Monday, February 16, 2015

Newsploitation: A Breed Apart at the Box Office

Today’s box office birthday is a big one as Clive Barker’s NIGHTBREED (1990) celebrates its 25th anniversary today.  The horror author’s second feature film, NIGHTBREED was an ambitious dark fantasy that the writer-director promised would reestablish scary movie monsters in big studios. Poor Clive, he never stood a chance.  The blueprint for studio interference/test screening madness, Barker’s sophomore effort didn’t fare well upon its initial release and became legendary more for what it wasn’t rather than what it was.  But, in what seems to a recurring theme in these box office pieces, it is a film that lived beyond its studio shelf life.

As a filmmaker, Clive Barker seemed to come out of nowhere.  Struggling with the cinematic adaptations of his stories/scripts (TRANSMUTATIONS [1985] and RAWHEAD REX [1986], both from screenplays by Barker), he decided to take more control and direct the third feature film based on his writing. Adapting his own novella “The Hellbound Heart,” Barker would soon unleash HELLRAISER (1987) on audiences worldwide.  New World released the film in September 1987 and it racked up $14.5 million in the U.S. box office alone; not bad for a non-franchise horror entry.

With momentum on his side, Barker went full blast in 1988.  He handed off duties on the inevitable HELLRAISER sequel to director Tony Randel, while Barker remained on solely as a producer.  Come the fall of 1988, Barker had his next feature film lined up. On October 1, 1988, Poseidon Press in the United States released the Barker collection Cabal.  Inside were some short stories from Barker’s final Books of Blood omnibus and the new titular tale of Cabal, the story of a young man who finds a cadre of monsters living in a “city” called Midian.  Later that same month at the MIFED film market, Morgan Creek announced Barker would be adapting this novella into a feature film as part of package of movies they would be financing (including the Blake Edwards comedy SKIN DEEP and THE EXORCIST 1990 [soon changed to THE EXORCIST III]) with several of them being distributed by 20th Century Fox.  They had also signed Barker to a three picture deal (the other two never to come to fruition). Interesting tidbit: The film was originally announced with the title THE NIGHTBREED.

Original announcement circa October 1988
(click to enlarge)

Even better news was the company was giving Barker a budget of $10 million to bring his monster mash to life.  Genre fans got an even bigger jolt when it was announced in December 1988 that Barker had signed celebrated horror director David Cronenberg to play the villainous psychiatrist Dr. Decker.  Pre-production lasted for several months before filming began in London at Pinewood Studios – home of James Bond and, more recently, Tim Burton’s BATMAN (1989) – on March 6, 1989.  Filming lasted until June 1989, with the final two weeks of Barker’s epic stymied due to what Barker told Fangoria was an accident he had. The film was originally scheduled to come out in October 1989, but plans were altered when a series of reshoots both in England and the U.S. took place. According to what Barker told Fangoria at the time, test screenings had left audiences baffled as to Decker’s motivations and some new scenes with Cronenberg were shot.

Behind the scenes, things were a bit more chaotic.  Barker’s second feature lived up to his ambitions and clocked in at nearly three hours, much to the dismay of studio execs. Major re-editing was done with industry vet Mark Goldblatt being brought in to bring the film down to a 102 minute running time.  (For much more detail on this, see the bonus materials on the recent release of NIGHTBREED: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT.)  To add insult to injury, the film entered into what can only be described as a revolving door process of submission to the M.P.A.A. (Motion Picture Association of America).  The ratings board demanded cut after cut (for material that was, as always, generally innocuous and safe for cable TV nowadays).   Finally, on January 22, 1990, it was announced in Variety that the film had secured an R-rating, just in time for its February 1990 nationwide bow.

Unfortunately, 20th Century Fox seemed to have little faith in the project and had downright no clue how to market it.  Seriously, look at the generic poster below that some marketing genius came up.  Not only is it the vaguest thing imaginable, it also is almost a complete rip off of Fox’s earlier release BAD DREAMS (1988).  Look familiar?

With so many things working against the film, it is probably no surprise that NIGHTBREED failed to attract an audience the weekend of February 16, 1990 when it opened on just under 1,500 screens.  The film opened in 6th place with a paltry $3,708,918 (behind the other new releases REVENGE [1990] and MADHOUSE [1990], which opened in 3rd and 4th place, respectively).  In total, the film stuck around for a couple of weeks and made in total $8,862,354 domestically.  Barker’s ambitious plans for a NIGHTBREED trilogy pretty much ended there and, as a film director, he would only have one more film with LORD OF ILLUSIONS (1995). While surely not the ending he hoped for his sophomore cinema effort, there is a silver lining in all of this as persistent fan interest convinced the studio in the new millennium that letting Barker assemble a director’s cut would be worth their time and money.  Eventually in October 2014 – twenty-six years after the project was first announced – a director’s cut was released on Bluray/DVD via Shout Factory.

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