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!

Nailing Down Lynch's Lost Highway (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Well, having just revisited 1997's Lost Highway, I'm happy to report that it holds up just as strongly as ever.  You know, I was a little concerned with this being the bridge between David Lynch's more traditionally told narrative films (like Elephant Man and Blue Velvet), to his current style of mysterious films that ask to be deciphered (i.e. Mulholland Dr. or the current season of Twin Peaks).  I thought, looking back at this, it might come off as a bit simplistic, or a clumsy first attempt at what he's since perfected; and what was once impactful might now feel a little limp.  But no, it's still strong stuff.
That said, Lost Highway is a little simpler.  I can still see someone coming into Lynch's films cold being totally baffled by this film, but I'd say it's far easier to interpret than Inland Empire.  It's no less of a powerful work because of it, though.  The back of the Australian DVD (more on that in a minute) case describes it merely as, "the story of a killer who suffers acute schizophrenia."  For my money, that might be a little too specific a diagnosis; but that gives you the general idea.  We see a murder mystery start to unfold and then repeat, altered, with different people in each other's places.  And I'll just leave it at that, because I wouldn't want to spoil anything.
Despite being a little arch, as Lynch tends to be, with as much influence generated from old noir films as authentic human experience, the drama still lands, and the creepy imagery even more so.  I mean, that scene when Bill Pullman meets Robert Blake at the party may still go down as one of the most chilling horror scenes of all time.  Badalamenti's music plays backseat a bit this time, upstaged by some licensed songs and Lynch's always brilliant sound design, but it all adds up to a very consistent atmosphere.  And the cast is littered with greats.  Besides Pullman and Blake there's Patricia Arquette, Robert Loggia, Balthazar Getty, Jack Nance, Gary Busey, and even cameos by Richard Pryor(!) and Marilyn Manson.
Strangely, for the longest time, this film wasn't even available on a basic DVD here in America.  That's why I originally imported that aforementioned Australian DVD from Shock.  It was released in 2001 in anamorphic widescreen and with a couple interesting extras to boot.  Finally, Focus Features/ Universal issued it here on DVD... in 2008.  Barebones.  Jeez, guys, would it kill ya?  Anyway, that's still the best and only release we've gotten Stateside.  But there have been a number of additional DVDs and yes, blu-rays overseas.  The one I've got for us today is the German blu from Concorde.  Let's have a look.
2001 Australian Shock DVD top, 2008 US Universal DVD middle;
2011 German Concorde blu bottom.
All three discs are anamorphic, widescreen at roughly 2.35:1 (the US DVD is a pinch wider at 2.38:1, adding very slim slivers to the sides), and thankfully free from interlacing or other image problems.  The colors look a little bleached on the Australian DVD, and while none of these bear any stamp of having been approved by Lynch or the DP to say which is the most "officially" accurate, they appear too dark and saturated on the US DVD to my eye, with the blu seeming to pick the happy medium.  Maybe the film's truly meant to be so dark and vivid, but the US DVD crushes blacks and loses a good deal of finery for the sake of that bold choice.  There's a note on DVDCompare's page that the Shock DVD is "[s]aid to feature a less than adequate transfer," but I'd take it over the Universal.  The HD blu is naturally sharper and clearer than either of them, though, with nicely realized grain.  I was expecting more of a smudgy, grainy master, but am pleasantly surprised with how Concorde's blu looks.  Okay, maybe their blacks could be a hair darker, but that's really getting into nitpicky areas now.

