Scarier than anything in Nightbreed is the way it was treated by its theatrical distributor, Twentieth Century Fox. Apparently the only kind of horror the studio’s marketing yo-yos understand is teen splatter pics, and that’s how they pushed this one: Promoted with a dumb tagline and poster art from another movie entirely, Nightbreed died in theaters from lack of oxygen.

Home video is the new proving-ground, however, and Nightbreed should gain a sizable VCR cult. It offers plenty of gore for horror fanatics, but the talented novelist-turned-director Clive Barker (Hellraiser) is working from far deeper sources than the latest hit slasher film. The story, adapted from Barker’s novel Cabal, is baroque to the point of incoherence: After his shrink frames him for a string of serial killings, Boone (Craig Sheffer) flees to an underground city of ”the Nightbreed” — a freakish race of living dead who have banded together for one last stand against the human world. From the film’s gothic sets, fantastic makeup, and nightmarish plot line, it’s clear that Barker owes as much to Poe and Lovecraft as to classic Hollywood screamers like Island of Lost Souls.

But Barker’s most perverse touch is that he makes these creatures the good guys (no wonder the PR flacks were bamboozled). Despite their grotesque appearance, they’re a more colorful and engaging bunch than the emissaries of the ”normal” world. Barker piles on more subversive subtext than his story can bear — it’s a monster movie, after all — but his daft, Grand Guignol vision has real power. The quality that freaked out the studio, Barker’s ambition, is precisely what makes Nightbreed so impressive. B

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