Controversial Blus: Silent Night, Deadly Night: an Upconvert? (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Silent Night, Deadly Night is one of the most famous and infamous slasher films out there. I mean, under Friday the 13th and Halloween, but it's pretty much right at the top of the tier under those. The fact that it spawned four sequels and a remake surely helped, but the fact that it wound up generating such a huge controversy that it got pulled out of the theaters is probably a bigger reason. But it's not just the film that's been controversial over the years, the recent blu-ray release from Anchor Bay has generated a lot of ire among collectors for its own reasons.
The iconic imagery of a killer Santa Claus is a huge part of this movie's success, which is interesting because it's far from the Christmas themed horror movie... or even the first one to specifically feature a killer in a Santa suit. Christmas Evil, To All a Good Night, the classic segment from Tales From the Crypt, and even the similarly titled Silent Night, Bloody Night all precede it; and Don't Open Till Christmas played in theaters the same year. But I guess this one's television ads played before the wrong angsty parents, because they protested and got the film pulled. Curiously, longtime Hollywood star Mickey Rooney got on board with the movement, saying, "How dare they! ...The scum who made that movie should be run out of town."1 But then he later wound up starring in Silent Night, Deadly Night part 5.

At any rate, it's a pretty good, little movie. It is also a very pure slasher film, in that it follows all the "rules" and stays very true to the elements of a traditional 80s slasher film. It's got a simple but effective concept, good lines, a nice look, some creative kills and Linnea Quigley, But one thing it does a little different than the norm is follow the killer for the entire film, rather than giving us the standard "good girl" protagonist. Eventually, our heroes turn out to be a pair of nuns who've known the killer since he was a little boy, including the very stern and downright frightening Mother Superior, excellently played by Lilyan Chauvin. Most of the film plays it pretty safe, and while well executed, doesn't try to stand out from its peers; and in the long run it's a little too much of a generic slasher to be really great. But the fact that it's so well crafted from at least some of the performances to the music that have kept it popular among horror fans for decades.
So Anchor Bay, when they were the reigning kings of horror DVDs, first released Silent Night, Deadly Night as a double-sided "flipper" disc with Part 2 in 2003. They later reissued it as a 2-disc set, and Arrow released it in the UK. All of these releases were a little disappointing, though, because they were light on extras compared to how beloved and anticipated this particular film has always been, and because the transfer (all the releases had the same one) was based on an edited print, with most of the violence reinstated from a much lower quality source. It was murky and grungy, but it was the best they could do. So when Anchor Bay announced an uncut blu-ray special edition taken from a high quality source, people got excited. But... they never technically said it wasn't going to be another composite cut, which it was. So, not only were fans deeply disappointed by that; but it didn't look like Anchor Bay used a new scan or anything. People were calling it an upconvert on pretty much all the major forums.

But is it? I've got the original 2003 DVD, as well as the 2014 blu-ray, so let's have a proper comparison!
Anchor Bay 2014 blu-ray on top, and their 2003 DVD below.
So, right off the bat, they are a little different. When I first watched them separately on my TV after seeing all the online flack, I wasn't so sure. But seeing them right up against each other, I'm relieved to say that this isn't an upconvert. In other words, Anchor Bay didn't just take the files they made the DVD with and slap them onto a blu-ray disc. It's not a lovingly restored new scan, but someone's done something to try and make it look a little better, at least. And it's visibly not an upconvert, so we've really gotta stop throwing that accusation around.

The main difference you'll note is the color. Especially the low quality composite footage. Look how they've nicely white balanced that second shot. .Sure, it still looks like the kind of crap that you should never find on a blu-ray; but it looks better than the DVD. And even in the top shot, the whites and reds look crisper on the blu, while the DVD's still a bit green, as we see when we get in closer.
Blu-ray left; DVD right.
Sure, we're not getting any new detail or anything. But it's a stronger, smoother image on the blu-ray. So smooth, some of his beard seems to have vanished.  Ha ha  (I guess I'm one frame off and he turned his head slightly)  But it doesn't look DNR'd or anything. Grain and even compression splotches are still there. It's just a very, very, very mild HD upgrade of the same transfer. Not worth upgrading from one disc to the other on its own, but I'd still recommend going with the blu; the colors do look nicer.
A stronger reason to go blu might be the extras. Like I said, the DVDs came up short: essentially just an audio interview with the director. It was good, but just one non-video interview. Well, there was also an insert/ boolket with notes, a stills gallery and "Santa's Stocking of Outrage" which sounds awesome but was really just another gallery, this time of quotes from protestors. Even the trailer or the notorious TV commercial would've been nice.

