Best Blu-ray & DVD releases of 2016

We’ve been hearing people pronounce the death of DVD and Blu-ray for years now. You’d never know it from the astonishing wealth of Blu-ray debuts, restored movies, and lovingly-produced special editions in 2016. The sales numbers are way down from a decade ago, of course, thanks in large part to the demise of the video store, which drove sales of new movies to fill the new release rental racks. The studios still handle their own new releases on disc but many of them have licensed out their back catalog to smaller labels—some new, some longtime players—who have continued to nurture the market for classics, cult films, collectibles, and other films from our recent and distant past. Criterion, Kino Lorber, Shout! Factory / Scream Factory, Twilight Time, Arrow, Olive, Blue Underground, Flicker Alley, Raro, MVD, Cinelicious, and others have continued to reach those of us who value quality and deliver releases that, if anything, continue to improve. We prefer to own rather than rely on compromised quality of streaming video and the vagaries of licensing and contracts when it comes to movies.

2016 has been as good a year as any I’ve covered in my years as a home video columnist and paring my list of top releases down to 10 was no easy task. In fact, I supplemented it with over two dozen bonus picks and honorable mentions. My approach is a mix of historical importance, aesthetic judgment, quality of presentation, and difficulty of effort. It is an unquantifiable formula influenced by my own subjective values but you’ll see some themes emerge. I favor films that have never been available in the U.S. before, significant restorations, discoveries, and rarities. But I also value a beautiful transfer, well-produced supplements, insightful interviews and essays, and intelligently-curated archival extras. You’ll see all these in the picks below.

Out1Box1 – Out 1 (Kino Lorber / Carlotta, Blu-ray+DVD) – This was my cinematic Holy Grail for years, Jacques Rivette’s legendary 12-hour-plus epic of rival theater companies, an obsessive panhandler, a mercenary street thief, an obscure conspiracy, the post-1968 culture of Paris, puzzles, mysteries, creative improvisation, and the theater of life. The history is too complicated to go into here (check out my review at Parallax View) but apart from periodic special screenings it was impossible to see until a digital restoration in 2015 followed by a limited American release in theaters, streaming access, and finally an amazing Blu-ray+DVD box set featuring both the complete version (Noli me tangere, 1971 / 1989) and the shorter Out 1: Spectre (1974), designed for a theatrical release after French TV balked at his original vision. It was shot on 16mm on the streets with a minimal crew and in a collaborative spirit, incorporating improvisations and accidents and morphing along the way. The disc release embraces the texture of its making and also includes the new documentary “The Mysteries of Paris: Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 Revisited” and an accompanying 120 page bilingual booklet. There were more lavish sets and more beautiful restorations on 2016 home video, but nothing as unique and committed as this cinematic event, which made its American home video debut over 40 years after its first showing. Full review here.

Blu-ray: ‘Holy Grail’ at 40, Capra’s ‘You Can’t Take It With You,’ two by Jess Franco, Disney’s ‘Aladdin,’ and more

MontyPythonGrailMonty Python and the Holy Grail: 40th Anniversary Edition (Sony, Blu-ray) – After a career of inspired skit comedy, the unbalanced minds of Monty Python pounded the Knights of the Round Table into their own skewed square hole for their first “real” feature film (I’m not counting their skit comedy And Now For Something Completely Different) and Camelot has never been the same. King Arthur, Lancelot, Galahad and the rest of the dotty knights forsake the decadence of the Camelot (“It’s only a model”) to bang coconut shells across the misty English countryside and take on abusive Frenchmen with outrrraaageous accents (“Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!”), hot-to-trot nuns, a killer rabbit, the mysterious Knights Who Say “Nih!,” and other typical medieval threats. Probably the cheapest Arthurian adventure ever made (heck, they couldn’t even afford horses!), and easily the funniest. In fact, this absurdity is considered by many (including myself) to be one of the funniest movies ever made. The DVD restores an extra 24 seconds unseen in the original American release, but even with the remastering the grimy, drab visuals still look like a big budget TV show that’s been a bit underlit. But these are the dark ages, after all, and the models and the English countryside look suitably earthy, muddy, and medieval.

This is one of those perennials that gets a new edition every few years, each one adding something new to the accumulating menu of special features. New to this edition (the second Blu-ray release) is a new 30-minute Q&A with the five surviving members of the team recorded at the gala screening at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. Carried over from the previous disc releases are two commentary tracks (one production-focused track by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, and other with general complaints and back-biting by John Cleese, Eric Idle and Michael Palin), featurettes (“The Quest for the Holy Grail Locations” hosted by Michael Palin and Terry Jones, the 18-minute 1974 BBC report “On Location with The Pythons,” “How To Use Your Coconuts”), “Lost Animations” (a 12-minute collection of unused animated bits prepared for the film with an introduction by Terry Gilliam) nearly 20 minutes of outtakes and extended scenes with an introduction by Terry Jones, three sing-alongs, clips from the film in Japanese with English subtitles, and the all-interlocking “Monty Python and the Holy Grail In Lego.” Missing is the “Holy Book of Days” Second Screen Experience (an interactive function that required an iPad, a downloadable app and a connection to the same WiFi network as the Blu-ray player, an idea that never took off with viewers).

