A lot of people assume that the director’s cut is always better than the theatrical cut. It’s a perfectly understandable leap to make: studios do often play havoc with films if they’re worried that a director’s creative decisions might jeopardise their investment. A notorious example of this is Blade Runner, which has no fewer than seven different versions floating around, many of which betray significant and ill-advised studio interference; it was only twenty-five years after initial release that director Ridley Scott was finally given full creative control over a version (2007’s ‘Final Cut’).
But, consider Alien, another Scott film. The theatrical cut is superb, and is the version you’re most likely to be familiar with. It is a near-perfect horror film, and a brilliant film generally. Both acting and dialogue are very naturalistic (there aren’t any quotable one-liners, as there are in the later films of the franchise), the aesthetic varies from the industrial feel of the spacecraft and the oddly sexual, organic sleekness of the alien itself. Frankly, the director’s cut doesn’t really add anything. It certainly doesn’t detract from it: we get some more character interaction, and an interesting insight into the alien’s life-cycle, but Alien was already good enough.
Then we have The Exorcist. I saw the director’s cut before I saw the theatrical cut, and I’ve seen the former many more times than the latter, and I do think that it is better than the original. But this is not to say that the original is a bad film. Indeed, one could quite convincingly argue that neither is better than the other, such is the strength of both.
So far, we’ve had improvement, no improvement and possible improvement. None of this is particularly sensational, but what of films that have actively been harmed by a new director’s cut?
I am thinking of The Wicker Man (no, I don’t mean the Nicholas “Not the bees!” Cage version). The Wicker Man is one of the finest horror films ever made, and one of the finest British films in any genre. It is a menacing, deeply disturbing, self-contained masterpiece of a horror film, which, despite having a twist ending, loses none of its power for the end reveal now being common knowledge. The director’s cut is a mess. The addition of new scenes doesn’t add anything to the depth of the characters, they don’t expand on the film’s mythology, and, further, one scene which has an early introduction of Christopher Lee’s character more-or-less gives away the ending. Further, the additional scenes are of woeful physical quality in comparison with the main body of the film, and cuts between them come with a distracting jolt.
So, what is the difference between a good and a bad director’s cut? Restraint.
Blade Runner, Alien and The Exorcist do not have their narrative structure radically altered in the director’s cut (the removal of the voice-over in Blade Runner is an exception). The additional scenes mesh well with what was already there; they build on it and don’t try and re-work the foundations. They might alter the pacing and move a few scenes around, but not in a disruptive way. The Wicker Man feels rushed. The additional scenes simply add nothing, they just stretch out a story which is meant to be somewhat short.
Lost and cut scenes are interesting to watch, but just because they weren’t included in the theatrical cut doesn’t mean that they should be put back in a director’s cut to ‘make it better.’ Sometimes, the cutting room floor and the ‘special features’ menu are the best places for them.