Collins’ Crypt: Thoughts On NIGHTBREED - The Cabal Cut

Brian saw a coveted extended cut of Clive Barker's NIGHTBREED after two VHS workprints were discovered of the 1990 release. Here's his impression.

There are two films that most horror fans would probably consider criminal activity to obtain. One is Tod Browning’s London After Midnight, which we’re probably going to have to accept is truly lost forever (the last known print was destroyed in a fire in 1967; nothing's turned up since). The other is the original cut of Nightbreed, Clive Barker’s second film as a director that was once described as the “Star Wars of Horror,” given its intended epic feel (and launch of a franchise, of course) and huge array of new creatures that no one had seen before. After some bad test screenings and the panic of a studio that didn’t know how to market what they had, the film lost nearly an hour of footage, underwent some reshoots to bulk up the Decker character, and was finally released to indifference, failing to even equal its meager $11 million dollar budget during its domestic run.

Ever since, rumors of the longer cut’s existence have been teased to Barker’s fanbase, but it was starting to look unlikely that it would ever be seen. That is, until about two years ago, when two VHS workprints of the film were discovered in the most unlikely place: Barker’s own office. Buried behind some film cans of his third (and to date, final) film Lord of Illusions and boxes of Tortured Souls toys, these two tapes were transferred to a digital format and combined with a DVD of the film to create “The Cabal Cut,” which runs just over two and a half hours (the theatrical cut is 101 minutes) and follows Barker’s original script as closely as possible.

On Sunday, June 10th, Days Of The Dead put together a screening at the New Beverly Cinema, co-hosted by Fangoria. I had the honor of introducing Barker to the New Beverly stage to speak a bit about this rare find, as well as moderating a Q&A with Mark Miller and Russell Cherrington (who were the ones to find/sort this footage and edit together the new cut), along with Craig Sheffer, the film’s star who saw giant chunks of his performance tossed aside.

So how was it? Well, it’s certainly a stronger film. The theatrical cut raced from one event to the next, with major plot points occurring almost out of nowhere – Boone getting hit by a truck during his “bad trip” early on, for example, always baffled me as it seemed like he walked out of Decker’s office and into a semi. Now we see him taking the pills, having an instant reaction, wandering around the city for a bit, and finally ending up in the middle of the road. There were issues like this throughout the theatrical cut that have been remedied here, not to mention certain character motivations that were just plain confusing in the theatrical cut. For example, Lori makes a new friend in the ladies room of a bar, and then suddenly they’re taking a road trip to Midian together the next morning. In the “Cabal Cut”, we see Lori and her friend bonding inside the bar, and when Lori mentions having to travel to Midian alone the friend agrees to join her, but first she wants to have a little fun with a potential male suitor (which explains her hangover as well as sets up her relationship with Decker). Basically, if you thought something didn’t make sense before, it probably does now.

It also fleshes out most of the characters. Boone and Lori’s relationship in particular was mostly left on the cutting room floor, so it’s great to see them having a few scenes of happiness together before he takes off for Midian (we also see what they do for a living – she’s a club singer and we see her perform a song about cavemen!), and a few other scattered bits throughout. There’s also more with her toward the end that was entirely nixed from the theatrical version, including a life-saving measure that completely changes the climax. At times, Lori (played by Anne Bobby, whom I always quite liked here but haven’t seen in much else) seems like the main character of the film, particularly in the second act, when she first enters Midian. In fact, she meets and has a stronger relationship with more of its residents than Boone does, and the long cut really makes her into a character along the lines of Geena Davis in The Fly, instead of just “the girlfriend."

Unfortunately, the film in its current form suffers from an ironic problem: it’s just too damn long. Cherrington and his editor (Jimmi Johnson) have seemingly followed the original script (and source novel) to the letter, without really regarding things like pacing. Yes, it’s interesting to see all of this stuff, but that’s what bonus blu-ray discs are for; if you’re a die-hard fan that wants to see every shred of what was filmed, by all means watch this cut. But I think the next step should be to sit down, perhaps with an editor who isn’t as close to the material, and trim it to somewhere between 120-125 minutes. Certain scenes simply don’t need to be there, like a cop explaining all of the guns that they will be bringing to Midian. They’re asshole cops, we’re not surprised that they bring heavy firepower on their unnecessary raid, so we don’t need to stop the movie cold to have a character explain them all (even if David Cronenberg’s reaction is kind of priceless). You hear it all the time on DVD deleted scenes w/commentary – “We liked this bit, but it was hurting the pace.” There are a few such scenes here that are fun to see on their own, but if the plan is to make the definitive, best cut of the film, they have to go.

