Discover Lady Stay Dead, Courtesy of Code Red

With cult labels releasing and re-releasing the same popular titles over and over again, I'm always happy to see something still making its debut on disc. Lady Stay Dead is a slasher/ thriller I hadn't even heard of before, and I grew up on these movies. But this turns out to be the final theatrical film by Australian writer/ director Terry Bourke, the man known for creating Inn of the Damned and possibly his country's first horror movie ever, Night Of Fear. And despite elements that might put some viewers off, I think it's his most satisfying, well-rounded work. So it's a little surprising that Code Red's relatively recent blu-ray is its debut on disc.
Our film opens with an introduction to Gordon (Chard Hayward), standing alone in his apartment wearing nothing but a tiny, unflattering black speedo. He feeds his fish, cleans his rifle, puts his favorite love song on the turntable and pulls a love doll out of his closet for a slow dance. This is not a man living the high life. He's a simple gardener who happens to work for almost his complete opposite: the rich, young and beautiful Marie (Aussy soap star Deborah Coulls), a singer/ model/ actress who couldn't possibly see Gordon as any less of a human being. But he doesn't seem to get that, truly believing he has a shot with her.

Well, things go about as badly as they conceivably could when Gordon winds up accidentally drowning her in a fish tank. But while her death wasn't intentional, we learn Gordon is far from the naive innocent he pretends to be. It turns out he's got a history of S&M and abuse, and now that he's crossed the line to murder, he's prepared to do anything to cover it up.
There's a weird mixture of tones at play that might initially put some viewers off. The film doesn't shy away from exposing Gordon's perverted side. Things get a little grim, in fact, as it asks you to follow along on the journey of a lustful and homicidal creep, not unlike William Lustig's Maniac. But about half an hour in, things take a real turn. We even switch protagonists. You see, Marie's death is just the beginning of a very bad day for Gordon, turning into The Money Pit of murder. Naturally, her neighbor sees too much and has to go. Soon everything's going wrong, a la Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry. The body bursts out of the garbage bags he's wrapped it in, local teenagers show up to race their motorcycles in the drive-way. And how was Gordon to know today was the day Marie's long-lost sister was dropping by for a homecoming?

Now we're in a Wait Until Dark-like, cat and mouse psychodrama, as Gordon tries everything to convince sister Jenny (Louise Howitt) that all's well and there's nothing to be suspicious of. But this is not a bright man, and he's left clues everywhere. It's almost farcical until Gordon realizes his secret's out and he can't let Jenny escape alive.
Once things gets rolling, Lady is actually quite entertaining. There's a bumbling charm to our killer - at one point he puts on a suit and tie and shows up at the front door with a bag of groceries thinking he can convince Jenny to let him inside the house, even after they both already know full well that he's the killer! And the guy gets beat up more than the masked maniac in Scream. But other times he's quite real and menacing. There's a plausibility to his character that can get genuinely unnerving, compared to slasher super villains like Jason and Michael Myers. You won't forget Gordon.

In fact, it's a surprising collection of high production values and strong performances. I'm not going to spoil the third act - there's plenty of surprises - but things ramp up and the money is definitely on the screen. Released in 1981, this has the glossier look of an 80s movie rather than the more rugged, earthy feel of Bourke's earlier films. Although that last fact might come as a surprise to anybody who saw this film outside of this blu-ray or an original theatrical screening.
No comparisons today, because Lady Stay Dead has never been released on DVD (or blu, or laser... although apparently there were a bunch of VHS tapes back in the day) before Code Red's blu, which is thankfully pretty definitive. It's a strong, HD transfer clearly taken from a clean film print. This isn't one of their famous "grindhouse prints," and the grain looks very natural. The audio is just a simple but clear and strong mono track, and framed in full 16x9 1.78:1, Code Red has seems to have gotten it perfectly right straight out of the gate.