Now, the blu-ray still isn't the loaded special edition fans want, but in addition to porting over the DVD extras, they did get an audio commentary. It features writer Michael Hickey, composer Perry Botkin, editor/2nd unit director Michael Spence and co-executive producer Scott J. Schneid. And it's pretty good. I saw some people knock it, but I think they were just salty over their other disappointments with the disc. It's not one of the great commentaries like the ones by John Carpenter or Bruce Campbell; but between the four of them they keep it pretty lively and informative. Okay, it doesn't totally scratch the "ultra special edition" itch, but it's a fine, respectable commentary track.

So, while disappointed fans may be loathe to give the "30th Anniversary Edition" any praise at all, it is undeniably the preferable and best available release of the film. It's clearly the best set of extras, and if you're a purist who doesn't care about extras, even the picture quality is still better. And it's the only one with lossless audio (Dolby TrueHD 5.1). Seeing this blu get such low reviews on some of the major review sites make me feel like they're punishing Anchor Bay rather than giving a completely fair appraisal.
Still, one more excellent argument can be made for hanging onto tour DVDs. The Anchor Bay releases that include Part 2 are the only available releases of Part 2. Well, at least in English speaking countries... I think Germany and Holland might have stand-alone DVDs. But for most of us, even if we've upgraded to the blu for the original film, we'll be holding onto our DVDs for the sequel.

I mean, not that the film's any good really. An unbelievable bulk of the film - just about half! - is just footage from Part 1. It basically goes through the entire first film again, using the exact same film, from beginning to end. The only difference is that this time, we keep cutting away every so often to Ricky, the younger brother of the killer in the first film, who's now grown up and recounting the tale to a psychiatrist. Finally, at the end, he gets out and goes on a killing rampage just like his big brother. And none of that new story is anywhere near the quality of the original. But at least it's a direct continuation of the story, unlike subsequent films, which wound up being pretty disconnected.
Yes, this IS a screencap from Part 2. I told ya, a huge, huge chunk of it is just footage from Part 1.
Like the first one, it's an anamorphic widescreen image, slightly letterboxed to 1.85:1. So that's good news. Parts 3-5 have still only been released fullscreen. And Part 2 actually has better extras than the first one. It's got the trailer, a stills gallery, and best of all, an audio commentary by writer/ director Lee Harry, co-writer Joseph H. Earle and actor James Newman. They're actually quite plugged into their movie, even though so much of it isn't theirs. I daresay, in fact, I'd rather watch the movie with the commentary on than off anytime.
Silent Night, Deadly Night may not be the best yuletide horror movie ever (Black Christmas, anyone?), but it's one of the most popular, and it sure is fun to watch with the family gathered together on Christmas Eve night. And while I'm right along with you guys in wanting something much greater, I think it's time to put away the pitchforks and acknowledge that this is the best release, not so terrible, and thanks perhaps to the negative feedback, pretty cheap. There are a lot of titles that are represented a lot worse on home video. So until Capelight or somebody finds a way to save us, I think we can be happy with this.

1Andrew Schanie, Movie Confidential: Sex, Scandal, Murder and Mayhem In the Film Industry (Clerisy Press, 2010), 108.

