Let the Rediscovery of Alien Predators Begin! (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Okay, you guys have probably never seen The Falling (perhaps better known as Alien Predators), right? I saw just about everything in the 80s, and I never saw this. I didn't catch it until a couple years ago, when I was on a jag of tracking down and watching all the 80s horror flicks I missed in my youth. And I don't know what I expected from The Falling... I think some sort of cheap, passionless knock-off, like Carnosaur crossed with Forbidden World, at best maybe a peer of Inseminoid. Can't say I'm a fan of that stuff, zero heart and stock characters boring you for 80 minutes of mindless exposition and keeping you on the hook with the promise of lame kills by a cheesy rubber suited monster. But you know, you gotta sift through a lot of dirt to find the golden nuggets, and like I said, I was determined to burn through every 80s horror flick, bar none, to discover something good. And I did!

Update 8/27/15 - 6/19/18: I guess I can't call this post, "The Movie Scream Factory Let Slip Through Their Fingers" anymore!  😁  Yes, that was this post's original title, and yes, Scream Factory has finally picked it up and released it on blu!  How's it look?  Are there any good features?  Come see!
The Falling (terrible title, by the way) is a little bit weird, a little bit funny... a little crazy and even a little action-y. I really like it. Far from the kind of film I described above, this is everything you want from an 80s horror. It's like Night Of the Creeps or Fright Night. I mean, those are two major highlights of the genre, and admittedly it's not quite as polished or engaging as those. There's no delightful Roddy McDowall or Tom Atkins level character... although The Falling does take one or two stabs at it, and come up with a couple characters - these two government/scientist guys - that don't reach those heights but are still pretty fun. Dude in the beard definitely makes you want to see more scenes with him, and the three young leads are all pretty good and likeable. The jokier sidekick guy is no Evil Eddie, but he's definitely a more enjoyable character than most generic horror dudes.
And damn it, this film delivers. You want great rubber effects? This film's got 'em. You want genuinely funny gags and moments? They're here. Gore? Yup, some pretty gross stuff. Creepy atmospheric points, including a creepy killer in a clown mask? Uh-huh. Stunts, including car chases, explosions and a menacing truck right out of Duel or Maximum Overdrive? Exotic foreign locales, colorful lighting, high production values, a rocking soundtrack, space aliens, conspiracy and a really ambitious, unpredictable plot? This film has it all, and yet nobody had ever released it on DVD! There wasn't even been a cheap, barebones fullframe DVD on the greyer side of the market, much less any fancy special edition blu-rays like the kind Scream Factory puts out.
And there could have been! In 2012, Scream Factory made a deal with MGM, and if you've noticed, they've been releasing tons of their back catalog titles ever since. And The Falling just so happens to be one of their titles, rotting away in their vaults, waiting to be re-discovered. And they even had a widescreen HD master, I know, because they gave it to Netflix to stream (it may not be there anymore' I quit Netflix last year). All Scream had to do was scoop it up off the floor, and I requested it whenever the question came up; but everybody ignored it, because hardly anybody's seen or remembers this movie. So, okay, they didn't release it in their first couple batches... okay, year two, and still no Alien Predators. Every announcement they made I checked for The Falling and then thought, alright, it'll be in their next one. It's a total freebie, and a great "never before on blu or DVD option." Sure, they want to focus on the big money makers first, but they had to get to it eventually... right? But the door seemed officially closed once MGM themselves finally put it out as a generic MOD DV-R on Amazon.  Though hope never entirely dissipated, because there had been a very similar case where they released a pretty awesome special edition of New Year's Evil in 2015, even after MGM released that as a MOD.
But order it I did, because I absolutely need this film in my collection. And I grabbed that Netflix stream, too; because I wasn't sure I'd ever get a second chance at it. But, in fact, we actually wound up getting multiple chances at it.  Because a few months after this post, filmArt announced a German blu-ray (see the comments).  But I held out, and sure enough, just... today, Scream Factory has finally released it on blu here in the states!  Huzzah!
Netflix stream on top; MGM DV-R middle; Scream Factory blu bottom.
So unsurprisingly, everybody used the same 1.85:1 master.  But it's interesting to see the improvement just from the format shift.  There's more detail on the DVD than the stream, but there's definitely still compression issues. But you have to expect that, because it's not even a proper DVD but a single layer, made on demand DV-R (4 gigs, ladies and gentlemen!).  There's ugly artifacting all over it, and it even looks like maybe they tried to edge enhance it a bit to make up for it.  All of that is happily cleared away on the very crisp blu-ray.  This may not be boasting a fresh 2 or 4k scan for this new blu, but the HD master they used must be new enough, because it looks quite good, with subtle yet naturalistic grain and much cleaner detail.  There's the occasional white fleck, but really, The Falling looks downright pristine here.

