In the 1980s, fantasy films would often either take a decidedly kid-friendly route – WILLOW, THE DARK CRYSTAL – or a more sleazy, action-oriented one – EXCALIBUR, THE BEASTMASTER – but seldom did fantasy merge with horror. This may not have been a result of lack of trying though; horror luminary Lucio Fulci tried his hand with the gory sorcery epic CONQUEST, Neil Jordan attempted to make the fairy tale terrifying with THE COMPANY OF WOLVES and Tim Burton injected plenty of horror imagery in his family targeted BEETLEJUICE, but something was still missing. Following his screenplays for UNDERWORLD and RAWHEAD REX, novelist Clive Barker would write and direct HELLRAISER based on his own novella and, finally, horror and fantasy would merge in ways both sinister and really, really messy.
A sequel to HELLRAISER was inevitable (but nobody could have guessed that eight were!), yet Barker opted to only produce it and instead focused his energy on adapting his novella “Cabal” to the screen as NIGHTBREED. This would be a much bigger film than HELLRAISER was; with nearly ten times the budget, a major Hollywood studio attached to distribute, Danny Elfman supplying the score and the cast including soap opera star Craig Sheffer and filmmaker David Cronenberg (!), what could go wrong? Turns out, everything.
To call NIGHTBREED a critical and commercial flop would be putting it lightly. It didn’t earn its budget back at the box office (it only grossed about $9 million domestically) and reviews were harsh to say the least. Entertainment Weekly called it “cluttered and incoherent” and Variety called it “a mess” and “self indulgent” with their sentiments being echoed throughout popular criticism. However, it turned out that the final version of NIGHTBREED screened to the critics and the public was not Barker’s original vision.
When NIGHTBREED was put into production, it was slated to be the first part of a trilogy about the monsters of Midian. Now saddled with a major Hollywood distributor and a decent budget, Barker didn’t have the control that he had with HELLRAISER, resulting in studio pressure that he could not surmount. Fox had Barker contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film which meant that the more gory set-pieces had to be trimmed but, more than that, the major issue was the runtime overall. Barker turned in a 2 ½ hour film and Fox wanted an hour cut from it. The result is the 102-minute theatrical version of NIGHTBREED that critics and audiences saw in 1990.
But, it can’t be all bad, because fans have been fawning over it for over two decades, re-appropriating it as some sort of cult classic of hardcore fantasy and one of the last true spectacles of practical make up effects. In this iteration, NIGHTBREED is tonally inconsistent, switching from disturbing slasher film to near kiddie friendly fantasy cinema and then, most wildly, to small town us-vs-them action picture in the last third. It seldom works, but it’s always engaging and never predictable.
In 2012 The Cabal Cut was born. Comprised of the pre-existing theatrical cut and VHS tapes found in Barker’s closet containing cut scenes, a 155 minute “kitchen sink” version was assembled featuring pretty much everything NIGHTBREED could have been. This version was more of a fan edit, as Barker was not explicitly involved. The film was screened across the country to sold-out crowds fervently waiting the opportunity to see what Barker had been talking about for two decades. Fans even started a grassroots campaign named “Occupy Midian” urging the studio to go back and re-release a director’s cut of the film. And it worked. In 2014, boutique home video label Shout! Factory released Barker’s version (different from The Cabal Cut) on blu-ray in the United States featuring forty minutes of new footage to much critical acclaim, especially from fans. Warner Bros (who now owned the rights) worked with Shout in order to restore original elements and even supply the theatrical cut in HD for a limited edition set. Barker’s true film was finally seen.
NIGHTBREED wouldn’t be the last studio debacle for Clive Barker (anyone remember LORD OF ILLUSIONS?) but it would be the longest lasting one. It may not have become a trilogy, made Barker a household name or furthered David Cronenberg’s acting career (it really should have), but it’s a unique vision of really dark material that serves as a strong example of the disparity between creation and commerce. In its theatrical version, NIGHTBREED is a lean uneven mess of genre mashing that gives glimmers of what Barker wanted to show the world. Yet, it still manages to be utterly fascinating. The director’s cut is (for better or worse) all of that with a much longer runtime and a lot more monsters (who doesn’t want that?). Regardless of which version is watched, NIGHTBREED will always be the product of Clive Barker, a twisted fuck who somehow convinced a studio to give him millions of dollars to make a monster movie featuring the director of VIDEODROME in a fetish mask stabbing people. And twenty-five years later, we’re still talking about it.