How Scream Factory Salvaged The Vault of Horror (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

In 2007, MGM released Tales From the Crypt and its follow-up, Vault of Horror, on DVD in a 2-disc set as part of their Midnite Movies line-up. Tales From the Crypt is a minor horror classic, so it was only natural, when Scream Factory got access to MGM's masters and rights, that they would announce this pair rather quickly as one of their double feature blu-rays. But just one problem: MGM's DVD was cut! They'd let some version cut down for a PG rating back in the days through their gates. In the UK, the uncut version was out on DVD, so it's not like we're talking about long lost footage here; ut we just had this lame-o cut version stateside. So what choice did Scream Factory have in this but to fix this situation? And fortunately they did.
Amicus was already known for making anthology horror films by the time they got to Tales From the Crypt. This one, though, was based on stories from the classic EC horror comics from the 50s, Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror (you see now where the second film's title came from). Except, strictly speaking, most of the stories aren't actually taken from the comic books, but are just more Amicus original short horror stories. But their sensibilities are so similar, you'd be hard pressed to pick out which are which if you didn't already know going in. They're fun, ghoulishly twisted little stories that are almost appropriate for all ages, especially compared to more modern horror films. They're all slightly humorous stories, often of "just desserts," with a bit of a punchline twist ending to them. As I said, Amicus was already expert at these (and they'd surely been inspired by the old EC stories in the first place), and had gotten some excellent British actors and directors for these films. In the case of Tales and Vault (released as Tales From the Crypt II in some markets), we have notable contributions by Peter Cushing, Denholm Elliot, Joan Collins, Patrick Magee and veteran directors Freddie Francis and Roy Ward Baker. It's safe to say you're going to have a good time with these.
This killer Santa episode was remade as the first episode of the HBO series.
But you'd have less of a good time if you were watching the cut version of Vaults. Some cuts are less devastating than others, but each one is kind of a key moment that it sucks to have spoiled. One in particular is the very punchline to the whole story. Imagine someone told you a really long, complicated joke, that went on for like twenty minutes... "and then the rabbi said to the priest," and on and on... Finally, at the very end he goes, "so the bartender says to ALL of them" and then stops. What? What did the bartender finally say?  "Well, I can't tell you that bit.  But you got 99% of the joke, why fuss over a few missing little words?" I mean, I like to think the stories in these films are a little richer than just gags, but you get the idea.  You CAN'T just clip these films and think they're still close enough. Something had to be done, and Scream Factory had posted different possible plans as the release date for their disc grew nearer... they could splice the uncut footage from the UK DVD into MGM's HD master. But finally on October 3rd last year they announced a welcome discovery:
"Thankfully, there was rumor that the British Film Institute had done a restoration on the film years ago. We contacted them and, sure enough, BFI had done an HD transfer from a film print--and it was the UNCUT version!  :) We quickly had a clone made of their master and then removed dirt and scratches from it to the best of our resources.

The release is now a 2-disc set. The first disc will include TALES and VAULT's uncut widescreen. The 2nd disc will include VAULT's theatrical cut (from the Fox master) and a rare open-matte version of the BFI master."
The downside was that the expense they acquired getting the new master meant there would be no extras to speak of  That's a drag, because I'm sure there are a lot of fun stories behind these two movies and how they made their way from comic books to Amicus anthologies, which ultimately lead to an HBO series and more movies decades later. But still, getting Vault uncut was essential. I would never have picked up the MGM set if I realized it was cut... But I did, so we can compare it now, along with... what did that quote say?  Two extra versions of Vault? Oh boy, that's going to be a lot of screen grabbing.
Scream Factory's 2014 blu on top; MGM's 2007 DVD below.
So we start off easy with Tales From the Crypt. There are no varying cuts of that one; just the original SD DVD and the HD blu-ray. As you can see, it's the same master, with identical framing, colors, etc.It's a fine blu-ray upgrade, but the MGM DVD was excellent enough that you barely notice the difference until you start zooming into the finest detail like eyelashes in the upper shot (with the basketball), which do get a little lost on the DVD. The film grain also gets a little smudged out on the DVD. There's no question which is superior, but this is one of those releases where casual viewers with modestly sized televisions would probably not notice the difference.

