It may have been written and directed by the man whom none other than Stephen King called “the future of horror”, but it is still okay not to like the original Nightbreed (1990). Sure, Clive Barker came to it fresh from his transcendent feature debut Hellraiser, and sure, it may, as an epic of otherness, still occupy a warm and fuzzy place in the memories of those who were impressionable adolescents when it came out back in 1990. Yet both its ‘beefcake’ protagonist Aaron Boone and the actor who played him (Craig Sheffer) fail spectacularly to engage despite being on screen for most of its 102 minutes – and, in what has now become horror legend, producers Morgan Creek, nervous about the film’s commercial prospects, required the director to do extensive reshoots and then, much like villain Dr Philip K. Decker (David Cronenberg, in scene-stealing minimalist form), took a knife to Barker’s deviant vision and slashed its bleeding heart out. Barker never liked the final cut that hit cinemas, so what remains is a sort of palimpsest: a compromised piece that allows us to reconstruct – and idealise – what might have been.
Until now – sort of. For Russell Cherrington has managed to unearth much of Barker’s original footage, long thought lost, in two VHS (yes, VHS) workprints, and has devoted painstaking effort to remixing all this material into various versions that came closer to Barker’s original conception. It is Cherrington’s fifth version, the so-called ‘Cabal Cut’, that had its European premiere at FrightFest, with a relatively restrained running time of two and a half hours (vers. 1 was a whopping three hours, and included several key characters dying more than once!). Still, two and a half hours is more or less an hour longer than most genre movies can sustain, and while the original Nightbreed‘s emphases are tweaked a little here, and the ending is rather different, the improvements are insufficient to make up for what Cherrington calls the “porno quality” of the new footage (although actually, porn looks and sounds better).
Cherrington is so keen to get his new-found footage on the screen that he replaces entire, perfectly good sequences from the original with rankly inferior alternate takes that, paradoxically, leave you yearning to watch the 1990 version again instead. Certainly for its first half the ‘Cabal cut’ seems like redux for the sake of redux (apart from one touching nightclub sequence) – a showcase of Cherrington’s curatorial fervour, but with little reward for anyone interested in just watching the movie.
The second half is different – various characters are more developed and nuanced, there are genuine shifts from the original’s plot, and the monstrous Nightbreed are painted more as victimised, misunderstood X-Men (although this theme was already present in 1990). We get a little more Decker, and a quite a bit more redneck rampaging – but there is also, inevitably, a whole lot more Boone. Longer does not equal better, especially in horror, and all this extra stuffing does not stop a turkey being a turkey. So perhaps this is best watched as a different kind of palimpsest: a study in the obsessiveness of its restorer, always returning to Midian in search of the immortality buried deep below the world of the visible. The ‘Cabal cut’ is strictly for angst archivists and nostalgia nuts – but then, that is probably half the audience for horror.
© Anton Bitel