There’s also a deluxe edition in a substantial castle-shaped box with a toy catapult and collection of small plastic animal figures, for those of you who like the conversation piece packaging.

YouCan'tTakeBD

You Can’t Take It With You (Sony, Blu-ray), Frank Capra’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, won Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards in 1938. The film has a delightful romantic couple in Jean Arthur and James Stewart and a wonderfully eccentric patriarch in Lionel Barrymore, but it replaces the unhinged anarchy of the play with sentimental Capra-corn. The production never recovers. Now the story turns on a battle of wills between embrace-the moment-everyman Barrymore and bitter king of capitalism Edward Arnold, who refuses to accept these addled free spirits as future in-laws. Capra turns out an amiable and appealing little comedy with some memorable character bits (Mischa Auer and Ann Miller in particular), but spends so much effort hammering home his own populist point that he misses the spirit of the material. I find Capra a poor match for the material but he did bring out the spirit in his case and he took home his third and final Oscar for best director for his efforts. And give him credit for knowing a winning formula. He reunited Stewart and Arthur in his next film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1940).

It comes in a Blu-ray booklet case with 28 pages of photos, notes, and an essay by TCM writer Jeremy Arnold. Features commentary by Frank Capra Jr. and author Catherine Kellison, the interview featurette “Frank Capra Jr. Remembers… You Can’t Take It With You,” and the trailer, plus a bonus Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.

TriumphBDTriumph of the Will (Synapse, Blu-ray), Leni Riefenstahl’s record of the 1934 Nuremburg rally, is a stunning piece of cinema, a landmark of propaganda cinema, and a terrifying look at totalitarian demagoguery. The rhetoric about the thousand year Reich, the one and only party, and the purity of the race is less important than the mythic dimensions and sense of awe that Riefenstahl created not just in the filmmaking but on the design and staging of the event itself. It is possibly the first political spectacle choreographed specifically for the cameras, and it presents Hitler as both a God from the heavens and man of the people with a message: “this future belongs entirely to us!”

For years, the film was only available with the original English subtitles created by the government, which played down the politics by purposefully mistranslating many of the speeches. This translation, released on home video for the first time in 2000, features an accurate translation of the speeches and reveals the verbal imagery and strident nationalism of the real thing, and this Blu-ray debut is newly remastered in 2K from a duplicate 35mm fine grain master.

Synapse does an excellent job of subtitling, identifying locations, activities, and key figures as well as translating speeches and correcting some of the rhetoric that was watered down for American audiences in its original translation, and the commentary by historian Dr. Anthony R. Santoro makes him a play-by-play announcer, color man (giving background to the players), and interpreter all in one on the commentary track.

Also features a newly remastered edition of Riefenstahl’s Day of Freedom (1935), another of her propaganda pieces, this one a short shot at the 1935 rally.

JustineEugenie…The Story Of Her Journey Into Perversion: 3-Disc Limited Edition (Blue Underground, Blu-ray+DVD)
Marquis De Sade’s Justine: 3-Disc Limited Edition (Blue Underground, Blu-ray+DVD)

Jess Franco adapts the Marquis de Sade in a pair of notorious Euro sexploitation classics, both making their respective Blu-ray debut in three-disc combo packs with bonus DVD copy and CD soundtrack.

Marquis De Sade’s Justine (1969) is one of Franco’s first collaborations with Harry Alan Towers, the famous British producer of Euro pulp thrillers with decadent flourishes, and his entry into the international production. The kinky tale of a virtuous innocent (Romina Power, Tyrone Power’s 18 year old daughter) who is “cruelly treated, robbed, falsely accused, imprisoned, assaulted, beaten, and pursued” by all she encounters while her sister indulges in vice, sin, murder, and all sorts of wickedness with such glee that it sends her to the top of society is perfect Franco material, though the satire and irony is admittedly buried in sheer excess. What surprises isn’t the kink and cruelty, it’s the handsome style and gorgeous photography (two Gaudi designed buildings serve as key locations), and the unhinged performance of Jack Palance as a malicious monk exploring the carnal limits of pleasure through pain. Klaus Kinski plays the Marquis in a framing sequence, and we periodically cut back to him madly scribbling in a prison while visions writhe around him, and Mercedes McCambridge, Akim Tamiroff, and Howard Vernon are a few of the familiar faces in the cast. The film was cut by half an hour and released under the name Deadly Sanctuary in the U.S. by AIP.

