Blu Notes: Night of the Living Dead ’90

It’s been 22 years since Tom Savini’s official remake (scripted by Romero himself) of the landmark 1968 horror Night of the Living Dead first reached theater screens, more than long enough for a certain nostalgia to build up around it. I must admit to having not much liked the film upon first seeing it, but in the years since I’ve developed a respect and even an affinity for it. As such I was eager to revisit Savini’s Night as film, but such a kerfuffle has erupted with regards to its Blu-ray presentation from Twilight Time that it’s utterly distracted from that process. So in lieu of a film review (one will follow later, I promise) here are my observations on the release itself.

To state the obvious, this presentation of Night of the Living Dead is significantly different, aesthetically, from any that has been made available before. There is typically no shortage of praise to be found in these pages for Sony’s archive restoration department, but their approach here certainly raises questions. Given Sony’s usual approach (either to work directly with someone involved with the production to develop the film’s aesthetic on video, or to go by past knowledge – release prints, etc.) it’s difficult to imagine the changes here passing muster without the approval of someone involved in the original production, though just who that might have been remains unknown (edit to add: The source is evidently a 2010 HD master minted with the involvement of DP Frank Prinzi. Thanks, internet!). What is known is that Tom Savini has now given his approval to the Blu-ray’s new look, making the answers to what’s “right” or “wrong” with Night of the Living Dead‘s appearance rather more ambiguous.

Now for the changes. The first major alteration to how the film has appeared begins almost as soon as the film does. The first twenty minutes of the film, straight daytime sequences in all past editions, now shift from daylight to day-for-night (or twilight, more specifically) over the course of Barbara’s opening flight from the cemetery and the early events at the farmhouse. Colors cool, contrast flattens, and darkness pervades. It’s a dramatic difference in comparison to past editions, and one I can’t say that I’m really enamored with. The problem here is that the shift just doesn’t work within the previously existing language of the film, which is veritably screaming daytime (the ambient soundtrack, full of chirping birds, is a good example) even as the new timing tells us otherwise. Minor details unnoticed before, like Ben arriving with his truck lights off, now pose problems for the new continuity, and what of the film’s montage noting the changeover from day to night? It’s still here, of course, calling into question the whole rationale of artificially clarifying a point the film already makes.

While those first 20 minutes mark the most significant diversion from the past, the rest of the film has been treated as well. The whole appearance has been flattened, from the contrast to the color, leaving the majority of the picture with a darkened and dulled, almost antique appearance. While I don’t find the overall effect objectionable within the context of the film I do find the dimness of the white levels a bit of a distraction. Areas of the image that should be hot (flood lights, a basement lamp, muzzle flashes, even the film’s one big explosion) are unnaturally cold and grey, as though the image were being projected with a defective bulb. The same (or at least a similar) effect has been applied to the daylight sequence that closes the film, lending it a similar quality to “flashed” pictures like Deliverance and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Aside from the alterations Sony’s transfer appears sound, presenting with a very healthy level of detail and a consistent, refined layer of film grain that only rarely descends into noisiness. The image appears free of the usual brand of digital tampering, with no evidence of edge enhancement or adverse noise reduction, though the new color filtering has resulted in some unpalatable posterization effects at times (see the zombie’s face and surrounding sky in the sample below). Twilight Time have given Sony’s contentious HD master a healthy technical backing – the video is encoded Mpeg-4 AVC at a reasonable average bitrate of 26.8 Mbps, and compression artifacts are never an issue.

The audio will prove another sticking point for many. Sony, typically quite astute in their mastering of surround remixes, obviously weren’t paying quite as much attention here, and at least one key sound effect – the shutter click heard over the closing credits montage – is absent from the mix entirely (I can’t vouch for any other missing bits as I’m just not that familiar with the film). Otherwise the DTS-HD MA 5.1 track sounds quite good, with Paul McCollough’s electronic score (also available as an isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 track) given substantially more room to breath than in more compressed past editions. Per the usual for Twilight Time’s Sony-licensed titles, optional English SDH subtitles are included. The release arrives with a Tom Savini audio commentary (ported over from the older DVD) as well as the original theatrical trailer in HD, and Julie Kirgo contributes another fine booklet of liner notes.

Twilight Time went out of their comfort zone in responding to fan requests and releasing Night of the Living Dead ’90 on Blu-ray, and while it’s a shame that the release hasn’t matched expectations the outrage that’s developed against it has been a little… well… outrageous. The label is doing their part in accepting returns from the unsatisfied customers, and otherwise there’s always the bloated resell market (this limited edition was out of print before it was even released, and is already fetching lofty prices from third party scalpers). I consider it fortunate that Night‘s sellout status has alleviated some of the pressure on me for a yea or nay recommendation. Personally speaking, I can live with the disc even as much as I don’t care for some of the changes – I’ve been relying on a decades-old VHS up until now and my pack-rat home media sensibilities mean it’s always there if I need it. Those looking to purchase are encouraged to know what they’re getting into1, particularly at the current going rates. Director Tom Savini has approved of it and I may be fine with it as well, but it’s ultimately up to your personal preferences, and mileage will vary.

1 I realize this wasn’t an option for most, as the title sold out before reviews were even possible. This is the assumed risk of limited edition collecting – either buy early, with the possibility of being disappointed by the eventual result, or wait for coverage and risk paying out the nose.

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

Night of the Living Dead was reviewed from a screener graciously provided to this site by Twilight Time.

Blu Notes: Four from Twilight Time

As much as it may seem that I relish the opportunity to review shoddy home video releases, gloating in picking out the various troubling minutiae that others might gloss over, I really don’t. Covering such dismal treatments as The Deadly Spawn on Blu-ray (times two!) is a tedious, draining, unpleasant process that I wish could be avoided entirely, regardless of its necessity. No, when it comes to home video I vastly prefer watching and reporting on the jobs well done, and for the last year boutique label Twilight Time have proven themselves to be dependable providers of just that. I’ve somehow become unjustifiably backlogged with the label’s releases over the last couple of months, but after such a disappointing start to this week I’m happy to have them to fall back on.

What follows are four brief disc-only reviews of the latest Twilight Time offerings, as well as substantial image samplings from each. Consider it a blessing that the label has left me with so little to discuss here. While not always perfect, these discs are all quite good, and I’d not hesitate to recommend any among them to fans.

High Time
(Blake Edwards, 1960)

In terms of its presentation this Bing Crosby / Blake Edwards comedy is easily the weakest of this latest wave of Twilight Time Blu-rays, but even here my complaints are limited. High Time arrives, for what appears to be its premiere on digital home video, in a modest 1080p transfer at its intended theatrical aspect ratio (2.35:1 CinemaScope). Contrast isn’t so punchy as it perhaps should be, and the DeLuxe color appears a bit dull in return, but the most noteworthy issue here is to do with the lack of any notable restoration. The source elements, while far from being in the worst of shape, are marked with all manner of minor damage and debris, and dirt, specks, and light scratches are readily evident throughout the transfer. Otherwise the film grain is relatively well rendered, if a touch noisy in places, and the modest detail allowed by the CinemaScope process is reasonably preserved. All in all it’s an acceptable presentation complemented by a similarly acceptable single layer encode (Mpeg-4 AVC with an average bitrate in the low to mid 20s), and given the film’s lack of representation in the video market otherwise I’m hard pressed to make too much of its deficiencies – all my quibbles aside, this looks fine.

Purists will be pleased to find High Time‘s original 4-track recording alive and well, and soundly presented in DTS-HD MA. The best part of the film may well be Henry Mancini’s terrific score, which sounds lovely in 4-track and is made available as an isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 track besides. There are no subtitles, and an original theatrical trailer (in SD) and a typically nice set of liner notes from Julie Kirgo round out the package. High Time is available now from ScreenArchives.com and their Amazon storefront.

