Fellini Week, Day 1: La Dolce Vita

I trust everyone had a nice holiday?  I hope so, and now we're back and ready to dive into some fantastic home video.  For the next few days, we're going to feature one of film's all-time greatest maestros who truly deserves some more extensive coverage on this site: Federico Fellini.  And yeah, that does mean we're in for a bunch of Criterion discs.  Nothin' wrong with that.
Now, 1960's La Dolce Vita isn't Fellini's first film.  Far from it; he'd already been directing for a decade and nominated for five Oscars and won a sixth before he came to this point in his career.  But it is the film, at least for me (and I believe this is a fairly commonly held opinion), where he stepped forward from his peers of already clearly talented writer/ directors to a unique and compelling voice in cinema.  It broke box office records in its day and won a ton of awards, but more to the point, Fellini started to allow his sardonic, cartoonist nature to merge with his cinematic work.  He doesn't quite develop into the larger than life surrealism you'd later find in films like City of Women, but he does craft some truly indelible images and unforgettable sequences, like the statue of Christ being helicoptered over the waving bikini girls, or the candlelit tour through the haunted castle.
This is also when Fellini found his perfect avatar in Marcello Mastroianni, who plays a paparazzo struggling to keep up with the idle and decadent rich of the day (including, of course, the ultra-glamorous Anita Ekberg).  Fellini is just sardonic enough to take the air out of our burgeoning celebrity culture, while still telling an affecting human story.  Mastroianni isn't just his generation's fashion horse for being hip and charming, he's sympathetic.  Meanwhile, Fellini is starting to present his distinct portrayal of Roman life: packed vignettes of bustling crowds and life exploding at the seams.  And the larger than life soundtracks of Nino Rota were already a regular staple in his arsenal, so there's really no aspect of Fellini's cinema that isn't firing at 100% in this one.
For such a famous film, it took La Dolce Vita a while to hit DVD in the US.  I think England got it first, but there were multiple foreign editions floating around out there over the years before Koch Lorber finally gave us something to replace our Image laserdiscs with here in the states.  Specifically, they gave us their 2-disc Collector's Edition in 2004.  They quickly followed that up with an improved 3-disc Deluxe Collector's Edition in 2005.  I've got both versions here, so we can get into that interesting little story.  But that's more or less been rendered ancient history since we've moved into the high def era, where Criterion gave us their new and improved blu-ray in 2014.  Though it's not so improved, as you'll see, there isn't still some reason for us to hold onto our DVDs...
1) 2004 KL DVD; 2) 2005 KL DVD; 3) 2014 Criterion BD.
So the two DVDs feature virtually the same transfer.  They're not 100% identical... the 2004 disc features a single pixel's worth of dead space along the righthand side, which the 2005 disc corrects for.  And by the way, a sliver like that is not so rare, plenty of DVDs and BDs have them for whatever reason - it's so impossible to spot without taking screenshots, I guess most labels just often overlook 'em.  In fact, the Criterion blu has a similar pixel's worth of dead space on the lefthand side.  But anyway, that means yes, technically the two DVDs aren't identical transfers, but for all intents and purposes, the Deluxe DVD doesn't improve or adjust the transfer from their first edition.  Issues, like the banding you can see in the second set of shots, persist and fine detail looks exactly the same, which is to say, alright for DVD, but pretty a bit smudgy and clumsy compared to Criterion's crisp blu.

