Biting Into Tarkovsky's Stalker (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

This site's almost four years old, what do you mean there hasn't been any Tarkovsky on it yet?  We've got to fix that, stat!  And well, Stalker's been on my mind ever since I saw Annihilation at the beginning of the year, so let's go with that.  That gives us a nice Criterion blu-ray, plus a couple of interesting DVD editions that are still worth exploring.  And it's one of his two sci-fi titles, so even non-devotees might take an interest.
Stalker is a story set in a dystopian(?) future, freely adapted from a Russian novel called Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers (they also wrote the screenplay).  See if this premise sounds familiar.  Some kind of mysterious alien presence once landed on Earth and transformed an isolated area into what's simply become known as "The Zone," possessed with supernatural powers and the terrain itself changes minute to minute.  Now it's been cordoned off by the military, but a small group of people go in to explore the zone, which people rarely escape from, and those who do are unalterably changed.  So while our protagonists are ostensibly journeying to explore this strange alien landscape, what they're really going to face is within themselves.
Here's where Stalker stands out, not just from Annihilation, but pretty much all science fiction.  This zone isn't the compilation of a myriad colorful and glossy special effects.  And I don't just mean, hey, this was the 70s, so it predates an Avatar-like CGI world.  There are no big Logan's Run sets, Blade Runner-style miniatures of futuristic cityscapes, 2001 space ships, Forbidden Planet matte painting composites, Star Wars robots or Barbarella costumes.  Tarkovsky creates an even more captivating alien environment just shooting naturally existing locations, using what already exists: old sewer tunnels, burnt out buildings, oil-ridden rivers, overgrown vehicles being taken back by nature... it's all the more fascinating A) because it's all real, and B) because of Tarkovsky's ability to transform anything he photographs into a unique piece of art.
But it's not just visually arresting; it's in the writing.  The film was already pretty far removed from its more conventional source material.  But the famous story behind this film is that the footage was nearly all destroyed and the film had to be re-shot virtually from scratch, during which time Tarkovsky evolved the story even further.  The naturalism of "the zone" lends another aspect to the plot: are these people being lead through the zone really being taken for a ride?  Is the zone's ever-changing supernatural force nothing more than superstition?  The lead character went from being much more of a rogue in the first version to a tortured disciple, and the characters of the writer and professor reportedly were given further fleshed out, deeper psychologies than the simpler archetypes they started out as.  Stalker is no simple one-to-one analogy.  It seems fairly certain that the film is in some ways a meditation on the meaning and suppression of religion in Tarkovsky's home country; but it also works, for example, as a powerful allegory for the struggle of the artist and the inner world he creates to travel into.  It's too complex to nail down to a simple message or metaphor; it exists to twist and struggle in our psyches, with film lovers forty years later still endlessly debating the significance of the dog or the intentions behind the film's final shots.
But Stalker definitely isn't for everybody, and I don't just mean that in a pretentious "it's a smart movie that stupid people won't be able to appreciate" kind of way.  Tarkovsky is the king of long and pensive cinema, and Stalker might be his slowest moving yet.  For example, there is a presumably intentional nod to The Wizard of Oz, where the drab civilian world is depicted in monochromatic sepia tone, with the film only kicking into color once our characters have reached the zone.  It takes about forty minutes to see our first color frame.  More than that, the final step of reaching the zone involves riding a cart along abandoned train rails, and there is a series of simple, single close-up shots of our three silent characters, background out of focus, as they ride in quiet contemplation.  So we see nothing but their faces and the back of their heads, bereft of even color, listening to nothing but the rhythmical clanging of the wheels, for four solid minutes straight.  If that doesn't send you running for the hills, than Stalker is probably for you; but you've gotta admit, you're in a particular subset of audience members.
So Stalker's been released plenty of times around the world, but I think the first was from Russico in 2001, which was then imported into the US by Image and the UK by Artificial Eye, both in 2002.  These were all 2-DVD sets.  The Image set was later released in the US by Kino International in 2006, with a few differences, including one key addition, which we'll get to later.  Anyway, those were our go-to discs until the last couple years, when the film started coming out in HD.  The most recent example of that is the 2017 blu from Criterion, which is a new, original 2k restoration in advance of even the previous blu-ray releases.
1) 2002 Artificial Eye DVD; 2) 2006 Kino DVD; 3) 2017 Criterion blu.
