Hunchback of the Morgue

a.k.a. El Jorobado de la Morgue
directed by
 Javier Aguirre

1973 / Eva Film / 79
written by Paul Naschy, Javier Aguirre and Alberto S. Insúa
cinematography by Raúl Pérez Cubero
starring Paul Naschy, Maria Perschy, Rosanna Yanni, Alberto Dalbés, Victor Alcázar, María Elena Arpón, and Ángel Menéndez

The picturesque Bavarian mountain town of Feldkirch has everything a movie town needs: a surprisingly big hospital, a system of catacombs that has been used by the Templars and the Inquisition, and a reform school for young women. It would probably be a fantastic place to live in, watching shower scenes and listening to Wagner all day, if not for the fact that basically everyone in town is a mean, mad bastard in one way or the other.

Hard-working, not particularly clever, hunchbacked, ugly (at least that’s what everyone says: Naschy isn’t wearing any “ugly” make-up, looking just like he does in other movies where he’s supposed to be a handsome lady killer) morgue assistant Gotho (Paul Naschy) is the favourite victim of everyone in town. His daily routine seems to consist of being insulted, slapped around, and made fun of, his only recourse being a mad expression when he cuts corpses into parts (which is something you do in this particular hospital morgue). The only one treating Gotho like an actual human being is Ilse (María Elena Arpón), but the girl is lying on her death bed with a lung disease (must be consumption), and all the flowers the really rather sweet Gotho can bring her won’t keep her alive.

When Ilse dies, Gotho cracks. The mild-mannered man turns a bit murderous, first killing two other morgue assistants who are trying to rob his dead sweetheart with a conveniently placed hatchet, then dragging Ilse’s corpse down into the catacombs hoping she’ll awaken one day. Afterwards, it’s off to another revenge murder.

And that’s how things could continue for Gotho, if not for the resident mad scientist, a certain Dr. Orla (Alberto Dalbés). With the help of his assistant Dr. Tauchner (Victor Alcázar), and Tauchner’s girlfriend the reform school head (I think) Dr. Meyer (Maria Perschy) Orla is trying to create artificial life, but Orla’s total lack of scruples and his need for fresh body parts cost him the co-operation of the hospital.

 
 
 

So it’s pretty much like Christmas and his birthday falling on the same day for Orla once he realizes where Gotho is hiding. The catacombs will make a fine laboratory for the secret continuation of his experiments, and Gotho is easily swayed to help with acquiring body parts once Orla has promised him to revive Ilse. Soon enough, Gotho’s new duties will involve grave robbery, murder and the kidnapping of fresh girls from the reform school (for Orla’s experiment turns from a mass of cells into a hungry monster); the only hobby they leave room for is kissing the feet of reform school co-head Elke (Rossanna Yanni) and getting romanced by her in return.

Of course, things can’t stay this paradisiac forever, and Gotho will have a violent discussion with Orla’s monster (which just happens to look like the Oily Maniac) soon enough.

Even for something taking place on Planet Naschy (the great man of Spanish horror cinema course being co-responsible for the film’s script as well as playing the male lead), where the bizarre is actually the quotidian, El Jorobado is a pretty wild concoction. Where else, after all, would a story about a mistreated hunchback with certain necrophiliac tendencies taking vengeance on his tormentors be just too normal not to need an infusion of a gorier variation of the classic mad scientist story at about the half-way mark? I am, of course, not complaining about this broadening of the narrative (such as it is) for it’s exactly things like this that give most of Naschy’s films their charm and their weird energy.

That energy comes especially to the fore here, in a film that eschews the usually languid pacing of many of Naschy’s scripts for something much snappier. Which isn’t to say the script doesn’t have many of the usual flaws in a Naschy film, namely, that most characters act like complete idiots (would you believe it’s a bad idea to tell the mad scientist your plan to out him to the police?), and that some of the connective tissues one is used to from a professionally written movie are missing, so it’s always a possibility the film’s not going to show an important development at all but prefer to just talk through it later on; possibly for budgetary reasons, possibly because Naschy hated proper transitions. If one wants to enjoy El Jorobado - or most of Naschy’s other movies – one has to accept that things don’t work in quite the same ways on Planet Naschy as they do in our world or in the movies in our world.

 
 
 

On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine a more “normally” structured film having the time for all the small digressions and suggestions of various kinks El Jorobado has – some torture, a random whipping, the quite clearly suggested necrophilia, the fem dom whiff of Gotho’s feet kissing or just the suspicion that Elke falls in love with Gotho because she’s into men with physical disabilities for the disabilities’ sake and not the men’s, or else really has a thing for guys who kiss her feet for little reason; it’d probably make for an awesome porno.

This being a horror movie instead of pornography, though, the film is much more interested in crude yet entertaining gore effects, most of which ooze a classic carnival charm I found myself unable to resist. The only problematic scene in this regard is when Naschy fights some rats who are nibbling on Ilse’s corpse. At first, they “jump” (that is, are thrown at him with great force) our hero – the sort of thing that’s always good for a laugh, but then, we’re attacked by pictures of actual rats being burned alive with a torch. Like all real animal violence in the movies, that’s just completely out of ethical bounds for me, and makes it difficult to still call the film’s fake violence “good-natured” and “silly” as I else would have had.

Nearly a thousand words in, I still haven’t mentioned El Jorobado‘s director Javier Aguirre. That’s because there really isn’t much to his direction. Despite the moody assistance of an awesome mountain village, a spooky ruin, and some fine catacombs, Aguirre’s direction just doesn’t do anything memorable at all, certainly nothing even vaguely comparable to the weirdness of the script. On the other hand, Aguirre is also not doing anything that’s actively bad, so it’s difficult to criticize him for anything but being not as crazy as the script he’s working with and shooting it like a straight little horror movie.

If you’re willing to ignore the fate of those poor rats, El Jorobado De La Morgue is a perfectly entertaining piece of Naschy craziness, containing everything I love and hate about the man’s work, plus (at least in the Spanish language version) a small nod towards the Necronomicon that will make all co-Lovecraftians happy, too.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

A Demonic Lamberto Bava Double Feature

released April 30th, 2012 by Arrow Video
video: 1080p / 1.66:1 / Color / Mpeg-4 AVC
audio: 16-bit LPCM 2.0 Mono (English, Italian)
subtitles: English SDH, English
discs: 2 x single layer BD25 / Region B (locked)
supplements: Commentaries with director Lamberto Bava, SPFX artist Sergio Stivaleti and journalist Loris Curci on both films, Commentary with Bava, Stivaleti, star Geretta Geretta and composer Claudio Simonetti (on Demons only), five new featurettes (Dario’s Demonic Days, Defining an Era in Music, Creating Creature Carnage, Luigi Cozzi’s Top Italian Terrors and Bava to Bava), and liner notes by Calum Waddell
The
Demons limited edition 2-disc Blu-ray Steelbook contains both Demons and Demons 2: The Nightmare Returns, and is available through Amazon UK.

It’s nigh impossible to overstate the massive cult potential represented by Demons and Demons 2: The Nightmare Returns, a pair of shameless horror-pop wet dreams that oozed their way onto mid-80s cinema screens courtesy of executive producer Dario Argento and director Lamberto Bava. The first is a deserved fan favorite, an irresistible and endlessly exploitable blend of excessive prosthetic gore and macho action motifs set to a pounding hard rock score featuring the likes of Billy Idol, Motley Crue, Saxon, and Go West. The second never reaches the same dizzying heights of genre excess, but keeps the entertainment level high with its pre-REC premise (an apartment building infested with devilish evil) and boundless schlock appeal. Slick and stylish and remarkably stupid, these are bloody brain-off escapism of the highest possible order. I love them both, and make no excuses for it.

That said, it should be no surprise that I’ve been following news of Arrow Video’s high definition treatments with the utmost anticipation, hoping against all hope that a label best known for top-flight packaging and a lamentable penchant for dropping the ball with regards to quality control would be capable of giving the Demons films the respect I felt they deserved. I received the label’s limited edition Steelbook (which combines both films in one glossy and blessedly flair-impaired package) just yesterday, and have been eagerly devouring its contents ever since. While my overall opinion of the release is quite positive – this is undeniably the best these films have ever looked on video – I was none-the-less frustrated to see Arrow fall so predictably short on the technical front. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

For now, the good stuff! While the vast majority of high definition Italian genre masters have been handled by the problematc LVR in Rome, Arrow Video have gone out of their way to see that the transfers for Demons and Demons 2: The Nightmare Returns were done properly. With no suitable HD materials available new from-the-negative restorations of both films were undertaken by the esteemed Cineteca Bologna in collaboration with L’Immagine Ritrovata, and the results are as good as could ever have been hoped for.

Demons features light black levels, but is otherwise a faultless effort. The 1080p transfer presents the film at its intended theatrical ratio of 1.66:1, and the overall quality of the thing is impossibly crisp and impossibly clean in comparison to what’s come before. Detail is very strong where Gianlorenzo Battaglia’s moody photography allows, and Sergio Stivaletti’s close-up effects takes look exceptional. Colors are vibrant, brightness is at the appropriate levels (whites run dreadfully hot in many of the LVR transfers), and, as can be too rarely said of Italian genre cinema in HD, there’s a fine legitimate film texture underlying the image. Damage is minimal both here and in Demons 2: The Nightmare Returns, though the latter begins with a disclaimer – a handful of takes in the film present with a conspicuous judder that’s baked right into the original negative, and was impossible to satisfactorily resolve digitally. Otherwise Demons 2 is similarly flawless, with the benefit of tighter black levels all around. I only wish that was the end of the story…

Hints of just what’s wrong with Arrow Video’s Blu-rays of Demons and Demons 2: The Nightmare Returns begin with the disc specs themselves (these are both single layer treatments), but even that can’t explain the depth of what’s wrong here. The sad fact of the matter is that no label mangles their properties at the authoring level so regularly, so willfully, as Arrow Video does. They dependably do less with acceptable average bitrates than I’d have thought possible, and unfortunately the average bitrates here are a sight lower than that. Demons fairs the best overall, though its video stream only occupies a distinctly low 12.2 GB on disc. The 89 minute feature is Mpeg-4 AVC encoded at a middling average video bitrate of 18.0 Mbps, and compression artifacts are plentiful. The milky blacks regularly split into swaths of blocking, and the integrity of the film texture is compromised throughout. The 91 minute Demons 2: The Nightmare Returns goes lower still, receiving an Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average video bitrate of just 15.6 Mbps, and its compression problems are more prevalent for the trouble. While I didn’t feel that either film looked especially bad in motion (even as poorly encoded as they are, these transfers can look very strong), the encode issues were still obvious enough in playback to trip my irate critical triggers – looking at the image up close is as disappointing an experience as I’ve had in a while. At the prices Arrow is currently demanding for these discs (around $40 for this Steelbook edition and ~$27 each for the individual releases through their storefront) this is just unacceptable.