The Sound and the Fury
(Martin Ritt, 1959)

This Faulkner adaptation (or bastardization, depending on your perspective) from the underrated Martin Ritt is another Fox classic making its home video debut, and the quality of its presentation was a real surprise to this viewer. The Egyptian, with its pristine CinemaScope visuals and lush DeLuxe color, still ranks as the best of that studio’s collaborations with Twilight Time, but The Sound and the Fury isn’t far behind – someone at Fox clearly cares about this one.

Whatever the reality may be, The Sound and the Fury‘s presentation here makes it impossible to think the source elements were in anything but pristine condition. What blemishes do appear are so infrequent and of such minor stature to hardly warrant mentioning, and after the unexpected grittiness of High Time the cleaner, more refined nature of the image here is very much appreciated. Detail in the CinemaScope image is again modest, though with some subtle appeal, but contrast is at proper levels and the DeLuxe color appears quite natural. The Sound and the Fury is another single layer transfer, but the Mpeg-4 AVC encode (average bitrate again in the low 20s) does no wrong by the film grain, which remains well-rendered throughout. Both Fox and Twilight Time have done very well here, and I’m left with nothing to complain about with regards to the visuals.

Though a 4-track show upon release The Sound and the Fury gets a more typical DTS-HD MA 2.0 track here – it sounded quite good to these ears, with the score (this time from Alex North) again taking top honors. There are no subtitles. North’s music, available as an isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 track, is the only on-disc supplement, and Julie Kirgo contributes another excellent booklet of notes to round out the package. The Sound and the Fury is available now through ScreenArchives.com (Amazon lists it as “currently unavailable”, but I imagine it’ll be there soon enough).

Steel Magnolias
(Herbert Ross, 1989)

Like As Good as it Gets before it, Herbert Ross’ Steel Magnolias raises the question of just what hope there is left for the big studio libraries on home video when well-received all-star dramas less than 25 years old are on the licensing chopping block, but I digress. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray of this Tristar production from 1989 offers exactly what should be expected of high definition editions of such recent titles – a trouble-free presentation that even I can’t find a fault with.

Steel Magnolias makes the jump to 1080p at the appropriate theatrical ratio of 1.85:1, and the transfer leaves nothing to complain about. The overall appearance is warm, with well saturated color and an attractive level of detail that’s well within expectations for a flat-photographed 35mm production of its time. Film grain is light and unobtrusive, but consistent and well-rendered to boot. Steel Magnolias gets the superior technical treatment of the discs covered thus far. The two hour feature is spread comfortably over a dual layer BD50, and the Mpeg-4 AVC-encoded transfer clocks in at the typical Twilight Time bitrate of 33.2 Mbps on average. Audio is as faultless as the video here, DTS-HD MA 5.1 with Georges Delerue’s score accompanying in an isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 track – optional English SDH subtitles are included. Twilight Time offer a substantial supplement by way of a feature commentary with director Herbert Ross (in standard DTS), and a book of liner notes from Julie Kirgo rounds out the package. Steel Magnolias is available now through ScreenArchives.com (there is no Amazon listing at the moment).

Bye Bye Birdie
(George Sidney, 1963) 

Every once and a while a Blu-ray presentation really gets me, and while I’m no great admirer of the film (another Broadway adaptation from George Pal Joey Sidney) Twilight Time’s Blu-ray of Bye Bye Birdie got me good.

Presented in 1080p from another exceptional Sony restoration, Bye Bye Birdie offers fans of the production all that they might have hoped for – a film-accurate video presentation that really pops. The biggest story here may be the color, which is as sumptuously rendered as anything I’ve seen on the format thus far. In recent years Sony’s restoration team have done more to preserve the visual potency of their Technicolor library than any others around, and their work here is beautiful indeed. Pitch-perfect saturation is backed with airtight contrast, and the resulting image has irresistible zing – I couldn’t take my eyes away. The image impresses in other aspects as well. Damage is so minimal as to be a non-issue, detail is strong, and the film grain is deliciously rendered. The 112 minute feature creeps into dual layer territory, and a strong Mpeg-4 AVC video encode (average bitrate 33.2 Mbps) lends spotless support. You’ll hear no complaints from me.

In the audio department Bye Bye Birdie is the beneficiary of a typically strong Sony 5.1 restoration / upmix, and while I’m not overly fond of the music here it certainly sounded good to me – optional English SDH subtitles are included. Supplements boast an isolated score track in DTS-HD MA 2.0 as well as an original trailer and teaser for the film, both presented in beautiful HD. Another fine set of liner notes from Julie Kirgo round out the package.

Bye Bye Birdie is perhaps the best Twilight Time release of the year, and even though I don’t even like the film I can’t help but recommend it. Work like this deserves to be supported, and if there’s any justice in the world this will be the label’s next sellout title. Bye Bye Birdie is available now from ScreenArchives.com and their Amazon storefront.

The following Blu-ray screenshots were produced by our usual method – 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.

High Time

The Sound and the Fury

Steel Magnolias

Bye Bye Birdie

Twilight Time Takes a Road Less Traveled: John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus

directed by Victor Vicas
1957 / 20th Century Fox / 88′
written by
Ivan Moffat from the novel by John Steinbeck
original music by Leigh Harline
cinematography by Charles G. Clarke
starring Joan Collins, Jayne Mansfield, Dan Dailey, Rick Jason, Betty Lou Keim, Dolores Michaels
released June 12th, 2012 by
Twilight Time
video: 1080p / 2.35:1 / B&W / Mpeg-4 AVC
audio: DTS-HD MA 1.0 Mono (English)
subtitles: none
discs: single layer BD25 / Region A (B, C untested)
supplements: Original Theatrical Trailer, Isolated Score (DTS-HD MA 2.0)
The Wayward Bus is released as part of the Twilight Time limited edition series (only 3000 copies), and is available through ScreenArchives.com.

My last Twilight Time article was a bit of a mope-fest, pondering the implications of the appearance of recent big-Hollywood schmaltz on a niche label’s release roster, but those worried about a repeat performance with regards to the company’s second June offering can rest easy. Far from prompting any kind of sky-is-falling revelation, this limited edition issue of John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus instead serves as an exemplary reminder of why labels like Twilight Time, Olive Films and the like have become so important (at least in my estimation) to the contemporary home video marketplace. Whether justifiably neglected, criminally undervalued, or somewhere in between, there is a literal mountain of cinema that, thanks to the prevailing “new or nothing” sentiment of the majors, has no good probability of seeing Blu-ray release at their hands. Twilight Time and even the recently prolific Olive Films will never be enough to pick up all that slack, but at least they have the gumption to try - I shudder to think of the state of my Blu-ray shelf without them.

As for the film, one would be hard-pressed to describe John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus as any kind of classic – the fact that it’s been wholly absent from video circulation until now, even with Jayne Mansfield headlining and Steinbeck attached, isn’t entirely unjustified. Yet the film is not without its charms. Adapted by Ivan Moffat (Giant) from the eponymous bestselling 1947 novel, though with what level of veracity I don’t know, and directed by the little-known Victor Vicas (who would go on to have a substantial career in French television), The Wayward Bus is ultimately less a literary odyssey than a twisting, turning excursion into high Hollywood hokum that punctuates its predominating emotional conflicts with landslides, wash-outs, and all the subtlety of a kick to the groin. Still, somehow it compels, and I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the ride.

The Wayward Bus chronicles a particularly eventful bus ride from a bleak California crossroads to a terminal in San Juan, and if the title doesn’t offer enough ominous portend then an early radio warning about “stormy weather” certainly makes up for it. Stormy weather indeed, as in addition to the patently theatrical flash and crash and a whopper of a backcountry deluge, there’s a marriage headed for the rocks as well. The Chicoys have enough on their hands even before the death-defying antics of the day, with the distractions of running both a bus line and a crossroads convenience stop, not to mention wife Alice’s perennial alcoholism, proving just too much for their love life (interrupted early by the proverbial fly in the pudding) to stand. As Johnny ushers the day’s load of malcontents to their various fates, wondering all the while what direction to take his own, Alice stays behind, searching for the importance in her life through the bleary filter of Scotch.