The DV-R and the blu both preserve the original mono in 2.0 and it sounds great.  Scream Factory naturally bumped it up to DTS-HD, and included optional subtitles which the DVD lacked.
And of course that DV-R was barebones, including a fairly generic menu and no extras. Not even a trailer. The chapters are even at arbitrary 10 minute intervals. Well, Scream Factory hasn't issued this as one of their packed "Collector's Edition"s, but they did come through for this title by creating an all new audio commentary track with the director.  It's not perfect; he tends to lapse into periods of dead air, especially at the very beginning and I started to worry this listen would be a real grind.  but stick with it, folks!  He actually has a lot of great stuff to say, helped enormously by the fact that this movie has never had any special features before, so it's all new and exciting to hear.  It's also got a pretty good story behind it, with the director explaining things like how he got the effects artist from John Carpenter's The Thing to give him an amazing prosthetic for free; or how, far from it being Alien or Predator, his primary inspiration for the film was An American Werewolf In London, which really does come through in the final product.  In addition to the commentary, we finally get the trailer, which bears the on-screen title of The Falling, as does the film itself.  And while this release doesn't exactly have reversible artwork, it certainly has a pretty awesome reverse image for whenever you open the case.
The director's a bit self-effacing and embarrassed by some of the flaws that slipped into his first film, but watching Scream's blu, I find I keep getting more impressed with each rewatch.  Yeah, a few jokey lines fall flat; but for the most part, it all works really well.  In the commentary, he talks about how at the time of filming they felt like they were making the world's greatest horror movie and super excited watching the dailies.  Unfortunately, the world seems to have beat down that enthusiasm since then.  So I really hope some critical rediscovery spawns out of Scream Factory including it in their line-up.  This is a really rewarding release, and it shouldn't get lost under the radar.