Audio will be a sticking point for some. The English dub track provided for Demons is, interestingly enough, the same that graced the film’s American release, which features different use of some musical cues and sound effects as well as a few altered lines (the majority of the dubbed dialogue is the same as that head in the more common European dub). More important for many is the fact that the track is monophonic only, which substantially limits the audible scope of a film originally released Dolby stereo. The English track is encoded well however, in lossless 16-bit LPCM, and though flatter than I’d have preferred it still sounds pretty good. Otherwise Arrow have included the original Italian audio in 2.0 stereo, and the difference in both fullness and overall fidelity is considerable (flipping between the two with headphones was revelatory). Again presented in lossless 16-bit LPCM, the Italian audio sounds very robust, particularly during the various rock numbers. Demons 2: The Nightmare Returns sounds to be monophonic on both fronts (at least to these ears – I noted no separation in my headphone tests of either track), and the lossless 16-bit LPCM English and Italian tracks are less disparate than on Demons. The English dub sounds less crisp, unnaturally bass-heavy and perhaps even a bit compressed, while the Italian sounds better refined all around. Arrow offers English (for the Italian track) and English SDH (for the English track) subtitles for both films, and will hear no complaints on that front from me.

Supplements are of Arrow’s usual variety, if not quite up to the quantity that have graced some of their other efforts. Demons arrives with two feature commentaries, one with director Lamberto Bava, effects man Sergio Stivaletti, and journalist Loris Curci, and another with Bava, Stivaletti, composer Claudio Simonetti, and star Geretta Geretta. The disc also comes with three new featurettes: Splatter Spaghetti Style – Luigi Cozzi’s Top Italian Terrors (11 minutes, HD), Defining an Era in Music – Claudio Simonetti on Demons (9 minutes, SD), and Dario’s Demon Days – Dario Argento Remembers Demons (10 minutes, HD). Demons 2: The Nightmare Returns receives another commentary, with Bava, Stivaletti, and Curci, as well as two new featurettes: Bava to Bava – A History of Italian Horror with Luigi Cozzi (16 minutes, SD) and Creating Creature Carnage with Stivaletti (20 minutes, SD). The limited edition Steelbook eschews many of the paper extras that are to be included with the individual releases (which are currently delayed due to printing troubles), but does come with a short booklet of notes by Calum Waddell. The individual LE releases will include a fold-out poster, the usual multiple cover options, as well as parts one and two of a newly produced Demons 3 comic.

The Blu-ray debuts of Demons and Demons 2: The Nightmare Returns have a lot of potential, far more than Arrow have typically allowed, but it’s a shame they’ve been bogged down by technical issues that might so easily have been remedied. I didn’t pay anywhere near retail for this limited edition release (hooray gift certificates!), and no more than I’m out of pocket I can live with the limitations, but the high asking price makes for a tough overall recommendation. If you can overlook the persistent compression troubles then there really is a lot to love here, and I think that’s as close to a recommendation as I’m going to get.

Demons intermission card

Judder in Demons 2

Demons

Demons 2: The Nightmare Returns

Screenshots were captured as full resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

The Wizard of Gore / The Gore Gore Girls

released May 1st, 2012
by
Something Weird / Image Entertainment
video: 1080p / 1.78:1
audio: DTS-HD MA 2.0 English
subtitles: none
disc: dual layer BD50 / Region A
The Wizard of Gore / The Gore Gore Girls Blood-Drenched Double Feature Blu-ray is readily available through Amazon.com.

Something Weird and Image Entertainment simultaneously thrilled and disappointed long-time fans of exploitation icon Herschell Gordon Lewis with their The Blood Trilogy Blu-ray from last year. On the one hand the films had never looked better, but issues with improper matting (Color Me Blood Red and Two Thousand Maniacs were essentially vertically panned-and-scanned into an aspect ratio of 1.78:1) and compression (everything on the release, and there was a lot, was crammed onto a single BD50) undermined many of its positives. Even so, I was enthusiastic enough about that effort that I pre-ordered the labels’ second Lewis Blu-ray collection as soon as it was announced.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of the thing, I should say that, as with The Blood Trilogy, I’m pleased enough with The Wizard of Gore / The Gore Gore Girls Blu-ray double feature to offer it a grudging recommendation – it certainly helps that it only ran me $11. Still, fans expecting any sort of improvement over the former release’s presentation should keep those expectations in check, as The Wizard of Gore / The Gore Gore Girls has plenty of troubles of its own.

First, bear with me while I offer a disgruntled note on dual layering. As you’ll see from the information I’ve listed at the head of this article, The Wizard of Gore / The Gore Gore Girls double feature is indeed housed on a dual layer BD50 – unfortunately that doesn’t tell the whole story. The release actually totals just 26.7 GB, meaning it occupies a hair more than half the total capacity offered by a 50 GB dual layer Blu-ray disc. For all practical purposes this is a dual layer disc in name only – the two features take up just 12.8 and 12.0 GB respectively, with measly average bitrates to match. In other words, Something Weird / Image have foot the bill for a dual layer Blu-ray disc and then not used the extra space they paid for. It’s akin to a publisher printing a 200 page book with 200 additional blank pages at the end, and really begs the question – Why bother?

With regards to the films, both The Wizard of Gore and The Gore Gore Girls are transferred from positive 35mm elements (the latter sporting the alternate title Blood Orgy). Damage is prevalent throughout both features, from minor spots and speckling to cue marks, persistent vertical scratching, and even the odd splice. For cheap drive-in fair like this, the elements for which no one thought to preserve until well after the fact, this kind of damage is to be expected, and it does nothing to detract from the quality (or lack thereof) of the films themselves. Otherwise the source prints could best be described as inconsistent, a fact due both to production limitations and age. Though color can vary considerably from shot to shot, contrast is generally strong – with regards to The Gore Gore Girls the contrast can actually be overbearing, but even this overly dark image remains a revelation in comparison to the blown-out SD transfers of before.

Speaking more specifically, The Wizard of Gore is easily the stronger presentation of the two. Presented in 1080p courtesy of a flat-matted 1.78:1 transfer (as opposed to the selectively matted Color Me Blood Red and Two Thousand Maniacs), Wizard looks perfectly acceptable, if far from earth-shattering, in its high definition debut. Despite Lewis’ own dubious understanding of the topic and the frequency of awkward compositions, the framing here looks comfortable for the most part. Some manner of grain suppression appears to have bee applied, though not to the point that all texture has been obliterated, and the image is free from the waxy quality that plagues more substantially DNR’d transfers. Color and contrast both improve appreciably over past SD editions (despite some variation in both the frequent reds are well saturated and appropriately bloody), but the big story here may be the detail. Regardless of the limitations of the materials (and a frequent lack of focus in the original photography) detail can really impress in places, particularly during the close-ups that mark Montag the Magnificent’s television act.

Unfortunately the space constraints levied upon The Wizard of Gore do take their toll, though thankfully not to the extent that they could and perhaps should have. The film is granted a (very) modest Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average video bitrate of 14.7 Mbps, and though the image is passable overall minor artifacts (blocking in the grain and a bit of banding) can be found tinkering about in the background throughout. Still, I’ve seen much worse done with much more, and none of the encode limitations here were so obvious as to distract me during playback. Audio sounds precisely as one would imagine (flat, poorly mixed, and overall bad), though Something Weird / Image can’t be faulted for that. The Wizard of Gore gets a technically robust DTS-HD MA 2.0 treatment that precisely preserves every inch of its awfulness, and aside from the lack of subtitles (some fun could have been had with these given Montag’s bizarrely stilted line delivery – “Why, it’s nothing more than an i-LOOOOO-sion!”) I’ve no complaints on this front.

The presentation for The Gore Gore Girls is of substantially weaker stuff all around, even though the source element appears to have been of comparable quality to that for The Wizard of Gore. Presented in 1080p at a flat-matted ratio of 1.78:1, framing may be a bit more of a sticking point here than with the co-feature. The Gore Gore Girls features especially shoddy blocking and framing throughout, and while Lewis appears to have been loosely composing for widescreen matting (a quick look at an old open SD master reveals as much) the photography doesn’t look especially comfortable that way. Characters wander in and out of their proper spots, the camera tilts, and in more careless moments whole heads can be lopped off of Lewis’ subjects (and not in the way fans like). Regardless of how this may have been projected theatrically I’d argue that open matte 4:3 would have been the way to go with this video edition.

Framing is not the only problematic aspect of the presentation, however, as The Gore Gore Girls suffers from something until now absent from Something Weird’s Blu-ray efforts – excessive digital manipulation. Those looking for grain will find none here, though the insubstantial pretense of it can be glimpsed from time to time, and the image is so smooth in places as to appear more illustrated than photographed (see the shot above). Frequent edging indicates some attempts at artificial sharpening, but detail goes the way of the grain – fine details are practically nonexistent, and there’s nothing in the way of texture to be seen. Motion fairs poorly as well, and is riddled with blocky patterning.

With regards to the encode The Gore Gore Girls is technically stronger, Mpeg-4 AVC at an average video bitrate of 15.7 Mbps, but the limitations of the transfer prevent it from really benefiting. Aside from some blotchiness here and there artifacts are negligible, though with such a dearth of detail and texture it couldn’t have been that difficult for the encoder to keep track – the only thing that keeps this looking at all like film is the frequent unrestored damage. Still, the usual reviewer platitude applies. This looks better than the old DVD by quite a bit, but make of that what you will. The audio is again properly presented in lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0, and while The Gore Gore Girls arguably sounds worse than The Wizard of Gore I doubt it should sound any better. As with The Wizard of Gore there are no subtitles.

The release offers a healthy spate of supplements, even if there’s nothing new in the mix. Both The Wizard of Gore and The Gore Gore Girls are accompanied by commentaries with producer / director Herschell Gordon Lewis, and a comprehensive video gallery of H.G. Lewis exploitation art is included as well. The bet supplement of the bunch may be the disc’s stack of trailers – aside from a preview for the recent documentary Godfather of Gore, you get trailers for Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs, Color Me Blood Red, The Alley Tramp, Goldilocks and the Three Bares, The Gruesome Twosome, She-Devils on Wheels, Something Weird, and The Wizard of Gore.

