Fantastic Fest Review: CABAL, An Unrefined Yet Superior Version Of NIGHTBREED

NIGHTBREED: THE CABAL CUT screened at Fantastic Fest, but twenty three years later Clive Barker's film still ain't finished.

Oh, Nightbreed. Where to begin?

Considered a cult classic by some but hardly given a second thought by most, Nightbreed would have been long forgotten if it weren't for Clive Barker. Yes, it was directed by the undisputed master of horror (in print, if not in film) from his own novella Cabal, but we never got to see the film he wanted. The film that made it into theaters was taken away from Barker and completely re-edited, leaving behind a shell of his original vision. Not even David Cronenberg could save this cut, but all was not lost. Not entirely, at least.

Over the last year or so, Nightbreed: The Cabal Cut has been touring theaters around the world, a 2 ½ hour cut of the film edited by Russell Cherrington based on Barker’s original script. The basic frame of Nightbreed is exactly the same in the newly titled Cabal, but the amount of footage that was cut is insane. A staggering 70% is brand new footage, enough to get it classified as a separate film entirely, hence the new (original) title. Clive Barker famously complained that the studio didn’t understand the film - what do you mean the monsters are the heroes? - and it was hacked to pieces after bad test screenings. It’s pretty evident in this cut, as practically all of the scenes that humanize the Nightbreed and give you a little more clarity into their world is taken from new footage.

This cut can’t fully be considered a finished film, though. All of the new footage was cobbled together from VHS workprints that were found in Barker’s office. With no other source to take from we’re stuck with a muddled, scratched and just generally terrible print, sometimes with black bars over the top right of the screen to mask the timecode. Perhaps if it were all VHS-quality it would work better, but the disparity between the pristine theatrical cut footage and the newer, more prevalent stuff is jarring, especially when some of the new footage is so damn dark you can barely see what’s going on. Seeing it projected in a state-of-the-art theater only compounds the problems.

But perhaps you’re like me and barely remember the original, or never saw it in the first place. It revolves around Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer), a young fella who is plagued by suicidal thoughts and dreams populated by monsters. His girlfriend Lori (Anne Bobby) convinces him to go to a psychotherapist Dr. Decker (David Cronenberg, who’s amazing in this role), and Boone tells him all about his nightmares of a place called Midian, a place he feels compelled to visit. Decker tells Boone that his violent dreams aren’t dreams at all, but memories of his nocturnal activities, which consist of him murdering entire families, eight and counting. Decker prescribes him medication and gives Boone a day to consider turning himself into the police before he will.

A series of events leads to Boone finding that Midian is a real place, an old cemetery that houses a community of monsters known as the Nightbreed. All the legends you ever heard were real - monsters exist, but their population is dwindling and they’ve been living out their lives in this underground city in the middle of nowhere. Boone seeks to join them.

Barker has created a helluva fascinating world here, full of great creature designs and apparently tailor-made for sequels and spin-offs, but some of the criticism leveled against this cut is valid. Barker may have given notes on the edit but there are still some jarring cuts where characters seem to transport to new locations, or scenes that just don't match up. There's also the Danny Elfman score, which works well enough but has been cut up and repeated throughout the new footage to make up for the time difference. (Of course, you could probably put Elfman's score for any film on repeat and not even tell the difference.)

There’s also the final act, which sees the cops raiding Midian. All of the theatrical cut footage shows the Nightbreed acting like monsters and fighting back the best way they know how - it’s only the workprint stuff that shows the cops just slaughtering men, women and children. This section of the film is much expanded and some say it goes on a little too long, but it feels justified to show the true nature of both sides. If only the quality were better in those dark, dark caverns.

Scream Factory has not been dismayed by the quality of the footage, however, and they’re currently working on a Blu-ray cut of the film. It's hard to even consider the amount of work in front of them - I don't envy them. Restoration director Cherrington claimed in the Q&A that it could get up to the same quality as the Aliens 3 workprint cut by release and if so, that will be a huge achievement. Judging from the dozens of sold-out screenings there's a huge amount of interest in Cabal, but it still might be in your best interest to wait for the Scream Factory version rather than be constantly pulled out of the film thanks to the changes in video quality.