Viy: Spirit of Evil

Privet, comrades!  Let's stick with 1960s Russian cinema based on classic literature.  Today we've got a great little horror treat called Viy, or Spirit of Evil, based on an 1835 novella by Nikolai Gogol.  They've been having a lot of success with at least two series of Viy films over there in recent years (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan were in the last one), but this is the original film adaptation from 1967.  Fans have been demanding this film on blu for a long time, but word was the film elements were no longer available to bring this film to HD.  But then, in 2016, it came out on BD in Japan.  Was it just an upconvert or what?  Well, it wasn't English friendly anyway, so it really didn't matter.  But maybe it actually was a legit HD version, because Severin have just released an English-friendly blu here in America.  And they're always reliable, right?
The story's about a young seminary student traveling through the country who stays one night in an old woman's barn.  She turns out to be a witch who rides(!) him through the skies before he can finally beat her nearly to death and flee.  He feels free and clear when he returns to school, until the witch's family writes to his headmaster and personally requests the student return to read her last rites in a ceremony that lasts for three nights in an old, wooden church, just him and the body.  And as you might imagine, this dead witch isn't content to just lie still for her murderer.  She might even call out to Viy, the most ancient evil spirit in all the world.
Viy's a lot of fun: fast paced with creative visual effects, funny characters, great dark atmosphere and entertaining camerawork.  Mario Bava took a lot of influence from this film and other works of Gogol, and along with Equinox feels like a dead-on precursor to Sam Raimi's Evil Dead films.  The frantic camera, spinning and diving, even taking on the role of a great evil spirit's POV racing towards the protagonist - a protagonist who's a bit of a dunce, not unlike our beloved Ash.  The cynical conclusion and in particular, the abandoned windmill scene in Army of Darkness and the woodshed fight with the old hag in Drag Me To Hell particularly feel like they share spirits with Viy.
Ruscico released this on DVD in the US back in 2001, distributed by Image, in a nice little special edition.  Pretty much the same disc seems to have been later distributed through most other regions around the world, albeit with different distributors and cover art.  So that's been the default go-to version of this film pretty much forever, until that eventual Japanese blu.  Like I said, it had no English language options, so it wasn't much use to any of us who couldn't understand Russian or Japanese, but it definitely put the bug in our collective ear of a possible HD release in the future.  And Severin have finally delivered on that, releasing a limited edition blu this July, which I believe has already sold out, with a general, standard release due later in the year.
1) 2001 Ruscico/ Image DVD; 2) 2019 Severin BD.
Happily, this is clearly not just an upconvert of the old DVD!  I was a little worried, because their announcement, webpage and even the back of the case evade the question of transfer's origins.  Is it 2k, 4k, from the original negatives, a print or what?  Questions like "is this a newly sourced transfer" have been left frustratingly unanswered on their facebook page.  All we're told is that it's 1080p full HD, and that this blu is "Remastered In HD For The First Time Ever" (so maybe the Japanese blu was an upconvert?).  Oh well, whatever this is, it looks heaps better than what we've had before.  The framing is slightly shifted from 1.31:1 to 1.37:1 and the colors are far richer.  The DVD also had a very serious interlacing problem, which of course is cleared up, and that makes a world of difference.  The level of detail isn't hugely different, but we can make out subtleties that the DVD's SD compression smoothed away.  Grain is light but discernible, its free of any harmful tinkering (i.e. artificial sharpening, edge enhancement or any of that) and both versions have light print damage, but it's all in different places, so this must've been taken from a different source.  It's a bit soft, but that could be down to the original film.  At any rate, this is a far more attractive presentation of this film than we've ever had before, and presumably ever will in future.