Tired of Waiting for Hanake's Happy End

So, I got tired of waiting for Michael Hanake's latest film, Happy End, to get released in the US.  It had its festival run last year, gotten all its reviews, and then just kinda parked with no word of a home video release.  Eventually, this past March, it came out on blu-ray in other parts of the world: from Warner Bros in Germany and Artificial Eye in the UK.  But nothing was ever announced here and I was beginning to wonder if we'd ever see it, so I just imported.  I picked the British blu because it has more extras, plus the Amazon.de official review suggests that disc was DNR'd.  Google translate says: "Hairstyles are not differentiated. Instead, the hair becomes a pulpy mass. ...In addition, there is sometimes motion blur with slight jerking."  Yeah, that's enough for me to steer in another direction.  Anyway, since my UK copy arrived in the mail, Happy End finally has been announced, coming from Sony Pictures Classics on July 24.  Oh well, I've already got the AE disc now.  Too slow, Sony!
When I first heard about this movie, I remember people questioning whether this was some sort of sequel to Hanake's last film, Amour, since we're back in France with Isabella Huppert again playing Jean-Louis Trintignant's daughter.  But it's really like a crazy amalgamation of all of Hanake's films - going all the way back to early films like Benny's Video and The Seventh Continent, and yes, up to Amour, where... let's just say the circumstances of the Trintignant's wife are conspicuously identical.  It's as if all of his past movies were compressed into one, dysfunctional family.  And I don't just mean the characters, but everything from the stylistic flourishes to Haneke's ruminations on media and inventive concepts... two thirds of the way through this movie, I was just waiting for somebody to pick up a remote control and undo what we'd just scene, or for Huppert to stab herself in the shoulder.  It's like "The Monster Mash" of Haneke's body of work.
I don't necessarily think that's a criticism, but I see it has resulted in some less positive fan and critical reaction, largely because the film comes off as a bit unfocused.  Love or hate Funny Games, that movie's got one idea to explore, which it sinks its teeth into at the very start and never lets go of until the bitter end.  It's not as easy to zero in precisely what this film's about; I see a lot of viewers online questioning what the "point" was.  There's an ensemble cast, and their issues and personal struggles never seem to quite dovetail into a singular, focused plot with a targeted resolution.  And I don't think it helps that there was some early press that this film was "about" the current European refugee crisis, when really, that's just a subtextual touchstone that occasionally rings out in the film.  But that said, I really don't think Happy End is nearly so convoluted or aimless as its harsher critics make it sound.
It's Haneke, so you should know going in that he's not going to hold your hand stressing out about whether anyone in the audience might ever get irritated.  But I really don't think there's an impenetrable barrier between audience and understanding being put up here.  It's all out in the open; this is Haneke's Happiness, with everybody struggling to reach and define their own happy endings in ways that really aren't terribly disconnected.  And I don't think anybody denies that it's an expertly photographed film with an unstoppable cast.  Also, if fans were worried Haneke has been softening up or losing his edge; this is a film that starts out with iphone footage of a woman being surreptitiously filmed in the bathroom, and the first lead character we're introduced to is a twelve year-old girl who poisons her mother with her own antidepressants.  And that little girl handily holds her own among all the great performances.  So if you're a fan of Haneke's other work, I really don't think there's any reason to be anxious about diving into this one.
2018 Artificial Eye UK blu-ray.
So, there's honestly less PQ to review in the case of a modern film, shot digitally, being released on disc.  There's no concern about what film elements were used, how closely they were scanned, how thoroughly grain was captured, etc.  The filmmakers create and release a final DCP and send that same file out to everyone.  Labels don't have to worry about restoring colors from prints that have gone vinegar etc; it's all digitally locked into place.  But here's the pertinent info: the film's presented slightly matted to 1.85:1, and compression seems perfectly fine.  It was shot and released in 4k, so I'm sure this film could benefit from a fancy 4k UHD blu, but we all know that's not happening anytime soon.  We're given the option of a 5.1 DTS-HD mix or a 2.0 LPCM, both lossless of course, and with English subtitles for the French dialogue (this film also includes some English dialogue, which is not available subtitled).  So there's really nothing that even could go wrong... right?
2018 Artificial Eye UK blu on top; experiment bottom (see below).
Well, I'm not so sure.  You'll notice, particularly in the shot above, but actually in all the screenshots and throughout the entire film, that the movie looks a little pale.  Sure, fine, stylistic choice.  Don't question Haneke.  Maybe it's even an intentional commentary on how these characters are living bourgeois lifestyles that fail to reach their full depths or something, right?  But notice that I left the matting edges along the top and bottom of the frame, too.  Those aren't true black either, which rings some alarms.  That makes me think AE just got the gamma levels wrong on the disc, because even if Haneke shot the film with lighter darks, or color corrected it that way in post on purpose, that shouldn't effect the area outside the film.  That seems like something AE might've done after the fact.  So, as you can see above, I made a quick experiment of what the film would look like with the blacks brought down to the actual black, and it looks a little better, right?

Now, please don't misunderstand.  I'm absolutely not claiming my "experiment" is an absolute properly contrasted/ corrected shot of how the film should definitively look by any means.  I spent about 30 seconds on that in photoshop just to quickly and roughly illustrate my point.  All I did was bring the blacks down to the point where the mattes were perfect black, so you can see how that affected the rest of the shot.  And I definitely, absolutely may well be barking up the wrong tree, and AE's levels could actually be 100% perfect.  But it certainly strikes me as suspicious, and I'll be very curious to see if Sony's upcoming blu winds up coming out the same way.
Let's move on to the extras.  Both the German and UK discs share one key feature: a 22-minute 'making of' featurette.  This is quite good, low on clips from the film and high on sit-down interviews with Haneke and his crew and behind-the-scenes looks at production and post-production.  And it has the usual on-set interview soundbites from the cast.  If you own a lot of Haneke discs, you know his own collaborators seem to produce many of his extras (this one was directed by his regular editor, Monika Willi), resulting in much higher quality stuff than your standard promotional featurette.  That's all the German disc has, but the UK disc also has a 97-minute "masterclass with Michael Haneke."  This is essentially a long talk between Haneke and a critic about his entire body of work, including a few clips from his films and an audience Q&A session at the end.  It's quite good - the critic really knows his stuff - though it should be pointed out that they specifically avoid talking about Happy End.  In fact, they tell the audience that they'll be back later for a Q&A about Happy End later that day... why the heck isn't that on here?  That's a strange and slightly infuriating choice; but putting that aside and just focusing on what we do get, I have to say the masterclass was very interesting the entire hour and a half and I'm glad to have gotten it.