The less said about Ivan Moffat’s screenwriting, with its drama poured on so thick it could choke a guy, the better, though it does offer any number of fine moments for The Wayward Bus‘ oddball ensemble. The beautiful Joan Collins is out of her element as the nigh-bipolar Alice, but she certainly makes an impression, hunched drunken over a cash register or judging her disheveled looks in the chrome of a cigarette dispenser – and those eyes! The fated Jayne Mansfield also shines in one of her few roles of any depth, here as a jaded showgirl looking for a way out (and finding it in salesman Dan Dailey, an itinerant peddler itching to settle down). Properly stealing the show is relative newcomer Dolores Michaels (The Fiend Who Walked the West), playing the sultry and oversexed daughter of a sleazy businessman (Larry Keating, mastermind of the Space Ark in George Pal’s When Worlds Collide) – Michaels’ acid delivery is almost worth the price of admission in and of itself. The fine special effects, credited to reliable Fox artisan L.B. Abbot (Journey to the Center of the Earth), are plenty memorable themselves, and the sight of the film’s rickety namesake creeping along a flood-ravaged bridge is of indelible stuff indeed.

John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus works itself to no satisfying conclusion (I was left with the sense that Johnny and Alice’s relationship is of a Sisyphean sort, doomed to repeat in the same manner again and again), though at least it does so quickly – the sleek CinemaScope production clocks in at a trim 88 minutes, and is really all the better for it. Though no classic by a long shot, The Wayward Bus is still engaging enough in its own strange way to warrant a grudging recommendation from this reviewer. If for Dolores Michaels alone, it’s worth a watch.

Working once again from Fox’s variable high definition elements, Twilight Time present John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus in an edition that’s entirely acceptable, if imperfect – a fitting turn for the film in question.

Presented in 1080p in its intended 2.35:1 CinemaScope, The Wayward Bus shows its age (55 years!) with a bit of flicker and minor damage, but looks quite good all told. My only major complaint is with the light sharpening that has been applied, which leads some textures (the patterns of some clothing) to pop unnaturally in motion and leaves the sharper imagery marked by tell-tale edging artifacts. The effect is slight enough to be no deal breaker in my estimation, though those more sensitive to the issue may wish to take note. Otherwise The Wayward Bus offers lovely contrast and a nice level of detail, and leaves very little to complain about. The usual Twilight Time encoding standards have been modestly altered for this single-layer BD25 presentation, but the Mpeg-4 AVC video encode (at a strong average bitrate of 29.3 Mbps) shows no obvious deficiencies for the trouble. Beyond the sharpening, which would have been applied well before Twilight Time ever got their hands on the material, I’ve no complaints.

The original 4-track stereo elements for John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus appear to have fallen by the wayside in the decades since it was made, but the offered 1.0 monophonic track, presented here in lossless DTS-HD MA, does the job just fine. Dialogue is clear and intelligible, as are the cues from Disney alum Leigh Harline – the isolated score is offered as an extra, and presented in lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo. I must admit that my patience is wearing thin with Fox’s continued reticence to provide subtitles for those titles they license to Twilight Time. With sad predictability, none are provided here. An original theatrical trailer for the show (2 minutes, SD) rounds out the supplemental content, and the disc comes packaged with another fine set of liner notes from Julie Kirgo.

John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus isn’t exactly the best of the best from Twilight Time, but much like the film, this Blu-ray will do. It perhaps stands best as an example of the label’s willingness to think outside the box, and present audiences with something they’ve, in all likelihood, never had the opportunity to see before. If for that alone I applaud it.

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

Twilight Time Gives as Good as it Gets

As Good as it Gets
directed by James L. Brooks
starring Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, Cuba Gooding Jr., Skeet Ulrich, Shirley Knight
released June 12th, 2012 by
Twilight Time
video: 1080p / 1.85:1 / Color / Mpeg-4 AVC
audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround (English)
subtitles: English SDH
discs: dual layer BD50 / Region A (B, C untested)
supplements: Original Theatrical Trailer, Isolated Score (DTS-HD MA 2.0)
As Good as it Gets is part of the Twilight Time limited edition series (only 3000 copies), and is available through ScreenArchives.com.


My apologies for the briefer than usual article, but the fact is that the brand of schmaltzy, saccharine drama represented by As Good as it Gets just isn’t my cup of tea, never has been, and I fear never will be. Rather than torment myself and bore you all to tears in an attempt to squeeze 1000 words out of a film that completely disinterests me, I’ll be sticking to the video review this go around.


In its way As Good as it Gets may be the most disheartening addition yet to the ever-expanding Twilight Time Limited Edition Blu-ray catalog, not in terms of content but in what it says about the current state of the video industry in America. With their earlier Fright Night (a cult favorite with big appeal, and Twilight Time’s only sell-out to date) came similar concerns with regards to a lack of studio confidence in their own libraries, but this is a further step down the rabbit hole. As Good as it Gets was released to rave reviews and Academy Award nominations (and wins) just 15 years ago, and its cast offers enough name recognition to ensure broad appeal for a mainstream video release even now. With Sony’s past cult releases (like Night of the Creeps) performing below expectations the move of Fright Night into niche label territory was neither surprising nor particularly unforgivable, but that a film so recent and mainstream as As Good as it Gets is being sub-licensed as well speaks sad volumes about the future of big-studio video releases, and in particular of just how poorly we can expect library titles to be represented by them.1

But enough doom and gloom – whether or not the industry as we know it is in its death throws, dammit, we’re here to discuss video! In that respect there’s nothing in the least bit discouraging about As Good as it Get‘s Blu-ray debut, which stands as another fine representative of the quality of presentation Twilight Time has come to be known for.

Produced only a decade and a half ago, and as such all but immune to the age-related concerns so often raised in my articles, As Good as it Gets makes for a splendid HD presentation. There are a handful of opticals peppered throughout (a view of a marina from a hotel window, the opening and closing credits) that show the odd speck or two and the thickness of multiple layers of film, but otherwise this is a remarkably clean show. Grain-a-phobes should be pleased by the modesty of the film texture (the light grain is never overpowering), while those allergic to digital mitigation efforts will find none to bemoan here – this transfer is sublimely filmic. In addition to the texture of the medium, the level of detail improves markedly in the bump to HD. Close-ups offer an impressive range and photographed textures (cloth patterning and so on) are tight. The predominantly warm color scheme is very well rendered, bolstered by healthy contrast and natural light levels throughout. Despite the dubiousness of their licensing practices, Sony have left little to complain about here – this is another grade-A high definition transfer from the company.

Twilight Time stick to the standards that have marked so many of their recent releases, and that’s just fine by me. Spread comfortably over a dual layer BD50, the 2-hour-plus As Good as it Gets receives a strong Mpeg-4 AVC video encode at an average bitrate of 33.2 Mbps (with a maximum bitrate of 38.0 Mbps) and the results are, for all intents and purposes, flawless – those sensitive to encoding artifacts will find nothing of distraction here. Aside from a bit of screaming As Good as it Gets isn’t especially impactful on the sound front, but Sony’s 5.1 surround mix (in lossless DTS-HD MA) gives it superior technical support just the same. Hans Zimmer’s buoyant score (also available in its own isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 track) shines through nicely, and the rest of the dialogue-heavy production’s recording is perfectly clear and intelligible – optional English SDH subtitles are included, so I’ve no complaints. An original theatrical trailer (2 minutes, HD) rounds out the on-disc content, and the package arrives with another fine booklet of liner notes from Julie Kirgo.

