You're So Cool, Brewster! The Story of Fright Night (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Just released this December, we have You're So Cool, Brewster! The Story of Fright Night, an almost four hour documentary on both Fright Night and Fright Night 2 from the UK outfit who also made Leviathan, the Hellraiser 1 & 2 doc.  It's another Kickstarter-funded project, and the first 1000 copies are a pretty swagged out blu-ray/ DVD combo pack with a comic book and everything, which I believe is still available as of this writing; and you can bet we're going to break down every little aspect of this pretty terrific 3-disc set.  But for starters, let's just take a look at the documentary itself.
Fright Night is a really popular cult film.  I mean, it's even pretty big as just an 80s mainstream film.  So it's pretty surprising that this film has always been barebones until Twilight Time's 30th Anniversary Edition finally created a special edition of it last year.  I mean, the filmmakers had even leaked audio commentaries they made for the film themselves online and they couldn't get Sony to include any extras until then.  So we were really starved for content.  And now, following the healthy but somewhat limited collection of features from Twilight Time (covered here), with this all-inclusive, completist documentary, I'd say fans have finally gotten what we've been waiting decades for.
And personally, I've been even more excited for this documentary's coverage of Fright Night 2, because that hasn't had any kind of behind-the-scenes coverage until now.  And this doc really gives this film the respect of equivalent coverage.  I mean, it's maybe 55%/ 45% between the two films.  They do briefly address the remake as well, but they don't talk to anyone from that version (except they do get Chris Sarandon to discuss his cameo), and oddly they make no mention of 2013's Fright Night 2, almost as if they didn't even know it existed ...which, given all the impact it had, is possible.  But really, for these two films, coverage is thoroughly extensive.  Everybody alive who worked on either film is included, even actors who played minor roles like the cop in part 1 and the mental patient in part 2.  Only Traci Lind stands out as a conspicuous absence, but given she hasn't acted since 1997, I guess she wasn't so easy to find.
But given they're covering two films and talking to so many people, the pacing for this 350 minute doc actually feels pretty brisk.  We're constantly cutting in and out of interviews, showing clips and behind-the-scenes photos; time really flies as you watch it.  well, except for certain scenes.  Look, I respect that the filmmakers decided to put in the time and budget to create a real production beyond simply your standard talking heads doc, and they added some little animations which are cute.  But they also produced these long scenes with a new actor playing the character of "Peter Vincent" introducing each segment of the doc in a comical way, and they're... a little bit excruciating.  It's so hammy and over the top, I can't imagine Roddy McDowell would be flattered by the interpretation, and it's pretty much the same joke over and over again in every scene: he's vain.  You could easily cut these and maybe a few other little trims and bring this documentary to under three hours.  But, with that said, they're utterly worth sitting through, because everything else about this doc is terrific.  It's well shot, full of terrific, good humored anecdotes and insight by everybody from Steve Johnson to Amanda Bearse.  Everything you're hoping for is in this film and it looks great.
2016 Cult Screenings DVD on top; blu-ray below.
So yes, this is a combo pack, meaning disc 2 is a DVD copy of disc 1.  Naturally, they're the same except for one being in SD and one in HD; but I have to say, they DVD copy looks even a little softer than I would expect a compressed DVD version of a blu to look, I guess because of the film's length.  So the benefit of the blu-ray is just that incremental bit more here.  Overall, the picture looks quite strong.  It's primarily presented in 1.78:1, but shifts to accommodate the film clips' original aspect ratios.  The footage from both the Fright Night films is taken from strong, 2.35 HD sources.  They maybe look a little softer than their official blu-ray releases, and there's a tiny issue of duplicate frames in the film clips; but considering this is insert footage for a doc rather than an official release of the films, there's absolutely nothing to complain about.

