Oh Thank Heaven, They Finally Got An American Werewolf In London Right

It's time for another edition of Controversial Blus!  Just released today is the brand new Restored Edition of An American Werewolf In London blu-ray from Paramount.  According to the sticker on the slip, it's "NEWLY RESTORED FOR IMPROVED HD PICTURE," so we're not just talking about a reissue of the previous release with different art masquerading as a new version to trap enthusiastic double-dippers like some other releases I can think of.  This is actually an all new transfer.  But is it actually better?  The new blu seems to be receiving more than its fair share criticisms...  I think it's time I did a direct comparison.  And as you can see from the picture above, I'll be looking at some of the older DVDs at the same time.

Update 9/28/16 - 10/22/19: And I'll also be looking at the even more recently restored and improved HD release from Arrow, scheduled to be released at the end of this month.  Spoiler alert: the controversy is now behind us.
An American Werewolf In London is a pretty great movie, with a modern appeal yet a very traditional, throwback werewolf plot at its core.  Two friends go hiking across England and get attacked by a werewolf after being warned by the creepy locals to not go out on a full moon.  The survivor, of course, wakes up back in the city hospital with a nasty, lycanthropic curse.  While he falls in love with his nurse and tries to get on with his life, his primal nature breaks free as he transforms, spectacularly, into a werewolf and begins terrorizing London.  His doctor suspects and begins to investigate, and even his dead best friend returns(!) to warn him, but true love may be the only thing that can save our tragic protagonist.
John Landis has created one of the most successful blends of horror and comedy, where neither aspect spoils the other.  And it holds up really well, thanks largely to the well-crafted characters, not to mention the famous, cutting edge effects, which still look better than anything coming out today.  It's also a clever story with great use of music and some terrific locations.  Having a healthy budget clearly helped in all the right places, from big set pieces to music licensing.  American Werewolf is one of those rare horror movies that manages to appeal to mainstream audiences without losing the core genre fans.  They've tried to recapture the magic with some success - Landis with a vampire tale called Innocent Blood and the studio with a sequel: An American Werewolf In Paris, which wasn't terrible - but An American Werewolf In London still stands head and furry shoulders above.
Paramount has released An American Werewolf In London a number of times.  I don't it would be too cynical to say that they see this film as a cash cow that can always take a little more milking.  Even limiting it to just the United States, Paramount has issued it on disc an awful lot of times.  actually, Artisan put it out on DVD first in 1997, with a barebones fullscreen disc.  So Universal's widescreen Collector's Edition was a welcome upgrade in 2001.  There was also a bundle release in 2004 with the 2001 disc and the remake of Cat People.  Then the two-disc Full Moon edition added a couple more features, and also came out with a blu-ray edition, both in 2009, so that was a good upgrade.  Then they re-released the 2-disc set as a single disc release, shaving off some extras for a more budget release in 2012.  Okay.  Then in 2014, the blu-ray was released with a gold "Academy Award" winner cover, but it was the same disc as the original blu-ray.  That same year, they also released it in a limited edition steelbook.  In 2016, Universal released their Restored Edition.  And now they've finally handed the property over to someone who knew what to do with it for Arrow's upcoming Limited Edition 4k remaster.
1) 2001 DVD, 2) 2009 DVD, 3) 2009 BD, 4) 2016 BD; 5) 2019 BD.
So, all five releases are 1.85:1, but you'll notice the old 2001 DVD is missing a little around all four sides, particularly the left.  Actually, measuring it, that first DVD is more like 1.82:1.  Even just comparing the two DVDs, you can see the later one is sharper with more naturalistic colors, too, if maybe a tiny bit on the yellow side.  And then the old blu-ray is that same 2009 DVD transfer - note the white hole in the picture around the wolfman's wrist; it looks like he's wearing a fancy diamond bracelet - but a little cleaner because it's in HD.  The grain is really strong there, and it was definitely the best looking version up 'till then.  But then we come to the Restored Edition, and... where'd the grain go?
2009 Blu-ray left, 2016 Blu-ray mid; 2019 Blu-ray right.
Apparently, the film was given a brand new, 6k(!) scan for this restoration, and my best guess is they figured if they scanned it they close, they could apply some DNR (digital noise reduction) and not lose all the usual detail that tends to go with heavy DNR application.  That's why seeing "DNR" is a bad sign in a blu-ray review.  It means the picture is going to be unnaturally smooth and waxy, with detail erased.  Peoples' hair will look like clear plastic helmets, etc.  So bye-bye American Werewolf grain, and it does look a little bit softer, but... they seem to have been right in that the actual detail has pretty much remained.  I've seen some people say there's even more detail than the old blu, but I wouldn't go that far.  Universal's 2016 BD is the most successful attempt I think I've ever seen to remove grain without smoothing away much of the image.  Still, it was a little weird to look knowing film grain should be there, and now that we can see the results of Arrow's even more recent 4k scan (finished in 2k), we see Universal's job wasn't perfect.  I've read allegations that the grain on the 2009 edition is "fake," or artificially enhanced (it was even brought up in the comments, below), and I was reluctant to buy into that notion, but Arrow's new scan seems to bear it out.  Now we finally see the natural levels of grain you'd expect to see in a 35mm film, making the 2009's look chunky and unnatural.  The 2019 image seems even more nuanced, and a tiny bit sharper, than even the 2016 blu, and it still has the clean-up (i.e. no diamond bracelet!).  How could a 4k scan look better than a 6k scan?  When you don't futz with it afterwards!
For audio, both Universal blus pretty give us the same English DTS-HD 5.1 mix, plus both have a Spanish DTS dub in 5.1, and French, German and Italian DTS dubs in mono.  Both blus also have 16(!) subtitle options, which I won't bother to list out, but that's pretty much every language including both English and English SDH.  A number of fans were hoping for the original English mono track, but we didn't get that.  Landis created the updated 5.1 mix himself, so I imagine there was little interest in putting the old track back on the film.  Sorry, purists.  The older DVDs also only have the English in 5.1 (plus, English, Spanish and French subs), though I've read that the mix on the old Artisan DVD at least sounds closer to the original audio, with a higher pitch.  But you had to go all the way back to the old laserdiscs (there's a fullscreen one from Image and a widescreen one from Live) for the original mono audio.

