Nightbreed & Lord Of Illusion (Clive Barker, 1990 and 1995, respectively)
Shout Factory’s offshoot Scream Factory got into the horror movie business in a big bad way, not just hoping to become a new player in genre movie home entertainment, but intending to become the biggest game in town. Thus far, there’s no denying that they pulled it off. The moment when they truly solidified their status as the company to beat for horror Blu-Rays was when they announced that they would be releasing the decades-in-the-making director’s cut of Clive Barker’s Nightbreed. Seeing Barker’s flawed sophomore effort as the filmmaker initially intended was a dream most horror fans never dreamed was possible. Then it somehow happened and as a bonus, Shout also went ahead and released his third and final directorial effort, Lord of Illusions, on Blu-Ray, as well. For lovers of Barker’s distinctly twisted outsider worldview, that’s a double bill to celebrate. So, we’re doing exactly that, taking a peek at those other two movies that Clive Barker directed after Hellraiser together and then probably lamenting the fact that he never directed afterwards in a puddle of our own tears. Somehow, I’ve got a feeling that’s what Shout hoped for.
Nightbreed was a troubled movie that Barker made after his debut Hellraiser hit and ended up getting spoiled by a scissor happy studio. It’s long been a flawed and misunderstood favorite among horror fans, which is oddly appropriate given that the movie is ultimately a love letter to troubled outsiders. This new cut was completely reconstructed by Barker, dropping twenty minutes out of the theatrical cut and replacing it with forty freshly found minutes of footage that many assumed was long lost. The new cut of Nightbreed does indeed feel like a different and far superior movie to the mangled theatrical cut, but it’s still far from a perfect film. You can’t cut around corniness, budget constraints, or some of the unfortunate performances. But that being said, it’s a thrill to finally see the movie that Clive Barker intended. and it’s far better than the Nightreed that you’re used to.
The plot is similar in broad strokes, involving a young man stumbling into a hidden society of monsters and discovering that they are far more preferable to those human jerks that he’s used to. Finally in this director’s cut, that story plays out more naturally and in the central love story rather tragically. It’s still a fun monster mash with a creepy psycho-psychologist (played by David Cronenberg) killing people in a weird mask, only now it has a purpose, cohesion, and proper pacing.
Barker uses Nightbreed as a means of sympathizing with the needs of alternative societies through his underground monster clan and presenting those alternative lifestyles as superior to civilized human sickness. It’s a warm message that comes across far more clearly and concisely in this version. However, if you’re worried that will also cut down on the horror and fun factor, don’t. Barker is a man who balances art and entertainment well, so even though this cut features far more detailed explorations of the origin of the Nightbreed, pretty much all of the studio-enforced additional Cronenberg kill scenes and the shoot out finale remain. There are also so many more monsters featured in the film and those make up designs remain stunning over twenty years later, so all the new material feels very welcome.
Aside from a few moments where limited source material leads to awkward jump cuts, the film plays infinitely smoother. The plot unfolds with far a more logical progression, while the scares and action scenes pepper the story with a far more satisfying tempo. Sure, the dialogue, acting, and costumes still hit moments of cringe worthy cheesiness, but Nightbreed can at least be enjoyed with far fewer apologies. This is a damn entertaining, resonant, emotional, funny, creepy, and beautiful horror fantasy that Barker’s fans can now be proud to appreciate. It’s a miracle this re-cut finally happened and god bless Shout Factory for pulling it off.
The Blu-Ray of the Nightbreed director’s cut is impressive above and beyond the new version of the film. The Blu-Ray transfer is astounding, it looks better than the compromised cut did in theaters and the fact that Shout was able to restore the old lost footage to this level quality is unbelievable. The lossless soundmix is also impressive, with Danny Elfman’s spectacular score pounding through all channels and Doug Bradley actual voice finally coming through his character’s mouth. Special features kick off with a delightful introduction and audio commentary from Clive Barker and director’s cut producer Mark Alan Miller, who tell a series of wonderful stories about the production and marvel at the fact that this restored cut was even able to be assembled. Next up comes an hour and twelve minute documentary with the cast about the production that covers everything you could imagine, including their shock that the film has endured. From there, you’ll get an extra 22 minutes of deleted scenes, test footage, rehearsal footage, concept art, an interview with the second unit director and best of all an interview with editor Mark Goldblatt about the challenge of creating the compromised theatrical cut with Clive. It’s one hell of a disc for a long lost movie that can finally be seen as intended and very much deserves the reconsideration and attention that comes along with this sort of release.
