Ghostkeeper, Back To Haunt You (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Code Red has rapidly been re-releasing their DVD catalog onto blu (and I really hope they don't stop before they get to The Carrier!), the latest of which is the atmospheric Canadian horror Ghostkeeper.  And just to amuse myself, I decide to change the format of this review a little bit as a throwback to my coverage of Redeemer, my very first DVD/ Blu-ray comparison on this site, which was another unusual Code Red quasi-slasher.

1981's Ghostkeeper is in a lot of ways, a low budget version of The Shining.  Three characters get snowed in at a giant, closed down lodge, only to suspect that they may be sharing the space with some unearthly staffers.  And like The Shining, it's a question right up to the end of how much of the menace is supernatural, and how much of it is their mental health and them being a danger to themselves.  But it's not only akin to Kubrick's film in terms of premise.  Like The Shining, Jim Makichuk's film is a slow burn, getting a lot of mileage out of a terrific location and surrounding snowy landscapes.  And as with that film, the bulk of the weight is placed on the dramatic performances rather than effects or shocks.  Not that this cast is quite on par with Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duval, but they're pretty strong for virtual unknowns; and the film veers far enough away that this film manages to stand on its shadow as something different and more than just a Shining knock-off.
2012 Code Red DVD on top; 2017 Code Red blu below.
Despite the back of the blu-ray case claiming 1.85:1, both versions are 1.78:1.  But there's more going on here than just the same master being upgraded to blu.  The original 2012 30th Anniversary DVD gave us a "brand new master from the only surviving 35mm print," and the new blu describes itself as a "2016 HD Scan of the only surviving vault element."  Looking at the framing, you can tell it's a new scan because it has slightly altered framing (the blu is pulled out just a smidge further).  That "vault element," though, appears to be the same print as the DVD, as it shares a lot of the same print damage.  But then again, a lot of the print damage has been cleaned up, and as you can see in the second set of shots, a few bits of damage are unique to the blu-ray transfer.  In short, though, the blu-ray is a lot cleaner with substantially less chemical marks, dirt, scratches and pops in the soundtrack than the DVD had.

While the HD naturally sharpens some softness and clarifies edges (grain is very natural here), there isn't a whole lot of new detail pulled out of this fresh scan.  The biggest difference you'll notice between the two versions is actually the color timing.
DVD left; blu-ray right.
The DVD has a definite greener push that the blu-ray corrects.  Hey, just like with Redeemer!  The green push wasn't quite as bad on the Ghostkeeper DVD, but it's still a pretty pronounced difference comparing the two formats.  The white of the snow makes it pretty obvious and easy to spot the difference, but actually it plays an even more important role in the dark scenes, of which there are many.
DVD left; blu-ray right.
This movie has some issues with the black levels.  I'm not sure if it's due to the aged print or if they just had trouble shooting it, but a lot of this film is super dark, and in order to see what's going on, the filmmakers clearly brightened the shots to the point where the blacks are very grey.  And on the DVD, they often looked downright yellow.  So the blu's new color timing really makes the film look better in these scenes.
DVD left; blu-ray right.
In the regular daytime scenes, it's not such a critical difference.  In fact, there are a handful of shots where I might've actually preferred the DVD's colors.  But very rarely.  For the most part, it's a consistent, solid improvement.  In fact, if anything, I think they could've taken it further.
DVD left; blu-ray right.
To be fair, the above is the worst shot in the movie, and it never again looks quite this bad.  But the blu-ray's colors here just barely help.  It can be a tricky line, deciding when it's okay to tamper for a DVD label to tamper with a film's look in a creative way, versus just presenting it accurately, warts and all.  But I can't help but think a label like Synapse might've been brought down the darks in scenes like this.  Pre-digital, it would've been a lot harder, but these days, you can really pull down the darks without necessarily darkening the whole shot and losing what image there is.  Seeing Ghostkeeper with genuine blacks - and blacks that match shot to shot - would really help the film, I think.  If they had access to the original negatives, none of this would likely be an issue anyway.  But as it is, even for a transfer taken from a print, it still feels like we're watching a slightly damaged product here.
On the other hand, the film's opening text has been really neatened up.
Unlike Redeemer, Code Red's DVD of Ghostkeeper had some terrific extras, and thankfully they've all been carried over.  There's an excellent audio commentary with the writer/director and the two main protagonists, Riva Spier and Murray Ord.  Then both versions list a "featurette" on the case, but really give us two separate interviews, one with co-star Georgie Collins (the ghostkeeper herself), and an audio-only one that plays as a sort of mini-audio commentary over select footage by the DP, John Holbrook.  Both versions also include a couple bonus Code Red trailers (including Cut & Run on the blu).  But the blu-ray adds something new to the mix, too.  An opening scene that was tacked onto the home video release of this film, depicting an unrelated character getting chased and killed, presumably by the Windigo, outside the lodge.  It's clearly just taken from a video source, full-frame and interlaced; and the director never wanted this scene added to his film.  But it's very cool to get to see it as a special feature.
So the blu-ray is a nice upgrade of a nice little film.  It still's not quite showroom floor material, but it's probably the best Ghostkeeper will ever look, and I'm really glad Code Red stuck on that alternate opening.  I was on the fence about upgrading this one when it was announced, because the DVD isn't that old and still looks pretty good.  But I'm glad I bit the bullet.  It's not the 100% ideal restoration I was picturing in my dreams with natural, silky shadows, but it's a nice improvement.