I say "had," because Arrow have once again swooped in to save the day, because they've also restored and remastered the original mono from the original mag reels for their new disc!  So the pitch is finally correct.  That and the 5.1 mix are both included here in DTS-HD, along with optional English subs.
For extras, once Universal got it, things were looking good.  The original 2001 DVD had a light but not too informative audio commentary by the two leads David Naughton and Griffin Dunne, a substantial on-camera interview with John Landis, another with Rick Baker, outtakes, a vintage 'making of' feature, and some archival footage of Baker working on the famous werewolf transformation.  Plus it had a photo gallery, storyboards, text bios, a bonus trailer for The Wolfman (the remake) and a nice little insert with notes.  The 2009 DVD and every subsequent release carried all of that over (except the bios, bonus trailer and junk), but also added a full length documentary on the film called Beware the Moon (that's the second disc of the 2-disc set that was dropped from the budget version in 2012), which is great and very thorough.  The blu also added Universal's usual junk like BD-Live and D-Box support for the two people who use that.  And no, the new 2016 doesn't have anything new to add, and even ditches the BD-Live and D-Box stuff.  It does come in a nice, shiny slipcover, though.

But who does have something new to add?  Arrow, of course!  First of all, yes, everything from all the past editions (except the D-Box and junk) has been carried over.  And what's new?  First and foremost an excellent full-length documentary on Universal's history with werewolf films by Ballyhoo, who really hit it out of the park.  This was clearly made with AAWIL in mind, because it starts out with Landis and never loses site of how all of this history is eventually leading to his film.  But it's a great look at the whole story (and even a bit of a postscript on the Del Toro film), interviewing a surprisingly vast collection of filmmakers and artists.  Beyond that, there's a new interview with Landis, which isn't too redundant because they ask him about British cinema and bits he hasn't touched on too much in the previous extras.  Then there's a new audio commentary by the director of Beware the Moon (who also wrote a book on AAWIL), which is rather good.  He's an undeniable expert on the film and manages to find new trivia info to share despite the wealth of content in all the other extras.  Plus, he does a pretty funny Landis impression.  But he does also slip into repeating a bunch of anecdotes we've heard elsewhere on the disc, often more than once.

Still want more?  Whew, okay!  There's a brief but quite neat look at surviving props from the film, including one of Baker's legendary "change-o heads."  There's a video essay on the Jewish aspects of this film, which are mostly quite interesting and well observed, though he does spend a chunk of time unwittingly repeating some Wolfman history that was already spelled out in the Ballyhoo doc, and he exaggerates a bit.   Then there's an interview with Corin Hardy, director of The Nun, which starts out kind of bland and uninteresting as he just shares his appreciation of the film.  But then he gets more interesting when he starts applying his own experience in filmmaking to discuss the hurdles he'd have trying to replicate what Landis achieved today.  Oh, and I even saw some forum guy post a strange video teaser for the film that he was disappointed never made it onto any of the Universal blus.  Well, that's on here, too, along with the main theatrical trailer and a TV spot.

The limited edition comes in a clear amary case with reversible artwork housed inside an attractive, thick slipbox.  It includes a two-sided poster, six lobby cards, a full-color 60-page book with notes by Travis Crawford and Simon Ward and one of Arrow's standard insert cards (mine's for Why Don't You Just Die!).
So the old debate of which blu is best is now handily closed: Arrow's beats all those that came before it with a long lead.  It has the best picture, finally looking natural after all of Universal's odd experiments, the proper original audio (and the 5.1 remix, too, for those who still want that), and the fullest, most well-rounded set of extras.  It's not even missing some little thing where a die-hard collector might say, well, you might want to still hang onto your old copy...  This is a definitive, close-the-books case.  Arrow nailed it.

2 comments:

  1. I think the older Blu was over-sharpened -- the "grain" (that some argue may have been added artificially, and I might agree) becomes a noisy mess in a lot of shots, especially the fog-shrouded opening. Watched the new Blu last night and think it looks pretty great; I have a feeling this new scan of the elements without much in the way of digital processing is a much better representation of what the film should look like. It's not like it's some low-budget offering by people who didn't know what they were doing -- the film was a major studio production, and those not expecting it to look like one are crazy.

    But that's just my opinion. :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, you know, I'd believe that about grain being artificially added, too. Looking at extreme close-ups, I've seen people say they see more detail in the new scan. But to me it seems like the exact same level of detail is there, but on the older blu, the grain is actually kind of obscuring it, while on the new one you see just the actual lines of the image. ...Still, it looks a little weird to see no film grain in an HD (and apparently 6k!) scan like this.

      Delete