Ruscico are terrific when it comes to language options.  They gave us the original Russian - albeit remixed to 5.1 - plus English and French dubs, also in 5.1.  And they provide English, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish subtitles.  Severin dials all that down, but doesn't lose the key elements: the original Russian and the English dub, now in lossless DTS-HD, plus English and English HoH subs.
Ruscico are also pretty good in the supplements department, giving Viy a nice little archival package of historical extras.  They include a vintage biographical documentary (from roughly 1940) on Gogol, which gives some great background to this film.  They include three classic, silent Russian horror films: Satan Exultant (1917), The Portrait (1916) and Queen of Spades (1916).  The Portrait is particularly relevant, as it's also based on a Gogol story.  And they have not just the trailer for Viy, but for six other classic horror and fantasy Russian films.  Plus an insert.  It all makes for a very informative context.

Now, when my Severin disc arrived, I was happy to see it included even more bonus features than were listed on Severin's pre-order page.  First, let's look at what they did tell us about.  They have new interviews with Richard Stanley (who's quite eccentric but equally informed) about the  of Gogol's legendary spirit, and John Leman Riley, who attempts to cover the entire history of Soviet sci-fi and fantasy film.  He knows his stuff, but it was overly ambitious to try to cover that large a topic in a single chat.  They also have the trailer, and the limited edition comes in a very cool slipcover.  That's what we knew about.

But it was a pleasant surprise to see that all three silent films from the old Ruscico DVD have been carried over as well!  The DVD played some silly, artificial projector noise over all three films, which Severin smartly forgoes.  Otherwise, they seem to use the same transfers, but they've gained some ground by giving it some de-interlacing, which softens the thing up and still leaves some ghosting, but definitely looks better.  Here's a quick comparison for all three (you can still click each shot to see 'em full sized), with DVD left and BD right:
It's no surprise Severin's limited edition sold out so quickly, this is a very cool release of a great film that had been crying out for a good blu.  I was worried going in, but while this might not be the fresh 4k scan of the original camera negatives one might've hoped for, this is still a quality HD presentation, with some nice extras to boot.  Owners of the original DVD might want to hang onto it for that Gogol doc, but if you missed it, you should still be quite happy with what you get here.

