Controversial Blus: An American Werewolf In London... Restored? (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

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.
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.  And that same year, they also released it in a limited edition steelbook.  And now, just today, they've released the Restored Edition.  I don't know, but something tells me this may not be the last time.
1) 2001 DVD, 2) 2009 DVD, 3) 2009 Blu-ray, 4) 2016 Blu-ray.
So, all four 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 defined and natural there, and 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 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.  It's just that tiny details that had previously been complicated by grain - like signs way in the background - are now easier to make out because only the real lines of the image remain.
Grain haters, welcome to your Xanadu.  This is the most successful attempt I think I've ever seen to remove grain without smoothing away the image.  And yeah, it might look a tad softer when you scrutinize the screenshots like this, but a lot of the old blu's extra sharpness is really just the myriad edges of grain.  It's a little weird to look at when you're used to seeing the natural film grain in an older film like this, and I wouldn't blame any viewer who preferred the look of the older blu.  A little less DNR on this new scan might've been ideal, and this isn't a 5-star transfer to compete with the amazing work companies like Arrow have been doing lately.  But I do think the new blu may actually be the superior image.  Plus, after all, they have also fixed that white hole in the wolfman's wrist.
For audio, the new blu pretty much gives us the same English DTS-HD 5.1 mix as the previous blu (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.  I know a number of fans were hoping for the original English mono track, but we don't get that, nor was it on the older blu.  Landis created the updated 5.1 mix himself, so I imagine there's 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 have 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.
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.
So I'd say this is the best release of American Werewolf yet, but certainly not by a large margin.  I can certainly imagine some fans will even prefer the older disc, but honestly this new look is nice and clean.  Has too much work been done on this?  I'd say so, but they were probably trying to compensate for less than stellar reviews of the older edition, when frankly, a lot of the rough edges of the picture quality may come down to the original film than anything wrong with previous blu.  So I'd say it's an upgrade, but a low priority upgrade, and fans might want to just wait for an inevitable future edition that might be even better.  What if Arrow or Umbrella were able to license this and handle the 6k scan their own way, include both audio tracks, plus create a few new features to boot?  But there's been no announcement or anything; that's just me being hopeful.  In the meantime, this Restored Edition is super cheap ($9.99 at Best Buy), so it may be hard to resist.  And it's still a solid release of a great film with a terrific set of extras in its own right; you could do a lot worse.

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. :-)

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    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.

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