A Pair of Blue Undergrounds #2: The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

1974's The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue, a.k.a. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, a.k.a. Don't Open the Window, and even briefly as Zombi 3, is just a good zombie film.  It's not an important zombie film; it didn't break any new ground, push any envelopes or launch any careers.  And in this time of zombie saturation, where we're swimming in everything from mainstream zombie parodies to a billion seasons of The Walking Dead, it may not even be noteworthy.  But for its time, five years even before Lucio Fulci's classic Zombie, it was a real treat.  And if you can look past the fatigue or elevated expectations (nothing in this film is going to shock or surprise audiences in 2019) brought about by the insane glut of hangers-on and knock-offs, it actually holds up quite well.
Plot-wise, this one's pretty straight forward.  Some careless, ecologically unfriendly corporation is recklessly misusing radiation (message!), and inadvertently wakes up some corpses, who've developed a taste for human flesh in the process.  A generic leading man type crosses path with a generic leading lady type, and they wind up getting accused of committing a murder, and the police just won't take their "a dead man did it" explanation seriously.  So they wind up on the run together, trying to figure out what's going on as the zombie menace expands across the country-side.  It takes an awfully long time to arrive at Manchester Morgue, but eventually both man and zombie meet up their for a final showdown.
It's a bit slow moving, and feels all the more so when everybody who's ever heard of a zombie movie before knows full well where it's all going, but it's got some good atmosphere and well directed scenes.  It's a Spanish/ Italian co-production, but makes great use of some cool English locations.  It's not as gory or effects heavy as genre fans would probably like, but when it gets to the main horror set-pieces, they still perform really well.  The "lead" zombie (think Bill Hinzman in Night Of the Living Dead), strikes a pretty imposing figure, a man who drowned himself in a lake by tying himself to a large rock, now still wrapped in his rope, coming for victims with a menacing lurch.  It's also got to be one of the first zombie films to delve into zombie babies (sorry, Zack Snyder), and it all comes to a tidy, satisfying conclusion.
Anchor Bay first released this film as Let Sleeping Corpses Lie on DVD back in 2000, as a standard release and in a limited edition tin (mine's #1726 of 5000).  Blue Underground reissued it on DVD in 2007, but then quickly rendered that edition obsolete less than a year later by putting out a 2008 2-disc special edition under the Living Dead At Manchester Morgue title.  And in another single year, they rendered that version obsolete by issuing it on blu-ray in 2009.  A decade later now, where do we stand?
2000 Anchor Bay DVD top; 2009 Blue Underground BD below.
Well, a modest upgrade.  The colors look a bit flatter, but they bring down the flashy highlights, which I'd say is a good thing.  The framing shifts ever so slightly from 1.84:1 to 1.86:1.  Artifact noise on the DVD has been cleaned up, which is the biggest appreciable upgrade.  But grain and fine detail is all over the place.  Look at the first shot... not of the comparisons, but the first screenshot in this write-up, where they're testing their weird device on the countryside.  The film grain in the sky there is very distinct and authentic, especially for an older blu.  But then look at the sky in the first set of comparison shots: the grain looks just about as smoothed away on the blu as on the DVD.  Now, let's get in close to the second set of shots.
2000 Anchor Bay DVD left; 2009 Blue Underground BD right.
Yikes!  Here, I actually prefer the DVD (and this is the old Anchor Bay DVD, remember) to the blu.  Clearly, there's artificial smoothing at play here, as well as some effect that really makes that guy's one eyeball pop.  I was just talking about how Dead & Buried could possibly benefit from a new 4k transfer, but we might've found an even better candidate here.

