When The Shit Hits The Fan

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“Nightbreed will always be ‘that dumb movie where Barker tries to make the monsters the good guys because he's queer’.” – Clive Barker - June 2009 

If you sense a hint of bitterness from Clive Barker when he talks about his 1990 film Nightbreed, it’s with good reason. This quote from one of his recent Twitter posts is perhaps an indication of how the wounds inflicted upon him twenty years ago, by the film studio Morgan Creek, are still very much open. There’s actually a very real opportunity to at least partially heal those wounds, but Morgan Creek seem to be destined to repeat their previous lack of faith. 

Clive Barkers adaptation of his novel Cabal follows Boone (Craig Sheffer), a troubled man, who’s under the care of his psychiatrist Doctor Dekker (David Cronenberg). Boone’s disturbing dreams offer him glimpses of a strange race of creatures called the Nightbreed, and their hidden underworld home, Midian. When Boone is accused of perpetrating a string of horrific murders, he seeks out Midian, and finds solace and belonging with the Nightbreed. Dekker’s pursuit of Boone though, threatens to expose the Nightbreed, and completely destroy their private existence. 

There’s an obvious and deliberate subtext to Nightbreed, that’s so obvious that it barely qualifies as subtext. Barker intended the film to be his “ode to the outsider”, and a metaphor for his homosexuality. “Troubled outcast takes refuge with other outcasts that society sees as strange and freakish, only to discover he’s actually one of them”. It’s easy to make the connection, but it’s a sound basis for a story, and a nice use of the oft used “who’s the real monster?” motif. Morgan Creek disagreed. Barker constantly struggled against interference from a studio that couldn’t understand, and didn’t want to understand what he was trying to do or the message he was trying to deliver. To them, monsters were monsters, and they couldn’t see how an audience would accept that they were supposed to be sympathetic towards them.  

The lack of understanding the studio had for the film can probably be encapsulated in one sentence spoken to Barker by one of the studio executives at Morgan Creek: “You know Clive; if you’re not careful some people are going to like the monsters”. In the face of such misapprehension, how could Nightbreed survive? It couldn’t. The film was butchered. Barker's original two and a half hour work print was cut down to 102 minutes, including re-shot scenes, never meant to be in the film. A half hearted advertising campaign, orchestrated by a head of marketing that hadn’t even seen the film because he found it too disgusting, was a further nail in the coffin for Nightbreed.

Nightbreed was released to poor critical reception, and only recouped $8.8 Million of an $11 million budget. There have been worse disasters in movie history, but the bottom line is, the studio saw it as a failure, and still does. 

As the years have passed, even in its truncated form Nightbreed has gained a following. Barker has always fielded the question from fans “will we ever see a director's cut?”, and has always responded that he’d very much like to do it. He hoped the missing footage must exist somewhere, imagining a huge Raiders of the Lost Ark style warehouse full of old film cans that housed the missing reels in a crate somewhere. He was wrong. 

Earlier this year, a close friend of Barker’s, Mark Miller, decided he wanted to use some of his spare time to pursue the missing footage, and hopefully allow a restored version to be released. The discovery part of his endeavour turned out to be far easier than he thought. When he enquired to the studio, he was told that rather than being lost in some warehouse somewhere, the missing reels were readily available, all of them, and could be accessed at any time. Clive Barker’s original vision for the film exists, and all it takes is some clean up and editing. When Miller asked what it would take to get the footage, he was told it would need the okay from one of “the higher ups”. Miller recounts what happens next to the Clive Barker Revelations website: “Shortly after, one of said higher ups was gracious enough to give me a moment of his time. I was shocked when he told me there wasn't a big enough audience for the film and that the answer to my request must be no. 'Not even worth the cost to upgrade to Blu-ray,' he said.” 

For me personally, as a great admirer of Clive Barker, I won’t lie and say Nightbreed has ever meant that much to me. I have vague memories of watching it as a teenager, but whereas Barker’s Hellraiser instantly lodged itself in my brain for all time, Nightbreed unfortunately never did. Although some memories of the fantastic creatures did remain to this day, the rest of the film was forgotten until I watched it recently.  

It’s a frustrating experience. There’s undoubtedly magic there, and at times the classic Barker trait of being able to show beauty in the grotesque makes the film soar. The opening shots of an assortment of freakish, yet fantastic Nightbreed leaping and cart-wheeling through long grass, towards the gates of their underworld home, Midian, is a frenetic carnival ride. A later sequence where Boone’s girlfriend Lori descends into the cavernous depths of Midian, discovering more and more of the Nightbreed is a wonderful journey into the kind of fantastic world we see too few films create these days. I could have happily watched her discover more and more weird and wonderful creatures all night.  

Doug Bradley, the actor who portrayed Pinhead in eight Hellraiser films also had a role in Nightbreed and commented on it in a 1995 interview saying “I saw it recently on television in the USA and it does still stand up, but only because the visuals are so extraordinary and the subject matter is so extraordinary. Unfortunately, no sooner has it stood up than it collapses”. It’s no coincidence that a lot of the praise for Nightbreed is directed at the outstanding creature effects. Sadly, despite actor Craig Sheffer having a brooding presence, perfect for the troubled character of Boone, we never really have a chance to get to know him before he’s plunged into the dark world of the Nightbreed. A few short scenes of exposition on his back story, never quite let us know who he is, or why we should care about him. We never get to know the normal, before we’re plunged into the crazy, and a chaotic jumbled ending sits uncomfortably with the rest of the film. 

Like I said earlier, Nightbreed has never meant much to me, but the sad thing is, it never really had the chance to. It was denied the right that every piece of art should have; to be seen and appreciated (or not) as intended. Nightbreed deserves the chance to fulfil its potential of being a potent combination of the visceral and the fantastic, instead of an interesting failure. There is some hope though. The material exists. Nightbreed how it was always meant to be exists. It’s not lost, it’s not destroyed, and all it takes is enough interest in the restoration, for the studio to hopefully put the material in the hands of those who can restore it.  

An ongoing campaign by the Clive Barker Revelations website (www.clivebarker.info) is quickly gathering messages of support for a restoration. Anyone wishing to add their name to the list of supporters can either email the site directly (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) or send a message of support via Twitter quoting the webmasters of Revelations @philandsarah.  

Even if you’re not a fan of Nightbreed, do this one for me, or even better, do it for every artist who’s ever had their work compromised by studio interference, and add your name to the list of supporters like I have.

(Author's note: My apologies if it seems that I’m treading water a little with the column at the moment. That Horror Thing #2 was about my love of Clive Barkers exquisite creation, The Lament Configuration, #4 was a call for readers to support independent filmmaker Antony Lane, and his film, Invasion of the Not Quite Dead. This time, it’s a kind of amalgamation of the two. I promise the scope will broaden soon!)



The good news is that Nightbreed's sad story ultimately had a happy ending! Five years after this column was written, Clive Barker was able to announce the release of Nightbreed: The Director's Cut on Blu Ray.