Commies, Freaks, and Third World Y-Chromosome Mutants – Nightbreed (1990) Director’s Cut Blu-ray

With Hellraiser under his belt, Clive Barker proved himself to be not just a compelling author, but also a talented filmmaker on the rise. Of course, more film projects went right into development. Unfortunately, his second movie, 1990’s Nightbreed, was both a critical and commercial dud that nearly derailed Barker’s directorial career. In fact, he’d only make one more feature afterwards that wasn’t terribly successful either. Nightbreed itself wouldn’t achieve anything close to redemption until the release of a Director’s Cut 24 years later.

Despite its lousy reviews and box office failure, Nightbreed became a minor cult item, appreciated by the author’s fans more for what it might have been than for how it actually turned out. At 16-years-old, I became a little obsessed with the movie and watched it innumerable times on VHS. I was deep into a Clive Barker phase at that time, and this movie’s tale of outcast misfits spoke to my burgeoning teenage angst. However, I watched the theatrical cut again years later on DVD and wasn’t nearly as impressed with it. To be blunt, I found it pretty cheesy. Even so, nostalgia and curiosity compelled me to buy it on Blu-ray, hoping that the long-promised Director’s Cut would fix all the problems that didn’t work the first time around. I’m still not sure that’s the case.

Nightbreed (1990) - Craig Sheffer as Boone
Title:Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut
Year of Release: 1990
Director: Clive Barker
Watched On: Blu-ray
Also Available On: AMC+
Roku Channel
Shout! Factory TV
Various VOD rental and purchase platforms

Nightbreed mashes together a couple horror genres. It’s primarily a monster movie, with a psycho serial killer subplot squeezed in. The story centers on Boone (Craig Sheffer), a troubled young man plagued by nightmares and visions of monstrous creatures beckoning him to a mysterious place called Midian. After a string of murders in the area, his psychiatrist Dr. Decker (played by filmmaking legend David Cronenberg) convinces Boone that he’s responsible and must turn himself in. Not believing it, Boone goes on the run, eventually winding up at a remote cemetery in northern Canada, beneath which is an underground city housing a wide assortment of shapeshifting monsters, mutants, and freaks of all kinds.

Although not greeted very warmly at first, Boone soon proves his kinship with these so-called Nightbreed and joins their tribe. But before he can get too comfortable there, Dr. Decker (who, no spoiler at all, was the real serial killer all along) follows after him, bringing the local authorities and a redneck militia prepared to wage war with the ‘breed and wipe them all out.

Basing it on his novella Cabal, Clive Barker’s big idea for Nightbeed was to make a monster movie in which the monsters were the heroes, and the regular humans were the true monsters. That’s not a bad concept, and he had some very ambitious plans to develop a deep and rich mythology supporting it. Sadly, the studio bosses at Morgan Creek didn’t really get what he was doing, and didn’t like the footage he turned in or the direction he was going. Demanding reshoots and a radical restructuring, they forced Barker to cut his initial two-and-a-half hour opus down to a brisk 102 minutes. Barker complied, but was never satisfied with the results. Neither were critics or audiences. The movie received bad reviews and bombed at the box office.

For the next couple decades, the film was viewed, at best, as a missed opportunity. Some of Barker’s fans embraced it, with the caveat that the theatrical release was butchered down from something that presumably could have been much better. I attended a couple of the author’s book signings in the mid-1990s where the topic of the movie came up, along with questions of whether Barker would ever make a director’s cut. As I recall, his response (paraphrased from memory) was, “I know there’s a good movie in there somewhere, but I’ll be damned if I can get it out.”

Not helping matters, the extra footage Barker shot for the movie was lost for a number of years (or at least tucked away by the studio and forgotten). It didn’t turn up again until 2009, with the discovery of a collection of terrible-quality VHS dubs. From those, along with theatrical cut material copied from a DVD, Barker and his associates assembled an extra-long 155-minute version of the movie dubbed “The Cabal Cut” that played at some fan events and was eventually released on DVD by the Warner Archive Collection. In barely watchable condition and roughly patched together, that was viewed as an interesting curiosity but still not entirely satisfying.

Finally, after several more years of digging, the original film elements for all of Barker’s footage were found in a studio archive. Barker then struck a deal to construct a true Director’s Cut, fully edited and polished from good quality materials. The final version ran just over two hours and was released on DVD in 2013 and on Blu-ray in 2014 by Shout! Factory.

Nightbreed (1990) - David Cronenberg as Dr. Decker

The Director’s Cut may be about 20 minutes longer than the theatrical cut, but in all it contains almost 40 minutes of new footage, as Barker removed most of the reshoot material that Morgan Creek had compelled him to create. That’s a huge percentage of the original running time. For all that, the Director’s Cut still feels largely like the same movie Nightbreed has always been, just a little more fleshed-out and perhaps slightly more coherent in some of its story points. Personally, I don’t think the Director’s Cut actually fixes some of the film’s fundamental problems.

While he’s talented in many areas, filmmaking is a secondary pursuit for Clive Barker and not his main strength. Nightbreed has many interesting ideas and images that don’t entirely cohere, and it shares some of the same weaknesses as his debut, Hellraiser. Chief among those is casting, especially for the lead characters. Hellraiser had a fantastic villain in Pinhead, played by Doug Bradley, who appears in a supporting role here as well. However, heroine Ashley Laurence wasn’t quite on his level as an actor. Likewise, hunky Craig Sheffer (from 1987’s Some Kind of Wonderful) is a very bland and uninteresting hero whose main acting tic is to look dumbstruck at all the weirdness around him. As his girlfriend Lori, Anne Bobby (star of ABC’s notoriously short-lived Cop Rock series) may be cute-as-a-button, but is decidedly a TV actress, not a feature film star.