There are no subtitles or audio options, just your single AC3 English audio track, which sounds pretty clear.  There's clearly a lot of room tone and hiss in a lot of the interview recordings, which they attempt to cover with music, but is still noticeable.  It's not distracting, and I'd say an issue more to do with the filmmaking itself than the blu-ray presentation, but you'd think a little run through Soundtrack Pro could've fixed it.  Oh well.
There's absolutely nothing else on discs 1 & 2 besides the movie itself, which is entirely appropriate given its length, but disc 3 is a whole 2 hours or so worth of additional features, some of which you should really check out.  There's also a little more than was listed on the official website, which was a nice surprise.  Let's look at it piece by piece:
  • What Is Fright Night? A brief collection of interview outtakes where every interview subject is briefly asked the titular question.  This is probably a scrapped opening to the film, which is just as well, since no one watching this wouldn't be familiar.  Not bad, but you're not missing much if you skip it. 
  • Writing Horror: Tom Holland The first two or three minutes are completely redundant clips from the film, but after that we get some interesting interview clips about Holland as a writer that are worth checking out.
  • From Apes To Bats: Roddy McDowall A really nice retrospective on McDowall from everyone in the film.  I could see, pacing wise, why this wouldn't fit in the film itself, but it's great to have as an extra.
  • Tom Holland and Amanda Bearse Talk Fright Night This is a pretty long and in-depth talk between the two. Holland repeats a few stories (expect to hear about his dinner with Vincent Price several times in this set), but also gets into a lot of different areas, including how he had to threaten to sue the producers of the remake in order to get characters and story by credit.
  • Round Table Discussion with Tom Holland, William Ragsdale and Stephen Geoffreys Not as good as the one with Bearse, but along the same lines and with some good new moments.  Worth checking out.
  • A Beautiful Darkness Just a fun little clip where Julie Carmen shows us all the cool costumes she kept from Fright Night 2.  Short, so definitely worth the watch.
  • Full-Extended Peter Vincent Segments ...As in the new actor they hired to do the impersonation of Roddy McDowall's character. It's 30 minutes long and sorry, but you couldn't pay me to watch this.
  • Peter Vincent Host Behind the Scenes A short, amusing little look at the fake Vincent segments.  Obviously I'm not a fan of those, but this was cute, watching him get into the make-up etc.
  • The Peter Vincent Trailers Something shot exclusively for the bonus disc, these are fake movie trailers for the movies the character of Peter Vincent would've made, created with their imposter PV, of course, and a bunch of other actors in front of green screen.  I'm surprised they went to the trouble of making these.
  • Peter Vincent Trailer Outtakes Self-explanatory.  If you were amused by the trailers, you'll probably get a kick out of these.  But if you found it all annoying, skip this too.
  • An Interview With David Madison The director of an obscure, indie horror flick called Mr. Hush starring Stephen Geoffreys talks about how much of an inspiration Fright Night was to him. I'd never heard of Mr. Hush, and from the clips they show it looks cheap and awful, but it's worth watching just to see the clips of Geoffreys playing a vampire again.
  • Weekend of Hell With Amanda and Stephen This is like a 30 minute convention panel with a host and some audience Q&A. Sound and picture quality isn't the best, and a lot of the anecdotes are repeated from the movie. Worth watching if you're still hungry for more, but nothing essential.
  • Rob Cantrell Interview This is actually a terrific inclusion.  Cantrell is one of the effects artists on the original Fright Night who committed suicide in 1985.  This is an audio recording he made for his friend, telling his story. It's very personal, and talks as much about the death of his brother and a car accident he was in than anything else, but he also talks about his career as an effects artist and is very candid about some of the people he worked with. I'm surprised they didn't work this into the film itself, but it's great that it's here.
  • Photo Galleries A healthy collection of stills and behind-the-scenes photos from both movies.
  • Official Trailer
Apart from all that, this limited edition includes an 8-page comic (though there's really not much of a story to it) and an exclusive slip cover.  Pre-orders also included a large poster for one of the fake Peter Vincent films they made a trailer for on the bonus disc.
This has all been a lot of words to say that this is a wonderful documentary that all Fright Night fans should see.  You might even come out of it as a bigger fan of Fright Night 2.  At least a little bit.  And the bonus disc has some terrific stuff on it, so don't just settle for seeing the film by itself.  The UK release of Fright Night from Eureka includes a 2-hour cut of this film (which I'd guess means they just chopped off the Fright Night 2 half); but if you love Fright Night, you'll still want this blu-ray.  I'm not sure if there's going to be a non-limited edition down the road without the bonus disc, or if once this 1000 sell out, it's all gone. But for now, the limited edition is still available with everything except the pre-order poster.  Oh, and yes, it's region free by the way.

Doomed! The Story of Roger Corman's The Fantastic Four, Finally Told!

