The Director's Cut of Nightbreed - What is all the fuss about?
The scale of the film has increased; this is not a ‘slasher’, but a film with design and worlds upon worlds
2“I have seen the future of horror, and his name is Clive Barker” Stephen King
A quote that has more to do with his writing than his filmic output. Indeed his literary genius is not in question, the early material (Books of Blood, Damnation Game, Weaveworld, Imajica are stunning in their complexity, and I still think Great and Secret Show is one of the best books ever written) demonstrate a creative master in all his glory. However, barring his huge success with Hellraiser, Clive Barker has hardly set the box office alight. Fans would have you believe that is because studio interference curtailed the creative genius; and whilst that is true to a certain degree other forces must be at play because in every other facet of life he is a success; writing, painting, drawing, stage directing etc. Indeed he only moved into films because he didn’t like the way his short stories were being treated by other directors. He therefore put together the crew for Hellraiser and, for a brief flash of time it looked like a new horror maestro was in town. Hellraiser is a gem of a movie, a multi-layered effort that plays out deceptively simply, but with a strong and coherent narrative drive. It drew on many of Barker’s ideas: worlds within worlds, dimensional demons, human lust etc. but only hinted at his true art; that of humans becoming the real villains who, more often than not, persecuted the ‘other’ beings, normally into extinction. Nightbreed was to try and readdress that.
Based on his novel, Cabal, Barker adapted it for the screen himself and was set to direct. He brought together a whole host of creative talent, both behind and in front of the camera and baring budgetary constraints managed to get his vision mostly on film. But here is where it gets sticky. Hellraiser, being both critically and commercially successful, the studios wanted ‘more of the same’ but Barker was now presenting a very different animal – that of transcending love, evil humans bent on extermination, otherworldly demons as sympathetic characters, etc. – and the producers felt it was a step too far. Thus the film was taken and re-edited, parts re-shot and then cobbled together in a form of ‘slasher’ picture. Clearly it did not make much sense in this form, as it was never meant to be such a film, and upon its initial cinema didn’t even recoup its money at the box office. It fared little better on the home video market, but did garner a small cult following. It was not until a work-print of the film was discovered, released on bootleg as ‘The Cabal Cut’, that things started to change. Fans felt that there was more to the film than the studio released version and a movement was put in place to get it a ‘proper’ release. It is from this Cabal cut that the new ‘Director’s Cut’ is mostly drawn – Barker has managed to go back to the editing suite, recut and reinstate the film as he originally envisaged it; boldly stating this is the lost masterpiece that everyone wants to see.
So, let us take a look at Nightbreed - how it was meant to be seen.
There are wild creatures.
They dance. They beckon.
Their form a blur. Sharp eye, spiked fir, incoherent shape.
A crescendo approaches, the dance becomes frantic.
Wild. Free. Abandonment. “Come” they trance, “Come”.
The Gate opens.
“Enter”, “Come”, “Be free”.
Our protagonist awakens. It was a dream. A dream he has had before, many times. Of creatures - otherworldly creatures - to some monsters - but Boone knows the truth. They may look like monsters, but they are benevolent, sympathetic; another civilisation on the cusp of reality in a place called Midian.
Boone is a troubled young man. He has been plagued by dreams for years. He has been in therapy for years. He dreams of Midian, of monsters and of murder. Played by a young Craig Sheffer, in the early part of the film he is energetic but confused; unsure of what is happening to him, or about his dreams and where he is going. But one thing is certain: his love for Lori. It is this love that he holds on to, needs, and keeps him grounded in a world he feels apart from. Played by an even younger Anne Bobby, in one of her first roles, initially she is as enthusiastically in love with Boone. She is a singer and an artist but will give it all up for Boone. They plan a future together, to get away from it all and hopefully mend Boone’s troubled mind.Everything is true. God's an Astronaut. Oz is Over the Rainbow, and Midian is where the monsters live.These opening scenes help to establish the relationship between Boone and Lori, when she comes to meet him at work, they embrace even though she is smartly dressed for work and he is filthy from welding – she is already showing that she loves ‘what’s inside’ and unconcerned with the outward appearance; something that will be tested later. Their bond is strong, and both Sheffer and Bobby share a reasonable chemistry together. Also introduced during these early scenes is our antagonist, that of Dr Philip Decker, a renowned psychiatrist and one that has been treating Boone for his dreams; though, recently he has become more enamoured with that of the Midian tales and wishes to use Boone to find this fabled place. For Decker is a true monster. A masked killer that slaughters anyone and everyone that takes his fancy, including children. And the tales of Midian have infuriated him: a sanctuary to the outcast or those on the fringe of reality he sees as aberrations and he yearns to become their scourge. Decker is brought to life by one David Cronenberg who was already, by that time, an accomplished film director in his own right, though he only had a few acting credits to his name, and he plays the character with a cold aloof, a near detachment showing how far he believes he is above those around him. Whether it is diagnosing Boone, manipulating the police or slaughtering innocence, the same cold and calculated demeanour dominates. Thus we have our main triangle: Boone the victim, Lori the stalwart and Decker the beast.