There are essentially no extras on this one, not even a trailer, but we do have one of Lady Katrina's infamous "Bucket List Theater" clips. It's an amusing, 4-minute intro with a little green screen comedy between her and "The Banana," and some of the her traditional IMDB reading. And she comes back at the end of the film for another minute (yes, one). Hey, it's better than nothing.
The exploration of Gordon's authentic but sleazy predilections will probably limit this film's audience considerably, which is a shame, since Lady Stay Dead is a really well-crafted film that's smarter and more engaging than many of its better-known contemporaries. The body count's low but it's an above average slasher film in all other aspects. And Code Red has presented us with an excellent introductory release for audiences to discover it. Not for mainstream audiences, but I'd recommend it to any 80s slasher fan.

Underrated Mysterious Skin (US/UK, DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Mysterious Skin is a weird one, and I don't mean because of the subject matter. It stands well apart from Gregg Araki's other films, largely due to being based on another writer's work (a novel by Scott Heim) rather than his own original material. And to many of his critics, it stands apart as his only mature, or even worthwhile, work. Roger Ebert included Araki's Doom Generation in his short list of zero star films (although that list actually, bizarrely, includes some quite good films, like Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead). And it might be nice to put myself above those critics and crown myself someone who "gets it," but I can't say I've ever cared for any of Araki's other films either. But, hey, at least we can all agree on Mysterious Skin.
On paper, this doesn't sound like a very good film. The basic concept seems really heavy-handed, a mystery you solve just from watching the trailer. But the film works because it isn't trying to be clever. It doesn't fail to surprise you with its reveal because it doesn't really try to surprise you. Two young boys who play in the same small-town little league team grow up to be complete opposites: one a rebellious gay hustler, the other a nerd obsessed with the idea that he's a UFO abductee that can't otherwise account for the a period of "missing hours" from his life. What accounts for these missing hours and how are these boys unwittingly connected? You probably already figured it out from my two sentence description of the premise, right?
But it doesn't matter, because it's a gentle, touching look at the characters' lives and exploring real life subject matter most filmmakers don't delve into. It's got an amazing cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet, a surprising turn from Mr. Show's Mary Lynn Rajskub, Bill Sage, Chris Mulkey, Brisco County Jr's villainous Billy Drago, the always dependable Richard Riehle and even an impressive performance by Elizabeth Shue. Every frame of this film is beautiful... Really, I was tempted to take a million screenshots for this post. Araki's usual flair for shooting actors with style really pays off here, mixing with the film's nostalgic period allure and the rather dark side of the story, but never pulling a punch.
Mysterious Skin hit theaters in 2004 and DVD in 2005. Strand released it in the US, but disc received some criticism, driving more serious viewers, including myself, to import Tartan's UK release instead. Last year, however, Strand returned to the title for an updated blu-ray release. I've got all three here, so let's see how they really stack up.
2005 US Strand DVD top; 2005 UK Tartan DVD mid; 2014 US Strand blu-ray bottom.
To be honest, looking at them now, I was expecting the US DVD to hold up worse compared to the flack it got. It's only real problem, as seen in the first set of shots, is that it's interlaced. Though, yeah that sucks, and it was certainly nice that the UK disc didn't have that problem. The other main difference is the slight variance in aspect ratio. The US DVD is 1.78:1 (despite saying 1.85:1 on the case), so purists were naturally drawn to the import's slightly letterboxed 1.85. But the trend now seems to be for blu-rays to be perfectly 16x9, meaning they ditch the letterboxing and go back to 1.78:1. And that's the case here alright. In fact, the blu seems to have even a sliver more picture information that the original DVD.
2005 US Strand DVD left; 2005 UK Tartan DVD mid; 2014 US Strand blu-ray right.
There's no question the new blu truly gets the benefits of the HD treatment. The image is so much cleaner and clearer. And again, this is a film where the attractiveness of the image is a distinct component of the film's chemistry, so this is a very welcome upgrade, even if you had the superior UK DVD.

Both DVDs had healthy audio options, with Dolby 5.1, DTS 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 stereo English tracks, plus optional English subtitles. The blu-ray brings it down to just two tracks, DTS-HD 5.1 and a 2.0, but it's nice and lossless, and also has the optional subs.
Extras are another big part of what sets each disc apart. The US DVD isn't exactly barebones, featuring a commentary with Araki and his two leads, a nearly hour long video of the two stars reading selections from the original novel, and the trailer. The UK disc kept the commentary and trailer, but ditched the book reading in favor of a series of in-depth interviews (around 20 minutes each) with Araki, Heim and the two leads together. Then there's also a Q&A with Heim and Araki at a London film festival. It also has some bonus trailers, and a nice insert with notes by journalist Sloan Freer. So the special features were another good reason to import.

