Archive for September, 2010

5 Blu-rays I’d Take To The Moon

It’s still what I’d consider to be fairly early stages for Blu-ray given a slower than desirable mass uptake of the format, however some of us are already addicted to watching films in High Definition. I think there are several reasons it’s very much worth upgrading for: the increased resolution of a Blu-ray image brings what you see closer to how it might be seen projected from film. Often films are released with ‘lossless’ audio, meaning that the codec used does not dispose of any information that is perceivable through the human ear - therefore theoretically giving us the same quality (depending on your AV equipment obviously) that might be heard when the film is originally sound-mastered. There is of course the supremely enhanced storage capacity of Blu-ray, usually meaning that disc swapping is not as prevalent as it was/is for DVD. Added to that is the development of genuine 3D functionality meaning that distinctly different 1080p images (i.e. Full HD) can be delivered to each eye with the help of suitably equipped AV gear and specs - this is a feature that‘s up and coming but could herald a new era in home cinema/gaming.

I think the resolution of the format grants us with the most perfect balance between source detail and unnecessary noise: any less (e.g. standard definition) and we lose out on valuable picture information, whereas any more (whatever comes further down the line, if anything) would only give us more grain and/or visual flaws. Therefore, more extras notwithstanding, I think most films (at least those shot on 16/35mm film itself) transferred to Blu-ray should never really have to be bought again unless there’s some sort of fundamental flaw in the A/V department or with completeness of material.

Only owning about 50 Blu-ray Discs so far I thought it would be more appropriate to whittle it down to 5 rather than effectively listing 20% of my collection. So, with great difficulty I’ve chosen the following that represent my current favourites (again in no particular order), something I may update as time goes on…

Blade Runner

Blade Runner (Warner, US)

After years of uncertainty over whether we’d ever see the definitive edition - in any format - dust settled and Warner bestowed us with the definitive edition in spades. The film had been revisited and many corrections were made (for example, replacing the face of the obvious stuntwoman/replicant falling through glass with that of the actress), it was remastered in excess of HD resolution for best image quality, granted with a superlative surround mix, and placed on the first disc of this set as ‘The Final Cut’. Just in case, however, you preferred the ‘Director’s Cut’ of the early 90s (which is not really the director’s cut in truest sense) that’s on the third disc, along with the original theatrical version… and the more violent European version… furthermore even the rarely seen Workprint edition is included on the fifth disc. Therefore, just about nobody has room for complaint. The mammoth Dangerous Days documentary takes up the second disc and the fourth is filled with other extras. This is the only version of Blade Runner you ever need to buy, although why Warner chose to only let the UK have the first two discs for Blu-ray owners is beyond me, and a little underhanded. Rest assured that the US release plays on UK players without regional coding issues.

Psycho

Psycho (Universal, UK)

I’ve heard it said that older films don’t benefit so much from the HD upgrade… well check this one out. It wasn’t an especially big-budgeted film, it was shot it B&W, and looks fantastic. Audio options are provided in either lossless surround or original mono, plus there are plenty of extras. The disc is also available in either standard blue box or limited tin - I went for, and would recommend, the latter as it’s more appealing as a physical product and there’s an additional booklet inside over the standard edition.

Dark City

Dark City (EIV, UK)

I believe it’s been mentioned here and there online that the film suffers from excess Digital Noise Reduction - maybe, maybe not; personally I’m thrilled to have this HD edition and it thrashes my old Region 1 DVD in every respect. Firstly, and most importantly, the disc contains both the theatrical cut and the preferred untainted vision of Alex Proyas, restoring the ideas that were diluted somewhat by studio nervousness. Image quality is way superior to that of DVD, as is the audio, plus there’s a wealth of extras. Complain if you wish about this example of the modern film buyer getting too fussy for their boots, but this is a fantastic disc of one of the best philosophical science fiction films to come out of the US since, well, ever!