Here's another fun entry in the burgeoning genre of documentaries about films that have never been released.  If you enjoyed Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau or especially The Death of "Superman Lives": What Happened?, then Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman's The Fantastic Four will be right up your alley.  And I don't just say that because they all have absurdly overlong titles; it's another fascinating look into Hollywood's what might have been.  Of course, in Lost Soul's case it's a film that was released, just drastically altered, and in The Death of Superman's, it's a film that was never filmed at all.  But perhaps most frustratingly of all is the Doomed case of the original 1993 Fantastic Four film, which was 100% completed, but the studios just refused to release it!
If you're a fan of superhero movies (and it appears the whole world is these days), you're probably already familiar with the premise.  Constantin Film owned the film rights to Marvel's Fantastic Four comic book series, but they were running out.  They had to at least start filming before the end of the year or the rights would revert back to the publisher.  So, they contacted Roger Corman and hastily put together a super low budget token production simply so they could hang onto the rights to make a future movie down the road.  And yes, we have Constantin to thank for all three of the infamous Fox Fantastic Four films we've had since.  Yay?  But here's the thing.  The people who were assembled to go through the motions of making this faux film were never told it was a sham, so they actually tried their best and completed the entire movie.
So instead of three crappy Fantastic Four movies, there's four!  Yay?  But here's the thing.  Everything wrong with the original Fantastic Four is justifiable.  It was made in practically no time at all with zero budget, resulting in laughable effects, sound problems etc.  The other films enjoyed all the benefits of a major studio, budget, name actors, etc.  Those movies are only crap because they're cynical cash-grabs made by soulless corporations.  So despite all its flaws, and they're many, the original version is actually the most fun.  It certainly doesn't hurt that it's by far the most faithful to the comics.  I mean, this is the only Dr. Doom that actually looks like Dr. Doom.  Their Thing actually looks pretty impressive, the score is full, and the story's ambitious.  I don't know that I can say there was ever a good Fantastic Four, but the first is easily the most enjoyable rewatch.
Of course, how good the Fantastic Four movie is or isn't has no real bearing on how good the documentary is.  But fortunately, it's quite good.  You don't even have to care about superhero movies to get into it, though it certainly helps, because then the Fantastic Four is apt to be one you've always wondered about, and this movie has the answers.  Just about the entire cast is reunited here, including the entire Four and Doom himself, the director, editor, effects artist, Corman himself and even Lloyd Kaufman.  And if you're wondering what the president of Tromaville has to do with anything, well, watch the movie.  This is essentially a talking heads movie, with a light smattering of behind the scenes shots, photos and clips from the movie.  It's not going to win awards for elevating the art of documentary filmmaking, but apart from a little errant room tone I suppose you could take them to task for if you're feeling hypercritical, it's slick looking, strongly crafted, and pretty much exactly what you're looking for when you go into a picture like this.
Doomed is available through Uncork'd Entertainment on both DVD and blu-ray; we're looking at the latter.  But unfortunately, we're talking MOD DV-Rs and BD-Rs through Amazon, which means the usual issues of dodgy playback depending on your device.  Interestingly, the last BD-R I reviewed played properly in my Pioneer, but not my Seiki or PC, and this one played on my PC and Seiki, but not my Pioneer.  BD-Rs, go figure.  That aside, though, it looks and sounds pretty great.  It's a solid, HD image and presented in 1.78:1.  Of course, both the ratio and picture quality sometimes shifts for archival footage; but overall it looks great.  The audio's in clean AC3 stereo, with no subtitles or additional language options; but I can't say I was expecting them.
BD-R releases tend to be barebones, but happily that's not the case here.  We get a decent selection of bonus features, starting with a cast and crew panel that puts almost the full line-up in front of a live audience.  Then there are brief clips and outtakes from some of the interviews, and an extended interview I'd particularly recommend checking out: Roger Corman's.  The first couple of minutes are basically his footage from the film just slightly elongated, but after that he gets into a lot of new, interesting stuff.  There's a very short (2 minutes) featurette visiting a couple of the film's locations, some extra talk with Joseph Culp who played Dr. Doom, a television interview with the director of this doc, and a long extended interview with Sean Howe, author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, who delves into the history of Marvel, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby and the Fantastic Four comic.  Oh, and there's the trailer (for the doc, not the FF movie).