And again, Strand's blu enters the ring with plans to exceed. It's got the commentary, trailer and brings back the novel reading video. But it also introduces some new extras to the scene: a collection of deleted scenes and audition footage, a new interview with Heim, a short video introduction by Araki, a photo gallery and a new film festival Q&A, this time with Brady and Gordon-Levitt. There's an isolated score audio track. Oh, and there's some Strand bonus trailers, including Araki's latest film, Kaboom. What the blu-ray doesn't have, however, are Tartan's exclusive extras (the three interviews and Araki/ Heim Q&A). So if you've got the UK disc, keep it.
So Strand's new blu-ray is a strong recommendation. Even if it doesn't sound like a film you'd enjoy based on its premise, I think this one could surprise you. And I say that even if you disliked Araki's previous films. And the disc itself is a strong bump up over its past DVDs, certainly more so than some other blus I could name, and also comes with some compelling new extras. And if you're really taken with the film, consider looking for a cheap copy of the UK disc, too, for the additional extras. I'm a little disappointed no one interviewed Rajskub, though, for any of these releases. But still, an easy A for one of Strand's rare blu-ray efforts. They usually stick to just DVDs, but if they can make 'em like this, I hope they dip back into their catalog for more HD upgrades.

Night Of the Intruder: The Raimi Bros Vs Supermarket Slasher

The whole gang that made the Evil Dead movies actually made a bunch of fun horror movies together. They switched roles around, so sometimes Sam Raimi acted, sometimes Bruce Campbell did sound design, etc. Admittedly, none of them are operating on quite the level of the Evil Dead films that Raimi directed (especially the larger budgeted sequel), but they're all good times: Thou Shalt Not Kill... Except, The Carrier, Lunatics: A Love Story, and perhaps the best example of all: (Night Of the) Intruder.
In this instance, Scott Spiegel takes the writing and directing helms, with the Raimi brothers are both acting and special effects by the full KNB triumvirate. And the plot is simple enough: a bunch of employees are trapped in a supermarket over night with a mysterious killer. A lot of the writing and acting feels beginner level, but the real supermarket location adds a lot of production value to a well paced slasher film that doesn't take itself too seriously. It also some clever, inventive camerawork and of course some great kills. What more do you want? Bruce Campbell cameo as a cop? Okay, that's in here, too.
So Intruder's one of those home video staples that's kinda been available in some capacity since the days of VHS. On DVD, it was released first by Germany's Dragon Entertainment in 2002, and then re-released that same year by Dragon as an upgraded special edition. Then Screen Entertainment put it on in the UK in 2004 and USA's Wizard Entertainment released it in 2005. I've hung onto that Dragon special edition over the years for a couple unique features we'll come to later. But finally in 2011, Synapse created the definitive release in HD with their special edition blu-ray release, the first 500 copies of which also included a limited, hand-numbered bonus disc of Intruder's longer workprint. Oh, and it's a combo-pack, so I'm including Synapse's SD DVD in the comparison, too.
Dragon's 2002 special edition DVD top; Synapse's 2011 blu-ray 2nd,
Synapse's 2011 DVD 3rd and Synapse's 2011 workprint DVD 4th.
So Dragon's disc looks pretty poor; but we were actually happy to get it in 2002. They did improve the picture quality (and sound) over their earlier non-special edition, and none of the other country's DVD releases were much better. It was always put out in fullscreen until Synapse got their hands on it. The earlier DVDs are open matte, so at least they have a little curiosity value; but Synapse's new widescreen transfer is correct (or close to it... their 1.78 is probably a bit more open than the originally envisioned 1.85 theatrical ratio) and makes the image look more refined and less clunky. And as you can see, if you get a copy with the workprint, that gives you an opportunity to see the film with all the extra picture anyway, so no need to track down and old DVD just for that.

