The Rest Of the Bergman Box, Part 1: Previous Criterions

Okay, I guess I got a little sidetracked.  Back in 2018, I got the then brand new Ingmar Bergman's Cinema 30-disc boxed set of Ingmar Bergman blu-rays from Criterion, and I quickly updated all my Bergman posts comparing the new masters.  And I did a couple others, fully intending to completely cover everything in the se, but with other new releases and interesting titles, they kind of got bumped down the list.  Then, when they weren't "new releases," they felt less important and they really got bumped down the list.  And now it's turned into a dark cloud over my head: all these remaining discs I've never gotten around to, even though I've got a bunch of alternate editions for good comparisons, and the fact that there's still some fantastic, exciting stuff in this box I'd never gotten around to.  So for these next five(!) posts, I'm just gonna power through 'em all.  I figure, at this point, these'll be pretty Low Reader Interest entries; but it's never going to stop bothering me if I just leave these hanging, so I'm knocking them out so we can all move on.

I'll start with the least interesting ones, so we can have something to build towards.  This first part is all of the remaining films in this box that Criterion had already previously released.

1953's Summer With Monika is a bittersweet tale that dampers teenage romance with a hard dose of reality.  Harriet Andersson plays the titular Monika who elopes from her abusive father to run off with her boyfriend to an isolated cottage.  Everything's idyllic as they shed their lives of oppressive toil and indulge in their pure freedom and passion for each other.  But as time passes, the merciless demands of find them and encroach on their love.  It's kind of a sappy romance at first that seems satisfied to relish in landscapes and sunsets, but comes to dramatic life as it slowly shifts from away from your cinematic expectations towards the stakes of real life.

Tartan originally put this out on DVD in the UK as part of their Bergman collection in 2002, but I replaced that long before I started this site with Criterion's 2012 blu-ray.  That turned out to be a bit of a wasted double-dip when Criterion later included the exact same edition in their 2018 box.
2012 US Criterion BD top; 2018 US Criterion BD bottom.
I'm showing both discs since I have them, but it's pretty academic because it's the same transfer based on a 2k scan of the original camera negatives.  It's framed at 1.37:1 and looks pretty fantastic.  Blacks are deep, contrast is natural and grain is about as authentic as you can hope for on a 1080p BD.  Audio's a strong, lossless LPCM mono track with removable English subtitles.

And it's got an impressive batch of extras.  It's got an intro by Bergman from those Bergman Island sessions, an interview with Andersson, a half hour doc called Images From the Playground, with vintage behind-the-scenes footage Bergman interview clips, plus interviews with both Andersson sisters and even Martin Scorsese.  It's a more general doc not exclusively about Summer With Monika, but it's one of the films covered.  Perhaps most fun is an interview with a film scholar Eric Schaefer about how the film was edited and marketed as the trashy Monika: Story of a Bad Girl in the US.
That same year, Bergman created the far less conventional, but perhaps more what you think of when you hear "Bergman film," Sawdust & Tinsel.  Harriet Andersson stars in this one, too, the young lover of a circus ringmaster.  He tries to reconcile with his wife while she's seduced by a young aristocrat.  Meanwhile the circus is running low on money and has a confrontation with the local police.  Basically, everybody's about as low as they can get, and all their hopes are that a local theater owner (Gunnar Björnstrand) will save them.  As you can surely imagine, the circus and theater motifs give Bergman and Sven Nykvist a lot of exotic imagery to play with, though it's counter balanced by being the gloomiest damn movie you ever did see.

Criterion originally released it on DVD back in 2007.  It was a new HD upgrade when they released it on blu in this box.
2007 US Criterion DVD top; 2018 US Criterion BD bottom.
So this is an upgrade both in the basic sense of an SD DVD over an HD BD and in getting a brand new 2k scan from the original camera negative.  The aspect ratio has been adjusted from 1.32 to 1.38:1, and brightness and contrast are much more nuanced and photo realistic compared to the old, washed DVD with genuine blacks and detail restored to the bright spots.  The original Swedish mono track is another LPCM with optional English subtitles.

The new blu doesn't cough up any new extras, but it does retain the stuff from the DVD, which wasn't bad.  It has one of those Bergman Island intros by Bergman himself, plus an audio commentary by Criterion's resident Bergman scholar Peter Cowie
Things cheer up considerably in the 1955 period comedy Smiles Of a Summer Night.  Of course, being a Bergman film, even this light, romantic comedy still has our protagonist attempting suicide.  This takes place around the turn of the 20th century, with a number of aristocrats and their servants falling in and out of love at an old matron's estate on Midsummer Night.  There's a lot of set-up in the first half that may have you doubting just how "funny" this comedy actually is, but it all pays off in a delightfully charming romp that stars a number of Bergman's greatest players, including Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Eva Dahlbeck and an early appearance by Harriet's younger sister Bibi Andersson.

