Clive Barker's Nightbreed Retrospective
Ever since I first heard about Nightbreed, which must have been just before the films cinematic release in February 1990, I have always had abit of a soft spot for this movie. I would have been around twelve or thirteen at the time so I was far too young to go and see it, and being the early 90's it wasn't yet possible to go online and download a pirate copy. Also, the transfer time from theatre to rental used to be alot longer so by the time I actually saw it it's probably not suprising that my hopes for the film were a little high. I had seen the magazine articles and trailers, looked in amazement at the creature designs and movie stills, played both video game tie-ins and even had a go at reading the novel 'Cabal' on which the film is based. However, after the credits had rolled it's fair to say that I was a little disappointed. Initially I blamed myself, insisting that it was my own expectations that were at fault and not the movie. It wasn't until much later that I learnt just how troubled the production of Nightbreed had been.
Nightbreed was always going to be an ambitious project. Clive Barker originally wanted to make a trilogy of monster films that would completely redefine the genre. He wanted to do for monsters what George Lucas did for sci-fi with Star Wars. The studio invested $11 million into 'Cabal' with the stipulation that the film would be R-Rated, which was a big ask considering that Hellraiser had been so brutally graphic. They also demanded that the name be changed to the more meaningful and interesting 'Nightbreed'. Nevertheless Clive began creating his epic vision. He enlisted fellow cult director David Cronenburg, in a rare acting role, to play the movies iconic villain 'Dr Decker' and Doug 'Pin Head' Bradley as the Breed's leader. Otherwise the cast would comprise of largely unknown actors. The film's production would be split between Canada and Pinewood studios in the UK. In keeping with the Lucas Arts esque mythology, Star Wars conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie was hired to design some of the sets for the underworld home of Midian. Visual effects artist Bob Keen and his crew would create the monsters with computer assistance being kept to a minimum. The shoot proved to be a difficult affair. The climatic battle between the Nightbreed and 'the sons of the free' was filmed on interior stages where every shot required fire, explosions, destruction and debris. Trying to convey a state of all out war on a confined set over a three week period was nothing short of a nightmare! Many of the crew had previously worked on Indiana Jones's Last Crusade and found Nightbreed to be the more challenging production of the two. After the filming was complete work began on the movies extensive visual effects.
The initial test screening for Nightbreed didn't go aswell as Clive Barker had hoped. The movie previewed with a temporary soundtrack and coupled with some confusion around the characters motives it didn't bode well with the audience. Clive set about making adjustments and delivered a second, far more successful screening. Despite this the studio were still not happy with the production. The original release date was put back by almost four months and they asked for an hour of cuts to be made from Barkers two and a half hour run time, causing the films editor to leave the project under protest. The film was cut to two hours and then re-edited to only 102 minutes giving the film a much more stream-lined action movie roller-coaster ride feel.
Whilst Clive wasn't completely against his film being heavily cut, saying that the movie would at least be more exciting, he wasn't at all happy with the direction that the studio were taking with marketing the picture. Right the way through Barker wanted to make a monster series that would challenge the way people would think about monsters. He wanted creatures that although looked hideous and somewhat de-ranged still had a sense of humanity about them that was akin to mankind. Nightbreed was essentially a battle against good and evil. Evil in this case being the jealousy and fear that lives inside us all. The darker side of man that envies the powers that these beings possess. The studio just didn't get it. They saw a film that was hard to classify, it had no major stars to promote, it had inverted morals, it was violent, and the characters that the audience were supposed to identify with were somewhat twisted and defied convention. The head of marketing even refused to watch the movie in full stating that it made him feel disgusted and sickened. He even asked Clive why he made movies like this in the first place! In the end they advertised the movie as the one thing that it wasn't at all, a slasher film. The posters were misleading and the trailer was rejected and re-edited twelve times before the MPAA finally allowed it to be shown in theatres. Heck, even the video game had to be made twice. The first being an action game based entirely on the films third act and the other being a more sedated point & click adventure style affair. Clive felt that his project was being completely misrepresented but was told that it was already too late to make amendments. The film could not be put back again. They declined a preview showing for critics, which angered them. The studio's belief was that the people who like watching movies like this do not read reviews (if they can even read at all).
Upon the films lacklustre release it took less than $9 million at the box office, it had been a cinematic flop. David Cronenburg said to Clive Barker that this happens all the time, you make a movie and people just don't get it. The critics hate it and then two years later they say it's not so bad or it's better than your latest effort. He couldn't have been more accurate in his assessment considering that shortly afterward it featured in Entertainment Weekly's top 100 films you've never heard of. As with most cult movies Nightbreed finally started to find its audience in the video rental market. Actor Doug Bradley puts the cult popularity down to the movie being totally unique. He felt that despite the studio changing everything in post production the original had a quality that shines through and makes it special. Clive Barker once said that time gave him a better perspective on things. After a later viewing he realised that the movies strangeness made it more difficult for viewers to comprehend than he originally thought. It had no let up giving the movie a delirious quality, like something you might see when you were high.
I kind of like this comment from Clive because it does go some way as to help me understand that it wasn't my expectations that were at fault like I said to begin with. The films oddness aside, the bigger issue is without doubt the studio's involvement. Had they allowed Clive Barker to release his 160 minute monster epic as he originally envisaged we would most definitely have seen a far superior film, it still may not have been a hit in movie theatres and it might not quite have been the Star Wars of horror that he was trying to conceive but one thing that is for sure is that Clive's visionary prowess will undoubtedly be a main stay in the horror genre for many years to come.
So what of the deleted footage you might ask? Does it still even exist? Well fortunately yes it does. Infact, very recently almost all of the edited scenes have been recovered and compiled into a definitive 159 minute work print. Lucky attendees at last year's Horror Hound convention in Indianapolis were invited to view this version of the film in glorious VHS format! Whether or not the studio that owns the rights will ever decide to release the director's cut officially remains to be seen but the movies cult status certainly determines that there is a market for it. For now at least the feature-free theatrical cut is just about to take another spin in my DVD player...
Good night breeders!
Screen shots and video of the Nightbreed Video game.