Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With the fabled Snyder Cut improbably making its way to HBO Max this week, we’re looking back on other significant directors’ cuts.
While overprotective parents and other self-appointed cultural watchdogs in the late ’80s looked on the gory, perverse Hellraiser as an unalloyed evil, Pinhead notably introduces himself and his fellow Cenobites as “demons to some, angels to others.” Those ghastly denizens of the netherworld may have spelled simple terror for characters disinclined to enter their world of pain and pleasure, but for the more refined thrill-seekers of that universe—and the many goth art weirdoes who adopted the film as a graven idol back in ours—down this path laid understanding and salvation. There’s always been more nuance to the grotesqueries of Clive Barker than the mainstream has been willing or able to recognize, a dissonance reiterated three years after his breakout hit. At the hands of a studio that just didn’t get it, his sophomore feature, Nightbreed, was mutilated as badly as any of the corpses littering his dreamscapes.
Barker’s grand ambition was to create nothing less than the “Star Wars of horror” from his own novella Cabal, complete with an elaborate mythos and a third act cuing up franchise potential. We join beefsteak hunk Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer), on the run from the psychiatrist (fellow genre master David Cronenberg) gaslighting him into thinking he’s behind the good doctor’s masked killings, as he takes refuge among the beautifully hideous mutant inhabitants of the subterranean civilization Midian. Elements of this setup complicating Barker’s aspirations to populist appeal included: his continued preoccupation with gross-out practical effects; a bubbling undercurrent of homoerotic tension; a two-pronged plot shifting between the underground enclave of monsters and the serial killer stuff; and the two-and-a-half-hour runtime of the movie’s first cut. The executives at Fox, who just wanted an on-trend slasher picture they could sell to the moviegoing public, demanded that he hack off an hour. Two cuts and numerous antagonistic post-production meetings later, a neutered version passed through theaters half a year after the initially announced release date, leaving nary a flesh wound.
Over the two following decades, Barker’s simmering resentment would be somewhat allayed by the expanding cult fanbase his compromised Nightbreed was nonetheless amassing. By 2014, he’d learned that the unused footage was just lying around, and turned to the folks at boutique video distributor Shout Factory to #ReleaseTheBarkerCut that Fox had no interest in spending money on. In it, he subtracted 20 minutes and added 40, making alterations both cosmetic and deep to unfuck the garbled narrative while restoring the queer opulence that had confused and intimidated the squares. The studio reps couldn’t understand why the film made the tentacled, be-horned, scaly-skinned freakazoids in Midian out to be the heroes, misrepresented and persecuted by the cruel humans. They were blind to the subtext of this community as a home for misfits, where the placeless Boone—who doesn’t seem all that interested in sex with his torch-singing girlfriend—can find an accepting family. The director’s cut allows us more time with the creatures and ups their number, emphasizing that they’re only fearsome to those afraid of difference.
Sweaty gay undertones scrubbed from the theatrical cut return more robust than ever; in one re-inserted scene, the combined forces of the police and military catalogue their firepower with fetishistic glee, the sublimated horniness peaking as one man sensually licks a garrote. The battle lines Barker sets amount to us (the ones communing with the primal fires burning inside) versus them (the ones channeling their urges into hatred and violence), a clear rejection of the mainstream that never wanted him anyway in favor of a livelier, sexier alternative culture. Though the wait was certainly frustrating, it’s kind of perfect that Fox tried to ruin this film in order to cater to safer, duller tastes. They turned the one true Nightbreed into its own mini-Midian, a meeting-place and haven for bloodthirsty genre enthusiasts with no home in polite society.
Availability: Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut is currently streaming on Amazon Prime (though mislabeled as the original version), Shudder, VUDU, Tubi, Hoopla, VRV, Peacock, and Pluto TV, and is available to rent or purchase from Amazon.