One of the masterful strokes about Barker’s style of writing is his way of throwing the reader into a situation as if they already know what is going on. Nearly all of his books have this common denominator. And it is only by reading through that the situations, characters, motivations and design come together in a glorious whole. And it is with that understanding that the truth of the writings come about – almost like ‘seeing the light’ or being born into the novel. It is a writing technique rarely used and when it works, as it always does with Barker, the results are phenomenal. Hellraiser, as a film, works because the story elements are told through flashback; all the salient plot points are inferred but given in due course in what is quite a traditional story telling narrative. With Nightbreed, Barker attempts to apply his writing style to a filmic narrative (check out Boone’s and Lori’s talk on the bed in the second scene) and whilst I applaud the idea the result doesn’t quite come off. The first act of the film sets up the characters well enough, we have an idea of who they are, but there is no actual motivation given for their drive; why is Decker a cold killer, what is the desire behind why he wants to invade Midian and how come he needs Boone as a conduit are just some of the questions we are left to ponder.
The first act also feels truncated somehow, as if, even with all the newly restored material, there is still something missing; the pace is very high, rushing towards the monster reveal, and without the necessary details outlined above it’s as if Barker is now falling foul of mixing his story telling narrative with traditional filming techniques. The ideas are there, but their flow is being mismanaged. This becomes horribly true with the second act which concerns itself with the humans arming up to wipe out Midian. The corruption of the police, and particularly that of Captain Eigerman, is well shown with the beating of Boone, but their forming a militia/posse seems a little rushed, even with Decker behind them pulling the strings before we rush head long into the final act, the attack on Midian, which takes up nearly half the runtime of the film. It is with this mismanaged timing this is my personal beef with the film; the build-up towards to the climax, even in this new and ‘complete’ form seems too rushed. The majesty of Barker’s interweaving story narrative gets lost in a rush to get to the final punch up. Even during this epic battle there are still story elements that come to fruition (that of Boone’s prophecy and re-naming to Cabal, etc.) that remain pivotal to the plot but are ‘hidden’ within the blood-shed.
However, after saying all that, the film is a million miles from what was originally released – there are now far better character definitions, the motivations behind their actions are better explained and, despite my personal reservations about the weighting given to the battle, the pacing allows for a better rounded film, with the original ending placing a much better emphasis on the transcending love aspect that Barker was keen to inject. There is also much more time spent in Midian itself, a greater array of monsters, even if they are only cameo appearances, and this helps lay the foundation that the area is a good place, one that needs to be preserved, making its destruction all the more unpalatable. The scale of the film is also increased; this is not a ‘slasher’ film, but a film with design and worlds upon worlds. And whilst I’d have preferred more in this regard (further investigation into the prophecy, the murals that adorn the walls, the mythology of the place etc.) what we do have is far better than what went before.there is some justification and vindication to be had that Nightbreed means so much that it can garner such support over the yearsAnd we should not belittle what we have here either – the culmination of years of work by a dedicated few to bring together a film, how it was meant to be released, some twenty five years after it was first shown. That is not to say we can forgive all the film’s sins just because of that, but there is some justification and vindication to be had that Nightbreed means so much to so few that it can garner such support over the years – and here we are. Indeed the film has been extensively re-graded to bring it to the vision that Barker had. Elfman was brought back in to re-score elements of the film than needed it. Talking of which, Elfman’s score is a wild cacophony of percussion and strings, Barker, himself, loves it, I’m not so convinced. Yes it is primal and invokes a sense of the ‘animal’ that is needed for the ‘monsters’ (both human and non), however it too feels rushed, almost childlike in its simplicity. Something with a bit more majesty is needed, especially in Midian. Though, I must admit, his action stingers do hit the ground running.
Cinematography duties were by Robin Vidgeon who was known for his work on Hellraiser (and its sequel) as well as camera work on some very well-known pictures (in a list that is far too exhaustive); this helped give a grander scale to the sets, especially that of Midian itself (which was a huge multi-story set). He also aided in giving depth by lensing action into the frame, the climactic battle is filled with such instances, however, I still can’t get over the fact that the film has a ‘studio’ feel to it; i.e. shot mostly on set – which it was. As any location shooting simply stands out as looking ‘real’. You could argue that this adds to the dreamlike quality that Barker was trying to achieve, I personally think is serendipity with the budgetary constraints.
Nightbreed, then is not a lost masterpiece returned. But it is a curious piece with plenty of ideas that makes a great deal more sense and is far, far more watchable and enjoyable that it was before.
At least Lord of Illusions, Barker’s next (and last) commercial film wouldn’t suffer quite so badly, but even that was studio edited before release … still only a month until we have that in its Director’s cut!
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