Essential Upgrades: Fellini Does Horror! Spirits Of the Dead (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Everybody loves anthology horror films, and most of us can appreciate the works of film's greatest masters.  But how often do we get see the two mashed together into one super film?  Well... I'm not sure it's totally happened here either, but Spirits Of the Dead is still a pretty enjoyable, compelling piece of cinematic art.  Federico Fellini, Louis Malle and Roger Vadim come together to each direct a short Edgar Allen Poe story.  And it was released in the US on DVD by Home Vision Entertainment... but you all should really import.
Roger Vadim, probably the least well known of the three directors, is up first, and his is easily the weakest segment.  It's kind of the gateway you have to pass through to get to the rest of the film.  Vadim is the guy who did Barbarella, and in fact this film was the same year.  It also stars Jane Fonda, alongside brother Peter Fonda, and the whole thing feels like kind of a self-indulgent affair with stars changing from one unconvincing period piece to another seemingly ever minute.  Still, there is Poe at the heart of the thing, and you the dark side of the story comes through.  Jane Fonda is a selfish and debaucherous countess who thinks nothing of misusing the people beneath her until she eventually meets her cousin, Peter, who challenges her for the first time in her life.  So she kills him, steals his prize black horse, and as you can imagine, something ominous and supernatural is sure to follow.  It's not a bad story, but the presentation is such an odd mix of campy and wooden... If you've seen the recent film The Love Witch, this is definitely the type of film it was playing on.
Louis Malle is up next, with a much more respectable looking entry co-starring Brigette Bardot.  A 19th century Italian military officer races in to a confessional to admit to murdering someone who's haunted him his entire life, a sort of evil doppelganger.  This one brings in some serious acting and has a compelling atmosphere, but even if you're not familiar with Poe's writing, it feels like an old story that takes its time going to a very predictable place.  But it definitely sets you up for something more wild and unpredictable, and Fellini does not disappoint with his conclusive segment.  This really feels like a Fellini film, like Roma or Intervista, and you'll spend a good portion of this film wondering what the heck Poe wrote that could somehow connect to what's on screen.  It stars Terrence Stamp as a troubled Hollywood celebrity who's come to Italy seemingly to be celebrated by the entire country's populace.  Eventually we get to the real Poe material and the devil, but even then it feels like the point of the original story has been a little misplaced, an unimportant detail buried somewhere underneath Fellini's wild spectacle.
So Home Vision Entertainment's DVD came out back in 2001, and even for its time it was a mixed bag.  It was anamorphic widescreen and a pretty healthy looking presentation of the uncut version (there have been several trimmed VHS releases in the past).  But on the other hand, it was a French dub with English subtitles, and barebones.  But finally, in 2010, Arrow came to the rescue with a new scan of the original film elements on blu with the original Italian/ English audio track restored, and a few nice little perks to boot.
2001 Home Vision DVD on top; 2010 Arrow blu underneath.
Arrow corrects Home Vision's slightly off framing of 1.75:1 to a more natural 1.85:1, bringing in little slivers of added information around the sides.  More importantly, the color correction dials back its washed hues to reveal the natural colors underneath.  The old DVD wasn't badly compressed for such an old disc, and it wasn't interlaced or anything, but Arrow's blu naturally reveals a much cleaner, robustly detailed picture with sharper details.  Overall, it's just much more pleasant and attractive to look at.

Even more importantly, though, is that sound.  As I said, the old DVD only had a French dub with removable English subtitles.  Well, that French dub is on the Arrow, too, for completists.  But more importantly, the proper track that mixes English and Italian is here.  It's a better track throughout, but it's especially critical in the Fellini segment.  In that film, Stamp's character is out of his element, often being aggressively addressed by complete strangers in a language he doesn't understand.  Some people speak to him in English, others Italian.  But all of that is lost when the whole thing is dubbed into French; you can't tell when people are speaking his language or not.  You lose part of the story and only fully "get it" when you see the film with this track.  Oh, and yes, there are still optional English subtitles on both versions of Arrow's blu, in fact there are two sets, one for each version of the film, both of which were freshly re-translated for their release.
The 2001 DVD was barebones, too, although it did come with an insert with film notes.  And the Arrow doesn't really have any extra extras per se, either, like commentaries or interviews; but it does feature some nice inclusions relating to the presentation of the film.  In 1969, AIP added narration by Vincent Price, where he read some of Poe's "Spirits Of the Dead" poem over the credits, and that narration is available here as an option.  Again, you get the choice of audio and subtitle versions on this release, and they've included the original theatrical trailer.  It also comes with a nice, glossy, thick-spined booklet, which includes all three of Poe's original stories that these segments are based on, plus notes by Tim Lucas and Peter Bondanella.  Like most of Arrow's releases, it comes in one of those windowed slip-boxes, and includes reversible cover art with a crazy Japanese poster on the flip-side.
Admittedly, this film isn't for everyone.  It would fit more at home in the Criterion Collection than the Scream Factory line-up, with an admittedly pretentious bent compared to something like Nightmares.  It's still a fun, anthology horror film, but it's alternatively too campy, dry and then anarchic for more conventional audiences.  It's still pretty great, though.  And by all means, if you are going to get this film, make sure and get the Arrow version, not the old DVD.  And if you already have the old DVD, this is definitely one to replace.  It's even region A/B/C, so my fellow lazy Americans, you have no excuses.  😜

