Dawn Of the Mummy (US Vs. UK Editions)

I was talking on a forum recently about Dawn Of the Mummy, saying how the UK disc is so much better, with the anamorphic widescreen print and the commentary. But I've been thinking about that discussion for the last couple days. Was the UK disc really so much better? I was operating from some pretty old memories. It was time to break out both versions and give 'em the full DVD Exotica treatment.
If you've never seen Dawn, don't let it's title and artwork fool you. This is not one of those mummy movies where a bunch of stuffy English professors stand around in a drawing room warning each other about the mummy they'll finally confront in the last five minutes. This has more in common with Fulci than Hammer or the Universal classics. It's not Italian, though; it's an Egyptian movie in English with some American stars. The set-up is traditional: in ancient Egypt, a king is buried with his treasures and a curse. Cut to modern times and an American is excavating the tomb with his local guides. So naturally the mummy wakes up and is out for blood.
But things start to get very 80s when a group of attractive young models stumble into the same pyramid, looking to smoke, screw and have a photo shoot. And the mummy, who's a freakishly tall, bad-ass looking mummy, also happens to command an army of the dead, who pure zombie flesh eaters. Everyone winds up at an outdoor Egyptian wedding in a small village, and it's practically war between the living and the dead. Things move at a pretty good clip here; you won't be bored at long, dry scenes of exposition. It gets right down to the exploitation. And while this movie definitely looks and feels cheap, it's also got some pretty impressive production values. The film was shot in both NY and Egypt. Some interiors are shot on sound-stages, but they're often out riding on horses and camels in and around real pyramids. And the special effects for the mummy, the kills and explosions are all pretty strong. The acting and the dialogue are poor, but that almost adds to the fun.
So Dawn Of the Mummy was released in both the US and the UK in 2003. Only Anchor Bay's UK disc had the anamorphic widescreen transfer, though, so the word was out avoid Madacy's US DVD. But looking back at my UK disc, it's not too pretty. So I borrowed a Madacy disc to see how they really do compare, and I was somewhat surprised.
Madacy on top, Anchor Bay fullscreen mid, and AB widescreen bottom.
One surprise is just that I forgot Anchor Bay gave you a choice: even before the main menu, you get to pick 4:3 or 16x9. Okay, cool; I'll take that. The 4:3 (on both discs) is open matte, no a pan & scanned or chopped off sides deal. The widescreen appears to be the OAR and generally looks better, but some shots, like the one above where the pyramid tip isn't cut off, almost looks better composed for 4:3. So I'm not mad at us having the choice. Even the widescreen is slightly pillarboxed to about 1.72:1.

All three transfers are actually ugly, murky, soft videotape-looking images. The two Anchor Bays are identical except of course for the matting. But the Anchor Bay and Madacy transfers are noticeably different. They both basically have one big, unique flaw, in addition to the aforementioned ugly, murkiness they share. Madacy has stronger colors and is a bit brighter, though it's also slightly black crushed. But mainly, it just looks softer and even more VHS-like. Anchor Bay is a little duller, more film-like with additional visible detail - and it looks like they cleaned off some flecks and dirt - but it has a serious ghosting/ interlacing problem.
BOTH of these shots are the Anchor Bay fullscreen version (explained below).
I think now might be a good time to address interlacing and ghost frames a little further, since they come up in so many of my posts (surprisingly even on some newer DVDs). The two shots above are from the same Anchor Bay transfer. Usually, I've been showing the straight ghosted frames, since that's how many of your players will display it. But it's all a result of interlacing, and depending how you're set up, you might see it like the second show, below. See how it's broken up into horizontal lines where there's all the motion? That's interlacing, and that's what's really on these discs.
The other surprise for me was that Madacy also had the commentary on it. The primary extra on both discs is a light but very illuminating commentary by director Frank Agrama and moderated by the guy from Dark Delicacies (they're the people who got my Crystal Lake Memories blu-ray autographed!). You don't find a lot of Egyptian horror flicks on your video store shelves, so it's good to have such a detailed account of this film's history. But that commentary is pretty much all there is. Madacy's only other extra is a bonus trailer for some movie called Road Ends. Anchor Bay at least has the actual Dawn Of the Mummy trailer, which is worth a watch for some fun narration ("Egypt, home of the pyramids. A nice place to visit... but would you want to DIE there?"). But that and a photo gallery are the only other extras. Oh, and Anchor Bay has a nice, fold-out insert. All told, a tiny improvement, but nothing to go out of your way for.
So apparently Anchor Bay's Dawn isn't the vastly superior presentation I remembered it being. It's still preferable, primarily for the OAR, and especially since it gives you the open matte fullscreen version as a bonus anyway. Both are ugly as sin and in serious need of an upgrade we're not likely to see anytime soon. It's a flip of a coin whether the softer image or interlacing is more offensive, and the really important extra is actually on both releases. It's nice to have the trailer, but I don't think I'd say it's worth the trouble of importing for. It's a fun movie, so it's worth having in your collection even looking as low-fi as this. But while the Anchor Bay version wins the competition, I'd say just go for whichever is cheapest and easiest to score.