My temptation to recommend Herschell Gordon Lewis’ films grows exponentially with their awfulness, and both The Wizard of Gore and The Gore Gore Girls are downright terrible stuff – I love it! I just wish I could say the same for this Blu-ray from Something Weird / Image Entertainment. There are too many issues with the feature presentations for me to recommend it too wholeheartedly, though the price is right – this was worth the $11 I paid for it, if not much more. This is a decent if utterly unremarkable way to see these two Lewis shockers, and those looking for nothing more will likely be satisfied.

The Wizard of Gore

The Gore Gore Girls

Screenshots were captured as full resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Bava’s Demons to haunt limited edition steelbook this April

Gorehounds and ’80s hair metal apologists take note – Arrow Video’s long-in-the-works editions of producer Dario Argento and director Lamberto Bava’s inimitable schlock-rock horror classics Demons and Demons 2 are finally on the horizon!

Though delayed (…again) until April 30th and recently negotiated for Region B only (these were originally announced as All Region, but the licensor has since stipulated otherwise), Demons and Demons 2 are still looking damned attractive to my Stateside eyes. Perhaps the most promising news, beyond the usual spate of Arrow-produced supplements and superfluous packaging flair, is that the films are each being restored from the original negative not by the usual suspects, but by Cineteca di Bologna, who worked with Martin Scorsese to restore Fellini’s La Dolce Vita in 2010. I hope this bodes well.

More exciting news arrived just a few days ago, when it was let known that, in addition to the standalone Blu-ray and DVD editions already planned, Arrow intended to released both Demons and Demons 2 as a limited edition steelbook combo release. Posts at the CultLabs forums show this to be a pretty impressive looking package, though it will lack some of the standalone editions’ considerable paper extras (including the switchable covers, fold-out posters, and exclusive comic book sequel). Actual on-disc content appears exact. The details of this limited edition 2-disc steelbook, quoted from Amazon.co.uk, are below:

INCLUDES:

- Limited Edition SteelBookTM packaging
- Collector s Booklet featuring brand new writing on both films by Calum Wadell
- Brand new HD restorations of both films
- Optional English and Italian audio and English subtitles for Italian and English (SDH) audio for both films

DEMONS SPECIAL FEATURES:

- The audio recollections of director Lamberto Bava, Special Make-Up Creations Artist Sergio Stivaletti and Journalist Loris Curci
- The audio recollections of the cast and crew, featuring Lamberto Bava, Sergio Stivaletti, Geretta Geretta and Claudio Simonetti
- Dario s Demon Days: Producer Dario Argento discusses the inception of Demons
- Defining an Era in Music: Composer Claudio Simonetti on the Demons Soundtrack
- Luigi Cozzi s Top Italian Terrors: Cozzi discusses the highpoints of Spaghetti Splatter

DEMONS 2 SPECIAL FEATURES:

- The audio recollections of director Lamberto Bava, Mechanical Creations & Transformation Artist Sergio Stivaletti and Journalist Loris Curci
- Creating Creature Carnage: Extensive Interview with makeup man Sergio Stivaletti
- Bava to Bava: Luigi Cozzi tracks the history of the Italian horror film; from Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava to the end of the golden age with Michele Soavi and Lamberto Bava as well as considering recent Italian horror films.

The Demons + Demons 2 limited edition 2-disc steelbook Blu-ray is slated for release on April 30th, and is available for pre-order through Amazon.co.uk. For fans in the US, it also currently costs £3.31 (a little over $5, plus exchange fees) less to import than the standalone editions due in large part to differences in shipping charges. Make of that what you will.

The already well-publicized standalone DVD and Blu-ray editions are still up for order as well. Click on the appropriate cover below to reserve your copy today:

   

Due to personal taste and even-tighter-than-usual finances, I’ve pre-ordered the limited edition steelbook for my home shelf – a comprehensive review will be readied as soon as it arrives. Stay tuned!

Dead Alive

a.k.a. Braindead   Year: 1992  Company: Wingnut Films   Runtime: 97′
Director: Peter Jackson   Writers: Stephen Sinclair, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson
Music: Peter Dasent   Cast: Timothy Balme, Diana Penalver, Elizabeth Moody, Ian Watkin, Brenda Kendall, Stuart Devenie, Jed Brophy, Stephen Papps, Murray Keane, Glenis Levestam, Lewis Rowe
Disc company: Lionsgate   Video: 1080p 1.78:1   Audio: DTS HD-MA 2.0 English
Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish   Disc: BD25 (Region A)   Release Date: 10/04/2011
Available for purchase through Amazon.com

Before he found himself tooling around Middle Earth in the most expensive and protracted LARP session in history, writer and director Peter Jackson was cutting his cinematic teeth on genre-bending exploiters the likes of which the world had never seen.  It may be difficult for some to grasp that the man behind The Fellowship of the Ring was also responsible for the demented The Muppets take-off Meet the Feebles and the drive-through alien insanity of Bad Taste, but there are just as many of us who became Jackson fans strictly because of his unhinged past works.  After working with tiny budgets in the latter part of the previous decade Jackson’s company Wingnut Films finally came into some substantial financing in the early ’90s, and the immediate result was the director’s first film to receive any real worldwide exposure – the gloriously outrageous gross-out masterpiece Dead Alive (or Braindead to all of you lucky enough to have the film in its original title).

Written by Jackson, his wife Fran Walsh and their sometimes collaborator Stephen Sinclair, Dead Alive follows the budding relationship of reclusive mother’s boy Lionel and the lovely Pequita – a romance pre-ordained by a stack of tarot cards and Pequita’s creepy grandmother.  Standing in the way of any hope of happiness for the young lovers is Lionel’s mother, an insufferable nag who’s not quite herself these days.  After an unfortunate run-in with a vicious and purportedly cursed Sumatran Rat-Monkey at the city zoo, mum devolves into a putrescent sack of homicidal idiocy that Lionel deals with as best he can.  Veterinary tranquilizers do the job for a while, but unexpected encounters with punks, nurses and the local clergy soon find Lionel stuck with a basement-full of troublesome stiffs, and the arrival of estate-hungry uncle Les and his gaggle of hard partying cohorts only makes things worse.  As the situation spirals further and further out of control Lionel and Pequita are forced into drastic action to save both themselves and their fated romance…

If there’s one thing that leaps out at me every time I sit down to revisit Dead Alive, it’s how obvious it is that Jackson and his co-conspirators love film – Dead Alive is the sort of production that really wears its inspirations on its sleeve.  The film begins on King Kong‘s Skull Island, far west of Sumatra, with an asshole explorer running afoul of superstitious natives in his quest for a rare beast – the bothersome Sumtran Rat-Monkey – which is brought to life, naturally, through stop-motion animation.  Back in Wellington, Lionel hearkens to Anthony Perkin’s portrayal of immortal screen Psycho Norman Bates, albeit with a potential for heroism taking the place of homicidal mania, while Jackson and company hint at secrets in his past with flashes of Deliverance-style hand-out-of-the-water illusions.  Once Lionel’s mum is infected the film treats audiences to a veritable parade of zombie genre homage, referencing everything from the Dead works of Romero to Raimi’s more slapstick take on the material – Jackson and effects man Richard Taylor take particular relish in the “total bodily dismemberment” of the latter.  There are broader references as well, like the famed cemetery-bound kung fu battle between some zombie punks and the inimitable Father MacGruder (“I kick ass for the Lord!”), and one bit for the real nerds among us – a brief glimpse of a poster for Johnny Weismuller in Jungle Moon Men that foreshadows Lionel’s final act of macho heroism, swinging to safety by belt as he and his beloved share a kiss.

More than just paying lip service to their inspirations, Jackson and crew were also clearly enamored with the very act of making film.  Dead Alive often feels a though it were handled by a hyper-active grade-schooler who’d finally been given the opportunity to figure out his latest toy.  The camerawork, care of photographer Murray Milne (Meet the Feebles), is brimming with vitality, with the camera swishing or panning or craning in any number of directions and as often as was possible.  The compositions themselves are just as variably vivid, from the diffused soft-palette exteriors of fantasy Wellington circa 1957 to the eccentric neon-hued, comic-inspired interiors of the more horrific later segments.  Perhaps the greatest example of the enthusiasm of the men behind Dead Alive can be found in the breadth of technical effects exemplified throughout – more than just the eccentric splatter that comes to dominate the film, Jackson toys with conventional and large-scale puppetry, suit-mation, and even a bit of clever miniature work to expand his retro Universe.  Carefully photographed miniatures of a vintage Wellington no longer extant, complete with cable cars decorated in period-appropriate advertisements (and at least one building baring the Wingnut company name), merge perfectly with the modern location photography.  The temptation now seems to be to go overboard in creating a sense of location, with loads of CGI overproduction and perhaps a bit of gimmicky 3D immersion.  Dead Alive‘s old-hat techniques manage the feat without drawing too much attention to themselves, and are all the more satisfying for it.


The house where evil dwells…

All of that is good and well, but with a hyperbolic blurb like “The goriest fright film of all time” flaunted across the top of the box art it’s impossible to discuss Dead Alive without also discussing the excesses that have made it (in)famous.  While I might contest the “fright film” designation (this is comedy born of horror rather than any kind of horror outright) the rest of the statement is hard to argue with.  Dead Alive dishes out its visceral delights in such quantity that adjectives fail it – this may well be the bloodiest show on Earth.  While early gags are geared towards gross-out giggles – mention “pudding” in the context of this film and most anyone who’s seen it will give you a laughing, half-shuddering reaction – Dead Alive quickly transitions towards one-upping itself with its own over-the-topness.  This is, after all, a film famous for a scene in which a priest with a taste for the martial arts unceremoniously rips the limbs from his zombie opponent and beats him with them, and that’s just a start.

Those attempting to find logic or reason in Dead Alive‘s zombie hordes are out of luck as any sense there was to the thing quickly falls victim to the all-important gag.  It’s a welcome change in a subgenre that enjoys strangling itself in rules and regulations – “aim for the brain” doesn’t seem such a helpful piece of advice when the critter creeping your way has a lawn gnome for a head!  While some of the violence is undeniably rooted in genre conventions, as in the case of a neck-bite or two, the vast majority aims for hitherto unseen levels of absurdity.  Jackson’s creativity flourishes here in a ways that it just hasn’t in his more recent work, and its these demonstrations of his imagination unchecked that attracted so much of us to his filmmaking in the first place.  Faces and scalps are ripped whole from screaming skulls while men devoured up to their waists kick bloodied skeleton legs – one victim is so mangled that he comes back from the grave looking more than a little like a brachiosaurus.  In perhaps the classic attack of the film a young woman has her face ripped literally in two by a fiendish infant who then uses her corpse as a sort of full-body puppet!