EugenieBDThis features the complete (or as complete as possible) version in a beautiful transfer that preserves the color and the beautiful sets as well as the all the sex and sadism. It features the new interview featurette with Franco historian “Stephen Thrower on Justine” and the 20-minute interview featurette “The Perils and Pleasures of Justine,” originally recorded for the DVD release, with director Jess Franco (who describes how the Romina Power was forced upon him against his wishes, and how Jack Palance was “drunk all the time” and brilliant nonetheless) and screenwriter/producer Harry Alan Towers. In Franco’s own words, it was “the most expensive film I ever made… A fake big film. Of course, only we knew it was fake.”

Eugenie: The Story of Her Journey into Perversion(1969, also released as De Sade 70), based on De Sade’s “Philosophy in the Boudoir,” followed soon after. The story of an innocent girl (Marie Liljedahl of Inga fame) seduced into a dreamy/nightmarish world of eros and perversion by a decadent couple (Jack Taylor and Maria Rohm), it co-stars Christopher Lee as the sinister Dolmance, master of the island.

It features the new interview featurette with Franco historian “Stephen Thrower on Eugenie” and interview featurette “Perversion Stories” with director Jess Franco, producer Harry Alan Towers, and stars Marie Liljedahl and Christopher Lee.

Each release includes a collectable booklet with an essay by Stephen Thrower, a bonus DVD copy with the supplements, and a CD soundtrack of Bruno Nicola’s score for each film.

Also recently released:AladdinBD

Aladdin: Diamond Edition (Disney, Blu-ray+DVD) – It’s a whole new world for the 1992 Disney animated classic in the Blu-ray debut of the film, freshly remastered for its high-definition incarnation with bright, vivid color. Robin Williams provides the voice to the big blue genie, a fun-loving guy in curly slippers who offers three wishes to the plucky young poor boy and marketplace thief Aladdin, who dreams of romancing a princess. It’s one of the jewels in Disney’s crown of traditional hand-drawn animated features.

New to this edition are “The Genie Outtakes” (nine minutes of unused improvisations from Robin Williams set to storyboards), “Aladdin: Creating Broadway Magic” (about the Broadway adaptation, 19 minutes), “Genie 101” (explaining the pop culture references to 21st century kids), “Ron and Jon: You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me” (with filmmakers John Musker and Ron Clements reminiscing about their early days at Disney), and “Unboxing Aladdin” (a guide to the Easter eggs hidden through the film). Carried over from the previous DVD release are the commentary tracks (one by directors Ron Clements and John Musker, the other by the animators), the 70-minute documentary “A Diamond in the Rough: The Making of Aladdin,” plus the rest of the short featurettes, deleted scenes and songs, music videos, and such. Also includes bonus DVD and Digital HD (via Disney Movies Anywhere) copies of the film.

BadBoys20thAnnBad Boys I & II: 20th Anniversary Collection (Sony, Blu-ray) – The original Bad Boys (1995) was the obnoxiously loud and destructive action hit that launched Michael Bay’s reign as the definitive expression of the Bruckheimer and Simpson aesthetic of big, expensive, flamboyantly excessive action cinema. Interestingly Martin Lawrence, who plays the married man and harried father trying to reign in the excesses of his ladies man partner Will Smith, gets first billing in this partnership. How things change in the intervening years. The box set features Bad Boys and the Blu-ray debut of the 2003 sequel Bad Boys II (also directed by Bay), each in its own case. Bad Boys carries over the extras from the 2010 release, with director commentary, a featurette, and music videos. Bad Boys IIincludes featurettes on the stunts and visual effects, on-set production diaries, “Sequence Breakdowns” of six key scenes, and deleted scenes, all in 480i SD. But fear not, the movies themselves are both remastered in 4K and are vivid and sharp.

ThunderThundercrack! (Synapse / CAV, Blu-ray, DVD), the 1975 underground cult film by Curt McDowell and co-writer / star George Kuchar, is a gothic romp that veers into horror, sex, and camp parody, with explicit scenes and graphic horror. It makes is American home video debut (at least it first official release) in DVD and Blu-ray editions, with an audio-only interview with Curt McDowell (on the second audio track) and newly translated subtitles in Parisian French, German, and Castilian Spanish. Exclusive to the Blu-ray edition is the 2009 documentary It Came From Kuchar, on the underground filmmaking brother George and Mike Kuchar, and a bonus DVD with rate short films, interviews, and audition footage and outtakes from Thundercrack!

LivingOblivionLiving In Oblivion: 20th Anniversary (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray) – Steve Buscemi is the angst-ridden auteur of a low budget art film falling apart at the seams (splices?) in Tom DiCillo’s very funny 1995 satire of indie filmmaking nightmares, which won him the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance. James Le Gros plays his egotistical, impulsively improvising star with blow-dried smarminess, Catherine Keener has a crisis in confidence as his female lead, and Dermot Mulroney swaggers in an eye-patch and leather vest as the artiste of a cinematographer. Features commentary by director Tom DiCillo, deleted scenes, a video interview with DiCillo and Buscemi, and trailers.

