Clive Barker’s Nightbreed begins with the sort of gory bloodletting that one expects from the writer-director. The film, based on Barker’s 1988 novella Cabal, introduces us to a masked slasher who’s soon revealed to be Phillip Decker (David Cronenberg), a therapist who’s been slowly drugging and manipulating a patient, Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer), into believing that he’s responsible for the doctor’s recent crimes. But just as soon as we’re primed for a perverse spin on the psychological horror genre, Nightbreed wildly pivots in a totally different direction.
Decker arranges a scenario that will result in Boone being shot at by police before anyone asks questions, but as Sheffer’s patsy is drawn into a cemetery, he’s confronted by humanoid monsters. Though Decker’s plan works and Boone is torn apart by bullets, the man rises from the dead due to his exposure to the monsters, who reluctantly welcome him into their home of Midian.
Midian is a subterranean world filled with creatures who claim to be the inspiration for the monsters of human folklore. Barker’s imagination runs riot in the design of these underworld denizens, from a bizarrely seductive, cat-like creature who can shoot quills from her body to a satanic figure with onyx-black skin and curling ram horns. The film, a mix of creature feature and dark fantasy, takes much pleasure in simply admiring the sheer complexity with which the distinct personalities of these monsters emanate from their radically different designs.
Like much of Barker’s work, garish monstrosity and kinky eroticism go hand in hand, and the film presents a number of Midian residents in various kinds of queer and otherwise nontraditional relationships. That adds an amusing undercurrent to the hostility that greets Boone’s girlfriend, Lori (Anne Bobby), when she eventually tracks down her missing boyfriend to Midian: The monsters are offended that a human has violated the sanctity of their world, but one imagines that they also resent her banal heteronormativity.
Midian’s erotic dimensions bring out another layer to the violent backlash the city endures when the humans above learn of this underworld’s existence. Decker manages to whip up a frenzied mob to invade Midian, but the true ringleader of the circus is a disgraced priest (Malcolm Smith) whose crusading fervor against the monsters comes to resemble as much a reactionary panic against the creatures’ liberated existences as a fear of their potential to commit violence.
For all of the gruesomeness and depictions of forthright sexuality that Barker is known for, Nightbreed contains a message at its latex-covered core that could have also from an Afterschool Special: that one should not judge a book by its cover. While many of Midian’s denizens may casually admit to bloodlust, it’s the humans characters who are the true agents of chaos here. In the end, the monsters emerge as the good guys defending their right to life, capping the film on an oddly sweet note that makes it one of Barker’s most endearing works.
Shout! Factory’s 2014 Blu-ray of Nightbreed was a real beauty, but this UHD, whose transfer comes from a new 4K scan of the negative, bests it in every respect. The black levels of the many low-lit shots of Midian’s underground world are richer than ever, while the crisper definition that marks the earthen tones of the city’s walls helps to throw the more vibrant colors of the creatures who dwell within them into sharper relief. Reds and greens pop with new intensity, and textures are so fine that you can make out the tiniest details on the various costumes and prosthetics, revealing the intricacies of the makeup department’s stellar work.
The audio tracks, the original 2.0 stereo and a 5.1 remix, are replicated from the old 2K Blu-ray, and both still sound spotless and well-separated. There’s no muddy overlap between elements, and both the sound effects and score sound boisterous in every channel.
The release also comes with the director’s cut that Clive Barker assembled from the original negative for the 2014 Blu-ray, but in yet another example of Shout! stubbornly failing to put all cuts of a given title on ultra-high-def, it remains exclusive to a 2K Blu-ray. The cut offers a richer exploration of the film’s characters and irons out many of the rushed moments of the theatrical version, making its absence in 4K all the more baffling and enervating.
Shout! ports over all the features from the 2014 Blu-ray, including various deleted scenes and brief videos devoted to the film’s prosthetics, concept art, and cast rehearsals. But the meatiest bonuses are two documentaries, one a broad overview of Nightbreed and the other a 40-minute focus on its makeup effects. There’s also an audio commentary track for the director’s cut by Clive Barker and restoration producer Mark Alan Miller, both of whom provide a slew of details about the film’s making and the process by which Shout! worked with Barker to acquire and reassemble the footage cut from the original theatrical version.
Clive Barker’s bloody but tender creature feature gets an A/V boost from Shout! Factory, but the lack of a UHD transfer for the superior director’s cut is disappointing.
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