On the other hand, David Cronenberg as the evil Dr. Decker is inspired casting, and acquits himself well. Yet even there, Decker is such an obvious creep it’s almost impossible to believe that nobody would see right through him. That much is more of a problem with the scripting than his performance.

The film’s plotting suffers from some formulaic and clichéd “White Savior” aspects and occasionally resorts to dumb horror tropes (notably Lori fainting in fear at a critical moment). The satire of the fascist cops and ignorant rednecks is also awfully broad. On a production level, the photography (by Robin Vidgeon, who also shot Hellraiser) is usually overlit, exposing the artifice of matte paintings and soundstage sets. More often than not, Nightbreed looks more like a TV movie than a theatrical feature. Disappointingly, the Director’s Cut makes no improvement in these areas.

All that said, I do think the Director’s Cut is generally superior to the original theatrical version. The film’s chief strength has always been its very wide variety of inspired monster creations, which are given more screen time here, as well as showcasing a number of new creatures not seen in the theatrical cut at all. Nightbreed is truly a monster fan’s delight, even more so in this version.

I like Nightbreed. I’ve always liked Nightbreed, certainly more than critics or audiences of the day did. Nonetheless, I have to admit that it’s a minor effort from Clive Barker, still very flawed (and yes, kind of cheesy) even in Director’s Cut form. The added footage and re-editing may bring the film closer to what Barker originally wanted, but I don’t think it was ever destined to be the masterpiece he hoped for.

Nightbreed (1990) - Shuna Sassi & Peloquin

The Blu-ray

Nightbreed first arrived on Blu-ray back in 2014 amidst some controversy. Shout! Factory (under its Scream Factory banner) initially announced a Blu-ray for the Director’s Cut priced at $24.99 and a deluxe Limited Edition box set priced at $79.99. The benefit of the Limited Edition was that it included both the Director’s Cut and the original theatrical cut, and would be the only way to get that theatrical cut on Blu-ray. Fans, including myself, eagerly bought this up, quickly selling out the 5,000 copy limit – upon which Shout! Factory then raised the limit to 10,000 copies, thus negating any pretense of the box set being “limited” at all. (Catalog titles very rarely sell as much as 5,000 copies on Blu-ray, much less 10,000.)

That decision really rankled me at the time. I felt like I was being gouged an extra $55 for the theatrical cut disc (surely not actually worth more than half that) in fear of missing out on it forever, only for its availability to then immediately double. However, looking at it eight years later, that Limited Edition did indeed eventually sell out and is no longer in print. Currently, only the standalone Director’s Cut disc remains in circulation. Although Arrow Video later released comparable editions in Region B, they’re in about the same status right now.

Nightbreed (1990) Limited Edition Blu-ray

The Scream Factory Limited Edition is a three-disc set: one for the theatrical cut, one for the Director’s Cut, and a third for supplements. Contents are housed in two standard Blu-ray keepcases within a thick slipcover box. A printed booklet with an essay and a number of photos also fits inside the box.

Both the theatrical cut and Director’s Cut are transferred at a full-screen 16:9 aspect ratio. This leads me to assume that Warner Bros. provided both masters, as it was that studio’s policy to open all 1.85:1 movies to 16:9 at the time. The theatrical cut case claims that the disc has a “new high-definition transfer from the inter-positive.” The Director’s Cut makes no note of source material, but footage the two versions share in common looks very close to identical. The Director’s Cut is ever-so-slightly zoomed in, which is something I can’t account for. In all other respects, however, they have similar contrast, colors, sharpness, and tonalities. The Director’s Cut is a little noisier, likely due to a difference in digital compression. (The DC disc has a lot more material crammed onto the disc with it.)

Nightbreed (1990) Comparison - Theatrical CutNightbreed (1990) Comparison - Director's Cut

I would say that the movie looks adequate, but not really stellar. Image quality varies by scene. Some are sharp and colorful while others look softer and dull. Instability, speckles, and even scratches appear occasionally, but nothing that will pull you out of the movie too much.

The Director’s Cut offers the soundtrack in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 or 2.0 options. The 5.1 has decent surround envelopment, especially with the musical score, but both sound very flat and muddy. Sound effects are often buried in the mix (either one), and dialogue is sometimes difficult to make out. In contrast, the theatrical cut is a big improvement. Only available in DTS-HD MA 2.0, that track is louder, clearer, less murky, and has better dynamic range.

The only supplement on the theatrical cut disc is a trailer, strangely cropped to a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. That same trailer appears on the Director’s Cut disc along with an audio commentary by Clive Barker and restoration producer Mark Miller, a 72-minute making-of documentary, a 42-minute piece interviewing makeup effects artists, and a 20-minute featurette about the stunts and action sequences. The movie also defaults to opening with a 6-minute introduction by Barker and Miller that can thankfully be skipped on your next watch.

The Bonus Disc carries additional deleted scenes, featurettes, and production test footage – all adding up to about another 80 minutes of content, plus a lengthy still gallery.

The booklet essay details the creation of the Director’s Cut, but also mistakenly claims that the theatrical cut was released in 1989. (The studio pushed it to February of 1990 due to the need for reshoots and re-editing, and the end credits have a 1990 copyright date.)

In 2017, Clive Barker himself released another exclusive Blu-ray of Nightbreed containing a 145-minute version of The Cabal Cut, sourced from a mix of film and VHS elements. Sold only on Barker’s official web site, that version of the movie is now out of print as well. I unfortunately missed my shot at getting it.


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