Friday, March 27, 2015

Where the Monsters Live: The Nightbreed Director's Cut

When Nightbreed: The Director's Cut slithered its way onto Netflix Instant in December of 2014 the vast majority of Netflix subscribers presumably paid it little attention. However, for fans of Clive Barker's work and/or horror fans of (*ahem*) a certain age the film's emergence on the Netflix platform was a very big deal. The footage restored to the film had been a holy grail of sorts to fans and filmmaker alike, and the hunt for that footage spanned across years and various possible resting places before Mark Miller, Vice President of Barker's production company, Seraphim Films, tracked it to a closet in the Seraphim offices. It had been literal feet away the entire time. 

Nightbreed, an adaptation of Barker's own novella, Cabal, tells the story of Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer), a young man with unspecified mental problems (the best sort of mental problems!) who becomes convinced thanks to the machinations of his psychiatrist, Decker (David muthafunkin Cronenberg), that he's a serial killer. Fleeing from the law he seeks out a place that he's glimpsed in his dreams: the city of Midian, a Promised Land for monsters. Boone is followed by his loyal girlfriend, Lori (Anne Bobby), and by Decker, a man just as monstrous as those who dwell in Midian. 

"The politics got so Byzantine that I didn't know who was stabbing me in the back, who was stabbing me in the eye - but they all had knives." 
- Clive Barker, speaking with Mark Salisbury for Fear, No 22, October 1990
"It's more of a rollercoaster ride than originally intended. I was surprised at how little time the US audience wanted to spend with dialogue when I tested the movie. The longer cut frankly didn't work for them. They wanted sensation after sensation after sensation."   
- Clive Barker, speaking with Mark Salisbury for Fear, No 22, October 1990

Coming off the success of his first directorial effort, Hellraiser, Barker leapt at the chance to bring the world of Cabal to life on the screen, and in 1990 Nightbreed was born. It was not an easy birth. The theatrical cut of Nightbreed was compromised in more than one way - audiences seemed to want less character work, less dialogue, less build up; they wanted the monsters and they wanted them now. On the other side both Morgan Creek and Fox seemed genuinely distressed by the film and the "inverted moralities" that it displayed. Per Barker the studios did little in the way of marketing and promotion for the film.  Barker trimmed his creation  and then watched it die on the vine. Budgeted at over $11 million, Nightbreed took in around $8 million in its theatrical run. Now it's back in a form that's closer to Barker's originally intended vision, and the question is whether that vision makes for a better movie. It certainly makes for a different experience.

"Listen! 'So Moses spoke to the people, saying 'Arm yourselves for war and let them go and take vengeance for the Lord on Midian...' and so they burned with fire all the cities where they dwelt and killed the kings of Midian, both man and beast!'" 
- Clive Barker's Nightbreed: The Director's Cut

Barker's story is at root a dark and fascinating riff on the Book of Exodus. That interpretation isn't a stretch, it's etched into the fabric of his tale as is evident from the quote above. Boone is a clear Moses figure, called forth by prophetic dreams to lead the children of Midian - a "lost tribe" - out of the darkness. Decker is a twisted Pharaoh analogue, determined to stop him, intent on executing the "children" of Midian. Midian is sustained by Baphomet, the "god" of monsters, who has guided events and silently oversees his/her/its subjects. This strange repurposing of The Bible has a primal, visceral power in and of itself, especially welded to a tale that attempts sympathy for the devils.

Behold Baphomet, God of Standing Very Still

Barker's best written work resonates, in part, because his monsters are fleshed out characters, not just fanged/gooey obstacles to be overcome. That desire to give his creatures dimensions comes through, to varying degrees of success, in both the Cabal novella and in the original theatrical cut of Nightbreed. That impulse, along with the power of the quasi-Biblical allegory underlying the film's story, is primarily what makes the original 1990 cut of Nightbreed genuinely interesting. There's something headily intoxicating about the sheer strangeness of the film, and about the ways in which it straddles the lines between monster movie, slasher picture, fantasy saga, and Biblical epic. 

Unfortunately the 1990 cut of Nightbreed is also kind of a mess, on multiple levels. Some of the blame for this can be laid firmly at the feet of the studio that made the film. Some of that blame firmly belongs with Barker, who cast his two leading human roles with actors that are, frankly, not all that interesting in their parts, and who never quite manages to fully integrate his out-sized ambition with the art of crafting a well-paced, compelling film narrative. 