The Dragon disc is still clearly over-saturated, but that's still probably preferable to the super faded workprint, which almost looks black and white. But the colors, clarity of image (you can finally read the headline on those TV Guides - yay!) and really everything about the Synapse's new 2k transfer is so superior, it really invalidates everything that came before it. Plus, as you can see in the second set of shots, Dragon's DVD had interlacing problems.
So none of the Intruder DVDs had any extras except for Dragon's special edition. They included two short deleted scenes of more gruesome special effects shots taken from the workprint, two trailers for the film, and a photo gallery. And most interestingly of all, and why I still own this disc, it features two early Scott Spiegel short films. There's Torro. Torro. Torro!, co-written and directed by Josh Becker, about a killer lawnmower. It features all of the old crew again: both Raimi's, Bruce Campbell, John Cameron and Rob Tapert. And then there's Attack Of the Helping Hand, where the Hamburger Helper mascot goes on a killing rampage, starring Sam Raimi and shot by Campbell. They're both just silly little home-made films, mostly of interest for fans of the guys. Dragon also included a booklet, but the text is all in German.

Synapse has produced a more traditional and fully loaded special edition. It has an audio commentary with Spiegel and producer Lawrence Bender, which is quite good. Spiegel has mastered the art of commentaries by working as a moderator on other director's horror films, so this one moves along at a brisk and informative click. There's then a substantial, 40 minute 'making of' featurette which interviews everybody from Bruce Campbell to Renée Estevez, a brief interview with Vincent Pereira about the censored cut originally released on VHS, audition footage, outtakes from the now lost film Night Crew, the short Spiegel shot to raise funding for Intruder, trailers and a photo gallery. And if you missed out on one of the limited editions with the workprint, don't feel too bad, because there's also a selection of the most important unique scenes from that included as an extra on the main disc.
This isn't an objectively great film, but if you're looking for an enjoyable 80s slasher flick, this delivers in all departments. And Synapse has given it top of the line presentation. Now we just need them to tackle Lunatics: A Love Story (it's in seriously dire need) - oh, and Code Red to create a blu-ray of The Carrier - and that's this whole line of films pretty much covered with excellent home video releases. And if you're a huge fan, you can track down the Dragon disc for those two shorts. And you can get many of the gang's other shorts on DV-R direct from Josh Becker's website.

Withnail & I & I & I & I (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Here's a fairly colossal four-way comparison for you: Criterion, Anchor Bay, Image and Arrow. Yes, all these major players have at one time or another released England's cult British comedy Withnail and I, and I've got them all on hand. Not that I expect to surprise anyone about which is the preferable edition, at least not if you've been keeping up with the film's history on home video; but it's still a pretty interesting little journey, culminating in a relatively recent release worth looking into in its own right.
1987's Withnail & I is the directorial debut of Bruce Robinson, writer of The Killing Fields. Try to wrap your mind around what the writer of extremely heavy The Killing Fields would do with the premise of "a light comedy about two young, out of work actors who go to the country for a brief holiday."  And if you're thinking it would have to be something verbose, cynical, urbane, and bleak, then you've nailed it. It actually has a lot in common with The Killing Fields if you look strictly under the surface - superficially, they couldn't be further apart. Our two actors have run out of booze and convince Withnail's uncle to lend them the keys to his country cottage where they hope to refuel. They naturally wind up completely out of their element, and its a predictably comedy of culture shock in that regard; but it's all servicing an existential crisis, and another look at survival during cultural devastation amid a massive economic downturn.
Withnail & I has all the charms of a self-indulgent autobiographical nostalgia trip, but thanks to some excellent writing and performances, almost none of the usual drawbacks. It's the kind of film many young filmmakers have tried to create, but few if any of matched. It's like Clerks meets Metropolitan, and in fact both of those films were surely influenced by this one. The entire cast is spot on. Richard Grant made himself in this film, while Ralph Brown creates a wonderful comic character that would be over the top in a more typical stoner comedy without Robinson's brilliant speeches. Paul McGann is somewhat the thankless straight man to the madness around him, but he brings a strong reality to his character, and Richard Griffiths is just delightful. Robinson gives this film an attractive shadowy look you wouldn't expect for a film like this, and explodes the soundtrack with big music tracks by Jimi Hendrix and Al Bowlly. It's definitely a young man's movie, but if you're up for that, this is quite possibly the best.
This film saw its DVD debut courtesy of The Criterion Collection in 2001, which is pretty impressive. But the disc itself received a lot of justified flack for being non-anamorphic and interlaced. The word got out that fans should instead pick Anchor Bay's UK release, which had additional extras. But it wasn't any less interlaced or more anamorphic. That was eventually corrected when Image released Withnail & I on blu-ray in 2010, but that was barebones, not even carrying over any of the extras from the past editions. Finally this past year Arrow rolled into the game and decided to trump any and everyone who'd touched the film before.
Criterion DVD 1st, Ancor Bay DVD 2nd, Image blu-ray 3rd, Arrow blu-ray 4th.
Credit where it's due, Image did a respectable job upgrading from the old DVD releases. I mean, just correcting that interlacing was a big plus. But it looks DNR'd, or maybe it's just soft. Plus it's a little green. But Arrow went back to the original negative and gave it a brand new 2k scan (supervised by the cinematographer, Peter Hannan) which really opens your eyes. The detail, the richer colors, the natural film grain. I remember being pleased with the US blu in 2010; but I don't think I could be happy with anything less than this new Arrow presentation ever again. Impressive and definitive, Arrow's blu is Withnail done right.

