After yet another weird nightmare, Boone (Craig Sheffer) awakes in the bed of his girlfriend Lori (Anne Bobby) who suggests he visit his psychiatrist one more time to see if he can help. His psychiatrist is Dr Decker (David Cronenberg) who does his best to find out what has been troubling the young man and his dreams of a place called Midian which is filled with strange creatures. But he has to finally admit to Boone that he believes his patient is responsible for a spate of serial killings across the city, killings that see whole families wiped out. Decker persuades him that he should take the pills he has prescribed, and go to the police to confess, but after Boone swallows his dosage, he is later found wandering dazed in the road. What is Decker up to?
In the eighties, it looked as if Britain had a new answer to Stephen King and a successor to James Herbert, and that chap was Clive Barker who made an impact with such books as Weaveworld, and had branched out into film with the successful Hellraiser. When it came to adapting his novel Cabal, it looked very promising, yet alas the studio making the film were unhappy with Barker's singular vision and ended up recutting the film, now titled Nightbreed, against the writer-director's wishes. Not that it did much good, and the film slipped quickly into an obscure footnote in Barker's career instead of being the first in a series that it so obviously wished to be.
As if in tribute, horror director Cronenberg is a supporting star as the sinister psychiatrist who almost accidentally sets Boone on his path of discovery. And Decker is perhaps the most interesting character, although whether that's down to the novelty casting or the writing is a moot point as everyone in this film seems underwritten. Sheffer fails to breathe any charisma into his role, and tends to be someone things happen around rather than someone things happen because of. We're in the territory where Barker poses the question, who are the real monsters, is it the humans? yet doesn't provide any convincing answers.
Recovering in the hospital, Boone hears another patient mention Midian and is immediately intrigued. After the patient starts cutting bits of his own head off, Boone understandably can't get much sense out of him, but does glean the information about the general direction that the fabled place lies in. You might think it would be tricky to track down, but Boone manages to drive there in less than a day, and finds a large cemetery where he nods off. When he wakes up, it's night time and he is captured by two freakish looking men, one of whom rather antisocially wants to eat him. Boone escapes with a bite to the shoulder, but the police are waiting for him outside the gates.
As you can see, Nightbreed is not short on incident, and there's a feeling as it all flies by that the film is amusing nobody but itself. Boone has to be turned into a monster to be accepted by the denizens of Midian, and this happens after Decker prompts the cops to shoot him dead in the belief he is carrying a gun. Ah, but the bite he has received has werewolf-like properties, and despite the handicap of being deceased, Boone flees the morgue and returns to the cemetery. However, now the cops - and Decker - know where the monsters live, leading to pandemonium. The film takes itself very seriously, and like a lot of what works on the page, on screen it just looks silly and more of a showcase for the makeup and effects (a long sequence features Lori simply wandering the underground city to show off the various creations). Still, it may be a mishmash with poor characters, but it has a determination to conjure up imaginative episodes that means it's never boring. Music by Danny Elfman.