If the zombie violence itself is extreme then that perpetrated against them is even more so, with heads and whole bodies exploding blood and nameless pulp about Lionel’s respectable Victorian abode.  One poor chap, having been cut in two, is reduced to using his legs for stilts while his whole set of internal organs, which have been granted their own bizarre life, are left to chase people about on their own!  Lionel eventually decides that he’s had enough of all that nonsense and takes matters into his own hands.  With most of the zombies gathered in the foyer, Lionel enters with a lawnmower draped over his neck and shoulders with a bit of rope.  “Party’s over!” he announces, and so begins the single most epic scene of wanton bodily destruction in the history of film.  Here the effects are thrilling in their efficacy, with assorted limbs, faces, and torsos butchered by the rumbling blade of the mower and spewed out in a stream of vivid red glop.  Never missing an opportunity for another gag, the film allows Lionel to reach the other end of the room safe and satisfied, only to look back and realize that he’s only mowed down one row of zombies and that there’s a whole horde of them left behind.  Mowing down the dead is evidently every bit as tedious and time consuming as mowing the lawn, and as Lionel turns to finish the job Peter Dasent’s synthesizer accompaniment swells into something melodious and balletic.  This is grand guignol as it might have been directed by Vincent Minnelli, and in its own way it’s every bit as genius as any of those other revered moments in cinema.

On their own gore and gags do not a terrific film make, and Dead Alive earns audience sympathies by packaging its more eccentric material within an old fashioned love story that’s actually quite touching and sweet.  In this way Dead Alive plays as the sort of pitch-perfect escapism only film can provide, offering up a happy ending that never feels trite or condescending.  We want Lionel and Pequita to be together, not because some goofy cards told us it would happen but because our investment in the characters makes us think it should.  In the end Dead Alive may be the most hopeful horror picture ever made – if these two can fend off the forces of darkness amassing against them then surely there’s a little hope for us all.  Just be sure to keep your lawnmower handy, as you never know when you might need it.


Grrrrrrrrr…

Dead Alive creeps, leaps, and splats onto Blu-ray courtesy of Lionsgate who, to be perfectly fair, have dropped the ball on a couple of key points.  Firstly, the cut of the film included is the slightly abbreviated 97 minute version (allegedly preferred by Jackson, though I could find no primary source for this – help!) that premiered at the 1992 Toronto Film Festival.  I’m not especially bothered by this – it’s the version that I have become most familiar with over the years – but the opportunity to include both the longer 104 minute version and this unrated 97 minute cut, preferably as seamlessly branched viewing options, was sorely missed.  Secondly, Dead Alive‘s high definition home video debut is woefully lacking in supplemental heft.  All that is included is the original American trailer in upconverted HD, and an interminable slate of Lionsgate previews that starts the disc.  A special edition this isn’t, though at least the packaging (a slight update of that for the Trimark DVD from over a decade ago) is honest enough not to lead consumers into thinking otherwise.

With no uncut version  and effectively no supplemental content to distract from it, the presentation of the 97 minute feature is very much front and center, and while I wasn’t expecting much by virtue of the low pricetag I found myself reasonably impressed, if with some reservations.  My apologies in advance for the paltry DVD comparison in this review – I no longer own the Trimark DVD and was forced to scrounge around online for the grand total of two uncompressed .png captures sourced below.  I’ve included two captures from the horrifically encoded Laser Paradise ‘Blood Edition’ for posterity, so that a more precise comparison can be made with regards to the film’s proper framing.

Lionsgate present Dead Alive under its American export title by way of a gritty 1080p transfer at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 – slightly cropped from the intended 1.66:1.  Compared to the DVD editions this new transfer adds, substantially at times, to the left and right of the frame, as well as to the top and bottom in comparison to the 1.85:1-cropped Trimark DVD.  A marginal amount of headroom is lost compared to the 1.66:1 “Blood Edition”, but not to the extent that it proves catastrophic to the framing, and while I’d have preferred a more open presentation the Blu-ray does offer a reasonable middle ground compared to what has been available before.  While the 1080p transfer can appear quite weak at times, overly grainy and softly focused with a subtle color palette and plenty of pox marks, I don’t think there’s much here that can’t be explained away by the source materials themselves.  The soft and grainy qualities of the image appear for the most part to be a product of the original photography, which is often done with wide-angle lenses and heavy diffusion filtering – this is not something that’s ever going to export a terrific amount of clarity and detail.  There are exceptions to the the norm here, with some effects takes appearing quite clear, apparently having been shot through different lenses and possibly on entirely different stock.


Case in point – the grain in this effects close-up is still visible, but much less pronounced. The darker areas of the frame seem especially crisp and clear compared to other samples from the film.

Then there is the frequent damage, which offers viewers a persistent parade of minor speckles and larger blemishes that seem excessive for even this modestly budgeted production, which is less than 20 years old as of this writing.  While there are black bits of dirt and dust to contend with the majority of the damage appears printed right into the materials themselves, showing as white flecks of varying sizes, including the odd white printed hair.  It’s all frame-specific, but the quantity was a bit surprising, and those sensitive to such things should note that Lionsgate have obviously attempted no restoration.  Color and contrast will likely also fall below most’s expectations.  With the exception of the over-the-top conclusion, with its wealth of vibrant reds, colors can appear quite flat, and while I suspect that much of this is intentional on the part of the filmmakers (looking to create a sort of soft fantasy version of 1957 Wellington) the flatness has been compounded by the transfer’s low level of contrast.  Black levels are quite weak for the most part, with plenty of grain (and a bit of noise as well) lurking behind every shadow.  A bit of tweaking could easily have resolved this situation, resulting in an image that looked just that much more healthy and robust.

Technically the disc is only middling, occupying  around 17 Gb of a single layer BD-25 with the AVC-encoded feature sporting an average video bitrate of just 19.6 Mbps.  I was hard pressed to find any fatal encoding flaws, but the image still doesn’t hold up as well in close examination as I’d like.  All said, I’m not really that put off by any of the above – in motion I’d say Dead Alive looks pretty decent, particularly in the final twenty minutes or so.  While I believe Lionsgate could have improved a bit, either by sourcing from the original negative or by tweaking the transfer they had, I’m hard-pressed to think they could have improved upon it drastically. For the $13 it presently demands I’d say this looks good enough, and substantially more accurate to the source materials than some other recently lauded presentations (I’m looking at you Zombie and House By the Cemetery).

HD screenshots were captured as .png at full resolution in MPlayer and compressed to .jpg using the ImageMagick command line tool.  Screenshots from the German Laser Paradise “Blood Edition” DVD were captured in .png format in VLC, upconverted to 1920×1080 (black bars were added to the left and right to fill the frame, and the original 4:3 letterboxing removed – note that the original letterboxing is very imprecise, with warping along the top and bottom of the frame, and that thin amounts of black information were left in some areas to prevent the loss of image information in others) in GIMP and compressed to .jpg format at a quality setting of 95%.  The two Trimark DVD comparison shots were found online in their original uncompressed .png, then upconverted and compressed at the same settings as the “Blood Edition” DVD (excluding the de-letterboxing and addition of black bars).
Blood Edition 4:3 letterboxed PAL DVD | 16:9 1.85:1 Trimark NTSC DVD | Lionsgate Blu-ray

More Blu-ray Screenshots

Gore!

In the absence of any appreciable funding having been thrown at this disc’s production, at least I don’t have an underwhelming 5.1 bump to contend with in the audio department.  What the disc does offer is the film’s original stereo recording, soundly related in lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0.  The icky sound effects, which are every bit as delightfully sickening as the visuals, shine, as does Peter Dasent’s (Meet the Feebles) alternately cheesy and inspired synthesizer score.  There’s a bit of depth and even some appreciable stereo separation to be had, and Lionsgate manage to one-up many of their competitors by complimenting the track with three sets of subtitles – English, English SDH, and Spanish.

So there you have it – Dead Alive in its slightly shorter American cut (at least it’s not the bastardized 85 minute R-rated version) on Blu-ray in a somewhat uninspired but relatively source accurate presentation with strong lossless audio and no supplements beyond the theatrical trailer.  Were the asking price more than that of a modest lunch out I might have been more compelled to complain, but as things are I find myself reasonably pleased.  Yeah it could have been better, but the DVDs can’t touch it and I know damned well it could have been much, much worse (Near Dark anyone?).  For fans this is tough not to recommend, weaknesses and all.

in conclusion
Film: Excellent  Video: Very Good –  Audio: Excellent   Supplements: Poor
Harrumphs: No supplemental weight whatever, and a transfer that likely could have been improved upon a bit in more capable, or loving, hands.
Packaging: Standard-size Blu-ray Eco case.

Color Me Blood Red

Year: 1964  Company: Jacqueline Kay / Friedman – Lewis Productions   Runtime: 87′
Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis   Writer: Herschell Gordon Lewis
Cinematography: Herschell Gordon Lewis   Cast: Gordon Oas-Heim (as Don Joseph), Candi Conder,
Elyn Warner, Pat Lee, Jerome Eden, Scott H. Hall, Jim Jaekel, Iris Marshall, William Harris, Cathy Collins
Disc company: Something Weird / Image Entertainment   Video: 1080p 1.78:1   Audio: LPCM 2.0 English
Subtitles: None   Disc: BD50 (Region A)   Release Date: 09/27/2011   Released as part of the Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Trilogy Blu-ray collection, and available for purchase through Amazon.com
This review is part three of three of our coverage of the Something Weird / Image Entertainment Blu-ray release of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Trilogy – reviews of Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs have already been published.

To paraphrase an old proverb, all good things must come to an end.  Not only did the luck of exploitation dynamos Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman run out with Color Me Blood Red, a bland little shocker produced in 1964 but not released until late 1965, but their partnership did as well.  Lewis would go on to direct a few hillbilly adventures and a host of other gore classics (like The Gruesome TwosomeWizard of Gore and The Gore Gore Girls) before embarking on a successful career in direct marketing, while Friedman would continue peddling his own peculiar brands of entertainment (Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS, Love Camp 7 and She-Freak).  Color Me Blood Red never turned much business for either party, and would likely have faded into obscurity all together had drive-in entrepreneurs not been so cunning as to re-release it, triple-billed with the infinitely more amusing Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs.