Australia's Shock DVD features a 2.0 mix and no subs, while the US features a 5.1 and subtitles in English, French and Spanish.  Concorde's blu gives us the 5.1 in DTS-HD, plus a German dub, but unfortunately only has optional German subtitles.
So let's talk extras.  There isn't a whole lot to speak of, but there are some, and they're interesting.  Oh, except not in the US.  Our Universal DVD is completely barebones, they don't even throw in the trailer.  The Australian DVD doesn't have the trailer either, but it has almost 45 minutes of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage.  Pretty sweet, but Lynch fans might find it all a little familiar.  It's just footage excised from the documentary Pretty As a Picture: The Art of David Lynch.  That doc was filmed as Lynch was making Lost Highway, so while it isn't about Lost Highway per se; an awful lot of it centers around that shoot.  And Shock basically just cut out all the footage from it that pertains to Lost Highway and stuck it on their DVD as if they had five original featurettes.  But it's all taken 100% from there.  So, if you already have the film (Image released it on DVD way back in 1999), you're not seeing anything new.  Nice to have over Universal's abject nothingness, but still a little disappointing.
Concorde's interview.
Concorde doesn't have the Pretty As a Picture stuff, but it does have a few things, yes, including the trailer finally.  It also has a couple German-language bonus trailers, but more interestingly, it also has some vintage Lost Highway promo-material.  We get a five minute interview with David Lynch, seemingly shot on location, plus about ten minutes of behind-the-scenes footage, giving us a little glimpse of the film's creation.  Hearing little snippets of Lynch directing the actors could possibly help the die-hard analysts interpret a few scenes.  That's it, though; there's just those two things and the trailers.  Really not very much, under twenty minutes all together, but worth seeing for sure.
So the film's great, and the blu is a worthy upgrade of any prior edition.  There are also French and Australian blus which reportedly have even a couple extra minutes of additional promo material on them, so you might prefer one of those, but it's a slim distinction.  Supposedly Lynch has been re-acquiring the rights back to his catalog, so every month I'm hoping Criterion will announce new 4k special editions of this and and Straight Story; but it keeps not happening.  And this is a tough film not to own in your collection, so the choice is yours whether to grab one of these foreign discs or keep holding out.  But I will say, while there's always room for improvement, and certainly new special features (and deleted scenes?!), I'm not sure a 4k restoration would look all that superior to what we're seeing here.

Sorta M.I.A.: Takasha Miike's Totally Off the Wall 'As the Gods Will'