So, okay, it's almost 2019.  The DVDs are old news, so I won't waste too much of your time parsing the details of the old discs.  They're virtually identical in most respects, but I will point out that the 2006 Kino DVD took the frustrating step backwards of interlacing the clean Artificial Eye image.  It also crushes the blacks a little.  So strictly in terms of picture quality, the older DVD was better than the newer re-release and anyone who double-dipped was probably pretty PO'd.  But even compared to the superior DVD, Criterion's new blu is a revelation.  The framing is slightly wider, going from the DVDs' 1.33:1 to 1.37:1, but the most obvious difference is just how much more photo realistic the image is.  Contrast is restrained, colors are richer (though often more restrained... the greenery looks artificially saturated on the DVDs), and the sepia tone is returned to the scenes that are presented as almost straight black and white, with a strange pink hue to it.  Criterion's blu has a natural vitality to it that makes the old DVDs look like a cathode television broadcast.
1) 2002 Artificial Eye DVD; 2) 2006 Kino DVD; 3) 2017 Criterion blu.
Another advancement is the freshly translated subtitles; it's a very noticeable improvement with substantial changes, like the line "up these stairs" becoming "down that ladder."  Those are two very different statements with very different meanings; and, indeed, the characters do proceed to go down up a rickety metal ladder, not up a flight of stairs.

Interestingly, Russico created a new 5.1 mix for the film, which nearly every DVD, including the two here, have in addition to the original mono track.  Criterion ditches that and just goes with the mono, which they also restored from the original elements and present in lossless LPCM.  And all of the discs' English subtitles are optional/ removable.  But here's what the Kino disc has, which no other release seems to have included before or since: an English dub track (and a French one, too).  It's a bit unusual, with only only two actors doing all of the characters' voices, and you can still hear the original Russian performances in the background.  I presume it's largely meant for visually impaired viewers, but it's kind of a neat option, regardless.  And leaving the original dialogue in the track means you can still "get" the qualities and nuances of the original actors.  So that's one reason someone might want to score a copy of the old Kino DVDs even in 2018.
One thing we can thank Russico for is that Stalker's always had some pretty decent special features.  All the DVDs from Image, Artificial Eye and even the later Kino set all had the same stuff.  First, was a five minute clip from Tarkovsky's first film, The Steamroller and the Violin.  Cool for the very first Russico disc, I guess, but not too thrilling since, because the entire film's been available on DVD since 2002.  Cooler is a short film called Memory, which is a mostly silent (there's about three sentences of narration) documentary about Tarkovsky's childhood home, filmed in the style of Stalker, and even incorporating a bit of footage from it.  And then there were three excellent on-camera interviews with the cameraman, the production designer and the composer (though, curiously, the last of these was always hidden away as an easter egg).  There's a lot of great first-hand accounts of the tumultuous filing of Stalker, including even a tiny bit of behind-the-scenes footage.  Again, all of that and a stills gallery appeared on pretty much every DVD release there was of this film until the blu-ray days.

Criterion carried over most of the important stuff, specifically the three on-camera interviews.  And again, the Steamroller clip was no great loss (Criterion even includes that entire film with their recent release of Andrei Rublev), and the photo gallery's pretty minimal; but it's a shame they dropped Memory.  It's not an amazing cinematic experience on the level of Stalker, but it was pretty neat.  And if it's not being packaged with Stalker, it's unlikely to come out anywhere else as it's quite short and very specifically made to echo Stalker.  Oh well, just another reason to hang onto an old DVD.  And anyway, Criterion have included a very enthusiastic interview with Geoff Dyer, the author of an entire book about Stalker.  And this is definitely the kind of film where I think viewers would appreciate a little outsider commentary after viewing.  They also include a booklet with notes by English author Mark Le Fanu.
Criterion's new 2k scan is beautiful and unquestionably the way to go for Stalker.  Of course, whether you're up for Stalker is another question entirely and something you'll have to work out on your own.  If you're a convert, though, you might want to look for a used Kino DVD on the cheap as a supplement to the blu for the rare English dub and short film.  But don't actually use the DVD as your main copy of the film anymore, because as you can see, they've all been rendered quite obsolete.

Werner Herzog's Christ and Demons in New Spain

Hey, gang.  It's been all new releases for a while, here, hasn't it?  And not that I don't always intend to cover cool, new releases going forward, but I don't want to lose sight of one of the core goals I had in creating this site in the first place.  I want to get the word out on some of the noteworthy but neglected, obscure - dare I say "exotic?" - discs that get overlooked but still deserve a place in our collections.  Great films still only available on DVD, imports with unique special features, underrated films, discs you wonder about but that don't get coverage anywhere.  Well, here's an example that ticks nearly all of those boxes.
