Nightbreed 4K UHD Review: Clive Barker’s Monster Mess

It’s unfortunate, but perhaps not surprising that Clive Barker hung up his directing hat. He made his first film, Hellraiser, while enjoying almost a rock star reputation in this then burgeoning horror writing market. Complete with a Stephen King blurb (“I have seen the future of horror”) and a balls-to-the-wall, aggressive attitude toward mixing gore and sex, he was determined to bring his brand of horror to Hollywood.

And there, as often happens, found that Hollywood loved reputations and attitudes, just as long as the product stays the same. And tells the same old stories. With Nightbreed, Barker’s big budget movie (relative to his previous independent film) he wanted to invert the horror movie paradigm. He wanted the monsters to be the heroes, while still being monstrous.

What the studio wanted was something they could sell as a slasher flick and that had explosions and a big fight at the end.

Nightbreed is an adaptation of Barker’s novella, “Cabal,” and it roughly follows the outlines of the story. Boone is a troubled man who has psychotic dreams of murders, monsters, and a weird place called Midian. When a series of murders take place that match Boone’s dreams, his psychiatrist Dr. Decker tells Boone he must have done them, and gives him the opportunity to turn himself in. Instead, he tries to kill himself.

It doesn’t work, but in the hospital, Boone meets with a madman who is also looking for Midian, and the monsters who live there. To prove himself worthy, he scalps himself with some thumb knives.

In so doing, he reveals the location of Midian to Boone, who goes there and finds an enormous cemetery… and monsters he’s dreamt of. He wants to join them but gets chased off. Escaping the cemetery, he finds he’s been followed by the police. It’s a set-up from Decker, the real murderer, who claims Boone’s got a gun and gets him killed.

Only Boone doesn’t stay dead. He escapes from the morgue and is initiated into Midian. That’s his home now, and his people… but his girl Lori doesn’t want to give him up, so she goes in search for him. Which is all too many words for a plot that seems way more complex than it is. People hear about Midian, go to Midian. Go away from Midian. Go back to Midian. Again, and again. Then there’s a big fight with explosions.

When Nightbreed was originally released, it was not the version Clive Barker envisioned. In fact, the editor quit the film in protest to the cuts the studio demanded. They wanted something that moved more quickly, that was light on the mythology that, to Barker, was the entire point of the project. That left a movie that had some of the look and feel of Barker’s vision, but that was tonally deeply uneven and whose storytelling was truncated to near incoherence.

Decades later, after rumors and underground fan releases, a proper director’s cut of the movie was released by Shout Factory. This cut, 20 minutes longer than the original but with 45 minutes of alternative takes and differently edited scenes, was much closer to Clive Barker’s original vision of his monsters as heroes movie.

This is all well known to fans of the film. But the issue that arises with this new 4K release: only the theatrical edition gets the 4K upgrade. This is likely because the surviving materials for the director’s cut wouldn’t benefit from a restoration, but it’s still a disappointment. Is there enough reason for a fan to buy this edition of the film? It’s a fine presentation of the film, and though some of the effects, particularly the optical effects, show their age, it’s a beautiful presentation of the theatrical version.

But the theatrical version of Nightbreed is a frustrating, confusing, and tonally inconsistent film. And in my opinion, while the director’s cut (also available in the 4-disc set, though not in 4K UHD) is a much better movie, it still suffers from some insurmountable problems with the material. The primary problem with Nightbreed is that the monsters… aren’t great. There are all kinds of things in Midian, but few of them are interesting. The opening dream, with Boone running through fields with supposedly terrifying monsters by his side feels like something a high school theater troupe would come up with to “shock the squares”, without any real alluring transgressiveness. Midian, the focus of all the film’s troubles, doesn’t seem worth the bother.

Not that the film, in any of its forms, doesn’t have some highlights. I particularly find legendary director David Cronenberg’s performance as Dr. Decker to be constantly arresting. He’s Boone’s sole connection to respectability, so of course he turns out to be a serial killer and the instigator of all of Midian’s problems. He enlists the local sheriff to go and literally mine and bomb Midian to complete destruction, in a sequence that…is just completely stupid.

I appreciate what Clive Barker wanted to accomplish with Nightbreed. It’s too bad he didn’t get to put out his vision, and after this and Lord of Illusions seems to have decided Hollywood isn’t a place for his particular nightmares. Even if Nightbreed isn’t one I get behind. There’s some good practical effects creepies in the film. Barker’s weird, and the movie is weird, too, which I like. But the entire concept of Midian, this underground city in some Canadian cemetery, never feels real. It doesn’t help that most of the main performers are rather deficient in charisma. The 4K presentation of the inferior version of the film is terrific, but it still doesn’t make the material necessarily worth watching.

Nightbreed has been released on 4K UHD by Scream Factory. The four-disc edition contains two versions of the film: the theatrical release, available in restored 4K and Blu-ray, and the Director’s cut, only on Blu-ray.

The fourth Blu-ray disc houses a number of special features. The theatrical edition includes a commentary track by critics Adrian J Smith and David Flint. On the theatrical edition Blu-ray, video extras include “Memories of Midian” (31 min), an interview with Nicholas Vince, long time Clive Barker collaborator; “Walking the Line Between Heaven and Hell” (24 min), a video essay by Kat Ellinger; and “Speaking Up for the Monsters” (19 min) a video essay by Kim Newman.

The director’s cut includes a commentary with Clive Barker and restoration producer Mark Allan Miller. Video extras include “Tribes of the Moon” (72 min), an extensive making-of documentary; “Making Monsters” (42 min), interviews with the makeup artists; and “Fire! Fights! Stunts!” (20 min), an interview with the second unit director Andy Armstrong on the technical difficulties of filming the movie.

On the bonus features disc, there are deleted scenes (23 min); “Monster Prosthetics Master Class” (11 min), is an interview with special makeup designer Bob Keen; “Cutting Compromise” (14 min) an interview with editor Mark Goldblatt; “The Painted Landscape” (5 min) which features art by Ralph McQuarrie; “Matte Painting Tests” (9 min); Makeup Tests (5 min); Stop Motion Lost Footage (7 min);an Extended Torture Scene (4 min); and galleries and trailers.

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Kent Conrad

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