The Grand Epic, War and Peace

This is an upgrade I've been aching for since long before it was announced: Criterion's new blu of Sergei Bondarchuk's truly epic War and Peace (1966).  This is possibly the biggest film production ever, and also a movie that's long struggled to get a proper, HQ release - and we'll delve into why - so it was somewhat predetermined that this BD was going to be a bit of a compromise.  But having the two previous home video iterations - which we'll look at, too - it was also painfully obvious how badly in need it was of any kind of upgrade it could get.  And I have to say, now that I've got it, while it might be disappointing to imagine what an ideal 4k restoration of the original 75mm original camera negatives might've been, this is still quite a satisfying leap forward from anything we've had before.
Usually when people talk about how big a film's production is, they start defining it by budget.  Titanic spent X amount, Avengers spent Y.  Of course inflation makes that a lot more complicated.  But it's uniquely impossible to quantify in this case, because the entire Soviet government was behind this film.  War and Peace was years in the making, and I doubt you'll ever see larger armies in any battle scene ever.  At least in terms of real human participants as opposed to CGI cartoonery.  But we'll never know the costs, because the film was given all of this for free.  All of the country's museums were compelled to give up anything in their production, from paintings on the wall to vintage military equipment.  In the scene where Napoleon flees the country on his sled (spoilers for anyone who skipped out on history class), that's the actual sled the real Napoleon fled away in.  The army spent months and months playing the role of soldiers, providing tens of thousands of extras, real general organizing the military units, and even more military serving as the crew, building towers and flying helicopters for the filmmakers.  For free.  So I don't know how it could possibly be pinned down definitively, but I daresay this might not only be the greatest epic spectacle ever filmed, but the grandest that ever will be filmed.
And that's definitely reason enough to watch this film.  That scene in Aquaman was cute, but it's another viewing experience entirely when you know you're witnessing something that actually took place in front of the cameras.  But what makes War and Peace so much more impressive, and something greater than just novelty of its scope, is that it's a great little film at its core, with memorable characters and meaningful writing.  Of course, it helps when your source material is Tolstoy's greatest novel.  And the fact that this is film is over seven hours long (it's divided into four parts, so you don't have to buttathon it) allows it to stay faithful to the novel and history in a way that the previous American adaptation with Audrey Hepburn could never even have attempted.  So while yes, the battle scenes, and the thrilling depiction of the burning of Moscow are powerful and impressive, the memories that stick with me the most are the little moments with Natasha and her servants or Bondarchuk's surprisingly relatable performance as Pierre.
So War and Peace debuted on DVD as a 3-disc set from Kultur Video in 2002.  They actually still sell it on their site to this day.  It's fullscreen and completely barebones.  So audiences were more than ready to double-dip for a restored widescreen version from Ruscico, and distributed by Image, the following year.  It was a still troubled, but for its time pretty sweet 5-disc, anamorphic widescreen special edition (there's also a 4-disc version, which is similarly packaged but chucks the bonus 5th disc of extras.  It was packed with interviews and documentaries, but you'll see from the comparison below why we were still excited to finally hear of an updated version, with Criterion finally releasing the film in HD this summer.
1) 2002 Kultur DVD; 2) 2003 Ruscico DVD; 3) 2019 Criterion BD.
The screenshots speak pretty clearly for themselves here, but I'll detail the differences.  Kultur's DVD, of course, is fullscreen at 1.30:1.  It's faded with print damage that's been cleaned up in the later restorations (note the dirt on the general's cheek in the second set of shots.  It's also interlaced, but the softness of the transfer that looks to be taken from a tape master almost covers it up by smoothing away all the fine detail, including the combing.  So then Ruscico comes along and restores the film... Now it's widescreen (at a slightly windowboxed 2.29:1), the dirt's cleaned up, the colors are more authentic.  Honestly, if it wasn't terribly interlaced, it would still hold up fairly well for a DVD.  Criterion fixes that, of course, while also matting things just a little tighter to a more traditional 2.35:1 AR.  The colors are also more vibrant and the standard def compression is also cleaned up, but detail is definitely not what one might've hoped.  This is a new 2k scan of the 35mm elements that Mosfilm restored, but it's a sad case of the original negatives being unavailable.  War and Peace was a rare 70mm film, but they had to use "multiple partial 35mm negatives from various archives," so this should be a really impressive spectacle of fine, filmic detail alongside films like 2001 and Lawrence of Arabia.  But instead it just looks like a respectable, attractive but low budget feature presentation.  Grain is fairly well resolved, though it gets soft at times, but you can see why they didn't even bother scanning this is in 4k.

Kultur gives us a pretty simple, but clean, Russian mono track in Dolby with burnt in English subtitles.  Ruscico gave the track a new 5.1 mix, plus threw in English and French dubs, also in 5.1.  And they provided optional English, Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Swedish subs.  Criterion reigns that in a bit, giving us the Russian and English 5.1 mixes in DTS-HD with optional English subtitles.  Unfortunately, the original mono track has pretty much been ditched.
So Criterion's blu naturally renders the previous DVDs obsolete, except for one.  The fifth bonus disc in the Ruscico set includes a little treasure trove of extras, almost none of which made their way to the new release.  There are some great, in-depth interviews with Vasili Lanovoy, DP Anatoly Petritsky, composer Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov (who gets a little long-winded with his opinions on his whole career and all the filmmakers he's worked with besides just the War and Peace stuff) and the head of Mosfilm, Karen Shakhnazarov, who shares some great information on the history and current state of the film, and the hows and whys of their restoration.   There's a short clip of actress Irina Skobtseva giving a talk (probably before a screening) about working with Bondarchuk and her time on the film.  Then there are several vintage, Russian featurettes (made for television?) about Bondarchuk, Tolstoy and the novel, all of which are actually rather good and fairly informative.  Finally, there's a substantial, also vintage, 'making of' documentary that's full of fascinating behind-the-scenes footage that gives very welcome insight into the fascinating story behind this film.
From the doc: the camera crew has actually caught on fire at this point.
Criterion includes this documentary (in fact, there version might be slightly more complete), but all of that other great "Bonus" content has been lost.  Fortunately, however, there's a whole bunch of new stuff in its place.  There's a second vintage, making of doc; this time a German one, that borrows a lot of footage from the first one, but also has enough new content to make it worthwhile.  There's a new interview with Petritsky, where he's refreshingly candid (seriously, watch this one), and an interview with Bondarchuk's son.  They uncovered a somewhat insightful, but also somewhat silly, 60's television special about Ludmila Savelyeva, and finally one of the excellent, trademark Criterion academic video essays, this time by historian Denise J. Youngblood.  Also included is a poster/ booklet with a notes by Ella Taylor.
So this is an absolute must-own release of a truly essential film.  Yes, it's disappointing that we're not getting the full 70mm experience Bondarchuk's work deserves.  It's easy to conjure up a breathtaking 4k Ultra HD experience in one's mind, and then measure this disc as lacking in comparison.  But, uh, you go to Russia and dredge up the original negatives.  Until then, this is the best we can get, and honestly, it's still a very impressive and rewarding watch.  And if you're a real enthusiast, you might also want to track down a Russico set for that fifth bonus disc.  The two sets of extras really compliment each other and add up to great special edition.