Clearly inspired by Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood, a fusion of comedy and horror in which Dick Miller turns a penchant for murder into a thriving sculpting career, Color Me Blood Red follows the dead-serious misadventures of struggling painter Adam Sorg (Minnesota’s own Gordan Oas-Heim, as Don Joseph), who finds a cure for his color woes in human blood.  As Sorg earns praise from a persnickety local critic the bodies start piling up, and its not long before the teen-aged daughter of Sorg’s biggest fan and her assortment of obnoxious friends find themselves in the artist’s murderous sights.

From the stock musical cues right on up, Color Me Blood Red is a dull and monotonous affair.  The screenplay by Lewis is below even his usual standards, and the concept inspires too little gruesome action and far, far too much forgettable filler.  The primary narrative of Sorg’s decline from struggling artist to homicidal maniac often plays second fiddle to a lot of paddle boating and general mucking about by Jerome Eden (a sort of poverty row Frankie Avalon who, thankfully, never sings) and his gaggle of beach-bound fans, mind-numbing in-action that never expands beyond Sorg’s beach front home and the beach itself.  The sum experience is not unlike being forced to sit through reels upon reels of your lamest friend’s vacation videos, and the minimal gore payoff hardly makes it worth the effort.  Some may find solace in the dialogue’s occasional lapses into absurdity (“Holy Bananas! It’s a girl’s leg!” is a perennial favorite), but I found the fast-forward button to be more appealing.

There is gore to be found here, and of the same brilliantly low-tech variety one should expect of vintage Lewis, but it’s also in much shorter supply than in companion pieces Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs.  The lone standout sequence has Sorg menacing a pair of unassuming young paddle-boaters with a fire poker, one of whom he later bleeds for artistic inspiration in the back room of his home.  Otherwise there’s a stabbing and a lot of painting with red corpuscles to look forward to, but not much else.  From a story filled to tipping point with ripe and disposable anonymous youth I was expecting a lot more.

Far more entertaining than the film itself is its advertising campaign, which prominently featured a devil standing before an easel and promised audiences “A Blood-Spattered Study in the Macabre… Drenched in Crimson Color!”.  The theatrical trailer offers even more to love, its narrator gravely intoning “You must keep reminding yourself: It’s just a movie… It’s just a movie… It’s just a movie…”  It’s more the pity, then, that Color Me Blood Red turned out to be so forgettable.  Skip it.


Adam Sorg, tortured artist and dresser.

Something Weird, through distributor Image Entertainment, presents Color Me Blood Red for the first time on Blu-ray by way of The Blood Trilogy collection (along with Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs, all housed on a single dual layer BD50).  Like Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs before it, Color Me Blood Read is transferred from a positive theatrical source, with results neither as surprising as the former or distressing as the latter.  Print quality here is strictly middle of the road, with frequent dirt, grit and speckling, reel change markers, and the odd splice and photochemical damage.  I was overall pleased with the quality of the source, which ranks as more than “good enough” for the film in question.

Presented in 1080p, Color Me Blood Red‘s matted aspect ratio of 1.78:1 makes for a decent viewing experience but is not without controversy.  Quick comparisons between an older SD variant and this new HD transfer show that the image typically loses information at the bottom of the frame, to the point that information is occasionally gained at the top.  Of course this isn’t consistent, and there are at least a few instances in which more is matted from the top than from the bottom.  There is very little to no head room in the original full frame photography, leaving me to wonder whether this was ever meant to be shown at a widescreen aspect ratio at all, and the new transfer’s selective matting amounts a new brand of pan-and-scanning, with the top and bottom falling victim as opposed to the sides.  Those touchy on the subject will want to hold onto their older DVDs, which retain a more open full frame aspect ratio.

Colors and contrast are again a sticking point.  The all-important reds again take a shift for the magenta, leading the artificial blood to look especially so and unnaturally purple / pink.  Here the trouble looks to be present across the board, meaning that a modicum of hue tweaking could have resolved it from the start.  Contrast is, as with the rest of the transfers on this disc, flat, and while not so bothersome as the color situation could just as easily have been remedied.  Color Me Blood Red lacks any appreciable sharpness due to the frequent focusing woes of the original photography (check out that final close-up), with few moments of exceptional detail.  Film texture is evident throughout, and the AVC encode at an average video bitrate of 19.6 Mbps does a reasonable if imperfect job of supporting it – I noted no flagrant encoding deficiencies.  The issues of the aspect ratio aside this transfer really doesn’t look that bad, and the improvement over SD iterations is obvious even if the color and contrast levels leave something to be desired.

For the sake of full disclosure, HD screenshots were captured as .png at full resolution in MPlayer and compressed to .jpg using the ImageMagick command-line tool.  After comparing to the original .png files the results appeared quite transparent to these eyes, even when zooming in 2-3x.

Audio is once again presented in uncompressed 16-bit Linear PCM monophonic English.  There’s no sign of restoration in sight but I can’t see too many complaining, as the library music, sound effects and dialogue all come through just fine.  There are no accompanying subtitles.

Supplements are sourced from past editions and mirror those of the other features in the collection, starting off with another excellent  commentary track with director Herschell Gordon Lewis, producer David F. Friedman, and Something Weird’s Michael Vraney.  Lewis and Friedman’s partnership dissolved during the production of Color Me Blood Red, and though the two’s friendship later recovered that subject is the focus of much of the discussion here.  Next up is a 10 minute collection of silent outtakes and alternate footage in SD, with a theatrical trailer in SD and a few images in the Lewis / Friedman art gallery rounding out the film-specific extras. (Each of the other films in the collection is also accompanied by a feature audio commentary, outtake footage, and an original trailer, with short subjects Carving Magic and Follow That Skirt and a trailer for the Something Weird documentary Godfather of Gore finishing off the disc)

Two Thousand Maniacs may be this disc’s low water mark with regards to its technical deficiencies, but Color Me Blood Red is easily its lowest in terms of entertainment value.  The bland A Bucket of Blood-inspired narrative is pumped so full of dull youth filler that its few high points are easily lost in the shuffle.  Something Weird’s high definition revisit is not without its problems, particularly when it comes to the questionable 1.78:1 framing, but for a snoozer like this I’m not one to complain too loudly.  For $4 per film it could certainly have been worse.

in conclusion
Film: Pretty Bland  Video: Good +  Audio: Very Good   Supplements: Very Good
Harrumphs: Limited video bitrate, with all three films plus extras cohabiting one dual layer BD50, compromised framing and no subtitles.
Packaging: Standard Blu-ray case.

Two Thousand Maniacs

Year: 1964  Company: Jacqueline Kay / Friedman – Lewis Productions   Runtime: 87′
Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis   Writer: Herschell Gordon Lewis
Cinematography: Herschell Gordon Lewis   Music: Larry Wellington, Herschell Gordon Lewis
Cast: William Kerwin, Connie Mason, Jeffrey Allen, Shelby Livingston, Ben Moore, Jerome Eden, Gary Bakeman
Disc company: Something Weird / Image Entertainment   Video: 1080p 1.78:1   Audio: LPCM 2.0 English
Subtitles: None   Disc: BD50 (Region A)   Release Date: 09/27/2011   Released as part of the Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Trilogy Blu-ray collection, and available for purchase through Amazon.com
This review is part two of three of our coverage of the Something Weird / Image Entertainment Blu-ray release of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Trilogy – a review of Blood Feast has already been published, and Color Me Blood Red will follow shortly.

With the 1963 release of their influential inaugural gore effort Blood Feast proving an epic success (a quarter million in film rentals - 10 times the film’s meager budget – were recorded in its Southeastern regional release alone), it was only natural that producer David F. Friedman and director Herschell Gordon Lewis should try to make their peculiar brand of crimson lightning strike twice.  Granted nearly three times the budget ($60,000 baby!) and filmed on location in St. Cloud, Florida, Blood Feast‘s more accomplished thematic progeny Two Thousand Maniacs would have its premiere just 8 months further on.  Though its success was limited compared to what had come before, more than enough proceeds rolled in to ensure that blood would flow forever after.

Largely inspired by MGM’s big-budget Cinemascope musical Brigadoon, in which a mystical village emerges from the mists of the Scottish countryside once every hundred years, Two Thousand Maniacs offers up Southern-style exploitation escapism by way of a small town that reappears on the centennial of its Civil War-era destruction so that its slaughtered residents might take revenge on their Yankee aggressors.  The details of the premise known, the story proves a simple no-nonsense affair.  The temporarily revivified citizenry of sleepy Pleasant Valley lure two carloads of Yankees (identified by license plate) to town as the “guests of honor” of their centennial celebration.  Teacher Tom and tag-along Terry (William Kerwin and Connie Mason in the starring roles) soon begin to think that there’s more to their hosts than meets the eye and set about investigating, while their anonymous compatriots find themselves the unwitting star attractions of the town’s gruesome retribution.

Say what you will for its entertainment value, but there’s little denying that Blood Feast isn’t a very good film by most qualifying standards.  With a town-worth of production value, a huge cast of local extras, and more general competence to be had in pretty much every department, Two Thousand Maniacs not only excels beyond its predecessor as film but also maintains the uneasy balance between the grisly and the goofy that helped make it so much fun.  There’s a carnival atmosphere that pervades throughout, with the residents of Pleasant Valley perpetually singing and dancing and waving their commemorative Confederate flags.  It’s all quite charming in a subversive sort of way, like a Gone With the Wind for exploitation devotees.  Hell, it’s hard not to want the South to rise again after a few repetitions of the catchy “Rebel Yell” (complete with an inspired vocal turn by director Herschell Gordon Lewis himself).

Adding to the insidiously cheerful atmosphere are the unhinged dramatics of Jeffrey Allen (Something Weird, This Stuff’ll Kill Ya!) as Pleasant Valley’s boisterous Mayor Buckman.  He’s a legitimately imposing figure, with his deep, booming voice and devilish ulterior motives, but is ultimately as lovable a murderous madman as ever has been.  Even after all the un-pleasantries he dishes out to his Yankee guests – and there are plenty – he’s just impossible to hate.  Less effectual is the performance of Gary Bakeman as town cut-up and events organizer Rufus, an over-the-top be-overalled caricature whose scenery chewing would have left the film coated in chaw and tooth marks had the saying any literal merit.  William Kerwin maintains his usual level of professionalism, and does far better by his role than most would ever credit him for, while Connie Mason’s physical presence again makes up for whatever she lacks in thespian charms.  The rest of the cast (including Jerome Eden, who would be prominently featured in the following year’s Color Me Blood Red) more or less fades into the background, which says more for their talents than any individual assessment could.