Stalingrad (Synapse, Blu-ray) presents the Blu-ray debut of the complete 2003 3-part documentary on the devastating World War II battle that lasted over 6 months and took 4 million casualties. The epic production features rare footage from both Russian and German archives, some of it shot by the soldiers themselves, and presents the battle from both perspectives. Nominated for the 2003 International Emmy Award for Best Documentary. Presented in the English language dubbed version with footage not seen in original broadcast. Features deleted interview segments, the featurette “Stalingrad Today,” and a video interview with professor and historian Dr. Guido Knopp.

BrainWouldntThe Brain That Wouldn’t Die (Scream Factory, Blu-ray), a bizarre tale of a scientist hunting for a shapely body for his fiancée’s floating head while it hisses and taunts a deformed assistant back at the lab, has become a cult classic of classic B-movie horror. It has been newly restored from original negative, with new commentary by film historians Steve Haberman and Tony Sasso, an alternate scene from the international cut, and the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode featuring The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.

White of the Eye (Scream Factory, Blu-ray+DVD), the cult thriller from Donald Cammell (co-director of Performance), makes its disc debut in a Blu-ray combo pack mastered from the original camera negative. Features commentary by Cammell biographer Sam Umland, deleted scenes with commentary, an interview with Steadicam operator Larry McConkey, and an alternate credit sequence.

WhiteEyeTroll / Troll 2 (Scream Factory, Blu-ray) is actually a triple feature. It includes the original 1986 low-budget horror film from director John Carl Buechler, the notorious in-name-only English-language Italian-produced sequel directed by Claudio Fragasso, and the 2009 documentary The Best Worst Movie, a loving tribute/remembrance/celebration of Troll 2, which explores the film and the cult that has grown up around what many have deemd the worst film ever made. The two Troll features include commentary.

Halloween Blu-ray Sets: the indie horrors of Larry Fessenden, son of vintage giant creature features, and the ultimate ‘Army of Darkness’

LarryFessendenLarry Fessenden isn’t the most well-known of indie-horror filmmakers but he should be. As a writer / director, he’s taken the classic horror genres and turned them inside out, and he’s produced or co-produced dozens of films, including Kelly Reichert’s Wendy and Lucy and Night Moves, Ti West’s The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, and Jim Mickle’s Stake Land, through Glass Eye Pix, his own production shingle. He’s been a cheerleader, in his own words, for other independent filmmakers with a passion for horror, and his encouragement has made the genre much richer in the past couple of decades.

Scream Factory, the horror imprint of the Shout! Factory label, collects Fessenden’s first four directorial features and releases them on Blu-ray for the first time in The Larry Fessenden Collection (Scream Factory, Blu-ray). All four films are all newly mastered in HD transfers approved by the director and presented in separate discs with new and archival supplements.

No Telling (1991), Fessenden’s first feature as a director, takes on Frankenstein through the story of a research scientist who starts poaching animals from the nearby forest to experiment on while ostensibly on a summer vacation with his wife. Meanwhile a proponent of organic farming tries to get the local farmers to give up pesticides for the good of the land. It’s eco-horror in the modern age. The disc includes new commentary by Fessenden, a featurette, the short film White Trash (1997), and deleted scenes.

Fessenden’s breakthrough film was Habit (1997), in which he also starred as an alcoholic confronted with evidence that his new, insatiable lover is a bloodsucker: Is she a vampire or is he delusional? While the question remains in the air the film is compelling (if overlong), a neat little study in urban alienation. Shaggy and shabby with his broken tooth smile, Fessenden is oddly a charming lead as a pathetic drunk who is no rush to change his life, making him the perfect victim. He again provides a new commentary track and the disc includes a making of featurette, the original short film version of Habit (1982), his short film N is for Nexus from The ABCs of Death 2, and two music videos.

“Just because people don’t believe in them, doesn’t mean they aren’t there” says an Indian mystic in Wendigo (2002), Fessenden’s thoughtful attempt to pull myth and legend into the real world through the eyes of a young boy. A little murky and overly obsessed with righteous vengeance, it’s also moving and mysterious, with solid performances by Jake Weber (as the dad) and Erik Per Sullivan (Malcolm in the Middle) as the wide-eyed boy whose belief just may bring the beast to life. This one has two new commentary tracks—one by Fessenden, the other by actors Patricia Clarkson, Jake Weber, and John Speredakos—plus the half-hour featurette “Searching For the Wendigo,” an archival interview with Fessenden, and the short film Santa Claws (2008).

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The Last Winter

The Last Winter (2007), an eco-twist on the ghost story set in the isolation of an Arctic oil company outpost, is Fessenden’s most accomplished and evocative film to date. The atmosphere evokes John Carpenter’s The Thing, a team surrounded by a frozen desert where storms whip up out of nowhere and something seemingly alien is out there trying to get to them. “The corpses of animals and plants from millions of years ago,” is how environmental scientist James LeGros describes oil. He may also have pegged the source of the angry spirits of the Earth rising to stop the destruction.

