Movie Review – Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut (1990)

The troubled story of Clive Barker’s Nightbreed (1990), his second feature-length film after 1987’s Hellraiser, is as labyrinthine as it is long. Based on his novella, Cabal, Barker set out to create an adult fairy tale where the monsters are the sympathetic heroes and the humans are the violent aggressors, the latter fueled by their intolerance and insufferable envy. Originally conceived as a trilogy, Nightbreed was to be the first in an epic in the vein of Star Wars.

And then everything that could go wrong apparently did. With the genre being the perpetual whipping boy of Hollywood, the studio did not understand Barker’s mixture of fantasy and horror and cut much of the film at the last minute. It then mis-marketed the film as a slasher. Ultimately, Barker was immensely dissatisfied with the resulting product and Nightbreed went on to receive mostly negative reviews.

In 2009 missing footage was recovered and put back into the film, creating what was called The Cabal Cut and clocking in at over 150 minutes, and was played at various film festivals and reactions were generally favorable. In 2014 yet another version was released through Shout! Factory using recently recovered original film elements. Overseen by Barker, this version would be The Director’s Cut, and can safely be considered the final, definitive version of Barker’s original vision for Nightbreed. As Barker said in an official statement:

“This is film history and beyond my wildest dreams of realization. When Scream Factory told me that they found the NIGHTBREED film footage, I was gob-smacked… There’s never been a reconstruction that’s had as little chance of succeeding and yet has succeeded on as many fronts as this film has. It’s unprecedented. To now have a movie that we can put together in the way that I fully intended it to be seen when I first set out to make this film in 1989 is extraordinary. The project has moved inexorably to this conclusion.”

If one thinks about it, horror has its roots deeply embedded in the fantasy genre, in the ancient myths of monsters and particularly in the fairy tales of witches and naughty children getting their due. Horror fiction is really, and most plainly when it deals with the supernatural, dark fairy tales for adults. When macabre story elements become more visceral they cross the line from innocent childhood anxieties to the fears of a mature mind fully aware of its frail mortality. It then becomes what we would consider true horror, and this acknowledgment of horror’s mature status explains why it is the only genre outside of porn to be considered of an adult realm, at least when taken seriously. Show a child fantasy and sci-fi and people don’t bat an eye, but show them horror and they will seriously call into question your mental and ethical fitness. Ultimately, however, the difference between kids’ fairy tales and adult horror becomes a matter of degrees, and I would be remiss to discount the many examples of films which fall in the middle.

An adult horror fairy tale, therefore, is an idea which should come more naturally to horror filmmakers, or at least embraced more explicitly as Barker does here. Like in Hellraiser, we see themes of unfulfilled desires in the envy of the humans for the monsters’ powers and in the monsters for their wish to walk freely without fear of violent reprisal. Barker sets in motion many elements which immediately put Nightbreed on a solid footing, including music by Danny Elfman and casting the body horror maestro David Cronenberg in the role of Dr. Philip K. Decker, a serial killer who wears a creepy mask and who frames the film’s protagonist, Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer). The film also boasts some imaginative creature designs, some of which admittedly look better than others.

Nightbreed 1990 still

While there are moments of genuine fun and excitement in Nightbreed, it still in many ways feels like an uneven, even rushed film. Decker is menacing, but as the film proceeds it becomes more difficult to discern his motives. He goes from being a crafty, manipulative nemesis to a sloppy, careless slasher in fairly quick time. Decker’s character isn’t the only one who feels underdeveloped. The monsters are underused and there’s little to no character development among them, and this becomes an issue when we’re asked as an audience to sympathize with them. The cops, too, are thinly drawn in a most cartoonish manner. Their commitment to excessive violence and disregard for due process may fit with the simplistic fairy tale theme, but it also makes it difficult to buy into the story. The main problem, however, lies with the character of Boone, our hero. In the end, he’s fairly boring, and unfortunately Sheffer is unable to bring much charisma to the screen.

I feel that if I had seen this movie as an adolescent, it may have really resonated with me. Kids connect with monsters because they recognize their disenfranchisement and they sympathize with how they’re misunderstood and/or underestimated by the adult population. I still connect with them for those same reasons, but I require more story to get me there. When I was eight I saw 1989’s Little Monsters, a movie I really loved at that age (though I suspect it wouldn’t hold up to an adult viewing), and I couldn’t help but think of that film as I watched Nightbreed (which was released a year later, curiously enough, and makes one wonder if Barker was inspired by it). Both films confirm our suspicions that monsters exist below the surface and exploit our desires to live and be among them – to become them, even. Even the creature designs and the underworld in which they inhabit bear striking similarities, though these may be more superficial than my foggy recollection is suggesting. Nevertheless, viewing Nightbreed for the first time now, as a thirty-something, I have difficulty connecting to the characters and feel that the film never comes together or progresses in a convincing manner.

Grade: C+

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