Institute Benjamena

Institute Benjamenta (British Film Institute, UK)

Back in my university days I picked up a video cassette of this live action movie in the library, interested mainly because of the better known (though still obscure in mainstream terms) animation work of its directors. Immediately I recognised that it would be something unique and lost in its own strange world. Having a vibe that makes me think of David Lynch shooting a Grimm fairytale the story tells of a man who visits an academy in the middle of oppressive woods where he’s confronted by the weirdly conformist behaviour of its pupils. Shot in grainy B&W with a disturbing sound mix this Brothers Quay film is perfectly represented on the Blu-ray Disc. There’s a fantastic documentary containing interviews with the brothers and some of the cast/crew, plus some short Quay films for added value. There’s a nice booklet containing essays/notes, plus a DVD containing pretty much the same content is included in the package, meaning that almost anybody who likes the look of this film can pick it up. Overall a tremendous collector’s item from BFI.

Night of the Creeps

Night of the Creeps (Sony, US)

God, after so long waiting for Fred Dekkar’s careful analysis of… zombies, creepy crawlies, and exploding heads, Sony saves us having to double dip by releasing it on Blu-ray as well as DVD! Of course I picked up the former (it plays without a hitch on UK BD machines), and no longer do I have to sit through the fullscreen stereo video cassette that I’ve had for nigh on twenty years - glorious widescreen Full HD presentation of the director’s cut (which ends slightly differently and still can’t make my mind up whether I prefer it), lossless DTS surround (i.e. it should sound as good here as it did in the mixing studio), plus commentaries and quite a lot of documentary material. Not a demo disc mind you (comparing this to the likes of Cars or Speed Racer) but the definitive home cinema release of a cool 80s comedy horror that has deservedly built itself a cult reputation.

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Having been a Blu-ray movie buyer for a while, I now consider myself ‘avid’, and rather than people sitting around complaining about ‘DNR’ (unless it’s really taking the pi*s), grain (i.e. the inherent structure of the source product), absent mono tracks (a factor that can be compensated for with pretty much any AV equipment, though I always favour the original option if possible), a missing two minute EPK featurette that was once on the DVD (which would have added to the thousands of hours worth of extras we still haven‘t got time to watch), or the design of the bloody cover artwork, perhaps people who claim to love films should acknowledge the blessing that we’ve been bestowed with in this new format and get on with what originally got them interested in the first place: loving films, and enjoying them in better quality than we’ve ever had before (and, worryingly, than we might ever get again).

Posted on 19th September 2010
Under: Miscellaneous | 5 Comments »

10 DVDs I’d Take To An Island…

Whilst DVD may be in its twilight years it’s a long way off dead yet, despite Blu-ray’s superiority over the format. I personally buy most of my films on Blu-ray nowadays but there are a high percentage of people out there happy to cling on to Standard Definition viewing for the foreseeable future. I kind of lament this in some ways because it’s holding back the newer format a little in terms of how many films are being released (although there is a pretty big choice now) and whereas I love collecting Euro horror from the 60s through to the 80s for example, it’s a fact that currently there is nowhere near enough of such niche products arriving in High Definition. This situation is slowly correcting itself, however, and it’s surprising to see a British company such as Arrow leading the way with the likes of the City of the Living Dead Blu-ray (the UK release actually tipping the scales in favour of its US cousin in terms of extras, and equalling it in image/sound departments), and world firsts such as Inferno as well as what looks suspiciously like an HD release of The Beyond next year - count me in! For such minority acquired tastes Blue Underground seems to be leading the way stateside with Shout Factory coming a close second (who the hell would have expected the gory, crazy, trashy - but downright fun - Forbidden World on Blu-ray at this stage?!?), though regional coding is once again rearing its pig-ugly head in some cases…

Seeing as I consider my bulk DVD buying days to be pretty much over (although I still do pick up the odd disc - for example, Fulci’s Perversion Story recently, which would surprise me if a Blu-ray materialised any time soon) I thought it would be a nice ‘epitaph’ to consider my top ten favourite DVD releases since the format’s revolutionary inception. There will inevitably be things absent from here in the opinion of others, and there may be discs here that others would like to stamp on/discard down the nearest toilet, but there’s no accounting for taste as somebody better than I once said… The following are in no particular order:

The Universal Monster Legacy Collection (Universal, UK)

