Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Clive Barker's Nightbreed: An Allegory for Intolerance


When I was taking a Black American Cinema course in college, a classmate proposed the idea of how X-Men characters and their stories are related to general themes found in grappling race in American society. This proposal can become a touchy subject. Comparing institutionalized racism/systemic discrimination/micro-aggressions people of color side-eye daily  to just about anything is almost always problematic. But it also prompts deeper conversations that need to happen in order for our environments to be less wrought with these prevailing issues.
    
Nightbreed, a film released in 1990 was written and directed by Clive Barker. It follows the tale of Aaron Boone, a man plagued by dreams of murders he's convinced he has committed. He finds relief in other reoccuring dreams he has about a place called Midian. A place "where the monsters live" and "where his sins will be forgiven."

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Boone's quest for Midian and the betrayal by his psychotic shrink Decker manipulates Boone's thoughts and memories. In a strange twist of fate, it leads Boone to discover the nightbreed; monsters that live beneath Midian. Hiding from humankind for the sake of their survival.

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Boone is bitten by one of them right before the police track him down and fire multiple bullets into his chest. But the bite revives Boone and he makes his way back to Midian where he is now nightbreed himself. Boone's mysterious resurrection leads the police, accompanied by Decker and Boone's willful girlfriend Lori in search of Boone, Midian and what exactly lies beneath. As much as the film's climax is riddled with destruction, it also revels in immortality. Life and death are central themes in the film. 

They are not what they first appear. We sometimes think of monsters as the purveyors of our undoing. In Nightbreed, they are the "shapeshifters, freaks" that dwell beneath the soil because they are condemned to darkness by humanity. But the light of these monsters is shown through the religious symbolism they are given. Midian is described as a place you must deem yourself to be worthy to pass through. A place that "takes away the pain." There are rules to be followed that preserve its existence followed by a ritual where the tribes of the moon must embrace you.

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Heaven can be described as such a place. You must live a worthy life under God's law and if you pass His judgement, your sins will be forgiven and the pain of life will be a distant memory. Both believers and non-believers understand this static dogma. No longer amongst the living, you now have supernatural abilities, some that can transcend death, much like Boone. Decker later in the film proclaims, he is death. A charismatic, mild-tempered man who killed 16 families (men, women, and children) framing Boone dreads happiness. In the beginning of the film, we see a couple giggling and content, followed by their gruesome on-screen deaths by a figure we later learn is Decker. The couple's son, a child no more than 6 years old we imagine was slain as well. I still wrestle with the idea of the effective purpose of showing that child's death on screen. For my own visceral sensibilities, every time I watch Nightbreed, I'm glad we don't.

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"...I'm death... plain and simple."
Decker wanted to 'clean up breeders,' the givers of life. The police on the other hand play another important role in death. Hellbent on destroying Midian and its inhabitants lead by the police sheriff, the destruction of Midian and the nightbreed is symbolic of what has been described as hell. This fight between the nightbreed and the police takes place at night, lit by massive fires, explosions and death as the police are the hunters, nightbreed their prey. Where heaven embodies everlasting life, hell is equated to everlasting death. Beyond the illusion that Boone is a murderer, the police take their motivation a step further.

Why seek destruction of a place and those who live there? When Lori first goes searching for Boone and finds herself below Midian, she awakens in a coffin-like structure to find Rachel and her daughter Babette whom she helped dodge death from the sun prior. Rachel informs Lori of who they are, the "last survivors of the great tribes," "the remains of races that your tribe have almost driven to extinction." 

The words that follow speak to the human condition and the politics of difference:

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Rachel: To be able to fly, to be smoke, or a wolf? To know the night and live in it forever? That's not so bad. You call us 'monsters,' but when you dream, you dream of flying, and changing, and living without death. You envy us, and what you envy...

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Lori:...We destroy.

The concept of othering is described as a process where a person or group of people can identify themselves by what they are not by comparing themselves with someone else that is different from them, most specifically in their physical appearance.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has related othering to the system colonialism and white supremacy. "The business of creating the enemy…in order that the empire might define itself by its geographical and racial others." The people who are marginalized, exploited, excluded from everyday life are defined in opposition of a the so-called normal self. There is no normal or default without an ‘other’ for comparison. The constant name-calling ("freak") and the brutality forced on Boone when the police capture him was an act of separation. Aside from the obvious finale of the film where the police 'seek to destroy what they envy,' the nightbreed, represent rather dramatically in the realm of science-fiction/horror, what is not normal, what is the 'other' as brutality and name-calling is historic in the social human condition. 

Viewing this film for probably the hundredeth time through a critcal lense, I thought about other ideas I could muster to consider. Decker could've possibly been so consumed by the idea of his own immortality that annihilating signs of life didn't quench an impulse but ignited his madness. If someone calls themselves death, the crave that moniker. Such complicating a running theme in horror which is nihilism. Lori and Boone's love for one another could be seen as a catalyst to the destruction of Midian and the nightbreed.

Do the human emotions we're convinced make us feel alive lead to death?

How far does Midian express the extension of life?  

Nightbreed is probably one of the more underrated films in the cinematic landscape, leaving it's mark in Entertainment Weekly's "100 Best Movies You Never Heard Of". Clearly, because almost everytime I ask someone if they've seen it, I get a simple 'no.' Visually stunning with a realistic feel of old-school special effects, I would challenge schools to teach it in lessons. Because I too dream of flying, strength, and immortality. And I know without knowing that many young people who sit in classrooms bored with curriculum that can't relate to do as well. Nightbreed is an overgrown fairytale with the ambition to expose human nature, and to change it.

I always think the whole thing about the 'lost tribe' is Biblical anyway, as is the idea of a lost tribe being found and led to safety or salvation - or attempting to but failing as in this particular case - but also because, and this is always true in what I write or do in the movies, there's a kind of religious subtext, an iconographic thing going on. It's the flipside of the morality which usually informs this type of movie, in that here the monsters are the good guys, the creatures are the sympathetic ones. 

They are humane. And humanity, represented by priests, cops and analysts - the three forces of authority - are absolutely, unreservedly bastards. Here we've made a conscious attempt to make positive forces of various creatures who are usually spat on in life or in the movies. But, particularly, I've tried to get at something which I think is the subtext of an awful lot of horror and fantasy movies - that the forces of darkness, the things that are supposedly morally repugnant - are the things we really like.

-Clive Barker


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