Despite film success with the Hellraiser and Candyman series and Lord of Illusions, Clive Barker’s relationship with the movie business has been strained. The best recent example of these troubles may be Midnight Meat Train, a Barker short story turned feature film that languished in production Hell and was grudgingly released to DVD after much strife. I thought it was a great little horror flick as you can read in my review. Nightbreed was another Barker project that suffered, being cut down at the last moment by the studio and released with little fanfare as a psycho-slasher film. It was poorly recieved, a box office failure and the end of what was originally planned to be a trilogy of films. Nightbreed was left to rot, simply filling out a place on the horror shelf for decades. But now, Russell Cherrington and Mark Miller are hoping to change that by restoring the film with the Cabal Cut.
I had the opportunity to view their work in progress at Monster Mania 22. Originally, Clive Barker was to be a guest of the convention and introduce the film but his health issues prevented his attendance. A real shame because I would have loved to hear the horror stories of the production from his own mouth. I’m morbid that way. I like hearing about the blood and sweat and tears of the film world. Even without Barker though, the show must go on and so it did.
For those unfamiliar with the film, Nightbreed is the story of Aaron Boone (played by Craig Sheffer,) a young man troubled by violent visions of murder. His psychatrist, Dr. Philip K. Decker (a transparent Philip K. Dick reference played by David Cronenberg) does little to help him and in fact gives him pills that encourage his hallucinations. Boone’s girlfriend Lori (Anne Bobby) tries to help him but he pushes her away, convinced that the visions are actually memories and that he is a schizophrenic mass murderer. Boone flees the big city and goes looking for a place called Midian that he recalls from his dreams. He finds this subterranean city populated by monsters, the last survivors of the tribes of man-beasts that used to share the Earth before humanity hunted them to near extinction. Lori follows in his wake, trying to save him from himself but so does Decker who, it is revealed, is the real serial killer. Decker is a psychotic obsessed with finding Midian and the monsters and Boone’s visions are the lead he had been waiting for.
Boone is grudgingly accepted as a monster among the denizens of Midian but soon Lori upsets the balance of their carefully concealed life. Then Decker arrives and engages the assistance of a local militia of racist rednecks to assault and destroy the city. Boone rallies the Nightbreed to fight back and a cataclysmic battle ensues that destroys the enemies of Midian but also the city itself. After dispatching Decker, Boone accepts his new place as leader of the Nightbreed and his new name: Cabal. He sets out with the survivors on a pilgrimage to find a new place to call home. And the setup for the sequel is prepared.
Nightbreed is a visual treat, with some terrific prosthetic makeup and a cavalcade of monster denizens that would be at home in the Mos Eisley cantina or any Hellboy movie. At the same time though, it is a film with some serious problems. There are strange leaps of logic on the part of many characters and actions that seem to defy their previous motivations. Boone and Lori are allowed to run roughshod over the leadership and traditions of Midian, being told time and again that something is forbidden before they immediately do it anyway and with almost no resistance from the monstrous and deadly Nightbreed. Boone, who has fled to Midian to hide and escape his fears of being a killer then demands that the Nightbreed fight to the death against the invaders and he slaughters a half dozen of them himself. A prophecy that declares Boone the savior of Midian is introduced with about 10 minutes of runtime left to the film. Many times, especially in the final battle, people flit about from place to place, seemingly chasing their tails above and below ground, wherever the editing drops them. My hope was that the new cut would correct these flaws, reintrouducing some order into the chaos of last minute cuts by the original studio.
Material for the restoration is drawn from work prints and even dailies from the original filming. The visual and audio quality of these re-edited segments is often very poor and much digital correction and restoration will need to be done before it can be shown outside of enthusiast audiences. Those shifts in quality are useful however as the signposts marking off what was left behind in the theatrical edit. The Cabal Cut lengthens the film to 2 and 1/2 hours of runtime. This restored material provides much deeper characterizations of the leads, making their relationships and actions more human and believable. Lori’s character is especially improved by the restoration. Entire scenes of dialog and action for Lori (including her introduction as a night club singer) are returned along with her interactions with the Nightbreed familiy that she discovers when she first arrives at Midian. More backstory is provided along with more depth and more scenes of violence and carnage.
Unfortunately, as much as this helps explain the story, it does little to make sense of it. People still seem to move about at random and some behaviors come across as a contrivance to serve plot rather than characterization. A completely restored set of flashbacks to the pogroms that destroyed most of the Nightbreed are visually interesting but add little to the story and the flat, stodgy performance of the Nightbreed child who shows these visions to Lori was probably better left out of the film. Pieces of Danny Elfman’s score have been reintroduced to flesh out the edits but his work on the film is another flaw of the original. A hurried mess of rejected cuts from his Batman scores, minus the Keatonesque motives and with synthesized jungle flutes overlaid to try to disguise the sound. I actually bought that soundtrack album when it was released and even then realized I had been had. Thank goodness it included the excellent country music rendition of Oingo Boingo’s Skin.
Now, I have no real love for the studio cut either. Seeing how badly Lori was treated by the theatrical edits is eye opening. I think it’s been a very noble endeavor of the restoration team to spend the time and energy that they have, to find and edit and correct all the material and bring the film back to Barker’s original vision. It seems that’s just not what I wanted from Nightbreed. If you are a fan of the film and Barker’s works, or if you’re just curious about the amazing work that Cherrington and Miller have done then I recommend you check out the film and show your support. If you were never a fan to begin with however, Cabal is not going to change your mind.