In Clive Barker’s Nightbreed, Boone (Craig Sheffer) dreams of and ultimately discovers the lost city of Midian, where monsters dwell beneath a graveyard.
The film’s editorial history boils down to a fundamental disagreement between artist and studio: Barker wanted to make a pro-monster movie and the producers didn’t get it (“You know, Clive, if you’re not careful some people are going to like the monsters.”), creating a compromised theatrical cut that flopped in 1990 and dashed Barker’s hopes for a “Star Wars of horror movies” franchise – unless Hugh Quarshie’s police officer is the same character as The Phantom Menace‘s Captain Panaka, in which case Nightbreed can be considered official canon.
Barker would get his George Lucas moment in 2009, when a VHS was discovered containing the 160-minute version that became “The Cabal Cut”. The unusable VHS footage was then excised to produce the two-hour Director’s Cut. 20 minutes longer than the theatrical version (using 40 minutes of new material), the Director’s Cut paints a much clearer picture of Barker’s vision, specifically the contrast between the passionate monsters and the monstrous humans.
By reinstating key scenes and characters (such as a police armorer who fetishises guns), the Director’s Cut elucidates a human world governed by evil institutions: police, psychiatry and Christianity. It stands in celebration of non-conformists, subcultures and marginalised communities as intended in Barker’s source novel Cabal. But the studio wanted a slasher and mismarketed it accordingly, demonstrating a profound refusal to engage with the writer’s work. In films like Hellraiser and Candyman, slasher conventions serve only as gateways into other worlds.
Nightbreed joins that list, owing more to werewolf movies than slasher flicks – particularly in the Director’s Cut ending. It still has problems (with tone, pace and Boone as a protagonist) but benefits from spending more time with the likeable Lori (Anne Bobby). The scene (in both versions) where she first visits Midian is a highlight, showcasing the imaginative production and creature design through the eyes of a character we actually care about. Apparently the movie also set a record for the most unique monsters in a single film. George Lucas eat your heart out.
Best of all, David Cronenberg stars as a creepy therapist, not only a better feature for him than Jason X but a reinforcement of the film’s Cronenbergian themes. Though the term usually refers to body horror, Nightbreed is Cronenbergian in its condemnation of institutions and celebration of the freakish and mutated – and it’s set in Canada. All of which builds to an inevitable war between day and night, the fascistic vs the fantastic, like Avatar meets Freaks with a Danny Elfman score.
Through all its mutilations and revisitations, Nightbreed remains deliriously odd, pleasingly individual and slightly unsatisfying by virtue of setting up sequels that never happened, leaving its weird and wonderful creations unexplored. But with a TV series in the works, perhaps the real moral is to be careful what you wish for.