I watched Clive Barker‘s Nightbreed three times in theaters in 1990 and several times more after buying it on VHS. (Shut up.) It was a completely different beast from his film debut, Hellraiser, but its creativity, ambition, and roster of all manner of creatures of the night made it a fun and original horror film in a year dominated by genre sequels. Sure it was cheesy and goofy at times in its attempt to tell a love story against a backdrop of serial killers, monsters, rednecks, and rogue priests, but it was also unlike anything we had seen before.
But even then, twenty three years ago, there were rumblings in Fangoria magazine and elsewhere about the troubles Barker had dealing with the studio and the cuts he was forced to make, and Barker repeated the tales again and again in interviews that followed over two decades. He requested access to the original film elements on more than one occasion so he could essentially craft his director’s cut, but he was denied time and again. There was finally a change in that narrative in the past couple years though when the discovery of VHS tapes featuring raw, work print versions of the film was announced. A man named Russell Cherrington set out to mesh footage from both sources into a definitive cut based on the author’s original script, and with Barker’s blessing he’s now sharing it with the world.
My excitement for the finished product, Nightbreed: The Cabal Cut (named for the source novella, “Cabal”), could not have been any greater. It was my most anticipated film of Fantastic Fest this year. My giddiness could not even be quelled by the knowledge that workprints are notoriously low in picture quality (a fact only exacerbated by the VHS format).
And now that I’ve seen it, let’s never speak of it again.
That sounds harsh, and the only thing I hate more than having said it is having meant it. Mostly.
First though, let’s clarify and quantify the film’s patchwork video quality. With over forty five minutes of brand new footage and a total of 70% of the film consisting of new or alternate take footage, the majority of the scenes here are sourced from the VHS tapes. And too many of those look faded, absent real detail, and in generally poor shape. Visual detail and nuance are out the window, and occasionally the best you can hope for is successfully identifying which character is onscreen at a given moment. (It’s worth noting that genre label extraordinaire Scream Factory will be releasing The Cabal Cut to Blu-ray/DVD in 2014 featuring restored audio/video sourced from Morgan Creek’s original film elements.)
That said, these video quality issues were a known element beforehand, and they’re not being taken into account for the purpose of this review.
While the theatrical cut was a bit scatterbrained in its desire to find a franchisable villain in Dr. Decker (David Cronenberg) among the creature shenanigans, this new cut narrows the focus down to the love story between Lori (Anne Bobby) and Boone (Craig Sheffer). That it does this while everything else bloats up around it is a bit of an unnecessary miracle, but it offers an interesting take on the story as it becomes more of a tragic romance than a straight genre piece. Unfortunately though, the idea outshines the execution as the love story here is voiced with the kind of dialogue that the editors at Harlequin Books would laugh off the page. Worse, Lori’s dedication to Boone grows in strength while shrinking in comprehension. He’s a terrible boyfriend, and we’re given no reason to think otherwise. So maybe she’s the crazy one? Either way it gives life to a new ending for the couple that isn’t exactly earned.
Also expanded here is Decker’s role in the story, and this comes with both good and bad. The good is represented by the removal of the character’s final scene from the theatrical cut while the bad is represented by some terrifically bad (and unintentionally humorous) dialogue. Cronenberg is no actor, and while he falls short of Quentin Tarantino-level bad he’s definitely better off with as few words as possible. His first appearance is still wonderfully creepy, but by the time he starts giving voice to the mask itself the character has been drained of anything resembling serious menace.
Ultimately, the new cut makes for a less engaging film. The original is more of a controlled mess offering thrills, wonder, and goofy antics in equal measure, while this incarnation celebrates the untrimmed fat and lack of precision with abandon. Some elements and arcs still feel incomplete while others feel wrongfully fleshed-out. Did we need to see and hear so much about Captain Eigerman’s militia group for example? And what’s with the dude carrying a butane lighter in the flashback to the Middle Ages?
Still though, Nightbreed: The Cabal Cut is a must-see for fans of Barker’s work in general and of Nightbreed in particular, and a fully restored (picture and audio) version will be a must-own. It adds more character elements and depth, some additional glimpses into the monsters’ past and present, and more violence during the big raid at Midian. But where the original was cheesy fun this new cut is a cheesier chore. I’m incredibly pleased to have finally seen this after 23 years of rumors and teases, but while there’s a great film to be made from Barker’s Cabal it currently exists only in an imaginary limbo between his vision and that of the studio. Now if someone could just get Barker to finish up The Scarlet Gospels…
The Upside: After twenty three years it’s an incredible relief to finally see (for the most part) the film Clive Barker intended to make; some nice, new character touches
The Downside: Feels terribly long; an abundance of new cheese; additional character depth not supported by script or level of acting in some cases
On the Side: Morgan Creek has reportedly been shopping a potential Nightbreed TV series to various networks and studios.