This is a magnificent item to take centre position on the shelves - a pretty large box with a transparent frontage visibly containing busts of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster, and Lon Chaney Jnr.’s Wolf Man. The box contained good-looking transfers of pretty much all the relevant classics featuring the aforementioned prowling creatures, plus The Invisible Man and The Mummy amongst others. Plentiful extras rounded out the collection. It didn’t contain the Mummy sequels unfortunately (I understand the US equivalent did) but I was kindly granted with a boxed set containing these other movies to complete (as much as I’d like) my collection. There were a couple of turds in the set (She-Wolf of London - snooze…) plus of course Universal were responsible for many more semi-classics in the golden age (a nice case in point is The Old Dark House) but the avid viewer of creaky B&W chillers would have to seek these out elsewhere. Regardless of this, the Legacy box is a cool presence in one’s movie room.

Re-Animator (Elite,US)

Stuart Gordon has directed a number of really fine (loose) adaptations of H.P.Lovecraft’s work over the last 25 years, but his first is still probably the best. Not dealing with the author’s typical detailing of ancient monsters, this story depicts a man who experiments with bringing dead things back to life - Gordon wisely injected a dose of very black humour and 80s prosthetics/gore, plus cast the perfect actor for the role (Jeff Combs). This resulted in an instant classic that justifies this “Millennium Edition” that Elite graced with extras, a DTS surround track, and a thick double disc case that remains distinctively green (the colour of West’s re-animation serum…).

Carnival of Souls (Criterion, US)

One of the low-budget greats has been out on so many substandard discs due to its apparent ‘public domain’ status it’s a wonder anybody could be bothered doing it justice considering that market saturation would undoubtedly leave a dent in sales of any legitimate effort. Huge gratitude to Criterion then for putting such a great effort into Herk Harvey’s 1962 spook-fest. Conceptually predating the likes of Jacob’s Ladder and Sixth Sense Harvey’s film holds up very well today as a dream-like quest of discovery for the woman who feels unnaturally drawn to a deserted carnival and periodically drifts in and out of physical reality. Featuring both the conventional and extended cuts of the film with superb transfers, the set is rounded out by a load of deleted/unused footage, documentary, commentary, etc, making Criterion’s jewel the definitive edition to this day.

The Blind Dead Collection (Blue Underground, US)

Wow, this was a too-good-to-be-true announcement at the time! Redemption put out the first couple of films in Amando de’Ossorio’s cult zombie series back in the 90s on videotape, and I got my money’s worth out of those, but the third and fourth instalments were strangely elusive. Truly fantastic it was then when BU remastered all four films with both English and original Spanish audio options, plus a choice of cuts with the first couple of films. There was also a booklet and a fifth disc of further extras, probably unwarranted to be honest, given the fact that the material could have been fitted elsewhere in the set. All of this was contained in a grim coffin-shaped box to adorn the shelves of proud horror collectors everywhere.

Vampyr (Criterion, US)

My first experience of Carl Dreyer’s near silent exercise in surreal horror was inside a cinema in Amsterdam - German soundtrack with Dutch subtitles! Didn’t understand much but I recognised the film’s many strengths. One or two discs had appeared here and there which didn’t really do the film sufficient justice, so I was mega pleased when Criterion blew everything out of the water with this 2 disc set. To be fair, British company Eureka released the same film in a very good edition that’s the next best thing, but the aspect that won it over for me (aside from a marginally better image due to a higher level of natural grain) is the fact that Criterion’s set is such a beauty to behold. The two discs are housed in a fold-out digipack, and next to that is a book containing the screenplay in addition to the Sheridan Le Fanu story (Carmilla) on which the film was very loosely based, all contained within a highly attractive outer case that hints at the mysteries contained within. Truly lovely job!

