Little over a week ago I wrote a Weekend Dump post about 5 films I felt need a UK home media release. One of those films was Clive Barker’s Nightbreed. A few days later I’m looking over the US Netflix, which is so much better than the UK one, and lo and behold the director’s cut of Nightbreed had been added to their service. That’s pretty damn cool. I’ve not seen the film since I was a little lad and here’s a nice, new, extended and re-cut version for my eyeballs to enjoy. And now here’s my review for you guys to enjoy. Maybe. If that’s what happens when people read reviews. Click the link below.
As the film begins Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer) is planning to get away with his girlfriend Lori (Ann Bobby) for a romantic weekend when he is contacted by his psychiatrist Dr Decker (David Cronenberg… yes, THAT David Cronenberg).Decker wants to see Boone right away and so they arrange to meet. At this meeting Decker informs Boone that a recent string of murders may have been committed by him in a crazed stupor. He posits that the similarities are too great to the murders mentioned by Boone in their sessions months before to be ignored. He gives Boone some pills and gives him 48 hours to give himself up. A series of events leads Boone to finding a mystical place he talked of in his psychiatric sessions called Midian. Turns out it’s real. In escaping this initially scary place Boone is bitten by one of Midian’s inhabitants and quickly caught and shot by the police. Turns out that bite allowed Boone to survive the shooting and, after waking up in the morgue, he heads back to Midian for answers whilst being pursued by Decker who intends to finish off Boone, whom he had set up in order to discover the whereabouts of Midian for himself.
The plot is fairly convoluted, truth be told. On the one hand there’s treachery, slasher movie concepts and romance. That alone would be enough for most films. But this is Clive Barker, and he sure does love layering his stories with monster based metaphors. By Nightbreed’s conclusion Decker has a whole town coming to kill the inhabitants of Midian whilst Boone and Lori are dealing with biblical levels of mystic shenanigans. The creatures of Midian serve as a metaphor for those shunned by society. People the simple minded don’t understand be they disabled, gay or merely a different race. Their appearance as monsters is really just a chance for the viewer to supplant whatever outcast image they like upon them. The characters of Midian themselves contain various traits of typical movie outcast types that they really can fit into any hole your brain deems fit to place them.
The film leads up to a monster movie tradition, that being the villagers brandishing flaming torches and pitchforks to burn the monsters out of their home. Except the pitchforks are shot guns and one guy actually has a flamethrower. Granted the film does lead to the typical message of “who are the real monsters really?” by the time the credits roll but the whole package is wrapped up in a way that wasn’t really common at the time. Whilst the message may have been done many times the film’s execution is pure Barker. It’s that dark, violent and Grimm fairytale-esque style that allows Nightbreed to sit in amongst a company of films that manage to effectively update the Universal monster movie style for a more graphic horror movie crowd.
This is all helped by some pretty damn excellent make up effects. When you watch this film try to make note of some of the monsters you only see for seconds and just how complex their make up is. I remember playing the Amiga game based on this film as a kid and thinking the weird fat man monster with his head sitting on his stomach at the end of a long drooping neck looked pretty damn amazing. That monster still does thanks to a great and complex prosthetic work. He appears on screen for all of 5 seconds. Maybe 8. Nightbreed exists in this beautiful point during the late 80s to early 90s where practical effects were booming and production costs were low enough that this sort of outlandishness was well within reason to achieve. The film’s budget was $11million in 1990 money. Even adjusted for inflation a director wouldn’t stand a chance of matching this film’s look today.
It has been so long since I last saw this film I really can’t remember just how the original 102 minute cut came together. This Director’s Cut version sure does feel good though. Barring a couple of jarring narrative missteps, such as Boone’s sudden return to Midian and his initiation that appears to have missed the part where we learn of their laws at the same time as he does, the film feels complete. Sometimes these reconstructed style re-cuts of films lose something in the process. Like how the Donner cut of Superman 2 feels like it was culled from a mixture of incomplete sources at times. Nightbreed’s Director’s Cut doesn’t suffer from that which is a relief as this version was always held up with mythical status for years. The original version of the film was notoriously taken out of Barker’s hands and cut to all hell, along with being advertised as more of a slasher film than it actually is. Sure, Dr Decker is a slasher villain waiting to happen (psst, he was the one killing those people) but the film really is juggling much stronger themes than what a slasher movie usually can.
Nightbreed flopped spectacularly upon release and was really only a hairs breadth away from being considered a joke by the mainstream. Luckily there’s been a number of advocates for its quality over the years and that, coupled with the stories of what could have been, all led up to this version’s existence. And I really like it. The film is gory, goofy and filled with comic book style dialogue and silliness. It also successfully plays with a number of themes that are universal in their constant relevance. Hopefully this cut of the film brings it to a new audience of horror fans that have maybe not had the chance to watch the film over the years. Such as those of us in the UK. Seriously, why the hell has Nightbreed never been released on DVD here. Get on it Arrow Films!