After the success in translating his novella The Hellbound Heart to the screen as 1987's grisly Hellraiser, writer/director Clive Barker attempted to do the same for his novel Cabal. Unfortunately the results were less successful, both for fans of the source material and cinemagoers in general. Yet the film that Cabal became, Nightbreed, established a strong cult following.
|Director: Clive Barker
Starring: Craig Sheffer, David Cronenberg, Anne Bobby,Charles Haid, Hugh Quarshie
Screenplay: Clive Barker
The version we got in cinemas and on home video up to this point is, apparently, not the true Nightbreed. Due to clashes with the production company and the MPAA, amongst others, Barker had to cut a lot out of the theatrical release of Nightbreed, presumably to its detriment. The rabid Nightbreed fan base has, over the years, demanded not only a decent Blu-Ray release of the film, but one that restores much of the material that had been cut from the final theatrical release. Nightbreed The Cabal Cut, a workprint of the flick that essentially had stuffed everything Barker had filmed into it and ran for a tremendous two-and-a-half hours, did the rounds at some festivals and special screenings in the U.S., and that is the version that some fans expected Shout Factory would release on Blu-Ray.
Needless to say, this ain't The Cabal Cut. This is the so-called Director's Cut. But, like numerous other Director's Cuts of your favourite films, there are pros and cons to these revised versions. Whilst it's good to see new footage integrated into a film you know and love, sometimes there's a reason why we weren't treated to it in the first place. Unfortunately, for those expecting a Heaven's Gate reappraisal thanks to a vastly superior extended cut, you won't get it with this director's cut.
Troubled young man Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer) is plagued with visions of a mystical place called Midian – he's not sure if these visions are real or not, so he relies upon his unquestionably creepy psychiatrist Decker (director David Cronenberg) to get his head in the right place. Unfortunately for Boone, Decker is a psychopathic serial killer, intent on framing Boone for a series of family murders that he unmistakably committed. Upon following a kindred spirit to Midian, Boone is bitten by one of the 'residents' there, and when he's gunned down by cops he realises he's become one of the "nightbreed". Boone's long-suffering girlfriend Lori (Anne Bobby) travels to Midian to learn the truth about Boone's fate and what lies within Midian – but so too does Decker.
Nightbreed has had a long and tortuous production and release history, and it shows. The film is oddly uneven; by turns mundane, fantastical, bloody, imaginative and just downright odd. The tone of the film is all over the place. One moment it's a brutal slasher film, the next a genuinely intriguing monster movie, the next a fairly routine love story set amidst a bunch of weird characters – case in point, Captain Eigerman (an unrestrained Charles Haid) is the nastiest (Nazi-iest?) character in a film that features David-fucking-Cronenberg as primary antagonist and a collection of freakish monsters. The film doesn't flow like it should, presumably a result of having sections chopped short or cut out entirely. So one might assume that the Director's Cut would fix that. One would be wrong.
Honestly, other than the addition of a few scenes which add little to the story – certainly not as much as I would have hoped with regards to fleshing out the background of Midian and its inhabitants – I couldn't pick what was different between this so-called "director's cut" and the original theatrical cut, other than the pace felt a little softer 'round the middle. There's a long, looooong scene with Lori singing at a club, a few extra bits between her and Boone, some more scenes with Decker and a different ending. Apparently as Barker explains in the introduction to the director's cut, along with an additional 20 minutes of new scenes there are about another 25 minutes of alternate takes or replaced shots throughout the film, though not being a die-hard fan it was hard to determine what had been replaced. Honestly, most of it felt unnecessary, trying to expand upon what was only hinted at in the original cut, but not going far enough to justify their addition.
Some of the edits feel a little clumsy and awkward, but for the most part this still feels like the Nightbreed I grew up with and admired, if not downright loved. It's as uneven as ever, but what made it work the first time around still make it work now. Performances range from respectable (Bobby) to adequate (Cronenberg, who's low-key but interesting in his own unique way) to absolutely awful (Captain Eigerman's bespeckled sidekick has a cringe-worthy scene where he fetishises a garrotte). Sheffer isn't the dynamic, charismatic lead that the film required, but he ably carries much of the film on his broad shoulders.
Barker delivers the chunky stuff when it's needed, even though it's not as twisted as Hellraiser's S&M-inspired getup, or nearly as gore-tastic. Nightbreed throbs with the threat of danger for much of its running time, rather than relying on copious amounts of bloodletting, which is a wise choice. We don't know precisely what these creature are or what Midian represents, but we know they're dangerous when threatened. That danger is realised, but unfortunately this turns Nightbreed into a loud, chaotic mess. Why have one explosion when you can have four? So it's a strange combination of horror and spectacle, though lacking the budget to deliver satisfactorily on the latter front. And if you were hoping that the Director's Cut would add more spectacular grue, prepare to be disappointed. It's an attempt to refocus the story on more than blood and guts…emphasising – what's that thingy that most movies have? – ah yes, story and character.
However the addition of these new scenes also means that part of Danny Elfman's superb, propulsive score have been reused, which even the most careless of viewers will surely notice. It's not a dealbreaker, but it is annoyingly apparent.
Also, the Director's Cut doesn't fix some of the negatives of the original version: the silly, rubbery berserkers still look like grey turds on legs, there's precious little motivation for most of the characters and hardly any explanation for what the hell is actually going on, some of the dialogue is pretty cringeworthy and the occasional supposedly humourous line sticks out like an erection in a soap bath. Any thoughtfulness is jettisoned with the overblown, noisy and explosive finale. Admittedly there is more emphasis on how Midian's inhabitants are the misunderstood "good guys", with additional footage emphasising the fascistic, lunatic tendencies of the local police and its leader even more than the original, but it's still a far cry from the depth and quality of Barker's novel.
Thankfully the new ending works a lot better than that hoary old "bad guy returns from the grave" ending of the original – this new ending feels more poetic and in line with the whole "prophecy" angle, even though we get a daft Gone With The Wind shot of the lovers against a dramatic backdrop.
Don't get me wrong, I still love Nightbreed. It's like the inbred cousin of Hellraiser that everyone remembers seeing but isn't spoken about in polite company. The Director's Cut fixes some of the story issues and choppiness of the original release, but doesn't correct anything more than that, and in some cases actually accentuates the film's problems. If you want a great release of the original film that you grew up on, you'll find Shout Factory's release is well worth your while, particularly if you want to spend the extra bucks (and that's quite a few extra bucks) on the Limited Edition that includes both the Director's Cut and the Theatrical Cut – do take note, though, that this version is probably out of stock by the time you read this.Long story short? Don't expect this particular cut of Nightbreed to take the film to a whole new level of awesomeness. It's still as messy and strange and uneven as ever.