Saturday, October 10, 2015
Make Mine Midian
As I confessed earlier this month, The Thing scared me off of horror films for years, and it wasn't until 6th grade, maybe even Jr. High, that I actually waded back into the waters of horror films. This reintroduction was largely aided by a quartet of new additions to my family; four cousins by marriage raised on HBO and late night cable. It was through this motley group that I began to watch scary movies, and actually enjoy them. They gave me a new context through which to experience horror, as through them I learned the joy of being scared in a group, of finding humor in the leering monsters and outrageous death scenes. It maybe helps that the first movie I recall watching with them was Nightmare on Elm Street 4, which is grotesque, but also funny.
Surprisingly, considering my feelings now, I argued against this choice. I was, I'll admit, afraid of the film, and of betraying to my much more confident older cousins just how cowardly I was. I knew nothing about Nightmare 4, but I had heard all about the original NoES from a classmate who would entertain kids during recess by recounting the plots to all the R-rated horror films he was allowed to see. I remember the surprise I felt when I first saw Aliens and discovered it was a fun action movie, not the harrowing dread soaked nightmare I had been constructing in my mind. I had an idea of what Nightmare would be like, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
The eldest of my cousins, probably sensing my concern, reassured me that Nightmare 4 was far from scary, that it was more of an adventure film. Shockingly, this worked, and I say down to enjoy the film, which I actually did enjoy. My cousin was right; Nightmare 4 is one of the least intentionally scary films in the series (next to part 6). The movie was definitely a perspective changing event, but my full conversion was yet to come. I was less afraid to watch horror films, but I still did not seek them out, and they weren't what I would call favorites. I know I watched other horror movies during this period, but none of them really struck a nerve. I certainly can't remember any specific titles. At least, not until Nightbreed.
Nightbreed came out in 1990, but we watched it on HBO, which would place it, most likely, in 1991 or '92, which coincides with my memory of still being in Jr. High. I can vividly recall sitting in front of the TV in my cousin's living room in the middle of the night, the lights out and the house quiet. I'm not sure when in the film I realized I was watching something special, I just recall a slowly dawning realization that I had been looking at things from the wrong angle. The monsters in Nightbreed were, physically, some of the most gruesome I had seen, and yet rather than objects of fear, derision, hatred, or mockery, these monsters were noble creatures; men and women who inspired respect, empathy, and admiration.
Nightbreed was a revelation, or as close to one as a godless heathen like me can come. By the time the film had ended, with the monster tribes of Midian splintered by unbeaten by the cruel, pitiless humans who feared and envied them, my consciousness had shifted. I no longer viewed monsters with fear and terror, but with entertainment, awe and wonder. I was fascinated with the worlds of monsters, madmen, ghouls, and ghosts, and I devoured the stories and movies they inhabited with a fascination in their habits, their physiognomies, and, yes, the technical craft that went into their creations.
Nightbreed became one of my first (and few) purchases on VHS, and considering the lower access to films in a pre-internet age, it was a film I watched repeatedly. It was a few years, however, before I read the novella the film was based on, Cabal. It was, perhaps oddly, on a spring break trip to Florida to visit my grandparents during freshman year of High School. I remember devouring the novella, and the other stories in the collection, while sitting in the back of my grandparent's RV. It was a revelation of another kind. I had been reading Stephen King for a few years at that point, and Clive Barker's style was quite unlike what I was used to in horror fiction. Stephen King is, for all his shocking violence and populist politics, a conservative writer at heart. His stories almost always enforce the status quo, and usually result in a return to normalcy, with the horrific or bizarre triumphantly defeated and banished from the world. Clive Barker, by contrast, is more anarchic, and his stories never return to the status quo. His characters are always changed by their encounters with the incredible, for good or ill (and honestly, it's for good more often than it's for ill).
I quickly devoured Barker's novels in the same way I had burned through King's works, and through it all I continued to return to Nightbreed. As I aged, some of the films flaws stood out to me, though I continued to love the work. There seemed to be an odd flow to the course of the story, as some elements that seemed like they should have been more important received little screentime. Suspecting the work of interfering studio hands, I did the almost unthinkable and wrote Mr. Barker a fan letter, expressing my admiration while also asking about the possibility of missing scenes. To my surprise, he wrote me back fairly promptly and said that yes, nearly 45 minutes had been cut out due to studio notes, but he was working on a DVD special edition that would be released that fall. This was in 1997. Fast forward a decade, and still no director's cut. Word got out that Warner Bros. had lost track of the original film prints, and did not see it as profitable to seek out the materials, let alone pay for the necessary editing and production work required to put the film out.
I gave up hope of ever seeing the extended Nightbreed, until online whispers began to mention the existence of recently discovered VHS master tapes in Germany that contained a rough cut of Barker's original vision. These sources were compiled with the existing film to produce the Cabal Cut, a Barker-sanctioned-yet-still-unofficial reconstruction of the film. The Cabal Cut used footage that Barker himself would have cut out of the film, and the quality of the new elements was... poor, to put it charitably, yet reaction was overwhelmingly positive. It turns the cult of Midian had been growing steadily over the decades, and the renewed attention finally sparked a determined effort to restore and release Clive Barker's original vision for Nightbreed. So, in 2014, after nearly two decades of waiting, I finally received my three-disc limited edition bluray of the fabled Nightbreed Director's cut.
It was more than I had hoped for, honestly. I watched it twice that first day, and adored every minute of its dark fantasy. Or, at least, nearly every moment; Narcisse's unexpected demise still hurts, but everything else is perfect. The added scenes redeemed every complaint I had about the film previously, as the romance between Boone and Lori gains much needed dimension and reality, where in the theatrical version it felt a bit forced The acting across the board improved, as instances of uneven performances proved to be due to lack of context. New scenes explained some previously odd line readings as we finally see what the characters were supposed to be reacting to.
For some it might seem odd that Nightbreed is the horror film that continues to be the most important in my personal development. The concept of monsters being merely misunderstood is an old one- only a fool with no reading comprehension skills would believe Frankenstein's Monster to be the villain of that story- yet I'd never seen it presented like this. these weren't piteous, confused freaks, they were individuals with their own mythologies, laws, and beliefs, with emotional lives as complex as any human character. The monsters of Midian present an ideal of sorts, an Eden for any child who has ever felt damaged, lost, or alienated. For a young me, just entering my teens, it was a clarion call I could never refuse. My home has been with the monsters ever since.