That said, Barker's ambition in the film is also breathtaking. I've seen that ambition described as a desire to make the "Star Wars of horror," and that's more or less on point. On a budget that's fairly described as slight Barker stuffed Nightbreed full of practical creatures and striking visuals, all wonderfully bizarre. On that level the film teems with invention and lovingly ladled, idiosyncratic detail. But Barker's ambition doesn't just manifest itself in the design of the film. It's also part of the film's thematic fabric. 

Someone on the production team was a Grateful Dead fan...


"What we're asking the audience to do is cheer the monsters." - Clive Barker, speaking with Stefan Jaworzyn for Horrorfan, Vol 1 No 3, Fall 1989 
"Someone at Morgan Creek said to me, 'You know, Clive, if you're not careful some people are going to like the monsters.'" - Clive Barker, speaking with Alan Jones for Cinefantastique, Vol 21, number 1, July 1990 

I've seen the monsters of Midian described as the "heroes" of Nightbreed, by Barker and by others, but with copious respect toward Barker that's really not an accurate description. It's far more accurate to say that Boone and his fellow monsters are the protagonists of their story, and that's an important distinction. The monsters of Midian drive the story, and ask for our emotional investment. They're protagonists because Barker's sympathies as writer/creator so clearly lie with them, but they are in no conventional way heroic. They are flesh-eating, blood-drinking creatures of the night made sympathetic because the human beings in Barker's stacked-deck world are just as, if not more, vicious and predatory. If the denizens of Midian weren't being hunted, if they were free to roam, they might be the ones slithering into suburban homes and murdering families as Decker does toward the beginning of the film.

That ambiguity is both boon and curse to Nightbreed. The film palpably wants audiences to identify with its outsiders, but these outsiders aren't X-Men, born with strange abilities and hated simply for their differences. They aren't the children of Israel, unfairly enslaved and brutalized. These outsiders are, in large part, killers and madmen. At one point in the film Decker exclaims that "EVERYBODY has a secret face," and it's clear to this viewer that Barker wants us to draw connections between the monsters of Midian and oppressed groups in general. We're meant to see the link between the literal secret faces of the Midianites and the "secret faces" that society's outsider groups must wear to pass among the "Normals." The issue, for some or perhaps for many, is that the vast majority of Nightbreed's secret faces are horrific. Weirdly, in watching the film this time around, what came to mind most readily was HBO's True Blood - whose vampires were, at least as stated, intended to function as a metaphor for oppressed minorities, but who were also, in large part, a group of reprehensible predators. 

Barker's abandonment of conventional morality seems far more intentional than True Blood's ham-handed metaphors ever did, and that abandonment is, to me, really interesting - but it also creates real issues when it comes to investing in the plight of Midian's monsters. The Director's Cut addresses this somewhat, as the 'Breed are given more time to develop as a larger populace containing, yes, horrible flesh-eating monsters, but also those who are simply too outrageous in appearance to live among humanity. Barker delves juuuuust deeply enough to show us that #NotAllMidianites are murderers by introducing us to seemingly innocent children and deformed creatures who are pitiable, but neither version of the film arguably invests in those characters sufficiently; it invests far more fully in characters like Peloquin, the Rastafarian predator who eagerly breaks Midian's laws just to get a taste of human flesh. And by setting the monsters of Midian up against a truly reprehensible crew of idiot human cartoons we're not so much asked to consider "who the real monsters are" as we are railroaded into attempts at sympathy toward the sort of serial killers that the film's male lead actively fears he might be. 

Whether the upending of morality Barker embraces here will bother you or distance you from the movie is, I think, very much an individual thing. Speaking for myself that inversion creates emotional distance even as it engages me intellectually. Basically, Nightbreed's morality is seriously muddled and I kind of like that even as it frustrates me. Will it bother you? I have no idea. 

But oh, that makeup! 

Does the Director's Cut improve the experience of the film? In some ways, yes, undeniably. Watching the Director's Cut is a richer experience, as the rushed and delirious feeling of the theatrical cut is ameliorated somewhat by additional scenes that build character. The film also feels even bigger in scope than before. Much of the effects and makeup work in the film is undeniably crude by today's standards, but (depending on your tolerance for films made in earlier eras) that handmade quality ends up mostly enhancing the experience of watching it. You are never not aware of the effort that went into bringing Midian to life, and that effort (on that budget) is extraordinary. Yes, many of the film's creatures adhere to the Star Trek-ian template of putting some face makeup on someone and leaving the rest of the performer looking human/humanoid, but that's an issue of budgetary restraint and not creative vision.  