Criterion first released Smiles on DVD in 2004, and then on blu in 2011.  The 2018 boxed set disc apparently carries over the same transfer as the first BD.
2004 US Criterion DVD top; 2018 US Criterion BD bottom.
The aspect ratio shifts slightly from 1.34 to 1.36:1, pulling in just a tiny bit of additional picture.  The blu is another 2k scan of the original 35mm film elements, with the DVD's over contrasty levels pulled down to a more natural tone.  The image is sharper, while grain and fine detail is distinctly clearer.  As ever, the original Swedish mono is presented in lossless LPCM with removable English subtitles.  The short package of extras hasn't changed since the first DVD: another of Bergman's intros, a conversation between Peter Cowie and Jorn Donner (a filmmaker who's directed several pieces about Bergman and even produced a couple of his films, though not Smiles of a Summer Night), and the theatrical trailer.
Next is one of Bergman's most critically celebrated works: 1957's Wild Strawberries.  The premise of an old man examining his life in retrospect as he takes in with a bunch of youngsters on his way to claim an award is exactly the combination twee and somber storytelling serious critics adore.  And to be honest, most films along those lines (most obviously Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry, but I mean that whole inter-generational road trip of self discovery schtick) are cribbing from this film, and it does deserve pretty much all of the praise it gets.  It's got inventive, abstract dream sequences and a collection of Bergman's all-stars including Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Björnstrand and Max von Sydow, with the lead role sired by To Joy's Victor Sjöström, himself a famous film director, known for the silent horror classic The Phantom Carriage from 1921.

Criterion first put this out on DVD back in 2002.  Their initial BD was in 2013, followed of course by the 2018 boxed set.
2004 US Criterion DVD top; 2018 US Criterion BD bottom.
Yes, this is another 2k scan taken from the 35mm original negatives (and no, these aren't all taken from the negs... keep your eye out for the exception).  The DVD looks so smooth, you'd never know it was taken from a film element with grain, but it's all beautifully restored on the blu.  This is a surprisingly tall and skinny AR, coming in narrower than Academy Ratio at 1.31:1 on the DVD and 1.32 on the blu.  The blu also sports deeper blacks and a much sharper, stronger image.  As ever, the Swedish mono track is presented in LPCM with optional English subtitles.

And finally, here's a case where Criterion did add a little more to their special features between the DVD and BDs.  They've always had a Peter Cowie commentary and a Donner documentary called Ingmar Bergman: His Life and Work, which as you can guess is more of a Bergman overview than anything Bergman specific.  There was also a stills gallery, which surprisingly, the blu-rays dropped.  But I'm fine with that, because in its stead, we got two new, more rewarding extras: another Bergman intro and seventeen minutes of silent, behind-the-scenes footage narrated by Jan Wengstrom of the Swedish Film Institute.
We finally reach the sixties with 1960's Academy Award winner The Virgin Spring, the adaptation of the 13th century ballad, which as we all know, would become the template for Wes Craven's controversial rape revenge tale, The Last House On the Left.  In fact, despite that this is a medieval tale with supernatural elements, the two tracks run surprisingly close together from beginning to end.  Virgin just concludes with one extra religious denouement.  Most of the cast are recurring Bergman players, but the only real star you're likely to recognize is Max von Sydow, who gives a powerful hellbent performance as a father driven to vengeance.

Criterion released their DVD edition in 2006, and didn't release it on blu until 2018, releasing the solo release just months before the box.
2006 US Criterion DVD top; 2018 US Criterion BD bottom.
The DVD's aspect ratio of 1.32:1 barely changes to 1.33:1, but the DVD was windowboxed, giving the blu a very different viewing experience on widescreen TVs.  It was also grayer, flatter, softer and duller compared to the BD's updated 2k scan of the original 35mm camera negative.  And while yes, the original Swedish audio is again presented in LPCM with removable English subtitles, this one also includes a mono English dub, which is lossy even on the blu-rays.

