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.

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