But now let's get into the comparisons we all came here to see:
Scream Factory's uncut blu first, cut blu second, full-frame version third and MGM's DVD last.
The first interesting thing you'll probably notice is that the cut and uncut versions on Scream Factory's blu don't look the same. Obviously, you'd expect the uncut version to have a little extra footage; but why should the rest of the film look different? Well, Scream Factory's story above explains it: The uncut version is the new transfer made by the BFI, and the cut one is MGM's older HD transfer. So there are distinct differences, most notably probably the colors. Look at the painter's hand: it's much redder in the cut version and yellower in the uncut version. Naturally, then, MGM's DVD also has the redder skin tone, and the full-frame version on disc two must be from the BFI transfer as well, as he has yellower hands again there.

Otherwise, the framing (slightly letterboxed to 1.85:1) is pretty identical... Except for the BFI's fullscreen version on disc two, obviously, which is open matte, showing more picture on the top and bottom. It's a bit of fun for curiosity seekers, I suppose; but it's evident just from watching the film that the widescreen version is the proper aspect ratio.
Apart from the colors, I'm not sure how much of a revelation the BFI transfer is. It's a bit smoother and nicer - look again at the painter's hands in the MGM (reddish) image; they look downright spotty. But it's really not much of an upgrade; the key thing is that the BFI brought all the cut footage into HD. That's pretty awesome and the key reason to support this release and replace your DVDs.
So let's talk extras. Like I said, there's really nothing to speak of, so don't get excited. But there's not absolutely zero. MGM had a fullscreen, black and white (presumably for television) trailer for Vault of Horror on the DVD. That trailer has been carried over to the blu, and they've also included an alternate opening credits sequence for Vault with the alternate Tales From the Crypt II title card. That's it. Nothing else on either disc.
So there ya go, two good, vintage horror films on a nice double bill, presented exactly as they should be. The second disc isn't as desirable as just a few nice extras would've been - is anyone really going to sit down and watch the cut version when they've got the uncut one? It's not like it's got any unique alternate scenes; it's just missing stuff. And the music skips on the cuts and one bit of film is quite distractingly replaced by a still frame. But it's what they had, I guess. And the important thing is they went the extra mile for Vault of Horror. So sit down and enjoy before some crumbling dead person digs his way out of the grave and delivers whatever poetic irony you've got comin' to you.

Controversial Blus: The White Ribbon's Awful Subtitles (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Michael Haneke has been a pretty polarizing filmmaker for at least 25 years. You know, one of those "love him or hate him" artists, where people are either excited every time they hear he has a new film coming out, or they can't stand him and can't understand why or how other people actually like his work. He's definitely not the guy you turn to if you want escapist entertainment. But in the last few years he seems to b broadening out, making films that are no less challenging pieces of art, but might also be more palatable for mainstream audiences. He actually even got Oscar nominations (writing and directing) for his last film, Amour. And this film here, his previous, I think is the one that first bridged that gap: The White Ribbon.
But don't let that and the title fool you. The White Ribbon is absolutely not The Red Balloon. Yeah, children play a big part in this one, too. The children are much more like the ones from Who Can Kill a Child, which if you haven't seen it, gives you a much better sense of its tone from its title. In this stark, black and white film, the inhabitants of a small German village, isolated from initial stirrings of World War I, are suffering some tragic losses. But it's possibly their own fault, even as it's at the hands of their children. So yeah, this is still about as far from puerility and sentimentality as you can get. But it's more relatable and touching than most of his earlier work, and it doesn't use any audience-frustrating devices like Funny Games. It looks like an old Bergman film and the performances are as powerful as always with Haneke. But this one's riveting and I think even people who felt they "hated" earlier Haneke films would have a hard time dismissing it.

