Controversial Blus: Dead Ringers (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Man, it's a real shame this had to be a "Controversial Blu."  I mean, first of all, it's a shame when any blu is controversial, because it means it's got dissatisfied fans.  And it's a shame because David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers is a terrific film.  And it's more of a shame because there aren't any better import or alternative options (we'll get into that a bit more later).  But it's particularly a shame in this case because Scream Factory seem to have gone above and beyond in order to make sure that this was as satisfying and un-controversial as possible, going so far as to include two alternate transfers on two separate discs, just to please everybody.  Unfortunately...
Dead Ringers is pure Cronenberg in all the best ways.  It draws in all the influences and techniques grown out of his earlier horror work and pushes them into a genuinely affecting human drama.  Much of his later, dramatic work strays too far from his established energies; and while I can certainly empathize with his desire to shift into more mature work than wild splatter of his early career, it winds up feeling like predictable, bland journeyman fare.  Not only is his spark still here, it's a crackling electrical storm of lethal energy.  As Cronenberg moved from one stage of his career to the next, this was the perfect medium, the best of both worlds.
Jeremy Irons plays twin gynecologists (and yes, on a technical level, this was a film that blazed new special effects ground) who struggle to deal with the changes as they grow apart.  But as great as Irons is in a showy dual role, Geneviève Bujold steals the show as the catalyst for destruction, an actress who loves one twin but not the other.  The film has some nightmarish imagery but ultimately follows the path of the real life Marcus twinsHoward Shore delivers a powerful score that rather anticipates the music he'd later create for The Lord Of the Rings, and Scanners star Stephen Lack pops in for a very cool cameo.
So let's get into it.  Anchor Bay originally put Dead Ringers out as a barebones, non-anamorphic widescreen (1.66:1) DVD back in 1998.  It was basically a port of Criterion's laserdisc, and they put out their own edition (same transfer, but now with lots of special features), later that same year.  When their rights reverted to Warner Bros, they put out a new edition, mis-framed at 1.78:1 with new extras, but losing the Criterion ones.  And then that Warner Bros 1.78 transfer started turning up on blu-ray in later years, in France, Australia and Russia; and they were always also interlaced with lossy audio ...though still a decent upgrade in terms of clearer HD at least.  Finally, Scream Factory came around last year to release what should've been the ultimate, definitive edition, with that same Warner Bros 1.78 transfer from the other blus (but thankfully no longer interlaced), and a brand new 2k scan of the interpositive, framed back in the director's preferred aspect ratio of 1.66 on disc two.  ...But if their new transfer is so great, why bother with the old one?  Just for people who fell in love with the 1.78 framing?  And why stick their superior new transfer on disc 2 instead of 1?  Now I'm starting to worry about this new 2k scanner, something seems fishy here, doesn't it?
1) 1998 Criterion DVD 2) 2005 Warner Bros DVD
3) 2016 Scream Factory blu disc 1 4) 2016 Scream Factory blu disc 2
Honestly, this is one of those cases that makes you want to just drop your head on the desk and stop thinking about it.  But I'm pushing forward to get to the bottom of everything.  So, let's start with aspect ratios.  The Criterion disc is technically more like 1.64:1, but despite being a lower resolution, non-anamorphic framing, is attractively framed.  I think now's the right time to point out not only that Criterion's DVD (and their laserdisc) says right on the packaging that 1.66 is "David Cronenberg's preferred framing," but that their transfer was approved by both Cronenberg and director of photography Peter Suschitzy.  Cronenberg's approved some questionable releases in the past, so it's worth pointing out that this framing was also approved by the DP.

