Happy Bloody Birthday from Arrow Films (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

I told ya I'd get to another one of these crazy killer children movies soon. Today's entry is 1981's Bloody Birthday, and boy oh boy. This is a demented one, alright. Almost an early slasher, with children, but even more unnerving drama and weirdness. It's far from a perfect film, I could see a lot of horror fans, especially younger ones, completely not seeing the appeal of this one. But if you get on the right wavelength with it, this film's so good. It must play great with a cult theater audience. But if nobody's screening a 35m print anywhere near you, not to worry, we're lucky to have some good quality home video editions.

Update 9/5/115 - 12/30/18:  Here's a remaster I really didn't see coming.  Only a couple brief years since 88 and Severin released Bloody Birthday on blu in the UK and the states, respectively, Arrow has put forth an all new edition of a film that I dig a lot, but isn't exactly high on the pop horror totem pole.  And hey, it's just in time for my own birthday!  Those previous blus were pretty good, though; so what's Arrow bringing to the table and is it worth a double-dip?
The premise is that, 10 years ago, there was a lunar eclipse as several women were giving birth, and now that it's their kids' tenth birthday, their souls left their bodies astrologically, and umm... Well, it's not explained very well or really made clear, but none of that kooky star chart stuff matters anyway. All you need to know is that a couple of kids have teamed up to go on a killing spree in a small, suburban town. That kid running around with that big gun (it's not really big; he's just small) is a joy every frame he's on screen. Thankfully, this movie doesn't get bogged down in any supernatural or sci-fi once you get past the awkward opening set-up. It's just a messy excuse to get into this weird "what-if" scenario where kids go psycho. José Ferrer has a small role as the town doctor, acting legend Susan Strasberg is a teacher who crosses the wrong student and MTV's Julie Brown, of Earth Girls Are Easy fame (not "Downtown"), has a surprising amount of nudity. Oh, and Michael Dudikoff has a bit part. But the real stars are the kids, and they rock.
Bloody Birthday debuted on DVD in 2003 from VCI, with a matching UK disc from Anchor Bay. It was a decent widescreen release with a couple extras, but there was room for improvement. And improve it did, when Severin remastered and re-released it in 2011 with some fresh extras to boot. Then in 2014, it received nearly simultaneous blu-ray releases from Severin in the US and 88 Films in the UK.  As if that wasn't enough, Arrow then issued a newer version on blu for both markets in 2018.  Well, I've got the VCI DVD, the Severin one, 88's blu-ray and Arrow's blu, so let's have a look.
1) VCI DVD, 2) Severin DVD, 3) 88 Films blu, 4) Arrow blu.
The biggest difference from the blueish, high contrast VCI disc to the later Severin and 88 editions is the more natural, earthy timing. All three are anamorphic 1.78:1, despite the Severin case claiming 1.66:1 with virtually identical framing. 88's blu-ray lowers the frame just a sliver, and is otherwise pretty similar to the Severin disc apart from being a truer HD image with natural grain instead of compression smudging. I don't own the Severin blu, but I understand they're virtually identical, which makes sense considering how 88 seems to be using the same transfer (I've looked up screenshots on other sites, and Severin's blu lowered the frame from the DVD just like 88 did).

But now Arrow's blu delivers a new 2k scan of the interpositive.  I previously wrote of the older blus that, "[t]his is probably about as much detail and clarity as we could ever get from this film," and I'd say Arrow's new transfer bears this out.  Maybe if someone gets a hold of the OCN, but at this point we're not uncovering anything new.  Even the grain looks, well slightly different but generally equivalent.  But that's not to say there's nothing to be gained from Arrow's new edition.  The real star of this show is the color timing.  As much as Severin improved upon VCI, Arrow has taken even greater strides by really separating the colors and making them pop.  They've also found a happy medium with the contrast, the combination of which really makes the previous editions look flat and dull by comparison.