Artificial Eye's release also includes the theatrical trailer and comes in a slipcover.
Okay, so should I have waited for the Sony disc?  Well, had it been announced back when I ordered this version, I probably would've waited to see how that one comes out.  But I'm not kicking myself.  It sounds like I dodged a bullet with that Warner Bros disc, and I'm guessing Sony won't have the masterclass or any special features besides that making of featurette and the trailer.  And the blacks?  Even assuming I'm onto something here, it's not that bad.  Nothing struck me as amiss when I first sat down and watched it on my 4k TV.  It was only when I was taking screenshots on my PC that I noticed mattes were light.  So A) again, it's possible the film's supposed to have that slightly paler look, and B) you can always tweak the contrast and brightness on your TV to get it where you prefer anyway.  So I'd say it's either nothing or a minor flaw.  Again, I'm definitely curious to see how the Sony disc handles it.  But either way, I'm not sure it's a big enough issue that it should put you off AE's disc.  I mean, come on, we could all be dead by July 24.

Controversial Blus: Is It Time To Update eXistenZ? (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

David Cronenberg fans, you've got a tough choice in front of you. Do you want the Canadian special edition DVD of eXistanZ from Alliance Atlantic, or the newer US blu-ray from Echo Bridge? If that sounds like a no-brainer to you, I daresay you don't know all the facts, because it's a difficult compromise either way. And it can't even be fully resolved by buying both. Oh, and the only other options are even worse, so until Criterion or Arrow dive in to rescue this film with a fancy new version (don't hold your breath), it's really down to these two.

Update 10/26/15 - 6/12/18: There's a brand new, fancy blu-ray edition on the market, from the UK's 101 Films.  And, well, I'm not sure it makes the choice any less tough.  It really just adds more complications.  So let's see if we can make sense of it all, shall we?
Frankly, I'd be more bothered by our limited selection if eXistenZ was a stronger film. It feels like a halfhearted attempt to re-capture the magic of Videodrome, only updating television with video games. But it's far more conventional, not wild and trippy at all; and all the sci-fi concepts feel like well-worn tropes we've seen and heard many times over, most obviously in The Matrix which came out the same year. There are a couple compelling images that feel like top shelf Cronenberg... a man is given a large plate of fish at a Chinese restaurant. He eats the flesh off of them and then uses their bones to create a makeshift gun that fires teeth and uses it to shoot the waiter. Unfortunately, that and comparable moments add up to maybe 98 seconds of this film's otherwise dull 98 minute running time.