H.P. Lovecraft's From Beyond: Dragon to Scream Factory (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

We may've completed the Re-Animator trilogy, but we haven't run out of Brian Yuzna/ Charles Band co-productions of H.P. Lovecraft stories by Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli, scored by Richard Band and starring Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton yet. And while From Beyond might not be quite the film the original Re-Animator was, it's pretty damn close. And it's got just as interesting a history on disc as the rest of 'em.
An fun fact about From Beyond: the original Lovecraft story is so short, that it's pretty much adapted in this film's pre-credits sequence. Everything after that, then, is extrapolation and invention. And inventive it is. It's a wild and imaginative story that stays true to pretty much everything that was great about Re-Animator in terms of tone, style, performance, etc. The only thing that holds it back, maybe, is that it's so much further out there. Re-Animator obviously had a supernatural element to it: you can't just inject dead people with green goo and have them sit up and start walking around again. But this film has a whole other dimension, shape shifting monsters and all kinds of craziness. It's still got a sci-fi, and of course Lovecraftian base, but it's really over the top, including the characters. So that's what keeps this film from being quite as top shelf as their first endeavor - Jeffrey Combs becoming a brain-eating monster isn't quite as intellectually satisfying as his coldly intellectual portrayal of Herbert West. But on the other hand, in terms of crowd-pleasing over the top effects and general B-movie shenanigans, this movie manages to take it even further, which is saying something!
The story, uh, well let's see. Two scientists discover that sonic vibrations can stimulate a gland the human brain to see another dimension. So they create a machine to do so, and find out it's full of nasty creatures and quickly shut it down. That's pretty much where Lovecraft ends. It's pretty much a "could you imagine?" scenario. But in the film, one of the scientists is changed by the experience and goes back, turning into a shape-shifting creature that wants to absorb more people. The other scientist, Combs, winds up in a mental institution because they think he killed scientist #1. But his doctor, Crampton, wants to take him back to the scene and discover the truth. Of course, she has no idea just how bonkers the truth is, and soon the three of them (including Ken Foree as Bubba, the cop who's there to supervise) are also changed by the machine and can't stop summoning back the original, sadistic doctor. In short, the whole movie's delightfully crazy and backed by a ton of talent.
So, for a long time, this film wasn't available on DVD, despite having a pretty strong reputation. Part of that may've been due to the fact that this film was known to be a cut down version of an even more extreme director's cut that had never been released and included scenes like an infamous eyeball sucking. The German label Dragon put it out in 2003, though, and even made a bit of a special edition out of it. And despite it being full screen, that was pretty much the one to own until 2007 when MGM amazingly stumbled upon cans of the lost film and Gordon was able to restore it. Apparently, it's not 100% - there are still bits of his director's cut missing; but he was able to restore a bunch of it including, yes, the eyeball suck. That was a pretty happy release, I must say, featuring a bunch of new exciting extras as well. Finally a definitive DVD release! And when it became blu-ray time, who else but Scream Factory had the connection to MGM's catalog to make create an even larger special edition? Well, I've got all those releases, so let's check 'em out!
Dragon on top, MGM second, Scream Factory DVD 3rd and Scream's blu bottom.
So, there's four shots per because the Scream Factory release is a DVD/ blu-ray combo pack. It's a pretty natural progression. Dragon's disc is fullscreen at about 1.30:1, but it's not entirely an open/ closed matte situation, since it does have extra info on the top and bottoms but is missing quite a lot more on the sides. Once MGM gets it, though, it's properly matted to 1.85(or maybe more like 1.83ish):1 with much more vivid colors. But then it drops the letterboxing and opens back up to 1.78:1 again once Scream Factory gets their hands on it. Otherwise the images are pretty identical. Obviously I prefer the OAR of MGM's disc, but it's a literally slim distinction, and the upgrade to HD is much more important.
MGM DVD left; Scream Factory blu right.
Not that it's a huge boost, to be honest. Pretty sure Scream's just used MGM's high def master that they created back in 2007, so it's not floor show-level impressive. But it does clear away compression lumps, giving the film a cleaner and more realistic look on blu. And so the difference between the Scream DVD and MGM is pretty much just the ratio change.