Audio-wise, Anchor Bay offered us the original mono track in Dolby Digital 2.0 surround, and a remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 track.  Blue Underground... well, the case says it has three tracks: 7.1 DTS-HD, 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Ex and the original mono track.  But the 5.1 doesn't seem to actually be on the disc.  Anyway, the 7.1 seems to be roughly the same as the old 5.1 except now it's lossless and mixed for the extra channels.  I'm just glad the mono's still there.  To make it more of an upgrade, however, the old DVD lacked subtitles, while the blu adds English, French and Spanish.
Here's the best thing about the BU disc - new and better extras.  Actually, strictly speaking, these were introduced with the 2007 2-disc special edition DVD; but they're all still here on the blu and a substantial step forward from the original DVD.  Not that the old DVD was barebones.  It had a brief introduction by the director and then a nice on-camera interview with him after.  It also had the trailer, a couple radio spots and a stills gallery.  Plus, if you got the tin, you got a nice 24-page booklet with notes by Nigel J. Burrell, a pair of inserts, an amusing Manchester Morgue toe tag, and of course the fancy looking tin itself.

The blu-ray carries over everything except the hardcopy stuff from the tin (in other words, everything actually on the disc), but also adds some new features which flesh things out substantially more.  First of all, there's an all new, much longer interview with the director, where he tours the English shooting locations of the film and shares a lot more memories of the filmmaking.  Then there are new on-camera interviews with star Raymond Lovelock and Giannetto De Rossi, who of course went on to do Fulci's zombie films.  They also dug up two more trailers for the film.
So hey, as long as we're wishing for 4k re-releases, you can add this one to the list for me.  I liked the special features Blue Underground came up with for the film, but in terms of PQ, I feel like there's a lot of room for this title to grow.  And while it may not be one of the flashier films in Blue Underground's catalog, but as such a solid, well made zombie film that hit the DVD market fairly early on, I imagine it must be at least somewhat of a consistent seller for them.  If nothing else, it would give them another excuse to look again for that rumored, lost eyeball eating scene.  😉

A Pair of Blue Undergrounds #1: Dan O'Bannon's Dead & Buried, Potentially In 4K? (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Hey, guys!  Welcome to the first of a little series of posts I'm going to be doing here, as I add some more key back catalog films to this site.  It's pretty straight forward, a pair of releases from a particular label; so this post and the next one will be looking at Blue Underground discs, another set will be a pair of Scream Factories, and so on.  You know, just to make things a little more interesting.... if it even does that; I'm not really sure.  haha
1981's Dead & Buried is a neat little Dan O'Bannon horror movie.  Maybe it's not quite as awesome as his Return Of the Living Dead, but it's also substantially better than Bleeders.  Set in a small fishing village, it has a grim, oppressive atmosphere, but soon a hint of O'Bannon's signature wit begins to poke through.  The story revolves around a series of cruel murders, seemingly perpetrated by at least half the community acting in conjunction, and with a curious propensity for photography.  The local sheriff tries to investigate, growing increasingly paranoid until even his own wife begins to feel like a suspect.  It doesn't help that circumstances continue to get stranger, especially once the victims start turning up again as living townsfolk.  There's not exactly an all-star cast in this one, but cult fans will have fun picking out supporting roles being played by people like Barry Corbin, Lisa Blount (Prince of Darkness), Robert Englund, and Jack Albertson (Grandpa Joe of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) as the local mortician.  And the great Stan Winston drops by the provide some impressive, and somewhat disgusting, special effects.
Blue Underground originally released Dead & Buried on DVD back in 2003 as a Limited Edition 2-disc set.  A wider release edition followed in 2005, the difference being the second disc of extras and the individually numbered slip-box of the LE.  Mine is #03141 of 10,000.  Ha, remember the heyday of physical media when 10,000 copies was considered a limited run to be snatched up quick?  Anyway, BU released it again in 2009 on blu-ray, with all of the Limited Edition extras reunited with the film.  2009's a bit old for a blu-ray, though, and in fact this title has been floated out there as a possible 4k re-release if their initial titles were a success.  And considering how good Maniac turned out, I'm certainly ready for more.  But does Dead & Buried really need another upgrade?  Let's see.
2003 BU DVD on top; 2009 BU BD bottom.
Dead & Buried's a bit of a challenging film to even discuss in terms of picture quality.  What's the first thing you notice from these screenshots?  Maybe that they look like murky swirls of brown and grey?  But that's presumably an intentional defused and desaturated aesthetic of the film.  It all takes place in a provincial, muddy fishing village shot in low light and taking place largely at night, and in his commentary, the DP talks about putting multiple filters over the lens and the slower emulsion of the film they used.  Then again, even in the opening, where the scene takes place on the beach in bright daylight, we're looking at heavy, yellow grain dancing all over the otherwise bright blue sky.  Between that and the chunky black flecks that appear sporadically throughout the picture, it almost looks like a 16mm film, again like Maniac.  Except this Dead & Buried was actually shot in 35mm.  So as much as we're assured that the film is meant to have a muted look that draws the viewer in, making us peer through the fog and search out the action, I can't help but suspect that a fresh 4k scan of the original camera negatives - which I do not believe were used for these existing discs - couldn't reveal at least as much as Maniac's impressive redux.