Every disc covered utilizes the original mono audio tracks, in Dolby Digital on the DVDs and LPCM on the blus (the old Anchor Bay UK disc also gave the film a 5.1 mix).  Arrow is the first edition ever to provide (optional) English subtitles.
The VCI doesn't mention it on the case for whatever reason, but it has a pretty neat little interview with the film's producer, Max Rosenberg. He's pretty interesting, and it's a shame this video never gets carried over to any of the later special editions. So yeah, Severin doesn't have a producer interview, but it does have a very long and dry audio-only interview with director Ed Hunt. He doesn't think very highly of this film, so he only spends a few minutes on it, instead droning on about the rest of his career, including a book he wants to sell us. Still, we do get a little good stuff out of it, but they really could've edited it down by 80% or so. Much better is an on camera interview with Lori Lethin; it's brief but engaging. There's also a weird little featurette called A Brief History of Slasher Films which is so far from comprehensive it feels arbitrary, but it's worth the watch. That's about it, except for an easter egg of the promo trailer (we'll come back to that) and a couple bonus trailers.

Meanwhile in the UK, 88 Films has all the same extras as Severin's DVD and blu: Lethin's interview, the slasher film thing and Ed Hunt's interview. Although they make the good choice of letting Hunt's interview play over the film, like an audio commentary, rather than the single still image Severin held on the screen for 50+ minutes, which helps the talk feel less like punishment. And speaking of commentaries, they've got an exclusive one on their release, by Justin Kerswell, author of Teenage Wasteland, and Calum Waddell. Unfortunately, neither of these guys were actually involved with the filmmaking, so it feels more like a fan commentary. Worse, they spend the entire time chatting back and forth about other films, completely ignoring what's on screen the whole time. But it's better than nothing, I guess. Plus they added a little booklet with notes by Waddell where he does remember to address Birthday.
This is possibly the clearest frame in the whole thing; the rest looks even worse.

The only little thing 88 is missing is that easter egg, which is a bit of a shame. The promo trailer is fun, because it has original film shot for it that doesn't appear in the actual movie, of a hand bursting out of a birthday cake. Both blu-ray editions have added a more traditional Bloody Birthday trailer to their extras, which looks nice in HD, but doesn't have the cool stuff. On the other hand, the reason why Severin hid the promo trailer away as an easter egg is because it's in terrible, digitized quality. It's soft and blocky to the point where you can barely make out what's going on... I think they must've taken it off the internet, uploaded back in the very earliest days of online video.

And Arrow?  They've really shuffled the deck!  First of all, the do include the Rosenberg interview from the VCI disc, so you can finally toss that old DVD.  Then they ditch most of the Severin and 88 material, replacing it with their own, all new stuff.  The best of this is the all new audio commentary by the director, which thanks in no small part I'm sure to their moderator, is infinitely more listenable and engaging than the old 51 minute audio-only director interview.  They also replace the old Lori Lethin interview with a new one, which is about the same length and covers a lot of the same ground.  That's kind of a dead-even one-to-one tie.  They add a new audio commentary by The Hysteria Continues podcast guys and an on-camera interview with Chris Alexander, which is much better than having him do a commentary where he slips right into his time-wasting "let me tell you about my day" mode.  And, interestingly, they have an interview with producer Ken Gord, who wasn't involved with Bloody Birthday but worked with Hunt on other projects.  They also have the trailer, that elusive promo trailer(!) in better though still not amazing quality, a 24-page booklet with notes by Lee Gambin, the standard card for another Arrow release (The Horrors of Malformed Men this time) and reversible artwork.
So, it's an interesting situation.  If you don't already own the film, Arrow is an easy choice, with the best transfer, overall set of extras, and even subtitles.  And the new stuff does a good enough job replacing the old ones that, even though it barely has any of the Severin/ 88 extras, I wouldn't bother going out of my way to pick them up for those additional extras.  But if you already own one of those old discs, is it worth the double-dip?  Ehh.  The colors are nicer but it's not a PQ revelation, and the new extras don't add so much more to the pot.  I was hoping for more of a heavily packed special edition to really wow us early Birthday adopters.  But this is the best addition yet, can't argue with that.

The Definitive Evil Dead 1 and 2 (Laserdisc/ DVD/ Blu-ray/ UHD Comparison)

Well, I mentioned I wanted to tackle the first two Evil Dead movies when I took a look at a ton of Army of Darkness DVDs and blus, and today's the day. We're not going to tackle quite as many obsolete older editions this time around, but we're going to look at the definitive editions for both titles and a several older ones to give an overview. I've actually owned plenty more Evil Dead I & II DVDs back in the day, but I've sold them off at different times. But this piece should still highlight pretty much all the releases worth caring about today.