Ron Perlman is excellent as the company man who is both invested in the culture of oil and dedicated to protecting all the people on his team as they come under assault or simply drift into madness. It’s Fessenden’s biggest and most visually evocative production and the marriage of environmentalist and animist themes that makes for a resonant – and still timely – horror film. Connie Britton, Zach Gilford and Kevin Corrigan co-star.

The commentary by Fessenden and the feature-length “The Making of The Last Winter,” a rather impressionistic survey of the production, are carried over from the earlier DVD release. This release also includes archival footage, an interview with journalist Adam Nayman, and promo films that Fessenden made for Stake Land, which he produced.

Fessenden contributes new introductions to many of the supplements on all four discs, there are “sizzle reels” from Glass Eye, and the set is accompanied by a booklet with liner notes, stills, storyboards, and sketches.

SpecialEffectsSpecial Effects Collection (Warner, Blu-ray), a generic title for a pretty impressive set, presents the Blu-ray debuts of four vintage giant monster movies: Son of Kong, Mighty Joe Young, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and Them!

Son of Kong (1933), the sequel to the original King Kong, was rushed into production to cash in on Kong-mania. Made by the same team (director Ernest B. Schoedsack, producer Merian C. Cooper, stop motion effects by Willis O’Brien) but on a much smaller scale, it takes showman Robert Armstrong back to Kong Island in search of treasure, where he finds Kong’s offspring, a sweet-tempered white ape. It has none of the sweep and grandeur of the original, but as a miniature it has undeniable charms, due largely to the work of O’Brien. He makes Junior a delightful, playful character and creates even more inventive prehistoric creatures for the heroes to battle. Helen Mack takes damsel in distress duties this time around. It’s a fine restoration by Warner of a film that was not well preserved by RKO and there are no supplements apart from a trailer.

Willis O’Brien won finally won his much deserved Oscar for Mighty Joe Young (1949), creating yet another ape, this one the humongous playmate of a young woman Terry Moore who was raised in Africa. Robert Armstrong is once again a showman entrepreneur who brings the ape to civilization (as a nightclub attraction this time) with disastrous consequences, but this time he pitches in with his right-hand man (Ben Johnson) to rescue the ape from his concrete prison and get him back to the jungle. Joe is a marvelous creation and the climax, where he risks his own safety to rescue children trapped in an orphanage fire, is a magnificent set piece that is as touching as it is thrilling. Ernest B. Schoedsack directs and Cooper produces with partner John Ford.

This disc, like all in the set, carries over the extras from the earlier DVD release. This has commentary by stop motion animator Ray Harryhausen, special effects veteran Kan Ralston, and actress Terry Moore, the featurettes “Ray Harryhausen and Mighty Joe Young” and “A Conversation with Ray Harryhausen and the Chiodo Brothers” (contemporary special effects artists inspired by Harryhausen who kept the art of physical effects alive in their films), and the trailer

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) is not only one of the essentials of the giant monster on the rampage genre of the nuclear 1950s, it’s perhaps the only one of the decade that isn’t actually an atomic mutation. This one is a slumbering prehistoric giant (a Rhedosauras to be specific) awakened from its icy suspended animation by nuclear tests. Apparently cranky about its wake-up call, it stumbles through New York and lays waste to Coney Island before meeting its inevitable end. The first solo creature feature work by the legendary Ray Harryhausen (he was an assistant on Mighty Joe Young) highlights this clunky but endearing piece of B-movie pulp, directed by Eugene Lourie (formerly the production designer for Jean Renoir – what a transition!). The script was “inspired” by Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Foghorn” and familiar genre stalwarts Kenneth Tobey and Lee Van Cleef co-star. The film was an inspiration for Japan’s Godzilla.

It includes the two featurettes originally produced for the DVD release, “The Rhedosaurus and the Rollercoaster: Making the Beast” with Ray Harryhausen and “Harryhausen and Bradbury: An Unfathomable Friendship,” which presents Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury in conversation from 2003, when they were interviewed for the film’s 50th Anniversary. Also includes Harryhausen on “Armatures” and the trailer.

beast-from-20000-fathoms-light-house
‘The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’

Them! (1954) is arguably the most famous giant insect movie of the classic era and certainly the most serious of the 1950s atomic creature features. Ants the size of tanks swarm the desert and it takes an alliance of cops (James Whitmore), scientists (Edmund Gwenn and Joan Weldon), the armed forces (Onslow Stevens), and the FBI (James Arness) to beat back the hungry hordes. This inspired dozens of similar giant insect and atomic mutation films, but most of the imitators were cheap knock-offs. This one is intelligently scripted, with adult characters and at least a modicum of research into ant sociology, a budget to match its ambition, and a director (Gordon Douglas) game enough to really stoke up the drama. And in contrast to the three previous films in the set, these ants aren’t miniatures but full-sized constructs created via puppetry, allowing the actors to interact directly with them. It’s no more or less convincing than the beautiful work of O’Brien and Harryhausen, simply different, and it gives the ants an indelible presence on the screen.