M.I.A.: The Best Unreleased Horror Anthology, The Willies

To be clear, I'm not saying The Willies is the best horror anthology ever.  I'm not saying it's a greater artistic achievement than Tales From the Crypt, Black Sabbath or Creepshow.  But I am saying it's the best horror anthology yet to be released (and no, the Echo Bridge DVD doesn't count, for reasons you're about to see); and even more than that, I'd say it's better than a lot of the amusing but weaker anthology flicks we've been enjoying from labels like Scream Factory and Code Red lately, i.e. After Midnight, Nightmares, Encounter With the Unknown or Screams of a Winter Night.  Those are all fun, but The Willies is more fun.  I think some people are put off by the fact that it's PG-13.  It's even been packaged with children's films.  But that is just flat out wrong.  The Willies is actually the darkest and most twisted of all the films I've mentioned so far.  Its low budget does show, but apart from that, it's a kick.
The Willies is written and directed by none other than Scuz of Return Of the Living Dead fame, Brian Peck (and for those of you whose hands just shot up in the air, I know, and I'll come back to that).  And it's pure EC Comics: entertaining and gross stories of human weakness culminating in twist endings, poetic justice and monsters.  It's got a simple but effective wrap-around where a bunch of kids - including Samwise himself, Sean Astin - out camping at night telling each other spooky stories.  Then the structure gets a little unusual.  Instead of an film evenly divided into three or four stories, they build up in length.  So we start with little short vignettes: i.e. an old lady's poodle gets wet and she decides to dry it off by putting it in the microwave.  That's it; runs about two minutes, but it does set a more honest tone of the kind of stories kids would tell each other.  Then you've got a standard-length story about a kid who finds a monster in the school bathroom, reminiscent of Stephen King's tiger story in Skeleton Crew.  Then, finally there's a surprisingly long story that takes up more than half the film's running time.  Fortunately, it's pretty great; about a maladjusted kid who makes dioramas out of flies.
One thing that helps set this 80s anthology apart from many of its peers, besides its writing, is it's excellent cast.  The kids give surprisingly strong performances for unknown child actors, and some dependable veterans show up in supporting roles, including fellow Return Of the Living Dead alums James Karen and Clu Gulager, Twin Peaks' Kimmy Robertson and Dana Ashbrook, Kathleen Freeman and a whole bevy of television sitcom and character actors, including Kirk Cameron and Tracey Gold in one of the most surprising, how-were-they-able-to-clear-that? cameos in horror history.  Every minor role has an extensive resume, though you'd have to have been watching television in the 80s to recognize most of them.  But even if you don't, it still gives the production a solid, professional air that's only countered a bit by the film's special effects.  And it just has some weird vibes.  For example, you've got a farmer dressed up like something out of Hee-Haw, suggesting they're trying to make a safer Goosebumps-like "entry horror" film for younger audiences, but then it's mixed with more adult sensibilities.  I actually kind of like this unusual mix-match of tones, but then it's genuinely disturbing when you let yourself consider who made it.
Alright, ugh.  I guess let's just address this now and get it over with.  I'm a big believer in separating the art from the artist and have zero interest in celebrity gossip or the filmmakers' personal lives.  But whenever I see fans on forums wondering why we haven't gotten a decent special edition of The Willies yet, it's hard not to assume at least part of the reason is that the film's writer/ director is a convicted child abuser.  Now, admittedly, we still get plenty of quality Polanski discs, and nobody seems to be boycotting the X-Men movies, but Scream got some blow back recently with their Jeepers Creepers editions, and frankly, I can't exactly say those reactions are unwarranted.  So I would still like to see this film get a quality release.  After all, it represents the work of a whole ton of talented artists who never did anything to anyone, and again, if we can get fancy blus of everything from Chinatown to Dark House, and Scuz can host the More Brains documentary, there's no reason to single The Willies out.  But you can certainly understand why DVD artisans don't rush to this one as opposed to any catalog title.
So The Willies isn't technically unreleased, but as you've been seeing in the screenshots, what we've got looks like a fuzzy, old VHS tape.  It's an old barebones DVD from Echo Bridge, and they've reissued it many times, but it's always just a repackaging of the same product.  There's the standard solo disc, the aforementioned Kid-Approved Collector's Set, a version paired up with a film called Under Wraps, and a version that comes with a CD of scary sounds.  I kind of regret not going for the one with the CD.  But as far as The Willies itself, there's really only one option, and it's not pretty.
2008 Echo Bridge DVD
So yeah, it's a boxy ol' 1.31:1 fullscreen transfer.  It doesn't look terribly well shot, with lots of flat, boring close-ups; but maybe seeing the film restored would fix that to some degree.  It wouldn't be the firts horror film people assumed was shot poorly due to a terrible transfer.  But for now, it's just ugly on top of ugly.  And let's see, what else can we throw at it to make it be worse?  Interlacing?  Yes, it's got that, too.  But hey, the picture's so soft, it almost smudges that out.  Um, yay?  Also the colors are faded with plenty of grey blacks.  The audio's not as fuzzy as you might expect looking at the screenshots, but it's not exactly high fidelity.  And of course there are no subtitle options, alternate audio mixes or special features of any kind.  No trailers, no nothin'.  This is as no frills as it gets.
On the upside, these discs aren't exactly rare.  They're all over the place, plentiful and cheap as dirt.  Unfortunately, that's not all they have in common with dirt.  These are nothing more than place holders and they've been holding this film's place long enough.  Somebody's got to come around and restore this film already; it's killin' me!