As Good as it Gets remains about as wide of my area of expertise (and interest) as a film can get, and the less I say about it here the less I’m apt to embarrass myself, but even a lukewarm reaction to the feature wasn’t enough to dull my senses to Twilight Time’s Blu-ray edition. This is another excellent video presentation, the likes of which should really be the norm for the format, and those keen on the production are encouraged to indulge.

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.

1 And still, As Good as it Gets is far from the worst news regarding Sony’s catalog confidence – the company recently made a 250 picture deal with bargain bin megalith Mill Creek, which says plenty about how much they currently feel their library is worth. At this point I suppose I should just be happy that there are still independent distributors out there who are able and willing to pick up the big-studio slack.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

dir. Henry Levin
1959 / 20th Century Fox / 129′
written by Walter Reisch and Charles Brackett
from the novel by Jules Verne
director of photography Leo Tover
original music by Bernard Herrmann
starring Pat BooneJames Mason, Arlene Dahl, Peter Ronson, Thayer David, Diane Baker, Alan Napier, Alan Caillou, and Gertrude the Duck
reviewed from a screener provided by Twilight Time
Journey to the Center of the Earth
 is out on limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time, and is available exclusively through ScreenArchives.com.

Jules Verne’s classic science fiction adventure novel Voyage au Centre de la Terre has been adapted many times for screens both large and small, most often quite badly, but despite some considerable liberties taken with the source material this big-budget adaptation from 20th Century Fox remains the best of the bunch. The (very) big brother to Irwin Allen’s lamentable yet lovable sci-fi fiasco The Lost World, Fox’s 1959 production of Journey to the Center of the Earth fills the CinemaScope screen with vivid color spectacle and A-list talent while one of Bernard Herrmann’s best fantasy scores rumbles forth in 4-track stereo. It remains a damn fine show more than half a century on, bolstered by an intelligent, often playful screenplay (from Charles The Lost Weekend Brackett and Walter Gaslight Reisch) that still holds up – it’s no surprise the film made a small mint upon release, and continues to generate royalty checks for its then-young star Pat Boone.

Though substantially altered in its details the narrative here is familiar enough: When the recently-knighted Professor Lindenbrook (James Mason, displaying the same charismatic misanthropy that would mark his performance in Kubrick’s Lolita) receives a celebratory paperweight – an unusually heavy chunk of igneous rock – from his star pupil Alec (Pat Boone, whose heart-throb appeal is plundered early and often), he suspects there’s more to the thing than meets the eye. A chance encounter with an overfed laboratory furnace reveals the suspicious rock’s secret – within lies a plumb-bob upon which is etched the last words of explorer Arne Saknussem, who therein claims to have reached the center of the Earth!

Thus is launched the Lindenbrook expedition, an effort by the Professor and his loyal underling (Boone is, amusingly, billed above Mason) to follow in Saknussem’s footsteps and reach the furthest recesses of the inner Earth. After joining forces with Madame Carla Göteborg (the lovely Arlene Dahl as the freshly widowed wife of a rival scientist), Icelandic strongman Hans (legitimate Icelander Peter Ronson), and his devoted duck Gertrude, the expedition makes its way down into an extinct volcanic crater and through the cavernous interior of the Earth, threatened all the while by hazardous geology, dinosaurs, and a devious heir to the Saknussem legacy who wishes to claim the center of the Earth as his own…

Journey to the Center of the Earth is a matinee-style programmer done in atypically grand style, and one of the few honestly BIG science fiction spectacles of its day (along with Forbidden Planet and the productions of George Pal). While some of the set design is suspect (director Henry Levin and director of photography Leo Tover keep those early cavern interiors dark with good reason) the overall scale of the thing, particularly when the ruins of Atlantis and the expansive mushroom forest make their appearances, and the caliber of the talent involved more than make up for it. Boone no doubt set his young idolaters’ hearts a-twitter, both with his early crooning and later clothing-impaired antics, but for me this has always been Mason’s show. The actor was arguably at the height of his potential here, with Hitchcock’s North By Northwest under his belt and Kubrick’s Lolita within sight, and had already proven his Verneian mettle as the quintessential Captain Nemo in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea just a few years earlier. Perhaps more important than Mason alone is the convincing tit-for-tat relationship that develops between him and his co-star Arlene Dahl (one of Minneapolis’ own, for those of you locals reading) – this drama has always worked for me, even as a kid who was accustomed to patiently waiting out the “boring parts” to get to the sensational trappings.

Of course Journey to the Center of the Earth has sensational trappings in spades, including such suspense staples as the ledge walk (soon to be appropriated by Irwin Allen, who evidently thought it the epitome of screen thrills), the giant rolling boulder, and the collapsing rock bridge – this was one of the earlier big-budget efforts to co-opt such B-grade cliffhanger devices, before Lucas and Star Wars made the practice an industry standard. The special effects production is top-notch throughout, with the matte artist(s) proving especially deserving of commendation (the early vistas of Icelandic mountains and later revelation of a vast underground sea are both breathtaking stuff), though, as ever, there is at least one point of contention. Like One Million B.C. and the Flash Gordon serials before it, Journey to the Center of the Earth relied on the deservedly criticized slurpasaur technique to bring its various dinosaurs to life. In this case its a gaggle of rhinoceros iguanas and one rather irate tegu pulling monster duty, though at least the former are cast as morphologically similar Dimetrodons – in the annals of slurpasaur history they are easily some of the most convincing. Fox obviously deemed the monster efforts of Emil Kosa Jr., James B. Gordon and L. B. Abbott to be “good enough” in this respect, as the trio were tasked with the process again just a year later, for Irwin Allen’s The Lost World.

Slurpasaurs or no, Journey to the Center of the Earth‘s tremendous entertainment potential remains (there’s a reason the ScreenArchives servers crashed the day this film went up for pre-order, and it wasn’t just the promise of Pat Boone’s autograph!), and with a host of wonderful performances, a taught script, and superb production design on its side it stands firmly as one of the best of its genre. This is a film that’s captivated me since before I can rightly remember, and is more than worthy of recommendation if for that reason alone. See it!

I’ve owned Journey to the Center of the Earth on VHS, Laserdisc and DVD over the years, and as such I’ve looked forward the title’s debut in high definition with the utmost anticipation. I was not disappointed.

If I’m not mistaken, Journey‘s negative was in too ragged a condition to be sourced for either DVD or Blu-ray, and as such the film had to be reconstituted from 35mm separations (essentially three individual black and white prints, each of which represents one color of the three-strip color process) for its more recent video transfers. Given the quality of the results, I’m glad 20th Century Fox went to all the trouble. It seems pertinent to get the worst out of the way first. Journey isn’t a spotless presentation by any means, and minor flecks and speckling are in evidence throughout. More bothersome is faint but notable vertical scratching to the right of frame center that persists for what appears to be an entire reel, from roughly 00:35:00 to 00:48:00 (see the first screenshot below, just above Alec’s shoulder). The anomaly is present in the 2003 Fox DVD of the film as well, but has become more noticeable with the increased resolution (it’s easy to miss unless hunted for on the DVD).

The issue of damage aside, it’s difficult to fault Journey‘s HD presentation for much of anything else – in 1080p this film can be quite stunning, and the improvement in-motion is substantial (gone forever is the modestly ghosty, video quality of the DVD). As I find myself saying so often of these older CinemaScope productions, detail doesn’t improve so much as the texture of the thing. This is another film that has thankfully been allowed to retain the physicality of that medium on Blu-ray, even if the grain isn’t so well rendered here as on The Egyptian or Picnic. Color reproduction is vivid and natural (this is perhaps the greatest benefit of working from separations), with robust saturation and sharp contrast that really puts past editions to shame. In purely technical terms this is another good showing for Twilight Time - Journey receives a typically strong Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average video bitrate of 33.2 Mbps. The feature is spread comfortably over a dual layer BD50, and artifacting, if any, is negligible. Fans of the film should be very pleased.