Werner Herzog has made so many films in his lifetime, that I think even serious fans let a lot of them slip away unseen.  For instance, here's one you won't find in any BFI, Shout Factory or Anchor Bay collection: 2000's Christ and Demons in New Spain, a.k.a. Lord and the Laden, God and the Burdened, or as it's titled in this set, New Worlds.  This is a 45 minute documentary that somehow found its way incongruously packed into a History Channel-style television series called 2000 Years of Christianity.  But this isn't really a case of him being hired to direct an episode of some TV show; this is a stand-alone film that just managed to get itself shoe-horned into the series, probably in a deal for funding not unlike how Port of Call wound up being released as the sequel to Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant.
So I guess I'll start off by explaining the rest of the series first, since Herzog's is technically episode #9.  2000 Years of Christianity is actually a German series, and its on-screen titles remain untranslated: 2000 Jahre Christentum.  If you're only interested in Herzog's work, you definitely don't have to watch the rest of the series, though, as the connections are all superficial.  The overall series is a very dry documentary telling us the chronological history of the Christian religion from its origins to the present day.  And I chose the word "telling" because that's really what it's doing.  A narrator gives you a 13 episode lecture.  Visually, they clearly sprung for some production values, capturing footage in locations all around the world, lavish historical recreations, colorful graphics... But it's all in service of the narration droning on in a frankly boring way.  The end of the series gets a bit more interesting, as it involves more first person interviews with various clergy and theologians about their beliefs and the religion's place in the modern world; but even then, I'm not sure anybody comes up with anything particularly original or surprising.
So Herzog's film, then, is about Christianity, but rather than a history; it's an exploration of the way it's been adopted and evolved into something quite unique in Antigua, Guatemala.  Well, there is a couple of minutes worth of history at the start, looking at ancient documents and explaining how the people were pressed into Christianity centuries ago; but that's really just to set up all the strange compromises that have been built into the religion there.  For example, one of their key saint figures is a modern Spanish ranchero holding rolls of cash.  It's suggested that the local natives may have converted the incoming missionaries almost as much as they brought their religion to them.  This film is all about exploring the people as they are now, watching pilgrims and capturing rituals, unlike the rest of the series, which pontificates about a single, historical narrative.  This episode is vitally alive, while the rest of the series is just barely exhaling.

There are superficial connections made to tie this film to the overall show... It has the same opening and closing credits speeches tacked on, and Herzog's voice has been replaced by the narrator of the rest of the series.  A website called NoFilmSchool has a nice little interview with editor Joe Bini, where he briefly refers to this film, saying how, "the German broadcaster replaced Herzog’s trademark, esoteric voice-over with another narration track... It’s completely bizarre. The narrator is saying this Discovery Channel stuff but you’re looking at weird, Herzogian visuals."
The entire series has been released and re-released a surprising number of times on DVD, to the point where I had to do a considerable amount of research just to sort it all out.  Originally, in 2002, all 13 episodes were released as individual DVDs from Navarre, which used the title God and the Burdened for Herzog's episode... a few other episode titles have changed as well, for example Opportunities and Perils later became Opportunities and Hazards; though most titles remain the same.  Anyway, those are long out of print, and the series was later acquired by Image/ Madacy Entertainment.  In 2011, they released two 4 DVD sets, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, which together compiled the entire run.  Pretty straight-forward so far, but then in 2012, they reissued it as a single, 6 DVD set.  And, that same year, they also released it as an 8 DVD set, the one I've got.  When you open it up, it turns out to just be the two 2011 sets in a large gatefold box that also includes a book and a large poster.  The content on the discs doesn't change at all except the 6 disc set naturally squeezes a couple extra episodes on the same discs.  They squeezed them even tighter in 2014, when they reissued the series again in a five disc set.  So, they just keep putting out all these variant box sets, which content-wise are all the same, and they're all frankly pretty cheap, both in terms of their actual sale price and their production quality.
