The director’s cut of Clive Barker’s Nightbreed has been a very, very long time coming, and rare is a film more deserving of a top to bottom reworking than this one. Released theatrically in 1990 in a tragically butchered form by Fox, the film should have been Barker’s leap to the big time. While it didn’t necessarily derail his movie career, it certainly didn’t help it, nor did it likely endear the movie business to Barker himself. With a two-hour running time, including 40 minutes of new footage, this is the version of the movie that should have been released 25 years ago.
Yet this new Nightbreed is such an unusual film that it probably wouldn’t have been any more popular at the box office than the tainted theatrical version. It’s just too strange to ever have appealed to mainstream audiences, regardless of its form. But it surely would have amassed a far greater following over the years, and would now be looked back on as one the great horror fantasy films of its time. Maybe it isn’t too late to attain such a title.
Adapted from Barker’s own novel Cabal, the story tells of disturbed young man Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer), who sees therapist Dr. Decker (David Cronenberg) for help with the visions he suffers – visions of a place called Midian. Meanwhile, a vicious masked psychopath is serial killing, and Decker convinces Boone he’s committing the crimes by slipping him psychedelics. But all is clearly not as it seems, and Midian is a very real place beckoning to Boone. Midian, located in a remote area beneath a forgotten graveyard, is where the monsters live – the freaks and genetic misfits that society has no room to accommodate. There they live in peace, away from mankind. But a war is coming, and the inhabitants of Midian will find their reclusive existence threatened by man, with Boone and his girlfriend Lori (Anne Bobby) at the center of the conflict.
The whole point of Nightbreed is that the monsters are the good guys, and humanity is morally corrupt, indecent, and without conscience or empathy. This is also very much the point that was gutted from the theatrical version all those years ago, leaving viewers wondering what the object of the exercise was. The Director’s Cut restores the crucial character and story arcs so that the film now feels well-rounded and full-bodied. Most importantly, the inhabitants of Midian have been brought to the forefront, and Nightbreed is populated by dozens and dozens of creatures – I do not exaggerate when I say that 50 feels like it might be low balling it – many onscreen for just seconds at a time.
Lylesburg (Doug Bradley, Pinhead of the Hellraiser films) is the leader of the colony. Aged and wizard-like, the old man has perpetually bleeding slits on his cheeks, which open to reveal eyes. Narcisse (Hugh Ross), the wild man with peeled back skin and an exposed skull, is Boone’s first tangible proof that Midian exists. Peloquin (Oliver Parker) is the red-skinned, tentacle-headed alpha male of Midian. Kinski (Nicholas Vince), whose head is shaped like a crescent moon – looking like Jay Leno via a Mighty Men and Monster Maker - is one of the first to show Boone kindness. Shuna Sassi (Christine McCorkindale) is covered in deadly needles, like some sort of sexy, birdlike porcupine. And the list could go on and on.
Much like its banner mission of flipping the good guys and the bad guys, Nightbreed seems to thrive on turning horror conventions on their ear, always in the service of casting its heroes in a positive light. It’s almost as if while writing it, Barker would come to a spot and say to himself, “Now what would every other horror writer do here? I think I’ll do just the opposite.” Its themes of persecution frequently hit home emotionally, and it’s sort of amazing how easy it is to care and root for these ghastly creatures in this “horror movie.” It’s the sort of the stuff that’s often the domain of science fiction and fantasy, but almost never horror. And the humans really are awful, terrible people, chewing into their roles with great relish. Charles Haid, best known for his work in Hill Street Blues, tears into it as a local cop, and Cronenberg is such an ideal choice for Decker that it is practically impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Here the infamous visionary behind fare such as Scanners and Videodrome embodies evil incarnate, and a more subversively malevolent movie figure you’ll be hard-pressed to find.
Craig Sheffer has all the makings of a standard, B-movie hero of the time period. There’s little that’s remarkable about his work here, and yet he unquestionably gets the job done. Anne Bobby, however, is a little treasure, and Lori’s story arc is far more the backbone of the picture than Boone’s. Midian calls out to Boone; it’s his destiny. Lori has to work for it, and in many ways she goes on far more of a traditional hero’s journey than the picture’s leading man. One of her great scenes, cut from the theatrical version but restored here, is a musical number early in the film. Set in a raucous dive bar, Lori howls “Johnny Get Angry” to an enthusiastic crowd (all while Boone, in the midst of the worst drug trip ever, looks on). The scene shouldn’t work, and yet it’s now impossible to imagine Nightbreed without it. Perhaps the greatest tragedy to come out of this movie’s mishandling is that Bobby didn’t get a bigger career out of it, which she more than deserved.
Blu-ray/DVD Extras: Shout only provided the Morgue with the standard Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, as opposed to the limited collector’s edition Blu-ray set, which has two extra discs, one of which features the original theatrical cut. While I was initially disappointed that I didn’t get the big set, as I really wanted a copy of the original cut, once I viewed the new version I no longer cared. Frankly, it’s been so long since I last viewed the theatrical cut, I couldn’t line list the differences. I only instinctively know that the new version is clearly and vastly superior, and viewing it makes the old version a relic, probably deserving of being lost to posterity.
Extras include an introduction from Clive Barker and Mark Alan Miller, the gentleman largely responsible for making the Director’s Cut a reality. It plays automatically with the film, but is skippable. The pair also has their own commentary track. Beyond that, there’s a 72-minute making of/remembrance called “Tribes of the Moon,” which includes Craig Sheffer, Anne Bobby, Doug Bradley, Hugh Ross, Simon Bamford, and Christine McCorkidale all waxing light-heartedly nostalgic about their time making the picture. While not definitive (frankly, I’d have killed for some Cronenberg on here), it remains a great deal of fun, and most any fan will be delighted by it. “Making Monsters” is a 42-minute featurette on the makeup and effects, which are stars of the film unto themselves. Here we get thoughts from artists Bob Keen, Martin Mercer, and Paul Jones, who only represent a sliver of Nightbreed’s behind the scenes talent, though they frequently discuss all of the other artists’ contributions. “Fire! Fights! Stunts! 2nd Unit Shooting” is a 20-minute interview with action director Andy Armstrong. Lastly, there’s the film’s original theatrical trailer. All bonus programming is duplicated on both the Blu-ray and the DVD.