Journey to the Center of the Earth receives a considerable bump in the audio department courtesy of a lovely lossless DTS-HD MA encode of the original 4-track stereo mix, and it should come as no surprise that Bernard Herrmann’s bass-heavy score, often muddled in past editions, sees the most benefit from it. The organs underlying the opening title theme are thunderous here, and as a former bass (and contrabass) clarinetist I was thrilled to finally be able to distinguish that instrument’s role in things as well. As is the norm for Twilight Time’s Fox-licensed titles, there are no subtitles available. Supplements offer Herrmann’s score as an isolated lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 track, as well as the original American and Spanish trailers for the film (both SD). Packaging is of the company’s typically high standards, spearheaded by another wonderful essay from Julie Kirgo, and the disc is, again, fully functional, with non-generic chapter stops, pop-up menu and so on.

What else can I say? I love this film, and Twilight Time’s limited edition Blu-ray soundly bests what’s come before. This gets another easy recommendation from me.

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

Bite the Bullet

dir. Richard Brooks
1975 / Columbia Pictures / 132′
written by Richard Brooks
director of photography Harry Stradling Jr.
original music by Alex North
starring Gene Hackman, James Coburn, Candice Bergen, Ben Johnson, Ian Bannen, Jan-Michael Vincent, Mario Arteaga, and Dabney Coleman
reviewed from a screener provided by Twilight Time
Bite the Bullet
 is out on limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time, and is available exclusively through ScreenArchives.com and their Amazon storefront.

If ever there were a film thematically befitting the Twilight Time label, Richard Brooks’ epic ode to a dying West is it. Like Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch before it 1975′s Bite the Bullet occupies a time and place of fading, in which the majesty and thrill of the old West is wrangled for cheap spectacle and circulation boosting by way of a turn of the century newspaper-financed 700 mile endurance horse race. With a $2,000 prize on the line, and substantially more bet on the side, the event brings out all types, from a aging cowboys and fresh young upstarts to a former prostitute and a pair of Teddy’s own Rough Riders, but as the miles drag on it becomes obvious that the contestant’s various personal stakes amount to a sight more than a stack of bills and a name in the paper.

Central to the story is the enigmatic Sam Clayton (Gene Hackman), a veteran of San Juan Hill who is hired as deliveryman for the paper’s champion horse, but fired from the team when his respect for the creatures leaves him late for the delivery. Initially wanting no part of a ‘gut-busting, back-twisting, man-killing goddamn race’ Clayton eventually signs on, leaving his own motivations unclear and joining the roster of fortune-hunters and glory-seekers as an independent. As the race winds on, one 100-mile stretch at a time, Clayton’s path intersects with those of the other contestants – including fellow Rough Rider Luke Matthews (James Coburn!), a gambler who has bet more than he can pay on his own chances, an Englishman (Ian Bannen) with a taste for American sport, and a Mexican (Mario Arteaga) with one mother of a tooth ache, the solution to which provides the film with its title.

Bite the Bullet‘s under-celebrated director Richard Brooks had already proven himself on such contemporary classics as Elmer Gantry, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Professionals and In Cold Blood by the time the 1970′s rolled around, and his work here is typically excellent. The events surrounding the race are purported with documentary precision, while the race itself is granted an almost mythic significance through a few deliciously calculated flourishes and a deft, spare usage of overcranking. The latter makes an indelible mark midway through the film, presenting one ambitious young rider’s futile effort to achieve his goal (to catch up to the front runner even as his own horse dies of exhaustion) with a nightmarish efficacy.

As important to his capacities as a director are Brooks’ considerable – and proven – talents as a writer (Brooks pulled double duty on the four films mentioned above, earning an Oscar nod in each instance and ultimately winning for Elmer Gantry), and his screenplay for Bite the Bullet is sharp and incisive stuff, both in its dialogue and its characterizations. From an early scene of Clayton saving a young colt to a stirring turn by Ben Johnson (The Wild Bunch) as the nameless Mister, an elderly cowboy who reaches the end of his line in as eloquent a fashion as has ever been seen on film, Bite the Bullet is positively alive with poignant humanity, making it more an epic of character than of action (though there’s certainly some of that as well). The quality of the film’s writing is only made more impressive once the circumstances of it are known – as elucidated in Julie Kirgo’s typically fine essay, Brooks wrote much of the screenplay on the go, with the substantial cast initially working from a 20-page treatment. As such it was not uncommon for the actors to receive their lines just the night before shooting of a scene began!

It all works out, someway somehow, and the only real mistake of the picture – an impromptu bear attack rendered laughable by the mercifully brief appearance of a woefully inadequate man-in-suit – is a fleeting one. Amusingly, the film’s ace photographer Harry Stradling Jr. (1776, Little Big Man) would find himself embroiled in bear antics far more bizarre just a few years later, when he filmed John Frankenheimer’s oddball mutant monster picture Prophecy. While I’m unsure of how contemporary audiences received the film, it certainly played well to critics of the time. Bite the Bullet would go on to earn two Oscar nods, for its exceptional sound design and for Alex North’s (Dragonslayer) jaunty genre score, but lose on both counts to a little film called Jaws.

Don’t let the ruddy Columbia logo at the start of this one fool you, as Bite the Bullet is another worthy addition to the ever-growing pantheon of quality Sony Pictures restorations. This is a tremendous looking show, lensed in 35mm Panavision and granted a rustic, somewhat desaturated palette that’s perfectly in keeping with the subject matter. Contrast is deep and detail strong throughout the feature, and damage is kept to a minimum – a few specks are noticeable here or there, but little else. The natural texture, a finer grain than one might find in anamorphic productions from just a decade before, is properly retained – this is another digital transfer that looks and feels like film. Sony’s restoration team have again left me with no room to complain.

The same might be said of Twilight Time, who have mastered their release to the robust specifications that have become their norm. Bite the Bullet‘s 2.35:1 1080p image receives a healthy Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average bitrate of 33.2 Mbps – the feature and audio are spread comfortably over a dual layer BD50, occupying a hair under 40 GB all told. Artifacting is again of no concern, proving so negligible as to go unnoticed by this reviewer, and the textures of the image (both those photographed and inherent to the medium itself) are precisely rendered. This is a very strong presentation, well in advance of SD capabilities, and another fine addition to Twilight Time’s limited edition series.

Blu-ray screenshots were captured as full resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the Image Magick command line tool.

If the IMDB is to be believed, then Bite the Bullet was originally a monophonic show (certainly nothing strange for a film produced in the middle seventies). Twilight Time’s Blu-ray edition presents only a remixed 5.1 surround option, albeit one that sounds very good in lossless DTS-HD MA. While it’s a pity that the Academy Award-nominated original mix goes unrepresented, I’m hard pressed to complain about the results here. Effects are rich and sound of the appropriate vintage (I’d never seen the film until now, so any alterations thereof are lost on me), and Alex North’s stereo-recorded score is utterly brilliant. As expected of Twilight Time’s Sony-licensed releases, a set of optional English SDH subtitles is included.

Supplements are as expected, and nothing more. Alex North’s score is represented beautifully by way of its own isolated lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo track, while an original theatrical trailer (HD) rounds out the on-disc content. This is a fully-functional disc (another new norm for Twilight Time, and welcome), complete with 11 non-generic chapter stops and an easily accessible pop-up menu. The package itself is wonderfully designed, and a major improvement over the awful generic look of Sony’s earlier (and pan-and-scanned) DVD, and is rounded off with the keen liner notes mentioned earlier in this review – the licenses to the films themselves excepted, author Julie Kirgo may well be Twilight Time’s most valuable asset.

Mark Bite the Bullet down as another film I’d likely never have taken the time to see had Twilight Time not intervened – for allowing me to see it for the first time in such a splendid edition I really can’t thank the label enough. The film is a wonderful achievement on its own terms, worth watching if only as a showcase for Richard Brooks’ superior screenwriting, and Twilight Time’s limited edition Blu-ray does it proper justice to say the least. Both get an easy recommendation from me.

