Dueling Disclaimers: Ganja & Hess (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Ganja & Hess has always had a bit of a tricky time on home video, essentially because it's original film elements seem to be lost to the ages. But at the same time, there seems to be a core group of fans and preservationists that keep holding screenings and taking stabs at it. I mean, the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) is a credited producer right on the front cover of the latest version - how often do you see that? So I thought we'd have a look at the current blu-ray release from Kino, and the previous DVD release from All Day Entertainment, and see just what we've got here.

Update 2/7/18: Just a little one, adding the Kino DVD that was released separately, but at the same time, as their blu. Nothing exciting, same extras, same transfer apart from it being pared down to SD. It just came across my desk, so I'm mixing it into the comparisons in the interest of being more thorough.
Night of the Living Dead's Duane Jones is Dr. Hess Green, a well-to-do west coast anthropologist and an honest-to-goodness modern day vampire. When George (writer/ director Bill Gunn) tries to kill himself on Hess's property, the good Doctor takes him into his home, befriends him and gives him a place to say. But you can only live in the same house with a vampire for so long, and it seems like a quiet little murder that will go undetected until, to Hess's surprise, George's ex-wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) shows up with questions, and she isn't easily put off. In fact, she moves right in.

Ganja & Hess is a very low budget film, not helped by the present state of its film elements. It looks very 70s, grainy and grimy, like so many 70s clunkers. But this one is actually very smartly written with some great scenes and surprisingly modern and naturalistic performances. The pacing is deliberately "arty," which is to say slow without the usual emphasis on exploitation and cheap thrills, and the metaphor for blood drinking as drug addiction is really obvious and heavy-handed. But the good outweighs the bland, and the film really comes to life when Ganja shows up and manages to be a more exciting character than the vampire. Overall, this is a very serious, earnest production, but there are some wickedly funny moments at time to keep you engaged. It's unconventional structure might throw you off at first, plot points are buried and it does steer into some heavy self-indulgence at times (particularly the climax, which will seriously test your patience). But there's just too much great stuff here not to keep returning to it.

By the way, this was remade not too long ago by Spike Lee as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. That's very faithful and stylish, definitely worth a look. But the new Ganja isn't a patch on Marlene Clark. So the remake's a fine curiosity piece, but the original's the truly compelling film.
So Image and All Day released this film a couple of times, first in 1998 and again in 2000. But I never bit until their 2006 "Complete Edition," which not only boasted new extras, but an exclusive restoration with "3 minutes of footage missing from previous home video versions." Well, glad to have the footage back, but it's still a pretty damaged viewing experience, opening up with a disclaimer about the picture quality. In 2012, Kino gave the film its HD debut with a blu-ray edition restored and "mastered in HD from a 35mm negative." They also released an SD edition of the same on DVD at the same time as a separate release.  In both cases, it's still a pretty damaged viewing experience, and one that opens with its own disclaimer.
2006 Image DVD on top; 2012 Kino blu-ray below.
2006 Image DVD on top; 2012 Kino DVD mid; 2012 Kino blu-ray below.
So, both transfers are very grainy and beat up, but they are still pretty distinct. Clearly the same print was used for at least part of the transfer (Kino mentions using several 35 prints, whereas Image used a 16mm copy to fill gaps), as the same damage appears on the same frame (see the first set of shots). But even in those instances, we see the color timing is quite different (Kino going overly green while Image went reddish), the framing is different (Kino opens the film to 1.67:1, while Image crops it to a more traditionally theatrical ratio of 1.78:1), and oops! The Image DVD is interlaced. You know, I would have expected that on the initial 1998 DVD, but the 2006 version? That's disappointing. Anyway, I kind of prefer Image's coloring, but in all other respects, Kino really is a superior viewing experience.  I'm glad to see this is more than just the 2006 transfer plopped onto a blu-ray disc; they've really done some serious restoration here.