2012 US Image/ Madacy DVD.
The show is full-frame at a standard 1.33:1 and, given that this is 90's television, I'm sure that's correct.  Presumably less correct, however, is the awful interlacing.  It's not even intermittent frames, but every single frame that's interlaced, though you certainly notice it more whenever there's heavy horizontal movement.  On the one hand, it's tempting to excuse it as just Herzog running and gunning in Guatemala with a cheap, 90s digital camera.  But the rest of the series, which otherwise includes some pretty glossy, high-end visual qualities is equally interlaced, so I blame the DVDs.  These are all single layer discs, but that's fine because there's no more than 90 minutes worth of content on any of them, with no special features or alternate audio tracks (there's just the one Dolby 2.0 track and no subtitle options).  I mean heck, the disc with Herzog's episode on it, plus another one, only uses 3.95 GB.  That could fit on a VCD!
So, look, I really don't think it matters which set you get.  5 discs, 6 discs or 8 discs, it doesn't even matter if they're compressed down to less than 2 GB per episode anyway.  The 8 disc set looks most impressive in its large box, I suppose.  The book and poster don't tell you much; they're basically just timelines of Christian history, nothing about Herzog or the filmmaking at all.  But they're full color and glossy.  You can get any and all of these sets super cheap if you just poke around a bit.  The movie itself is pretty great, though; better than many other Herzog films, in fact, and not one you should just let slip past you.

Pulp Fun Lovecraft, The Unnamable I & II (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Unearthed Films is a fairly underground label that's actually been with us quite a long time.  They're best known for notorious indie gore titles like all the Guinea Pig movies, Black Sun and the Vomit Gore Trilogy.  But poking around my collection, I see they've been responsible for a couple better known cult horror titles like Frankenhooker, 964 Pinocchio and Evil Dead Trap 2.  But today we have the debut entry in their Unearthed Classics line, The Unnamable (as well as its sequel).  It's not exactly a movie that springs to mind when you say "classic."  What's a horror classic?  FrankensteinNosferatuPsycho?  Okay, you want to go 80s, then maybe Nightmare On Elm Street, The Shining... You know, it's gonna take an awful lot of guesses before you start landing anywhere close to The Unnamable.  But hey, you know what?  As someone who grew up in those video shop days, renting all the horror titles, I get it.  The Unnamable definitely brings back fond memories: the cool cover with an awesome monster that actually lived up to the promise of its box art.  In its own way, for that brief little window of history, I can get with it being labeled a classic.
The Unnamable is an HP Lovecraft story, and if the movie ever gets brought up, it's usually as an example of how loosely adapted his work tends to be in film.  But if you're familiar with the actual story, it's really not so far off.  It's got a similar problem that Stuart Gordon's From Beyond had, where they fairly faithfully adapted the story as written... and then the opening credits rolled and they had to fill the rest of the 90 minutes.  If you've read The Unnamable, you know it's literally like 2-3 pages long; there's just not a lot of material.  But what was there is all on screen.  A character named Carter and a rival scholar debate the validity of unspeakable horrors...  The Unnamable creature and its origins as a once-human woman locked up in an old house for centuries, its image burned into the window's glass, and the doubting scholars venturing to the house only to get attacked, verifying Carter's claims that something truly unnameable could and does exist.  It's all here.  They even do a few period scenes for the film's backstory.
But then, you know, you've got to pad it out to feature length, so in come the familiar horror staples.  A couple of frat guys talk some pretty freshman girls to spend the night with them in a creepy haunted house, which of course turns out to be the very same house from the story, giving the creature some cannon fodder to dispatch.  The two scholars are expanded to three, there's a love triangle, and soon enough you've got a very traditional 80s horror film built around the thin Lovecraftian skeleton.  And in some ways, it's actually quite a good one.  It's ambitious with a great looking monster, some cool Lovecraft story beats that set it apart from your typical direct to video shovelware, and like I said, it has one of the all time great movie monsters that can stand right alongside Pumpkinhead and the Predator.  The two leads roles, both in terms of writing and performance, are quite appealing and head and shoulders above most horror movie characters, and there's some really clever moments.

But on the other hand, the limited budget really wears through, and this film shows much of the clunkiness typical of a first time filmmaker.  Some nice lighting and limited atmosphere isn't enough to stop the pace from grinding to a slow limp as characters wander around and around a tiny house at night with their flashlights, running into nothing for a very long time.  You just know with a little more money and experience, this film could've been really risen to another tier.  So, what we end up with is an enjoyable, fairly satisfying horror title, but not one of the greats.