And it definitely needs tightening, particularly in the third act which depicts the police siege on Midian. It seemingly goes on forever now, and becomes quite difficult to keep track of who is where and what they are doing. Instead, it starts to feel like a random assortment of scenes featuring people running around the underground city, nearly impossible to remember what Boone is up to or where Lori is, leaving you disoriented when they finally cut back to them. It’s an exciting sequence and filled with monsters (including a giant stop motion beast that I don’t think we ever saw in the theatrical cut), but again, it’s more important to consider the pace and story, rather than put everything in simply because it was filmed. I talked to a few others after and they all agreed – the best version of the film lies somewhere between the theatrical cut and this superior but somewhat bloated one.

Luckily, there’s still time for that, and if anything seeing it this way can only help the ultimate goal of getting the film remastered properly and fully restored (picture and sound) for Blu-Ray/DVD release. Whether you think it’s perfect as is now, or could benefit from further trimming, everyone agrees that this is the superior version, and would happily buy a special edition provided it was cleaned up properly. And now that we know it exists, Morgan Creek can’t possibly expect to sell too many more copies of the bare-bones DVD, so it’s in their best financial interest to put some effort into locating those negatives and working with Clive and the others to finally finish the movie and deliver that rarest of things: a truly justified “double dip” release. Far as I know, Morgan Creek doesn’t see a dime from these screenings (which, for the record, sold out so quickly that the New Beverly added another, which was also quite crowded despite starting after midnight), and more are planned, so I’m sure they’d rather spend some time/effort (and yes, money) now to reap the rewards later.

Especially considering how it looks. Not for nothing, but 35mm transferred from a flatbed onto a VHS tape (and dubbed over once again, I think), digitized for editing and output to DVD to be projected on a movie screen, quite frankly, looks like shit. The footage from the original DVD looked fine enough, but the new footage was smeared and blurry, as you’d expect given the circumstances, and at times too dark to even make out what we were looking at (not the fault of the New Bev, I should stress - they spent quite a while calibrating to make sure it was as good as could be). Some of the sound was also hard to endure, particularly when Danny Elfman’s very Danny Elfman-y score drowned out the dialogue thanks to being mixed down by VHS limitations. And one of the VHS sources had a distracting “COPYRIGHT 1989” watermark embedded on the top of the image. I’m sure they can continue playing this version to sell-out crowds for years to come, but the battle is not won yet. The terrific makeup creations, the performances, the soundtrack… these things all deserve to be seen in full, high-resolution glory. You want to grab a REAL version of this movie off your shelf to enjoy over and over, not some Frankensteined bootleg.

So, what’s next? Well, as Cherrington and Miller continue to tour the print around, you can check up on for updates, join the Facebook group of the same name, and and sign the petition that is to be sent to Morgan Creek. If they see that there’s enough demand for this 20+ year old film that didn’t make any money the first time around, you can be sure that they will magically find those cans of film (as Cherrington noted last night, film studios are probably not in the practice of simply throwing cans of film away in this day and age). Ideally, what we’ll get someday is a multi-disc edition that has the theatrical cut, this “Cabal Cut”, and finally a definitive version that offers the best of both worlds, fleshing out the story that was whittled to the bone for its original release, but without dragging things out to the extent that you lose sight of what that story is. Think the Brazil or Dawn of the Dead releases – everything’s there, even the less desirable versions, simply for completion’s sake. Add in the documentaries and commentaries, and you have a set that just about any horror fan would be interested in obtaining. And then we can go back to bugging MGM about London After Midnight.

*There was a version played at a Horrorhound convention in 2010 that was an assembly of ALL footage, including the reshot material. This apparently led to a few glitches, like a character dying twice. So that was fixed up to make this 155 minute cut, which was shown to an audience for the first time at the New Beverly and will presumably be the one being shown going forward, until the original elements are found.