That's assuming they could actually make out any of the dialogue, however. Jeepers creepers, the subtitles are small and challenging on Sony's US blu-ray release! They're also white (at least with a thin black outline) on top of a black and white movie. I mean, it's a black and white movie: the perfect opportunity to use colored subs that would also stand well out. Just look at this:
And I could've intentionally picked some worse shots that make it ever harder to read, but I wanted to be fair. Granted, their are better, darker scenes, but there are some that really swallow up the little font. Like, why is it all bunched up in the middle there, not even along the bottom? Yeah, I can read it all fine now on my PC taking screenshots, but this is the first and only blu-ray (or DVD or laser, for that matter) in my collection that I often just couldn't read what was being said sitting on my couch across from my TV. What are they playing at?
(It's not usually in italics; just this bit because it's voice over)
The concurrent DVD release isn't the best (I still don't get why they're up there in front of the actor while there's so much empty space below), but as you can see it's substantially better.  Subtitle-wise, that is. Of course, as a standard def DVD it's going to be worse in terms of overall picture quality. And, as with Warner Bros' Informant, it's missing compelling extras that are only included on the blu. But let's have a proper look.
Sony Pictures Classics 2009 blu-ray on top; and their 2009 DVD below.
Both images are slightly letterboxed to 1.85:1. Their naturally the same transfer and the same in most respects, but of course the HD image is superior. Look at the extra detail in the blu-ray's crowd shot as opposed to the DVD's. Look at the girl in white on the stairs who's facing the audience - she actually has eyes on the blu-ray. Overall, the picture is smoother, more natural and without all the compression artifacts that always separate a DVD from a blu.

The blu-ray also has two crisp 5.1 DTS-HD audio tracks, with bonus French and German tracks. Whereas the DVD just as the one German 5.1 track.
But yeah, the DVD really falls short in the extras department. I guess Sony was doing the same as Warners, cutting all the extras from the DVD to compel people to switch to blu-rays? Well, it's too bad for DVD viewers, because the extras here are deeper and more substantial than your average Haneke film. First of all, there's a great 40-minute making of documentary that looks at everything behind the scenes of this film. Then there's your typical but always welcome Haneke interview where he talks about the film for about 14 minutes. After that, there's a 50 minute retrospective on Haneke and his work. And finally there's a 19 minute featurette on the film at Cannes. Oh, and there's the trailer, plus a bunch of bonus trailers for other Sony Pictures Classics titles.

The DVD just has the trailer. To be fair, Sony might've actually needed to make it a 2-disc set to put all the blu-ray extras on the DVD... but they could've at least put on just the interview or something.
Oh well. Anyone with a blu-ray player is going to choose the blu-ray anyway. ...But they might wish they had the DVD, too, if they're trying to read the subtitles on a less than ginormous screen. I did at least discover (Eventually) that the blu-ray has another subtitle track for the hearing impaired (nope, it's not on the DVD) that is more legible. But you have to read all that "[soft music is playing; a grinding sound can be heard]" stuff. But it beats missing half the dialogue. And nobody ought to miss out on a film this good.

Controversial Blus: The Informant (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

I haven't really considered myself a fan of Steven Soderbergh in a long time. I remember liking Sex, Lies & Videotape (I need to go back to and revisit that one), Kafka was at least an interesting effort and Schizopolis was quite good. But after that, his films seem to range from the decent (Out of Sight, Erin Brokovich) to the poor (The Girlfriend Experience, anyone?) fairly adrift in a sea of unwanted remakes (Ocean's 11, Solaris, Traffic). So The Informant really took me by surprise. It's brilliant, like all of the strengths he showed in his past work combined with none of the flaws to make this movie. Unfortunately, the DVD for it was a little disappointing.
Matt Damon stars as Mark Whatacre, the real life informant of an international price-fixing conspiracy of lysine that happened in the mid 90s. It's a true story, an involving human drama, and a comedy. It's a constant neck-and-neck race between the writing and the performances, including Scott Bakula as Damon's FBI contact who's connection is more crooked and crazy than the people he's investigating. There's actually lots of great comic actors in the supporting roles, including Rick Overton, Patton Oswalt and even The Smothers Brothers. But it's way of staying right on the edge of being a straight-forward depiction of actual events vs. an out and out comedy that makes it so effective on multiple levels at once.