I shouldn't have to tell you what the Evil Dead movies are. Sam Raimi's original was a fun, scrappy low budget horror film about demonic possession that became a surprise hit due to its imagination and some innovative filmmaking techniques. The sequel, sometimes subtitled Dead By Dawn, is practically a remake with the original team now backed with a more sizable Dino De Laurentiis budget and effects by Mark Shostrom and the KNB guys before they were KNB. They take the opportunity to innovate more, get crazier, even sillier, and take things to more outlandish, epic proportions. Personally, it's my favorite in the trilogy, although all three manage to be different peoples' favorites for their own, legitimate reasons. Do you prefer the more straight horror film of the original, or the far out fantasy of the third? They're all pretty great in their own right, so let's not waste anymore time and the best available versions of the first two Evil Dead flicks.
Update 7/11/15 - 10/15/18: If we're going to talk about the definitive Evil Dead experience, we can't leave out its top level format release.  Yes, Lions Gate just put the original Evil Dead out on 4K Ultra HD, so of course I'm gonna talk about it.

Update 12/29/18: And right on the heels of Evil Dead's 4K release, Lions Gate has put out an Evil Dead 2 UHD.  Well, the first one turned out to be a nice upgrade, if also a little bit of a compromise (hint: hold onto one of your older special editions).  Will it be the same story with the sequel?
The original Evil Dead has had an unusually complicated history on DVD. Anchor Bay released it first as a bare bones, full screen (arguably the film's correct OAR) release in 1998, not too long after Elite released it the same way on laserdisc. Then Elite re-released their laserdisc as a special edition in 1999 with two commentaries and some behind-the-scenes stuff. And they also issued that special edition on DVD. Then Anchor Bay took the wheel again in 2002, releasing the 20th Anniversary edition, which had the Elite extras, more and introduced the world to widescreen 1.85:1 version. This widescreen version is a matted down version of the fullscreen version (i.e. it doesn't give us more picture on the sides, just crops the tops and bottoms), but was supervised and approved by Raimi.
So that's why I said the full-screen version is "arguably" the correct OAR. You could make a case for the widescreen one, too, since Raimi made it and prefers it, saying that's how it should've always been shown (and would have been matted for theaters). And it's hard to say which version looks better, either, as it seems to depend on the shot - some look better matted, some look better composed open. It's a debate that's been going on since the 90s, and if you want to start it up again, all you have to do is visit any forum and post an opinion or ask a question about it. It will never be definitively won. And it's led to the unconventional tendency for companies now to release it in both ratios at once. So if you have a strong preference for one version or the other, make sure you're getting what you want; but conveniently, it's cheap and easy to get both in the same package.

There was also a bit of business where Raimi made a few "corrections" to the film, fixing black mattes that didn't totally blend in with the background and erasing producer Rob Tapert who was accidentally visible in the background of one shot. For the most part, only the older, unmatted versions seem to have the pre-fix versions; but the changes aren't exactly as offensive as CGIing Jar Jar Binks into scenes or something. These are little fixes, not creative changes; so I think you'd have to be a real stickler to be bothered enough to only want to a version without them.

So there have been more subsequent releases, perhaps most notably the very dramatically packaged Book of the Dead version, which housed the DVD in an awesome, rubbery mock-up of the Necronomicon featured in the film (Evil Dead 2 also came in one, that also made a screaming noise if you pressed a hidden button on it). Oh, and Anchor Bay also released a lunch box edition, which is just what it sounds like. But I found I was able to let go of all my past DVDs (and laserdisc) thanks to two releases, which add up to a pretty definitive package, including best looking transfers of both versions, wide- and full-screen, and all of the many, many extras. Specifically: Anchor Bay's 2010 blu-ray, and Anchor Bay UK's 2003 Evil Dead Trilogy boxed set.

And in 2018, it makes its UHD debut in a 4k/ 1080p combo pack from Lions Gate.  As is common with these combo packs, the blu-ray half of the pack is the same old blu-ray from the previous release, in this case Anchor Bay's 2010 blu.  Same bonus trailers on start-up, same menu, it even opens with the AB logo.  It's the exact same disc.  But Lions Gate was good enough to come up with new label for it to match the rest of their artwork, which these packs often don't bother with.
Anchor Bay UK's wide DVD first, their fullscreen DVD second,
Anchor Bay's full screen blu (fullscreen) third, their blu (wide) fourth;
Lions Gate's full screen blu fifth; their widescreen blu sixth; and their UHD seventh.
Anchor Bay often would only include the widescreen version in their releases, but the Trilogy box set happily has both. Of course, that's fairly academic now, as their 2010 blu includes both transfers and blows them and all previous editions out of the water. So we won't even ask why the two DVDs seem to have differing transfers not only in the framing, but detail and color timing. It's all been greatly and decidedly improved upon. I mean, look at that random video noise along the top.