It's also worth noting that Arrow's is cropped a little tighter to 1.85:1, whereas Image is full 16x9 at 1.78:1. The DVDs are at some weird, nebulous AR somewhere in between, at about 1.80:1. The most visible difference is that Arrow's blu has got more picture on the sides.

All the releases have basic, 2.0 mono audio - though both blus are naturally uncompressed - with only Anchor Bay's DVD also kicking in a 5.1 mix. On the other hand, all of the releases except Anchor Bay include English subtitles.
Criterion had a single, nice 22+ minute featurette entitled Withnail & Us, originally made for British TV. By and large it's quite good, telling the story of the film and interviewing most of the major players. it also gets a bit silly and possibly annoying, depending on your temperament, when they interview a group of teenage fans and get them to quote the film or share silly anecdotes. I definitely could've done without those parts, but overall it was quite worthwhile. Anchor Bay stepped it up by not only including that featurette, but also including an audio commentary by stars McGann and Brown, who engage in a brisk and informed chat throughout.

Image, as I said, has nothing.

Arrow again dominates, by not only bringing Withnail & Us back, but also three other British television pieces on Withnail made by the same people. One is a nice overview of Robinson's career, while another is a more skippable piece about making a drinking game out of the film. Arrow has also brought in Robinson for a commentary track, and then they made another audio commentary with a film critic, which isn't too dry. They also interview UK television writer Sam Bain about his memories of the film, which is a little extraneous but alright. And more interestingly, they also shot an interview with the film's production designer, Michael Pickwoad. The only thing they miss is Anchor Bay's actor commentary.

Criterion, Anchor Bay and Arrow's releases all include nice booklets with notes, and Criterion's even had a poster as well. Image... has nothing.
I should point out here, that Arrow has two versions of their recent blu-ray release. The one I've just described, and a 4-disc set. Disc 1 is the same, while disc 2 is a blu-ray of Bruce Robinson's subsequent film, How To Get Ahead In Advertising, also starring Richard Grant. That film really isn't as good as Withnail or The Killing Fields, but it certainly is an interesting curiosity piece with some value. If Withnail was self indulgence done right; Advertising feels like an example of everything wrong with it. Lovers of Withnail will surely get a kick out of watching it, but whether it's worth spending the extra money to keep it in your collection... well, I'll just say I got the single disc edition.

Discs 3 and 4 are just DVD copies of discs 1 and 2, for the record. Pre-orderers of Arrow's limited version, however, also had the opportunity to have their printed case personalized, which I think is a first.
Withnail & I isn't a mainstream film for everyone, but even those for whom it's not for would have to begrudgingly admit that many elements of it are quite good. And after some struggling, it's finally gotten a pretty ideal DVD and blu-ray release from Arrow. And if you're a serious fan, you might want to pick up a cheap Anchor Bay in addition, just for that extra commentary.