Stay Safe with Criterion (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Todd Haynes used to be one of my favorite current filmmakers.  And don't get me wrong, I'm still watching everything he does and enjoying his work.  But I don't know if he'll ever again reach the heights of Safe again.  He's certainly had bigger box office since then, and more Academy Award nominations.  And Velvet Goldmine was delightful.  But 1995's Safe is like his perfect moment in art, where his skill as a filmmaker rose up from his rougher earlier work to reach the peak of his screenwriting, which has frankly been feeling a little more conventional these days.
Julianne Moore also serves up one of her greatest performances as Carol, an upscale, 80s, Los Angeles housewife.  She's living the perfect, circumscribed life until she becomes... allergic to it?  She's stricken by a mysterious illness, possibly stemming from household chemicals or pollution, or...?  No one can figure it out and nobody else seems to be affected.  It seems like it might all be psychosomatic until she finds a strange, cult-like community that share the same affliction, but is she ready to to join them, and what would doing that really mean?
Safe is a beautiful looking movie, thanks to some slightly period and carefully controlled photography.  In fact, the whole film is carefully controlled, from its slow but steady pace to Carol's entire environment, where she feels like the only unpredictable element in her entire world.  It's utterly gripping as one woman's identity slowly unravels and then strangely mutates into some sickly but new life.  It's like classic Cronenberg without the overt science fiction.  And there's some ideal supporting cast choices, too, including Jessica Harper, James Le Gros from Phantasm 2, Peter Friedman and The Walking Dead's Xander Berkeley
Safe was originally released on DVD back in 2001 by Columbia Tri-Star, and it was a pretty good, if unspectacular disc for its time.  It was anamorphic widescreen with an audio commentary, so really quite satisfactory, just not the packed special edition you expect for a masterpiece.  But eventually, the universal move to HD gave us a break, and Criterion picked this up for DVD and blu in 2014.  So let's see what they were able to do for this film.  😎
1) 2001 Columbia DVD; 2) 2014 Criterion DVD; 3) 2014 Criterion blu-ray.
Both releases are framed at 1.85:1, but Criterion's new 4k scan of the original camera negative pulls out just slightly to reveal a little more information all around.  Naturally, there's a fresh sharpness to the blu.  Grain is finally clear and the HD draws out some more detail; even Criterion's DVD is clearer than the Columbia Tri-Star effort; but the most noticeable upgrade is definitely the color correction.  The old DVD has a strong red push, and Criterion returns it to a very natural timing.

The case of the 2001 DVD says it's Dolby English audio track is a stereo mix, but that's wrong; it's just a mono track in 2.0 (I've gone in to look at the waves to confirm this).  And the Criterion audio, taken from the original 35mm elements, is also 2.0 original mono, presented in LPCM on the blu.  Both versions also include optional subtitles.
So like I said, the sole extra (apart from the trailer) on the Columbia Tri-Star disc is an audio commentary; but it's quite good, featuring Haynes, producer Christine Vachon and Juliane Moore herself.  Oh, there's also a bonus trailer and an insert.  Criterion thankfully carries over the commentary and trailer, but also adds a few new features.  Haynes and Moore have a substantial, over half an hour on-camera conversation, and Vachon has her own, new on-camera interview.  There's some repetition with the commentary, but also some new things to be gleaned.  The other special feature is the DVD debut of Haynes' first short film, Suicide.  He made this when he was just a young teen, however, so it's interesting for fans, but not a seriously compelling piece like Dottie Gets Spanked.  Hardcore Haynes fans should be excited, but casual viewers can safely give it a miss.  Criterion's release also comes out with an odd fold-out poster/ booklet.  Basically, it unfolds like a big poster, but instead of a big poster image, it just has panels of text notes by Dennis Lim.
So Criterion really nails it here.  I suppose if you're just a mildly a fan, you could hang onto the DVD.  Even sixteen years later, it's still more than serviceable: anamorphic widescreen and has the most important supplement.  It's just a little red and SD.  But for those who care, Criterion's blu pushes this film forward in all the right places.  This is a film that should look great because it has a distinct, cultivated look; and the presentation here is really first class.