Between Kino's blu and DVD, you don't lose a lot detail given the rough source material, but especially on a larger screen, you do see the difference. The DVD is softer around the edges.  But the curious thing is that there's another difference.  For whatever reason, the colors are different, with a warmer tone on the blu and a distinctly cooler push on the DVD.  It's not even some super subtle, you'd never notice it distinction.  I mean, it's not huge, obviously, but it's different enough that I wouldn't chalk it up to just the effects of different levels of compression for the two formats.  Anyway, it's just an odd little detail.  Personally, I prefer the blu's color timing.

Image gives us a somewhat hissy but respectable Dolby 2.0 mono track, and Kino essentially gives us the same but in LPCM. The strong musical moments manage to really grab you on both releases. None of the releases offer subs.
Now, extras are pretty interesting. All of the DVD releases from 1998 to Kino's blu feature a strong commentary, that's both fun and informative, by Marlene Clark, producer Chris Schultz, cinematographer James Hinton and composer Sam Waymon. If you consider yourself a fan of this film and haven't heard it yet, definitely check it out. Apart from some stills and a DVD-Rom article by Tim Lucas, that's all the old DVDs had. But the Complete Edition adds a new half hour documentary called The Blood Of the Thing, where Schultz takes you through the film's history. And all of that stuff, even the DVD-Rom bits, are on Kino's blu.

BUT, Kino actually took a step backwards. Because not only did they not produce any new features, but they dropped one other one that debuted on the Complete Edition. It's an 18 minute featurette called Ganja and Hess Reduced, and it's easy to see why Kino dropped it. It's David Kalat, the DVD producer, doing a partial audio commentary over the film. SO it makes sense Kino doesn't want All Day's guy on their disc, I guess - would Arrow have an interview with Cliff MacMillan on one of their discs? But it's a real loss, because Kalat is a bit of an expert on this film, and uses his time to basically fill in all of the obscure and interesting information about this film that the other extras left out. And this film is a treasure trove of obscure trivia and things you'd never pick up on, so this feature was really illuminating and interesting. And it's only on the 2006 DVD.
So this film's not for everybody, but it's really quite good. Apart from die-hard vampire lovers, this film might appeal more to drama fans than horror fans, but anybody who appreciates good movies will at least find something for them in here. And Kino (and MoMA) have given us the best, most definitive version of the film to date and that we're ever likely to see sans a time machine. So this is the version I'd recommend to anyone. But if you're a serious Ganja and Hess fan, you might want to double-dip for that last featurette. You know, get it used and treat it as a bonus disc.

Coscarelli Fans, Have You Thought About Kenny & Co Lately?

In the early 2000s, DVDs were on fire. Not only were our favorite cult films getting big, fancy special editions, but so were their directors' oddball early films, like Fast Company, There's Always Vanilla and Don Coscarelli's obscure kids' flick, Kenny & Co. Those days are past, and nowadays if you want to get Kenny & Co on DVD, it only costs, let me check Amazon here... oh, only $149.95. And that's with price inflation having been staved off for several years when Amazon was selling this as part of their MOD program, keeping the prices of the original Anchor Bay DVDs gone. Those are off the table now, but current prices would probably be even worse right now if a few fans weren't given the opportunity to get this film cheap in the meantime. But really, it's only the special edition Anchor Bay disc that serious fans should have any interest in anyway.
Calling Kenny & Co a kids' film is a little unfair. It's more of an adult film (in the non-XXX sense) about childhood than a film made for kids. But it also kinda hedges its bets and gears a good chunk of the humor towards actual child audiences, so it feels a bit compromised. But don't confuse this with 1984's Kidco or anything like that. It's a highly watchable look back at a time when kids were less protected. This is honest, not sanitized. There's one scene where they're walking home from school and there's a car accident on the street right next to them, so they rush up to look in the window and see the dead body. But on the other hands, Coscarelli fans should know this is definitely not a horror movie. There isn't really even a focused plot, so much as a slice of life during one particular autumn. There is a Halloween segment which hints at the writer/director's future body of work, but horror fans had better be ready for something closer to Pauline At the Beach than Nightmare On Elm St.

