[The following review contains SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
Contrary to what the sequels might lead you to believe, Pinhead and his Order of the Gash are not the primary antagonists of the original Hellraiser. Despite their utterly incomprehensible customs and distorted values—their kinky, sadomasochistic explorations of “the further regions of experience,” where pleasure and pain become interchangeable and indistinguishable—they aren’t actively malicious, and only become directly involved in the conflict near the story’s climax. The movie’s true villains are the comparatively mundane Frank and Julia, a pair of selfish, homicidal adulterers that take the phrase “violent passion” a little too literally. Unlike the extradimensional Cenobites, these amoral lovers know the conventionally accepted difference between right and wrong, good and evil—they simply don’t care, unrepentantly committing heinous acts in the pursuit of their own gratification.
With Nightbreed, novelist turned cinéaste Clive Barker elaborates upon this theme. To the outside observer, the eponymous subterranean creatures appear to be grotesquely deformed and abhorrently alien (one particularly memorable beast that lurks in the background of several shots, for example, resembles an enormous plucked chicken with a vaguely anthropoid head situated between its legs); in reality, however, they are essentially harmless (some minor cannibalism and hostility towards trespassers notwithstanding), preferring to avoid encounters with “Naturals” whenever possible. The human characters, on the other hand, are significantly more monstrous—especially Captain Eigerman, a corrupt, genocidal police officer that leaps at the opportunity to eradicate the reclusive civilization secretly residing in the network of crypts, caverns, and tunnels beneath his jurisdiction.
But it is Dr. Philip Decker (played by an eerily soft-spoken David Cronenberg, the filmmaker behind such cult classics as Scanners, Videodrome, and the remake of The Fly) that personifies Nightbreed’s central thesis. On the surface, the esteemed psychotherapist seems to be the consummate professional—polite, compassionate, and absolutely trustworthy. Underneath his unassuming, mild-mannered exterior, however, he’s actually a sadistic, manipulative serial killer—and unfortunately, he’s shrewd and charismatic enough to pin his savage murders on innocent scapegoats, shielded from scrutiny by a façade of superficial “normalcy.”
Thus, demons skulk not in the shadows without, but rather in the darkest recesses of the hearts of so-called "ordinary" men. It’s a familiar message, but Barker communicates it effectively, compensating for the film’s disjointed narrative, choppy editing, and lackluster visual style (flaws that can probably be attributed to studio interference). Packed with more extraneous details and underdeveloped ideas than its relatively scant running time can comfortably accommodate, Nightbreed is ultimately a bit of a mess… but at least it’s an entertaining mess. I award bonus points for ambition—and this scrappy, offbeat horror flick has plenty of ambition to spare.