Some of the restored footage is genuinely cool and weird - like a lovemaking scene where Boone's image splits in two, presaging his transformation a little later in the film. Some of it is just weird - like Barker's decision, in the middle of his epic horror-fantasy tale, to reinsert footage of Lori belting out an entire country and western song at a club. But both advance the story and deepen the human characters to some degree. They're also prime examples of Barker's quirky authorial voice. Less effective are the reinserted scenes featuring the rednecks and police officers who are the film's "real monsters." Those scenes amp up their cartoonish intolerance and villainy to a level that's harder to take seriously. There's certainly an argument to be made that Barker intends these characters to be caricatures, but his tonal control isn't assured enough to really pull off those shifts into arched-eyebrow satire. 

Finally, there's the issue of the film's new ending. While I like and admire much of what was done in the Director's Cut I'm of the opinion that the ending of the theatrical cut is far more effective, and much more chilling. Sheffer and Bobby can't pull off the insane gothic romantic vibe that Barker is clearly shooting for in their newly restored scenes, and the feel is goofier than it should be. The theatrical version's more open-ended conclusion to Boone and Anne's story is quieter and more effective. What's more the change in the character of Ashberry's from concerned protector of the Nightbreed to their future persecutor made zero narrative sense in the theatrical cut and makes zero narrative sense in the Director's Cut as presented.  In both versions Ashberry has sworn allegiance to Baphomet, god of the monsters, is transformed into a monster, and then...decides he wants revenge against Baphomet and the monsters? 


Like Guillermo del Toro Barker is an unarguable visionary, and as with much of del Toro's Hollywood studio work Barker has issues when it comes to tone, pacing, and the discipline to anchor his fantastical imagery in grounded, believable, compelling performances. Despite the restored/reworked footage, Nightbreed: The Director's Cut still feels somehow undercooked. In both versions the film can't quite take all of the magnificent magic of its makeup and monsters and weld it to a tale that manages to do more than alternately fascinate and creep the viewer out with its visuals; there's still an unrelenting feel to the film that's less exhilarating than it is exhausting, and the tinkering done to create the Director's Cut, however lovingly and carefully accomplished, arguably hasn't fixed that. 

"Whatever else you can say about Nightbreed, it's not like anybody else's movie, it's not a tintype. It delivers what I always promised it would - a monster movie that would spill over with weird images and creatures." - Clive Barker, speaking with Anthony Timpone for the Fangoria Horror Spectacular, No 1, 1990

Barker's not wrong. Nightbreed is not like anybody else's movies. It does in fact spill over with weird images and creatures. In so doing it summons up a very peculiar, singular mood and energy. Despite the criticisms I've leveled at the film there is a dark power to the film that's kept me coming back to it over the years. I'd recommend watching it if you're a fan of horror, of epic fantasy, of films that come up short despite a surfeit of ambition. It does a lot of things very well, including the creation of a unique atmosphere, the establishment of an underworld that's both repellent and magnetic, the realization of dozens upon dozens of different creatures, and the coaxing of some interesting performances from the most monstrous of the film's inhabitants. Cronenberg's turn as Decker is particularly good, with Barker using his fellow director's icily urbane persona to great effect. What Nightbreed doesn't do, in either the 1990 theatrical cut or in the Director's Cut, is compel you to truly give a damn about its two lead characters, nor find a way to make its Grand Guignol visuals cohere around a satisfying dramatic spine. 

The real disappointment on viewing the Director's Cut is an even stronger sense that this film is essentially a prologue to a much more interesting story that will never be told. What happens when the monsters leave their refuge? Are they immediately going to go around eating people again? Where will they go now, and what will they do? How do you hide from mankind when you are a literal porcupine woman? What factions will develop? Will the moon-faced man link up with McDonald's as a corporate mascot? All of this sounds way more interesting to me than the film we got, and I'd have enjoyed seeing Barker's menagerie expand out from their abandoned cemetery and into the world at large. 

But that didn't happen. What we have instead in Nightbreed: The Director's Cut is the equivalent of the bizarre creature that Boone rescues from the sun in the film. Boone takes her out of the light and into the dark and in the process she transforms and recovers, but remains trapped by the shadows, a hybrid creature that will never be accepted by the world at large. With Nightbreed: The Director's Cut, Barker, Miller and a team of admirably dedicated people perform a similar act of kindness toward a film that's destined to remain at least partly in shadow. 

Have you seen the Director's Cut? What's your view on it, and on the world Barker created for the film? Does the "inversion of moralities" that Barker established bother you? Intrigue you? Confuse you? Did the religious elements register with you? And how would you like to have seen this story continued? 

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