A Midian Miracle: NIGHTBREED Is Finally Restored
The infraction has escaped my memory, but whatever I did to get grounded when Clive Barker's Nightbreed made its debut on cable (Cinemax, I think), I wasn't going to let it stop me from watching the movie despite the usual "No TV!" rule that accompanied my punishments as a kid. I remember sneaking downstairs to watch it on the TV in the basement, albeit with the sound turned off so I wouldn't be heard/get caught. Obviously this is not the ideal way to watch any movie, but I figured it was a slasher movie and thus probably not too hard to figure out from the visuals. Needless to say, after about 15 minutes I was thoroughly confused and shut the TV off, realizing I had to wait after all.
Of course this was 1991 and I was 10 years old - it'd be a long time before I realized the irony of the situation. As we know (now), Nightbreed is NOT a slasher movie, it was just marketed as one by Fox/Morgan Creek, who didn't "get" the movie's actual intentions. And even with the sound on I probably would have been pretty confused by the narrative, due to post production tinkering by the studio that left the film hollowed and intermittently baffling in an attempt to "fix" it. But while other studio-tampered films got restored (Brazil, Blade Runner, The Abyss, etc) over the years, the longer, Barker-approved cut of Nightbreed remained at bay - not even a bootleg of the uncut version seemed to exist. Barker would have to offer the same disappointing answer every time he appeared at a convention or event and someone inevitably asked "Where is your cut of Nightbreed?" (I myself was one such fan, at a Screamfest event in 2006), and for a while it seemed all hope was lost.
That is, until 2009, when not one but two longer cuts of the film were discovered on VHS tape (in Barker's own office - d'oh!). One was an 145 minute workprint of Barker's own director's cut, the other was 159 minutes and was pretty much just an assembly of everything that was shot. Using these two tapes and a proper copy, the 155 minute "Cabal Cut" was created and shown at various festivals and one-off screenings, including one hosted by yours truly at the New Beverly in 2012. Needless to say, being that the source was a VHS tape (itself probably a copy of another one), these screenings were a bit rough on the eyes, but even if it was all pristine footage the general consensus was that this "Cabal Cut" was, somewhat hilariously, too long. With nearly everything that was shot placed back in the film, the pacing was lethargic at times, and even action scenes like the siege on Midian just went on forever. It was great to see all of this stuff, but it was too much in the opposite direction: an overstuffed movie is just as bad as a hollow shell of one, in my opinion. Even though Barker's own cut ran 145 minutes, it seemed the real sweet spot for the film would be somewhere in the 120, 130 minute range.
Well, someone agreed. The definitive cut that's being released this week courtesy of Scream Factory (who else?) is 121 minutes, which on paper is 20 minutes longer than the theatrical - but you have to consider that the ending that version had has been replaced by the superior original one, so there's actually more stuff that's "new to you" while scenes that weren't intended to be there have been removed. Full scenes have been restored, others lengthened, and the film as a whole simply works better than either version from before ever did. Plus, the original elements WERE found, and so we don't have to squint and rub our eyes every 5 seconds like we did for Cabal Cut screenings - this is all 100% pristine and perfect, as any other movie would be, with no VHS quality footage appearing anywhere besides the bonus features. As in the Cabal Cut, Boone's drug trip early on makes a lot more sense, and Lori's new friend doesn't just join her on her trip to Midian out of nowhere like she did in the theatrical version, but those scenes have been properly edited (and sound mixed) so that they play out as they should, i.e. not bloated. The aforementioned siege on Midian is now just right, and with Decker's role slightly reduced we are able to have more focus on the film's real human villain, Captain Eigerman. The new ending focuses on the fulfillment of Boone's role in the prophecy, as well as the love story between him and Lori that may be the biggest change to the film as a whole - it's now, as intended, about them and how their love for each other survives even death.
So why isn't it 145 minutes like Barker's original director's cut? Well I'm sure that he would have trimmed it down after a few viewings on his own, even without any studio interference - that's just how things work. He'd realize some of that stuff was hurting the pace or didn't fit or whatever, and he'd cut it out himself. Any excised footage is likely present on the limited edition set somewhere (in the deleted scenes section, the retrospective doc, etc), but they didn't bother wasting disc space with one of those longer cuts that had everything included - the version that's on the disc is the one that should be seen going forward, even if there are a couple of minor bits that Cabal Cut viewers might have liked. I should note, it's interesting that the deleted scenes compilation only appears on the limited set, as if to offer it for the 10,000 hardcore fans but leave it up to the imagination for those who purchase the standard set. The limited one also has the theatrical version, making its Blu debut I believe; I'm not sure the appeal since the new one is infinitely better, but I guess it might be fun to compare, especially if you have never seen it. "Look at how incoherent the movie was for us for a quarter of a century!"
The standard set DOES include the 72 minute retrospective doc, however, and that features a few minor deleted bits as context for whatever the actor is talking about at that moment, as well as a surprising number of outtakes (including some priceless ones of trying to get Ohnaka's dog to hit his mark). However it's ALL actors, with Barker, the editors, the producers, etc all left out. So unless you love actor recollections of their process or putting makeup on or whatever, you might want to just skip to the final 15 minutes, where they talk about the meddling in depth (there are hints about it throughout, but nothing substantial). Until that point you'd get the idea that this was a normal movie, and then it's practically over once they start talking about how their roles were damaged (Doug Bradley's voice was redubbed and given a German accent - his original voice has been restored, needless to say). I wish there was more time spent on this and the film's long journey to being restored, but alas apart from the intro and commentary by Barker and Mark Miller (who has been the one tirelessly working to get this out there since 2009), the disc doesn't really spend a lot of time on its long road to being seen as intended. I don't even think there's any footage or photos of the Cabal Cut screenings, which seems odd. No, most of the extras are the usual stuff - a look at the stunts, at the makeup FX, etc.; the only exception is a brief interview with Mark Goldblatt, who was the editor brought in after the original one quit in protest regarding the studio's demands. He's pretty diplomatic about it, so don't go in expecting much dirt, but it's still an interesting look at what was a bummer situation for the man, and I wish they had more bonus features devoted to this as it's such a big part of Nightbreed's history and we're not likely to get another release of it.
But hey, there's nothing wrong with letting bygones be bygones, right? Maybe the thinking was "Why dwell on something that's been corrected?", and in that respect I'm all for focusing on the movie itself. The important thing is that after nearly 25 years we have an honest to god director's cut of Nightbreed in our hands, and with Clive doing commentary over it as the ultimate stamp of approval. It's funny that this and Halloween 6 seemed like pipe dreams, and here's Scream Factory doing proper versions of both within a few weeks of each other - what can they do next? Hellraiser: Bloodline might be a good option; the film was supposed to present each timeline as its own separate piece before it was re-edited/reshot to be set in space and use the other timelines as flashbacks. Exorcist III (another Morgan Creek production from the same era) might also be a solid choice, as that film was heavily reworked (Brad Dourif's role in particular). I'd also be curious about the original cut of Deadly Friend, without all the gore sequences the studio demanded to be put in late in the game - the basketball kill is the most memorable part of the movie, but SHOULD it be? But even if none of that happens, I for one am still kind of amazed that I have a pristine copy of a complete vision of Nightbreed in my hands. Kudos to all involved (even Morgan Creek) for finally righting this wrong - it was worth the wait.