Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer), convinced that he is a uncontrollable serial killer, seeks to find the rumoured secret city of Midian – a place where monsters are said to go. He is trailed by his therapist (David Cronenberg), actually the exact killer Boone thought he was to be. Soon the fate of Midian and its grotesque inhabitants fall into Boone’s hands – if he has the control to save them.
I am a huge fan of what you might call ‘compromised masterpieces’; films that had enormous potential but, due to studio interference or production difficulties, never quite made it to cinemas fully intact. The potential, however, remains fully obvious. With luck, directors sometimes get a second chance and extended director’s cuts emerge that reveal how much better these films are when brought closer to their original vision. Blade Runner, Kingdom of Heaven, and Alien 3 were all massively improved by these re-edits. Clive Barker’s idiosyncratic dark fantasy Nightbreed has always been a candidate for this sort of treatment, and with the discovery of lost and cut footage some years ago it has now emerged in an extended edition – not quite the director’s cut hoped for by its fans (some lost footage remains missing) but in a more authentic and intact form.
I have always had a soft spot for Nightbreed in its original form, despite a messy narrative edited down to nonsensical lengths, and an odd story structure that seemed to promise much but deliver little. The design work was sensational, showcasing a dizzying array of imaginative creatures, mutants, and monsters. Barker’s world-building was a delight despite the film around it, and film director David Cronenberg’s rare turn as an actor delivers the film a wonderful villain. It felt, as I suggested above, like a compromised masterpiece.
The good news is that none of the elements that made Nightbreed enjoyable back in 1990 have been removed by this new cut. Indeed, much of the film has been enhanced by a tighter structure and additional scenes that illuminate some parts and completely re-arrange others. It is almost an entirely stronger viewing experience. The bad news is that it still does not quite gel together: the plot is too dense to fully work, the weaker performances don’t get any better with new scenes, and the production design does still tower over the film’s other elements.
This is an improved picture, but not a radically transformed one. The missed potential that was evident in 1990 is still missing. This is a hell of a fun monster picture, and guaranteed to remain a fan favourite – but there’s only so much fixing that can be done of a film that cannot be fixed.