The extras remain consistent from the DVD through the blus, but they're pretty substantial.  First there's an audio commentary not by Cowie, but another Bergman scholar named Birgitta Steene.  Then there's an introduction by Ang Lee, a lengthy audio recording of Ingmar Bergman giving a seminar at the AFI in the 70s, and the highlight: a new (well, for the DVD) on-camera featurette interviewing cast members Gunnel Lindblom and Birgitta Pettersson.
Finally, we jump ahead pretty far for 1975's Magic Flute, Bergman's production of Mozart's most renowned opera.  In some ways, it's "less" of a Bergman film, because it features none of his writing and rather faithfully sticks to the original texts.  But his artistry shines through in the rather unique way he adapts it for the screen, sometimes pulling back to reveal itself as a rather direct recording of a completely stagey production, but then also cutting in for close-ups and edits, and even at times turning the camera around to capture shots of the audience.  Still, viewers' lasting enjoyment of this film will likely hang much more on their interest in Mozart than Bergman. 

Criterion's first release of The Magic Flute is the oldest DVD in this post, dating back to 2000.  They never released it on blu before the boxed set, though in 2019, they did issue a stand-alone BD.
2000 US Criterion DVD top; 2018 US Criterion BD bottom.
The blu widens the aspect ratio from 1.33:1 to 1.37, revealing some slivers of extra picture.  I mentioned an exception to all the negative scans, and unfortunately, here it is.  This is another 2k scan, but only of the 35mm interpositive.  Grain is light and patchy at best, but the overall image is still a massive upgrade over the old DVD, which is super soft.  Background detail that was smeared away and indistinguishable comes to life on the blu, which has also had substantial color correction, making very broad changes in many shots.  This is one of the most obvious upgrades in this post even before factoring in the colors, which in addition then make it look almost like two completely different films.  The original Swedish audio is again in LPCM with removable English subs.

And this is also the biggest leap forward in terms of extras.  The original DVD was completely barebones, but they turned it into a nice special edition for the set.  Rather than a full commentary, Peter Cowie keeps his thoughts concise in a new eighteen minute on-camera interview.  But better to here it in the maestro's own words, so also included is a half hour television interview with Bergman all about The Magic Flute that was made to air before the film's original broadcast.  And best of all, there's a full behind-the-scenes documentary.  Even if you're a bit iffy on The Magic Flute because of how it doesn't fit in with the rest of his work and all, any Bergman fan should be fascinated to see him crafting this work.  For some, it could be more crucial viewing than the opera itself.
So there you go: six more reasons to be excited about Criterion's massive box, with even more still to come.  It also has to be said that, as ever, all of those older DVDs and blus had inserts with essays and notes, essentially all of which has been transferred to the hefty 248-page book included in the box.  And there's also a bonus disc of additional features, which I'll be covering in detail in the final part of this series.  So stay tuned for Part 2, where we'll be looking at the Winter Light trilogy, followed by some of the more obscure imports and rarities.

Motel Hell's New 4K Steel

I've been meaning to dip into a few more of these region A vs region B comparisons, especially after that period where it seemed like Arrow was releasing nearly simultaneous UK releases of all the major horror titles US labels were putting out. All of us region free collectors were suddenly faced with a tough choice: which one's the best to get? Now, the releases of today's film, Motel Hell, weren't quite simultaneous; they were a year apart. But if you followed this stuff, you already knew about the second one by the time the first was available. So... which is the best to get?

Update 3/12/16 - 10/13/20: Ah. Well, that question just got a whole lot easier to answer.  This week, Scream Factory is reissuing Motel Hell in a fancy new steelbook.  But more importantly, they've given it a new 4k remaster.
It really surprises me that it took until the blu-ray era for Motel Hell to get a special edition. It always struck me as one of the most beloved modern horror films, but I guess it didn't make it onto quite as many peoples' radars as the major franchises. But Farmer Vincent and Ida were at least as memorable, and twice as fun, as Michael Myers or Jason. Still, sadly, I guess I just can't operate under the assumption that everybody's seen this, so I'll break it down real quick.