The Dragon DVD just offered a standard stereo track (plus a 5.1 mix of the German dub), and MGM upgraded it to Dolby 4.0 mix. Scream gives both a 2.0 and 5.1 mix, and of course both are superior by virtue of them being uncompressed. MGM and Scream also include optional subs.
There's plenty of extras on hand, too. Dragon started us off with two interviews: Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna. They're pretty good, but clearly recorded at some convention with omnidirectional mics, so the background sound really overcrowds the speakers. It also had a little booklet, but the text is all in German. MGM scrapped those and instead assembled a kick-ass commentary with Gordon, Yuzna, Combs, and Barbara Crampton, plus a short featurette on the restoration of the found footage and brief on-camera interviews with Gordon and Richard Band.  They also had some storyboard comparisons and a photo gallery.

Scream has all the MGM extras, plus a second audio commentary with Dennis Paoli. Writers are usually skipped over for commentaries, so that was a really nice surprise. They also created a 23+ minute featurette on the special effects, and on-camera interviews with Crampton, Combs and  Charles Band. Plus they finally added the long conspicuously absent trailer. It adds up to a very satisfying, well-rounded special edition fans should love.
We've wound up with a pretty fantastic special edition. It's nice to hold out hope for the rest of the cut footage to be found and restored for an epic, new 4k scan. But if every movie was treated this well, I'd never complain about anything. It's worth noting that the Scream release has rendered the MGM DVD pretty obsolete (unless you're really hung up on the 1.78:1 matting), though it may not be as compelling a replacement as others. But the Dragon disc still has unique special features. They're not amazing, and the newer extras pretty much cover all the same ground; but if you've already got the Dragon DVD, it's worth hanging onto. Just don't miss out on the restored director's cut.

THX-1138: The Other Movie Lucas Lucas'd (Laserdisc/ DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Even people who don't care about movies know about how George Lucas "Lucas'd" his Star Wars trilogy by using CGI to go in and change the movies decades later, and robbing the world of the original films. "Han shot first," right? But it's a little bit less well known that he did the same thing to his other science fiction film, THX-1138. And just as with the Star Wars film, you can get the latest blu-ray, the 2-disc special edition DVD, the older DVD, import DVDs, it doesn't matter. The only way to see his 1971 sci-fi flick on disc and un-doctored is via the laserdisc.
1991 laserdisc on top; 2004 DVD middle; 2010 blu-ray bottom.
Part of the reason Lucas's changes to THX-1138 are less widely known that Star Wars, is of course, because THX-1138 is a lesser known film to begin with. I mean, it's a pretty substantial, major studio (Warner Bros) science fiction film, but Star Wars is an epic cultural landmark. It's just a far more accessible, mainstream kind of film as well: a fantastic, interstellar romp full of laser gun battles and wacky aliens. THX-1138 is more classic science fiction, where the purpose is to make commentary on current sociopolitical situations. I suppose both films are dystopian, but Star Wars lets the characters out to fly around all kinds of colorful planets, where here we're trapped with the lead characters in a seemingly hopeless 1984-style, prison-like world.
1991 laserdisc on top; 2004 DVD middle; 2010 blu-ray bottom.
Of course, the world's not hopeless and Robert Duvall is broken free of his drug-induced trappings of mindless labor and thoughtless consumerism, along with the lovely Maggie McOmie and the more devious Donald Pleasance, who steals the show every scene he's in. It's hard sci-fi, sure, but it's actually rather funny and very attractively designed. From SS-like robot police clad all in black marching around these wild, all white interiors comes these very friendly, helpful voices. They stop pursuing THX (minor spoiler, I guess; but I don't think this reveal will actually spoil any aspect of the movie for you) when the budget to arrest him runs out. There's some action, especially towards the end, with some impressive car and motorcycle racing, and there's some obvious catharsis. But it's mostly a pretty intellectual, which I think is really its strength, especially as it might come as a welcome to surprise to modern audiences who've developed lower expectations from Lucas over the years.

But that's not to say he doesn't live up to any of the more negative aspects of his reputation with this film... Particularly his revisionism. Like with Star Wars, he's used CGI to create a new director's cut and made the original film unavailable. Now, the changes he's made to THX-1138 are admittedly maybe a little less egregious. Okay, maybe he tweaked the colors, brushed away some seams, cleaned up a few spots. But there's no terrible looking "Jabba walking" scenes, right? Maybe the changes here aren't so dramatic. I don't know, is this a dramatic change?
1991 laserdisc on top; 2004 DVD middle; 2010 blu-ray bottom.
Whoa! The opening shots of Duvall's assembly line sure have changed! Lucas has used CGI to really create some images that were not present in the original, that's for sure. Story-wise, he's barely changed anything. There's a bit of dialogue replacement going on in one or two points, and some shots swapped with other shots; but by and large, almost all of the changes stay in sync with the original film's audio. It's mostly about using computer graphics to improve the picture. And probably, many would argue that they do.