The aspect ratio also shifts slightly between Koch and Criterion, going from 2.33 or 2.34 (based on that single pixel-wide sliver) on the DVDs to 2.35:1 on the blu.  But it's not just a very slightly wider frame; you can see the DVDs actually noticeably more image along both sides, while Criterion has extra slivers along the top and bottom.  How does that much difference fit into nearly identical framing, you might ask.  Because the DVD was slightly squished, which the BD corrects.  Without the constraints of standard def compression, Criterion handily removes the aforementioned banding and smudging, too.  Criterion describes this as a "[n]ew 4K digital restoration by the Film Foundation," and it's generally a very sharp and satisfying presentation, but grain is a little patchy and blocky for a 4k scan.  It seems to have gotten rave reviews on other sites, but I'd temper that a little.  Like a B+.  A great scan that could've been more carefully compressed.
1) 2004 KL DVD; 2) 2005 KL DVD; 3) 2014 Criterion BD.
Both Koch DVDs give us a surprising variety of audio options, presenting the original Italian track in its original mono, as well as revisionist stereo and 5.1 mixes, with optional English and Spanish subtitles.  On the 2004 DVD, they're yellow, which surprisingly seemed to have rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.  Forums and online reviews all complained about the "gaudy yellow" subtitles.  I don't know - yellow is a very standard color for subtitles, and if you've ever seen movies where white subtitles disappear against white backgrounds, they're pleasingly easier to read.  But for some reason, people really pounced on this one, and Koch Lorber noticed.  Their 2005 DVD now offers the subtitles in both yellow and white (and yes, that for the Spanish subs, too).  Anyway, Criterion dumps the remixes and just gives us the original uncompressed monaural soundtrack in LPCM, with freshly translated English subtitles and, yes, they're white.
But I mentioned a reason to hold onto your DVDs, right?  And it's not because of yellow subtitles.  Here's what Koch Lorber still has that Criterion doesn't: a huge supply of special features, especially on their Deluxe edition.  But let's start out with their initial 2-disc Collector's Edition, because that's not too shabby even by itself.  Disc 1 starts out with an appreciative introduction by Alexander Payne, and then delivers an audio commentary by film historian Richard Schickel.  It's a little flat, but outlines all the basics anyone would want to know.  Then Disc 2 starts to get really interesting.  First up is "Fellini TV," which is a collection of television commercials and other odds and ends Fellini directed over the years.  There's a whole ton of 'em and his personality and style definitely shine through.  If you've ever wanted to dive really deep into Fellini, this is it.  Then there's a twelve minute featurette old interviews with Ekberg and Mastrionni, tied to their reunion in Intervista, a brief vintage TV interview with Fellini, an even briefer look at his offices in Cinecitta, a restoration demonstration (though, unlike the feature on disc 1, it's interlaced, so it's not totally representative), and a photo gallery.  There's also a bunch of bonus trailers, and an insert with notes by Dennis Bartok.
Anita Ekberg, from disc 3
So it's already a great little package, but the Deluxe edition ups the ante with an additional DVD of special features, and not just a tiny bonus; there's some real hefty stuff.  It starts off with an hour long documentary on Nino Rota.  Then there are new on-camera interviews with Ekberg, which is pretty great, screenwriter Tullio Pinelli and Fellini's old and slightly eccentric friend Rinaldo Gelend.  That's rounded off by a couple short, old television interviews with Fellini and Mastrionni, and a very brief (under two minutes) clip of Donald Sutherland talking about Fellini.  At a few points it feels like they're throwing in whatever scraps they can get their hands on, but most of it's pretty interesting and it all adds up to an impressive supplementary package.  The Deluxe Edition also comes in an impressive 12"x8" box, which houses a rolled poster, a glossy 40-page booklet by Peter Bondanella (in addition to the Bartok featurette from the original set, which is also included here) and five photo cards.

And Criterion?  Unfortunately, they've carried over absolutely none of that.  But that's not to say they don't have anything.  They've created their own stuff, which is also quite good.  They've got a great little chat with assistant director Lina Wertmüller, and a couple scholarly featurettes by David Forgacs, Antonello Sarno and ::kogonada (that's like his Hip-Hop name, I guess).  Then they've got a vintage interview with Fellini, which is different from any of the Koch ones, and substantially longer and more in-depth, plus an even longer audio-only interview with Mastroianni.  They've also got their own gallery and an insert which folds out into a poster with notes by Gary Giddins.
So, you know, I don't mean to make it sound like Criterion's extras aren't good.  They absolutely are.  it's just a shame how much Koch Lorber assembled that was dropped (although I believe the Anita Ekberg interview is the same one on the UK blu-ray from Nouveaux Pictures, and Umbrella's blu-ray in Australia seems to feature a lot of the Koch material, including "Fellini TV").  The 4k restoration handily blows away the old DVD transfers though, of course, so you're definitely going to want to double-dip.  Just hang onto your DVDs, too, if you've got 'em.  And if you don't, yeah, it might be worth tracking down the Deluxe box just to compliment your blu, because it's still pretty sweet.

