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The Women in Cages Collection

Disc company: Shout! Factory   Video: 1080p / 1.78:1    Audio: DTS-HD MA 2.0 English
Subtitles: None   Disc: BD25 / BD50   Release Date: 08/23/2011   Reviewed from a screener provided by Shout! Factory LLC (Thanks Mitzye!)  Available for preorder through Amazon.com 

This is to be a technical review only.  If you wish to hear what I have to say about the three films in this collection then please read my earlier coverage of the DVD edition.

Shout! Factory released the Women in Cages Collection to DVD just over a month ago. For my money it was a very strong release, with plenty of cult appeal and considerable supplemental heft.  Now that the Blu-ray edition has arrived there are two questions demanding to be answered: How does it compare to the earlier DVD, and is the difference between the two substantial enough to warrant the considerably higher price tag?

To answer the first question, the Women in Cages Blu-ray collection does offer a substantial upgrade in audio-visual quality in comparison to the earlier DVD, and perhaps even more of an upgrade than this reviewer was expecting of it.  That’s not to say that the release is without its problems, unfortunately, but at least they’re not of the same damnable stuff that have compromised some of the other discs recently reviewed here.

The weakest link of this two-disc collection shows itself early, with the revelation that 1971’s The Big Doll House and its substantial slate of accompanying supplements have been relegated to a lowly single layer BD25.  On its own the film may have survived unscathed, but the presence of over an hour of additional HD supplemental material limits its technical potential with obvious side effects:

The Big Bird Cage arrives on Blu-ray with a modest video bitrate of only 17.6 Mbps, roughly 3x that of the DVD edition, and the film texture evident in the transfer definitely suffers for it.  As evidenced in the darker areas of the screen shot above (taken from the opening scene of the film), the considerable grain present in the image is often too compressed, rendering it into smooth amorphous blobs and undermining the increase in resolution and detail.  That’s not to say that the encode is a complete waste – some scenes can look quite impressive and, in motion, I’d say it’s all quite passable – but there’s definitely room for improvement.

The transfer itself, progressive at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, is quite strong.  Taken in direct comparison to the DVD the benefits here are unmistakable.  Color is improved, especially the flesh tones and reds (which can lean towards orange in the SD edition), and contrast tightens up a bit as well.  At 6x the resolution of the DVD an uptick in the level of detail is to be expected and, taken in hand with the healthier contrast, the real world detail here can impress (see Sid Haig’s straw hat in the second set of screen shots).  Grain is evident throughout and, when properly supported by the low bitrate, the image can appear quite film-like (see the third set of screen shots).

Note: For ease of comparison all DVD screen shots have been upscaled to 1920×1080 in GNU Image Manipulator, and the original PNGs converted to Jpeg at a quality setting of 95%.  Blu-ray screen shots are unmanipulated, but have also been converted from PNG to Jpeg using the same process as above. Upscaled DVD shots appear above their Blu-ray counterparts – frame matches are exact in all cases.

And in case anyone had any doubts or unrealistic expectations, this (as with the other two films in this collection) is exactly the same transfer that was sourced for the DVD edition – pox marks and all.  I never found the damage especially distracting, but it is certainly there and in a variety of shapes and sizes, from specks and minor blemishes to more egregious printed-in marks like the one sampled below.

In terms of audio Shout! Factory remains true to the source with a technically robust DTS-HD MA 2.0 English track at a little over 2 Mbps.  The unrestored track sounds frail, occasionally tinny, and presents with plenty of bumps and blemishes – just like the original recording.  Flat as it is the track still offers more depth and clarity than the comparable Dolby Digital 2.0 option offered on the DVD, and I’ve no complaints with regards to its fidelity.  There are no subtitles.

Disc two foregoes the pitfalls of The Big Doll House, cozily housing the two additional films in the collection on one dual layer BD50 with only a smattering of supplemental material (trailers, television spots, and a Dolby Digital 2.0-encoded commentary track for one feature).  The results are flatly impressive, in comparison to both the SD editions and disc one.