You've Got To Respect The Elephant Man (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

The Elephant Man is a rather unusual film for Lynch, in that it's not rather unusual.  Elephant Man's the film he made after spending years trying to find funding for his own, post-Eraserhead script and couldn't get it. So he decided to film somebody else's, more conventional script.  And fortunately for him, it turned out to be a huge success, nominated for like eight Academy Awards, and let him go back to making his own, distinct films.  Oh, and Dune.
The Elephant Man starts out with one surreal, abstract sequence, with literal elephants and super-imposed imagery.  After that, it becomes a very traditional, but excellent, bio-pic.  He went to London and worked with Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft and John Gielgud.  It's beautifully shot by Tales From the Crypt's Freddie Francis and produced by Mel Brooks.  It's very stoic in one sense, but it has a real old Hollywood feel, too.  And not just because it's in black and white.  It's the austere performances, the dark locations, it's inevitable story.  It just feels timeless, important and flawless, almost the exact opposite of Lynch's scrappy, wild excursions of self expression.  It's definitely not for anyone looking for quick, brain candy entertainment; but it's so bleak and honest that it still packs the same punch it did back in 1980.
Paramount gave this film a pretty respectable DVD debut back in 2001, anamorphic widescreen with some nice special features.  Really nothing to complain about.  But when Optimum put it out in the UK in 2008 with all new extras, well, you couldn't call yourself a Lynch fan if you weren't at least tempted to double-dip.  Well, I did.  But surprisingly, we still haven't seen it hit HD here in the states.  But Studio Canal has taken up the reigns and released it on blu in pretty much every other corner of the world.  I wound up going with their Hong Kong disc, which was a mistake as you'll see later.  But their transfer's the same on all the discs, so let's have our comparison.
Paramount DVD first, Optimum DVD second; Studio Canal blu third.
Paramount DVD first, Optimum DVD second; Studio Canal blu third.
Like I said, the even the initial DVD was pretty great.  So until you get up close, all these screenshots look pretty similar.  They're all pretty much identically framed at 2.35:1 and finely detailed.  None of them are interlaced, the colors are truly black & white (none of that weird green and purple haze that infects a lot of cheaper b&w DVDs).  They all seem to be using the same source master, but when you look at the close-up comparison, you can see how the UK DVD does smarten up the image a bit more than the older Paramount disc, which is more compressed with splotchier dark edges.  And then the blu clarifies the finer points even more.  Panning from left to right, it's like the faces are coming into focus.

Like all the Studio Canal blus, we're only given the English in 5.1, which is less than ideal for purists (after all, there's no way the original audio was in 5.1 back in 1980); but it's a pretty straight-forward mix, so it's fine.  And it's a Dolby TrueHD track, so it's uncompressed, and the English and Chinese subtitles are optional/ removable.
So why was the Hong Kong blu a mistake?  It's Region A, so it's nothing to do with that.  The problem is in the special features.  It's barebones, while the SC discs in literally every other country - France, Japan, Italy, Spain, Scandinavia, Australia, Germany, The UK - have a nice special features package.  But not, for some reason, the HK disc.  So don't make my mistake.  If you're going to spring for this blu, pick literally any of the others.

