Written and Directed by: Clive Barker
Starring: Craig Sheffer, David Cronenberg, and Anne Bobby
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"Everything is true. God's an Astronaut. Oz is Over the Rainbow, and Midian is where the monsters live."
Clive Barkerís infamously mangled Nightbreed was ahead of its time. Had it been released twenty years later, its odd blend of action, high fantasy, horror, and a comic book aesthetic might have found better footing. Certainly, our current environmentóafter a decade of the likes of Resident Evil and Underworld, not to mention the comic-book movie renaissanceóis more conducive than the one Barker found himself in back in 1990, when Morgan Creek was confounded by the film he dropped into its lap. In their misguided haste to salvage the film, the studio lopped off a sizable portion of the runtime and reedited it into a semi-coherent film whose potential was obvious, so much so that Barkerís fabled directorís cut became a genre holy grail in the ensuing years.
Thanks to a concentrated effort by a persistent fan base, Barkerís definitive vision has surfaced, and it confirms what many have suspected: Nightbreed has always been a very interesting film, but itís even better in its intended form. What was once a misunderstood, malformed monstrosity has blossomed--not unlike the creatures at its center.
Thatís always been the hook with Nightbreed, and so it remains here: in the supposedly fabled land of Midian, monsters lurk beneath the ground, having carved out their own niche in civilization. Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer) is haunted by dreams of Midian, though these visions are dismissed by therapist Phillip Decker (David Cronenberg), a scheming lunatic moonlighting as a masked slasher who butchers families. After pinning these murders on his patient, he conspires with the police to gun Boone down, but not before he discovers that Midian and its citizens are real. Before his untimely death, Boone is bitten by one of the creatures, which enables his resurrection. Upon rising from the grave, he joins his destined place with the monsters at Midian, leaving his girlfriend Lori (Anne Bobby) to make sense of the chaos that has engulfed her life. Meanwhile, Decker continues to persecute both Boone and his newfound family of creature with a zealous conviction.
Obviously, thereís a lot to sort out with Nightbreed. Even in its truncated form, itís an ambitious film sprawling with various plots and tones: equal parts fairy tale, love story, slasher flick, and comic book, it has few equals in terms of sheer scope. By Barkerís own admission, Nightbreed was envisioned as the ďStar Wars of horrorĒ (he even went so far as to bring in Ralph McQuarrie for some matte-painting), and the theatrical cut still bears this outódespite missing so much material, itís still a triumph of world building, with Barkerís imagination taking hold once Midian is introduced properly. The same is true of the Directorís Cut, only the film now breathes better and tells a much tighter, more compelling story within this world; technically, it only adds about twenty minutes to the run-time, but it adds about twice as much new or alternate footage to finally restore Barkerís original vision for both the film in general and the Nightbreed in particular.
His treatment of his titular creatures especially baffled Morgan Creek, whose head honchos either didnít understand the concept of sympathetic monsters or didnít see any money in it. Either way, their mandated edits pushed the Nightbreed into the background of their own movie, their rich mythology becoming something of an afterthought until the release of this more complete edit. Itís here that the Directorís Cut truly excels, as it unleashes its creatorís imagination: the first tour through Midian is a wonderfully unfiltered gaze into Barkerís mind (whereas the theatrical cut was a peek at best). Teeming with bizarre and fantastic creatures, this underworld community is the directorís veneration of societal outcasts, something that many genre fans could take solace in; at its heart, Nightbreed is a story about discovering and embracing oneís lot in life, even if itís among outsidersóitís a movie for Monster Kids, and this extended cut sometimes feels like a Dante-esque travelogue into an otherworldly landscape that falls somewhere between a daydream and a nightmare.
