Directed by Clive Barker
For some reason, I’ve always held a soft spot for ambitious failures. Nothing fascinates me more than when a visionary filmmaker swings for the fences, but pops a messy fly-ball. If you’re going to fail, fail big. I enjoy re-visiting and dissecting these kinds of movies, studying what went wrong while admiring the diamond in the rough. Clive Barker’s Nightbreed was always one of those movies for me. It was a narrative disaster, but had a world so full of life and creativity that I fell in love with it instantly.
Unfortunately, what we saw was only a portion of what was intended. Ever since its release in 1990, the film’s production troubles have been well known: Panicked by its unconventional nature, studio Morgan Creek forced reshoots and re-edits in an attempt to spin Barker’s epic dark fantasy tale into a more marketable horror film (I guess they’d never read one of his books). This resulted in a wildly unbalanced movie that contained a lot of great monsters and set-pieces, but an underdeveloped story and characters. And in the end, none of their tinkering helped the box office. Stupid Hollywood.
Luckily, several of Barker’s pals at Seraphim Films discovered old VHS tapes from the original workprints and have pieced together a much longer version (over 2 1/2 hours vs the original’s 100 minutes) in a bid to convince the studio for a full restoration of his original vision. Cobbled from DVDs and VHS tapes, “The Cabal Cut” is in pretty rough shape and if you’re fortunate enough to view it, the varying degrees of quality take some getting used to. That said, as someone who makes their living as a film editor, I’m accustomed to seeing works-in-progress and had no problems using my imagination to fill in the blanks and lose myself in the experience.
If you’re reading this, odds are you know the story: Working class stiff Boone (Craig Sheffer) is haunted by dreams of Midian, a world full of ancient monster outcasts. Unfortunately, he’s picked the world’s worst psychiatrist – David Cronenberg, whose nefarious Dr. Decker moonlights as a serial killer and frames his patients for murder. Pursued by the law and the mad doctor, Boone takes off into the very real underworld of Midian, joins the ranks of the Breed, and quickly finds himself wrapped up in prophecy and war.
Right from the offset, The Cabal Cut does a much better job at establishing Boone, his relationship with girlfriend Lori, and his rampant psychosis and drug use (which accounts for many of confusing moments in the theatrical cut). Likewise, the relationship between Boone & Dr. Decker plays far more intimately (one scene even has Sheffer crying in Cronenberg’s arms) which adds a lot more weight to both characters and their impending showdown. Many sub-characters are also given larger roles and in some cases, their fates are changed entirely. The biggest example is Hugh Quarshie’s detective who takes on a more heroic role that survives to influence a lot of events in the climax and provides a little more balance to the “evil human” characters.
There’s a variable treasure trove of new material that makes Nightbreed feel like a different film entirely. We get to see much, much more of the Breed through the eyes of Lori as she explores the world of Midian and dive even further into it’s history through operatic flashbacks of monster holocausts. And along with an entirely different ending, there’s plenty of little character quirks sprinkled in, including scenes where Cronenberg has demented conversations with his mask, much like Willem Dafoe in Spiderman. In a movie like this, it’s the little things that matter.
But not everything found in The Cabal Cut is necessarily for the better. This is a “kitchen sink” edit from Barker’s first-pass, which means every scrap of footage has been thrown back into the film without any regard to pacing. While we get plenty of extra meat, there are also plenty of superfluous scenes (like drawn-out Boone/Lori smooching, a silly concert number, and an unnecessary visit to the police armory) that desperately need to be chopped down or excised entirely. Editing a movie is like chiseling a block of cement down into a statue – but in this case, they’ve piled so much discarded material onto it that it becomes partially obstructed. Should this footage get a proper restoration from the studio, the folks behind The Cabal Cut would do well to be less precious with the footage and establish a better narrative flow (like it or not, some of the cuts in the theatrical version were for the better).
This is especially true of the ending police siege on Midian. A lot of spectacular moments have been unearthed (including a stop-motion dinosaur creature and some vehicular mayhem) – and it largely reverses the dynamics, turning what was a standard action climax into “Schindler’s List with monsters” – but the climax runs way longer than it needs to, with endless shots of police firing guns and running through caverns that not only slows down the momentum, but gets downright confusing. All in all, the full two and a half hours presented here would greatly benefit from losing a good fifteen-to-twenty minutes.
Still, the stuff that does work transcends Nightbreed well beyond it’s initial studio hatchet-job, and when you get passed the extremely rough footage and questionable editing choices, it’s not hard to see a beautiful movie underneath. Without question, The Cabal Cut is a much richer film and a big step closer to giving the fans a truly satisfying version of the movie. Will we ever see a the film restored and fully-realized? You can help make it happen by supporting the Occupy Midian movement and signing the petition at the official Occupy Midian website.
3 1/2 out of 5