But fortunately, thanks to my old DVDs, I have a nice selection of Elephant Man special features.  The Paramount DVD has a really good, half-hour 'making of' featurette that interviews Brooks, Hurt, and several other key players.  It's pretty straight-forward, but quite good.  Then there's a brief but fascinating look at the special effects of the elephant man himself, which was taken from an actual cast of the original, real elephant man from a British museum.  That's followed by a "narrated photo gallery," where effects artist Christoper Tucker gives us a deeper look at the film's effects work.  Also included is the trailer an a nice insert with some cool artwork.
The UK DVD doesn't have any of that stuff, but what it comes up with is just as good, if not better.  First, there's a very professional, informative featurette about the real historical figure this film biographies.  But even more importantly is a very comprehensive, sit-down interview with David Lynch, the key player missing from the Paramount doc.  It's a really great, informative interview that goes through the whole process.  Finally, they have another, quite good interview with John Hurt; but it is fairly redundant if you've seen the Paramount stuff.  Oh, and the trailer's on here, too.

Now, the Hong Kong blu doesn't have jack, not even the trailer.  And while I don't own any of the other Studio Canal blus, I can tell you what's on them because I research this stuff.  A little too late in my case, but I researched it.  😆  Anyway, they have all of the Optimum extras, plus two additional interviews with Lynch (one of which is quite short).  So if you get one of those, you can forget about the UK DVD.  But the US DVD is worth hanging onto regardless, because all of those features are exclusive [except for the notorious Lime Green box; see the comments!], and feature unique interviews.
So if you're looking for a fun time, The Elephant Man may not be your bag.  Even if you're normally a Lynch fan.  But if you just like high quality films, this is certainly one.  Personally, I'd recommend importing an SC blu and then picking up the Paramount DVD used on the cheap to round it out.  Or you could wait for a US blu.  It really feels like something Criterion should've resolved years ago, and it wouldn't surprise me to see it get announced any day now with a fresh 4k scan and an all new retrospective.  But for now, this is what we've got, and it's actually quite good.

Zeder's Revenge! (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Image originally released Zeder, a.k.a. Revenge Of the Dead, on DVD in fullscreen as part of their Euroshock Collection way back in 1999.  But in 2002, when 20th Century Fox(!) reissued it in Italy in widescreen with the superior Italian audio track and removable English subs, I was very happy to upgrade.  More recently, when Code Red announced this title, I was excited at the prospect of this film making its HD debut, but only if it was the uncut version (there have been a couple budget releases - this one and this one - from a label called Cydonia missing a decent chunk of footage) with the Italian audio and English subtitles.  Thankfully, they came through.
The first thing you should know about Zeder is that the Revenge Of the Dead box art is very misleading.  If you're expecting anything Hell Of the Living Dead or Nightmare City, forget about it; zombies never crawl out of manhole covers or anything like that.  I mean, there are a couple cool scenes towards the end that you could maybe connect to the cover image at a stretch, but this is really more of a giallo with a supernatural twist than a traditional zombie film.  Gabriele Lavia is a young writer who buys a used typewriter and realizes the old ink ribbon reveals the last things the previous owner wrote with it.  This leads him into a strange conspiracy involving mysterious references to something called a "K Zone" and life after death.  Zeder is a smart, brooding film about secret messages, following clues, hidden passageways and a pool scene surely influenced by Val Lewton's Cat People, all written and directed by Pupi Avati (Story of Boys & Girls, The House With Laughing Windows).
And this is why fans cared so much about getting the original Italian audio with this film.  Yes, like almost all Italian films, it's all dubbed either way; but in Zeder's case, the Italian's a much better performed, naturalistic track.  And that wouldn't be so important for your typical Italian zombie film that's just out to dazzle you with eye candy and gut munching gore.  Heck, sometimes the bad dubbing can even add to the experience of the wilder cases; but here I think it really spoils it.  Here you've got great locations with atmospheric lighting and people that need to involve you in their struggles, not sound like cartoon characters.
All that said, I really appreciate Code Red releasing it with the Revenge Of the Dead artwork.  It's an iconic VHS cover from its day, and I have... fond? memories of renting it and falling asleep to it several times when I was too young to appreciate its craft.  And I like that Code Red's motif is to hold to those old American video days with their covers.  I mean, come on, if they're already released L'ossessa as The Eerie Midnight Horror Show, they've gotta go with "Revenge Of the Dead!"
2002 Italian Fox DVD on top; 2017 American Code Red blu on bottom.
The two discs look pretty similar, apart from the added clarity of Code Red's HD.  It still looks a little soft, which I imagine goes back to the film itself, but it definitely sharpens up the DVD and nicely clarifies all the edges.  The framing tightens in just a smidgen from about 1.82:1 to 1.78.  Despite being anamorphic, Fox's disc has a bit of window-boxing around all four sides that I'm glad the blu dispenses with.  Guys, let's never bring back TV overscan, okay?  Anyway, Code Red's packaging also specifically points out its new, exclusive color correction, and it looks quite good.  But again, it's pretty similar to Fox's DVD, just a bit more subdued, which is appropriate.  Compare the skin-tones in the comparison below to better see where they've improved things.  The "exclusive" presumably refers to a French blu-ray of this title which also just came out, but that one has no English language options, so unless you understand Italian or French, it's pretty academic.