So The Unnamable debuted on DVD in 2004, during that period when Anchor Bay UK started getting some cool exclusives that didn't make it stateside.  Their two-disc set of The Unnamable and The Unnamable Returns (we'll circle back around for that) was a shining example of that.  In fact, the original Unnamable never made it to DVD at all here in the US until Unearthed released it this Halloween season.  So, not only is this a brand new 4k master and the film's HD debut, but because of its very limited existence on home video, this is the first time we're even getting to see the film in its proper widescreen format - exciting stuff!
2004 UK Anchor Bay DVD top; 2018 US Unearthed BD bottom.
Apart from being fullscreen, Anchor Bay's DVD really wasn't too bad at all.  And even then, at least it was open matte.  It's certainly a real improvement to finally see the film in its proper aspect ratio, but we're talking more about proper matting than a wealth of new picture on the sides.  We do get some more along the sides, but this new 1.85:1 framing is more about cropping excess vertical information.  The color timing is more natural, where the DVD relied on boosted contrast to make details stand out, the new 4k confidently plays it more photo realistically.  That said, there really isn't much new detail or clarity to be pulled out of these film elements.  We can certainly see the strength of the new 4k scan by the way it cleanly captures the natural film grain, just don't come in expecting to count the individual strands of hair on every actor's head.
Things get a little more complicated in the audio department.  To start with, Anchor Bay gave us a surprising amount of options: DTS, Dolby Stereo 2.0 and a Dolby 5.1 mix (presumably created by AB, as the original film itself certainly never had 5.1).  And we get a similar trio of options on the blu: 5.1 in DTS-HD, the stereo mix in LPCM and another 2.0 mix labeled "Vintage Grindhouse Audio."  But the story here is the 5.1 mix; it's totally borked.  Throughout the film, sounds and music constantly double up, like the tracks got out of sync or something.  Like, quick example, Joel puts his candlestick down on the table, and we hear it twice, like "clunk, clunk."  It's not even an echo; the sound is far enough off that it plays like two separate, distinct sounds.  And in little moments like that, you might not always notice it - maybe you'd think something else just made a similar noise in the spooky house or whatever - but it happens in the music and everything.  At its worst it gets downright maddening and I'd say it's broken to the point where you just can't watch the movie like that.  Now, fortunately, the blu gives us two other audio options, so we're not screwed, and the 5.1 was obviously revisionist in the first place.  But it's extra annoying because the 5.1 mix is the default audio track when you just press play from the main menu, so a lot of fans are going to get an unpleasant surprise.  Oh, and no, the 5.1 mix isn't screwed up like that on the Anchor Bay DVD.

But yeah, don't flip too far out, because the proper stereo mix is on here and has no such issues.  It has a teensy bit of hiss compared to the 5.1, but it's a solid, robust track that's really what we should all be opting for anyway.  And the "vintage grindhouse" mix?  Well, it's a lot flatter and has a lot more hiss.  I guess it's just the raw recording of the audio straight from the film elements with no clean up or something?  Sure, I'll take it, but the 2.0 stereo sound (PCM) is the sweet spot everyone will want to go with.  Oh, and there are no subtitles, which is disappointing, since the DVD did have them.
But Unearthed's about to gain back any points they lost in the audio/ subtitle department and then some.  Because The Anchor Bay DVD?  It just had the trailer and some stills.  But Unearthed's blu is a full-on special edition.  It has very long, like over an hour each, on-camera interviews with stars  Charles Klausmeyer & Mark Kinsey Stephenson, Laura Albert, Eben Ham, Mark Parra, and special effects artists R. Christoper Biggs & Camille Calvet.  The tech quality is a little low, the sound pops and echoes, and one of them, Laura's, is poorly lit.  But none of that really matters because everyone is so enthusiastic and bring a wealth of information, which is all the more valuable because this film's never had any extras before, so it's all new.  I only wish they had edited these down a little, because they are the completely raw, unedited talks from beginning to end.  So questions that don't go anywhere ("do you remember ___?" "No, I don't.  Sorry") are left in, and at one point, the interviewer actually gets up to check on his dog, and we're left watching the two actors sit patiently and silently until he returns.  Pretty crazy!  The only other time I've seen that was on the UK Drag Me To Hell blu-ray, but thankfully the interviews are compelling enough that they manage to get away with it (and the interviewer didn't take too long haha), but for their next endeavor, maybe they could at least trim away some of the really blatant fat.