We're introduced to Jennifer Jason Leigh an eccentric genius video game designer who's debuting her latest virtual reality system to a small room full of suburbanites. A teenager tries to assassinate her, but her socially awkward bodyguard, Jude Law, rushes her off the premises. They hide out in a small hotel where Leigh tells him that they have to play her game to unlock secrets or something, and the majority of the film takes place within her video game world, which looks like the same brown warehouse redressed to be every location in the film. There's an amazing supporting cast, including Ian Holme, Willem Dafoe, Don McKellar, Last Night's Callum Keith Rennie, Christopher Eccleston, Sarah Polley and Robert Silverman, who's my favorite recurring supporting cast member of Cronenberg's work. But they're all wasted playing cartoonish video game characters with silly dialogue and incredibly fake accents. The accents are intentional; it's written into the script that our leads point out several times how unconvincing the video game characters are, especially their accents. But it still means nobody winds up giving a dramatically compelling performance. They could've just as well filled these parts with unknowns. Well, except Dafoe - he was nice and creepy.
And the leads aren't much better. Jude Law sure wasn't the actor he is today. And Leigh, well, I think you can blame the writing for her part. The script's really to blame for everything. Cronenberg's created a whole new, virtual reality world that's supposedly run by the human nervous system and re-engineered fish parts, and it's the most boring place in the world. It's basically the inside of a big cardboard box. If "eXistenZ" were an actual video game, it would be a huge flop. And the film only ever asks one question: are we in the game, reality, or a game within the game? You know, like Inception or one of those. But there are never any stakes either way. Who's real, who's fake, who's lying, who's double-crossing who? Everything's so disconnected, it never matters. I think the central issue we're supposed to be invested in is whether Leigh can save her game from mysterious saboteurs (who very well might not even exist), so she can get it into stores by release date? Um, okay.
Still, it's hard to resist all the talent involved. And this film does have its moments... did I mention the fish-bone gun? And it's Cronenberg returning to psychological science-fiction and body horror, which is everything his fans were begging him for back in 1999. It's just unfortunate that a bunch of people who know and care nothing about video games decide to write and film a movie about the subject that probably interests them least in the world (you'll see when you watch the extras... Tarzan knew more about computers than these folk). So it's weak Cronenberg, but it's still Cronenberg. Worth a watch, and depending on your degree of dedication, still worth having in your collection.

So what do we have again? Well, when this was first issued on DVD, it was a new release film, and fans were very let down that all we got in the US was a barebones disc from Buena Vista/ Dimension. But in-the-know fans quickly figured out that the situation was much better in Canada, where it was released with three audio commentaries and a 54-minute documentary! It's pretty rare that Canada will have unique extras apart from their US counterparts, but I guess Cronenberg being a Canadian filmmaker stirred up some local pride.

But, still, 1999 is very old in DVD terms, and as we'll see shortly, this film has been looking very much in need of an update. And what label came to our rescue? Well, uh, Echo Bridge did. They came out with their own little special edition blu in the US, which, as you might suspect given the company, is a little less than perfect. It also went out of print rather quickly, and despite having been issued in 2012, now routinely goes for $40-50 on Amazon and EBay. Is it worth it?  Or maybe you'd prefer one of the newer blu-rays.  There was an equally pricey mediabook released in Germany, and using the same master, last year.  And now 101 Films has just released a UK edition (a blu-ray/ DVD combo-pack, by the way), the second in their new "Black Label" series.
1) 1999 Buena Vista DVD 2) 1999 Alliance DVD 3) 2012 Echo Bridge blu
4) 2018 101 Films DVD 5) 2018 101 Films blu
Where to begin? Well, the framing is 1.78:1 on the blus and slightly pillar-boxed to about 1.74:1 on the older DVDs (the 101 DVD matches the 101 blu, naturally), giving the latter a little extra vertical information and leaving the blu feeling a bit tight and probably not how Cronenberg intended. But the Canadian DVD is chock full of haloing, over-sharpening, high contrast and even crushed blacks. It may've been passable for 1999 - hey, at least it's anamorphic, right? The US DVD doesn't have any of those problems, and it's anamorphic too, but it's pretty soft and compressed. Looking at the US DVD makes you understand the Canadians' temptation to try and artificially sharpen it.

Meanwhile the HD versions look pretty low-fi and compressed; but compared to the DVDs, they do show a readily apparent improvement. I've seen complaints online about the brightening, but I prefer it. I think it's the darker picture that's incorrect. I mean, you just can't look at those two shots of Leigh by the pump and say you prefer the second one. Even there, the blus have some edge enhancement and other imperfections, but compared to the Alliance DVD, it's a revelation.  To cut to the chase, all these discs seem to be using the same master, with just very slight framing adjustments.  The blu-rays are naturally a bit clearer than the DVDs, and the Alliance disc has a few extras flaws.  But basically we're looking at a lot of repetition between transfers, and if anyone was hoping any of the newer editions were going to "save" this picture and give us a real boost in PQ... sorry, folks.
1) 1999 Buena Vista DVD 2) 1999 Alliance DVD 3) 2012 Echo Bridge blu
4) 2018 101 Films DVD 5) 2018 101 Films blu
Except for one thing.  Look at the above set of shots... The Echo Bridge blu-ray is interlaced! Yuck, even the old DVDs didn't have that problem, and it's really hard to ignore on Echo Bridge's disc. I guess here is where I should mention that Echo Bridge also released Existenz on blu as part of a combo-pack with some other movies. They're the kind of budget releases EB is known for; but they announced that even those those earlier discs were 1080i; this 2012 solo blu-ray was supposed to be 1080p. Sounded great, but nope! Jokes on us, it's "i," too.  But thankfully, the 101 release (and reportedly the German release as well) corrects this issue and isn't interlaced at all.