Now, to be clear, Code Red (and the Italian DVD) does offer that inferior English dub in addition to the Italian track, if you want it.  It's nice to have as a curiosity piece if nothing else.  And yes, both releases have English subtitles.  But not everybody's entirely happy with Code Red's subtitles, so let's get into that.
2002 Italian Fox DVD on top; 2017 American Code Red blu on bottom.
There's a couple issues going on with the subtitles.  One is just the look.  Slightly outlined white vs. yellow with black bars behind them.  The first are less distracting, but the second are easier to read, which as a glasses wearer, I appreciate.  Second there are some translation differences, but I don't understand Italian well enough (or at all) to argue which are more accurate.  Code Red's subs match the English dub more closely and are likely what we foreign film fans like to call "dubtitles;" though neither version is too radically different.  And third, I think the most controversially, is the fact that the Code Red subs are captions for the hearing impaired, which means besides transcribing the dialogue, they also include sound effects like "[door opens]."  It isn't too distracting once you get used to it, though.  There isn't a "[tap] [tap] [tap]" for every footstep or anything; it's just the key sounds.  So I get why some people are a little underwhelmed, and I agree the Fox subtitles are preferable.  Like, if Code Red emailed me caps of both and asked which I thought they should go with, I wouldn't have picked the ones they went with.  But it also doesn't bother me, and I certainly wouldn't let it push me into watching the film with the English soundtrack or anything crazy like that.
If all this still has you on the fence about Code Red's blu, here's where they really pull ahead.  The Fox DVD did actually have special features.  Not a lot, but some pretty cool stuff.  Unfortunately, though, none of it had English language options.  So there's a well-edited 15 minute featurette including interviews with Avati, Lavia, producer Antonio Avati and composer Riz Ortolani, plus trailers for Zeder and House With Laughing Windows.  It's always killed me that that featurette doesn't have subtitles.

Code Red doesn't have any of that stuff, but instead come with their own special features package.  First and foremost is a terrific, half-hour interview with Pupi Avati, which you can watch either subtitled or dubbed (the latter created presumably because the subtitles on this extra, for some reason, are super tiny).  There's also a brief, but all new interview with Gabriel Lavia, and a fun Revenge Of the Dead teaser trailer which tries so hard to mislead you into thinking it's a different type of flick that it doesn't even show you any footage from the film.  The blu also includes reversible artwork, which is fitting, as you can go with a Revenge Of the Dead cover or a Zeder cover, though I'm not a big fan of their newly commissioned Zeder art (I never like these comic book-style covers the cult labels insist on going with these days), as well as a slipcover with the new Zeder art.
So look, I've read all the nitpicks, and I even agree with them; but as far as I'm concerned Code Red hit this one out of the park.  It looks great, is uncut with all the important language options and some some great extras... which for the first time ever, we can understand.  And Zeder is a really cool movie, so long as you're prepared for something subtle and calmly paced without a lot of gore or zombie action.

Sean S. Cunnignham's House 1-4 Party from Arrow (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Produced by Friday the 13th creator Sean S. Cunningham, House is one of the all-time great horror movies of the 80s; and it's been a surprisingly long time getting it to blu-ray.  But here it is, and in a beautiful boxed set with its three sequels, too.  Or, just one of its sequels if you bought the US version.  Yes, due to a little rights snafu, Arrow was able to release House 1-4 in the UK, but only parts 1 & 2 in the US.  Thankfully, in the internet age, importing is a snap, especially with the whole set being region free. So let's see how they all look, and we can compare them to the classic 2001 Anchor Bay limited edition DVD set, which included House 2 as an uncredited bonus disc.
The Great American Hero William Katt stars as a struggling author coming to grips with trauma from the Vietnam war and the loss of his young son.  Did I mention this is a comedy?  Well, it's a horror comedy that, thanks to a tight script by Fred (Night Of the Creeps) Dekker, expertly walks the line between a serious story with pathos and some great laughs.  A perfect supporting cast, including George Wendt, Richard Moll, Kay Lenz, Susan French and Bond girl Mary Stavin, some great effects and a robust soundtrack by Harry Manfredini really help to seal the deal.