1972’s The Big Bird Cage was the healthiest of the three on the DVD edition, and the result is the same in this Blu-ray edition.  The 1080p 1.78:1 transfer is supported by a healthy encode, with an average video bitrate of 29.4 Mbps (6x that of the DVD edition!).  In terms of color The Big Bird Cage shows the least difference between the two editions, though the saturation levels appear far more natural here (see Pam Grier’s vest in the third set of comparison shots).  In addition to the more subdued saturation, contrast levels are punched up a notch with excellent results.  Detail is tight throughout, even though the film is bereft of the close-ups that would demonstrate it best.  Damage is less an issue here than on the other two features, with mostly speckling and small blemishes to contend with.  The improvements here may be the most consistent and dramatic of the three films, with the image tightening up appreciably in every example I could find.

Thanks to an improved original recording, The Big Bird Cage sounds a step above its brethren a well, with Shout!’s DTS-HD MA 2.0 English track (again at around 2 Mbps) recreating the film’s auditory intentions adeptly.  There is some punch here, especially when it comes to the soundtrack cues and some of the action-oriented sound effects, and all of the dialogue and effects come across clearly.  It can’t touch the Hollywood-level recording of today, but for a low budget Philippines-produced exploitation effort from nearly 40 years ago I’d say it sounds pretty damned good.  I’ve no complaints, aside from the lack of subtitles.

Though sourced from the roughest elements, with abundant speckles, scratches and even reel change markers (see above), I’m still of the opinion that 1971’s Women in Cages – produced by a talented crew of local production veterans (including director Gerardo de Leon, composer Tito Arevelo and photographer Felipe Sacdalan) – is the best looking of the three films offered here by virtue of its style alone.  This 1080p 1.78:1 transfer, encoded at an average video bitrate of 29.4 Mbps (more than 6x that of the DVD edition!), only increased my appreciation.

The biggest beneficiary of the HD upgrade here is the color, with the over-saturated reds of the DVD edition giving way to a broader range of rosey neon hues.  Skin tones shift for the more natural, with the DVD’s appearing too orange in places (see the fifth set of comparison shots).  Contrast and detail both tighten up noticeably, especially in close-ups, with substantially more fine detail in evidence throughout (see the cap in the final set of comparison shots).  Being sourced from a positive print the grain here is heavier than in the previous two features, but the encode is strong enough to handle it and one could never accuse the transfer of not appearing film-like.

Once again Shout! Factory supply the feature with a DTS-HD MA 2.0 English audio track that faithfully replicates the original recording.  In this case the results can seem quite mixed.  Soundtrack cues sound quite nice for the most part, a blessing given that this is the best-scored of the films in this collection.  Dialogue is another matter entirely.  While never completely unintelligible, it frequently and noticeably shifts from muffled live-recorded to post-dubbed and back again.  Still, any and all issues with the audio here are the direct result of the original mix and not of Shout!’s mastering, and aside from the lack of accompanying subtitles I’ve no complaints.

I’m sure that most hi-def aficionados will be pleased to hear that ALL of the video supplements included in the Women in Cages Collection are presented in HD.  With the exception of a The Big Doll House radio spot listed on the back cover (perhaps I’m just too stupid to find it) all of the supplements from the DVD edition are duplicated here, including the newly-produced From Manila With Love (49 minutes) making-of documentary and a new interview with The Big Doll House and Women in Cages star Judy Brown (7 minutes).  Even the trailers and television spots, one for each film, are made available in HD (albeit up-converted from SD sources), as are the substantial image galleries (behind-the-scenes and production stills for The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage, and a publicity gallery for Women in Cages).  Two decent commentary tracks (Dolby Digital 2.0 encoded) with writer / producer / director Jack Hill are carried over as well, and accompany The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage respectively.

 
 
 

The so-so encoding of The Big Doll House may give this collection a rocky start, but by the time all is said and done it can appear quite impressive.  All three HD features improve handily over their SD counterparts, and I love having the supplements available in HD (even if the trailers are just sourced from SD masters).  As for the higher retail price, I suspect HD-capable fans will want to indulge, and at the discount prices offered by so many retailers (Amazon currently has the collection up for pre-order at 28% off the SRP of $39.99) this may be even harder to pass up.

And just because I can, here are some more screenshots from the excellent Women in Cages – enjoy!

in conclusion
Films: Very Good   Video: Very Good – / Excellent / Excellent   Audio: Excellent   Supplements: Excellent
Harrumphs: No subtitles.
Packaging: Standard 2-disc Blu-ray case with insert.
Final Words: The price tag may be high, but I dig it.  Having Women in Cages in HD is worth the price of admission alone.

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