Braving the savagely compromised theatrical cut of Clive Barker’s Nightbreed

Clive Barker’s 1990 film Nightbreed has long been a cult favourite of horror fans, and their enthusiasm has been amped up in the last year with grass-roots screenings of the new Cabal Cut. This rough assembly, using rediscovered VHS workprints and the theatrical DVD, reportedly presents a vastly improved film that hews much closer to Barker’s original vision, which was ravaged by cuts and reshoots for its theatrical release only to be a critical and commercial failure.

Based on Barker’s own novel, Cabal, Nightbreed is the story of Boone (Craig Sheffer), a man plagued by violent dreams only to be told by his therapist, Decker (David Cronenberg!), that he has actually committed serial murders in real life. Horrified, Boone flees and seeks out Midian, a community of monsters and mutants who live beneath a necropolis north of Calgary, convinced he belongs with them after having strange visions of their city. I could explain more but there are twists and turns that are best left a surprise. Well, they are when reading the book, but the theatrical cut hardly does them justice. But we’ll get to the specifics later. Just learning that the true version of the film was lost out there somewhere piqued my interest.

Lost and rediscovered cuts instantly get me interested in a film, and I wrote a couple of posts on the topic a few years ago. When I learned of Nightbreed‘s situation and the still-unfolding saga of the Cabal Cut, my long-standing intent to check out Barker’s work became a priority. His reputation as a creative but unflinching purveyor of visceral and sensual horror was compelling, even though I’m not a huge horror buff.

I first saw Hellraiser a few months ago and was bowled over. Intense, disturbing, and truly unlike any horror film I’d seen, it was hard to believe it was made in 1987. Despite some wobbly effects, the sinister power of Pinhead and the Cenobites hasn’t diminished at all. I don’t know how often I could watch such films, but this one was a striking experience.

Now certain that Barker’s work wouldn’t prompt me to run away screaming, I sought out the theatrical cut of Nightbreed so that if I ever got the chance to see the Cabal Cut, the improvements would have the full impact. That cut has been screening at film festivals around the world, with panel discussions attended variably by cast members, Barker, co-head of Barker’s production company Mark Miller (who found the VHS workprint in Barker’s office of all places) and restoration director Russell Cherrington (who assembled the Cabal Cut with Barker’s consultation).

Rights holder Morgan Creek have not yet found the original 35mm negatives, but have declared they will release a Blu-ray of the Cabal Cut if funds can be raised by the cinema screenings (Nightbreed, after all, remains a fairly unknown commercial quantity, despite the high attendance at these screenings). Cherrington notes that it’s been decades since studios discarded film negatives, so they likely just need to be located. It’s a safe bet that the more attention Nightbreed gets, however, the more enthusiastic Morgan Creek will be to search for them (and based on their comments on the “Occupy Midian” Facebook page, they now seem quite jazzed about the project).

To get the best possible perspective on Barker’s vision, I read Cabal as well. The prose wasn’t as lush as I expected, but the mythology was fascinating and Barker’s imagination abundant. Cabal is the kind of horror fantasy novel that suggests a world beyond its confines, especially since this is a slim 230-page book. Little wonder that Barker has mooted sequels over the years. Impressed by the cinematic story and the vividness of Midian, my enthusiasm for Nightbreed grew.

So then the theatrical cut, which I watched for the first time a couple of nights ago. I knew this would be an academic exercise, but given the love the film has earned over the last two decades, I expected a somewhat satisfying experience. Perhaps a film can never be judged fairly when there’s a superior cut out there, but I still find it hard to believe anyone was ever satisfied by this film as a narrative experience. Nightbreed has clearly been hacked to ribbons, racing from one scene to the next avoiding nearly all opportunities for characterisation, texture, or even menace.

Yes, Nightbreed is a decidedly tame horror film, even accounting for its vintage. Granted, Barker was aiming to make the Star Wars of horror films rather than one as intense as Hellraiser, but Nightbreed is still meant to be horror. Yet the studio edit has compromised virtually every shot in the film, tightening them to within an inch of their lives so that the film suffocates. Building tension, atmosphere, and dread in that context is understandably impossible.

What is clear is that a far more substantial film was shot. You don’t create such elaborate sets and dazzling creatures only to blaze past them as if they mean nothing. The world of Midian itself is devastated, not by the siege at the film’s climax, but by the editing that barely allows us to experience it. Except for an extended sequence where Boone’s girlfriend Lori (Anne Bobby) walks through Midian and past its colourful inhabitants, the very environment of this film is a plot device, yet in service to a plot that speeds by so quickly it barely registers.