The Ultimate Suspiria Experience

It's finally time to add Dario Argento's lavish visual masterpiece, 1977's Suspiria, to the pages of DVDExotica.  And you're probably expecting an endless scroll of screenshots comparing a whole host of different Suspiria DVDs and Blu-rays from over the years, but this one's actually going to be pretty concise.  For one thing, as I've said on its sequel's page, I've always been more of an Inferno guy, so I haven't felt as driven to collect every variant release I saw pop up on Diabolik over the years.  And because - not that I had any actual inside knowledge - but I always pretty much knew it was a sure thing that Synapse would issue this on UHD sooner or later, so I wasn't willing to bankrupt myself double- and quintuple-dipping on all the import leatherbooks, Cult Epics Films' UHD and all of Synapse's fancy BD sets.  I was fine waiting patiently for the ultimate, definitive edition.  And now here it is.
Seeing Suspiria for the first time in, I'm now realizing, not just 4k but HD at all, since I've previously only seen this on VHS and DVD, does do something to revive my estimation of the film.  I mean, don't get me wrong, I've always liked and appreciated it - I can remember painting an image from this movie for my high school art class.  It's just that, to there's a lot of questionable aspects you have to hand wave in order to get to the good stuff: the way these seemingly college-aged women sometimes behave like middle school children, the clunky phony bat, poor Stefania Casini rolling around in what we're supposed to imagine is barbwire for far too long to take seriously... you can say that's always a problem with I-horror, with their consistent over-dubbing and lapses in logic, but Suspiria's flaws can be especially hard to ignore.  But with bigger, higher resolution televisions and booming soundtracks, this film's powerful artistic qualities are also harder to miss.  The wild set pieces and the thunderous score really grabbed me in a way that they haven't since I first discovered this film back in the 1980s.  Since then, I've always intellectually known that Suspiria is an impressive and important work, and famous images have stuck with me; but this 4k reminder really made me feel it in my bones again.
Suspiria pretty much debuted on DVD in 2001 (strictly speaking, I think there was an earlier Japanese DVD) from Anchor Bay.  There was a single disc edition and a limited (to a mere 60,000 copies) 3-disc edition with the same disc #1, but also a documentary disc and a soundtrack CD.  I got the limited special edition (#04602), and that's the DVD we'll be looking at below.  Since then, Blue Underground reissued the Anchor Bay DVD when they took over their Argento titles in 2007; and in 2010, blu-rays started popping up overseas on labels like King Records and Umbrella.  But by that point I was already holding out for a 4k restoration.  With such a revered, heavily visually identified film as this, it was only a matter of time.  Synapse released their 40th anniversary restoration as a limited (to 6,000) 3-disc steelbook in 2017, which they later re-released in 2018 as a 2-disc special edition, or a more budget-friendly single disc.  Meanwhile, Cult Films took the lead over in the UK by putting the film out on UHD that same year, albeit sans Don May Jr's careful color correction.  So fans were torn: Synapse on blu or Cult Film's genuinely 4k UHD?  Well, it doesn't always work out, but this time the patient among us were rewarded, because this week Synapse has finally put out their version on UHD - with all new, UHD-specific color grading - 2-disc edition, with all of their special features on a second, blu-ray disc: the best of both worlds.
Anchor Bay 2001 DVD top; Synapse 2019 BD bottom.
I'll start off by dropping this shocker on you: the new UHD is an improvement over the 18 year-old DVD.  No duh.  I can't imagine anybody needed to hear me tell them that, but it's still worth noting what has an hasn't changed over that time.  There are artifacts and slight haloing around moving edges in particular, but for a 2001 DVD, AB's compression and level of detail holds up pretty well.  It's anamorphic, not interlaced, and by moving all the extras to a second disc, they got what they could out of a dual-layered DVD.  But weighing in at over 70GB, Synapse obviously clears all those little flaws away and presents very fine but ideally rendered grain.  The framing is a bit wider, too, growing from 2.34:1 to 2.38:1, capturing a tiny sliver more on the top and bottom, but a substantial chunk on the right-hand side.  Argento's bold colors stood out even on murky VHS tapes, but the new 4k transfer gives us a cleaner distinction; not just with deep reds and blues, but genuinely whiter whites in the same frame (note how the whites are all yellowish on the DVD).  Happily, the HDR gives us all the vividness we could ask for, but doesn't go overboard and turn this into a saturated mess.  Everything still looks powerfully photo realistic.  The only complaint I read about Synapse's blu-rays is that some of the brights were flared out.  Well, I haven't seen that version to corroborate, but I sure didn't see any of that on this edition, so I'd say that's been fixed.

