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.

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