Now, there was a little bit of a debacle with this release.  Like some other films we've looked at, this was started with crowd-funding, and some of the film's biggest supporters had pre-ordered this movie years ago.  Several years.  And it kept getting delayed and pushed back, which is kind of expected; but it wound up being sold to general audiences through Amazon for over a month before it even started shipping to the original pre-orderers.  That blows; but they made up for it with an exclusive Bonus Disc[pictured left].  Instead of the longest supporters being treated the worst, which was almost the case, they were treated the best, and it's a happy ending.

So what's on this bonus disc?  Some good stuff.  There's another Q&A with the director, but this one is much better than the one on the main disc, as he gets more interesting questions from both the host and audience.  And there are a bunch of additional outtakes and extensions of the film's interviews... not all of which are so essential.  Michael Bailey Smith has a good story about the FF remake that they left out of Doomed for some reason, but he also told it on the cast and crew panel on disc 1.  Others just feel like leftover scraps.  There's a great one with the director (of the FF movie, not the doc), however, where he talks about how he teamed up with Stan Lee again to create an unmade TV series based on Marvel's Femizon characters.  It's short, but you'll want to watch it.  All together, it's maybe 30-40 minutes of extra material.  If you missed out, there's no reason to tear up the Heavens and the Earth trying to hunt down a copy, but if you got, you should be happy.
Of course I'm disappointed this is a BD-R instead of a properly pressed blu-ray, but as a scrappy, independent documentary you can't really hold it against them.  And at least Amazon tends to sell their BD-Rs a little cheaper than the real deals now.  This is a pretty good release of a solid documentary that should satisfy everyone interested in the subject matter.  It's even got a healthy dose of special features.  I'm happy with it.

Werner Herzog's Lo and Behold, Now a Special Edition Blu-Ray In the UK

So one of Werner Herzog's latest documentaries (Netflix has put out his volcano movie at almost the exact same time), Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, has only been available as an almost barebones DVD for the last three weeks here in the United States.  That's better than nothing (I'm looking at you, volcano Netflix movie), but still pretty underwhelming.  Fortunately, things are much better in the UK, thanks to a neat little label on the rise known as Dogwoof.  Just this week, they've given us a nice, special edition blu-ray!

Update 7/12/18: I've added the US DVD edition for comparison.
Now, a documentary about the internet probably doesn't sound too thrilling, but Herzog's name should be a clear signal to any cinephile to expect something different.  The film's subtitle tells us all we need to know.  This isn't a long, academic recount of the web's history or predictions for its future, although we get some of both.  This is a collection of reveries about the internet; a loose series of documentary vignettes, some interconnected more than others, about our new, connected world.  Sure, we get our scientists and professors talking to us about the first internet message sent all the way back in the late 60s and how the technology is advancing.  We see self-driving cars and burgeoning robotics striving to develop artificial intelligence.
We basically explore what the internet is to everyone.  That means everything from scientists working out how to settle colonies on the moon to a commune of people living "off the grid" to avoid cellphone induced illness, looking very much like the non-fiction version of Todd Haynes' Safe.  We visit the family of the infamous Porsche Girl (if you're not already familiar, do yourself a favor and don't google it) who've been so cruelly tormented online that they explain their very earnest theory that, "I have always believed that the internet is a manifestation of the anti-Christ, of evil itself.  It is the spirit of evil.  And I feel like it's running through everybody on Earth, and it's claiming its victories in those people that are also evil."  But then it's back to amusing images of monks Tweeting and little robots training for The Robocup (go ahead and google it).  We meet internet addicts, hackers, cyber security agents and online universities.  And just about every scientist we meet is forced to struggle with Herzog's question, "could it be that the internet dreams of itself?"
2016 US Magnolia DVD on top; 2016 UK Dogwoof blu-ray bottom.
Unsurprisingly, we're looking at virtually identical transfers, clearly struck from the same master, except the Magnolia DVD is compressed to standard definition.  The blu looks predictably great, and very detailed.  Both releases are framed identically to full widescreen at 1.78:1.  This is a brand new digital film delivering its DCP straight to the label, so there's not much for Magnolia or Dogwoof to get wrong short of trying to screw with and alter the presentation, which thankfully they seem not to have done.  There's a softness to the DVD that's naturally crisp on the blu.  You'll appreciate it on a really large TV.