The Bargain Gamble Triple Feature: Blazing Saddles, Caddyshack & European Vacation

Let's do something a little different.  I'll start with a short story.  I was in my local FYE, combing through their teensy-tiny movie selection, just looking to see if they might have something decent for cheap.  You know, like updating an old DVD I've still got with an old blu.  And I had Caddyshack in my hand.  $7, and it even has an additional doc that wasn't on the DVD.  A possibility.  But then, one shelf over, I spotted this "Triple Feature" BD of Caddyshack, Blazing Saddles and European Vacation for $6.  Great, put Caddyshack back on the shelf.  Save a buck and get two additional blus.  Or is it too good to be true?

You take a risk with bargain releases like this. Will these be the same transfers?  Are the special features included?  Do they cram all three films on the same disc, giving them terrible, low bit rate encodes and no special features like those Mill Creek 50 Movie Packs?  Sure, it's a great price for the movies, if you don't give a single fig for the presentation, quality, etc.  But for those of us who definitely do, it's a real gamble.  These aren't the kind of releases that get detailed reviews online; studios aren't mailing out screeners of repackaged sell-through discs and forums are anxiously exchanging news about the latest cult collectibles, not cheap reissues.  So even though I had my phone with me, I couldn't look anything up about this release, I'd just had to chance it.
Now, I was holding it in the store, so I was at least able to look the back, which is more than you can do when shopping online, but that wasn't terribly forthcoming either.  It did give the widescreen aspect ratios for all three films (not that their numbers turned out to be accurate), so that was a good start, but it just had a weird boilerplate generalization about special features, which didn't impart any actual information.  Actually, looking at it better now that I've scanned the back cover above, I notice the copyright section includes titles for the special features, so that would've been a big clue if I'd spotted it.  But it doesn't even say if how many discs I was getting.  By the weight, though, it felt like it was at least two discs, so I figured I'd take the $6 plunge.  If nothing else, I could review it here and it would get some information out about the kind of release that never gets covered.

Happily, it did wind up containing three discs.  And each one turned out to be the same disc that was previously available separately.  So yay, I'm happy, turned out to be a great deal.  And I've got DVD comparisons for each film, so let's dig in.
I'm not a huge Mel Brooks guy.  I appreciate that his movies are packed with jokes, often presented by quality performers including Brooks himself, and are always striving to deliver a smart, worthwhile message wrapped in a good time.  But so often, they just wind up playing like broad and obvious extended skits, like somebody gave ten million dollars to extend a sketch from an old Bob Hope special, or the Academy Awards broadcast, to feature length.  For me, most of his films just fall into the "a few funny bits but too far between" sand trap and can't get themselves out for all their preening and cloying.  Young Frankenstein, though, is his masterpiece, and Blazing Saddles brings up a solid second place.  And I have a strong feeling the credit for that goes to co-writer Richard Pryor, who sent this film to places I can't imagine Brooks would've gone on his own.