In direct comparison to its predecessor the all-important gore quotient for Two Thousand Maniacs seems more restrained, though thanks to more thoughtful direction on the part of Lewis that’s never really a problem.  Rather than just flinging audiences headlong into its ludicrous gore set pieces, a la Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs makes a concerted effort to build a sense of suspense and dread in advance of its shocks.  When at its best, as when a young Yankee woman has her thumb removed by a local beau, only to face greater dismemberment at the hands of those from whom she seeks help, the extra effort here really pays off.  The gore effects themselves are of the same stuff as before, and the Kaopectate-laced stage blood and appropriated bits of mannequin every bit as obvious, but they’re undeniably colorful (“Gruesomely stained in Blood Color!” proclaimed the ad campaign) and the added emphasis on build-up renders them more effective than they have any right to be.

As with its companion Blood Feast there’s not much to Two Thousand Maniacs that’s likely to shock audiences these days, but its quaintness in comparison to modern horrors is a large part of why I find it so endearing.  Director Herschell Gordon Lewis has been known to list this as his favorite of his films, and I can’t argue with that sentiment.  Of course I’m also a Southerner at heart (displaced though I may be in the far-flung north), so perhaps I’m biased to this particular myth of the South, however preposterous.  Bias or no, Two Thousand Maniacs‘ place as a classic of drive-in exploitation has long been secure, and unlike so many of its peers it retains a genuine capacity to entertain.  I’ll not ask for more.


Another trustworthy, stable personality from the H.G. Lewis stable.

Something Weird, through distributor Image Entertainment, present Two Thousand Maniacs for the first time on Blu-ray by way of The Blood Trilogy collection (along with Blood Feast and Color Me Blood Red, all housed on a single dual layer BD50).  Like Blood Feast before it, Two Thousand Maniacs is transferred from a positive theatrical source, though in this case the results are considerably less appealing.  The state of the source elements for Two Thousand Maniacs leave a lot to be desired from the outset, and while I’m not one to complain too much about the sad state of source prints (particularly in the case of a film for which better elements simply may not exist) the damage here is still quite striking.  Aside from the expected dirt, speckling and reel change markers, there are also persistent green emulsion scratches, printed-in black damage, and more than a few jump cuts.  This is likely a more ragged appearance than most will be expecting, even for a low budget film of this vintage, and I’ve done nothing to conceal the source defects in the images below.

Presented in 1080p at a matted widescreen aspect ratio of 1.78:1, Two Thousand Maniacs also provides a softer, less detailed presentation than its two co-features by virtue of its source limitations.  The framing here is more problematic than on Blood Feast, and seems to selectively matte from either the top or bottom (or both) of the frame depending on the situation.  Two prime examples can be found in the famed barrel roll scene, in which the 6th sample frame below is matted along the bottom, while the 7th sample frame is matted along the top.  This is a case where an open matte presentation would have been vastly preferred over the matted 1.78:1, as the framing for the original photography is all over the place, though the new transfer does add substantially to the left and right of the frame.  Perhaps the most egregious misstep with this film is that it is granted the least impressive of the disc’s encodes (AVC at an average video bitrate of only 15.7 Mbps), and it shows.  The variable grain structure of the print is simply not supported, and on close inspection reveals clumping artifacts and an unnaturally digital appearance.  It’s far from the worst encode I’ve seen, and it undoubtedly has its stronger moments, but with 8 unused GB of space on the dual layered disc there was quite literally room for improvement.

In other areas the transfer is similarly lackluster.  The quality of color reproduction varies on a scene-by-scene and sometimes shot-by-shot basis, and while some fluctuation is expected a modicum of color tweaking here or there could have safely laid this issue to rest.  That said, colors are for the most part healthy, if a little flat, but there are times when the blues and all-important reds take a shift for the magenta with unsavory results (see the 2nd and 6th samples below).  Black levels, as was the case with Blood Feast, also fall flat and, just like the color inconsistencies, could easily have been remedied through minor tweaking of the transfer.  Overall I’d say that Two Thousand Maniacs on Blu-ray offered me an okay but thoroughly unremarkable viewing experience, and while it undeniably excels in ways beyond the previous DVD edition its limitations are really too numerous, and at times too egregious, to ignore.

For the sake of full disclosure, HD screenshots were captured as .png at full resolution in MPlayer and compressed to .jpg using the ImageMagick command-line tool.  After comparing to the original .png files the results appeared quite transparent to these eyes, even when zooming in 2-3x.  I’ve made no effort to avoid the considerable damage and other weaknesses present in this transfer, as should be obvious.

Far less problematic than the video is the audio, presented in uncompressed 16-bit Linear PCM monophonic English.  All of the warts and imperfections of the original recording and subsequent aging of the source master are present and accounted for, which is just fine by me – I love this sort of lo-fi patina.  You can expect plenty of background crackle, as well as the nasty pops that accompany the frequent splices, with nary a hint of restorative work in sight.  As with Blood Feast the dialogue (including some hysterically boomy post dub work), sound effects and score (in this case a mix of memorable and appropriate folksy numbers) come across just fine, and I’ve no complaints with it.  There are no accompanying subtitles.

Supplements are sourced from past editions and mirror those of the other features in the collection, starting off with an exceptional commentary track with director Herschell Gordon Lewis, producer David F. Friedman, and Something Weird’s Michael Vraney.  For the collaborative team of Lewis and Friedman, which would end with the following year’s Color Me Blood Red, this seems to be their proudest achievement, and they have more than enough to say on the subject.  Next up is a modest 16 and a half minute collection of silent outtakes and alternate footage in SD, which have been sourced from an earlier tape transfer.  A theatrical trailer in SD and a few images in the Lewis / Friedman art gallery round out the film-specific extras. (Each of the other films in the collection is also accompanied by a feature audio commentary, outtake footage, and an original trailer, with short subjects Carving Magic and Follow That Skirt and a trailer for the Something Weird documentary Godfather of Gore rounding out the disc)

The framing of the transfer and an iffy encode keep this third of The Blood Trilogy Blu-ray from ever really getting off the ground, and I’d say that the old axiom “you get what you pay for” certainly applies here.  As with almost any inaugural product this disc mixes good with bad, and Two Thousand Maniacs is its lowest point (a real pity since I’d argue it’s the best film of the three), but with a going rate of a little over $4 per film at present it’s hard to argue too much against Something Weird’s efforts.  I just hope they learn from their freshman flubs, and that future Something Weird Blu-rays, if there are to be any, improve upon them.

in conclusion
Film: Excellent  Video: Good –  Audio: Very Good   Supplements: Very Good
Harrumphs: Limited video bitrate, with all three films plus extras cohabiting one dual layer BD50, compromised framing and encode, and no subtitles.
Packaging: Standard Blu-ray case.

Herschell Gordon Lewis Edition

Firstly, an apology for just how slow things have been around here lately.  I’ve never been a great keeper of schedules, and Wtf-Film’s output is often unpredictable, but the past three weeks have found me less productive than ever thanks to a variety of obnoxious seasonal maladies that seem, for the moment, to have passed.  Rest assured that more substantive updates are fast approaching, for better or for worse.

In the meanwhile, I’ve prepared a brief collection of trailers that should provide a nice accompaniment to my as-yet-unfinished coverage of Something Weird’s alternately fantastic and disappointing The Blood Trilogy (Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs and Color Me Blood Red) Blu-ray collection from the end of last month.  Full of the gushy crimson excesses the films themselves are infamous for, these tiny morsels of exploitation gold could be argued – most successfully in the case of 1965′s lackluster Color Me Blood Red - to be better than the actual films.  The catch phrase for that ad campaign seems especially influential in retrospect, with ads for Wes Craven’s problematic grindhouse classic Last House on the Left following squarely in its footsteps.

Blood Feast

Year: 1963  Company: Box Office Spectaculars   Runtime: 67′
Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis   Writers: Allison Louise Downe   Cinematography: Herschell Gordon Lewis
Music: Herschell Gordon Lewis   Cast: William Kerwin, Connie Mason, Mal Arnold, Lyn Botton, Scott H. Hall
Disc company: Something Weird / Image Entertainment   Video: 1080p 1.78:1   Audio: LPCM 2.0 English
Subtitles: None   Disc: BD50 (Region A)   Release Date: 09/27/2011   Released as part of the Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Trilogy Blu-ray collection, and available for purchase through Amazon.com
This review is just part one of three for the Something Weird / Image Entertainment Blu-ray release of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Trilogy – coverage of Two Thousand Maniacs and Color Me Blood Red will follow shortly.

Here it is, folks, the film that single-handedly revolutionized the relationship between exploitation filmmaking and gooey, graphic violence and made a mint for production duo David F. Friedman and Herschell Gordon Lewis in the process.  Produced in Miami for the measly sum of $24,500, word of Blood Feast‘s carnal excesses spread like wildfire upon its release, drawing millions to the flicker of the drive-in screen for their first taste of hard gore.

That’s not to say that violence, occasionally of a graphic variety, had not been seen in film before, as it most certainly had.  In the years leading up to Blood Feast‘s release directors like Mario Bava (Black Sunday, Caltiki the Immortal Monster) and Georges Franju (Eyes Without a Face) had treated audiences to a variety of gruesome set-pieces in black and white, while Britain’s Hammer Films (themselves responsible for a choice selection of classic black and white shocks) had upped the gothic horror ante with splashes of blood in brilliant color.  Blood Feast took things several steps further with its over-the-top gore flourishes, but where it really served as a revolutionary was in its intent.  Where earlier films had used violence as a means to tell a story Blood Feast existed solely for the sake of its own violent excesses.  Everything about Blood Feast, from its blood-drenched title card on, is subservient to the gore, and while critics were quick to deride the film as unadulterated trash audiences ate it up.