It's genuinely a pretty good little movie, but let's face it, it would never have survived the 1970s if it wasn't for the filmmaker's subsequent legacy. What's on sale here for most of us is a pre-fame film by not only Phantasm's creator, but one which also happens to share two of it's lead actors, A Michael Baldwin and Reggie Bannister, plus a number of additional cast and crew. You don't have to be a Coscarelli fan to enjoy this picture, but you do to be looking for this film in the first place.
And that's why, in 2005, Anchor Bay put together a nice little special edition, including a commentary by Coscarelli and more features involving Bannister, Baldwin and others. Even if they wound up not caring for the film, there was enough here for the die-hard Phantasm fans. Amazon's MOD? Completely barebones. And for a release where, let's face it, many fans would be more interested in the special features than the film itself, that's seriously disappointing. I never picked it up, but Id' consider you lucky if they even used the same, restored transfer and not a VHS rip.
Anchor Bay's 2005 DVD.
Anchor Bay gave us a nice 1.85:1 restoration of the film which looks great. It's very clear, anamorphic and has no interlacing issues, plus a fairly healthy Dolby stereo track. There is a bit of a hazy look to the whole thing, but I assume that's down to how the original film was shot. The IMDB lists this as being shot on 35mm, but I don't believe them. I'm fairly certain this was shot on 16. We even see shots of Coscarelli filming this in the extras on a 16mm camera. That does lead us to one little detail regarding the aspect ratio, though.
The Story of Kenny & Co featurette on top; film presentation on the bottom.
Shooting in 16 gives you a fullscreen format. And the screenshot comparison above, with the first shot coming from the DVD extras, shows us that they definitely cropped the film for this restored presentation, so we lose the matted picture on the top and bottom. But honestly, it looks good in 1.85, and given Coscarelli's involvement with the DVD's production, I assume he was aware and approved of the decision to matte the film. So personally, I'm completely fine with it, but I figured you should know. The film's original television broadcasts and all were probably open matte.
So exactly what are the other treats with the film? Coscarelli gives us a great audio commentary, joined by Baldwin and producer Paul Pepperman. That's one of the two main features, alongside a retrospective documentary featurette called The Story of Kenny & Co, which includes some great behind-the-scenes footage and new interviews with Don, Baldwin, Pepperman, Bannister, and executive producer D.A. Coscarelli. There's some surprising stuff here about how Kenny & Co turned out to be a bit of a break-out hit in Japan despite being barely released here. There are also two vintage TV spots with some cheesy narration, and one which uses the fuller title Kenny & Company. Anchor Bay's DVD also came with an insert showing some alternate poster art I'm sure Amazon's MOD didn't include.
So Anchor Bay's DVD is pretty great, and I don't think you could expect anything better short of an HD release, which I wouldn't hold my breath for. Unless Arrow winds up bundling it in an ultimate limited edition Phantasm boxed set next year or something. Otherwise, I think we were lucky to get this even in the heyday of the DVD format. No, I don't recommend paying $150+ for it. But it is a pretty compelling release, so you might want to keep it in the back of your mind in case you stumble across a reasonably priced copy one day.

Warner Bros, Please Stop Being Jerks, and Let's Get Definitive About Ken Russell's The Devils