After all of that, which is already like five hours of content, there's an audio commentary where all of the aforementioned participants get together and watch the film.  Again, they're very enthusiastic, and there's a lot of laughter, but it gets a little tough to make out people talking over and interrupting each other.  Often two distinct conversations are going on at once, so a little moderation would've been nice.  But again, they just narrowly get away with it, because the separate interviews already imparted most of the information, so this is left as more of a light-hearted follow-up romp, and it's hard to be grumpy when everyone's in such good spirits.  Oh, and people who pre-ordered this also got a limited edition slipcover with some very cool alternative artwork.  There's also an image gallery and some bonus trailers - though curiously, no Unnamable trailer - including one for Nightwish, which is meant to be one of Unearthed Classic's next titles, and even just that trailer looks so much better than the previous DVD editions, I'm already excited.
And speaking of exciting upcoming Unearthed Classics, they've hinted that they intend to do the sequel to The Unnamable at some point a little further down the line, too.  And it's a good sequel.  It's made by pretty much all the same people, and our two leads, Howard and Randolph return.  The story even picks up the moment where the first one left off, like Halloween 2.  And this time, they've clearly got that budget and experience they lacked in the first film.  There's just more polish, stronger pacing, even stars performances are more honed.  We get better locations, some name actors this time around - John Rhys-Davies who practically steals the show, David Warbeck in a real "we've only got him for two hours" role, and this time it's scream queen Julie Strain in the monster suit.  The story is even more ambitious with a larger cast and more locations, and the monster finally gets to use those wings we noticed on its back in the last film.
Not that it's a pure improvement.  The comic relief gets a little too heavy handed at times (the naked lady afraid to wear clothes was a step too far) and what was originally a straight-forward tight-knit story gets a little convoluted following too many side characters and fantasy elements that lose some of the original's spooky atmosphere.  And of course, the mystery of the unnamable has been completely blown.  This one's less of a horror flick and more of a lark.  We're just lucky the lead characters are enough to keep us interested.  In fact, I once read that writer/ director Jean-Paul Ouellette had scripts for two more Unnamable films, again with Randolph and Howard, which would've been based on other Lovecraft story.  And I've always been bummed those never happened, because I think these guys proved they had the knack for this stuff.
"If you want me to get out of this chair, that's extra."
Unlike the first film, The Unnamable 2, a.k.a. The Unnamable Returns or The Unnamable II: The Statement Of Randolph Carter, actually did get a DVD release here in the states, from Lions Gate.  It came out in 2004, curiously labeled as "from the creator of Beyond Re-Animator."  No, Yuzna didn't co-produce this, and Ouellette wasn't the DP on that or anything.  They seem to be just referring to Lovecraft, but it's so weird that they'd cite the far less popular second sequel than the original Re-Animator or another Lovecraft project instead.  Oh well, anyway, that came out here right around the same time Anchor Bay put out both Unnamables in the UK.  Let's see how they compare.
2004 US Lions Gate DVD top; 2004 UK Anchor Bay DVD bottom.
Well, on first glance pretty similar, with boxy fullscreen ARs, milky blacks and fuzzy video noise.  But if you pay close attention to the edges, you'll see the framing is different, so this isn't just the same master twice.  Still, while different, it's hard to make a case for one being better than the other; they're more like arbitrary shifting vertically and horizontally.  A much more important distinction, though, is that the Lions Gate DVD has some rather garish interlacing, which the Anchor Bay disc is completely free of.  So while I'm hoping Unearthed gets around to invalidating both with a nice, high quality widescreen scan, in the meantime, AB is a clear winner in terms of PQ.

It's also the winner in terms of audio, again giving us the same trio of options: DTS, Dolby Stereo 2.0 and another Dolby 5.1 mix, while Lions Gate just has the one basic (though perfectly fine) stereo mix.  And again, AB has subtitles, while Lions Gate does not.
And AB wins again with the extras.  This is a very uncomplicated decision.  Lions Gate just has some generic bonus trailers, while AB, which didn't have much for the first Unnamable, has some real special features for the sequel.  First and foremost, they have an audio commentary by Ouellette.  Why they had him do a commentary for the sequel but not the original, I have no idea, but I'm glad to get this one, and he gives a very good talk (though his moderator is terribly mic'd). Then, there's a fun, half-hour behind-the-scenes doc, which focuses primarily on the effects and lets us see Strain as herself.  There's also a brief, vintage promo with Stephenson in character talking to us about the appeal and cinematic history of Lovecraft.  There's also the trailer and an image gallery.  So for whatever reason, they didn't do much for the original, which was after all packaged together, but decked out the sequel.
