Hellraiser was wun­derkind author Clive Barker’s debut film — and his first time at bat result­ed in one of the hor­ror clas­sics of the ‘80s.  Expectations ran high for his fol­low-up Nightbreed but its promise was cut off at the knees when pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny Morgan Creek took the film away from his in the edit­ing room.  The mud­dled result was not only a dis­ap­point­ment to Barker but a non-starter for hor­ror fans and gen­er­al audi­ences alike.  He con­tin­ued to be suc­cess­ful in the print world but he’s only direct­ed one oth­er film NightBr-possince Nightbreed.

However, Nightbreed has got­ten to have anoth­er chap­ter to its sto­ry that few expect­ed: in recent years, col­leagues of Barker’s reassem­bled a length­ier ver­sion of the film using a script and old workprints as a guide.   The suc­cess of this “Cabal Cut,” named after the short nov­el it was adapt­ed from, inspired Barker to return to his work and do a prop­er director’s cut that reflects his orig­i­nal vision for the film.  The results have been a hit with many hor­ror fans — but a close look reveals that what works in prose form can be hard to grap­ple with on the big screen.

The director’s cut of Nightbreed hits the ground run­ning, plung­ing the view­er head­long into a dense (and dense­ly pop­u­lat­ed) premise:  Aaron (Craig Sheffer) is a young man who has a beau­ti­ful singer girl­friend in Lori (Anne Bobby) but is trou­bled by night­mares in which he sees a race of humanoid Nightbr-01mon­sters.  His psy­chi­a­trist Dr. Decker (erst­while direc­tor David Cronenberg) is a clos­et­ed seri­al killer who uses Aaron’s night­mares to cov­er the tracks of his own mur­der spree — and he sics the police on Aaron when the bod­ies start pil­ing up, using details from his dreams to frame Aaron for the crimes.

Aaron runs for the place in his dreams, using details pro­vid­ed by a men­tal patient Narcisse (Hugh Ross) that he meets while hos­pi­tal­ized.  He dis­cov­ers the world of mon­sters from his dreams liv­ing in secret beneath a long-aban­doned ceme­tery.  They induct him into his world but he strug­gles with his love for Lori.  Further com­pli­cat­ing things is the activ­i­ties of Dr. Decker, who dis­cov­ers the secret world and con­spires with local Nightbr-02police to lead a raid on it.

If the above syn­op­sis sound labyrinthine in its com­plex­i­ty, that’s actu­al­ly a sim­pli­fied ver­sion: the syn­op­sis omits a whole ensem­ble of side char­ac­ters and larg­er ele­ments of the plot that sud­den­ly pop up in the sec­ond half of the film.  There’s so much plot in the director’s cut of Nightbreed that it holds the oth­er ele­ments of the sto­ry­telling hostage: char­ac­ter­i­za­tions are sim­plis­tic because they have no room to breathe, intro­duc­tions of char­ac­ters are rushed in awk­ward ways and the finale is chaot­i­cal­ly rushed through as it attempts to tie up loose ends and intro­duce new sto­ry ele­ments to set up a sequel.  As a result, Nightbreed is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly too much and not enough at a sto­ry lev­el.

Barker’s direc­tion of his over­load­ed sto­ry­line has style to burn: Robin Vidgeon’s sleek cin­e­matog­ra­phy gives the pro­ceed­ings a Cronenbergian sense of chilly style while Danny Elfman sup­plies a suit­ably grandiose and thun­der­ous orches­tral score.  Unfortunately, Barker seems over­whelmed by the com­plex­i­ty of the task.  He has trou­ble bal­anc­ing the humor and hor­ror through­out the film, par­tic­u­lar­ly when Dr. Decker starts quip­pinNightbr-03g like a dead­pan Freddy Krueger.

The humor/horror bal­ance slips com­plete­ly out of con­trol dur­ing the final third of film: it sud­den­ly goes for a kind of loopy, Gilliam-esque satire when deal­ing with jin­go­ism and law enforce­ment, com­plete with the most car­toon­ish set of cops this side of Super Troopers.  To make things worse, the finale is chaotic and unsat­is­fy­ing.  Instead of a care­ful­ly chore­o­graphed sequence full of peaks and val­leys to its excite­ment, the bat­tle royale finale looks like a bunch of b-roll footage awk­ward­ly strung togeth­er.

The actors put up a good fight deal­ing with mate­ri­al but they have a hard time reg­is­ter­ing with­in the den­si­ty of the sto­ry­line: Sheffer and Bobby are like­able but bland, main­ly because we get so lit­tle time to know them out­side the needs of the plot, and Cronenberg is too dead­pan to reg­is­ter as a terrNightbr-04ify­ing killer.  Doug Bradley is unrec­og­niz­able in a too-brief role as a lead­er of the mon­sters while Charles Haid chews the scenery with aban­don as a Patton-esque cop (the only thing he doesn’t do is deliv­er a speech in front of an American flag).  There’s no bal­ance between the wilder and sub­tler per­for­mances: for instance, Ross often seems to be act­ing in an entire­ly dif­fer­ent film when in sce­nes with Sheffer and Bobby.

In short, the director’s cut of Nightbreed might be more coher­ent and ful­ly real­ized than the butchered stu­dio cut but it isn’t much bet­ter.  The film sim­ply goes in too many direc­tions to real­ize the promise of its “mon­sters as part of the human race” premise.  It’s nice that Barker got to ren­der his vision for his fans but in ret­ro­spect it seems that what was going on in his imag­i­na­tion was sim­ply too grandiose to fit into the con­fines of a two-hour motion pic­ture.