Oh alright. Actually, I do know why the full-screen transfer is softer and different. It's actually the pre-corrected version, with Rob Tapert visible, etc. See him there on the right? So if you're a purist, that's another reason to snag the Trilogy set.

But onto new business now.  And to start with, Lions Gate has made the somewhat controversial decision to only include the fullscreen transfer on their 4k disc. It's 1.33:1, just like all the other fullscreen transfers (technically the DVD's 1.32, but it becomes 1.33 when you crop away that excess video noise that isn't part of the picture).  Both the widescreens have the same AR, too: 1.85:1, but you can see there were serious adjustments made within that frame.  And that's kinda the case here, too.  You can see the DVD is more zoomed in than the other three fullscreen transfers.  But between the UHD and the blus, the biggest difference is really the colors, which are more nuanced and less contrasty now on the UHD.  Otherwise, given its 16mm roots, detail, grain etc looks pretty unchanged.  Of course, the UHD does benefit from the increased resolution technically... when you zoom in far enough, detail that starts to break down into pixelation on the 1080 is still smooth and round on the 4k.  I'm not sure you'd see it in motion even on a big ol' 82" TV.  The biggest benefit is really the increased brightness and contrast range.

Audi-wise, The DVD had a 5.1 mix, plus a stereo mix and a French dub that was on the widescreen version only.  And no subtitles.  The blu-ray has a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix, plus the French dub, and English and Spanish subs.  The UHD has the same 5.1 TrueHD track, replaces the French dub with a Spanish one, and adds a third set of subtitles (making the always welcome distinction between standard English and SDH).

So it's really two areas that complicate matters beyond it being a simple case of DVD > BD > UHD, and necessitates multiple editions for serious fans. One is the widescreen transfer.  If you want that, you have to forgo the new 4k UHD and stick with one of the blus.  And the second area, which is even more convoluted, is the extras.

See, there's actually two versions of the blu-ray. The limited edition and the non-limited. The limited edition is a single disc release that only includes an audio commentary (and some bonus trailers for other AB releases) for an extra. Interestingly, it's a new one, by Raimi, Tapert and Campbell. The previous commentaries had Raimi and Tapert on one and Campbell on the other. This one replaces that, probably mainly so Anchor Bay wouldn't have to keep licensing the commentaries from Elite. So already that's one reason to hang onto the older DVDs: the blu only has the new commentary, the Trilogy set has the two older ones.

The only way to tell the limited edition and non-limited edition blu-rays apart, at least by their front covers, is the green stripe running along the top. The non-limited edition has the same cover art, just minus that stripe. And it has the same UPC number, so things get real confusing. The limited edition is theoretically long sold out, but I've found that almost no online sellers know enough to differentiate between the two versions (same UPC and all), so you have to be very careful ordering online if you're trying to secure a particular one. But that means, to your advantage, sellers are often unwittingly letting the limited edition go for the very cheap price of the non-limited edition, so you can snag it super cheap with a little bit of luck and smarts.

But it's worth the trouble, because the bonus disc includes some really great stuff, many of which was brand new for this release. It includes a the original 53 minute making-of, a 60(!) minute feature on deleted scenes, a 29 minute featurette called The Ladies of the Evil Dead Meet Bruce Campbell, a 32 minute reunion panel, and four featurettes called Discovering the Evil Dead, Unconventional, At the Drive-In and a really short one entitled Book of the Dead: The Other Pages. There's also some brief make-up tests, four TV spots and the trailer. Holy cow, that's the special edition fans have been wanting since the 90s! Unfortunately, the bonus disc is a DVD, not a blu... it would have been nice to get all these new extras in HD. But they're just extras, so it's not that crucial, and the content is great enough as it is.