And for a lot of it, I'll even agree. It's a bit of a shame the original film isn't available in its original form. This was a very creative, inventive film, and some of that has been washed away with much more typical CGI. The film does have an early 70s, young filmmaker rough-around-the-edges vibe, and it's kind of a shame we can't see that film anymore, but smoothing those edges away could easily be described as flat-out improvement. Nobody wanted to see Hayden Christensen pasted into the finale of Return Of the Jedi, but how many of us really mind that the blocky matting around the model spaceships flying through space was cleaned up in the original?
1991 laserdisc on top; 2004 DVD middle; 2010 blu-ray bottom.
In that sense, it's a mixed bag. When the creatures pictured above first jumped Duvall near the end of the film, the film has thrown a real surprise at us. The new CGI monkey versions they've been replaced with definitely don't have that surprising impact. For the most part, they look good (they're mostly obscured by low lighting and fast moving action), but they do suffer being the creations of early CGI. Some of their animation, especially their tails, don't match the natural movement of Duvall and the rest of the scene. They look CGI'd in. On the other hand, the originals are clearly midgets in funky fuzzy suits which would derive laughs from modern viewers. I still find the dropped impact the most significant loss, so I prefer the original; but I could certainly see people preferring the remade shots.

Also, notice that the white lines on the pavement have been erased for whatever reason.
1991 laserdisc on top; 2004 DVD middle; 2010 blu-ray bottom.
Yeah, plenty of the changes on hand are just puzzlingly arbitrary. Why is a big 3 on the door preferable to the more complex and depressing code on the door in the original version? Is it some kind of in-joke? I don't know, but they spent the money to change it. And that door opens and closes throughout the shot, with characters walking behind it, so it was no simple, zero effort swap. Somebody really wanted that change. As a viewer, it's hard to argue a strong preference for either one. A lot of the changes could be filed under this category: No Big Deal.

This is probably also a good time to point out something else about these screenshots. Let's bring the conversation back to the more traditional picture quality comparisons. The laserdisc is clearly faded compared to the other two, and we're basically looking at a very expected order of quality you'd expect to see between a laserdisc, DVD and blu-ray. The blu and DVD have the same 2.34:1 transfer, apart from the blu naturally being in HD and so less compressed. But if you'll notice (and it's hard to catch, considering some laserdisc shots are so different in content), you'll notice the laserdisc has some extra picture on the lower and right-hand sides that the later releases crop away. So there's one extra little point in the laserdisc's favor.
1991 laserdisc on top; 2004 DVD middle; 2010 blu-ray bottom.
Some of the changes are a big deal. If you look closely, you'll see the entire shot from the laserdisc above has been shrunken and inserted into the center of the of a big, animated foreground on the DVD and blu. That illustrates the difference between the two versions perfectly for me. I think, conceptually, it's an improvement. But the early CGI doesn't hold up and looks phony. Maybe if they could take another pass at those effects now in 2015 they could really hit it out of the park. On the other hand, though, it's still more exciting to just watch the original and see the film they were capable of at the time, without the high budget cheating added decades later. The only real shame isn't that the changes were made, but that the original was quietly taken away from us at the same time. Why not package them together, a 2-disc set? Instead, Lucas seems to prefer to hide the originals and pretend they never existed. The extensive extras on the DVD set and blu don't mention the film being a new version at all; they just act like the film was always like this.
1991 laserdisc on top; 2004 DVD middle; 2010 blu-ray bottom.
And those extras are pretty extensive. The blu and DVD set (there's also a single disc DVD missing most of the goodies) are loaded with goodies, while the laserdisc has nothing except for the opening Buck Rogers trailer, which is arguably meant to be an actual part of the film and not an extra at all. But the blu and DVD has an excellent commentary by Lucas and his co-writer Walter Murch, who are both very enthusiastic and enlightening. Then there's two substantial documentaries, one on the making of the film and one on the film company American Zoetrope in general. There's also a vintage promo featurette which focuses on the bemusing side of convincing the film's actresses to shave their heads for the part, and Lucas's original student film version of this movie, the short THX 1138 4EB. Plus trailers.

It's great stuff. Even if you're a total purist and are only interested in ever watching the original laserdisc version of the film - I'm not that extreme, but overall, it is the one I prefer - I still recommend getting the DVDs in addition, just for the comprehensive extras. Combined they make a sweet, if non-anamorphic special edition (meaning the original laserdisc; the DVDs are naturally anamorphic). And if you're not so bothered by the changes, the blu is a pretty easy choice.