Dueling Blus: Oliver Stone's Forgotten Horror Masterpiece, Seizure

Here's a film you missed out on if you bought Warner Bros' big 15-disc Oliver Stone Collection in 2001 or their subsequent, revamped Ultimate Oliver Stone Collection in 2004.  1974's Seizure is one of Oliver Stone's least known but still arguably one of his absolute best feature films.  It's basically been languishing in obscurity until Scorpion rescued it in 2014; but being a smaller cult label, it still hasn't blipped on all the radars it should.  I've just been looking back at my old copy of Video Watchdog #26 devoted to the film, which Lucas called "unbelievably good" and "the most remarkable horror film to emerge since William Friedkin's The Exorcist."  That's high praised for sure, but not unwarranted.  There have long been rumors that Stone is ashamed of this film, but when you read his interview you can tell he was proud of it and was very frustrated that so few people saw it because the distributors let it languish.  Even the generic title, Seizure, was a forced replacement for his much more descriptive and alluring title The Queen of Evil.  In fact, I've been going back through Stone's catalog, and some of his most famous films are starting to feel a little creaky and dated.  But I feel Seizure, on the other hand (and Salvador, too; but that's for a whole other post), is only getting better with age.
Admittedly, Seizure is a bit of a dream logic horror film like, say, Inferno; so it's going to frustrate a lot of viewers.  In fact, according to Stone's VW interview, it's based very directly on a dream of his, but enhanced with some great ideas and fleshed out characterization.  In short, Jonathan Frid (Dark Shadows) is an author struggling to finish his latest horror story for children.  He invites all his friends to stay with him and his family for the weekend, when they're visited upon by three figures of death.  It's declared that only one shall survive the night, and he's powerless to stop them.  I was just talking in a recent post about how tiresome it can get when movies continually dangle the supernatural question in front of the audience: are the ghosts real or imaginary?  The Turn Of the Screw is a literary classic and deservedly so; but in lesser hands, it can be pretty tedious as the writer keeps yanking your chain back and forth between "it's real! No, it's a dream!"  We don't really know here either, but the power of this film is that it doesn't fucking matter.  We're trapped in this primal darkness no matter what.
There's a great contrast in this film between its bleak nihilism - we're going to watch a group of people twist and die unhappily, in the vein of films like Wolf Creek or House On the Edge Of the Park - and the almost childish vision of Seizure's iconic villains: their wicked leader The Queen of Evil, the giant executioner The Jackal, and a sadistic dwarf known as The Spider, played by a pre-Fantasy Island Hervé Villechaize, who's just terrific.  Really, the whole cast is great, which really serves to elevate the proceedings.  Martine Beswick plays the Queen (that's right, not Mary Woronov, who's actually cast as a fairly normal person for a change!), Joseph Sirola goes over the top but in all the right ways; and even though I was prepared for a wooden turn by the infamous Troy Donahue, he actually delivers a very naturalistic, convincing portrayal in Stone's hands.  All of his famous filmmaking strengths can be found in this early, overlooked work, including some bold editing choices and certainly the writing (Stone shares a credit with a co-writer, but he told Lucas that re-writer only did a little editorial clean-up and was really involved more in a business aspect).  One of the moments that elevates this script from good to great comes right near the end and is a huge spoiler, so I won't say it here; but wait 'till you get to it.
Stone made a second horror film after this, The Hand, which is a little better known and respected.  It's certainly a good film with an excellent lead role by Michael Caine.  But to me it feels like a more conventional, watered down version of Seizure, which he essentially had to remake because his first effort had been practically buried.  I mean, don't get me wrong, it's a completely different premise and the story is told very differently.  But it feels like it revisits all the same core themes and emotions because his first attempt to exorcise them before the public here was stymied.  So The Hand might be a little more polished and satisfying for the casual viewer who isn't interested in being confronted by their Friday night flick.  But to me, Seizure is the more important and powerful work of the two.
So, like I said, Seizure hasn't had a big life on home video.  I took a film course and the professor who was talking about Stone's body of work hadn't even seen this film.  It was released on VHS a couple of times by some smaller labels, but all we had of it on DVD was that same VHS transfer ripped onto a grey market disc by Substance.  Still, you put up with it because it was all we got.  Until 2014, that is, when Scorpion saved the day and released DVD and blu-ray editions of an all new, high-def master from the original vault elements.  Unless you caught it during its rare original screenings in the early 70s, this was your first time seeing it in widescreen!  Old reviews constantly deride this film for its bad lighting in the night scenes, but that's surely due to its dupey, dark video transfer, because it all looks very clear and professional now.  Coming from Scorpion and not Universal, you can bet they didn't exactly get Stone in for an audio commentary or feature length documentary, but they did scare up a couple, very good special features.  It's been the definitive, must-have edition until just recently, when a German challenger entered the scene.  Their blu is a longer cut of the film, a composite cut of HD footage and restored scenes from German VHS release that runs about five minutes longer.
So let's talk about this longer cut.  As you can see, it's fullscreen and obviously lower quality, taken from a video tape rather than original film elements.  Though, for VHS-sourced footage, it's not looking too bad.  Yes, the aspect ratio changes for the additional footage (a curious choice, since it's basically open matte... I'm surprised they didn't matte to match the rest of the film).  But what's this extra footage?  How essential to the film is it?  Well, it's not absolutely critical, but it isn't superfluous fluff that deserved to be cut either.  Some of the changes are minor... When Woronov comes out of the gas station bathroom, in the extended cut we just get a quick extra shot of dirty graffiti on the walls, showing us what a dive it is.  But if this movie left you puzzled and longing for answers about "what the heck did I just watch" - and it is that kind of movie - this version definitely gives you some more towards that, in particular a large chunk of dialogue between Frid and Roger De Koven that really delves into the questions at the heart of the film, but still without giving away too much.  Check out movie-censorship's breakdown for every single detail, but in short, I'd say the longer cut is superior, but not drastically so.  It's not an eye-opening revelation... or chock full of additional exploitation elements if that's what you're after.  But it's certainly the one I'll always go back to now for future watches.