Of course, so much of it is classic Brooks, too.  Madeline Kahn channeling Marlene Dietrich by way of the Looney Tunes, the shamelessly lowest-possible-brow beans scene, the absurdly meta climax...  Even without Pryor, I think Brooks' Western parody would've been one of this better films with sets and photography able to perfectly capture the great works he's sending up, just as with Young Frank.  But then add the fact that the film's layered with commentary on racism that many audiences still have troubles grappling with today, and yeah, it's a real spitfire.
Warner Bros originally released Blazing Saddles in 1997 with a light-on-features flipper disc.  I passed over that edition, but eventually picked up their 30th Anniversary special edition in 2004.  In 2006, Blazing Saddles was a very early blu-ray, another edition I initially passed over, but wound up eventually getting in the 2012 Mel Brooks Collection (itself a reissue of the 2009 Mel Brooks Collection).  Warner Bros released Saddles one more time, in 2014, as a 40th Anniversary Edition with a new retrospective interview.  Which edition is in this Triple Feature?  Well, spoilers, the Triple Feature is dated 2012...
1) 2004 WB DVD; 2) 2012 WB box set BD; 3) 2012 WB BD.
So to be clear, yes, the two blu-rays here, from the Mel Brooks Collection and the Triple Feature, are identical: the older blu.  That said, however, it looks pretty solid, and by all accounts, the 40th Anniversary uses the same master anyway.  The DVD is a bit pinched at 2.36:1, which the blus correct to 2.38:1.  You'll notice, there's no actual additional information revealed; in fact the blus are ever-so-slightly pillarboxed, a peculiarity a new, 4k scan might've fixed if the 40th Anniversary edition really wanted to impress.  But honestly, it looks quite good as it is already, with distinct grain, and fine resolution of color and detail distinctly in advance of the DVD.  The 5.1 audio is bumped up to DTS-HD, but it's a bit of a shame the original mono track, which hasn't been heard from since that early 1997 DVD, is absent on all these editions (yes, the 40th, too).  There are also French and Spanish dubs, plus English, French and Spanish subtitles.

And since this isn't the 40th Anniversary edition, we don't get that new retrospective interview, but we do get all the other legacy special features: an hour-long audio interview with Brooks which plays over the film, a half-hour 'making of' featurette, an unaired Black Bart pilot starring Lou Gossett Jr., deleted scenes and the trailer.  We also get a nice, if brief, tribute to Madeline Kahn that was left off of the 40th Anniversary Edition.  So basically, you gain one feature, you lose one feature.
Next we enter the 80s with Caddyshack, written and directed by Harold Ramis.  This is one of the many comedies you go into it now worried it won't hold up, but one of the extremely rare ones where it's actually improved with age.  Sure, the story is just every "shake up the stuffy blow-hards running the institution" cliche in the book, but the comedy and the cast excel at every turn.  The plot follows some likable-enough teen caddies working at a golf-course, rivalries in romance and some scholarship-awarding tournament, but very wisely veers off to focus on all the insane background characters for the majority of the film.  Who cares if the guy gets the girl, Bill Murray is in a life or death struggle with the local gopher!  Rodney Dangerfield is pushing Ted Knight over the edge of sanity, Brian Doyle-Murray steals every scene he's in, and Chevy Chase is taking us all to a higher level of consciousness.
Caddyshack also debuted on DVD in 1997, on an old fullscreen edition I never bothered with.  But when it was reissued as the 20th Anniversary edition in 2000, anamorphic widescreen with some solid special features, I was all over it.  The blu-ray came out in 2010, but as you already know, I didn't upgrade my DVD this Triple Feature, which includes the same 2010 BD.
1) 2000 WB DVD; 2) 2012 WB BD.
The DVD has some unusual pillarboxing, framing the film at 1.74:1.  The blu-ray corrects this, widening it out slightly to 1.78:1, although it actually zooms in tighter to shave off a sliver of information along all sides.  If that's a flaw, though, everything else is a solid improvement.  The DVD demonstrates an ugly tape-like smeariness, which is thankfully gone from the blu, which is fairly crisp and sharp.  It also re-times the colors for a more authentic look.  This is actually the biggest improvement over the DVD of the three films here.  The only thing the DVD has going for it is the original mono track, which like with Blazing Saddles, drops it in favor of a new 5.1 mix in DTS-HD.