The film leaps from one plot point to the next with incredible speed. For example, Boone is informed that he is a killer. He accepts this so quickly yet we have no sense of why, then he walks in front of a truck. He then wakes up in a hospital, coincidentally meets a fellow searcher for Midian (Narcisse), and then flees there. At this point, we’re still catching up with the fact that he may or may not be a serial killer, yet he’s already convinced and is now seeking his fellow ‘monsters’.

Interspersed with this sequence and others later in the film are the serial murders by Decker, who frames Boone for his own murders (this is established very early, so doesn’t really count as a spoiler). In the book, we never see the murders because we are meant to experience the story through Boone and Lori’s eyes. Yet the studio, seeing the conventional appeal of a slasher film, ordered reshoots to add murder scenes to a film that had no place for them. In these scenes, we’re suddenly watching a different movie, especially since they have no consequence to the plot. They are literally dropped in as murderous vignettes. The studio managed to top this awkwardness with a final scene that comes out of nowhere, tacking a cliched horror movie ending on to a film that was trying to be anything but.

The marginalisation of Boone and Lori in their own story is particularly egregious. We spend very little time with them as they run around generating skittish plot developments. That Boone feels he is a monster, before and after he discovers he’s not a killer, is declared but never felt. Lori is merely the inquisitive girlfriend, who must track down her man and then accept him in his new guise. Certain brief moments suggest a host of missing scenes, such as when Lori reaches for the psychic child Babette at the climax as if they have formed a bond when we’ve seen little such contact, or her trip to remote Midian with Sheryl-Ann only one scene after they meet in a restroom.

The list of pacing problems with Nightbreed could last for pages, and the theatrical cut is a textbook example of how not to pace a film narrative. It’s also a textbook example of a studio being so hellbent on accessibility that they compromise the film to the point where it can appeal to few beyond the Barker fans who can tell there should have been more or who can see enough value in the charred remains. And true enough, Nightbreed hints at numerous involving sequences that have been whittled away. It’s because of the enticing scenes, characters, designs, and other ingredients – along with the far more engaging novel it adapts so rapidly – that I assume the film has earned such affection. But given the way those ingredients are currently assembled, it’s hard to invest in this story.

The most disastrous consequence of the overzealous editing is the climactic siege of Midian, which happens so damn quickly that by the end you’re unsure of what you just saw. It jumps from A to B to C, and while it doesn’t defy logic entirely, so much is crammed in that you can’t hope to care about any of it. There’s the police massacring the Nightbreed, creepy priest Ashberry (already a victim of over-editing) suddenly in Baphomet’s chamber getting burned, some kind of ritual happening with Baphomet involving Boone, the unveiling of a prophecy involving Boone that answers questions we didn’t even know we had, and the final clash between Decker and Boone. Watching the climax is like trying to watch a sporting game while being repeatedly punched by a professional boxer: you know something sport-related was happening, but you’re too dazed and confused to grasp anything more.

However, there are other shortcomings that may persist in any cut of the film, some due to the low-budget and others perhaps to Barker’s directorial style. The above-ground Midian necropolis, for instance, is not remotely atmospheric, unlike in Cabal. The sets are too small and brightly lit. And Baphomet, transcendent founder of Midian, lacks the awe and wonder that he simply must have. In the novel, he is a surging mass of disembodied limbs in an eternal, cold white flame, his very presence searing at the mind of anyone who approaches. No doubt due to a limited effects budget, in Nightbreed Baphomet instead resembles an ornate statue that inspires no awe or terror whatsoever.

But this is more than made up for by the tremendous makeup work done for the residents of Midian, many of whom apparently didn’t reach the theatrical cut at all. Each resident has a visceral and unsettling look that perfectly conveys that, even though this is a city of persecuted outcasts, their loyalties and appetites are always in question. So, told at the proper pace, Nightbreed could be the kind of morally murky horror fantasy we see very little of at the movies, and may resonate today just as strongly as Hellraiser when it actually has the time to generate some emotional involvement.

So if the negatives are found and Barker can finally offer the best possible cut of a film that has been so astoundingly mistreated, we may be fortunate enough to witness the rebirth of a derided and abused film. Cherrington has said that they will release the Cabal Cut even without the negatives by baking the videotapes to wring every last drop of picture quality from them.

That’s the right call and will still constitute a victory, but it might be more difficult for Nightbreed to be fully embraced if it doesn’t re-emerge with the visual quality it should always have enjoyed. So let’s hope those negatives are unearthed and we get to enjoy a significant lost work of horror fantasy. There is so much potential in this film that it would be a shame for it not to be realised. Fortunately, the prospects of a commercial release for the Cabal Cut look better every day. So visit http://www.occupymidian.com and support the campaign!

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