Katt moves back into his haunted, childhood home when he comes to believe the answers to all his issues may be hidden within, and winds up in a taught one on one conflict with the psychological and supernatural forces alive in the house.  It's fun to see a character taking a proactive stance in a haunted house.  Where most protagonists in these films are desperately trying to escape, or inexplicably continuing to endure living there as they're inflicted with one horror after another, Katt has reason to explore and press further every time he encounters something other worldly.  The story is ambitious and imaginative, with one sequence after another tackling something new and wild. from subtle and unsettling touches to big, crazy creatures.
2001 Anchor Bay DVD on top; 2017 Arrow DVD mid; 2017 Arrow blu bottom.
So, where to begin.  Well, first I should quickly point out that the Arrow set is a combo pack, so each film has a DVD and blu-ray version included.  The Anchor Bay DVD is pretty old, but holds up fairly well, being non-interlaced, anamorphic and a generally good transfer.  But Arrow's new 2k scan of the interpositive is a lot crisper.  And whole both editions are slightly letterboxed to 1.85:1, we can see that Arrow's scan has pulled out to include significantly more information around the sides... which the second set of shots there shows (hi, boom operator!) probably isn't entirely correct.  Hellraiser 3, Creepshow 2 and this are all new scans for Arrow releases with the same issue, and they all originate from Lakeshore Entertainment, so it doesn't feel like a coincidence.  It makes you question some of their previous releases, like The Stuff, that also reframed the image with extra information, particularly on the left-hand side.  But, while there are other shots where the framing does look like it might be a bit off, the shot above is the only clear case of something included in frame that obviously shouldn't be there, and which the previous releases had cropped out.
2001 Anchor Bay DVD on top; 2017 Arrow blu bottom.
Some people online are also citing the above shot, with what looks almost certainly to be he edge of a set that wasn't meant to be seen in the upper left.  But as you can see, it's also visible in the old Anchor Bay DVD; so it might just be a gaff in the original film.  Anyway, in the dark and on a layered rooftop, it doesn't really stand out as something wrong unless you stop and look at it in a screenshot like this.  Only that boom guy's arm is a real problem; it's very noticeable and distracting, but it's just one quick, 2-second shot.  And framing aside, Arrow's beautiful new HD transfer is a pretty perfect presentation with natural grain and attractive colors.  Maybe slightly on the bright-side, but it could probably pull a clean 5-star rating if not for that one, awkward flaw.

Arrow really creams Anchor Bay in the audio department.  AB just had the mono track in 2.0, but Arrow has both the mono and a stereo mix in LPCM 2.0, plus a DTS-HD 5.1 mix.  Both Arrow and Anchor Bay included optional English subtitles/ closed captions.
Now, Anchor Bay's DVD had some pretty nice features.  First of all, it had a terrific audio commentary by Sean S. Cunningham, director Steve Miner, William Katt and co-writer Ethan Wiley.  It also had a vintage promotional featurette, 2 trailers and a stills gallery.  Happily, Arrow has ported all of that over.  In fact, their version of the promotional featurette is twice as long, making it a nearly half-hour 'making of' that gives a really good look behind the scenes.  But Arrow has also created an all-new documentary, which runs over an hour long and really tells the whole story in a fun, slick way, bringing back everybody from George Wendt to Kane Hodder.  Arrow's also added a couple more trailers and TV spots to the mix - one of which is quite interesting because it mixes in footage from Friday the 13th - plus the screenplay and Dekker's original short story as DVD-Rom bonuses.
Where House expertly walked the line between dramatic horror and comedy, House 2: The Second Story stumbles and pratfalls.  Compared to the first film, House 2 is a disappointment.  You know, people always point out how House 3, released as Horror Show in the US, is completely unconnected to the first one and not really a legitimate sequel; but that's true of this one, too.  It's all different characters coming to a totally different house which is haunted by different style ghosts (they're Western and time-traveling themed this time) for totally unrelated reasons.  It's written and directed by Ethan Wiley, who co-wrote the original; but it just doesn't have the weight of Dekker's original material.  I don't know who thought House should be mashed up with an 80s frat comedy, but here we are.
Still, taken on its own, it's an amusing horror comedy with a lot of cool effects and some entertaining sequences.  Serial 80s teen Arye Gross (remember him?) and Jonathan Stark (Fright Night's Renfield character) are two buddies who inherit an old haunted mansion.  They resurrect Arye's grandfather, an old timey Western prospector, who takes a break from enjoying modern technology to warn them that they have to guard his crystal skull from evil forces who will use it to take over the world or something.  I believe this is the first and still the only haunted house movie with dinosaurs in it!  They continue the tradition of having a co-starring role played by a cast member of Cheers with John Ratzenberger, who steals every scene he's in.  And Bill Maher also turns up to basically play himself.
2001 Anchor Bay DVD on top; 2017 Arrow DVD mid; 2017 Arrow blu bottom.
Arrow brings another fresh 2k scan from an interpositive, which really draws out the detail compared to Anchor Bay's strong but slightly drab standard def transfer.  Again, though both versions are 1.85:1, Arrow's disc finds more information around the sides, but this time it's not so extreme on the left, and I didn't spot any camera equipment or crew.  I'd say the framing's completely in the clear on this one.  The colors are a bit different (is the shirt of that dancer in the bottom right corner red or pinkish purple?), but I can't say I really prefer one disc's over the other this time around; they're just different.  Nothing controversial; just a good ol' HD upgrade.