Critic Mark Kermode found the the missing footage from Ken Russell's 1971 epic The Devils in a warehouse in 2002, and in 2004, the British Film Institute was able to reassemble the complete director's cut, which had long been thought to be lost forever. Kermode toured the UK with Russell himself, screening this version in theaters to rave reviews. But Warner Bros, the studio that funded the film in the first place, specifically forbade the BFI from releasing this restored cut and continue to actively repress the uncut version of this film internationally. Who ever heard of a studio censoring their own film? You should definitely watch this short video Kermode made about this stupidity, addressing the BBC, and how filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro are taking WB to task for this.
In 2012, the BFI gave us the best they could on home video: a 2 DVD set of the British theatrical cut, which is missing the recovered footage, including the infamous "rape of Christ" scene. And it really isn't as offensive as that nickname implies. There's certainly ample nudity and religious imagery, and I certainly wouldn't play it in a Sunday school classroom, but the full scene was able to air uncensored on the BBC and is currently on Youtube. This is an old movie, and I don't even think it would occur to modern audiences to be shocked by it compared to what gets just a generic R rating today.  It's certainly less offensive than what you see in The Exorcist, for example (after all, those scenes involve a child), which Warner Bros happily releases and re-releases. But for whatever, unstated reasons, they just won't allow The Devils to be released uncut. And so the closest we've got is still the grey market bootleg from Angel Digital in 2005, which features a composite print and (even a substantial supplement package) assembled by Wayne Maginn, which he describes creating:
"Within a short period of time, it was revealed that a can was found containing much of the cut footage and this would be formed into a documentary for TV broadcast. Unfortunately, I lacked a DVD recorder at that particular time and so had to record the Hell on Earth documentary on its original broadcast on VCR. Having purchased a DVD recorder only months later (the desire to back up the documentary on DVD-R being one of the main factors in scraping together the money to finally afford one), I set about cutting together the British X-rated theatrical edit of the film.

Noting that Mike Bradsell had intercut the restored Rape of Christ scene with footage from the scene with Grandier outdoors, I ensured I removed the shots from the base print I was using so they did not repeat. As closely as I could, I attempted to insert the footage as smoothly as possible with my VCR-to-DVD recorder setup, unfortunately having to trim a few seconds off the opening of the scene where on-screen text appeared in the documentary so as to provide as seamless a transition as possible within my means.

I felt the film deserved special treatment as far as could be provided and if Warner were not going to then I would do my best to give it some bells and whistles. I just wish I had recorded the documentary on a better format at the time and also had done a better job of the composite. Alas, I lacked the equipment and software that some had at the time!"
-- excerpt from Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of the Devils by Richard Crouse (ECW Press, Oct 1, 2012)
The Devils stars Oliver Reed as Father Grandier, an obstinate priest who runs a large, fortified city that unfortunately stands between Cardinal Richelieu and plans to take control over the entire pre-renneaisance country of France. The people support Grandier so resolutely, it seems impossible to move him... at least until Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) and her entire convent of nuns seem to fall victim to demonic possession. Now all they need to do is convince the world that Grandier is to blame.