Suspiria's also been pretty lucky in the audio department.  I can recall Mr. Lustig giving some prickly responses to fans asking for both English and Italian tracks to I-Horror titles back in the day, but they respected Suspiria enough to give us both on that DVD.  It had a fancy DTS-ES 6.1 track, plus an alternate 5.1 mix, of the English mastered in THX, as well as Italian and French stereo tracks, with optional English subtitles.  I essentially grew up on the English track, so I watched this in Italian the most recent time, and I might actually like it slightly better.  Harper only dubs her own voice on the English, but everyone does a pretty good job on the Italian track, and I feel like it downplays the goofiness of the school girls at least a tiny bit.  And Udo Kier's dubber sounds nothing like him in either version.
Well, anyway, so that's the DVD.  Synapse's UHD also gives us two English options, and they're a bit more exciting.  First of all, for their 2017/ 2018, they restored the film's original 4.0 mix (which was cutting edge for its time) and presented it in lossless DTS-HD.  That's been ported over to their UHD, but now they've also created a newer Dolby Atmos mix just for this edition, for you non-purists who want to push your tech to its edges.  Then the Italian is presented in a bold DTS-HD 5.1, and we're given the choice of English sub or "dubtitles," for whichever audio language we select. 

One interesting detail about the dual audio tracks is that there's a key scene early in the film, where a girl runs past Jessica Harper shouting a clue, but the thunderstorm makes it impossible to hear what she's saying; and Harper doesn't figure it out until near the conclusion.  In the Italian version it's a little easier to make out.  What's more, in the English subtitles, it reads "[Shouting, indistinct]," on AB's DVD and "[Dialogue indistinct]" on Synapse's UHD.  But Synapse's Italian subtitles 100% spell out the mysterious phrase precisely.  So if you're watching the film for the first time as the Italian version via Synapse, you might be puzzled to realize that bit was actually intended to be a mystery.

And rack up another point for Synapse because they let us choose to watch this film with either the English or Italian opening and closing credits (AB just gave us the English).
And of course plenty of more points pour in when you look at all the new special features Synapse has cooked up for us.  First of all, they created two scholarly audio commentaries, one by Troy Howarth and one by Derek Botelho and David Del Valle.  Both are packed with background information, with Howarth delivering a little more dry history and Botelho and Del Valle providing more entertaining anecdotes.  In fact, Synapse really leans into the scholarly, also including two lengthy featurettes where critics delve into its influences, cinematic techniques, etc.  And why, yes, these do redundantly feature similar people repeating the same anecdotes and factoids using virtually the same verbiage.  I wish more special editions had someone oversee all the extras so they could cut out all the repetitious bits and just leave the unique material in each feature.  Anyway, we then get a fun interview with Barbara Magnolfi, who played one of Harper's fellow students, and a brief look at the film's locations, both of which are more original.  You'll also find a plethora of trailers, TV spots, radio spots, and yet another set of alternate opening credits.  Plus it comes with reversible artwork in an attractive slip cover.  It's an impressive collection of features, yet it feels like it's missing something important.
Anchor Bay didn't have any of the above stuff (except for the trailers, TV and radio spots).  But it had something crucial: their 25th Anniversary documentary.  It's about an hour long, but what's crucial about it is that it interviews all the major players: Dario Argento, Daria Nicolodi, Jessica Harper, Udo Kier, Stefania Casini, director of photography Luciano Tovoli and Goblin members Claudio Simonetti, Fabio Pignatelli, Massimo Morante and Agostino Marangolo.  All these critics and experts are nice, and can provide some critical information, but there's nothing like hearing from the actual artists involved.  And that's the one thing missing from Synapse's edition(s).  Cult Films at least interviewed Argento, but most of their special commentaries and interviews just consisted of a different bunch of critics.  This doc is the most important and compelling Suspiria extra by a long stretch.

Oh, and I guess I should also point out that Anchor Bay's DVD also included a Goblin music video, the soundtrack CD, a 32-page booklet, a couple lobby card reproductions, an Udo Kier easter egg (an outtake from the documentary), and a stills gallery.
I've seen some people expressing annoyance at being asked to double-dip by Synapse so quickly, and I don't blame them.  I wish they would've at least hinted that a UHD would be coming right on the heels of their BDs.  But what's done is done, and where we're at now is that there's a definitive ultimate edition out now on UHD.  It has everything you could need and want except for some decent interviews with the creators.  Really, you've got to go back and get one of those older discs for that 25th Anniversary documentary (the Blue Underground reissue and the Australian releases from Umbrella have it, too) to properly complete your set.  But you can find some of those used pretty cheap now, and many of us already have one in our collections already, so it's not too painful to compile the ultimate Suspiria experience.  And yeah, it sure is an experience.

