There are good director’s cuts and there are bad director’s cuts. The theatrical cut of Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate,” which feels like an incredulous, 149-minute epyllion of dirt and dust filmed through a glaze of vaseline, is a shell of the much longer, 219-minute director’s cut, which somehow feels shorter, more coherent, more gorgeously tragic. That’s a good director’s cut. Sergio Leone’s four-hour anti-gangster tragedy “Once Upon a Time in America” was butchered by studios, purging it of its suspense, its character progressions (and mutations), the ethereality created by Leone’s nonlinear narrative. The theatrical cut is an abomination, heartbreaking in all the wrong ways; the four-hour version is sublime, earnestly heartbreaking, and a great director’s cut. James Cameron’s “Aliens” and “Terminator 2,” two great, lean, tight, tense action-thrillers with impeccably efficient (and effective) pacing and startling effects, are both bloated and tranquilized in his unnecessary director’s cuts. Cameron negates suspense by showing what was previously left to the audience’s collective imagination (the aliens storming the impromptu bastion while automated turrets fire unrelentingly, their ammo counters rapidly ticking down, for example). Both of these are bad director’s cuts.
Ridley Scott engendered the director’s cut after the troubled production of his eventual-classic “Blade Runner,” during which time the cast and crew slowly developed a fierce ire for the director, and studios, fearing the film’s ambiguity would lead to confusion and consequently low ticket sales, injected a much-maligned, lifeless voiceover from Harrison Ford, doing his best impersonation of a corpse. Scott’s multiple cuts of the film, to which he was still making changes just a few years ago, raise questions about the nature of the director’s cut. Is the director’s cut the “real” cut of a film? Is it a more authentic and faithful emulation of the artist’s initial vision, a la Cimino and Leone? Or is it more akin to a remix, a secondary product cobbled together afterwards? Are they simply director indulgences, like the Cameron cuts? And how do you judge a director’s cut? Does the director’s cut add anything integral, or alter the meaning of the work, or simply re-slather the fatty, disposable parts that were cut for a reason?
These questions linger in the mind like heavy fog while watching the new “Cabal Cut” of Clive Barker’s “Nightbreed,” which is currently touring select theaters and undergoing a digital restoration for an eventual Blu-ray release. (the studio responsible for the cut, Seraphim, refers to this as the “Kitchen Sink” cut because it had everything Barker shot in it.) “Nightbreed,” a cult favorite of the midnight crowd, holds an intriguing place in the pantheon of horror; it was one of two would-be classic horror films hacked-and-slashed by studio heads in 1990, that strange synapse between the gaudy Reagan-era slashers and “The Silence of the Lambs.” Its director’s cut has been sought-after for years, sometimes referred to as the Holy Grail of horror director’s cuts, and its reputation has grown monstrously. The other film, William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist III,” took a little longer to build its following, probably because audiences had yet to get the acrid taste of “The Exorcist II: The Heretic” from their mouths. Blatty’s film is at once akin to “Nightbreed” in the usurpation of its director, and oddly antipodal to Barker’s film in the type and extent of studio interference. One film was a minor art house masterpiece tainted by studio interference; the other was a bad film whittled down into a shorter but equally bad film.
Both “The Exorcist III” and “Nightbreed” were passion projects of their creators; both artists authored the source material for their films, and both artists adapted said material themselves, would-be auteurs kept on a tight leash by studio heads. Blatty’s film takes Lieutenant William Kinderman (George C. Scott), a minor character from the original “Exorcist” (then played by Lee J. Cobb, who died in 1976), and puts him front and center. Kinderman, like the film he’s inhabiting, is serene, smart, and soft-spoken, but prone to sudden outbursts that make the arteries in your neck swell. Kinderman is investigating a series of religious-themed murders that defy rational explanation, and slowly, through episodes of increasingly unnerving reveals, learns that the killings may be rooted in the supernatural. It’s a quiet and slow film, and Blatty strikes the right balance between showing us the horrors dwelling in the dark heart of man and allowing our imaginations to fill in the long pauses with terrors best left unseen. Every shot serves one of two purposes: build suspense, or deliver a gotcha moment, and Blatty handles both with deft confidence.
