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rochefort [Celluloid 09.23.13] horror

When the original Nightbreed was released to theaters in 1990, Clive Barker was a celebrated author but still an unproven movie-maker, and many fans were waiting to see if he was in fact "the future of horror", as Stephen King had once so generously proclaimed. Hellraiser had been a hit that proved mainstream horror films could tread in decidedly darker territory than the formulaic slashers that were becoming self-parodies of themselves, and the film's villains, the Cenobites, became instant horror icons. For his follow-up, Barker adapted yet another of his novels, "Cabal", and set his sights much, much higher than most second-time directors of the era would dare, crafting the tale of an underground sect of monsters, freaks and outcasts that would blur the line between horror and tragic, epic fantasy.

But the executives wanted more Cenobites, or at least a slasher movie, and Barker's original cut left them cold and confused. Clueless as to how they could market the film, they insisted Barker cut almost a third of the story and add scenes that focused on its secondary villain, who at least wore a mask and cut people with a machete.

What we saw in theaters back then was the story of Boone (Craig Sheffer), a young man with a history of mental problems and blackouts, who is manipulated by his elitist psychiatrist Decker (David Cronenberg) into taking the heat for Decker's own psychotic killing spree. Decker's machinations prove so successful that Boone desperately seeks out a place called Midian, a supposed haven for murderers located in the catacombs of the nearby cemetery. On his first try, he's surprised to find Peloquin, a rune-covered vampire who breaks the law and attempts to dine on Boone's flesh, marking him in the process. Decker eventually coerces the police into tracking Boone down and killing him mere yards from Midian's front gates, at which point the Midianites, led by Lylesberg (Doug Bradley, aka Pinhead) hesitantly welcome him into the fold. Decker, unhealthily obsessed with ridding the world of all filthy creatures, follows Boone's mourning girlfriend Lori (Anne Bobby) back to the graveyard, and once he discovers the Nightbreed's existence allies himself with the local sheriff and his band of paramilitary good ole boys in a bid to wipe them out.

The initial theatrical release of "Nightbreed", while not a disaster, was still a rather big disappointment; its run grossed about 2/3 of its budget, and fan response was mixed. This may have been due to the fact that audiences were expecting another "Hellraiser", but I suspect it was as much caused by the undeniable sense that the movie itself felt rushed and unfocused, especially in the frantic third act. This was 1990, after all, and MTV had already infected the editing aesthetic of all but the most highbrow of Hollywood films.

Barker himself was very vocal about the cuts and changes, and has been lobbying for years to be allowed access to the original reels to do a restored cut. Enter Russell Cherrington, a professor and friend of Barker's who used Barker's own notes as a guide to recut the film using the original theatrical cut and VHS source tapes, adding over forty minutes of footage throughout, and the new version has Barker's seal of approval. Now that the "Cabal Cut" is making the rounds and playing well at multiple festivals, we can expect a cleaned-up version on DVD and Blu-Ray in about a year. So score one for the good guys, even if it took almost 25 years. But is the newer, truer version any good?

Well, yeah, not least of all because it's the truest representation of just how Barker might have changed horror cinema, given enough time and success. 1990 wasn't a particularly inventive year for horror films, dominated by sequels and crap like "Repossessed" and "Def By Temptation", and along with maybe only "Tremors", "Nightbreed" was arguably the best horror film of 1990, and it was certainly the boldest. It reintroduced the tragedy of the misunderstood freak that is prevalent now in everything from superhero films like the "X Men" series to revisionist zombie flicks to every single one of Tim Burton's movies. And with its themes of mysticism, messiahs and genocide, it's essentially the "Dune" of horror movies, so it's nice to see it finally get the epic love it deserves. The restored version is an absolute vindication that yes, there was a better movie already there, and the studio was only allowing us to see the longest possible trailer.

The two-and-a-half-hour Cabal Cut doesn't tell a completely different story, but instead restores throughout the smaller and quieter moments that build character and more patiently progress the plot, allowing each to breathe, more or less. A couple of characters benefit hugely, particularly Anne Bobby's Lori and Malcolm Smith as Ashberry, the fallen priest who tries to unsuccessfully join the 'Breed. The wonky 80's hairstyles are still there, of course, and there's a dodgy musical cue and line reading or two still intact, but the overall whole is a much more satisfying ride. Our first real tour of the innermost recesses of Midian doesn't occur until almost the midway point, making the stunning collection of imaginative makeup fx, prosthetic and mechanical work on display all the more impactful.

With this new cut it's much more evident that Barker was trying to take "The Island of Dr. Moreau" and turn it on its ear, updating the story to address themes of social darwinism, inequality, even the holocaust. It's admittedly heavy-handed at times; there aren't very many sympathetic non-monsters around, but the restored scenes actually rectify this to a slight extent, as well, humanizing certain characters beyond their original brief and stock screen time.

In all fairness, though, the Cabal Cut is currently a workprint, and isn't a perfect festival experience in and of itself. The VHS scenes are just what you'd expect, full of tracking and muddy dark patches, certain score cues are re-used here and there to fill the audio gaps, and a couple of scenes briefly repeat the information or even dialogue from previous ones. This is an admittedly transitional cut, and the response from one fest to the next has been positive enough to guarantee that we'll see the polished version before long, so keep that in mind if you're there when it reaches its next stop. But once "Cabal" finally hits disc, it's the only version I plan to ever watch again.

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Kyle (9 years ago) Reply

i cant wait for this. i love nightbreed.
i know the movie has flaws but the fantasy is so much beyond that.
cant wait to see more of it.
i wish they would get it out now.

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