My Personalized Criterion: The Daytrippers

It's always great when a top label announces a fancy new edition of a film you like.  But there's nothing like those times when a top label announces a fancy new edition you've been anxiously waiting not just years but literally decades for.  Yes, Criterion is adding 1996's The Daytrippers to their collection; and I don't know if I anticipate it being a big seller for them.  This one feels like it was crafted just for me.  But I guess I'll let you guys pick up a copy, too.  You know, if you're cool.
The Daytrippers is one of those darlings of 90s east coast independent cinema like Clerks, Poison and Walking and Talking.  Some of those have endured the test of time better than others, so despite my very fold memories, I was a little worried how this film would hold up.  Happily, watching this new edition, it plays even better than I remembered it.  The ensemble cast, some of whom were just getting their start here, is on absolute fire: Hope Davis, Stanley TucciParker Posey, Liev Schreiber, Anne Meara, Pat McnamaraCampbell Scott (who also executive produced), and a charmingthird act appearance by Marica Gay Harden.  It's a perfectly comic premise: Davis suspects her husband, Tucci, who's working late in the big city, is cheating on her, so she gets her parents to drive her into the city to confront him.  So it's a road movie, it's packed with brilliantly realized characters, and by the final act, it actually develops into an affecting drama - but without ever losing sight of its comedy.
Writer/ director Greg Mottola, may not be a household name, but he's a respectable name in comedy.  He directed Superbad and episodes of Arrested Development, though Adventureland is the only other film he wrote as well.  But I'd say this, despite its low budget and lack of studio polish, remains his masterpiece.  I've only just learned that James L. Brooks was a silent partner on this one based on his love of the script (at one point he offered to produce the whole thing), but considering its ideal blend of wit and unsentimental heart, it makes perfect sense.
The Daytrippers debuted on DVD back in 2000 from Columbia Tri-Star.  It was barebones and fullscreen, but in those days it seemed like only a matter of time until a special edition upgrade rolled around.  Those were the days, back when DVD was huge but its best years were still ahead of it, and lots of people cared.  But generic, fullscreen discs (Metrodome's 2003 release in the UK was no better than Columbia's, and neither was the Australian one from Magna Pacific later that year) seemed to be all this film was destined for.  Probably.  I still to this day have never been able to get the full deal on a 2006 French triple-feature[left] from TF1 called 'Deauville, Vol. 2: Americain,' which bundled Daytrippers up with Denise Calls Up and Loved.  The back of the case says it's widescreen, but doesn't specify if that actually applies to all three of the films or what.  I spent hours and hours over years and years sending out unanswered emails, poking around online, pestering online shops, etc., but could never get any confirmation one way or the other.  Sellers didn't want to open the shrink-wrap to check, which I fully understand, but good luck offloading those suckers now that they've been rendered utterly obsolete by Criterion's brand new 4k restoration, special edition blu-ray.
2000 Columbia Tri-Star DVD top; 2019 Criterion BD bottom.
Daytrippers was shot on 16, with a lot of handheld to boot, so it's always going to look a little rough around the edges.  But watching Criterion's new blu is a whole new experience for all of us who've only gotten to see this film on TV/ VHS/ DVD.   First of all, it's widescreen, and it's a substantial difference going from Columbia's 1.30:1 to 1.85:1.  The matting shaves a little off the top and bottom, which was always dead space anyway, and reveals a whole ton on the left and right.  Mottola talks on this DVD about how, with his limited resources, he decided right from the beginning to focus on actors and writing rather than production values and glamorous photography.  And yeah, there are scenes, like the party in the loft, where the staging feels clunky and cheap.  But for the first time since The Daytrippers played in theaters, the cinematography looks deliberately composed.  Priority may have been given to the dialogue and performances, but this wasn't all run and gun, just putting the camera wherever it took to get the story in the can... which honestly, is the impression the fullscreen version always gave.  Someone genuinely cared and here it shows.
And it's not just the aspect ratio.  The new color correction really makes Parker's outfits pop and make each location more distinct.  As I mentioned above, Criterion's given us a fresh 4k scan, which their booklet tells us is "from the 16mm A/B original camera negative."  16's naturally grainy, but it looks refreshingly clear here.  And that's not to suggest DNR or anything along those lines; when you get in close, grain is distinctly captured.  Fine detail is, you know, as good as it's ever gonna get, considering.  But the compression is strong, preventing the digitized pixelation of grain that Crtiterion's run up against a time or two before.  Blacks are uncrushed, too.