Meanwhile, the Trilogy has a couple of those extras, including the Discovering the Evil Dead featurette the trailer and the TV spots. But, besides the two commentaries, it has more of the older extras not carried over to the blu, including a 26 minute documentary Bruce Campbell directed himself called Fanalysis.  It also has the same behind the scenes and outtake footage that dates back to the laserdisc. Oh, and there are also little easter eggs of a make-up test and footage from an Evil Dead screening, plus an 8-page booklet.
But that's still not all. The Trilogy also has some exclusive extras, some of which are pretty dodgy, but still worth noting at least. The best of the bonus disc extras is the vintage episode of The Incredibly Strange Film Show, which interviews Raimi back in the late 80s. But then things get weird, with a collection of extras hosted by a rather irritating lady who sits in a tree [pictured above], with titles like Bruce Campbell: Geek or God? Rather than featuring anyone involved with the making of the film, they're a collection of interviews with mostly British journalists, including the awfully controversial Allan Bryce. Most of this stuff is pretty dry, and it doesn't help that it's mostly shot in low video quality; although some of these guys come off better than others. But nobody tells you much you won't already have known going in. The most interesting segment is a short on how the film was marketed in the UK, featuring interviews with the guys who drew the UK poster art, since they at least have a modicum of first-hand involvement. But this stuff, I'd say, should be reserved for the serious fans who really want to see everything. Otherwise it's very skippable. There's even a very cheap rock music video "inspired" by the Evil Dead, which was performed by one of the experts interviewed previously.

Still, though, the Trilogy box is a nice cheap way to get Fanalysis and the Incredibly Strange Film Show episode into your collection if you otherwise just have the blus. And the other odds and ends are at least better to have than not.

And the new UHD combo-pack?  Prepare to be disappointed.  Again, the blu is the same 2010 blu Anchor Bay released, so it has no extras but the newer commentary.  And the UHD?  Same deal; just that one commentary.  Nothing else included, not even the trailer.  Surely they wouldn't've had to license that from AB?  Well, it does come in a slipcover.
Now, Evil Dead 2 has a pretty similar story, except Elite only issued their version on laser, and left all the DVDs to Anchor Bay. In this case, I hung onto mine, because not only did I get the limited edition "blood red" laserdisc, where the disc itself is colored red (definitely something you don't see), but as you can see in the photo, I've had mine personally signed by Bruce Campbell. So it's a pretty neat collectors' item, and as a bonus, we can throw it into the comparisons.

There have been fewer issues of Evil Dead 2 in general, and we don't have the dual fullscreen/ widescreen thing going on (although Anchor Bay did once include an open matter version as a bonus on one of their old discs, possibly just out of habit). Elite released their laserdisc in 1998 with a commentary by Raimi, Campbell, Greg Nicotero and Scott Spiegel, plus a 30-minute making of and the trailer. Anchor Bay released it as a bare-bones non-anamorphic DVD in 1998 and then spruced it up as an anamorphic special edition with the laserdisc extras in 2000. There were a couple more releases - in a tin, a THX version, and the book of the dead version - but nothing more was ever really added to the mix. The disc in the trilogy is pretty much the same as all post 1998 discs: anamorphic, with the same extras from the laserdisc ported over.

But there is one complication in that Evil Dead 2 later saw two, quite different blu-ray releases. The first came from Anchor Bay in 2007, essentially just bringing their old DVD into the high definition market. And then a newer 25th Anniversary Edition from Lions Gate in 2011, which surprisingly kicked Anchor Bay's disc in the teeth. It had an all new transfer, the old extras once again carried over, plus a whole bunch of new stuff, finally giving this film the definitive special edition it deserves.

Or, at least, it was the definitive edition before a new format rolled into town.  Now that we've got a 4K Ultra HD disc, can we toss our 25th Anniversary blus?  Let's take a look and find out.
Elite's laserdisc first; Anchor Bay UK's DVD 2nd;
Anchor Bay's blu-ray third; Lions Gate's 2011 blu fourth;
Lions Gate's 2018 blu fifth; and their UHD sixth
Ick. Look at Anchor Bay's blu-ray. I mean, sure, it's an upgrade from the old 1.80:1 laserdisc, and maybe even the 1.84:1 DVD. But it's looks like the compression noise of the DVD wasn't cleaned up so much as DNR'd away. At least it's finally exactly 1.85:1, but the image looks so smooth and washed out, with weird sharpening around the edges. The closer you look, the worse it gets. Actually, with that terrible edge enhancement, I think I do prefer the DVD. But then, wow, look at Lions Gate's blu-ray's transfer (also 1.85:1). They must've taken a whole new scan; it's so much more detailed and cleaner. It's also a little less green, which is nice. Yaknow, Lions Gate gets a lot of flack (which they deserve) for sitting on a ton of great catalog titles (at least pre-Vestron), but when they come through on a title, they really come through.

