As a horror-addicted teenager in 1990, I was very aware of Clive Barker. Already much loved as an author for his groundbreaking Books of Blood, Barker’s debut film Hellraiser had announced the arrival of a raw but impressive filmmaking talent. His second movie promised to be even better – based on his novel Cabal, Barker teased us that Nightbreed was to be the “Star Wars of horror”. Fangoria – my monthly horror bible at the time – ran a series of features, showcasing some of the jawdropping effects work we could expect from this ambitious melding of slasher pic, monster movie and outlandish fantasy.
But when Nightbreed finally arrived in cinemas, it was met with some confusion and disappointment from many fans. I remember enjoying it on VHS, but this supposedly epic tale seemed a smaller, less impressive film than I was expecting – and certainly not a patch on Hellraiser. The film was a critical and commercial bomb.
In the intervening years we have of course learnt of the struggles that Barker underwent with 20th Century Fox to get his vision on screen. Initially screened in a rough cut of nearly three hours, the studio demanded an hour be removed from its running time, rendering much of the film if not incoherent, then certainly confusing (Barker’s editor in fact quit over Fox’s demands). Hasty reshoots were undertaken to bridge the gaps, but there’s little question that the theatrical cut of Nightbreed is not the film Barker wanted us to see.
Viewed today, there does remain much to admire. Barker may have had a much bigger budget than on Hellraiser ($11 million as opposed to $2 million), but his plans for the film were still ambitious. Populating the underground lair of the Nightbreed, below the graveyard of Midian, required dozens of unique creature designs from Bob Keen’s Image Effects team, rendered in this pre-CG era via expensive prosthetics and animatronics. There are major pyrotechnics, lavish matte paintings from Ralph McQuarrie and hugely impressive set design, shot at Pinewood studios. David Cronenberg makes a rare, impressively creepy appearance in front of the camera as psycho doctor Dekker and Danny Elfman delivers one of his finest scores. But ultimately the lurches in logic and gaping holes in the narrative make this original version a frustrating, massively compromised experience.
NOW – Nightbreed: The Cabal Cut (2012)
Over the years, Nightbreed has slowly gained a cult following, much of this based on the potential contained within the neutered theatrical version rather than the film itself. Rumours of the lost footage would appear with predictable regularity, and fans’ hopes were stoked by behind-the-scenes on-set photos of excised sequences on Clive Barker’s website. But finally, in 2009, VHS tapes were uncovered of Barker’s original workprint at the offices of Seraphim, the writer/director’s production company. Restoration director Russell Cherrington then set about constructing the ‘Cabal Cut’ – a version of Nightbreed that adheres closely to Barker’s original script and reinstates over 45 minutes of seemingly lost footage back into the film. More than that – some of the original actors were brought into the studio to rerecord dialogue, resulting in a film far closer to Barker’s intended vision than what was initially released 22 years ago.
Having played to sell out crowds in the US, Cherrington is bringing the Cabal Cut to the UK and Frightfest 2012. It will be fascinating to see this longer version – reports from the States suggest a massive amount of character material has been reintroduced, strengthening Boone’s relationship with both girlfriend Lori and loony shrink Dekker, plus loads more footage of the Nightbreed themselves and unseen effects sequences during the apocalyptic finale. The quality of the previously lost footage will vary – much of it has been sourced from old VHS tapes after all. But given that most fans – myself included – had presumed they would never get the chance to see the full, extended version of Nightbreed, this screening of the Cabal Cut is a major event. To Midian!