The DVD basically had one solid extra, a roughly half-hour documentary, which interviewed the cast and crew, featured some deleted scenes, and all in all was an amusing, informative look back on the film.  Definitely something stronger than your typical promo-affair.  It also had the trailer.  These are both carried over to the blu, and they've also added a feature-length television documentary on Caddyshack.  It's also a lot of fun and interviews most of the main players.  These two were obviously not created with the other in mind, and so there is a lot of overlap, with the same anecdotes and history told twice.  But there's enough unique content that both are nice to get and worth the watch.
Finally, we have European Vacation, the second of the Vacation films, and the most maligned until the creation of Vegas Vacation.  It's definitely episodic and predictable with bits that fall flat, and certainly not helped by the fact that, unlike the pre- and pro-ceeding Vacation films, it's not based on an original John Hughes story, but just cooked up to be a quick sequel to a surprise success.  On the other hand, however, it also has a bunch of really good, funny moments.  Directed by Amy Heckerling and with Hughes still co-writing the script, this film actually presents us with the best set of kids in any of the Vacation films.  Jason Lively and Dana Hill are the smartest written and most delightfully performed; plus going to Europe also allows the film to shoehorn in some fun, small roles by great English comic actors like Mel Smith, Robbie Coltraine and Eric Idle.  Meanwhile, other noteworthy American appearances include John Astin, Paul Bartel and Moon Unit Zappa.  Sure, it's not as good as parts 1 or 3, but it's definitely still worth holding onto... unlike, say, Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie's Island Adventure.
European Vacation's been repackaged and reissued a number of times, along with most of the other Vacation films (sorry, Cousin Eddie's Island Adventure), but it's pretty much always the same transfers and features.  Warner Bros first put it out on DVD in 2002, which is the version I've still got.  It debuted on blu in 2010, and that's the same disc I just picked up in the Triple Feature.
1) 2002 WB DVD; 2) 2012 WB BD.
This time, both the DVD and BD have identical, 1.78:1 aspect ratios, but the framing is again different.  Inverse to Caddyshack, this BD pulls out to reveal more information along all four sides.  It also, as you can plainly see, makes some bold changes to the color, which for the most part I'd say is an improvement.  Grain is clearly captured, but the film still feels a bit soft... I'd be curious to see if this is just an issue with the film itself, or if a new 4k scan would enhance it even further, but I'm not too confident we'll ever find out.  This time, at least, we keep the original mono, bumped up to DTS-HD on the blu, with additional French, German, Castillian and Spanish dubs and English, Danish, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Norwegian, Spanish and Swedish subs.

Extras-wise, the DVD had an audio commentary by Chevy Chase and the trailer, and nothing's changed for the blu.  It's an okay commentary... an actor alone almost always means we'll get a lot of slow spots and dead air, but he has some good insights if you're patient.  He's rather candid about how he wasn't happy with the film, and you read easily between the lines to surmise just how he gave Heckerling a hard time during the filming, including some scene-specific disagreements.  But he's also come around to this film to some degree and seems surprised at how well some scenes play, which is nice.
So, all in all, this is a pretty hearty recommendation.  It's the nest edition available for two of the three films, and even with Blazing Saddles where a newer edition has since come to replace it... with the same master and the gain one/ lose one special feature situation, it's kind of a tie.  If Saddles is your favorite film (and from what I see online, for many people it is), you may still feel you need the 40th Anniversary edition, but this can still be a nice, cheap way to get the Kahn featurette, plus the other two films.  It's hard to argue against this release.  The tiny irritation is that you have to remember, next time you want to watch European Vacation, to look under "B" on your shelf for Blazing Saddles.  Pretty good for six bucks.