Zombi 2 (Media Blasters, US)

The Shriek Show arm of Media Blasters did a great service to horror fans over the years and I have many of their discs in my collection, though to represent their highest achievement I chose to include their 2 discer of Lucio Fulci’s walking dead classic - better known as Zombie Flesh Eaters in the UK, or simply Zombie in the US. The fact that MB chose to use the film’s Italian title on its beautifully designed embossed slipcase cover makes this an extra cool one. Following an old, now inadequate DVD by Anchor Bay US, this special edition was a long time in the waiting due to legal wrangles (the likes of which eventually saw a joint venture whereby Blue Underground also released a single disc version under the film’s American title) but well worth waiting for. With multiple soundtrack options in English and Italian, a second disc with a couple of hours of extras, and gorgeous design all round, this is Shriek Show’s crowning achievement.

La Casa Dalle Finestre Che Ridono (Fox, Italy)

AKA House With Windows That Laugh this is one of two Pupi Avati genre films that were surprisingly released by Fox over in Giallo Land. Adorned with an excellent transfer and strong surround remix this is the definitive presentation of an atmospheric rural chiller. Avati’s Zeder was put out around the same time, but his movie Arcane Enchanter is sadly still unavailable. La Casa… has since been unleashed in UK and US territories but the Italian DVD came with a cool slipcase cover with a hole/window in the front revealing part of the main amaray design. Plus some extras that I couldn’t understand…

Dawn of the Dead Ultimate Edition (Anchor Bay, US)

This monolithic four disc set from Anchor Bay is a highly desirable product amongst fans of Romero’s 1978 ground-breaker. Infamously, there are several official cuts of the movie - the theatrical cut, the European cut (overseen by Argento, and my least favourite), and a longer edit used for promotional purposes at the likes of Cannes at the time. Of course the theatrical version is really the so-called ‘Director’s Cut’ being the most polished in terms of pacing, music editing, balance of terror and drama, etc., but the fact that all three version were contained in the AB package made it very attractive. There was also a fourth disc housing documentaries such as the excellent Roy Frumkes feature Document of the Dead, commentaries all over the place, and just about anything else a fan could cherish, all archived together in a fold-out digi-pack within a minimalist, mostly black and red outer case. I’m in no rush to remove this one from my shelf.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (EIV, UK)

How could anybody not include the monumental extended editions boxed set of these three films? Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s fantasy adventure redefined the word ‘epic’, both as far as the movies are concerned and extending to the utterly exhaustive collection of extras spread across the 12 discs in this set. The packaging is also sumptuously designed throughout, really capturing the feel of the story across the whole set. I also consider the visual/audio quality of the films, especially Return of the King, to be the pinnacle that the format has to offer, but the whole package is exemplary in every respect.

Suspiria (Anchor Bay, UK)

This was a tough one to pick, partly because it was my last choice and partly because it’s a slightly flawed transfer (in terms of incomplete audio in a couple of places). Aside from that this is a now-acknowledged amazing piece of work from Dario Argento, a supernatural ride into witchcraft and cinematic insanity. I’d previously bought Suspiria a couple of times on VHS - the first tape (EIV) being fullscreen, censored and in mono, the second (Nouveaux) being a superior widescreen stereo uncut presentation - so this was a revelatory experience in terms of image quality and bombastic surround sound, really the way it was meant to be experienced. Anchor Bay’s 2 discer is special because it contains, amongst other bits, the feature length World of Horror documentary focusing on the director’s work, in addition to the charming booklet that gives the pack a bit of weight.

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That’s it then, better or worse. There are many other DVDs that I struggled over including but somehow felt the urge to get it down to a round 10 (some sort of pointless tradition?) - for example, Criterion’s wonderful Videodrome or their very early Robocop spinner (this latter disc possibly out of sentimentality as it was the first DVD I ever put on, though I do think it still holds up well today). Also I wouldn’t have minded something to represent the appreciable contributions of the now defunct BCI/Eclipse but couldn’t decide on one defining moment, though it was most likely going to be down to either Horror Rises From The Tomb or Night of the Werewolf. This wasn’t supposed to be a horror-exclusive list (hopefully Lord of the Rings testifies to that) but these choices happen to be amongst my favourites and that’s the way it is. There has been so much great stuff on DVD over the last 12 years or so, genre or otherwise, it really has been a film-collectors wet dream, but I think the baton is now in the hands of Blu-ray - once you’ve tasted HD you want more…

Posted on 10th September 2010
Under: Miscellaneous | 4 Comments »

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