February 16, 1990 (US Theatrical)
Craig Sheffer as Aaron Boone
Anne Bobby as Lori Winston
David Cronenberg as Dr. Philip K. Decker
Hugh Ross as Narcisse
Doug Bradley as Dirk Lylesberg
By James “Crypticpsych” Lasome
Clive Barker’s Nightbreed is two things at once. It’s a showcase of his storytelling and world-creating abilities, and it’s become infamous as an example of studio interference. But that might just finally be being fixed… The Cabal Cut’s first version made it’s debut on March 26, 2010 and a full restoration is a possibility.
Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer) has been having strange nightmares. In them, he sees a city where mutants and monsters live. He doesn’t know where it is, only that it’s called “Midian”. He’s related this story to his girlfriend Lori (Anne Bobby) and to his psychiatrist Dr. Decker (David Cronenberg). Decker interprets Boone’s dreams as signs of Boone’s subconscious telling him that he’s the culprit behind a series of violent and brutal murders in the area. In actuality, Decker is attempting to pin the blame for the murders he himself has been committing on Boone (it’s made abundantly clear this is the case fairy early, so it’s not a spoiler to say this). After Decker secretly drugs him, Boone finds himself in the hospital and meets a deranged addict named Narcisse (Hugh Ross) whose ravings also seem to be related to Midian. Thinking that Boone has been sent to take him to Midian, Narcisse reveals its location before graphically mutilating himself as an offering. Boone escapes the hospital as Decker and the police arrive to question him… but Narcisse isn’t so lucky and ends up a Midian resident.
Acting on the instructions, Boone finds the location, a graveyard situated on an underground monster-inhabited city. Boone tells the few inhabitants he sees that he belongs there because of the murders, but they refuse with one attacking him, telling him he’s an innocent, and forcing him out of Midian. Unfortunately for Boone, the police have followed him with Decker, and, after a trick by the doctor, he’s gunned down by the officers. When Boone’s body suddenly goes missing from the morgue, however, it’s determined there’s only one place he could’ve gone: Midian. As all the forces (Lori, Decker, the prejudiced and reactionary police) converge on the site, it quickly becomes clear that life’s about to get a lot more difficult for both Boone and the monsters.
A self-written adaptation of his own novella “Cabal”, 1990’s Nightbreed was Clive Barker’s incredibly underrated directorial follow-up to the classic Hellraiser. On a budget more than five times that of Hellraiser, Barker built a visually stunning, well-acted, engaging, and thought-provoking movie, intending to create at least a trilogy from its characters. Instead, the movie flopped and was infamously subject to severe studio meddling… but more on that later.
First and foremost, Nightbreed is possibly the most convincing cinematic evidence that exists of Clive Barker’s ability to create worlds (on a surprisingly low nowadays $11 million budget). The scenes in Midian and the overall underground city are amazingly realized by the set builders and an accomplished matte painter while the monsters themselves are all skillfully created in prosthetics and makeup. If ever there were a movie that could be used to showcase why some horror fans advocate for use of more practical effects, this is it. This is especially apparent when one of the very few computer effects appears late in the movie and is vastly inferior to just about every other effects shot in the film.
About the only thing that matches the visual style and effects are the actors wearing or interacting with them. Cronenberg is profoundly scary as “Decker” and is magnetic in every scene he’s in. Craig Sheffer also gives a great, complex performance having to play two different versions of “Boone”: the one questing for Midian until his death and the more animalistic, darker Boone that’s a Midian resident. Hugh Ross is a particular standout among the monsters first playing “Narcisse” incredibly creepy in the hospital before reappearing in Midian as outstanding, one-liner-spouting comedy relief. Meanwhile, Catherine Chevalier’s work as “Rachel”, the mother of a monster child that Lori interacts with, is a strong, mysterious performance that plays well off the more over-the-top or naïve performances of other characters. Some monsters, like Christine McCorkindale’s quilled character “Shuna Sassi” are even memorable while having almost no lines! The key to this is that all the monsters are the most crucial thing of all: fun. They may have fangs, bloodthirst, quills, or even little arms that grow out of them, but they’re generally still tremendously entertaining… very important since they’re always intended to be “good” characters. The “bad” characters on the other hand (that is the militant police and townsfolk) are not quite to the standard the other actors set mostly because they seem unrealistically obsessed with their evil and stretch credibility a bit. Now, you may be asking “What about ‘Lori’, played by Anne Bobby?”
This leads into the world of studio meddling. When filming originally finished, Barker had to make changes and film new scenes in response to Morgan Creek test screenings including explaining some characters’ motives and changing the original ending to the one seen theatrically. The final product of this was a cut of the film that ran roughly two-and-a-half hours. It was then sent over to Fox for releasing… who promptly slashed it to two hours and then again to about an hour and 40 minutes. This theatrical version (also the only version presently available on home video through on-demand Warner Archive DVD-R) features the changed ending and loses valuable character development for Boone, Lori, Decker, and some of the monsters. The movie was also then wrongly promoted as more of a slasher film in TV spots and was ravaged by critics who were rumored to be mad that it hadn’t been screened for them. Interestingly, some pointed to issues that were partially caused by the meddling: underdeveloped characters and a confusing plot!
Morgan Creek later told the head of Barker’s production company that they still had all the “lost” footage but did not see enough of an audience to push for a new transfer of the uncut version. Over time, two VHS tapes of the uncut version were found (one 145 minute, one 159 minute). These versions were then combined with the existing theatrical DVD through the work of film restorer Russell Cherrington to create an ever-evolving “Cabal Cut” in an understandably varied film quality given its origins (the version I saw in August 2012 was the fifth version). Screenings of this cut began at conventions, theaters, and festivals with Anne Bobby herself coining the name “Occupy Midian” for the movement to get it released to the public. Morgan Creek has since agreed to support production of an uncut, full release and restoration of the film (and its theatrical cut) but only if there is enough demand and the screenings raise enough money for the project to go forward.
So what are some of the differences in “The Cabal Cut”? It provides a motive and a reason for Decker’s actions outside of “he’s evil”. It features critical scenes between Lori and the monster child “Babette” that develop Anne Bobby’s character extensively and help integrate her more into the plot. It also adds scenes that showcase Lori and Boone’s relationship, something that seemed more of an afterthought in the original film. Finally, and most crucially, it returns to the original ending that brings the overall film more in line with Barker’s original, less-straight-horror vision. Is it perfect? No… besides the obvious and understandable film and audio quality issues, it still feels a bit overlong. However, those are issues that one hopes will be fixed whenever “The Cabal Cut” reaches its final form whether that be months or years down the line.
Nightbreed is a vastly underrated example of Clive Barker’s ability as a director, writer, and artist. It’s powered by a great story, outstanding effects and sets, and engaging performances. Mostly due to studio interference and cuts, however, its theatrical release is not perfect and suffers from an out-of-place ending and a few story elements that don’t fit with the tale Barker is trying to tell. Thankfully, though, there are beginning to be signs that the full, uncut restoration the film deserves will become a reality at some point… provided Morgan Creek is reminded of how we feel. If you feel so inclined, visit www.occupymidian.com to learn more about the restoration and movement as well as to sign the petition and let Morgan Creek know that you will buy the final product.