The Great Woody Allen Anamorphic Project, Part 2 (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

...And we're back, finishing up the project started in Part 1 to replace every non-anamorphic Woody Allen DVD by importing our little hearts out.  Anyway, I explained all that to death already in the last post, so let's just jump right back into it with our next afflicted film, 1995's Mighty Aphrodite.

This is the film where Mira Sorvino controversially won her Academy Award.  Not that she isn't great in the picture, but this and Marisa Tomei's win for My Cousin Vinny are such silly, campy performances it's hard to place them alongside the greatest dramatic turns in cinema history.  Allen was also nominated for best original screenplay for this film, which makes a lot more objective sense.  It's one of his sillier comedies, although not quite to the degree of his early work, like Bananas, with Allen back in the leading role. 
He plays a sports writer married to Helena Bonham Carter and they've adopted a son.  Peter Weller (Robocop, Naked Lunch) plays a wealthy socialite with an eye for Carter, threatening their marriage, and Allen begins to wonder about the true mother of their son.  She turns out to be a prostitute (Sorvino), but overcome by feelings of familial bond, Allen feels compelled to help her reorganize her life, which includes rescuing her from a violent pimp and setting her up with Michael Rapaport.  But can he really help, or is his meddling just going to bring everybody to ruin?  Oh, and by the way, keep your eyes open for a small, pre-fame role by Paul Giamatti.
If you don't catch the Greek tragedy elements of the plot as it develops, Allen makes it perfectly clear by including an authentic Greek chorus into the film... even going so far as to film them in the original outdoor theater of Syracuse.  Lead by F. Murray Abraham, the chorus comments on the story just as they would in their ancient theater, and they also serve to introduce multiple classic Greek characters into the film including Cassandra, Oedipus Rex and his parents (played by David Ogden Stiers and Olympia Dukakis), and Jack Warden as the oracle Tiresias.  You don't have to be familiar with the great tragedies to follow or appreciate this film, but you'll get more of the jokes if you are.  😉
Well, if you're with us since Part 1, you can already guess the entire situation.  Mighty Aphrodite has only been released once in America, all the way back in 1999, on a barebones, non-anamorphic DVD from Miramax/ Buena Vista.  even in 2017, that old disc is all we've got.  But thankfully, we've got options overseas.  The Planet Media 2013 Woody Allen Collection box set I've been leading us through provides a much nicer, anamorphic transfer from Germany.  And yes, it even has extras, too.  And several blu-rays have been released in different countries like Japan, Germany, France, and in the case of the one I've got, Sweden by way of Atlantic Film.
Buena Vista US 1999 DVD top; Planet Media 2013 German DVD middle;
Atlantic 2011 Finnish blu-ray bottom.
Wow, what a difference!  The original DVD looks like literal garbage, as if the print had been scraped up out of the inside of a dumpster, compared to the newer discs.  First of all, it's non-anamorphic: a tiny picture swimming in a sea of wasted space, which is what this pair of posts is all about, after all.  But it's not just that.  The picture is flat and dark, with muted colors.  Flipping between the shots of the chorus in Italy, there, it looks like someone's turning a light switch on and off.  Framing-wise, the two newer discs are both open to 1.78:1, which might be technically inaccurate, and in a perfect world would be slightly matted to 1.85:1.  But the 1999 DVD is just as off at 1.82:1, and missing not just vertical slivers, but along the sides as well.  Detail is missing on the old disc as well, but it's hard to tell if it's due to black crush or just low resolution.  I mean, the difference is so obvious in the pictures, it feels absurd spelling out all the ways the newer version has improved upon it.