New to Blu: Désirée + Bell, Book and Candle

This week’s for playing catch-up here at Wtf-Film, where I’ve been effectively useless for the past many days thanks to a particularly nasty season of allergies. Much to my disgrace I’ve as yet been unable to even cover Twilight Time’s fine Blu-ray issue of the equally fine Bite the Bullet, released alongside Demetrius and the Gladiators last month, even though the label’s latest round of limited editions has already arrived!

As such, here’s a quick peak at the Twilight Time’s two latest Blu-ray releases - Désirée, from 20th Century Fox in 1954, and Bell, Book and Candle, from Columbia in 1958 – to tide you over until your humble host can sweat out the full reviews. As always, these are available exclusively through ScreenArchives.com and their Amazon storefront, and are reviewed from screeners graciously provided by Twilight Time.

Those disappointed with the overall fidelity of last month’s Demetrius and the Gladiators can rest easy with Twilight Time’s latest offering from Fox – the studio’s restoration of Désirée, lavishly produced in extra-wide 2.55:1 CinemaScope and DeLuxe color, is up to the same high standards set by Sony’s Picnic and Fox’s own The Egyptian. The film’s vintage anamorphic lensing (and some intentional diffusion besides) doesn’t lend itself to particularly sharp visuals, but the texture of it is quite impressive. Damage is minimal and, aside from the comparatively ragged DeLuxe transitions, this is a magnificent looking and naturally film-like presentation. Twilight Time seem to have standardized their technical approach to Blu-ray, but with the sort of specs that should be standardized rather than the corner-cutting measures that are all too frequent in the industry. The 1080p Mpeg-4 AVC image is encoded at a robust average bitrate of 33.2 Mbps, and artifacts are of no issue. Audio is strong and accurate to the original release, presented in DTS-HD MA 4.0 stereo, though as usual for TT’s Fox catalog releases there are no subtitles. Supplements are limited to an excellent isolated score track (in DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo), an original theatrical trailer (HD), and another essential set of liner notes by Julie Kirgo.

Sony’s recent restorations have all been at the top of their class and Bell, Book and Candle is no exception. The flat 1.85:1 image is every bit as precise as should be expected, with an appropriate level of detail, strong contrast, and an exceptionally rendered layer of film grain. Greens and reds show most prominently in Bell‘s Technicolor design, and are wonderfully saturated. The technical specs for the image are identical to those for Désirée - 1080p Mpeg-4 AVC-encoded at an average bitrate of 33.2 Mbps, and artifacts are so negligible as to go unnoticed. Audio is an unadorned DTS-HD MA 1.0 monophonic track that sounds very strong to these ears, and yes, optional English SDH subtitles are included. Supplements are a bit more robust this go around, and in addition to the expected isolated score (in DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo - George Duning’s score for this film is lovely stuff, and essential listening), theatrical trailer (HD), and booklet of liner notes by Julie Kirgo, the release also features two brief documentary subjects – Bewitched, Bothered and Beautiful (10 minutes, SD) and Reflections in the Middle of the Night (15 minutes, SD).

Those of you who have been following my other Twilight Time reviews know what to expect of the label by now – Désirée and Bell, Book and Candle are well in keeping with the sort of quality the label has come to be known for, and make for a wonderful start to their second year in business.

The Blu-ray screenshots for this article were gathered by the means that has become standard for this site – full resolution .png images were captured in Totem Movie Player, and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Demetrius and the Gladiators

dir. Delmer Daves
1954 / 20th Century Fox / 102′
written by Philip Dunne
director of photography Milton R. Krasner
origianl music by
 Franz Waxman
starring Victor Mature, Susan Hayward, Michael Rennie, Debra Paget, Anne Bancroft, Jay Robinson, Barry Jones, and William Marshall
reviewed from a screener provided by Twilight Time
Demetrius and the Gladiators is available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time in a limited edition of 3000, and is offered exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment and their Amazon storefront.

Pushed into production before The Robe had even wrapped by producers content with the likelihood of that film’s success but not with the thought of wasting its expensive dressings, the 1954 sequel Demetrius and the Gladiators is understandably a bit smaller and less refined than its epic progenitor, but that doesn’t keep it from being gobs more fun. Ostensibly a religious drama about the ebb and flow of one (very) early Christian’s faith in Caligula’s Rome, Demetrius punctuates its piety with hearty helpings of good old-fashioned violent spectacle – ‘gladiators’ isn’t in the title for nothing.

Demetrius and the Gladiators finds The Robe‘s eponymous artifact – the robe worn by Christ to Calvary - in the protective custody of that titular Demetrius (Victor Mature reprising his role from the previous film) while its chief protector, the apostle Peter (Michael Rennie in another carry-over role), is away on urgent church business. Unfortunately for Demetrius the increasingly mad Roman emperor Caligula (returning player Jay Robinson in a delightfully outrageous turn) wants the robe for himself, convinced that it possesses a power that will render him literally divine. It isn’t long before the Praetorian guard are knocking at Demetrius’ door, and when a scuffle with them turns violent the devout ex-slave finds himself involuntarily inducted into Strabo’s (Ernest Borgnine!) gladiatorial academy and destined for combat in the Emperor’s private arena. There he captures the fertile imagination of Messalina (Susan Hayward as a Code-friendly variation on the nymphomaniacal third wife of future Roman emperor Claudius), who finds perverse gratification in forcing the good Christian to fight against man and beast.

Demetrius’ devotion to peace and good will doesn’t last long, however. The presumed death of his potter girlfriend Lucia (Debra Paget, The Ten Commandments) at the hand of a fellow gladiator soon has the pectoral hunk renouncing his faith and slaughtering his co-combatants wholesale, much to the delight of Caligula and his Praetorian guard, who appoint him to their ranks as a tribune, as well as Messalina, with whom Demetrius begins an affair. Meanwhile Caligula goes madder, hallucinating that the gods are walking his palace’s halls and becoming increasingly paranoid of plots (both real and imagined) against him…

Limited to just a handful of admittedly gargantuan sets and over and done with in a sight less than two hours Demetrius and the Gladiators really can’t help but feel on the small side compared to its mega-produced big brother The Robe, but it’s a distinction that ultimately works in the film’s favor. Focusing on just a few of that previous film’s surviving players and adding but a handful more, Philip Dunne’s capable screenplay works perfectly well as entertainment even as its ramshackle contrivance becomes increasingly obvious. The obligatory religious dramatics are more a means to an end than anything else, and leave poor Demetrius to seem more than a little the flake – one moment he’s ready to die for his beliefs, the next he’s tearing through Caligula’s private arena with a sword in each hand. The degree of Demetrius’ faith seems wholly dependent on the fate of his girlfriend here – an odd turn to be sure for a character whose Christianity was previously affirmed by no less than witnessing the crucifixion first hand, but it does get the action moving towards the arena, an essential development for a film whose credits spell out THE GLADIATORS at a scale considerably larger than that granted its eponymous hero.

The Hays Code may have put the kibosh on any possibility of overt blood and gore, but Demetrius and the Gladiators still offers audiences plenty of lavish arena-bound action. The show-stopper, despite the obviousness of its artifice, may be Demetrius’ first go in the arena when, after surviving a round with the King of Cartoons (a young William Marshall as Glycon), Caligula orders that the tigers be loosed upon him. A skillful blend of composite effects and stunts with trained animals make the sequence a real thrill, even when the tigers inevitably end up appearing more friendly than threatening. With skilled stuntmen and fencing instructor Jean Heramans (Scaramouche) at his disposal, all-purpose director Delmer Daves (Dark Passage, 3:10 to Yuma) proves himself more than adept in delivering Demetrius‘ big-screen action set pieces. Though essentially bloodless (Demetrius typically finishes off his opponents by bopping them on the helmet, complete with a sanitized, meatless sound effect) the choreography and set-ups are quite good, particularly when Demetrius is in his revenge-fueled dual-bladed frenzy.