Now we come to Lord of Illusions, a bizarre 1996 horror offering from Barker that got it’s director cut back in the laserdisc days. The film stars Scott Bakula as one of Barker’s recurring characters, Harry D’Amour, classic noir-styled private detective who specializes in the supernatural. The film opens with a 70s prologue in which a Charlie Manson style cult is broken up, but with a twist. The cult leader (Daniel von Bargen) actually does have magic powers, which he passes along to Kevin J. O’Connor before death by jamming his fingers into his brain. Cut ahead 20 years an O’Connor has used those powers to become the world’s most successful magician. There’s something fishy going on with him, so Bakula starts following his case and O’Connor dies in the middle of a big illusion almost as soon as the detective starts trailing him. From there, the film transforms into a mishmash of detective movie conventions and a deeply strange and disturbing supernatural horror yarn.
From the first frame to the last, Lord of Illusions is undeniably a product of the 90s and it has definitely aged for the worse. In particular, the nostalgic use of classic film noir conventions and dialogue that seemed fresh at the time now feels stilted and the primitive CGI effects don’t hold up to modern standards. But beyond that, it’s an impressive and creative little horror film. Barker was defying genre conventions of the era when he scripted the story and time hasn’t lessened the impact of his twists. It’s unconventionality makes it difficult not to get wrapped up. The introduction and climax remain just as disturbing, shocking, and transgressively graphic as they were in the 90s (some images here easily live up to the high horror standards Barker set with Hellraiser). HD detail means that the budget limitations of Lord of Illusions are more visible than ever, but the scares and ideas still make a big impact. It’s far from a perfect horror film, but it is an undeniably creative one.
The Lord of Illusions Blu-Ray is impressive, but obviously didn’t get the same lavish attention as Nightbreed. The transfer is stunning, and the film has never looked or sounded even close to this good on any home video format. Both the theatrical and director’s cut are included, but that’s more for completion than anything else. Given that the director’s cut clarifies the story and amps up Barker’s subversive imagery substantially, there’s really no need to even consider watching the theatrical cut. As for special features, everything other than a brief new interview with a storyboard artist has been carried over from the original laserdisc release. Thankfully, the documentaries are long and fantastic, while Barker’s commentary is rich with details that could only come from a filmmaker who’d recently completed a project. So, while it would have been nice to get some new thoughts from the cast and crew of the film, it’s hard to imagine anyone feeling like their missing out on info about the production or meaning of Lord of Illusions after going through all the material on this disc.
Neither Nightbreed nor Lord of Illusions is a perfect horror movie, nor do they top what Barker achieved with his instantly iconic directorial debut Hellraiser. However, they are both intense and fascinating features that are far more imaginatively conceived than the average horror flick. Revisiting both titles again thanks to Shout Factory’s wonderful new releases is equally enthralling and frustrating. There’s no denying how impressive the films are, but it’s sad to think that they represent two thirds of Barker’s total directorial output. Barker simply had to fight too hard to make both films (in the case of Nightbreed, that fight lasted decades) for him to bother continuing to struggle in the film industry. After rewatching his brief and impressive career, I can’t help but feel like that’s a tragedy. Barker was a truly original voice in horror film and while he’s never stopped writing novels, it’s a real shame that he gave up directing. The guy was filled with talent and promise that he never quite got enough studio support to fully deliver on. Hopefully, he’ll get a chance to make at least one more horror movie in his lifetime, but if not at least the guy can retire with a 3/3 record and thanks to Shout Factory it’s now possible to watch them all in HD to revel in the deepest recesses of his nasty little imagination. (Phil Brown)