Audio-wise, the Buena Vista gives us the mono track in 2.0, while Planet Media gives us the stereo mix in Dolby Digital 2.0, and the blu goes back to the mono.  About the only thing the US disc has going for it is that it also includes optional, English subtitles, while Planet Media just has German and Atlantic has Swedish, Danish, Finnish and Norwegian.
What I really enjoy about this Planet Media box are the special features.  The US DVD has nothing, not even an unrelated bonus trailer.  And the same goes for the Atlantic blu-ray.  But the German disc has the trailer - albeit in German, the other Allen German-language trailers, and most excitingly, an interview with Mira Sorvino.  And yes, it's entirely English-friendly.  In fact, strangely, it doesn't even have German subtitles - it's not German-friendly!  But for us, it's a nicely edited interview that runs for just over twelve minutes, talking about her Oscar win, shooting with Allen, and even demonstrating how and why she created the character's infamous voice.  Too bad it's not on the blu.
Now, these next two films are anamorphic on their original US DVDs.  But they're in the Planet Media box, I've got both discs to compare against each other, so I've decided to be thorough and cover everything.  1997's Deconstructing Harry, in fact, is basically in the same situation as Sweet and Lowdown.  There are no blus of it anywhere in the world, possibly because the old DVD master was anamorphic, so there was less pressure to strike up a new one that could then be released in HD.  And also in keeping with Sweet and Lowdown, New Line's 1998 DVD is still completely barebones, but a double-sided disc with a fullscreen side on the flip.
And for the record, Deconstructing Harry's great.  Allen plays a writer going through a midlife crisis.  His family life's been steadily apart, but suddenly made worse by the fact that his new novel airs everybody's dirty laundry.  During the course of this drama, we also sporadically cut to his writings brought to life as insight into his character.  It practically turns into an anthology, telling us one little story after another, each of which ultimately comment on the Harry, but could almost stand alone as short films.  And this gives Allen the opportunity to pack this film with movie stars, even moreso than Everyone Says I Love You, because the individual segments rate their own separate casts.  So for just a few minutes we have Robin Williams star as an actor who can no longer work because he's physically, personally gone out of focus, and he's married to Julie Kavner, and it's a whole film-within-a-film.  We wind up with an amazing cast including Tobey Maguire, Judy Davis, Richard Benjamin, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Elisabeth Shue, Stanley Tucci, Eric Bogosian, Bob Balaban, Kirstie Alley, Mariel Hemingway, Demi Moore, Amy Irving, oh and Paul Giamatti again.  There's even a scene where Harry goes to Hell to confront the devil (played by Billy Crystal) with a depiction of the fiery underworld straight out of This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse.  It's delightful!
New Line 1998 US DVD widescreen side top;
New Line 1998 US DVD fullscreen side mid; 2013 Planet Media DVD bottom.
Yup, unsurprisingly, the 1998 and 2013 DVDs look virtually identical.  There's not even a Sweet and Lowdown difference with the colors or anything.  And the fullscreen is interesting to look at, but it is the wrong aspect ratio, so nothing desirous.  It's pan and scan (see how the second set of shots crops both sides evenly, but the top set pans more of the left, to keep the kids on the right completely in shot), adding a little at the top and bottom but cropping a bunch off the sides, going from about 1.81:1 (you'll notice an odd window-boxing around the widescreen versions, common in really old DVDs, presumably to not waste the overscan areas of old TVs) to 1.32:1.  It's not a bad transfer, so you can see why they felt they could reuse it in 2013.  But you can also see why they couldn't just slap that onto a blu, which is why it's still a DVD-only title all around the world.