And now, they've improved things even further with their UHD (the blu-ray it's packaged with, by the way, is just another copy of the 25th Anniversary Edition).  Grain is more natural and thoroughly captured even than their blu.  I know "better grain" isn't a big selling point, but it's a quick way to verify a higher quality image.  And that higher quality definitely yields us a more vivid picture.  I can't say there's a heap more detail, like we're counting every individual hair on Bruce's head, since we seem to have pretty well hit the limit of what was captured on film.  But what we do have is a decidedly more genuine, filmic experience.  Colors take advantage of the greater range, too, becoming darker and less contrasty, which is also an improvement.  Despite still having an AR of exactly 1.85:1, the framing is slightly tighter than their blu (and much closer to AB's), though not to the point where you'd notice it without a direct comparison like we have here.

Audio-wise, the laserdisc just had a basic mono track and no subs, while the DVD just gave us a 5.1 mix, plus German, Italian and Spanish dubs and a host of subtitles, including English.  The AB blu actually gives us two 5.1 mixes: LPCM and a lossy Dolby Digital, and strips away all the foreign subtitles, just leaving the English.  Lions Gate just gives us the one DTS-HD 5.1 mix, plus English and Spanish subtitles, on both the BD and UHD.  Yes, it seems to be exactly the same audio mix on both editions, but that's alright, since the blu's lossless track was already excellent.
Extras-wise, the Anchor Bay blu did come up with a little something extra. In addition to the stalwart laserdisc extras, they added a new featurette called Behind the Screams. It's just a 17 minute collection of photos narrated by Tom Sullivan, but it's kinda neat, and at least gives us a little more Evil Dead 2 content.

But then Lions Gate swoops in. They bring in all the laserdisc stuff: the commentary, the making of, and the trailer. They pick up Behind the Screams, too, so completists you don't have to worry about getting the Anchor Bay blu just for that. But then they come in with a treasure trove of new stuff. Most notably, they have a full-length (98 minutes), seven part documentary on Evil Dead 2 called Swallowed Souls, which is pretty comprehensive. They could have released just that doc by itself and I would have bought it. And then just to fill in any remaining gaps, they have a another 30 minute behind-the-scenes featurette called Cabin Fever, and a cool little 8 minute thing on the film's locations. Plus there are four stills galleries and several bonus trailers. ...And the blu was so cheap, too; it was like a budget release except really a top shelf, first class special edition.

Now the UHD itself only has two special features on it, including the audio commentary.  But because it includes the 25th Anniversary blu as well, that means we get 100% of those special features.  So unlike with the first Evil Dead, you don't need an older special edition in addition to your UHD to have everything.  Also unlike the first Evil Dead, this UHD introduces a new special feature, an almost hour-long, all new documentary.  Because the previous extras talked to pretty much everybody involved and already scared up every behind-the-scenes anecdote there is to tell, this new feature had to go in a different direction.  They talk to nine other horror filmmakers about Evil Dead 2, and the influence it had on their work.  All told, the line is: Roger Corman, Guillermo del Toro, Edgar Wright, Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Splice), Jan Kounen (maybe not a big horror director, but he made that Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky movie), Xavier Gens (he did a couple obscure indie horrors and was one of the 26 ABC's of Death directors), Fabrice du Welz (even looking him up on the imdb didn't clarify anything for me), Eric Valette (best known for the English language remake of Takashi Miike's One Missed Call, I guess) and Marcus Nispel who did the Texas Chainsaw and Friday the 13th remakes for Platinum Dunes.  Can you tell this doc was made in France?  Anyway, it's kinda neat.  And this release also comes in a cool, shiny slipcover.
It's really awesome how good the final blu-rays came out for both these films, and with surprising terrific new extras for both. In the age of "do we really need another Evil Dead disc," the UHDs earn their keep, too.  Especially the second one.  It's just a little annoying that you need to find an older disc of the first Evil Dead to have most of its key special features.  And if you still want more after those, get that UK set.  It's got all kinds of weird odds and ends.

