Originally released in February 1990, there were high hopes for Nightbreed, the new film from acclaimed writer Clive Barker whose feature directorial debut Hellraiser had captured the attention of the horror community upon its release in late 1987. Based on Barker’s second novel, 1988’s Cabal, Nightbreed told the story of an outsider framed for a series of brutal murders who seeks absolution in the underground society where he believes he will be accepted: “Midian’s where the monsters live.”
While Barker’s approach in Hellraiser had been, to be gentle, avante-garde, it was still a mild distillation of the short experimental black and white films he had shot in the seventies, Salome and The Forbidden. Nightbreed was more ambitious, yet if anything it was more tame in terms of what was explicitly shown; while there was murder and violence, Hellraiser’s focus had strongly leaned towards the taboos of torture, sadism, bondage and body modification long before it had passed in to the awareness of the general public.
Instead, Nightbreed would be more insidious, twisting the narrative knife: the monsters hiding in the shadows would be misunderstood misfits, the humans who occupied the supposed purity of daylight the villains, aggressive, intolerant, or simply fools willing to be led. That production company Morgan Creek would take a risk on a director known solely for risqué and confrontation material was not without precedent: though their greatest successes had been with the western revival Young Guns (1988) and the baseball comedy Major League (1989) which together grossed just under $100 million worldwide, they had also supported David Cronenberg, the enfant terrible of Canadian cinema, with his 1988 film Dead Ringers.
Perhaps crucially, unlike his previous Hollywood collaboration The Fly which grossed $60 million for Mel Brooks’ Brooksfilms in 1986 , Dead Ringers failed to even recoup its $13 million budget. As Morgan Creek discovered, the danger of working with directors who push boundaries is that their work does not have a guaranteed audience, regardless of quality or critical acclaim.
Nightbreed strayed from the outright horror of Hellraiser and Morgan Creek did not appreciate the ambiguous fantasia delivered to them where the monsters were hiding from the violent society which sought to destroy them, looked down upon by the police, by the priests, by the gun-happy members of the Sons of the Free who storm the walls of their sanctuary to burn them out. In order to reposition Nightbreed as what they felt was a more commercial proposition reshoots were ordered and the film was substantially re-edited before release.
The changes were not successful: with no concept how to market such an unusual film, the studio opted for the lowest common denominator of a slasher film, misrepresenting it as a hardcore horror and refusing to screen it for critics, fearful of what the reaction would be to a film they themselves did not understand. That the film managed to recoup $8.8 million of its $11 million production budget within the United States was a testament to those few critics who supported the film and the genuine interest of the audience in something new and original.
Morgan Creek later behaved exactly the same with William Peter Blatty on his adaptation of his own novel Legion, released as Exorcist III in August that very same year and would again with Paul Schrader on his prequel to The Exorcist, finally released as originally intended under the name Dominion in 2005. Though Barker continued producing many films based on his written work including multiple Hellraiser sequels and Candyman (1992) in addition to Bill Condon’s critically acclaimed Gods and Monsters (1998) he would only direct one more feature, 1995’s Lord of Illusions, which also was recut against his wishes.
Following the destruction of Midian, Nightbreed languished in the shadows, and due to the tangled web of legal rights has not been commercially available in Britain for many years. It was in 2009 that much of the excised footage was found in the Morgan Creek vaults, but it was not until 2012 that the “Cabal Cut” running to 145 minutes, considerably longer than the theatrical release, was premiered and shown at horror festivals around the world. This cut has now been whittled down to the preferred “director’s cut” of 120 minutes, featuring alternative and additional scenes of approximately forty minutes duration and given official release, albeit so far only in North America via Scream Factory.
Finally seen as Barker conceived it, how do the tribes of the night fare almost a quarter century on? Certainly the ambition of Barker’s vision is matched by the production values, from Ralph McQuarrie’s beautiful murals that adorn the walls of the Midian Necropolis to one of Danny Elfman’s best soundtracks, soaring and mysterious, and the design of Midian, Baphomet in particular, is astonishing. Matte shots which showed badly on the VHS have had their colour balance restored, meaning the film is much better presented, though there is still a noticeable jump between location filming and the lighting on the studio work.
As Aaron Boone and Lori Winston, Craig Sheffer and Anne Bobby make a good couple, particularly with the early part of the film strongly refocused on them. Boone is troubled by nightmares and unwanted telephone calls from his former psychotherapist, but Lori is caring, supportive and understanding and is also an independent woman with her own burgeoning musical career.
The scene of Lori leading her band in a rousing cover of Hal David’s Johnny Get Angry may seem at odds with the tone of a horror film, but that is precisely the point, that the characters exist as people beyond the events of the film, that what is to befall them does not define them, and by expanding them as individuals it strengthens their relationship and the film as a whole, establishing what is “normal” before the horror begins. Like watching the restored cut of Alien 3, the film now makes more sense, sense that wasn’t even apparent was previously missing.
With the hindsight of knowing how the narrative will unfold, it is difficult to judge whether the extended intro
duction of Doctor Phillip Decker is too heavy handed; without that foreknowledge, would the scene of him calling Aaron, just out of the shower and pressuring him to visit his offices, have been too obvious if left intact? In his first lead role, though he had previously appeared in cameos, the soft spoken David Cronenberg is creepy through his over-solicitous concern for Aaron’s wellbeing, his need for “a place where all your sins would be forgiven.”
What is interesting is that all the scenes of Sheffer in a state of undress were removed, though not because the studio could be considered prudish, as Catherine Chevalier’s bare breasts made the theatrical print intact. While Barker’s work, particularly specific short stories within the Books of Blood, had been openly homoerotic, that was very much a veiled subtext within both the novel Cabal and the film Nightbreed; the sweeping decision that male flesh was considered offputting for the supposedly predominantly male horror audience seems uncomfortably ill judged and overzealous.
Regrettably, some sections are still rushed – Boone’s return to Midian as one of the Breed, Decker’s insertion of himself in the police investigation, the clumsy introduction of certain characters – and crucially some of the additional footage simply doesn’t work.
Disappointingly, towards the end of the film many of the restored scenes detract from the overall experience. Behind prosthetics for much of the later part of the film Sheffer struggles to make his character work, particularly when he attempts to rally the Nightbreed to flee Midian before it is destroyed, his dialogue falling flat behind his frozen face.
The full performance of Malcolm Smith as Reverend Ashberry is particularly terrible, though Doug Bradley’s reinstated role as Lylesberg, the leader of the Nightbreed, now with Bradley’s own voice, is a high point. Bradley had of course played “Pinhead,” the lead Cenobite in Hellraiser, nor was he Barker’s only returning actor from that film; Simon Bamford, the timid tattooed sailor Ohnaka, had played the “Butterball” Cenobite, Nicholas Vince, the moon-faced Kinski had been the “Chatterer” Cenobite and Oliver Parker, the tentacle-headed Peloquin, had played a supporting role.
Crucially, the alternative ending which restores the events of the novel is rushed and unconvincing, even though on paper it was bolder than the conventional finale of the cinema release. Perhaps had Barker been allowed to complete the work as he intended, he might even have wished to reshoot these scenes himself rather than accept the studio dictated alternatives which were presented in the cinema version. It is undeniable that in many ways the director’s cut is an improvement upon the theatrical version and the intention and achievement of all involved is certainly admirable, but Clive Barker’s original novel remains the definitive telling of the story.