Nightbreed Director's Cut Blu-ray Review (originally published 2014)
Boone (Craig Sheffer) may be a troubled young man, but his troubles are just beginning. Set up as the fall guy in a string of slasher murders, he decides he'll hide by crossing the threshold that separates ‘us’ from ‘them’ and sneak into the forbidden subterranean realm of Midian. Boone will live among the monsters. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
Following the somewhat surprising international success of Hellraiser in 1987, Clive Barker was the toast of the town and the horror world was his cinematic oyster. After handing off Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988) to his friend Tony Randel, he took up production on an ambitious film version of his novella, Cabal (Poseidon Press, 1988). That film, Nightbreed (1990), was shot on a sizable budget with significant studio backing and was designed as the first of a series (at least one sequel was planned at Morgan Creek). But the epic vision was not to be. The producers got cold feet after seeing a rough cut and, claiming that the story and characters were too confusing, demanded reshoots/re-edits, much to Barker and editor Richard Marden’s chagrin. The release date was pushed back several months and the two-and-a-half-hour-plus original cut was chiseled down to 102 minutes. Nightbreed was released to negative reviews and flopped at the box office. Luckily, word of the troubled production escaped into the pre-internet fan-o-sphere (mostly Fangoria and Gorezone magazines) and helped build a solid cult fanbase.
I’ve never really liked Nightbreed in its theatrical form. It’s charming enough to not be boring, but does not live up to the revolting hyper-theatricality of Hellraiser. However, many non-fans have been taken in by the production’s back-story over the decades. Film enthusiasts can’t resist a good “artist screwed over by studio hacks” story and Nightbreed’s history has turned the concept of a director’s cut into the Holy Grail of its kind. Rumors of a surviving extended cut circulated for decades and finally materialized when a VHS bootleg of the workprint was discovered and added to the reshoot footage to create a 159-minute extended cut, dubbed The Cabal Cut. Despite looking like a VHS bootleg, the extended version made the rounds in the convention circuit and created new enthusiasm for the film. Initially, it was stated that Scream Factory would be releasing The Cabal Cut on Blu-ray and DVD, but that news was corrected when Barker himself announced that he was overseeing a completely different director’s cut, culled from parts of the theatrical version and restored footage from the extended version. It includes about 40 minutes of new footage and deletes some of the old footage to reach a healthy 120 minutes.
This director’s cut, despite not including the complete 159 minutes of Cabal Cut footage, is a superior film to the 102-minute theatrical release. The weird tone is more even-handed, creating a better, more potent mix of Barker-level drama and horror. Despite the increased length, the pacing is better and the accelerated storytelling helps cover some of the weaker plotting, especially anything concerning character motivations, though seemingly, without reshoot time and access to everything Barker originally shot, there are still substantial holes in the narrative. The patchwork assembly magnifies issues with persistent energy levels and consistently dynamic imagery throughout the film. There are truly remarkable visual ideas spliced between really bland expositional/dialogue-driven sequences – the kind of generic footage that would’ve never made the cut on an incredibly efficient movie, like Hellraiser. Importantly, this cut includes more gore and much more time with the monsters, which, in turn, better matches the novella’s intended themes and gives the climax actual dramatic context. Facts like these verify claims that the studio’s meddling hampered Barker’s creativity, because, even in this reconstructed form, Nightbreed still feels like a compromise. That said, it might be the closest we’ll ever get to a Clive Barker’s superhero story, at least until we see what they’re doing with that upcoming Nightbreed television series.
Nightbreed has been released on DVD in various territories, but Scream Factory’s standard edition and collector’s edition Blu-rays are the only HD options, not to mention the first and only releases of the director’s cut version. The original press release claimed that the deleted footage was only available on the VHS bootleg and that it would be put through a ‘high-resolution digitization process’ to best match the properly-scanned film footage. Thankfully, someone found the original elements in the WB vault, which means that this 1080p, 1.85:1 HD transfer is as consistent-looking as possible, given the multi element source (the special features include some of the raw VHS footage and it looks really bad). The results are very good – much better than we could’ve expected from a composite cut and just as good as we should expect from a movie of its age. The image clarity and level of detail is also consistent (enough to ‘give away’ some of the matte paintings), despite the extreme darkness of some sequences, and there are no signs of DNR enhancement. A handful of the previously deleted scenes include jagged transitions, scratches, and dirty splices, but the overall appearance is barely marred by inconsistencies in grain levels (the more well-lit establishing shots feature some pulsing sheets). Barker and cinematographer Robin Vidgeon utilize a lot of reds and oranges, which tends to flatten the darker shots, but, even at their most vivid, these warm hues are not blocky or noisy. The only realistic complaint I can muster is that some shots have been slightly over-sharpened, creating minor edge haloes.
The 5.1 remix, presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio, is obviously a first for the director’s cut, which was likely culled from the 2.0 stereo surround source, but all DVD versions of the theatrical cut have included similar 5.1 mixes. The extra directional effects are sometimes a little rough and overstated (the clapping during a barroom concert is way too loud, for example), but generally blends with the stylized immersion found in the original tracks. The remixed Midian scenes are definitely more successful, due to their more abstract sound design. Christopher Young had just written the music for the first two Hellraiser movies and would seem the obvious choice for Barker’s second film, but Nightbreed ended up being scored by a still up-and-coming Hollywood composer named Danny Elfman, who was developing his pedigree only one year after scoring Batman (in an interesting twist, Young ended up replacing an exasperated Elfman on Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 seventeen years later). This score is the track’s prominent element and positively screams early Elfman (it’s very similar to the Darkman compositions he’d kick out a year later) and covers the film almost wall-to-wall with bouncing and blaring melodies. Do note that some of the music has been looped for this director’s cut, since Elfman was not available to rescore it.
Introduction by Barker and restoration producer Mark Alan Miller (5:30, HD)
Commentary by Barker and Miller – This full-bodied commentary track covers the film’s development, concepts, filming, production problems, and the reconstruction of this director’s cut. Both Barker and Miller have a habit of getting lost in nostalgia and congratulating collaborators, but this is a very informative track, including a number of behind-the-scenes anecdotes not already a part of the extensive fan mythology. It’s also a good way for us non-fans to mark the differences between the cuts.
Tribes of the Moon: The Making of Nightbreed (1:12:20, HD) – A new behind-the-scenes documentary featuring retrospective interviews with monster actors Craig Sheffer, Anne Bobby, Christine McCorkindale, Doug Bradley, Hugh Ross, and Simon Bamford. This is a celebratory piece that includes extensive discussion about Bradley, Ross, and Bamford’s pre-Nightbreed work, a number of production photos, and some HD outtake footage.
Making Monsters (42:11, HD) – Interviews with makeup effects artists Bob Keen, Martin Mercer, and Paul Jones, including Barker’s original drawings and make-up test footage.
Fire! Fights! Stunts! 2nd Unit Shooting (20:20, HD) – A discussion with second-unit director Andy Armstrong.
Note that the (long out of print) Limited Edition version includes more featurettes, 20 minutes of deleted scenes, and the original theatrical cut.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.