Bringing Grimy 16mm To 4K: Maniac (Multiple DVD/ Blu-ray Comparisons)

Alright, it's always interesting to see 16mm films brought to HD, and 16mm films don't get much more "interesting" than William Lustig's sleaze classic Maniac. Lustig's been participating in special editions of his horror debut since Elite starting putting it out on laserdisc and DVD in the 90s. It went to Anchor Bay when Lustig was working with them, and it eventually found its natural home at Blue Underground when Lustig founded that label. More recently, in 2010, BU gave the film its HD debut on blu-ray as a special edition 2-disc 30th Anniversary Edition. And you might notice one more cover up top there; we'll get to that one a little later.

Update 5/7/16 - 12/28/18:  And now, in 2018, they've released it in an even newer edition, freshly restored in 4k.  But in this case, it's even more warranted than other recent 4k re-releases, because Blue Underground has uncovered Maniac's negatives, as opposed to the prints all previous discs have been culled from.  So this should be good!
1980 is kind of early to be making big twists to the slasher genre, but that's what Maniac did, effectively turning the genre on its head by telling the film from the perspective of the killer rather than one of the prospective victims. We see the world through his damaged and deranged eyes, where he isn't just a figure of fright but a tragic victim. Which isn't to say that he's terribly empathetic. He's about as creepy and despicable as they come, and so the film is asking to go to some very dark places.
It's pulled off primarily thanks to an incredibly devoted performance by Joe Spinell. This would be an Academy Award winning performance if only it were possible to get Academy members to watch films like Maniac. Lustig shines with some impressive set pieces, thanks also to the great Tom Savini, as well as his mastery at capturing the darker sides of New York City, but it's Spinell who really elevates this film. The film takes some unexpected turns, as high end fashion photographer Caroline Munro is inexplicably charmed by our anti-hero, or when the Maniac starts borrowing from Carrie. But at the end of the day, it's the chilling truthful aspects brought to the film that make it truly effective.
So I've got Blue Underground's 2007 DVD here to see how it stacks up to their subsequent blu-rays. I've seen this film projected live a couple years ago, and I'm not sure the phrase "golf ball-sized grain" could be considered an exaggeration. So it's always interesting to see the blus bring to the table when there's not really a much more detail to be mined. And then to see, now that we've gone back to the original negatives in 2018, how much that has or hasn't changed. Then, to spice things up a little more, I'm also adding my 2003 DVD from GCTHV, which I originally opted for because it had a unique feature not on any of Elite/ AB/ BU discs. So we'll see how that fits in as well.
2007 US BU DVD on top; 2003 French GCTHV mid; 2010 BU blu-ray bottom.
The first thing you'll notice is that Blue's 2010 blu is quite, well, blue. You really notice it in the second set of shots, but it's there in the first and throughout the rest of the film, too. I'm thinking this is more a creative, revisionist decision than coming down to the film elements or anything. But given that a BU transfer is a Lustig transfer, I guess that makes it an inherently director approved decision.  If it is, though, it's a decision he reserved in 2018, because the colors are back to naturalistic.  In the end, which looks better? Before, I wrote that the ideal was somewhere in the middle; the DVDs (both of them are pretty much the exact same transfer) are a bit red, the old blu's too blue. Just look at the walls in the background; white walls are either pink or blue... not that perfectly true to life white balance has to be a director's vision. But I guess BU must've agreed with me, because this latest version is that happy medium, without the blue overcast or the excessive red.

As far as detail? There's not much increase between the DVD and old blu, but it did capture more of the grain. Still ultimately a grimy transfer at its core.  Noisy, funky, and sometimes soft. To some degree, that's just the 16mm film itself, but as we see in the 2018 blu, with the OCN on hand, there was a lot more clarity to be mined.  The film is so much clearer, and the grain is both finer and thanks to the 4k, accurately captured.  And yes, substantial detail, like the smile of the girls in the photographs on the wall of the first set of shots, as been restored.  And look at that framing!  While 1.85:1 in every case, the new scan pulls out further revealing substantially more picture, especially in that first set of shots, but throughout the entire film.  In short, the jump from 2010 blu to 2018 blu is even more of an upgrade than the initial jump from DVD to blu.

