Happy Bloody Birthday from Arrow Films (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

I told ya I'd get to another one of these crazy killer children movies soon. Today's entry is 1981's Bloody Birthday, and boy oh boy. This is a demented one, alright. Almost an early slasher, with children, but even more unnerving drama and weirdness. It's far from a perfect film, I could see a lot of horror fans, especially younger ones, completely not seeing the appeal of this one. But if you get on the right wavelength with it, this film's so good. It must play great with a cult theater audience. But if nobody's screening a 35m print anywhere near you, not to worry, we're lucky to have some good quality home video editions.

Update 9/5/115 - 12/30/18:  Here's a remaster I really didn't see coming.  Only a couple brief years since 88 and Severin released Bloody Birthday on blu in the UK and the states, respectively, Arrow has put forth an all new edition of a film that I dig a lot, but isn't exactly high on the pop horror totem pole.  And hey, it's just in time for my own birthday!  Those previous blus were pretty good, though; so what's Arrow bringing to the table and is it worth a double-dip?
The premise is that, 10 years ago, there was a lunar eclipse as several women were giving birth, and now that it's their kids' tenth birthday, their souls left their bodies astrologically, and umm... Well, it's not explained very well or really made clear, but none of that kooky star chart stuff matters anyway. All you need to know is that a couple of kids have teamed up to go on a killing spree in a small, suburban town. That kid running around with that big gun (it's not really big; he's just small) is a joy every frame he's on screen. Thankfully, this movie doesn't get bogged down in any supernatural or sci-fi once you get past the awkward opening set-up. It's just a messy excuse to get into this weird "what-if" scenario where kids go psycho. José Ferrer has a small role as the town doctor, acting legend Susan Strasberg is a teacher who crosses the wrong student and MTV's Julie Brown, of Earth Girls Are Easy fame (not "Downtown"), has a surprising amount of nudity. Oh, and Michael Dudikoff has a bit part. But the real stars are the kids, and they rock.
Bloody Birthday debuted on DVD in 2003 from VCI, with a matching UK disc from Anchor Bay. It was a decent widescreen release with a couple extras, but there was room for improvement. And improve it did, when Severin remastered and re-released it in 2011 with some fresh extras to boot. Then in 2014, it received nearly simultaneous blu-ray releases from Severin in the US and 88 Films in the UK.  As if that wasn't enough, Arrow then issued a newer version on blu for both markets in 2018.  Well, I've got the VCI DVD, the Severin one, 88's blu-ray and Arrow's blu, so let's have a look.
1) VCI DVD, 2) Severin DVD, 3) 88 Films blu, 4) Arrow blu.
The biggest difference from the blueish, high contrast VCI disc to the later Severin and 88 editions is the more natural, earthy timing. All three are anamorphic 1.78:1, despite the Severin case claiming 1.66:1 with virtually identical framing. 88's blu-ray lowers the frame just a sliver, and is otherwise pretty similar to the Severin disc apart from being a truer HD image with natural grain instead of compression smudging. I don't own the Severin blu, but I understand they're virtually identical, which makes sense considering how 88 seems to be using the same transfer (I've looked up screenshots on other sites, and Severin's blu lowered the frame from the DVD just like 88 did).

But now Arrow's blu delivers a new 2k scan of the interpositive.  I previously wrote of the older blus that, "[t]his is probably about as much detail and clarity as we could ever get from this film," and I'd say Arrow's new transfer bears this out.  Maybe if someone gets a hold of the OCN, but at this point we're not uncovering anything new.  Even the grain looks, well slightly different but generally equivalent.  But that's not to say there's nothing to be gained from Arrow's new edition.  The real star of this show is the color timing.  As much as Severin improved upon VCI, Arrow has taken even greater strides by really separating the colors and making them pop.  They've also found a happy medium with the contrast, the combination of which really makes the previous editions look flat and dull by comparison.