So now, what I've got here is the single disc version of the US blu-ray from Warner Bros. Initial pressings of The Informant were a blu-ray/ DVD combo pack; but this is one of the later copies, where it's just the blu-ray by itself. So then I've got the stand-alone DVD release - rather than the other half of the combo pack - to compare it to.
I remember this blu-ray getting a lot of flack when it came out, and I can see why. But I'm not sure I agree with all of it. Certainly the fact that this is a single layer disc is a red flag. This film was shot digitally, and Soderbergh has definitely made some choices to make the film look less than perfectly beautiful. So reviewing this disc can be a frustrating game of 'But Is It Supposed To Look Like That?'  This film tends to blow out the contrast, for example, which is surely a deliberate part of the film's look, as opposed to an instance like Sony's recent rash of discs with black crush. For this review, I've gone back and read all of the Informant reviews I could find online, and I have to say I can't locate all the flaws I've seen referenced. A couple of reviews mention aliasing or macroblocking that, stepping through this frame by frame, I just can't pinpoint.
But that said, it's not like I don't see anything to criticize. There's some weird juttering when Damon makes his initial walk through the office, on both the DVD and blu. Something is definitely going on there. One review I read refers to it as aliasing, but I don't see any actual aliasing. The scene is full of little lines - horizontal blinds, cubicles, squares in the ceiling - and they never split. There's some standard motion blur since it's a tracking shot of a character walking swiftly through, but the real issue can't be captured in a still frame because it's about the relation of one frame to the next. I suspect some digital retooling happened in the post-production process (of the filmmaking, not anything that would be the fault of people putting together the blu-ray), possibly where the camera wasn't as steady as they wanted, so they did something to "lock" the shot onto Damon, which makes the background shift around behind him or something.  That's just one guess, mind you; I couldn't know without having been there as they edited the film. But it's a scene that'll immediately stand out to anyone watching the blu critically. But it's not constant - Damon makes a similar walk through the same location later in the film and no juttering. So maybe it's a problem with the shot they just left in. Or maybe it's one of those 'It's Supposed To Be There' moments, and Soderbergh put in the juttering to make the audience feel uneasy or who knows what. Personally I doubt that, but it does look more like a problem with the original film, than a problem with the home video release.
Warner Bros' blu-ray n top; DVD on bottom.
Comparing it now to the DVD, since they were concurrent releases of a brand new release, you can expect them to look pretty much the same, and they do. The 1.78:1 framing, colors, brightness, etc are of course all the same. But this film was shot in 4k, so we should definitely see a distinct difference between the DVD and blu when we get up close.
blu-ray left; DVD right.
Increasing the picture size on a bit of detail makes it pretty clear. It may be fuzzy, but on the blu-ray side (left), you can actually read the sign. But you can only guess at what it says on the DVD. So that's a pretty good look at the degree to which the resolution is superior.
Also controversial about these releases, specifically the disparity between them, are the extras. The blu-ray opens with two stupid, forced ads: one for blu-rays, one for digital copies. The DVD opens with the same ad for blu-rays, but then has forced trailers for Invictus, The Book of Eli, Sherlock Holmes, The Invention of Lying and The Box. But that's not what's controversial - those are just annoying. The controversy lies in the real extras for the film. While both versions feature four deleted scenes (which are good and worth watching if you enjoyed the movie), only the blu-ray has the audio commentary with Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns. Now there's no disc space issue as to why the commentary isn't on the DVD; it was just part of Warner Bros' push to compel consumers to switch to blu-ray. It's not the first time they did that - Soderbergh's previous film, Ocean's 13, pulled the same trick. Even as a blu-ray supporter, I feel that move was pretty shady. People should make the change because they want the upgrade to HD, not because the studios are sabotaging their DVD releases. The newer move from physical media to streaming has probably killed this practice off, it's not exactly restoring discs that are already out there in the wild. So yeah, if you want the commentary, you've gotta go blu. And it's a rather good - fun and informative, getting into the book the film is based and the filmmaking - commentary, too. And since this film is based on a true story, there's a lot to take away from the discussion.
So I absolutely recommend this film, even for people who don't generally consider themselves very big fans of Soderbergh. And if you're going to get it, you've pretty much gotta go for the blu-ray, if only because you're going to feel ripped off missing out on that commentary otherwise. But once you've got it, you should be happy with it, because I think the disc is actually better than its reputation.