The sparse narrative for Blood Feast is pure hokum, and played with such delightful earnest that it’s tough not to love it.  Well-to-do Mrs. Fremont is throwing a party for her daughter Suzette (Playmate Connie Mason in her first credited film appearance), but wants to forego the usual fare for something more unusual.  Thusly she crosses paths with Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold, Scum of the Earth), a local caterer with a taste for the bizarre who sells Mrs. Fremont on the notion of holding an ‘Egyptian Feast’ for her daughter.  All seems hunky-dory with the plan save for one minor hitch: Fuad Ramses is actually a modern-day cultist of the ancient Egyptian Goddess Ishtar, and his ‘Egyptian Feast’ is actually a blood offering crafted from mutilated human flesh!  As the day of the feast draws near the bodies start piling up, and detective Pete Thornton (Will Kerwin, Impulse) is at a loss for catching the killer until he happens into a lecture on Egyptology at the local community college…

It’s difficult to impart in writing just how silly and contrived the plot for Blood Feast really is, but if the fact that Miami’s star detective just happens to be taking a community college course on Egyptology (which just happens to be focusing on the blood feast of Ishtar, and whose professor just happens to know a book written on the subject by none other than Fuad Ramses, caterer extraordinaire!) doesn’t give you some inkling of it then I don’t know what will.  Credited to Allison Louise Downe (an actress in some of Lewis and Friedman’s ‘nudie-cuties’) but actually a collaborative effort between Downe, Lewis, Friedman and others, the screenplay here is positively ridiculous stuff from start to finish, and is a big part of what keeps Blood Feast from being so nasty and indigestible as the dreadfully serious or dully self-referential horrors of today.  Perhaps the most surprising thing about it is just how much intentional humor there is to it, much of it sourced from the broad caricatures (a detective, a matron, a maniac) that dominate it.  Case in point is the upper-crust Mrs. Fremont who, after discovering the near-murder of her daughter and that the feast prepared for her gathering is comprised of human flesh, glibly remarks, “Oh dear – the guests will have to eat hamburgers for dinner tonight”!


Best. Title card. Ever.

Most memorable among the characters is easily Fuad Ramses himself, thanks to a combination of gross over-acting and the frequent idiocies of the scripting.  Though often cited as the prototype for the blade-wielding cut-up artists who would become the face of the burgeoning slasher subgenre, Ramses has more in common with the mad doctors and maniacs of the ’30s and ’40s than anything modern, with only the graphic nature of his murders really separating him.  Fuad slowly wanders the wastes of Miami with a hysterically overplayed limp and varying degrees of gray hair, toting a machete and his appropriated body parts with him in a sack and speaking with such wide eyes and pronounced Lugosi-ese that even the most magnanimous of Miamians would find it difficult to ignore his psychopath credentials.

Contrary to popular conception not all of the acting in Blood Feast is bad, though the vast majority of it certainly fits the bill (Friedman and Lewis’ associate Scott H. Hall, playing detective Thornton’s superior officer, can often be seen checking his left hand for hints to his dialogue, and he’s far from the worst).  The one constant talent of the show is star William Kerwin, who plays his role believably even when the scripting frequently fails him.  Though by no means a name star Kerwin certainly had experience, having kicked around television, shorts, and feature films since the early ’50s, and his varied acting career (from stuff like this to episodes of Land of the Lost) would continue on until his death in 1989.  Kerwin’s co-star Connie Mason, best known for her appearances in Playboy, was essentially hired as a pretty face, and looks suitably Barbie Doll-esque in her bawdy ’60s fashions.  Mason would go on to make numerous appearances in film and television, many of them uncredited, and would also star in Blood Feast‘s Southern style follow-up Two Thousand Maniacs.

Much like the performances, the other aspects of this poverty-row production are hit or miss.  Blood Feast was filmed both on 35mm and in color, but very economically.  Most dialogue scenes are carry on as uninterrupted master shots, and Lewis and Friedman evidently limited themselves to a 3-take maximum due to the limited amount of film stock available to them.  Much of the cast and crew played multiple roles throughout the production, with no one being more indicative of the trend than director Herschell Gordon Lewis himself.  In addition to serving as director and photographer, Lewis also co-produced, composed and, in part, performed the film’s musical score, devised the numerous special effects, and can even be heard, briefly, as a radio announcer at the beginning of the film!   That most of the footage is in focus and intelligibly framed and that the dialogue and sound effects are all clear is likely as much as Lewis, Friedman and their associates ever asked of Blood Feast, and the dedication to just getting the film finished on-budget and by whatever means necessary overrides the paucity of the production value in my mind, particularly when the end results are such a riot.

The gore effects here are part and parcel with the rest and aren’t likely to shock anyone in a day and age when the average cop drama offers more in the way of realistic carnage, but to hold them up to today’s standards is to completely miss the point.  No, the Kaopectate-laced fake blood syrup doesn’t look real and yes, the bits of mannequin masquerading as dismembered body parts are obvious, but Blood Feast was never about realism to begin with.  It was about filling that drive-in screen with as much goopy, flowing red as could be managed and entertaining an audience in the process.  Sure it’s silly and stupid and about as scary as a pair of wool socks, but it’s also a blast to watch – grand guignol has rarely been such good clean fun.


Who couldn’t trust a face like that?

Something Weird, through distributor Image Entertainment, present Blood Feast for the first time on Blu-ray by way of The Blood Trilogy collection (along with Two Thousand Maniacs and Color Me Blood Red, all housed on a single dual layer BD50).  Though the end results aren’t perfect they are overall positive.  Blood Feast is transferred from a well worn but serviceable positive 35mm source, as evidenced by the considerable print damage on display (including reel change markers and the repaired film tear shown below).  While it’s clear that little to no restorative work was put into the transfer after the telecine process the transfer certainly stays true to the source, and I’m hard pressed to argue with the end results.

Presented in 1080p, the chosen aspect ratio of 1.78:1 may court controversy with fans expecting another open matte 1.33:1 edition a la earlier videos and DVDs.  I can’t say that the choice bothered me in the least.  Lewis obviously photographed Blood Feast with the possibility of widescreen matting in mind, with plenty of headroom all around.  Only a brief shot of a letter stood out for me as being improperly framed (see the 9th capture below), and I suspect it’s appeared much the same way to the film’s theatrical audiences over the past 48 years.  The new transfer also adds a bit to the left and right of the frame, at times substantially.  Another potential sticking point is the fact that Something Weird have packaged Blood Feast with its two HD co-features and a host of extras on a single dual layer disc, limiting the available bitrate and wreaking all manner of theoretical havoc in the process.  The simple fact of the matter, as should be supported by the captures below, is that the technically meager AVC video encode (just 17.6 Mbps on average) appears to support the visuals just fine.  After checking the technical specs I was expecting something akin to The Big Doll House‘s presentation in the recent Women in Cages Blu-ray collection, or worse the unbridled mess of The Beyond, but such disasters thankfully failed to materialize and Blood Feast maintains a respectable film-like appearance throughout.

Depending on the original photography, which varies quite a lot in terms of focus, Blood Feast‘s visual detail can range from the lowly and modest to reasonably impressive (there’s some excellent skin texture to be found in the final close-up below), but always appears accurate to the source print.  Color saturation is at healthy levels, with reds (from the multitude of stage blood to the monotone lighting of Fuad Ramses’ secret shrine) that really pop, and skin tones looked natural to these eyes.  Black levels are the only sore spot, appearing flat and gray, but are hardly a deal breaker.  Overall I’m very pleased with Blood Feast‘s appearance on Blu-ray, and imperfect as it is it more than gets the job done.

For the sake of full disclosure, HD screenshots were captured as .png at full resolution in MPlayer and compressed to .jpg using the ImageMagick command-line tool.  After comparing to the original .png files the results appeared quite transparent to these eyes, even when zooming in 2-3x.  The first image below is a sample of some of the worst print damage this transfer has to offer, and is followed by ten more typical samples.

Whatever you think of the image, I think it’s safe to say that there’s nothing controversial about Blood Feast‘s audio presentation.  Something Weird grant the film an uncompressed 16-bit Linear PCM monophonic track in the original English, and it sounds just as everyone should expect – rough.  Like the photography, Blood Feast‘s audio recording can vary quite a bit from scene to scene.  Dialogue is largely intelligible, even if the final mixing of some segments is suspect, but there’s nothing wrong with the track that can’t be blamed squarely on the original recording and Lewis’ original score is even more delightfully rotten than ever.  My only complaint is that there are no accompanying subtitles whatsoever.

Blood Feast comes packaged with a healthy array of film-specific supplements, all of which appear sourced from earlier releases.  The best of the bunch is an excellent feature commentary track with director Herschell Gordon Lewis and the late producer David Friedman, with Something Weird’s Mike Vraney serving as moderator.  Lewis and Friedman are under absolutely no illusions about the quality of their product, but clearly had a blast creating it and are obviously proud of the influence it has since had on exploitation filmmaking as a whole.  Next up is a lengthy run of unedited silent alternate and outtake footage in 4:3 SD, totaling 50 minutes in all!  The only other film-specific supplements are a gallery of ad art (including images from other Friedman / Lewis productions) and the theatrical trailer presented in 1080p.  (Each of the other films in the collection is also accompanied by a feature audio commentary, outtake footage, and an original trailer, with short subjects Carving Magic and Follow That Skirt and a trailer for the Something Weird documentary Godfather of Gore rounding out the disc)

And that’s it, I think.  Something Weird have done better by Blood Feast than I really ever expected of them, and the presentation’s few imperfections do nothing to thwart my overall enthusiasm for it.  I can’t imagine most fans being disappointed (though online chatter has proven that some of you are anyway), and with The Blood Trilogy collection available for less than $12 as of this writing the disc gets an easy recommendation from me.

in conclusion
Film: Excellent (Yes, I mean it!)  Video: Very Good  Audio: Very Good   Supplements: Very Good
Harrumphs: Limited video bitrate, with all three films plus extras cohabiting one dual layer BD50, and no subtitles.
Packaging: Standard Blu-ray case.

The Evil Dead

Year: 1981  Company: Rennaisance Pictures   Runtime: 85′
Director: Sam Raimi   Writers: Sam Raimi   Cinematography: Tim Philo   Music: Joseph LoDuca
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor, Betsy Baker, Theresa Tilly, Bob Dorian, Sam Raimi
Disc company: Starz / Anchor Bay   Video: 1080p 1.85:1 / 1.33:1   Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English,
Dolby Digital 2.0 French   Subtitles: English SDH,  Spanish   Disc: BD50 (Region A) / DVD-9
Release Date: 08/21/2010   Limited Edition 2-disc is OOP, but available through third party sellers.  The current single-disc standard edition is available for purchase through Amazon.com
The Wtf-Film Guide to Essential Blu-ray is the record of one man’s eclectic journey to uncover the very best of the weird and wonderful that Blu-ray has to offer.  And with Halloween nary a month and a half away it seemed appropriate to cover an oddball horror classic in this, the inaugural edition of the column.  Mmmm… manufactured timeliness.  Can you dig it?