This is the restoration that has the home video boards abuzz. The original DVD, released over a decade ago, was presented in 1.33:1 Academy Ratio, the same format most people who originally saw it on TV in the pre-flat screen era are familiar with. But it was made during the transition to widescreen and was, according to documents of the era, produced to be shown in the 1.75:1 aspect ratio (protected for both 1.85:1 and 1.33:1). This is presented in 1.77:1, with the top and bottom masked off and slightly more information on the sides. It took me some getting used to but it always looked well-framed, and for a film with scenes in tunnels and giant honeycombed hives, appropriately claustrophobic in those sequences. Some reviewers claim that the image is stretched compared to the old DVD, but it’s more likely that the old DVD was a little squeezed. If you look at the circles in the film, they are not stretched but round. The other issue is that this HD master looks softer than the DVD edition in direct comparison, which is true, but that may be a matter of digital sharpening that was more common in the early days of DVD restorations. Today the studios are much more conscious to be accurate to both the source material and to the original presentation and there is less artificial sweetening. All in all, I give the nod to the Blu-ray, which presents a more accurate edition of the original film.

Also features “Ants,” which is a three-minute collection of outtakes showing the ant puppets in shots that didn’t pass muster, and the trailer.

ArmyofDarknessArmy of Darkness: Collector’s Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray), Sam Raimi’s campy sequel to Evil Dead 2, is more of a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the fantasy films of Ray Harryhausen than a horror film. Bruce Campbell’s Ash lands in some medieval land with a chainsaw strapped on one hand, a shotgun in the other (“This is my boomstick!”), and a ’73 Oldmobile for a chariot, and he organizes the peasants to battle with the Deadites: an army of animated skeletons that could have walked out of a Harryhausen Sinbad movie (albeit one with an absurdist sensibility). Sure the mix of Three Stooges slapstick, anachronistic glibness (“Gimme some sugar, baby!” he croaks out to Dark Ages beauty Embeth Davidtz), and cult film homages in a medieval adventure wears a little thin, but it’s always clever and the shaggy special effects are a funky treat for all their inconsistencies. Note that Bridget Fonda has a cameo, recreating scenes from Evil Dead 2 as Ash’s girlfriend, in the opening sequence with Ash as an S-Mart clerk relating his adventures to his fellow employees. Shop smart. Shop S-Mart.

This is one of those cult films that gets a new edition every few years. This is not the first time on Blu-ray but it is the first Blu-ray special edition and Shout! Factory packs this three-disc set with goodies, including four different cuts of the film: the original theatrical version (81 minutes), which is an improvement over Universal’s earlier bare-bones Blu-ray; the longer director’s cut (96 min) which features Raimi’s original ending; the international cut (88 min), which is from a new 4K scan from the interpositive; and the 90-minute TV cut, which is presented in the lo-fi glory of standard definition fullscreen 1.33:1.

New to this edition is the feature-length documentary “Medieval Times: The Making of Army of Darkness” featuring Bruce Campbell and more than 20 members of the cast and crew but not Raimi, who apparently is now a little too big for this kind of thing. Raimi is, however, in the terrific commentary track to the Director’s Cut that he recorded years ago with Campbell and co-writer Ivan Raimi, a real party track that is a lot of fun. Everything else is vintage: 50 minutes of behind the scenes footage from KNB Effects, the featurettes “Creating the Deadites” and “The Men Behind the Army,” plus deleted scenes, additional behind-the-scenes footage and interviews, galleries of stills, TV spots and trailers. The only significant vintage supplement that’s missing, as far as I can tell, is the storyboard video track.

More home video releases at Cinephiled

Videophiled: Neil Marshall’s ‘Dog Soldiers: Collector’s Edition’

Dog Soldiers
Scream Factory

Dog Soldiers: Collector’s Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray+DVD) – “If we engage the enemy, I expect nothing less than gratuitous violence from the lot of you.” Neil Marshall ransacks and revitalizes every cliché in the book in this howling good reworking of the werewolf tale.

Borrowing liberally from the “survivors under siege” classics Aliens and Night of the Living Dead, Marshall drops his full moon boogie in the deep misty forests of the Scottish Highlands, pits platoon versus wolf pack, and watches the fur fly. Sean Pertwee and Kevin McKidd are the career soldiers on a weekend war game turned into a primal bloodbath, Emma Cleasby the backwoods naturalist who knows more than she’s saying, and Liam Cunningham the ruthless Special Forces officer with a conspiratorial streak. “There was only supposed to be one…” Cunningham moans when his troops find him at the otherwise deserted base camp, wounded and dazed and surrounded by spots of blood and bits of human organs. Their retreat is only marginally more successful and before you can say “Lucky you came along on this lonely dirt road in the nick of time,” they hitch a ride and hole up in the only house for miles around.