Like the picture, the audio track can be a little rough, some scenes ADR'd but still retaining plenty of native recording captured on New York streets.  But it's a clear enough stereo mix that it never distracts or annoys, with Criterion bumping it up to lossless DTS-HD.  Both editions also include optional English subtitles, though the DVD also offered Spanish and French.
And if that wasn't enough, Criterion laps around Columbia only to pass by and leave it in the dust again in the special features department.  The DVD only gave us a couple bonus trailers and a insert to list the chapter stops.  But the blu-ray nails it with two lengthy featurettes.  One is a three way discussion with Mottola, Posey and Schrieber, which is both humorous and informative.  They even call Campbell Scott on the phone for a few bonus anecdotes.  Then things get a little more serious for an in-depth talk between Mottola and Davis.  Next is an audio commentary with Mottola, producer Steven Soderbergh (who mostly moderates, though he throws in one or two memories of his own) and editor Anne McCabe, which is good, but rarely pays attention to what's on the screen and features Mottola repeating a lot of stories verbatim from the interviews.  So good, but could've been better.  There's also an early student film by Motolla on here, which is silent and pretty much only of interest as a historical artifact for serious Motolla fans.  He provides an audio commentary for that, too, though, which works as a nice little history of the director (did you know he worked on Day Of the Dead?).  He mentions another student film that he made later, which wasn't silent and apparently audiences found funny enough that it lead to him getting professional work.  I wish they would've included that one instead of this one, but oh well.  Criterion at least seem to have given that a thorough 4k restoration, too, because it looks great.  And anyway, besides all that, Criterion includes an attractive 12 page, fold-out booklet with notes by The New Yorker's television critic Emily Nussbaum.
So yeah.  I suspect quirky independent comedy may not pack quite the authoritative heft one normally associates with "important" Criterion films.  But for me, this and War and Peace are their two most exciting releases of the year, and I hope it's indicative of similar titles we may see restored in 2020.

The Spell: Scream Factory Got Classic TV Horror Right, But Did Anybody Notice?

Look, I've given Scream Factory some flack over their awkward relationship with made-for-TV horrors.  And I've just been praising Warner Archives for some of their stellar work with it.  So it would be pretty disingenuous of me not to cover this case of Scream absolutely nailing it and giving us exactly what we wanted: a total DVD/ Blu-ray debut, marketed on its own merits (i.e. the cover features its own title, rather than "TV Terrors: Double Feature, vol. 2") with a quality transfer and some appealing special features.  Plus, this is just the kind of under-appreciated little gem I live to write about on this site anyway.  This is 1977's The Spell, originally broadcast on NBC, and viewable for the first time in HD courtesy of Scream Factory.
And yes, it's a blatant Carrie knock-off.  A teenage girl named Rita is bullied at school, and uses her latent psychic powers to lash back against her bullies, mother and even her coach.  The screenwriter claims, "It was based on my sister; it was an original idea... I knew nothing about Carrie, and so it was just an odd, dark coincidence that Carrie would come out at the same time that mine did," in the special features, and that his "was already recorded in the writer's guild before Stephen King had even dreamed up Carrie," but it's hard to believe Carrie had no influence on the production if not the screenplay.  Rita even wears a cape like Piper Laurie.  But where The Spell distinguishes itself is in its subtlety.  I did appreciate the one moment in Carrie when the coach hits the bully in gym class, because it at least went some way towards blurring the lines between saintly good guys and irredeemable villains.  Because otherwise it's just so arch.  King adaptations always seem to have these absurdly mad-with-religion types (see also: Marcia Gay Harden in The Mist, Everett McGill in Silver Bullet, Jeremy Slate in Lawnmower Man and of course all The Children Of the Corn), but Carrie's mother is queen of them all.  Admittedly she's more than just a flat bad guy: she's conflicted and deluded, somehow always meaning well despite committing a lifetime of extreme child abuse, right up to and including the attempted murder at the end.  But the point is, she's totally batshit nutso.
Meanwhile none of the characters in Rita's home are perfect - everyone says the wrong thing and behaves brashly or selfishly to the others at least once - but it never leaves the realm of the believable.  If anything, it's uncomfortably relatable.  Admittedly, Carrie earns its place in cinema history for its powerfully iconic bloody prom massacre; The Spell never gets so bold or dynamic (and hey, if you want to appreciate how much Carrie did right, just compare it to its sequel and two remakes).  It has one really cool death scene and an entertaining enough showdown at the end (which also seems to inspired by Carrie to be all coincidence), but it's never nearly so ostentatious.  File them both under horror, but Carrie sells thrills and spectacle, while The Spell deals in genuine drama.  Nothing in Carrie lands like the speech Rita gives to her mother about how she loves her but not her sister and brother, and she should accept that like the rest of the family has.  That's the moment (about 25 minutes in), that made me really lean forward and realize wow, this film is operating as so much more than just a passable knock-off.
The mother, Lee Grant, won an Oscar and was nominated for three more throughout her storied career, and a preteen Helen Hunt turned out to be The Spell's breakout star, but relatively unknown Susan Myers commands the stage as Rita.  Not that this movie doesn't have flaws.  It has one stand-out kill, but the rest of the psychic attacks are pretty underwhelming.  And while the feminist and family issues are as relevant now as ever, they can feel as clunky and dated as you'd expect a 70s TV movie to be.  And as flat and boxy looking, with its 4:3 framing and over-reliance on close-ups.  There's also a subplot with a parapsychologist (The Incredible Hulk's Jack Colvin) that struggles to connect with the rest of the story, like important scenes were either cut or inserted at the last minute.  In fact, there's a very weird edit at the end of the film, which I can't get into too much without spoilers (but if you've seen the film, it's the suspicious way the film leaves and returns to the exact same shot of the cat painting), that suggests the film was clumsily tampered with.  There's actually a shorter version (73 minutes vs 86) that removes most of the ending, as well as a few other scenes, which does fix that weird cat painting cut, but only makes things more confusing overall.  I'm very glad Scream secured us the longer, more complete cut; but I suspect the ideal director's cut would be some third, alternate edit that nobody's ever seen.
2017 Scream Factory blu-ray.
Scream presents The Spell in 1.33:1, which is undoubtedly the correct aspect ratio for a 70's TV movie.  It's a fairly attractive HD transfer, but it's not exactly cutting edge.  Grain is patchy and blocky.  I assume this is the master MGM had sitting around for at least a couple years before Scream Factory came knocking in 2017.  But it's clearly taken from film elements and leaves any old TV broadcast/ VHS transfer well in the dust.  Sure, this would benefit from a 4k scan, but it looks as good as any of their other MGM-sourced transfers.  There's minor film damage (small scratches, white specks) on practically every frame, but it's always very minor and never distracting.  If this was a new Sony restoration of Lawrence of Arabia or something, I'd say come on guys, you could do better.  But honestly, this is all I ask for with a lesser known TV movie like this.

