"Take me to Midian.."
It has been nearly 25 years since Clive Barker's much-anticipated monster epic faceplanted onto screens, bearing marks of studio tampering, leaving the celebrated maven of the fantastic unsure of his place in the horror pantheon. Cabal Cut, aside, his tale of one man's destiny as the leader of a lost civilization of monsters has long been held as one of the great missed opportunities in the genre world. And thankfully due to the efforts of Mark Miller and friends, the cut finally hit video outlets via Shout! Factory, and is now streaming via Netflix. And after years of lamenting what could have been, this teenage admirer of the film can finally rest easy in knowing that NIGHTBREED is as close to its initial vision as possible. And what comes of it, while still bearing the at-times dreadfully awkward mark of Barker's direction, it finally feels like a legitimate film.
Boone, is a hunky welder guy who's been suffering with years of bad dreams of a mythical realm where monsters reside. How little he is prepared to discover, that this haven for freaks and shapeshifters is in fact no myth. Unbeknownst to him, his current psychiatrist, Dr. Decker (a really creepy David Cronenberg) is less interested in treating him so much as taking him at his word as he plans to find this very real place, and let our hero take the fall for his own wave of grisly family murders. And despite the outside world's assumption that he has been killed as part of the mad doctor's plan, Boone's supportive singer girlfriend tracks him down to the abandoned graveyard that serves as the gateway to this shangri la for the unusual.
Poised to be the Star Wars or Lord Of The Rings of monster pics, we can at least now see what was intended, as we get more love story, and less leaping I
in and about within the narrative.
It's especially fun to watch within today's context of superhero film fever, this tale of ordinary beings regarding the unusual with both fear and envy. Despite the film's often clumsy story propulsion, it's made pretty explicit, Barker's love for outsiders was powerful, and something to be celebrated. We get a great array of creatures and assorted exotic types living this idyllic harmony whilst hiding from a world that continues to judge them. And like any society, there are always reluctant members. As well as those wishing they were part of it. Much like an X-Men tale, we are at the center of a comic struggle for identification in an era punctuated by intolerance.
As for the newly restored footage, at least half of it feels criminally missing from the theatrical cut. In tradition of major cuts being made to big pieces like these, much of it involves either a subplot, or a seemingly arbitrary element. And yet, a bulk of this material involves Boone, and his best lady, Lori. Much of it quite welcome, but in deep need of focus. When talking about prophetic nightmares, or about a destiny apart as hordes of "naturals" threaten the future, it works quite well. Now if only the awkward club scene, and drugged hallucinations went over as well. We even get a surprise death that almost renders a certain character superfluous. While they are definitely welcome additions, they often feel like classic placeholders for richer, more nuanced moments.
But again, it's the unsettling visage of Cronenberg's twisted antagonist that echoes long after the piece ends. Those familiar with the legendary auteur, know how congenial and almost doctor-like he actually is. So his turn as what is a pretty nasty response to a decades worth of slasher film, is an indelible one.
Also worthy of consideration, is the dramatically recalibrated finale. While one could definitely feel it being hasty, it's an ending that gains one emotional victory over another. While we lose the cheap shock of the previous, we get an almost operatic denouement centering on the core relationship. It's a charming switch that feels like a dry run at a center that required a few more impassioned iterations.
While not the fantasy classic it could have been, Clive Barker's NIGHTBREED, remains a startling window into the possibilities of genre. And even as the superpowered gain ground on the mainstream, it's heartening to look back at a time when the geeks, the quiet, the odd, the nerdy actually carried weight within a certain community. And his CABAL book and film remain an important, and occasionally thrilling window into that era.
I'm happy it's back.