The original English 5.1 audio mix is presented in Dolby Digital on the DVD and proper lossless DTS-HD on the blu, which also has a second audio descriptive track for the visually impaired.  The blu has the advantage in subtitles, too, in that it has them in English, while the US DVD only has Spanish sub.
All reports of this blu pointed to it being a barebones disc right up to its release.  So you can imagine what a nice surprise it was to see an "OVER 2 HOURS OF SPECIAL FEATURES" sticker on the cover when my copy arrived.  And speaking of barebones discs, I called the US DVD "almost barebones" earlier, but to be fair, it does have one, quite respectable special feature: a roughly 20-minute on-camera interview with Werner Herzog, where he answers a lot of the fundamental questions that will arise when viewing this film, as well as a few cute questions about his relationship to the internet.  It's definitely a nice addition.

And yes, they've ported that over to their release as the + in their 2+ hours of special features.  The rest is made up of two very long Herzog interviews/ Q&As.  The first is from a screening of Lo and Behold, where he gets more in depth about the film, taking questions from the interviewer, the audience and Twitter.  Then the next is a similar on-stage interview, but this time acting as a retrospective of his career, going into his past work like Aguirre, Little Dieter Needs To Fly and Grizzly Man.  He only gets into Lo and Behold a little bit at the end when he takes questions from the audience, but that's fine, because that's been pretty thoroughly covered into the other two interviews.  Dogwoof's blu also includes the theatrical trailer and a small booklet with notes about the production.
People looking for a generic, instructional look at the internet may be put off by this collection of reveries, but Herzog fans will be delighted by yet another of his terrific documentaries.  And there's no question the Dogwoof release is the one to own, as it's the only HD version and has substantially more special features to boot.  And if this does well, make me we can compel Dogwoof to acquire the home video rights for Into the Inferno next.

The Undertaker: Vinegar Syndrome and Code Red Finally Complete the Joe Spinell Trilogy (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Horror fans undoubtedly know Joe Spinell best for his deeply disturbing starring role in William Lustig's classic, Maniac. He's certainly got more mainstream film credits under his belt, from Rocky to The Godfather; but Maniac is the one that cemented him in viewer's mind. Before his passing, he attempted to tap the vein again in the never completed Maniac 2: Mr. Robbie, succeeded with 1982's The Last Horror Movie, and turned it all into a nice little trilogy with 1988's similarly themed film The Undertaker.  It's been pretty difficult to obtain for a long time, though.  Bootleg tapes have circulated for decades, and it wasn't until 2010 that it made its official debut on DVD from Code Red, in a surprisingly different form.

Update: 11/27/15 - 12/8/16: Now Vinegar Syndrome brings The Undertaker fully up to speed with their new blu-ray/ DVD combo pack that doesn't just move the film into HD, but restores it to its long unreleased, original cut.  And like I said, the two versions are extremely different from one another.
Spinell is the titular undertaker, who has a habit of increasing his business by killing local residents. He monologues to a few of his hanging corpses a humorous motive about how America's modern health craze (remember, this was the 80s) has people living longer, "business hasn't been good lately, what with all these vitamins that people are taking, and the surgeon general's warning about smoking, those silly driving without drinking laws... I guess I'll have to drum up some business." So he's sorta out to kill health nuts. But his nephew's college professor suggests a second motive: necrophilia. The nephew senses things are very wrong at home, so he asks his professor and her roommate to break into his funeral parlor. The cops are also trying to solve the case of a local serial killer who just killed the mayor's secretary... Oh, and a security guard at the town's movie theater has figured out that the killer is copying the horror film they play at night, and goes off on his own to investigate.
If that sounds like a jumbled, convoluted mess, that's because it sort of is. I think it's cleverly complicated in its original script, but the execution muddies it a little more so that this film feels like a couple different screenplays mashed into one. And that's just the first version of this film...