It’s difficult to know just what to say about The Evil Dead, a bona fide cult phenomenon that’s spawned two successful sequels, sent its writer and director to the top of the Hollywood food chain, and converted thousands of seemingly well-adjusted individuals into foaming-at-the-mouth genre fanatics over the course of the past three decades.  Perhaps the greatest compliment I can level at it is that even after thirty long years it has lost none of its spectacularly deranged funhouse appeal.  Current generations can have their sleek and soulless remakes and mindless torture porn, but my heart will always belong to The Evil Dead.

Low budget horror of the highest possible order, The Evil Dead begins in more or less familiar territory and ends anywhere but.  An air devilish playfulness is obvious from the start.  The film introduces itself with a roaring Steadicam-style point-of-view motif, thrusting the audience into the perspective of its eponymous malignance before a human cast is ever produced!  Once the cast does arrive it is almost immediately threatened, and narrowly avoids the certain doom of a disastrous head-on collision.  It’s a moment indicative of the a-thrill-a-minute mentality of The Evil Dead‘s production, and the first notice to the audience that they’re in for a bumpy ride.

Somewhere between its genre flourishes – a creepy cabin, a dark cellar, fog-bound woods full of unnatural noises – the film’s meager plot unwinds.  Five young friends are off to the wilds of Tennessee for a touch of low-rent rest and relaxation.  In rummaging about their creaky vacation spot they discover some strange memorabilia – a skeletal knife, an ancient book bound in human flesh, and the tape-recorded ramblings of a mysterious archaeologist – which they immediately set about messing with.  Before long the likable if dim-witted cast has run afoul of obscure demonic forces, and a delirious nightmare of possession begins…

The setup for The Evil Dead is as sparse as it is brief, a fact that works well in the film’s favor.  Contemporary horrors were often burdened by their dependency on cheap titillation at best or drab dramatic fill at worst, but writer and director Sam Raimi foregoes all of that and instead focuses on assaulting both his characters and his audience with a precisely timed assortment of false alarms, sight gags and legitimate frights.  That’s not to say that the story isn’t important.  Quite the contrary.  That the premise is so grounded in familiar genre tropes only enhances the insanity of what follows, providing a stable foundation from which The Evil Dead‘s house of hysterical horrors can emerge.  There’s a sort of sideshow appeal to the terrors on display here that’s hard to quantify, something that keeps us looking no matter how outlandish or cringe-worthy the film becomes.  What’s more is that on some subversive, primal level it’s fun, a factor that keeps the film from feeling cruel or mean-spirited even at its most grueling.


Who’s that guy?

And grueling The Evil Dead can certainly be, though never to such an extent that its playful spirit is entirely obfuscated.  Though clearly inspired by the dreadfully serious horror blockbuster The Exorcist, Raimi and his co-conspirators were just as clearly not concerned with the existential or spiritual concerns of demonic possession.  The focus here is squarely on entertaining the audience through the physical and psychological torments so judiciously ladeled upon the cast, a focus that brings The Evil Dead closer to the realm of slapstick comedy and Looney Tunes than to the nastily viceral horrors of The Exorcist.  While overt comedy wouldn’t enter into the series until Evil Dead II, the over-the-top comedy of gore that serves as both a retread of and a sequel to the first film, the same sensibilities are certainly in evidence.  This is the sort of film that proves just how paper-thin the line between comedy and horror really is, and much of its success lies in the fact that it frequently takes the latter to such extremes that it flirts with becoming the former.

Produced for less than half a million dollars and filmed on grainy 16mm film stock, I never cease to be amazed at just how well made The Evil Dead really is.  Sure, the extensive gore effects are so fiscally constrained as to be silly at times (a silliness that would become more and more intentional as the series wore on), but the film maintains a cinematic vitality that’s simply not seen in most of its kind.  Much of the crew of The Evil Dead had worked together to produce short 8mm subjects in the past, including the legendary Within the Woods (the short horror film concocted to drum up support for this feature production), and that experience definitely paid off here.

The Evil Dead is positively gut-loaded with old-school atmosphere and inventive design (including my favorite visual, a collapsed bridge whose steel supports have been curled so as to look like a menacing hand), with an uncharacteristically professional sound mix to match.  Save for some inherent grittiness of the 16mm photography rarely gives itself away, bolstered by thoughtful key lighting and often bizarre compositions.  Raimi’s camera follows the cast from a variety of strange and often hand-held angles, in one case beginning upside down and behind the subject, then sweeping over to end in an extreme close-up of their face.  Then there is the editing (by Edna Ruth Paul and Joel Coen, who would coordinate again for the Coen brothers’ debut feature Blood Simple), the bane of so many low-budget low-talent productions, and an element that’s in stronger form here than in most films, period.  Taken as a whole The Evil Dead can be a disarming experience, a drive-in shocker that defies expectations, transcending the limitations of genre and budget to become something deliciously unique and totally its own.

There’s plenty more to be said of The Evil Dead, its horrors, and its star (what’s his name again?), but I’ll leave it to others to say it.  This is a film best experienced first hand rather than talked about, and I’ll not spoil further details of it here.  Just rest assured that its reputation is well-earned and that yes, you need to see it.  Enough said.

I’m sure I’ve been guilty of saying the same thing in the past, but the more marginal Blu-ray releases I see the more I hate the same tired assumption that such and such subpar product is “perhaps the best this low-budget cult picture is ever going to look“.  I realize that expectations are low for genre efforts, largely because of decades worth of sub-par theatrical presentations and even worse video editions, but when generally trustworthy reviewers begin excusing crap like the recent Blu-ray of The Hills Have Eyes with idiotic assumptions about filmic limitations (“You can’t improve beyond the source” my ass) I get angry.  I count myself lucky that there are at least a few genuinely fantastic genre releases on my side, and couldn’t be happier to add Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray edition of The Evil Dead to the list.

Anchor Bay has had more than its fair share of HD troubles, mostly to do with a spate of overly-processed DNR-heavy affairs (Dawn of the Dead anyone?) from early in the format’s history, but there’s nothing to fault them for here.  The Evil Dead makes its high definition debut in a new director-supervised 1080p transfer minted from the original negative, and I find it genuinely difficult to believe that the film could ever look much better.  Presented in both theatrical 1.85:1 and the originally-intended 1.33:1, this new edition excels beyond past DVD editions to an extent I hardly thought possible.  Detail shows a marked improvement across the board, with the backgrounds of exterior shots finally appearing as more than just amorphous blobs, while color saturation and contrast take a turn for the natural.  Film grain is present throughout, and is predictably more pronounced in the matted 1.85:1 edition, and aside from some questionable moments during the opening title the strong AVC encode (26.3 Mbps average video bitrate for the 1.33:1 version, minutely higher for 1.85:1) never falters.  Framing differs between the two aspect ratios but not always as one might expect.  The 1.85:1 edition almost always appears to have more information at the sides, though the amount is not consistent across the board.  The intended 1.33:1 feels more comfortably framed, but even the 1.85:1 edition isn’t so ridiculously constrained as in past editions (see the 8th comparison set below).  This wipes the floor with what came before, and I’d say it looks damned good.

For the sake of full disclosure, HD screenshots were captured as .png at full resolution in MPlayer and compressed to .jpg using Image Magick.  After comparing to the original .png files the results appeared quite transparent to these eyes, even when zooming in 2-3x.  DVD screenshots were captured in .png format in VLC from the 2002 Anchor Bay edition, upconverted to 1920×1080 in GIMP and compressed to .jpg format at a quality setting of 95%.  DVD screen shots appear first, followed by the 1.85:1 and finally 1.33:1 HD variants.  Frame matches are exact in all cases.

Comparison Set #1

Comparison Set #2

Comparison Set #3

Comparison Set #4

Comparison Set #5

Comparison Set #6

Comparison Set #7

Comparison Set #8

Comparison Set #9

Comparison Set #10

Comparison Set #11

Comparison Set #12

No original monophonic mix is included, but this is no surprise (the 2002 DVD was lacking in that department as well), and the 5.1 surround track gets a decent technical bump in Dolby TrueHD.  The Evil Dead‘s outlandish sound design, with clocks ticking like guillotines and voices sneaking up from beyond, lends itself well to the surround format, and the more bombastic moments come across very nicely.  A lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 French dub track is also included, and the feature is supported by optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles.

The sole new supplement in this package is a brand new audio commentary that gathers director Sam Raimi, producer Robert Tapert and the star of the show (who has sadly gone on to dwell in obscurity, with no hit television series or successful film productions to his credit at all), and it’s a blast.  Detailed production information goes hand in hand with anecdotes, and The Evil Dead may be one of the most fascinating film production to hear about, ever.  It’s abundantly clear that this was a labor of (mad) love for all involved, and that they genuinely cherish the experience regardless of how awful it was at times.

If you have the standard single-disc Blu-ray version of The Evil Dead then the above commentary is the only extra on board.  The now-OOP and needlessly limited edition two-disc version collects most of the supplements from Anchor Bay’s Ultimate Edition DVD from 2006 and piles them onto a dual layer DVD that accompanies the feature Blu-ray.  This is the only sore spot of this release, in my mind.  The dual layered Blu-ray, even after carrying 2 separate encodes of the film, still has more than enough space to cover the 6.9 GB of standard definition material presented on the DVD.  So why not put it there?  I have no idea, but those who already own the Ultimate Edition can at least rest assured that the additional disc in the LE Blu-ray doesn’t have anything on it that they haven’t already seen.

The disc 2 standard definition supplements are as follows: One By One We Will Take You: The Untold Saga of The Evil Dead (54 minutes), The Evil Dead: Treasures From the Cutting Room Floor (60 minutes), The Ladies of The Evil Dead Meet B…. C…… (29 minutes), Discovering Evil Dead (13 minutes), Unconventional (19 minutes), At the Drive-In (12 minutes), Reunion Panel (31 minutes), Book of the Dead: The Other Pages (2 minutes), Make-Up Test (1 minute), a theatrical trailer (2 minutes), four television spots (2 minutes), and a brief photo gallery.  It amounts to just under four hours of material, all told, and is well worth the time it takes to view it all.

I could lament again how disappointing it is that Starz / Anchor Bay needlessly released a limited edition and have now saddled potential buyers with a Blu-ray with very little supplemental heft, but I won’t.  With The Evil Dead looking as it does here I’d have settled for nothing and less in the way of supplements.  Yes, I think it looks that good.  There’s no question here as to whether to recommend or not recommend.  Just buy it.  It’s good for you.

in conclusion
Film: Excellent  Video: Excellent  Audio: Very Good   Supplements: Excellent -
Harrumphs: Missing some past supplements, and needlessly a limited edition.
Packaging: Standard 2-disc Blu-ray case.