So okay.  People sometimes like to say that Warner Bros' DVD is actually 1.85:1 rather than 1.78:1 because it's slightly letterboxed.  The truth is actually exactly in the middle: it's 1.82:1 because if you look carefully at the first images, you'll notice it's also slightly pillar boxed, particularly on the left.  Scream's blus, then, are pretty much what they say they are: 1.78 on disc 1 and 1.67 on disc 2.  So the 1.82 and the 1.78 are different (Scream's is a little less tight horizontally and vertically), but pretty similar in all matters of importance.  And, at least in terms of framing, Scream's new transfer wins because it's the proper aspect ratio and in HD, right?  Well, unfortunately no, and here's where we start to see the controversial aspects bubble up.
↗That's Scream's 1.67 transfer transparently laid over Criterion's 1.66.  Obviously, there's not just .1 extra width, but a serious vertical shift.  Scream has a lot more up top, and crops a large chunk of the bottom.  So it's no longer a case of which of the two framings is preferable; they've actually made a whole new, 3rd framing situation.  And in these two shots it doesn't look too bad, but having watched both versions all the way through more than once, I can say I really prefer Criterion's framing.  There is just a whole lot of empty space over actor's heads in most close-ups, and the bottom always looks too tight.  It just feels wrong.  And while yes, Scream's disc says they've incorporated Cronenberg's preferred ratio, they don't mention the framing exactly, and they certainly don't say he or the DP approved their transfer.  So I'm just going to call it: Criterion's framing is right; Scream's is wrong.  But good luck living with that, because Criterion's framing is only available on a low-res, non-anamoprhic DVD.  Great.

And that's just the framing discussion.
1) 1998 Criterion DVD 2) 2005 Warner Bros DVD
3) 2016 Scream Factory blu disc 1 4) 2016 Scream Factory blu disc 2
Which one of these is not like the others?  Criterion and Warner Bros, one thing they agree on is that the night scenes are meant to have their blue filters.  But Scream's new scan seems to have forgotten that.  Whoops.  And their transfer is warmer in general - look at the earlier comparison of them standing in the restaurant - which is questionable, too.  But the night scenes are really far off.

So now, maybe you're thinking, well okay, I get it, Scream's new 2k scan is garbage and that's why it's been relegated to disc 2.  But it's not that simple.  Let's go back to their older transfer on disc 1.  It's not just framed at Cronenberg's un-preferred ratio, it's also got artificial sharpening and edge enhancement haloing.  That's not really Scream's fault, though; that's the crappy one Warner Bros provides, which prompted Scream to make a new scan in the first place.  And their new scan is a clearer, truer scan of the film.  It looks softer, but mostly because it doesn't have the artificial sharpening.  Also, both transfers have annoying sporadic bouts of shakiness - presumably telecine wobble.  But there's no decent release of the film without it, so that's just something we'll have to deal with.  So which of their two versions is the ideal one to watch?  It's really a case of six of one, one half dozen of the other.  They're both flawed, superior in some ways, inferior in others.  Just pick which one annoys you the least.  At least they've topped all the foreign blu-rays.