Where so many horror movies coast on such coincidences, Marshall works them into the conspiratorial premise of the piece and dangles clues for observant viewers between the blasts of black humor (Wells’ tug of war with a playful dog over the intestines spilling out of his gut), bloody horror, and action heroics. His muscular attack and display of men-under-fire sacrifice is reminiscent of James Cameron, while the shards of cold illumination that backlight the swirling fog, catch the faces of combatants, and silhouette the towering beasts (apparently the full moon had some help) recall Ridley Scott. Give credit to Marshall for borrowing from the best. Dog Soldiers doesn’t transcend genre, it embraces it, energizes it, and takes big bloody chomp out of it.

Director Neil Marshall posted a note about the restoration on the Scream Factory Facebook page, noting that the original negative is apparently lost and the disc was mastered from existing prints. “Like it or not, when the movie was originally released in the UK in 2002, the blacks were crushed, the contrast was high, the colours were rich and the image was grainy as fuck, because let’s not forget, this movie was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm.” So yes, this is grainy and doesn’t have the detail or clarity of master harvested from the original negative, but it’s a fine edition that the director stands behind.

This edition features both Blu-ray and DVD copies with new supplements, including commentary by Neil Marshall, the hour-long documentary “Werewolves vs. Soldiers: The Making of Dog Soldiers” with new interviews with Marshall, many of his collaborators, and the film’s stars, and a 13-minute featurette on the production design, plus Marshall’s 1999 short film Combat and a couple of photo galleries. The cover features reversible art.

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Videophiled: ‘Escape from New York’

Scream Factory

Escape from New York: Collector’s Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray) – “Plissken? I heard you were dead.” “Call me Snake.” Maybe it’s not John Carpenter’s best film, but it’s one of his most fun and the premise is irresistible: in the future, Manhattan has been turned into a high security island prison and Liberty Island is the guard station. When Air Force One is hijacked by an American revolutionary outfit (this may be what the future looks like from 1981, but these yahoos look more like holdovers from the early seventies), the American President (Donald Pleasance) crash lands in the middle of no man’s land and becomes a bargaining chip for the reigning king of the outlaws (Isaac Hayes), who runs the place like a gangland Godfather.

Kurt Russell hisses out a B-movie Clint Eastwood impression as Snake Plissken, a one-time war hero turned notorious criminal and his arrival at Liberty Island in cuffs makes him the only hope they have of rescuing POTUS before very bad things start to happen. What exactly isn’t important. It’s a deadline that Plissken has to meet if he wants out alive, which is how head of security Lee Van Cleef, Plissken’s nemesis turned wary ally by circumstance, guarantees his cooperation. As he navigates the feral streets to rescue the President, he picks up a motley, not completely trustworthy crew (including Harry Dean Stanton as the weaselly Brain, Adrienne Barbeau as his pistol-packing lover, and Ernest Borgnine as a big-band loving cabbie). But Russell is the revelation. He was best known for Disney comedies at the time and Carpenter had to push the studio to accept him in the lead. He delivers.

Carpenter’s dark, garbage-strewn streets lit by bonfires and headlights makes for inspired art direction and his synthesizer score is suitably minimalist and moody. Shot for a song in the rougher parts of St. Louis (doubling for the Big Apple) with simple but bold model work (some of it created by James Cameron in his Roger Corman days) and striking computer graphics, it’s a hoot, yet behind the colorful personalities of the prison yard gang is a sardonic crack about the state of modern urban America lost to poverty, runaway crime, and gangs that rule the inner city. This really was a product of its time.

EscapeSnake
“Call me Snake”

 

Escape from New York is both a marvelously scruffy film and a well-produced piece of dystopian cinema superbly shot by Dean Cundey in Carpenter’s beloved Panavision widescreen. The new 2k digital master, scanned from the inter-positive struck from the original negative, doesn’t take anything away from that. It gives shows the squalor in much greater detail, and the clarity helps give definition to the nocturnal imagery. This is, after all, a film that takes place mostly on the streets at night.

MGM released the film on Blu-ray a couple of year ago but it was a bare-bones affair with none of the extras from the terrific DVD special editions. This two-disc edition features the two previously available commentary tracks—a thoroughly entertaining track with director John Carpenter and Kurt Russell chatting away like old (“By the way, both of our ex-wives are in the movie”) and a second track by producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves covering more technical material—plus a third newly-recorded commentary track with co-star Adrienne Barbeau and cinematographer Dean Cundey, looking back with over thirty years’ hindsight. Barbeau has a lot of affection for the film and for Carpenter, to whom she was married at the time.

There are also five new interview featurettes on the second disc. “Big Challenges in Little Manhattan: The Visual Effects of Escape from New York” featuring interviews with visual effect DP Dennis Skotak and matte artist Robert Skotak, “Scoring the Escape: A Discussion with Composer Alan Howarth” (who collaborated with Carpenter on the score), “On Set with John Carpenter: The Images of Escape from New York” with still photographer Kim Gottlieb-Walker, “I Am Taylor: An Interview with Actor Joe Unger,” and “My Night on Set: An Interview with Filmmaker David DeCoteau.”