Audio-wise, both DVDs featured DTS-ES 6.1, 5.1 EX and Dolby 2.0 Surround tracks. The BU DVD also has French and Spanish dubs plus Spanish subs, and the French disc, naturally, has optional/ removable French subtitles. The 2010 blu has a DTS-HD 7.1 track, and the 5.1 EX, as well as French, German and Italian dubs and subtitles in eight different languages including English HoH. The 2018 blu keeps the 7.1, but swaps out the 5.1 to bring back the 2.0 mix, though now that's in lossless DTS-HD, too.  It has all the foreign language options of the previous blu, plus an additional Spanish dub and seven more subtitle languages.
So the picture quality may not be so amazing, but if you want extras, oh boy! The Anchor Bay/ Blue Underground discs were already pretty loaded, with an audio commentary featuring Lustig, Savini, editor Lorenzo Marinelli and Luke Walter (a close friend of Spinell who also helped on this picture). It's a really active, informative talk. Then there's a great, 50 minute documentary called The Joe Spinell Story, which covers his career and unique personality really well. And there's a 20-minute vintage radio interview with Lustig, Joe Spinell and Caroline Munro. Then there's a bunch of little stuff like stills galleries, an easter egg of William Friedkin mentioning Maniac, and a whole ton of trailers, TV spots and radio spots.
The French DVD has all of that (except if it has the easter egg, I can't find it), sticking most of the extras on a second disc. But it also has the Mr Robbie footage, which is a mini-film Spinell shot to raise footage for an unmade Maniac 2. That's been around for a while, dating back to the laserdisc and old Elite DVD, but for some reason none of the AB/ BU DVDs had it. The French DVD also had an exclusive 20-minute interview with Caroline Munro, albeit with burnt in subtitles. Apart from the old radio interview, her voice was always absent from the old DVDs, so it was nice to have this new piece on the French disc. Oh, and they had a 10-minute featurette with a couple critics talking about the film, but that's all in French, so it doesn't help us English speakers at all.

But then BU came with their 30th Anniversary release, determined to make a definitive edition. They got all the extras from the past AB/ BU discs, plus Mr. Robbie and a ton of new stuff. They didn't get the French Munro interview, but they got their own, which is every bit as good. They got a new on-camera interview with Tom Savini, an interview with composer Jay Chattaway, and an all-new audio commentary with Lustig and co-producer Andrew Garroni. The new commentary is fairly redundant, but there's some new stuff mixed in there, too. And there's a really unexpected interview with the two guys who wrote the hit song "Maniac," which was made famous in Flashdance. Apparently, it's been rumored that they named the song after this film, so Lustig tracked them down to ask them about it, and it's kinda true. They even perform a special, original version of the song with lyrics about a mad killer, as opposed to dancing!
And yes, it's a Christmas film!
The second disc, (which is also a blu, also includes a ton of vintage news footage about the film, including reviews and reports on the controversy, as it was often protested by women's groups where ever it played. There's a 48-minute interview with Lustig on a cable access show called Movie Madness, an old TV interview with Munro, Joe Spinell's appearance on The Joe Franklin Show, and a more recent 22-minute Q&A. It's great how much stuff has been preserved and packed onto here. Oh, and the Friedkin easter egg is back, too.

And the 2018 blu even piles more on top of that!  It has all the 2010 stuff from both discs, plus a couple new featurettes.  My favorite has Lustig touring the NY filming locations... wait'll you see how the sleazy hotel has changed!  Then, Lustig provides running commentary for almost 20 minutes worth of outtakes which were newly found with the negatives.  Some of his commentary repeats anecdotes from other special features, but there's some really neat glimpses behind-the-scenes and at some alternate versions of scenes.  This version also includes a soundtrack CD (hence the "3-Disc Limited Edition" banner), a very cool lenticular slipcover, a 20-page booklet with notes by Michael Gingold, another insert for a Maniac comic book and reversible cover art. 
So the first blu was technically an upgrade, sure, but it was fairly minimal. Casual viewers wouldn't care, and the color timing differences were far more noticeable than any bump in quality. But the extras were another story, giving you everything you could want. Super impressive, at least so long as you bought the original 2-disc set (in 2012, BU issued a cheaper, single disc edition of the blu-ray, which is missing a ton of the great features).  But the 4k blu is an upgrade even laymen will appreciate.  And they even coughed up a couple more features, plus some sweet packaging enhancements, to make a true ultimate edition.  Oh, I suppose there's still the French DVD.  It was better than the US DVD at the time, but I really wouldn't recommend double-dipping for it now.  The special features here are already loaded up to overkill.  You're not going to finish watching it all and be hungry for another interview, especially once it starts to get redundant.