Motel Hell came right at the brink of the slasher era, 1980. And because it came so early, it thankfully wasn't so trapped by the established formula, to the point where it's not even quite a slasher, exactly. We find out pretty early on that Farmer Vincent and his sister Ida (surprisingly well played by Rory Calhoun and Porky's Nancy Parsons) are capturing motorists to make his famous meats, Sweeney Todd style. But one beautiful young lady comes along that he just can't bring himself to smoke, so he takes her into his home and everybody gets on surprisingly well. But sooner or later, she's going to find out what's in their secret garden...
This movie's a hoot. It's funny, but except for a few moments (mostly involving a pair of swingers straight out of a Paul Bartel film), never loses its dark, genuinely scary and dramatic plot. In other words, it's a horror film with some humor, not a parody. It keeps you invested by getting weirder and weirder, and has some great horror moments, including a chainsaw duel well before Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 or Phantasm 2. It's genuinely atmospheric with lots of great, creep imagery; and it's got a terrific cast of characters that make you want to revisit the film again and again. Even the swingers are pretty great; they just feel like maybe they're in the wrong movie. This film manages to appeal to all types of horror fans. Even if you don't usually like slashers, horror comedies rub you the wrong way, or you think there hasn't been a good horror film since Hammer Films went bankrupt, you probably make an exception for Motel Hell.
So, Motel Hell first hit DVD in 2002, as a barebones double-bill with Deranged as part of MGM's Midnite Movies line. Deranged [right] was cut, though, so don't bother getting the DVD for that; there are multiple uncut special editions to seek out instead.  But Motel Hell wasn't cut, and it was pretty exciting seeing it for the first time in its OAR. It wouldn't be until 2013 that MH finally got a proper special edition treatment from Arrow, and in HD to boot, as a blu-ray/ DVD combo pack. There was a parallel US release soon to follow: Scream Factory released their special edition blu-ray/ DVD combo pack in 2014. It was a tough call on which was better, but this week in 2020, Scream Factory has taken another stab at it, reissuing the film (BD only) in a steelbook with an all new 4k transfer taken from the original camera negative.
1) MGM DVD 2) Arrow DVD 3) Arrow BD 4) Scream DVD 5) Scream BD 6) Scream 4k BD.
MGM's DVD was pretty great for its time, but the new blus are more than just that the same transfer slapped onto an HD disc. Consequently, even the combo pack DVDs are a nice upgrade. The picture's clearer, less contrasty, and even though all six discs letterbox the film to 1.85:1, they new releases have a sliver more picture along the edges. The colors are more natural, too.  Look how green their motel room looks on the MGM DVD compared to the other shots in the first set. Also, yuck, the old DVD was interlaced, a fate which Arrow and Scream both escaped, even on their DVDs. Then, of course, the blu-rays are both sharper and better defined than their DVD counter-parts.
Arrow blu left; 2014 Scream Factory blu right.
And compared to each other? They're nearly identical, both apparently using the same transfer given to them by Universal. Getting in close, though, Scream's blu is a little smoother, and Arrow's grain looks a little more natural, possibly having a minuscule amount of extra detail. Scream Factory may've used a pinch of DNR, or it might even be down to just compression. I also noticed both blus have sporadic white speckling (see the earlier shot I posted of Nina Axelrod mourning at the grave site, it's right there on the cross). You'd think at least one of the labels would've gone in and taken those out, since it's a relatively easy fix. But it's also a very minor flaw. So, as far as the transfers go, I give the win to Arrow, but it's close enough to be a tie to most viewers who likely wouldn't even see the distinction on their televisions. But it is there.

But it's a much more obvious win for Scream Factory now in 2020.  For starters, while it's still matted to 1.85:1, this image pulls back to reveal of the image more around all four sides.  And while Arrow initially beat Scream in terms of grain and fine detail, this new 2020 scan clarifies even more detail and really captures the fine grain from the negative.  It's still a little patchy at points, strictly speaking, but it's about as good as you could reasonably hope for outside of a UHD disc.  The first thing you'll probably notice is now much brighter the highlights are, but overall the colors are bolder and more distinct, while blacks stay black and shadows are keenly rendered.  It pops when it's supposed to, but the suspenseful night scenes are as effectively creepy as ever.

All the blus just have one HD audio track: the original stereo 2.0: lossy on the DVDs, LPCM on the Arrow, and DTS-HD on the Scream Factories, and they all provide optional English subtitles.  It sounds like Scream has remastered the audio a bit in 2020, too, though, since their new DTS-HD sounds a bit bolder than before.  The one thing the MGM DVD has over the others is foreign language options, with additional Spanish and French dubs and Spanish and French subs.
Extras are where things get interesting. The old MGM disc had nothing, except for the trailer. But Arrow came up with a lot, including an audio commentary with director Kevin Connor, moderated by Calum Waddell. It's a good and lively discussion, that stays nicely focused on the film on-screen, though a lot of energy gets lost debating whether the film has a political or environmental message (the director says it doesn't, and that's that). Then there's two cheerful on-camera interviews with cast members Paul Linke and Rosanne Katon, which I'd say are the disc's highlights.