At least their claim to have added a new 5.1 audio mix is true, which tops the 2.0 stereo track of their past packs, and the lossy 5.1 mixes on the DVDs.  101 Also gives us both the 5.1 and 2.0 mixes, both in lossless LPCM on the blu.  All versions also feature optional English subtitles except the Echo Bridge disc.
Extras-wise, as I say, Alliance killed it. That documentary is specifically about Carol Spier, the film's production designer. So if you're hoping for an eXistenZ making-of, it's a little disappointing; but it's a pretty interesting feature in its own right, and with the three commentaries - including one by Cronenberg himself, one by effects supervisor Jim Isaac, and one by DoP Peter Suschitzky - it adds up to a pretty great special edition. It's also got the trailer, which the EB blu is missing.

Echo Bridge of course didn't port over any of Alliance's features. But they stepped things up from their previous, barebones combo-packs by including three vintage interviews exclusive to their new blu. The best is an almost 30-minute piece with Isaac, who's got a ton of props and creations to show off. Then there are interviews with Jude Law and Willem Dafoe. Law's fun because it's a big get, but Dafoe's a little more interesting when he talks about his craft. Unfortunately a lot of time is wasted in both of their interviews asking them if they like video games or using the computer, which they don't but still stumble their way through long, rambling answers. The parts where they talk about the film itself are interesting, though.

Oh, and the US DVD has nothing but the trailer and an insert.
But here's where things get interesting.  The new 101 release drops and adds a whole bunch of features to make another very distinct set.  They carry over the David Cronenberg commentary and the Spiers documentary from the Alliance disc.  Oh, and the trailer.  But they drop the other two commentaries.  However, they do carry over the three interviews from the Echo Bridge blu.  And, most interestingly of all, they've created some cool, new special features.

First of all, they add two, new audio commentaries with film critics/ scholars.  One with Kim Newman and Ryan Lambie, the other with Nathaniel Thompson and Edwin Samuelson.  I found myself drawn in more by the latter, but both are pretty good.  And there's a brand new, on camera interview with Christopher Eccleston, which is quite good, talking about his experiences filming and his take on Cronenberg in general.  Then, they've also dug up a vintage 'making of' featurette, which is cool because it gives us some behind-the-scenes footage and interview clips with a few actors we don't otherwise hear from, like Don McKellar, Ian Holme and Jennifer Jason Leigh.  And they also pull out a few interview clips from the featurette (and the Jim Isaac talk) as separate clips.  They're the same, redundant video clips, but I guess it's for convenience if you just want to hear Cronenberg or Leigh's takes without watching the whole thing.

101's set also comes in an attractive slip box with an impressive booklet.  The book features a note from the president of 101 films, a glossary of eXistenZ terminology, notes by Alex Morris and most interestingly, an interview with Denise Cronenberg.  It has the look and feel of a fancy Criterion release, where the full color booklet has a proper spine and is housed outside the amary case.  And unlike the German mediabook, of course, all the text is in English, which is always a plus.
So, what does one do?  Just about every release has unique extras.  The blu-rays look better than the DVDs, but they're all fairly underwhelming.  And Echo Bridge has that distracting interlacing problem.  What I'd say is this: if you've already sprung for the German media book, then leave it at that, unless you're a die-hard fan and need all the special features.  If you've got the old Alliance DVD, the 101 release is the best way to upgrade because you'll get the HD and the total set of extras.  But if you haven't got this movie at all yet, it's a bit of a tie between the German and UK blus, basically depending which set of extras is more exciting to you (and maybe whichever is easier and cheaper to get your hands on).  Really, what this film needs is a new friggen' scan, and you might still want to hold off on getting any of these blus in the hopes of a Criterion or Arrow finally doing it justice.  But that might be a very long wait.