With this renewed focus on Midian also comes a stronger central story for Boone and Lori. These two no longer feel like empty surrogates for the audienceís introduction to Midian, as both are further developed, if ever so slightly. Even a small scene where Lori belts out an anthem in a nightclub adds some flavor to the proceedings and allows for a smoother transition when the film turns its eye towards her quest to discover the truth about her once-dead boyfriend. The original, now-restored ending also re-centers the film in this respect, as Lori and Booneís tragic love story has a more satisfying resolution (though itís still impossible to get around the filmís cliffhanger endingóafter all, part of Barkerís contract guaranteed a sequel that the studio never followed up on).
Of course, Cronenbergís Decker has always been among the filmís most indelible elements in any form (his mad slasher must have been the only thing Morgan Creek considered to be marketable, meaning most of his material remained intact), and so it goes here: in a slightly affected performance that mimics his directing style, Cronenberg is always left of center as the calculating psychopath who lures others into his fanatical crusade against Midian. Itís interesting that Barker assembles his antagonists from all walks of life, with science, religion, and the law all banding together to conquer what they perceive to be evil. The filmís aim is never as obvious as it is here, as Barker clearly disdains how these institutions can be corrupted into bloodthirsty crusaders fighting a war against monsters they misunderstand and canít hope to comprehend, a theme that unfortunately continues to resonate.
Out of this ambition and scope emerges a certain shagginess that the film still canít shake even when itís been fleshed out. While this Directorís Cut is more robust and cohesive, it still feels like a film whose reach often exceeds its graspóthereís no shortage of ideas here, all of which are crammed together to form a crazy quilt that still straggles and sprawls at times (the climatic siege on Midian, for example, is exhausting in length). Then again, one can hardly be too upset when a film is exuberant and grandiose in the way Nightbreed is; after all, Barkerís fiction (like Stephen Kingís, now that I think of itóno wonder Barker earned an endorsement from the master) often sends audiences hurtling down rabbit hole after rabbit holeóitís not enough for Nightbreed to focus on a secret society of monsters and its prophecies, so it follows that there would also be a bloodthirsty butcher from a slasher flick hunting them down. That the two modes sometimes find difficulty jelling seems besides the pointóthe film might be exhausting, but itís equally as breathtaking whenever Barker really lets loose and indulges the most unhinged parts of his macabre id, where men and monsters spill each otherís bloods among gothic ruins. Itís pure Barker, especially in this unfiltered version.
It should be noted that Scream Factoryís Directorís Cut is not the Cabal Cut that was assembled by fans a few years back. Whereas that cut reinserted on nearly an hourís worth of workprint footage with the existing cut, this one has been supervised and approved by Barker himself, not to mention sourced from remastered elements. As is the case with the recently released Producerís Cut of Halloween 6, the presentation is seamless (the Cabal Cut featured VHS footage spliced in with the existing DVD) and feels like it was always meant to exist in this form (which, I suppose, it did). Nightbreed really pops in high definition, as its garish palette and candy-colored hues benefit mightily from the upgrade. Both 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-MA tracks are available, with the former obviously proving to be a richer experience.
A bounty of extras also awaits on the DVD/Blu-ray combo pack, which is headlined by a commentary with Barker and producer Mark Alan Miller, whose efforts in recovering the filmís missing elements should not go unnoticed. A newly-produced 72-minute making-of feature has the cast and crew chronicle the filmís troubled history, which follows the trajectory of many cult hits. ďMaking MonstersĒ is a 40 minute retrospective focusing on the effects work, while another feature highlights the efforts of the usually unsung 2nd unit. Accompanying the feature itself is a five-minute introduction with Barker and Miller, who briefly explain the filmís release history. Fanatic Nightbreed completists should be even more satisfied by Screamís limited edition three disc release, which features another disc of extras, plus the theatrical cut remastered in HD. Between this and the aforementioned Halloween 6 release, Scream Factory has given two of the genreís most fabled and infamous ugly ducklings some well-deserved makeovers; more importantly, theyíve allowed for these films to be rediscovered and reappraised. In the case of Nightbreed, one of horrorís most mistreated oddities is served justiceósure, maybe itís still a little misshapen and ragged, but that feels appropriate. Buy it!
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