Reviewed at Fantastic Fest 2013
Released in 1990 to low box office and critical disinterest, Clive Barker’s “Nightbreed” (an adaptation of his novel “Cabal”) went on to achieve a modest cult following, tempting those used to the helmer’s passions for violent imagery and fantastical storytelling. However, Barker was outspoken in his distaste for the theatrical cut of the movie, which underwent editorial butchery and extensive reshoots to turn a sophisticated monster mythology into a run-of-the-mill slasher film, though one that retained a great deal of Barker’s personality due to intricate creature design and gothic overtones. After a search for materials that made up the original version previewed in 1989 resulted in the retrieval of two VHS workprints, we now have “Nightbreed: The Cabal Cut,” a restoration that reworks and expands the theatrical cut, adding 43 minutes of footage, altering 70% of the picture. For fans, it’s the holy grail of restorations, bringing an admittedly rough looking but mostly complete version of the feature to the screen, almost as a thank you gift to Barker.
After a long bout with visions of a fantasyland called Midian, a refuge for monsters known as the Nightbreed, Boone (Craig Sheffer) has cleaned up his life, enjoying a healthy relationship with nightclub singer Lori (Anne Bobby) with a clear head. Returning to Boone after a year’s absence is Dr. Decker (the always odd and always chilling David Cronenberg), who’s obsessed with locating Midian, powerless to his masked alter ego, a maniac who kills at will. Pinning a string of murders on Boone, hoping to coax him back into madness, Decker watches as his patient slips out of his grasp, pulled to Midian with help from lunatic Narcisse (Hugh Ross), looking to be transformed into one of the Nightbreed. At first distrustful of this newcomer, leader Lylesberg (Doug Bradley) soon offers Boone the blood of Baphomet, the monster god, making him a permanent resident. With Decker fighting to find and infiltrate Midian, teaming up with Captain Eigerman (Charles Haid) and his militia buddies to wipe out the unearthly enemy, Lori finds a connection to the Nightbreed through telepathic child Babette (Kim and Nina Robinson), who helps the singer navigate the dangers ahead as war is declared between the humans and the monsters.
Admittedly, it’s been a few years since I’ve seen the theatrical cut of “Nightbreed,” though fond memories of its design and ambition remain. Far from a perfect film, Barker’s vision was obviously neutered from its original intent, with narrative corners cut and Decker promoted to main villain status, drawing attention away from the monster mash. “The Cabal Cut” corrects many of the theatrical cut’s mistakes, opening the story up in a grand way, returning dramatic life to the pairing of Boone and Lori, who were practically strangers in 1990, but now they can’t keep their hands off each other, with numerous make-out moments reinforcing the strength of the relationship. Also new to the mix is Lori’s musical aspirations, resulting in a performance sequence where Boone secretly watches his love onstage, openly weeping at the thought of losing her to Decker’s dastardly manipulations. The bad doctor remains a ghoul in a twisted mask of buttons and zippers, but he’s more of a persistent irritant in “The Cabal Cut,” balancing out screentime between the antagonist and the couple.
In its current form, “The Cabal Cut” is largely pulled from a VHS source, making clarity difficult (this problem will be corrected for next year’s Blu-ray release), but the story shines through the aged image. Barker’s a messy filmmaker, so there’s little about the reconstruction that reeks of brilliance, but the cohesiveness, or at least proximity to it, reenergizes the picture, making “Nightbreed” feel like the epic that was initially intended. Budget limitations remain and thespian efforts can’t escape their uninspiring quality (Sheffer and Bobby share little chemistry), but the arc of Boone and his ascendance as the leader of the Nightbreed makes more sense now, while Midian is explored in detail via scenes where Lori explores the bowels of the underground kingdom on a quest to find her boyfriend. Also appealing is the Babette subplot, with mother Rachel (Catherine Chevalier) also finding her role expanded some, with the actress’s original accent revealed for the first time (a few of the cast members share this revelation, with Bradley returning to dub Lylesberg).
There are expanded scenes galore in “The Cabal Cut,” watching Eigerman become more of a key component in the fight to destroy Midian (growling at Decker), while Father Ashberry (a monotonous Malcolm Smith), the faithless priest scarred by Baphomet’s blood, plays a larger part in the finale, which sets up a thrilling opening for a sequel that, cruelly, we’re never going to get. Ditching the resurrection of Decker to funnel all the rage Ashberry’s way, “The Cabal Cut” finally displays a thoughtful, operatic conclusion that promises exciting future chapters as the hunt for the Nightbreed begins. Boone and Lori also enjoy a Romeo and Juliet scene in the climax that gracefully reorganizes their dynamic.
“The Cabal Cut” is currently unfinished, through restoration director Russell Cherrington does a wonderful job returning Danny Elfman’s swirling, tribal score to the fresh footage. Awkwardness remains, perhaps solved by another minor editorial pass to excise some of the dead air, but what’s here is remarkable, especially for a picture that never reached mainstream acceptance. “The Cabal Cut” finally captures what Barker was after, warts and all, reinstating depth, emotion, and a human presence to the story, which finds its fantasy footing once again. If this is your first time seeing “Nightbreed,” don’t start here, at least not until work is completed. The cinematic resurrection is strictly for admirers, those already on Barker’s wavelength, who’ve been craving this expanded look for over two decades.