Arrow gives us the original mono in uncompressed LPCM and another 5.1 mix in DTS-HD, where Anchor Bay again just had the mono track.  Both discs again have English subtitles/ captions as well.
Anchor Bay's House 2 also had a commentary, with Cunningham and Wiley, which was a little drier than House 1's, but very informative.  But apart from the trailer, that was it.  Well, Arrow again ported those extras over, but have also made another, brand new, hour long retrospective documentary, with all the lead actors (though, disappointingly, no Ratzenberg, and of course no Maher) and crew.  If you're a fan, man, these docs are great.  Plus, they've included another vintage featurette, a stills gallery and a TV spot.
So now we come to The Horror Show, the somewhat unofficial entry.  Yeah, there's no direct connection to the previous two films, but it's another Sean Cunningham produced, Manfredini scored story about a man against a haunted house.  This one definitely takes a darker tone, though, feeling much more like a New Line franchise horror flick, about a nasty serial killer who comes back with supernatural powers.  This time we've got Lance Henrickson as a tough cop (I mean, it's Henrickson, what other kind of cop could he play), who captures Brion James, who's quickly executed.  But he comes back to find Henrickson's house and terrorize his family.  This one's essentially a straight horror, as opposed to a horror comedy, except it's a victim of the Freddy one-liner influence, plus a couple of the surreal fantasy-horror sequences are hard to take seriously (in the film's most famous scene, his face grows out of the Thanksgiving turkey on the family's dinner table).  I liked this a lot more as a kid than I do now, and the fact that the script is credited to Alan Smithee should tell you all you need to know.  But it still has some cool effects and gross-out moments that make it still worth a casual viewing with tampered expectations.  If you're a horror fan who just wants to see another horror film, you'll be satisfied.
R-rated cut on top; unrated version below.
Now, with this film, we also have to talk about cuts.  Like many 90s horror flicks, there was a theatrical R-rated cut and an uncensored unrated version.  Scream Factory put The Horror Show out on blu in 2013 (the first release it had gotten in the USA since VHS), but unfortunately theirs was the R-rated version.  Movie-censorship.com has the full-break down of all the differences here, but in brief, it's a bunch of little cuts that don't even add up to two minutes, but definitely remove a lot of the limited fun this film has to offer; so seeing this unrated is crucial.  And yes, Arrow has given us the unrated version.  And they threw in the R-rated cut, too, which I respect.  But it has exactly one shot that's unique to that version (above), so really it's for completists only; just watch the unrated cut.
Top to bottom: R-rated DVD, unrated DVD, R-rated blu, unrated blu.
So the R- and un-rated transfers both use the same master, but I've included comparison shots of both versions, because I can be a completist, too.  😉  In this case, Arrow used the same 2k scan of the interpositive as supplied by MGM that Scream used, but then used another MGM 2k scan of a different interpositive for the unrated footage, which they then cut back into the first one, and color corrected to match them.  Again, letterboxed to 1.85:1, it's pretty seamless and maybe a little soft (degrained a bit?), but generally looks great.