Every disc covered utilizes the original mono audio tracks, in Dolby Digital on the DVDs and LPCM on the blus (the old Anchor Bay UK disc also gave the film a 5.1 mix).  Arrow is the first edition ever to provide (optional) English subtitles.
The VCI doesn't mention it on the case for whatever reason, but it has a pretty neat little interview with the film's producer, Max Rosenberg. He's pretty interesting, and it's a shame this video never gets carried over to any of the later special editions. So yeah, Severin doesn't have a producer interview, but it does have a very long and dry audio-only interview with director Ed Hunt. He doesn't think very highly of this film, so he only spends a few minutes on it, instead droning on about the rest of his career, including a book he wants to sell us. Still, we do get a little good stuff out of it, but they really could've edited it down by 80% or so. Much better is an on camera interview with Lori Lethin; it's brief but engaging. There's also a weird little featurette called A Brief History of Slasher Films which is so far from comprehensive it feels arbitrary, but it's worth the watch. That's about it, except for an easter egg of the promo trailer (we'll come back to that) and a couple bonus trailers.

Meanwhile in the UK, 88 Films has all the same extras as Severin's DVD and blu: Lethin's interview, the slasher film thing and Ed Hunt's interview. Although they make the good choice of letting Hunt's interview play over the film, like an audio commentary, rather than the single still image Severin held on the screen for 50+ minutes, which helps the talk feel less like punishment. And speaking of commentaries, they've got an exclusive one on their release, by Justin Kerswell, author of Teenage Wasteland, and Calum Waddell. Unfortunately, neither of these guys were actually involved with the filmmaking, so it feels more like a fan commentary. Worse, they spend the entire time chatting back and forth about other films, completely ignoring what's on screen the whole time. But it's better than nothing, I guess. Plus they added a little booklet with notes by Waddell where he does remember to address Birthday.
This is possibly the clearest frame in the whole thing; the rest looks even worse.

The only little thing 88 is missing is that easter egg, which is a bit of a shame. The promo trailer is fun, because it has original film shot for it that doesn't appear in the actual movie, of a hand bursting out of a birthday cake. Both blu-ray editions have added a more traditional Bloody Birthday trailer to their extras, which looks nice in HD, but doesn't have the cool stuff. On the other hand, the reason why Severin hid the promo trailer away as an easter egg is because it's in terrible, digitized quality. It's soft and blocky to the point where you can barely make out what's going on... I think they must've taken it off the internet, uploaded back in the very earliest days of online video.

And Arrow?  They've really shuffled the deck!  First of all, the do include the Rosenberg interview from the VCI disc, so you can finally toss that old DVD.  Then they ditch most of the Severin and 88 material, replacing it with their own, all new stuff.  The best of this is the all new audio commentary by the director, which thanks in no small part I'm sure to their moderator, is infinitely more listenable and engaging than the old 51 minute audio-only director interview.  They also replace the old Lori Lethin interview with a new one, which is about the same length and covers a lot of the same ground.  That's kind of a dead-even one-to-one tie.  They add a new audio commentary by The Hysteria Continues podcast guys and an on-camera interview with Chris Alexander, which is much better than having him do a commentary where he slips right into his time-wasting "let me tell you about my day" mode.  And, interestingly, they have an interview with producer Ken Gord, who wasn't involved with Bloody Birthday but worked with Hunt on other projects.  They also have the trailer, that elusive promo trailer(!) in better though still not amazing quality, a 24-page booklet with notes by Lee Gambin, the standard card for another Arrow release (The Horrors of Malformed Men this time) and reversible artwork.
So, it's an interesting situation.  If you don't already own the film, Arrow is an easy choice, with the best transfer, overall set of extras, and even subtitles.  And the new stuff does a good enough job replacing the old ones that, even though it barely has any of the Severin/ 88 extras, I wouldn't bother going out of my way to pick them up for those additional extras.  But if you already own one of those old discs, is it worth the double-dip?  Ehh.  The colors are nicer but it's not a PQ revelation, and the new extras don't add so much more to the pot.  I was hoping for more of a heavily packed special edition to really wow us early Birthday adopters.  But this is the best addition yet, can't argue with that.

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