The audio's about what you'd expect, too.  It's the original mono, which sounds pretty clean - you'd have to crank the volume uncomfortably high to hear a bit of background hiss in most scenes - but also a bit muffled and low-fi.  I said "most scenes" because there are a few points where it flares up more, but never to the point of competing with the dialogue or music.  Scream has added optional English subtitles, which was a nice touch, but I never needed it to pick out words or anything that weren't clear enough to make out on their own.
And they give us some very welcome special features, too.  The highlight for me is the on-camera interview with the screenwriter, Brian Taggert, which I quoted from earlier.  He talks about what you want to know.  Then there's an audio commentary by Amanda Reyes, who just did the new commentary for Don't Be Afraid Of the Dark.  She's enthusiastic and knows a ton of stuff, addressing some more topics fans would surely be wondering about.  But she does tend to veer off into other TV movies that are only tangentially related; sometimes I wished I could snap my fingers and bring her back on track.  But it's absolutely an asset to the disc.
And that's it.  But apart from the producer coming in and giving us a definitive explanation for the alternate cuts and endings for this film (and what are the odds he'd remember, anyway?), the pair of Taggert and Reyes really doesn't leave you wanting for anything more.  Again, this is a neat little TV horror flick that'd never even been released on DVD before, let alone BD.  Now we have the rarer, longer cut looking great in HD, subtitled, and with some substantial extras.  I'd be nothing but delighted to see more made-for-television gems get this treatment.

