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.

No comments:

Post a Comment