Demetrius and the Gladiators is rarely great film making, but it is never less than good enough. The wonderfully erratic work of Jay Robinson, whose Caligula slithers about his palace with cool, reptilian menace, and the bosom-heaving performance of Susan Hayward, tempting enough despite being but a shadow of the notorious historical Messalina, help to elevate the show beyond the cash-in ambitions of its producers, while the much maligned Wtf-Film favorite Victor Mature seems well at home in yet another religious epic (following his turns in Samson and Delilah, Androcles and the Lion, and The Robe). This is good stuff, provided you don’t take it too seriously, and essential viewing for sword and sandal buffs.

Whether due to deficiencies in the available source materials, the age of the HD transfer, or both, Demetrius and the Gladiators looks substantially weaker in its Blu-ray debut than either its predecessor The Robe or the impossibly vibrant The Egyptian - Fox’s other lavish CinemaScope religious epic from 1954. The presence of a variety of damage, ranging from minor dust and debris to larger blemishes and even a few nasty vertical scratches, indicates that at the very least Demetrius hasn’t been treated to the same level of restoration Fox has bestowed upon those other films. As such Demetrius offers perhaps the weakest HD video presentation yet for niche label Twilight Time, but I still found it an imminently watchable disc and easily the superior of past editions.

Presented at the appropriate extra-wide 2.55:1 aspect ratio, the 1080p transfer has a lower level of detail than even the limitations of early CinemaScope lenses can explain – a factor compounded by an especially course, unrefined grain structure (just compare the grain in the screenshots here to that of the DeLuxe CinemaScope The Egyptian or the Technicolor CinemaScope Picnic). While contrast is strong color saturation rarely follows suit, falling short of the sort of lushness Demetrius‘ original Technicolor prints would have exported and often lending the film a dusty, subdued appearance – the image also appears unnaturally dark and overly red to these eyes. Even with all that in mind the presentation still thoroughly trounces that of the older DVD edition (released a decade ago), and the imperfect image is free of any undue digital manipulations. Twilight Time provide their typically strong technical backing as well. The video is Mpeg-4 AVC-encoded at a healthy average bitrate of 33.2 Mbps, and the relatively short feature (at least by epic standards) stretches comfortably into dual layer territory.

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

Far less troublesome is the audio, which presents Demetrius and the Gladiators‘ original 4-track surround mix in lossless DTS-HD MA. The separation here is notable, and obviously intended for BIG theatrical projection – even the dialogue makes full use of the track’s right, left, and center channels. While the dialogue and sound effect sound as strong as can be expected from the vintage mix it’s Franz Waxman’s exhilarating score (which also incorporates themes adapted from Alfred Newman’s score for The Robe) that really wows. Waxman’s compositions are as essential Demetrius‘s epic style as its enormous sets and color CinemaScope photography, and I found his heroic opening melody bouncing about in my brain long after the imagery had faded. The only drawback on the audio front is, again, a lack of optional English subtitles. Fox’s own editions always come with a mix of them, and that they aren’t even providing Twilight Time with an SDH track is a crying shame.

Supplements are light, as expected (and advertised), with an original trailer (in SD) providing the only video extra. The only other supplement is of excellent stuff, however – Franz Waxman’s score, included as an isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 track. The Film Score Monthly CD issue of the same is long out of print, and the importance of its addition here should not be understated. Twilight Time’s typically excellent packaging (which amusingly reverses the trend of giving the word “GLADIATORS” dominance over the name of the film’s hero) is again highlighted by a liner essay from the esteemed Julie Kirgo, who clearly has a ball discussing the film even screenwriter Philip Dunne labelled a “harebrained adventure”.

Demetrius and the Gladiators may be a harebrained adventure, but it wouldn’t have retained a quarter of its substantial appeal if it were anything else. Though loaded with compulsory attempts at evoking the pious gravitas of its predecessor Demetrius is ultimately all about seeing its eponymous hero break as many commandments as his test-of-faith (and the Code) will allow, and while the final product may never reach the dizzying heights of vintage DeMille-ian excess (Sign of the Cross this isn’t) it still offers plenty of that indelible old-Hollywood spectacle. For their part Twilight Time have offered another solid Blu-ray treatment, even if the HD materials leave something to be desired. Recommended, if for the keen lossless audio options alone.

On Blu this week: Two from Twilight Time

On March 13th limited edition home video label Twilight Time will be releasing the latest in their Blu-ray line, one deep catalog release each from the libraries of 20th Century Fox and Sony Pictures:

First up is 20th Century Fox’s lavish extra-wide 2.55:1 CinemaScope follow-up to 1953′s The Robe, the 1954 sword and sandal smash Demetrius and the Gladiators starring Wtf-Film favorites Victor Mature, Michael Rennie, and Ernest Borgnine, and directed by Delmer Daves (the original 3:10 to Yuma). From ScreenArchives:

DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS (1954) (PRE-ORDER) (BLU-RAY)
Starring: Victor Mature, Michael Rennie, Richard Egan, Ernest Borgnine, Susan Hayward, Debra Paget, Jay Robinson
Directed By: Delmer Daves
Composed By: Franz Waxman

VIDEO: 1080p High Definition / 2.55:1
AUDIO: English 4.0 DTS-HD MA
LANGUAGE: English
1954 / Color
101 MINUTES
NOT RATED
NTSC REGION FREE
Limited Edition of 3,000 Units

“Spectacle, action, sex, and reverence.” — The New York Times

“Compelling screen story, and equally compelling direction…the trial of a man’s faith by the temptations of an amoral woman and a pagan Rome.” — Variety

“Spiffing gladiatorial combats…it’s a lot of fun.” — Time Out Film Guide

The thrilling sequel to The Robe (1953), Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) follows the further adventures of the Christian slave Demetrius (Victor Mature), sentenced to servitude as a gladiator in the Roman arena. There, his faith is tested in to-the-death combat and by the wiles of the seductive Messalina (Susan Hayward)—all under the obsessive eye of the mad Emperor Caligula (Jay Robinson). Director Delmer Daves brings epic sweep to the tale, supported by the bravura score of Franz Waxman (available here as an isolated track).

Enjoy the extensive Julie Kirgo liner notes and film art packaged with the Blu-ray disc.

Demetrius and the Gladiators is available as a limited Blu-ray edition of 3000, retail price $29.95, and is currently purchasable exclusively through Twilight Time partner ScreenArchives.com.

Arriving the same day is Richard Brook’s Academy Award-nominated 1975 western Bite the Bullet, starring Gene Hackman, Candace Bergen, James Coburn, Jan-Michael Vincent, and Ben Johnson, with a musical score from Alex North (Dragonslayer). From ScreenArchives:

BITE THE BULLET (1975) (PRE-ORDER) (BLU-RAY)
Starring: Candice Bergen, Ian Bannen, Dabney Coleman, Gene Hackman, James Coburn, Ben Johnson, Jan-Michael Vincent
Directed By: Richard Brooks
Composed By: Alex North

VIDEO: 1080p High Definition / 2.35:1
AUDIO: English 5.1 DTS-HD MA
SUBTITLES: English SDH
LANGUAGE: English
1975 / Color
131 MINUTES
NOT RATED
NTSC REGION FREE
Limited Edition of 3,000 Units

“A finely crafted, epic Western…a film that reexamines and reaffirms the Western myth. Brooks is a proven master.” — Roger Ebert

“An excellent, literate action drama probing the diverse motivations of participants in an endurance horse race.” — Variety

In Bite the Bullet (1975), writer/director Richard Brooks (The Professionals) gives us a Western on a grand scale, focusing on a 700-mile horse race across the bleakly beautiful landscape of the American Southwest. Entrants battling desert and mountain, freezing cold and blistering heat—not to mention their own inner demons—include a former Rough Rider (Gene Hackman); his old comrade-in-arms, now a gambler (James Coburn); a feisty onetime prostitute (Candice Bergen); a weary saddle tramp (Ben Johnson); a wealthy English toff (Ian Bannen); and an arrogant kid (Jan-Michael Vincent) looking to make his reputation. Featuring a score by the one and only Alex North (available here as an isolated track).