We haven't had a New Line DVD in this pair of posts yet, but they behave just like Buena Vista and Columbia Tri-Star.  In this case: English mono in 2.0 with a French dub, plus English, French and Spanish subs.  And again, Planet Media gives us both the English and German mono in 2.0 with optional English subs.  This time, unfortunately, Planet Media has no special features for us apart from the German language trailers... though, again, that's still more than we got in America.
Small Time Crooks is just a funny film.  It's definitely a crowd pleaser, in fact one that won him back some of his mainstream audience that he'd lost for a long time between his personal scandals and stretch of "artsier" films.  It takes it's starting premise from an old Edward G. Robinson film called Larceny, Inc, where a small group of criminals (in this case Woody Allen, Jon Lovitz, Michael Rapaport and Tony Darrow) buy a store next to a bank so they can tunnel into the vault, but are taken by surprise when their cover business becomes a huge success.  Soon they've got three quarters of a tunnel dug, but they're making more money through their store, which winds up becoming a chain!  But where Larceny focuses on this fun conflict for the entire film, Crooks just uses that to launch off into a whole second act where these low class criminals and their wives now try to fit into upscale society.  Allen's wife, Tracy Ullman hires Hugh Grant to teach them how to be aristocratic, and Allen becomes disillusioned with their new lives and wants to go back to thieving.  Larry Pine, Elaine Stritch and a particularly funny Elaine May also co-star.
The reason Small Times Crooks is anamorphic is probably because its the newest of these films, hitting DVD from Universal in 2000.  And that's still the only US release, but besides being in the Planet Media box, unlike Deconstructing Harry and Sweet and Lowdown, it's also available on blu in different parts of the world, including Japan, France, Norway and Germany.  But those blus can't be using a 2000 master, can they?  Surely, there must be a difference between the 2000 and 2013 DVDs, right?  Well, let's have a look-see.
Universal 2000 US DVD top; Planet Media 2013 German DVD bottom.
Ee-yup.  While they're not worlds apart - if you don't bother to click and view these shots fullscreen, you might not even notice the difference - there is a noticeable upgrade in the new disc.  Both discs are framed at 1.78:1, but the Planet Media DVD includes a sliver more around all four sides.  The colors are reasonably similar, but when you get in close, you can see all that ugly artifacting all over the shop, which is cleaned up on the newer disc.  There's also some edge enhancement on the old transfer that the new one thankfully doesn't employ.  So the improvement is there, and it surely looks a bit clearer and sharper still on the blus.  But it's not one of those night and day transformations.