Carried over from the previous DVD release are the complete ten-minute robbery sequence that Carpenter cut from the film (it was meant to be the opening scene) with optional commentary by Carpenter and Russell, the vintage promotion featurette “Return to Escape From New York,” trailers, and a gallery of stills, posters, and promotional art.

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Videophiled: ‘The Babadook’

Scream Factory

The Babadook (Scream Factory, Blu-ray, DVD), one of the best and most original horror films in years, raises goosebumps with old-fashioned scares, relatable characters, and a provocative psychological foundation. Amelia (Essie Kent) is a single mother who is still in mourning for her dead husband—she barely seems to be able to rouse herself to face the world—and is unable to cope with her overactive son Sam (Noah Wiseman), who is both terribly sweet and terrifyingly unpredictable. Clearly the loss has left them both scarred. Amelia has cocooned herself in an emotional shroud while Sam arms himself—quite literally, with improvised weapons that could easily maim a fellow schoolkid—to fight the imaginary monsters that may in fact be real. While the stress shows in Amelia’s increasingly haggard face and exhausted movements, Sam gets more wide-eyed and manic, a devil child who really just wants to be an angel and protect his mommy.

The title is an anagram for “a bad book,” which here is a pop-up children’s storybook that suddenly appears on Sam’s bookshelf and releases a smudgy nightmare creature that apparently jumps out of the pages and into the shadows. The book and the Babadook (Dook! Dook! Dook!)—which lurks in shadows, creeps in the corner of their eyes, and roams at night like a ghost in a haunted house (which their creepily still home has become)—both refuse to be evicted. It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to wonder how much of the Babadook is external demon invading a fraught home and how much is the guilt and resentment and darkest emotional fears let loose in the hallucinations of a troubled, sleepless mother.

Jennifer Kent, an Australian director making her feature debut, blurs the borders between the real and imaginary. She’s an experienced actress and draws tremendous performances from both Kent and Wiseman, filling the film with their anxieties and runaway emotions, but she also masterfully applies the less-is-more aesthetic to create unsettling images and terrifying suggestions. The Babadook, a charcoal sketch of an ogre with Nosferatu talons and bared fangs, remains two-dimensional even when haunting the human world, which makes it all the more scary and unreal, and Kent shrouds the house in shadow even in the bright light of day.

It’s a powerful metaphor—the darkest emotions let loose by this troubled, frazzled mother—that never lands solidly on one side or the other. It’s a primal fairy tale, a psychological thriller, an uncompromising portrait of a mother on the verge of a breakdown, and a genuinely creepy horror movie about the terrors that just might be hiding under your bed. Kent brings the film to a conclusion that satisfies all dimensions of her tale.

It’s on Blu-ray and DVD with an hour of cast and crew interviews (including filmmaker Jennifer Kent and stars Essie Davis and Daniel Henshall) and five short featurettes, plus there is a Special Edition Blu-ray which features the Kent’s 2005 short film Monster, a ten-minute, black-and-white mood piece which is the basis for the feature, and deleted scenes, plus a terrific slipcover with a Babadook pop-up. The cover art is double-sided.

Also on VOD from Amazon Instant, Xbox, and Sundance Now, and it is still available on Cable On Demand.

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Videophiled Classic: Halloween Disc Pick – ‘Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut’

NightbreedNightbreed: The Director’s Cut: Special Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)
Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut: 3-Disc Limited Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)

Clive Barker’s 1990 film Nightbreed, adapted from his novel Cabal, was taken from Barker’s hands, cut down drastically from his 142-minute rough cut (which made the bootleg rounds in a version called “The Cabal Cut” taken from a video workprint), and released in a form that Barker was never happy with. The release of Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut: Special Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) features a new cut of the film overseen by Barker and restored by Mark Allan Miller, who hunted down the original footage discarded from the rough cut. This is the version that Barker claims as his director’s cut, as he was not given the opportunity for his own final cut before the studio stepped in.

That brief history comes from Barker and Miller themselves in a new video introduction to Scream Factory’s release and it’s clear they are both proud of this release. Morgan Creek, the producing studio, wanted something along the lines of his low-budget Hellraiser. Barker had something else in mind, a celebration of misfits and monsters in a weird story of fear and prejudice filled with Biblical references and mythic resonance. The real monsters of Nightbreed are the humans, especially a psycho psychiatrist named Dr. Philip K. Decker played by filmmaker David Cronenberg with a flat delivery and deadened voice that makes him all the more unnerving. This doc is a real piece of work, drawing his kills from the nightmares of his patients and then framing them for the crimes, but Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer) is not a normal patient and his visions of a place called Midian aren’t nightmares. They are anticipations of his legacy: he belongs to an ancient race of misfit outsiders considered monsters and banished to an underworld away from humanity.

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