Next up [here comes a wee tangent] is a featurette I liked more in concept than execution, called Ida, Me Thy Name where women critics and horror stars talk about Ida's role in horror history. Or maybe it's just about scream queens in general, because a lot of them don't seem to have bothered to see Motel Hell, though, and just start talking about female horror characters in general, which is pretty bland and generic. And one of the critics who does stay on topic, Shelagh M. Rowan-Legg, must've only seen the film years ago and be speaking from memory, because she gets things frustratingly wrong. At one point she says, "the character of Ida in Motel Hell is the typical grotesque female you often see in horror films. She is not attractive, and therefor she is 'grotesque.' She's overweight, her hair is dirty and greasy, um, she has no redeeming features either physically or in her or her personality. And because of that, she's completely asexual and therefor she's a monster."
Now, to be fair, she's saying that filmmakers and audiences in general sees her as grotesque; she's not calling Nancy Parsons grotesque personally. But what she's saying is still so off-base about Ida. Her hair isn't dirty and greasy; she actually puts a lot of care into her hair in this movie. Seriously, re-watch the film, she's got a whole separate plot-line going with her hair: she has pig-tails, then she braids them, then she gets fancy curls... but that's detail. The point is more that she has a LOT of redeeming features in her personality. The whole movie hangs on how charming she and Farmer Vincent are; that's the movie's whole charm. How can you watch her do the "hypno-high" scene with Calhoun, and then their talk about how they'll be remembered for bettering the world, and think she has no redeeming features to her personality?

Anyway, you've got that, and the actresses not talking about Ida, it may not be their fault, since I don't get the impression Arrow even told them they were being interviewed for Motel Hell. For a while there, Arrow was doing that cheap thing where they were taking one interview and cutting it up for multiple discs - how many times did we see Luigi Cozzi in front of that same part of his store/museum on every Italian horror title they released? So, Ida Be Thy Name is a nice concept, but ultimately just frustrating and unrewarding.

Anyway, that's still not all there is. Arrow also has an interview with younger horror director Dave Parker, who's a very enthusiastic fan and talks about the film's place in the genre. It's kind of interesting, and nice and short, so nice to have, though I can't say I'd ever heard of Parker before. Then they've also got the trailer, plus a nice booklet with notes by Kim Newman and a look at a Motel Hell comic book, which apparently exists. Arrow's release also has reversible artwork and one of their postcards for another title.
And finally we come to Scream Factory's extras. First of all, they ported over some, but not all, of Arrow's extras. They got the Linke and Katon interviews, which I think were the best and most important to carry over, so that's good news. Yes, they also brought over Ida By Thy Name, so you can at least sate your curiosity. They didn't use Arrow's commentary because they recorded their own, also with Connor, but this time moderated by that filmmaker again, Dave Parker.

Who the heck is this guy and why does everyone keep bringing him onto Motel Hell blu-rays? Well [tangent #2!], the film both discs keep promoting is The Hills Run Red, so I decided to check it out. It's too juvenile to really recommend, but it actually has some surprisingly good qualities and was perfectly watchable for a modern, low budget slasher, with a good concept by David J Schow and a cool performance by William Sadler. But yeah, it winds up being kinda dumb and about on par with most direct-to-video horrors. It's also nothing like Motel Hell.

Anyway, the new commentary is pretty good. Obviously, a lot of details are the same on both. Parker asks a lot of interesting questions, but unfortunately Connor's memory comes up a bit short at times and he gets a bit quiet with Parker audibly struggling to draw more out of him. I could see Scream thinking they were going to make a better commentary than Arrow's, and that's probably why they made this; but at the end of the day, I'm not sure they pulled it off. Both are fine, and neither are fantastic; it's basically a draw.

Scream comes through, though, with a new almost half-hour documentary with the film's writers and producers. A few anecdotes get repeated, but ultimately it's a fun and informative piece, up to Scream Factory's high 'making of' standards. And they've got another new on-camera interview, too, with Thomas del Ruth, the film's DP, who's quite interesting. Scream's releases also have the trailer, plus reversible artwork and a slipcover for the 2014 set, and of course a steelbook for their new 2020 disc.
It was no landslide victory, but having lived with them both for a while, I found Scream Factory's release more satisfactory. While owning them both, I'd pick Arrow's blu off the shelf just to watch the movie; but the distinction in transfers is so slim, I wouldn't go out of my way to import or double-dip for it. And adding it all up, I think Scream has the best features, thanks to them importing the best of Arrow's and creating their own. Now, in 2020, Scream's new blu doubles as both the best transfer and the best extras package, making it the easily definitive release.  And yes, sometimes it's still fun to buy both releases to have all the extras; but in this case I don't think there's any call for that.  This new 4k is all you need.