Larry Cohen's The Ambulance Finally Done Right (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

A few posts ago, I mentioned that if you're a serious Larry Cohen fan, you have to be prepared to track down obscure imports and MOD discs from the various major studios. Well, today we're going to look at a film that's been released as both; and the definitive version switched from one to the other. I'm talking about 1990's amusing thriller The Ambulance.

Update 2/9/15 - 3/15/18: "Obscure imports and MOD discs" are for suckers; just get the blu-ray!  Okay, no, there are obviously still some terrific, definitive obscure imports and even a few MODs... But since my initial post, this film has finally gotten some proper love from our friends at Scream Factory.  So it's definitely time to reassess The Ambulance situation.
I'm pretty sure everybody who's ever seen The Ambulance has liked it. For non-Cohen fans it's probably just a faded memory of a flick they caught on cable or a weekend rental from Blockbuster, but a pleasant one. A movie that was just a little bit better than most of the others. It's not a showy movie; it's not a great work of art or anybody's favorite. I was going to say it's not ambitious, but actually, considering the cast they enlist even for the small roles, and some of the stunts they go for on an indie budget - they get several live horses running loose for one quick moment just to add a little extra excitement. So it is ambitious, and that's a big part of it's charm. While they could have easily gotten away with a very obvious, generic thriller, they take every opportunity surprise with a great line, creative plot twist, clever character moment and pretty much just making every moment better than you'd expect.
It's a charming story of Eric Roberts (in a complete 180 from the last film I just wrote about him in) as a lovesick comic book writer who falls for a woman he sees walking in the city streets during his lunch breaks. He finally gets up the nerve to talk to her when she passes out. An ambulance comes and collects her before he can get her last name, and the story is his journey to find her and make sure she's alright. But he has no idea just how sinister the ambulance to took her really is. It's such a great cast, from the major roles: Roberts, James Earl Jones, The Young & The Restless's Eric Braeden as the sinister villain and a surprisingly good turn by Red Buttons as a news reporter who gets wind of the story. To the small parts: Stan Lee as himself (Roberts' character doesn't just work for a generic comic book company, but Marvel Comics! Look for more authentic Marvel guys in the background), radio host Tim Byrd, Richard Bright and of course Cohen staple James Dixon.
So, for almost a decade, The Ambulance, like Full Moon High, was only available on Australian DVD. In fact, it was from the same company: Shock. Somebody over there must be a real Larry Cohen fan. Unlike Full Moon High, however, it was just a fullscreen transfer. But eventually, in 2011, MGM released it as one of their MOD discs. And happily, their disc is anamorphic widescreen, slightly letterboxed to a proper 1.85:1. The MOD opens with a message stating that, "[t]his film has been manufactured using the best source material available." That had me expecting a damaged print or something; but it actually looks pretty fine for the most part. There is an issue or two, though, that I reckon it's in reference to.  But that's all academic now, anyway, because just this week, Scream Factory has put it out on blu-ray!
Shock's 2003 DVD on top; MGM's 2011 MOD mid; Scream Factory's 2018 blu bottom.
The upshot for owners of the Shock disc, as you can see, is that it's open matte. Nothing was chopped off the sides or anything. And for the most part, it otherwise looks like the same transfer; the MOD just matted to 1.85:1. It's clearly the right way to view the film however; there's a lot of excess headroom on the Shock disc, and the framing just looks so much more artfully composed on the MOD. And that winds up becoming one more aspect that works in this film's favor, making it all the more enjoyable.  But let's get back to that warning. Here's why it's probably there: their disc is interlaced, as you can clearly tell by the ghosting in the second set of shots. Why? Did they take it from a PAL source? Was the best source material available... Oh jeez, I think it was. I think they only had Shock's PAL transfer (MGM was also involved with that disc) - or perhaps just weren't willing to pay to scan the film elements again for this new release; but their message promises us they used the best they had - and so they just transferred it to NTSC and matted it. ((sigh))

But thank goodness, we no longer have to choose between a burned, interlaced disc and an old PAL DVD in the wrong aspect ratio.  Scream Factory solves all of those issues, also giving us a nice boost in the clarity department by bringing the film to HD!  And just look at the posters on the wall behind Megan Gallagher; they're so much clearer.  Oh, and while you're looking at those posters, you've probably noticed something else.  While Scream's disc is still slightly matted to a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, they've clearly uncovered a little more information around all four sides.  And while both DVDs featured the stereo track, the blu bumps it up to DTS-HD, and also kicks in optional English subtitles.
If you're looking tor extras, I can start by telling you there's none to speak of on either DVD. There's literally nothing on the MOD disc; even the menu is generic and the chapters are just randomly generated at 10 minute intervals. And the Shock release is almost as barren, not even a trailer, despite some misleading packaging. In fact, look at this:
You'd think from reading the above that the theatrical trailer might be included for this film? Ha ha ha.... So naive! No, it's not here, though there are bonus trailers for Vampire's Kiss and Monkey Shines. The photo gallery is on there, at least. It's mostly just stills from the film, but there is a nice shot of Cohen directing the actors. But yeah, that's pretty desperate at this point. There's essentially no bonus features of value on either disc.

But on the blu?  Yeah, we've got an audio commentary by Larry Cohen (and moderated by King Cohen director Steve Mitchell).  Larry Cohen commentaries are always great, and this one's certainly no exception.  He's very enthusiastic about this film, calling it one of his favorites, and fills the track to the brim with great filming stories.  Also, there's a better stills gallery and finally, the trailer.  Scream also includes reversible artwork, with that same original artwork the previous DVDs had.
So yeah, I highly recommend the film for any Larry Cohen fan who hasn't seen it yet, and casually recommend it to anyone interested in an inexpensive B-movie for a good time.It's worth noting, though, that before Scream put this out on blu in the US, a couple other countries beat them to the bunch.  And most notably Koch in Germany released a mediabook that not only has a Cohen commentary, but a unique 70ish minute interview with Cohen, which is apparently more of a career retrospective.  So if you really want to go all out, you might prefer to import.  But I imagine most horror fans will be perfectly happy to just get this new Scream blu and call it a day.  I mean, even I was, and look who's talking here.

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