able to put the fire out and no one was hurt either. The set survived too and in fact, the fire gave it something of an aged look so it didn’t hurt production that much, thankfully.”
Check back tomorrow for the second part of our Nightbreed 25th anniversary feature and look for details on our special Clive Barker issue of DEADLY Magazine later this week.