So, hey, if you're looking for a true classic, don't let the branding mislead you.  But if you enjoy 80s horror, I can't imagine not having any fun with these.  Unearthed's blu of the first one has some flaws as I've pointed out, but nothing that should deter you from picking up an overall excellent disc.  Like, if they maintain this exact level of quality, flaws and all, for their upcoming titles, I'll be very happy.  And I really want this to be successful enough that they get to Nightwish and Unnamable II.  As it stands now, Nightwish has been officially announced and is on their website as an upcoming release, but Unnamable II is still more uncertain.  So you may want to track down the Anchor Bay UK DVD if you don't already have it.  Especially since we don't know if they'll be able to license those sweet extras.

Shadow Of the Hawk, Now With More Nightwing (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Of course, ideally every movie we're interested in will have an loaded, 2-disc blu-ray special edition. But we don't live in that world. In our world, some pretty cool movies are only available on MOD (Made On Demand... official releases put out on invariably single-layer burned DVD-R discs). But hey, at least we have that! After all, plenty of stuff has never been released on any format at all. And so today's cool MOD is Shadow Of the Hawk, a highly entertaining made-for-television American Indian-themed horror film from 1976. It originally aired on ABC [or not, see the comments!], and is being bought to us now on disc by Sony and Columbia Pictures.

Update 7/9/15 - 10/27/18: We can forget all about MOD DVD-Rs now; it's out on blu!  And it even comes paired with the 70's vampire bat thriller Nightwing as a double-feature.  But can Mill Creek deliver the quality we've come to expect from the major and cult labels?
Shadow stars Jan Michael Vincent as a half-Indian; and if you can wrap your suspension of disbelief around that, you'll have no problem with the ghost and witch doctor stuff coming up. He lives in the city, but his medicine man grandfather (Chief Dan George) leaves his reservation to come find him, and just in time, because Vincent is getting violent visitations from an evil ghost in a white mask. Apparently an evil sorceress is using her powers to wipe out the two of them and all of their remaining people, and George is too weak to fight her on his own. So somehow a freelance reporter lady gets caught up in all of this, and the three of them set off on a road trip back to their village. Vincent has to learn to both accept and master his ancestral powers before the witch becomes too strong.
If you're looking for authentic lore that respects real Native American history and even teaches you a thing or two about another culture, forget it. This just feels like the writers wrote every spooky or wild Indian-themed supernatural concept they could come up with on note-cards, spilled them onto a table, and that was their script. Chief Dan George is the only true Native American involved in this film, but that's okay. This movie isn't trying to educate, just entertain, and that it does. There are genuinely effective ghost moments and campy magic attacks. There's a really impressive effect where a car crashes into an invisible wall, and a pretty fake looking snake that bursts into flames. Jan Michael Vincent wrestles a bear in this movie! Someone turns into a wolf (of course), a black ghost car chases our heroes (which tribe had those in their legends again?), and there's an evil snake dance ritual with lesbians making out... Yeah, this movie does have that made-for-TV feel at times, and that also restricts the amount of sex and blood they can play with, but if you can't find something to enjoy in this picture, you ain't lookin'!
Sony/ Columbia 2011 MOD DVD-R top; Mill Creek 2018 blu bottom.
The made-for-TV look is reduced considerably thanks to the fact that this film has been remastered in widescreen and looks great even on the DVD. It's a bit fuzzy and soft, but you're going to get that with the compressed MODs. Shadow was shot on 35mm, and for the first time ever (including, I'm sure, its original broadcast), looks the part. It's nice and anamorphic, with no interlacing issues or anything like that. The picture's in a much nicer state better than I ever expected to see it. They even slightly letterboxed it to 1.85, rather than leaving it at 1.78. Somebody involved cared. And the Dolby 2.0 audio is pretty clear and robust, too.

But things get even better this October with the new blu.  For those skeptical of Mill Creek, I'm happy to start out by reporting that this is a pressed, dual-layered disc and the audio is lossless (LPCM).  Of course, it's the same exact 1.85:1 master being used here, but that's just fine as it seems to be a genuinely high quality Sony scan, and it makes a genuine difference getting it in HD.  Instead of compression artifacts, we see real film grain.  And yes, small detail lost in the SD transfer are restored on the blu.  You might be worried about squeezing two films onto one disc, but again it's dual-layered, and there are no features (disappointing but expected) weighing it down.  So in the end, it's just a little over three hours on a 50 GB disc, which is better than plenty of single movie blus.