Barker’s film is a bizarre hodgepodge of fantasy and horror with monsters conjured in the most vivid of imaginations, eccentric masked madmen wielding sharp stabbing weapons, and a romance that transcends mortal life. Craig Sheffer plays Boone, a disturbed young man who dreams of Midian, where monsters and outcasts live in serenity. Boone is manipulated into believing he’s a serial killer by his sadistic doctor (David Cronenberg, amusing in a gimmicky sort of way that would have lent itself far better to a cameo). The film is strange, it’s violent, it has a very typical Danny Elfman score conducted by Shelly Walker (who would go on to compose the music for the “Batman” animated series), and it has accrued a legion of supporters. The make-up and prosthetics are visually astonishing, but the monsters of Midian leave no lasting impression; they’re actually kind of lame, with some looking like rejects from a post-“Videodrome” Cronenberg film, and others like the adult incarnations of David Bowie’s goblin army from “Labyrinth.” The restitched scenes give us more time with the monsters as well as Boone and his love interest, along with a priest who has lost his faith. There’s also a crazily bigoted police squad with an arsenal room that wouldn’t be out of place in “Hot Fuzz,” and an extended, climatic war. These scenes remold the film into something that sort of resembles an epic fantasy with identity issues. Maybe the film’s wavering tone is meta-commentary on Boone’s identity crisis, but probably not.
“The Exorcist” actually sustains a singular feeling, a certain syncopated rhythm — Scott and Ed Flanders (who earned four Emmy nominations for his work on “St. Elsewhere”) trade barbs at a rapid pace, a call-and-response of creepy but funny one-liners that both build characters efficiently and lure viewers into a feeling of serenity so Blatty, like a master surgeon, can easily slip a blade into the right organs; but astute viewers can easily discern the studio’s sticky finger prints on abrupt scenes of a lone priest witnessing inexplicably creepy and satanic occurrences, and then inexplicably showing up, steeped in deus-ex-machina, to deliver an effects-laden, half-assed exorcism during the film’s climax that accomplishes exactly nothing. It’s jarring, it’s stupid, and it made Brad Dourif “feel bad” — Brad Dourif! the scariest man alive!
Worst of all, the studio-engendered scenes are unbecoming of a film that takes its time conjuring a onerous feeling of dread. Blatty created an art house horror flick for those who crave something more from their horror, and the studio exorcised that ambitious spirit. A fan edit released in March 2011, dubbed “Legion” (the title of the original novel), expunges these bloated exorcism scenes (a total of 15 minutes cut) and tries to recreate the low-key ending Blatty envisioned. The fan edit flenses the plethoric, studio-added bits and was subsequently championed by Dourif. It’s likely the closest we’ll ever get to a director’s cut, since most of the cut footage is rumored to have been destroyed.
“The Cabal Cut” is a horse of a different color. It ultimately marks a paramount moment in director-studio bickering, one in which the director wasn’t a victim and the studio wasn’t wrong. With 45 minutes of scenes pulled from two faded, forgotten VHS tapes found in the catacombs of Barker’s closet, the film runs 155 minutes long. The restored scenes return the fantastical, hallucinatory air that enveloped Barker’s original screenplay, and their muddled, cauterized quality adds a certain feeling of nightmarish uncertainty (because you can’t see what the hell is happening). Barker establishes too many tones, none of which works very well, and throws them together all willy-nilly. Sorry, “Hellraiser” fans, but Clive Barker just isn’t a very good director.
The theatrical version actually feels more cohesive than Barker’s cut; even though the slasher-horror aspects of the film are banal and devoid of scares, they feel even worse when wedged between scenes of death-defying romance and the epic, man-vs-monster, Hell-on-Earth battle that takes up the last 45 minutes of the film.
Whereas Blatty wanted to end his film with two men talking in a room — revelation through conversation — and the studio made him add pyrotechnics, Barker gleefully blows everything up. The dichotomy between these endings would make a killer split-screen shot in a De Palma film. Blatty’s film is undeniably eerie, penetrating your subconscious with genuinely frightening results. But the restored “Nightbreed” is just a bad director’s cut.