Here's a really cool flick that's unfortunately under-represented on home video: Takashi Miike's As the Gods Will from 2014.  I just stumbled upon this film while catching up on Miike's oeuvre.  He's a man who tens to make several films each year, many of which don't wind up with US releases, so it's easy to miss out on whole swathes of his work.  And frankly, while he has an obvious talent and all of his movies are masterfully crafted and at least interesting enough to be worth sitting through once, most of them don't really do it for me on a deeper level than that.  So I was really surprised when I finished watching it and realized I just had to own it on blu-ray.  And I was equally disappointed when I started searching and found out that was, for all intents and purposes, impossible.
An as much as Miike's films can be hit or miss with me, I'm really not an anime/ manga guy.  Lately, inspired by my infatuation with this film, I've been giving live action adaptations of manga a chance (because yes, As the Gods Will, is an manga adaptation), and none of them have been on this level.  Death Note was amusing - enough so that I stuck with it through all the sequels - with an intriguing premise; but it's such a silly teenage-minded movie (it's enough that a typical high school kid gets the note and we follow the drama from a teenage PoV, fine; but the FBI takes all its orders from a teenage super genius, a la Encyclopedia Brown?).  In fact, that's symptomatic of a lot of these films.  The actual titular moment of Attack of the Titans, for example, is super cool.  But then you have to sit through so much sappy, juvenile material all around it.  And don't even get me started on the sequel.
I know I'm going off on a tangent here... but what I'm getting at is that you shouldn't take a quick look at this movie's cover or trailer and write it off as just another one of "those" movies.  Because it certainly is another one of those movies: crazy supernatural shenanigans and high melodrama happening to high school students; but it's just smarter and cohesive as an piece outside of that niche subgenre.  It's written from a more mature perspective (if you can believe it, given the plot I'm about to describe) taking on the issues of teenage life, as opposed to its peers which tend to feel like they're written by teenagers.  This film almost verges on the satirical, but just grounded enough to pay homage to the original Battle Royale (one of Miike's stated intentions), while at the same time going further over the top than almost any film ever made, completely gonzo.  This has all the school-ground gore of Miike's better known Lesson Of the Evil, but is otherwise an absolutely different experience, with a far removed tone.  Far removed from the planet Earth.
So what is this film about?  Well, it's actually quite simple.  After all these years of high school students pushing through the abject boredom of school day after day, praying for something to come along and rip the roof off their thoroughly depressed lives, the gods finally answer.  High schoolers all around the world will never be bored again, in the ultimate Monkey's Paw scenario of "be careful what you wish for."  It starts with every teacher's head exploding and being replaced by a living Daruma doll that forces them into a lethal game of Red Light, Green Light, where every student caught moving at the wrong time explodes into a mass of gore and red marbles.  And that's just for starters.  In a way, it touches on the same theme as the Saw movies; but there, the metaphor never really works, because it's completely implausible that someone would come out grateful, or even a gleeful accomplice, because a stranger made them shove their arm into a meat grinder.  But here, despite the proceedings becoming almost impossibly absurd, with a giant ceramic cat bursting out of the gymnasium floor to launch its spring loaded head, eating all the students dressed in ridiculous mouse costumes, it's still a legitimate re-examination what's truly important as we cross into adulthood.  And it's loads of fun.
So you know it's sharply and compellingly directed, because it's Miike, and that's where he excels; and I've already covered the writing in spades.  But really, this is a film where everything works and comes together.  The CGI might be getting a sneaky little pass, because some of the things we're seeing aren't supposed to look naturalistic.  Instead, there's this crazy stop motion/ animated quality to the spectacle that makes any potential CGI flaw work as intentional.  But the effects look pretty solid by set of standards; clearly a lot of money was spent on this film and it pays off.  The music, sound design and the crazy voices of the various, uh, toy gods, are pitch perfect and really add to the flavor of the film.  And the acting is quite solid, too, particularly the one nasty student who's delighted about all of the carnage being inflicted on his classmates.  I'm sure this film will be just too crazy (and maybe heretical) for many people to get behind, but if you can accept this film's terms, it's pretty terrific.
I guess I'll touch briefly on the notion of a sequel, too.  It's been brought up plenty online, because there's an open-ended nature to this film, and the manga comics continue on with plenty more plot.  Now, I've never read it, only summaries and description, so take this next opinion with a grain of salt.  But it sounds like the story goes too far, even undercutting some of what was good about this film, another case of comics stretching ideas too thin and taking ideas farther than they should go.  Also, apparently this film under-performed in its home country, so it's not likely we'll see a sequel, even though Miike does put in the work to set one up (there are a few, minor characters whose appearances serve no other purpose).  So sure, if a sequel pops up, I'll give it a chance and look at it; but as far as I'm concerned right now, this is a perfect bottle story that I'd be happy to see left here. 
Now, I said this film wasn't available on blu-ray "for all intents and purposes."  That's because there is technically, a Japanese blu-ray release of this film.  Apparently, it looks great and even has some cool special features.  You can pay a ton of money to get a copy right now from YesAsia.  But unfortunately, it has no English language options.  Just the original Japanese audio and optional Japanese subtitles.  So what options do we lug-headed native English speakers have?  Not much.  There's a quasi-bootleg Malaysian DVD that's out of print (the company seems to have gone under; their website is dead, though copies are still floating around sites like EBay), and there's one legitimate DVD option available from the Hong Kong label Deltamac.  That's the one we're looking at here, today.  It's Region 3, NTSC, and has English subtitles - they even subtitle the text on the screen, which is more than the version I initially caught streaming online did.
It's good, but rather short of perfection.  Already, it's a standard definition DVD instead of a blu, and a single-layer DVD at that.  But since it's a 100% barebones release, they probably get away with the single layer alright.  At least it's anamorphic and in its proper 2.35:1 aspect ratio with nice colors.  As you can see in the shot above, though, it does have some interlacing, although it resolved surprisingly nicely in motion on my player.  Actually, the most distracting thing is that the subtitles look like garbage; like their resolution is too small so they're blocky and weird.  They're still readable, though; but it's something you'll notice and have to get past.

For audio, we're given the choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 mixes, both of which sound quite clear and strong.  The aforementioned English subtitles are optional/ removable, and there are also traditional Chinese subs as well.
So yeah, overall, it's not a bad disc, as far as plain ol' DVDs go.  And happily, you can find it quite reasonably priced on sites like EBay and Amazon.  But I'm still jealous of the native Japanese with their high-end special edition blu-rays.  We don't even get the wacky bikini trailer that totally mischaracterizes the film but is still a hoot for fans to see.  For a while, it seemed like Funimation might release this film in the US; but it's been years and the iron's gone pretty cool, so it's looking like this might be the best we get.  So stop missing out, and hey, if a better label ever wises up and gives us an HD blu with all the extras some day, it will be a pretty painless double-dip.