Now, I don't have the Scream disc, hence no comparison, but I do know it had a nice DTS-HD track of the stereo mix, but disappointingly, no subtitle options.  Arrow gives us the stereo mix in LPCM and a DTS-HD 5.1 mix, and does include English subtitles.
Scream Factory created a nice little set of extras for this film: a good audio commentary with Cunningham and some fun on-camera interviews with Kane Hodder and actress Rita Taggart (she played the mom), plus the trailer.  How do I know they were good if I don't have the SF disc?  Because Arrow ported them all over.  Plus, they've added a new featurette interviewing the three KNB guys about their effects work in this film, over 20-minutes of behind-the-scenes footage, workprint trimmings (essentially two takes of a deleted scene, and a bonus glimpse of one of the film's coolest gore effects) and a stills gallery.  Plus, there's a cool easter egg, where they interview actor Terry Alexander.  Terry sounds really fond of his experiences with this film, but it's super short, which I assume is the only reason they hid it away.  So this is easily the definitive release of this film: the complete, uncut version, more audio/ subtitle options, and more special features.  If you're a fan of this film, you need this set.
Finally, we come to House 4, the only true sequel to the original, with William Katt returning as Roger Cobb.  But that's almost the only thing this film has going for it.  It's back to being a horror comedy, but swings even further into the goofy comedy side than House 2; and it's really, really cheesy.  Cobb refuses to sell his family home because of some oath his grandfather swore, so he and his new family move in, and of course it's still haunted and up to no good shenanigans.  This time there's also some goofy real-estate mafia guys on their case, trying to force them to sell; and it feels like a children's film half the time.  But then a woman still gets covered in blood in her shower, so I don't really know who this film is for.  Anyway, there's also an old Indian wise man who just so happens to be a friend of the family, and a subplot about dumping toxic waste.  Jim Wynorski was one of the credited writers.  Honestly, I think most people just remember this film for the talking pizza scene.
2017 Arrow DVD on top; 2017 Arrow blu-ray below.
This film was made for the direct-to-video VHS market, and a few shots make me wonder if this was composed for fullscreen.  But it's been released in 1.85:1 before, and most of it looks right.  This film definitely has the weakest picture quality, with the blu barely distinguishable form the DVD for large sections, but I'm sure that's down to the original film, not anything wrong that Arrow's doing.  It's another fresh 2k scan, this time of an internegative (actually, that's probably the root of the difference).  Daylight scenes look better than the dark ones, which can get pretty splotchy and light on detail.  I'm sure this film has never looked better, though, and probably never will.

Again, we get both LPCM 2.0 stereo and DTS-HD 5.1 tracks, plus optional English subtitles.
I was more interested in getting Arrow's new documentary about House 4 than the film itself, so it's disappointing that this one's only half an hour.  But it's still quite good, talking to all the stars, Cunningham, and yes, Hodder again.  And we also get another audio commentary, which interestingly, was recorded by Blue Underground, and this time is by director Lewis Abernathy.  He's quite a character, so he makes for an amusing commentary, especially with some good prodding from the moderator.  There's even a cameo by (no foolin') James Cameron; so definitely don't skip this commentary.  Finally, there's the trailer and a slideshow.  So yeah, it gets a little shorter thrift, but it's still a nice bunch of extras, surely way more than it would ever have gotten in any other context, and probably more involving than the film itself.

Now let's talk about the box, because it's terrific.  Anchor Bay's old DVD had liner notes hidden on the inside of the cover art (what a weird, brief practice that was), plus two nice, cardstock inserts.  But Arrow nukes that.  The box is nice and solid, and each blu case includes reversible cover art.  There's an insert with notes on the transfers.  It all looks great.  But Holy Camolie, look at that book!  It's 148 full color pages, hardcover(!), written by Simon Barber.  Besides his writing, it contains all the press kit materials from the four films and tons of artwork, including close-ups of the crazy paintings depicted in the first film, foreign cover art, and pretty much everything really.  It's beyond extensive.  This is one attractive set.
So do I recommend Arrow's set?  Oh gosh, yes!  Even despite me not being a huge fan of some of these films, the top notch presentation and the special features linking everything together makes this a must-have.  I wish Arrow would offer a replacement program for their framing issues; but I certainly wouldn't let it put me off this awesome set.  The original House is a truly great horror film, and the rest are at least a fascinating extension of its legacy; and digging into all the extras has been a blast.