Enjoy the extensive Julie Kirgo liner notes and film art packaged with the Blu-ray disc.

The Bite the Bullet limited edition Blu-ray retails for $34.95 and, like Demetrius and the Gladiators, is currently purchasable exclusively through Twilight Time partner ScreenArchives.com. Be sure to follow Twilight Time on Facebook and Twitter to receive the latest release news and updates, and check back here as well – Wtf-Film will have comprehensive coverage of both releases available as soon as our copies arrive.

Twilight Time: Swamp Water

Swamp Water is available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time in a limited edition of 3000, and is offered exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment and their Amazon storefront.

Dana Andrews goes looking for Trouble (with a capital “T”) and finds it deep in the Okefenokee in 1941′s Swamp Water, expat director Jean Renoir’s first American film and his only for Darryl F. Zanuck’s 20th Century Fox. When his appropriately-named hound goes missing in the 440-thousand acre swampland Ben (Andrews, looking uncharacteristically youthful in the second year of his career) makes up his mind to find him. What he tracks down instead is wrongly-convicted murderer Tom Keefer (Walter Brennan), scrounging a living for himself in the Okefenokee five years after his escape from the law.

Though at first confrontational, Ben soon strikes up an unlikely alliance with Keefer, and takes to trapping in the Okefenokee as a means of supporting himself and Keefer’s daughter Julie (a wonderful, feral Anne Baxter), whom Ben takes to courting after falling out of favor with town belle Mabel (Virginia Gilmore, who would co-star with Andrews in the following year’s Berlin Correspondent). It isn’t long, however, before his attention to Julie and trapping success in the swamp lead the townspeople to suspect that Ben is in cahoots with the murderer-on-the-run, and when Ben fails to tell them of his whereabouts (after a bit of backwoods waterboarding) he finds himself ostracized by all but his kindly stepmother Mrs. Hannah (Mary Howard) and rough-edged father Thursday (Walter Huston).

Adapted by Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach) from Vereen Bell’s eponymous tale of small-town injustice, Swamp Water is ripe with studio influence (from the casting of Ford stock players like Brennan, John Carradine, and Russell Simpson to the post-production concoction of a conventionally happy Hollywood ending) yet manages, in spite of it all, to remain uniquely Renoir’s. The film is marked by his long, uninterrupted takes and fluid photographic direction (dual DP’s J. Peverell Marley, House of Wax, and Lucien Ballard, True Grit, lens the show beautifully), and his location shooting in the Okefenokee Swamp, limited by Zanuck to just a handful of crew and star Dana Andrews, takes on a fantastical and mythic quality. As the philosophical Keefer ruminates, “Living alone in this swamp is just like living on another star.” Indeed, Swamp Water presents its star location in a manner that’s appropriately other-worldly, rendering small and insignificant the human characters who dare wander among its ancient mangroves and treacherous peat bogs.

In line with its mythical presentation (its borders are grimly marked by a submerged cross topped with a human skull) the primordial landscape pulls double duty as both a purgatory for the unjustly hunted Tom Keefer and a hell for those ultimately discovered to have committed the murder for which he was convicted. When the real murderers show themselves, intent on stopping Ben and Keefer before they can share the truth with rotund Sheriff McKane (Friar Tuck himself, the great Eugene Pallette), the swamp rises as a formidable deliverer of cosmic justice, devouring one of the guilty men outright. The other, in a satisfying twist of fate, is condemned to troll its cottonmouth and gator-infested wilds forever with the knowledge that nothing but a hangman’s noose awaits them on the outside.

Beyond its central tale of cold injustice and righteous retribution, Swamp Water also offers its share of enduring human developments. Huston is as fantastic as ever as Thursday, evolving from a hard-hearted authority figure, determined to keep his head-strong (or as he says, “butt-headed”) son under his thumb, into a caring, understanding father when Ben is really put in harm’s way. The beautiful Anne Baxter blossoms as Julie, shedding the skin of a ragged social outcast with a moonlit dance both joyous and elegant, and made all the more so by contrast to the awkwardness that came before. Walter Brennan bolsters the fantastical undertone of the piece in rising from the sure-death of a cottonmouth bite, rendering Ben’s funeral arrangements blessedly unnecessary. Consequently, Ben’s eulogy (necessary or not) makes for one of the film’s most sincere and touching moments. “I ain’t gonna hold nothing against him, Lord, not even his trying to steal old Trouble. So if you want to go easy on him for killing Jim Collins it’ll be alright with me.”

Swamp Water has been released in numerous other territories on DVD, but this limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time (just 3,000 pressed, the norm for the label) marks its domestic premiere on digital video. There aren’t nearly enough of these classic Academy ratio black and white productions out in high definition for my tastes, but Twilight Time’s presentation of Swamp Water (sourced from the latest 20th Century Fox restoration of the film) can stand toe-to-toe with the best of them.

The worst that can be said for the film as presented here is that it sometimes shows its age (can it really be 71 years?), presenting with mostly frame-specific specs and scratches, but occasionally leaving a few more persistent vertical lines to contend with. That said, this is an absolutely beautiful transfer, with as fine a clarity of detail as can be expected of the production and pitch-perfect contrast throughout. There’s a fine layer of grain in evidence, and rendered well enough that it holds its own even at excessive magnification (with the image zoomed in 4-5x its native resolution). That one-of-a-kind 35mm allure is alive and well here, and makes for a tremendously satisfying viewing.

With just the 90 minute feature and its accompanying audio tracks to contend with Swamp Water only occupies a single layer BD-25, but this proves to be more than enough. The 1080p 1.33:1-framed image receives a healthy Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average bitrate of 29.4 Mbps, and the results are impossible to argue with. Encoding flaws, if any, are so negligible as to go unnoticed, and I suspect the image could be presented theatrically without issue. This is another reference level presentation from Twilight Time and 20th Century Fox, and it just doesn’t get any better than that.

Screenshots were captured as full 1920×1080 resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Audio is presented in lossless DTS-HD MA 1.0 monophonic, and while it doesn’t impress so much as the visuals of the film it sounds perfectly accurate to the original recording. Sound effects and dialogue are clear as a bell – the odd element out is, strangely enough, the score from David Buttolph, which presents with a notable warble at times. The disc’s only supplement, an isolated score track in lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0, does not present with this issue, and sounds very good given the age of the recordings (pre-cue noise, like band members coughing and the cue number being read, has been delightfully retained in some cases). Unfortunately there are no subtitles, making it clear again that Sony are providing sub tracks for these Twilight Time discs while Fox are, for whatever reason, not.

Swamp Water is another fully-functional Blu-ray disc, complete with non-generic chapter stops (12 of them) and a pop-up menu accessible during feature playback. In terms of design this may be my favorite yet of Twilight Time’s releases, with a superb cover illustration that reflects the film’s indelible first shot. Julie Kirgo’s liner notes again prove indispensable. Several insightful quotes from Renoir himself are included, along with some lovely behind-the-scenes production stills of the director at work with his top-flight cast.

What can I say, I loved Swamp Water, from its ominous opening shot straight through to its somewhat dubious conclusion. Huston, Andrews, Baxter, and Brennan are each in top form, and Renoir’s touch is unmistakable. There’s very, very little to complain about with Twilight Time’s Blu-ray presentation, which ranks as one of my favorite classic film releases of the year thus far. Highly recommended!