Universal gives us the original mono track with optional English subtitles, while Planet Media gives us the same audio, plus a German dub, and the optional German subtitles.
Where Planet Media really comes through, once again, is the extras.  Universal did give us the trailer this time, and Planet Media has it, too - in both English and German.  But the much bigger deal is a 20-minute on-camera interview with Woody.  It's 100% in English, with removable German subtitles.  As you know, it's pretty rare to get an interview from him, and at twenty minutes, he gets to go pretty in-depth, telling us all sorts of interesting things, like how he'd first cast Tracy Ullman in Bullets Over Broadway, but then cut her out of it.
Finally, we come to Wild Man Blues.  This isn't a film by Woody Allen, but a documentary about him.  And was this not released anamorphically in the USA?  It sure wasn't - it's never been released here at all!  So yes, it's in the Planet Media Woody Allen Collection I've been featuring so prominently in these posts.  But I've also picked up another import version of it to compare it to.  And you'll see, it shows a pretty interesting distinction.
Admittedly, Wild Man Blues isn't the most compelling film.  Many mainstream viewers were probably hoping for a tawdry expose of the scandals in his personal life, or at least some kind of legal drama on the subject.  And fans would've just been happy with a look at his lifetime of work.  We eventually did get something like that with a much more recent documentary in 2011, but at the time, Allen wasn't interested in participating in a project of either type.  So all we could get was a documentary about his jazz music, following him around as he toured Europe with his clarinet.  It's not a bad doc as far as that goes, celebrity gossip fiends did at least get a dose of Soon-Yi, and there's a charming scene at the end with Allen and his parents.  But by and large it's a fairly standard tour documentary (every band and comic has one these days), where the main question of appeal will just lie in how interested you are in footage of him playing various jazz concerts.
So, like I said, this film's never been released on DVD in the USA at all.  But it did enjoy a brief run in Canada from Alliance Atlantis in 2005.  That disc's long out of print, though, and goes for over $200 on Amazon.  But I've got it for us today for our comparison.  And also I've got it in Planet Media's 2013 box set.  It's been released a couple of other times overseas, but never in HD.  There's a French blu-ray box set which includes it, but it's just standard def on there, too.  So you might assume, okay, all those import DVDs are probably identical, then, but no.  Have a look.
Alliance Atlantis 2005 Canadian DVD top; Planet Media 2013 German DVD bottom.
First of all, the Canadian DVD is non-anamorphic!  Thought I'd end this Anamorphic Project without a film that didn't have an anamorphic problem?  Not on your life; I'm a pro!  On top of that, the two discs are in completely different aspect ratios.  The Canadian disc is 1.66:1, and the US disc is 1.32:1.  Looking at them, I'd say the 1.66 is correct (or at least more correct) of the two, though it's essentially a trade between losing vertical or horizontal information.  Also, look, the German DVD is interlaced!  Boo.  This is the only disc in the set with an interlacing problem; in fact, it's the only disc we've looked at across this series of posts with an interlacing problem.  So that's disappointing.  So basically, the two discs are very different, and both suck, with a unique set of problems.  I guess I'd recommend the German disc as the lesser evil, unless you're still rocking an old school 4x3 TV.

Both discs feature the same audio track in Dolby Digital 2.0.  The Alliance Atlantis disc has optional English and French subtitles, while the Planet Media disc has German subs.  The German disc has no special features except for the German language trailers, and a trailer for Wild Man Blues is not among them.  The Canadian DVD is also completely barebones without even a trailer.  So pick your loser, pretty much.  Or maybe try rolling the dice on another international DVD.  The UK has a DVD box set with Wild Man Blues in it, and that French blu-ray set I mentioned.  Good luck.  It's probably not a film you'll revisit much anyway.
So there you go!  Follow along with this discs covered in this project, and you will have successfully expunged every non-anamorphic Woody Allen DVD from your collection.  You could track down that one German Woody Allen Collection like I did, and take care of it all in one quick and affordable swoop (I found that option tempting mainly for the extras, personally), or you can go hard and collect all the blu-rays from around the world.  But however you go about it, now every serious Woody Allen fan can finally stop foot out of the 20th century.  Every other film of Woody Allen's, from What's Up, Tiger Lily to Melinda and Melinda is already available here in the US at least anamorphically, if not HD.  These were the hold-outs; and imports have finally rendered them obsolete.