The Devils is Ken Russell's ultimate masterpiece, a perfect blend of his far-out visuals and serious, historical drama. It comes from the period in his career when he had his strongest cast of British actors available to him, and control of quite an impressively large production. It's a powerful film, and the closer we get to a proper, uncut restored version of the film, the clearer that becomes. Just imagine if we could finally see a truly complete version.
So, The Devils has spent most of its days being completely unavailable. The Angel Digital bootleg came out in 2005, but the first official release wasn't until 2010, and that was only in Spain. Surprisingly, it was a direct Warner Bros release. I used to own it, and can tell you, it was the edited cut (shorter even than the British theatrical cut) that was released on VHS in the USA. And quality-wise, it was a decent, 2.35:1 transfer - certainly better than anything we'd seen before. But it doesn't stand up to the BFI's subsequent disc. In fact, it was non-anamorphic. Unfortunately, the only screenshot I took was of the opening logo for a forum post back when in 2010.
Angel Digital 2005 DVD on top; Warner Bros 2010 DVD bottom.
You can see why, even non-anamorphic, it was exciting at the time compared to the bootleg we'd had before it. You also get an early sneak peek of how poor the bootleg looks (though at least it was anamorphic). But put yourself in 2005 and we were happy just to see it in widescreen or disc at all. Even on laserdisc, all there had been was a cruddy fullscreen Japanese disc, nothing in the US. So each of these upgrades were at least a little exciting at the time. But again, it was a much shorter cut, so not many people jumped on it. It was also, by the way, completely barebones, only offering basic English and Spanish audio and optional Spanish subtitles, not even the trailer. So then the British disc came along and at least trumped the Spanish disc. There is still no Region 1 disc at all.
Angel Digital 2005 DVD on top; BFI 2012 DVD bottom.
Not hard to pick a winner here, is it? Let's count the differences. 1) The AD disc is in the wrong aspect ratio. It's 1.85:1, as opposed to the BFI's 2.35:1 disc, which gives us a ton more info on the sides. 2) The AD is very faded and washed out, compared to BFI's deep colors. 3) Oh boy, is that some nasty interlacing in the first shot of the AD disc! BFI, of course, doesn't have this problem. 4 and on) I suppose I could get into the fine details of the bootleg not having true blacks, etc; but its lesser quality is so obvious, there's no reason to nitpick. Maginn did what he could with his home equipment and low quality source elements. There's a reason I hang onto the bootleg, and it's not related to the picture quality.
The infamous "rape of Christ"
And if you're astute, you may've noticed that the bootleg was 1.85 in the lower comparison shots, but much wider in the logo shot. That's because most of the boot is 1.85, but it switches over to a 2.28:1 or so whenever the uncut footage is inserted. But the fact that it is inserted is why this disc is still valuable; no other release has this footage. Although, it has to also be said, that there is still footage missing even from this version, including a rather dark scene with Vanessa Redgrave and a bone that comes too near the film's conclusion for me to spoil, but you'll know if you've seen it.
And I mentioned the Angel Digital disc actually had extras, right? Pretty impressive for a bootleg, but it shows you it was assembled by somebody who actually cared (as opposed, say, to the official Warner Bros release). The main feature is Hell On Earth, the 50-minute BBC documentary Kermode made when he first discovered the lost footage back in 2002. This tackles the censorship and found footage, but also the film as a whole, and interviews many of the key players, including the stars, producer Roy Baird and Russell himself. There's a five-minute featurette called Year of Censorship, which interviews several critics and Russell himself about the film's controversy. This and the next featurette, UK Censors, which interviews the group that protested The Devils back in the 70s, seem to be an excerpt from a longer television program. Finally, there's an interview with British television director James Ferman about the censorship, and the film's trailer.
That was pretty great, but the BFI has put together a spectacular 2-disc set with even more features. And first of all, yes, they have the Hell On Earth documentary, too. But at Warner Bros insistence (thanks again, jerks), it's an edited version, missing the footage Maginn used to make the composite cut in the first place. But BFI has come up with so much more! Two of the coolest features is a vintage, 21-minute behind-the-scenes 'making of' documentary, and an audio commentary by Ken Russell himself! Unfortunately, he recorded the commentary to the full director's cut of the film, so this commentary had to be cut, too (did I say "thanks again, jerks" yet?). Still, if you've ever heard a Russell commentary track, you know his are some of the best, and this time he's joined by Kermode, editor Michael Bradsell and Paul Joyce (director of the Hell On Earth doc).

In addition, Kermode provides an intro to the film, Bradsell narrates some home-made behind-the-scenes footage he shot during the original filming, and there's a 13-minute Q&A panel with Ken Russell. There's a previously unreleased early short film of Russell's called Amelia and the Angels, which wasn't that great, but is nice to have as a piece of history. There are also British and American trailers, and a rather thick, 40-page booklet full of notes, photos and essays by Kermode, Bradsell and Craig Lapper.
So that's a pretty sweet package, but obviously we still desperately need the director's cut, which has been sitting on a shelf, completely restored, for about twelve years now. Oh, and it would be nice to get this film in HD as well. Apart from everything else, Warner Bros wouldn't let the BFI issue a blu version of this release, just DVD. Why? Just as a final middle finger us fans of their film? Seriously, shame on you, Warner Bros. It's one thing not to release a film yourselves, what with the costs involved etc. But to specifically and consistently stand in the way of The British Film Institute from releasing it? What is going on over there? Then again, The WB got a new CEO in 2013, so maybe it's time for Kermode and Co. to knock on their door again.