Don't Be Afraid Of the Dark, or Why I Love Warner Archive

After Bad Ronald last year, Warner Archives has struck another critical blow for classic, made-for-TV horror.  This time they've revitalized 1973's Don't Be Afraid Of the Dark, one of the few television terrors that can stand alongside Hollywood's big budget productions.  This isn't their first time releasing this title, but it is the film's HD debut, restored in 4k from the original camera negatives.  So, taking this as a pattern... prediction for Halloween 2020: a 4k restoration of 1977's The Possessed?
Anyway, Don't Be Afraid Of the Dark plays like a typical haunted house film in a lot of ways.  A couple moves into a new, somewhat ominous looking home.  Even after they crack open a mysteriously sealed metal fireplace hidden in the dark recesses of their basement, everything seems fine to the husband.  But the stay-at-home housewife keeps noticing unsettling little things.  Moved possessions, what sounds like whispering.  There's a lot of the ol' "I'm telling you, I'm not going out of my mind!" business.  But this time, instead of a vague, malevolent spirit floating about, there's a race of little "mini-demons" (as the back of the box describes them) conspiring against her, and there's nothing ethereal about the threat they pose.  I'd describe them more like goblins than demonic, though, with little prune-like heads and bearish fur suits.  It's colorfully composed, dark yet fun in an surprisingly endearing way that lame ass 2010 remake could never understand.
It's not that the remake was so terrible; there was even one scene I quite liked and thought would've been great in the original.  But it changes so much, making the story about a little girl in a gothic castle haunted by hairless CGI rats who eat human teeth.  And not to be that guy relentlessly banging the "practical effects > CGI" in 2019, but in the original, the creatures were a handful of tiny little people running around, using massively oversized tools with quirky personality.  Now they're a generic little horde of emaciated demon critters animated all over the frame.  It retains none of the charm of the original.  Instead of a remake nobody asked for, Del Toro should've just made his own thing full stop, which would've at least freed him up to really pursue his imaginative and develop his own ideas.  Instead, it's completely untrue to the original in spirit, but tied to the same rails so that when somebody like the handyman character is introduced, you say to yourself, well, he's the version of the guy from the original, so I know what's going to happen with him."  In other words, it misses the heart of the story, and sacrifices its power to surprise at the same time.  Not to mention, Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce had the combined chemistry and dynamism of a spilt bag of wheat germ.
After one or two budget, foreign releases, Warner Bros finally gave Don't Be Afraid Of the Dark a proper DVD release in 2009.  Well, proper apart from the fact that it was an MOD DVD-R, like everything in their Warner Archives series was at the time.  Still, it was a bit of a break-out success for them, so they reissued it in 2011 as a special edition.  Still a DVD-R, it at least had a remastered transfer and a brand new audio commentary.  But now, just in time for Halloween, Warner went back to the original negatives one last time to restore the film in 4k for their brand new HD blu-ray edition.  And yes, this time it's a properly pressed disc.
2011 DVR top; 2019 BD bottom.
Now, being their second pass on it, Warner's 2011 DVD wasn't too bad.  (By the way, if you're as curious as I was to how the 2009 DVD looks compared to the 2011 Special Edition, check out this excellent DVDTalk review.)  It's not interlaced, the colors were corrected, overly dark scenes were elucidated and fine detail was nice and clear for SD.  Of course, the boost to HD spruces it up even more, and cleans up that softening around the edges inherent to SD.  And as much as the colors were improved last time, they've really been given a shot in the arm this time around.  This is a film that always made great use of color in their production design, but we can appreciate it like never before on Warner's new blu.  If this film wasn't fullscreen (1.33 on both discs), you'd never guess this was shot for television.  Grain is still a bit light, which makes me wonder if Warners got nervous about fans reacting to a "grainy picture" and watered it down just a tad.  But it's there, and this film looks so clean and vibrant, it looks like it could've been shot yesterday.

In the audio dept., the original mono track's been bumped up to DTS-HD for the blu, which also adds optional English SDH subtitles (and yes, they include the little monster movies, too).
Besides a remaster, what made the 2011 DVD a special edition was the inclusion of a new, but rather disappointing, audio commentary by a writer from Dread Central, a writer from Fangoria and screenwriter Jeffrey Riddick.  Before you get too excited about that last credit, though, I have to point out while Riddick is a screenwriter for horror titles like Final Destination and Steve Miner's Day Of the Dead remake, he didn't have anything to do with this film.  It's a lively discussion, but a bit obnoxious with them cracking easy, unappreciative jokes at the film's expense (hey, look, they're wearing 70s clothes because this was shot in the 70s!).  While they do have some professional insight, and do have complimentary things to say as well; this plays a lot more of a casual fan commentary than a thoughtful, professional one.  Well, the new blu keeps that commentary, but it also adds a new one by TV movie historian Amanda Reyes.  While still fairly light-hearted, this is a far more satisfying, informative talk.  I'd still happily throw it all away for one, five minute interview clip with Kim Darby or anyone else who was actually a part of the production, but Warners has definitely added some more value to their package this second time around.
So horror fans, delight!  This film's a little treasure, and Warners going back to the original negative doesn't just make it look as good as it did on its first day.  Thanks to this being well shot and carefully preserved on 35mm film, it now looks far superior to how it ever could've appeared when it was originally broadcast.  How's that for a Halloween treat?