All reports of The Undertaker describe the film as never having been completed. But I've seen the old bootleg tapes (and now the new blu), and it feels pretty complete to me. It's got a beginning, middle and end, full-length running time, finished special effects, music, titles. It feels amateurish in some respects, low budget in all respects, and kind of a stilted, awkward but entertaining mess.  But not incomplete.  So, it was a surprise to see this new Code Red version.
See, the version I just described is the original "bootleg" version. The Code Red is a bizarre "remix" of that movie, completely re-edited, missing some footage and adding plenty more. It also has a new on-screen title: Death Merchant. Where the original opens with a young woman alone on the road at night, running afoul of our killer, Death Merchant opens with a montage of women doing aerobics, intercut with a pixelated punk rock performance. And things just get more off-base from there. Scenes are in a totally different order, given different context, new establishing shots, and that's just the scenes that haven't been changed all together.  When I first saw it, I assumed the movie was like this because they were trying to turn the scraps of an unfinished film into at least some kind of complete, 90-minute movie.  The fact that The Undertaker was actually fully shot, wrapped and put together into a perfectly viable 80s slasher just makes the Death Merchant cut all the more perplexing.
And it was already an utterly perplexing editing fiasco. Sometimes the film cuts back to the exact same footage of Joe multiple times, recycling footage like Prince Adam turning into He-Man. And most egregious of all, The Undertaker is full of stock footage.  For just one example, a girl puts on the TV, sits on the couch, and gets attacked from behind. In Death Merchant, before she gets attacked, we see everything she watches on TV. We see some Abbot & Costello, some Bedtime for Bonzo and a scene from The Terror.  They just cut to it and let it play out for minutes on end. And again, in The Undertaker, that movie the killer is watching is an original film-within-a-film. In Death Merchant, it's 1942's The Corpse Vanishes, which we see whole scenes of, matted very unconvincingly onto a graphic of a movie screen.
All over the 'net, fans refer to Code Red's version as a "cut version," because it's missing some of the most graphic kills and nudity. But it's not like this is just a censored version; this is a whole new version of the film. And it's not all bad news. The killer now has a rocking "Death Merchant" theme song, and there's plenty of new footage shot with a whole new cast of characters (mostly women in aerobics outfits), and a delightful new ending. While I would agree with anyone who said the original is clearly the far better and preferable film, it's wrong to treat Death Merchant like a Friday the 13th movie with 30 seconds of gore trimmed out. It's an entirely different - and in that sense not incomplete or cut - version of the film. And I guess, as far as whoever commissioned the Death Merchant version is concerned, the only finished and proper version. The bootleg being more of a rough cut in their eyes. It's just a strange factor that the rough cut is the stronger, more rational version of the two.
But is this film even any good?  I think so.  Certainly, if you're a big fan of 80s slashers, you won't be disappointed.  But even if you're a little more discriminating, The Undertaker is certainly flawed - a lot of the smaller roles are played by amateurs, and a lot of the look of the film has a clunky, made for 70s TV except lower budget vibe - but has a lot of attractive qualities.  Spinell is a treat to watch, and the woman who plays his sister is great, with a lot of the same charms as Spinell's mother in The Last Horror Movie.  If you're after cheap thrills, this film (especially the VS cut) has a lot of gory kills and trashy nudity.  Actually, the CR cut, though losing a lot of the violence, does add extra nudity.  So in the exploitative sense, both versions deliver.  But at its core, the story is at least a somewhat smart spin on the slasher genre, that always has a lot going on and never gets boring.  This isn't one of those flicks where you're watching sorority girls plan a spring break party for 80 minutes and you're checking your watch for when the killer is going to come in.  The score is simple but does the job, and if you check out the Code Red disc, you get a whole new soundtrack with a lot more energy, including that awesome "Death Merchant" theme song.  This is a film I would warn more people away from than recommend to, definitely not on the same level as high class slashers like Halloween or The House On Sorority Row.  But if you dig 80s horror a little further off the mainstream radar, like Pieces, Nightmare At Shadow Woods or Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker, then you should appreciate this for sure.
top: 2010 Code Red DVD, mid: 2016 VS DVD, bottom: 2016 VS blu.
my old bootleg, much worse than CR
Code Red's DVD may not look like much compared to Vinegar's beautiful new transfer.  They've made a brand new 2k scan of the film's original negatives, while Code Red's DVD is fullscreen, fuzzy and lightly interlaced, looking like it's sourced from tape, but probably a 1" master tape, not a regular VHS. At any rate, it was a revelation compared to the old dupes we'd been living with in the past, adding a lot more detail and sharpness.  But Vinegar Syndrome's?  Wow.  Their transfer is 1.85, and while Code Red's is slightly open matte on the tops and bottoms, VS reveals a ton of information on the sides, particularly the left.  And the detail and colors are so much more natural, it feels silly to even detail it all underneath the screencaps above.  Just look at the leap the image's taken.
VS blu-ray on top; VS DVD on the bottom.
But here's an interesting and unexpected detail: not a difference between the Code Red and VS releases, but between the two VS discs.  Again, it's a combo-pack, with a DVD and blu-ray copy of the film in the same package.  But this is the first time I've ever seen the DVD and blu in a combo pack be different from each other, besides being SD vs HD.  The blu-ray is framed at 1.85:1, but the DVD is opened up to 1.78:1.  It's essentially the same transfer, but the blu is slightly matted to the proper theatrical ratio, while the DVD leaves those off, revealing slightly more picture along the top and bottom.  A strange choice, or more likely an oversight, but it's interesting and gives the DVD half of the pack at least a little more valuable to blu-ray viewers.
the composite footage in the VS blu-ray
And there's one more thing to examine while we're on the subject of picture quality.  The Vinegar Syndrome release is a composite cut.  The original negatives were missing about six minutes of footage, which had to be restored from an old tape, which they matted to match the rest of the film (i.e. a rare, acceptable instance of zoom cropping).  The inserts appear throughout, but mostly come in around the climax.  This complete version, with the inserts, matches the bootleg cut; and this film would be missing some seriously important parts without it.