Oh, and it has to be noted that Schroder Media's disc gives you the option of watching the longer or shorter cut - both versions on on their disc.
2014 US Scorpion blu on top; 2017 German Schroder Media blu bottom.
Apart from the added inserts, it's clear both blus are taken from the same master.  The film is presented in 1.78:1 with bold colors and natural, filmic look.  Grain is visible and genuine, though predating the cutting edge clarity of today's 4k scans.  But it looks beautiful, and thankfully hasn't been tampered with an any of the common pitfall ways like edge enhancement.  It has a very natural look with attractive coloring.  There are a few cases of film damage, but they're rare and not too distracting.  Actually, one review I read online suggested Stone purposefully crafted them into the film as an artistic decision, but I haven't been able to confirm this; and from the German videotape footage, it appears the damage wasn't present on the German VHS... and I wouldn't think Stone was still tweaking the film after those tapes was released.  Anyway, I have to point out that the two blus aren't 100% completely identical.  Upon direct comparison, the blacks and shadows of the Scorpion disc are noticeably darker than the Schroder disc, which lightens them just a tad.  It never actually reveals any additional picture information, though; they're not correcting crushed blacks or anything.  It's just a slight distinction, and it's hard to really pick a preference.  I guess Scorpion's blacks are "truer," so I'd go with that one; but it's really a pretty arbitrary call.

Audio options are pretty much the same across the board.  We're given the original mono track in DTS-HD 2.0.  It's very strong, though there's some hiss from the vintage elements.  It's not distracting, but very evident when stopping and starting the film mid-viewing.  Both discs have offer the complete English audio (yes, the added VHS scenes also have their original English audio despite being supposedly taken from a German tape), and neither disc offers subtitles of any kind.  The Schroder disc offers an additional German dub, of course, also in DTS-HD, and it's completely clean, without any hiss.
So far it sounds like the Scorpion used to be the disc to get, but Schroder has thoroughly unseated it as the definitive release, right?  And that may be absolutely true, but here's where Scorpion still makes a case for itself.  They've got some great, exclusive extras.  The highlight is absolutely Mary Woronov's, roughly fifteen minute on-camera interview.  There is forthcoming and then there's this.  She's very funny and very no-holds barred.  She has great memories and anecdotes about this film, and it's a joy to watch.  They also interview co-star Richard Cox, which is good, although they do that thing where they spend a most of the time just having him run through every film on his imdb page; and he winds up talking more about Cruising than Seizure.  But he does have some good stuff to say about this film, and it's a good watch... just not on the same level as the Woronov talk.

So Scorpion has two interviews and the trailer.  Not a ton, but substantially more than the German blu, which just has the trailer.  It does also come in a slip sleeve, and has reversible artwork (typical of German discs, it's the same art, just without the large ratings logo).  It's a numbered, limited release of 1000 (mine's #338).  But I'm not sure if the whole disc is limited, or - probably more likely - just the initial run with the slip sleeve.  I say "slip sleeve" instead of slipcover, because it opens from the side as opposed to the top and bottom.
So okay, let's make some final tallies.  I do believe the longer cut is the preferred cut of the film, so if you don't have either disc, you're going to want to import the German blu for that.  Especially since it still lets you watch the short cut, just in case you wind up disagreeing with me, or if the inserts' dip in quality really bothers you.  But do the added scenes add so much that it's worth double-dipping if you already own the Scorpion version?  Very possibly not, unless like me you're a really big fan of this film.  And if you have the German disc, do Scorpion's extras warrant a double-dip in the other direction?  Again, if you're a big fan: yes, because those extras are good 'uns.  But if you just kinda like this film and want it in your collection, but aren't really in love with it, you can probably sleep at night with just one of these blus.  Anyway, that's where the chips fall, so now what to get or not is up to you.  But personally, I'm happy I've got both.  It was the right call for me.

1 comment:

  1. Too bad that Oliver Stone never considered continuing on paving a career in horror/genre cinema(before becoming better known for his controversial,politically motivated dramas),since he had quite the knack in delivering heavily dark and soul shaking films(of that field)that include this film,THE HAND,and (the modern noir)U-TURN, for once anyone sees SEIZURE(and THE HAND) they'll truly never forget it.