But before you finally wipe your brow, we haven't even gotten to the reason why both of Scream's discs are being recalled and replaced!
Criterion just gives us the original stereo mix in a decent sound Dolby track with no subtitle options.  Hey, it was an old disc.  Warner Bros gave us the stereo mix plus a new 5.1 mix, and optional English, French and Spanish subtitles.  Scream gives us both the stereo and 5.1 mixes in DTS-HD, plus optional English subs on both the disc 1 and 2 versions.  Yay, perfect, right?  Well, except their stereo mixes - again, on both discs - are reversed.  And the stereo mix is the critical, purist option, as opposed to the revisionist 5.1 mixes created for later home video releases.  So on these blu-rays, the sounds that are supposed to be coming out of the right channel come out of the left, and vice versa.  Thankfully, Scream has recognized this error and if you email them with your receipt, you can request new Version 2 discs that correct this.
incorrect disc 1 left; corrected disc 1 right.
Now, unlike some previous Scream Factory discs that were issued replacements, the new and old discs don't have helpful "V1"/ "V2" markings on the label.  The only way to tell the difference is by flipping them over and looking at their undersides, where the feint writing on the slim, inside ring will have different matrix numbers.  You may need a magnifying glass.  The incorrect blu-ray discs have "BVDL-1298840A1" and "BVDL-1298840B1 1" written on them, and the new ones have "CDV/CA BD161210641-1" and "CDV/CA BD16121065-2" on their inner rings.  Scream Factory shipped mine very quickly after I contacted them, arriving in paper envelopes packed inside a slim cardboard box.  Just to be clear, though, the only thing that's different between the original and replacement discs is that the stereo audio tracks have been corrected; nothing's been altered in terms of their transfers or anything else.
So now let's talk about extras.  There's a lot to get into here, too.  You can divide Scream Factory's extras into two categories: what it carried over from Warner Bros (everything) and their new, original content.  So, from the Warner Bros DVD is a decent but slow audio commentary by Jeremy Irons.  He's quite interesting, but starts running out of things to say about halfway through, and there are a lot of silent stretches in the second half.  There's also a collection of vintage EPK stuff, including brief on-set interviews with Irons, Cronenberg, co-writer Norman Snider and producer Marc Boyman, and a basic featurette that incorporates a lot of said interview footage.  It also has a few unique soundbites and more importantly some behind-the-scenes B-roll and a look at how the twinning footage was made, so it's worth going through.  That, plus the trailer, is what comes from Warner Bros.
What Scream Factory brings is a little off-center, i.e. no big pieces with the major players, but actually quite good.  They provide a good audio commentary by Cronenberg expert William Beard, which is a very informative, engaging listen, even if he snubs Fast Company (haha).  But even better are the four new video interviews they conduct.  Actress Heidi Von Palleske (she played Elliot's girlfriend) is very interesting and forthcoming, talking about how she never realized at the time that this film would be the pinnacle of her career, and Suschitsky talks about the look of the film and working with the Cronenbergs.  Then there's a thoroughly eccentric interview with Stephen Lack, who talks about his experience returning to acting for Dead Ringers, but mostly showcases his wild artwork.  You'd never guess what the slightly stiff Scanners star was like in real life.  And finally, there's a quite candid talk with special effects artist Gordon Smith who talks openly about not being Cronenberg's first choice and feeling spurned during the creative process.  But most excitingly is when she shows footage of a crazy, over the top special effects sequence that was shot but never used in the final film.  Scream's two-disc set also includes reversible artwork and a slipcover that for some reason has the MGM logo on its spine.
Irons and his stand-in, from the exclusive Criterion extras.
But what's missing is Criterion's extra material.  First and foremost they have by far the best audio commentary, with Cronenberg himself, as well as Irons, Suschitsky, editor Ronald Sanders and production designer Carol Spier.  It's basically several commentary sessions spliced together - they're not all in a room recording together - but that really helps make sure there's never a dull moment.  Cronenberg's commentary is of course the most enlightening, but whenever he might pause or lapse, another speaker can be cut in to fill the space with some important insight.  Irons says mostly all the same things on this that he said in the solo commentary, so if you have this version, you can skip his unless you're a die-hard fan panning for every single little nugget.

Then, a lot of what was on the Criterion edition is the same as what was on the Warner Bros and Scream discs... the vintage interviews, the featurette and the trailer.  But Criterion has had a long and detailed look at the twinning effects and motion control footage, where we get to see all the different stages the scenes went through.  There are also three large photo galleries including all the artwork used for the opening credits sequence, the original designs for the "tools for operating on mutant women," and even all the sculptures seen only in the background of the metal gallery in the film.  Criterion's DVD also came with a fold-out insert with notes by documentary filmmaker Chris Rodley.
So, where do we find ourselves at the end of all this?  Well, Scream Factory's 2-disc set is definitely the best blu-ray edition out there.  They definitely put in the effort to please everybody.  Their new extras are great, they have the best HD image of the film out there (whichever transfer you wind up going with), and thanks to their replacement program, they have the best audio as well.  You'll definitely want to hang onto your Criterion discs for their exclusive special features.  It's also still the only release - well, that and the 1998 Anchor Bay disc - with the correct framing; but are you really going to watch a low-res, 4x3 DVD in 2017?  I could see holding out for a more ideal blu-ray edition down the line.  Arrow would probably be the most likely bet for a proper restoration.  But even then, they'd have to be willing to make another, all-new scan that in all likelihood they'd only be able to release in the UK (since Scream has obviously already licensed it for the US), so I don't hold out a lot of hope.  As headache-inducing as it is just to parse out all of the issues associated with Scream Factory's release, it's still the best we've got; and that's not likely to change anytime soon.

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