Vinegar Syndrome's blu features the original mono track in a strong DTS-HD presentation.  Surprisingly, even the scenes taken from the tape source seem to have the same high quality audio, or VS did a terrific job cleaning and matching it.  Either way, I'm impressed.  They've also created English subtitles for the film, which Code Red lacked.
Now, Code Red's DVD was not barebones.  Besides your standard collection of Code Red bonus trailers, there's also a funny intro to the film by actor Robert Forster, who wasn't in The Undertaker, but was a friend of Joe's.  He then comes back for the disc's main bonus feature, where he and his daughter (actress Kate Forster, who also worked on a film with Joe) share memories of Spinell.  It's short, but a nice little inclusion; and anybody buying this crazy DVD is probably coming from an interest in Spinell, so it's good to have here.
But again, Vinegar Syndrome comes to win, with a great collection of special features.  Of primary interest are the audio commentary and on-camera interview with William Kennedy.  He's the film's original screenwriter, plus co-director and actor (he played one of the cops).   He has a lot to say - thankfully, the interview and commentary don't have him repeating all the same anecdotes as so many DVDs do - and answers almost all of the questions this film raises.  I do wish he'd talked more about the Death Merchant cut, particularly the reason for its being created.  But he delves into just about everything else that went on behind the scenes of the film as well as some more stories of Spinell's life.  We also get about 9-minutes of outtakes which features some additional (improvised?) monologing by Spinell, various alternate and extended takes, and an alternate "European" version of one shot featuring full front nudity not shown in the final film.  Then there's a promotional video - essentially an extended trailer than plays like a highlight reel of the film's kills - and a cool photo gallery that gives an extra glimpse at the scenes behind the camera.  There's also a nice booklet with an essay by Michael Gingold, but he frustratingly talks about how he tracked down many of the film's cast and crew to interview about this film, but then doesn't share what any of them had to say.  Oh, and if you bought the release directly from the label, VS's set comes in a windowed, blood red slipcover.
Vinegar Syndrome's restored original cut is definitely the version to start with, even putting aside the fact that they've got the advantage of an amazing blu-ray edition.  With the gorier kills, coherent plot and no public domain padding, it's clearly the cut most viewers will prefer to have.  But I guess Death Merchant was somehow the official finished film, at least for a while there, and you can't blame Code Red for presenting what the producers handed them.  And hey, if you decide you're really a fan of the film, it's actually great news that the two companies allow us to have both.  Because the latter's so altered, it's really its own, unique viewing experience.  This isn't like getting five versions of Brazil where you're like, "well, I think the narration's a bit different on this one."  I believe this may be the most extreme case of a radically different cut of the same film I've ever seen, and honestly, the new ending has to be seen to be believed.  So I'd recommend beginners start with VS, but fans get both for a combined, crazy special edition of a film that does deserve to be rediscovered.  Personally, I'm very happy to have both.