So like I said, and as is usually the case (though not always!) with MOD releases, there are no special features included with this film, not even a trailer.  And the same goes for the blu.  A trailer does exist - it was featured on one of Synapse's 42nd St. Forever compilations - but you don't get anything here.  At least Mill Creek's blu has a menu screen, which I guess is technically a step forward. And that's disappointing, because I'm sure there are some interesting stories to go along with this movie, from shooting all this wild stuff out on location to selling ABC on a Native American-themed horror film in the first place. And if you look Shadow up on the imdb, they list a second, uncredited director - I'd love to know what the deal is there.  Another label would've surely given us something, plus probably subtitles which are also MIA on both versions, but you can't argue with Mill Creek's pricing (less than half of what Sony wanted for their burned DVD!), especially since it comes with a whole, second feature.
Nightwing is a good choice for the double-bill, because both films have a lot in common.  It's a late 70s PG horror, which also used to only be available as a Sony DVD-R.  But more than that, it's another film about Native Americans dealing with mystical dark forces rooted loosely in their folklore.  And yes, we've got another white man in the lead role as the son of a powerful shaman, this time not even trying to play it off as "half Indian."  Nick Mancuso, star of the NBC series Stingray, is supposedly a full-blooded Native sheriff living on a reservation, which is also populated by a couple other white actors in the lead roles and authentic Native Americans in the older and supporting roles.  So they do kind of feel like sister movies.
And this one has a lot of strong points to draw you in.  Henry Mancini gives it a first class, stylish score, and the cast is rather interesting, with notables like David Warner and Modern Romance's Kathryn Harrold.  The acting is quite strong all around and they're delivering fairly respectable material, as the script is based on a novel by Martin Cruz Smith.  The locations and special effects are often quite good, though there are some very dated and even messy for the time composites thrown in the mix, too.  Really, the only major drawback is that it's so damn boring.  This is a movie I saw as a kid at least a dozen times on TV.  Because it's PG, they could play it in the afternoon.  And every time I'd revisit it, I'd think there have to be more bat attacks than I'd remembered.  But nope.  There's really just one midway through the film that really delivers the goods, and then the heroes deal with the bat horde at the end.  Otherwise, it's just an endless stream of exposition.
You've got two stories, basically, that wind up dovetailing at the end.  Mancuso's the reservation's sheriff who's shaman father, uncle or whatever has decided to end the world by casting one last spell.  And this spell is either just superstition or the cause of a rash of mysterious vampire bat attacks (most of which we don't see).  He battles with a big business owner on the reservation who wants to hush it all up so he can bring in some big business deals, a la the mayor in Jaws.  Then, on the other hand, you've got David Warner as a cross between Richard Dreyfuss' character in Jaws and Donald Pleasance's in Halloween.  He's devoted his life to hunting and killing vampire bats ("I kill them because they're the quintessence of evil!"), and followed them to this community.  So, basically, Warner represents the scientific explanation, and Mancuso represents the spiritual, with Harrold kinda floating in the middle.  Hope you find this talk fascinating, because that's what you get in lieu of bat action.  But then again, I have to say, the brief bat moments they have made a pretty big impression on me as a kid that were just as I remembered them with this recent rewatch as an adult.  The thrills are effective, there's just so damned few of them, and the movie isn't that short.
Mill Creek 2018 blu-ray.
Once again, it's another great scan, very filmic.  Grain is natural and crisp in HD, and it's a trip seeing this in widescreen (slightly matted to 1.85:1) after having grown up with terrible fullscreen television broadcasts.  The cinematography's a little on the flat side, but the landscapes definitely benefit from the proper composition.  Even the dark night skies look great.  No blocks, the colors look natural and authentic.  The audio is another lossless LPCM stereo track, and again there are no subtitles or features of any kind.  You just pick the movie you want to watch on the menu screen and off you go.
This is definitely the version to own for both films.  Of course, that's obvious given this is each film's debut in HD.  But this is more than just a bare minimum incremental upgrade, this is a surprisingly high quality release, to a downright surprising degree for a budget disc.  Certainly some "frills" would have been nice, like subtitles and special features.  We can only imagine what the Scream Factory treatment would've looked like here.  But if you're in it for "just the movie," this is a pleasant surprise.