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.