But rather than getting even more speculative, let me reign myself back into what we've actually got on hand.  After the flat, brown look, the second thing you'll probably notice about these shots is that the DVD and blu look awfully similar.  The DVD is slightly matted to 1.84:1, while the blu-ray removes those mattes, opening it up to 1.78:1.  But apart from that, the 2009 blu is almost certainly using the same master, giving viewers almost the same viewing experience watching the blu that they got from the DVD.  Not to accuse BU of selling us an upconvert or any bad business like that.  Look at the smaller print on the gravestone they're digging up in the second set of shots: it's definitely clearer and easier to read on the BD than the DVD.  And what is clearly film grain on the blu is often just compression smudges on the DVD.  I just mean to say, that if you're not hunting and pecking for distinctions like I am, because so much detail is soft or hard to discern in either version, you don't feel the boosted resolution of the HD.  It's there; it's just a very subtle boost.
Audio-wise, they really lay out the options, even to the point of excess.  The DVD gives us four audio mixes: English DTS 6.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround and Dolby Digital 2.0 Dual Mono.  The original mono's all I really worry about, and it's clear and strong enough.  But as long as that's included, I'm certainly not mad at them creating stereo and additional channel mixes; in fact some of the separation is rather effective and adds to the suspense.  Good thing, because the blu-ray chucks it.  They lose the stereo mix, too, but keep the 5.1 while adding two new, lossless mixes in 7.1: TrueHD and DTS-HD.  They sound great, but I miss my original mono (restoring that could be another potential selling point for a 4k release - just sayin'!).  If that's somewhat of a step backwards, though, the fact that the DVD has no subtitle options, while the blu-ray does (English, plus Spanish and French) is a nice step forward again.
The extras came pretty strong right out of the gate.  The DVD features not one, not two, but three audio commentaries.  One with director Gary Sherman, one with co-writer/ producer Ronald Shusett and actress Linda Turley and the aforementioned cinematographer Steve Poster one.  They're all quite good, though the moderator has to keep prodding Ron and Linda out of silence and I suppose the Poster one could be a little boring for casual viewers.  But serious enthusiasts will appreciate the more technical info provided.  But on the main disc - the only disc included in the non-limited edition version - that's all there is except for a photo gallery and a couple trailers.

The limited edition, though, has a second disc, with three interviews.  It's not a ton of material, totally less than 45 minutes that could've surely fit on the main disc if they wanted it to.  But it's pretty neat stuff, with one talking to Stan Winston' about his graphic special effects, a light-hearted chat with Robert Englund about his early role, and the most essential: an on-camera interview with O'Bannon himself.  And they threw in one more stills gallery - location photos by Steve Post - for good measure.

The blu-ray doesn't add anything new to the mix, but they at least remembered to include the bonus disc interviews as well as the commentaries and everything from the main DVD.  So maybe a little disappointing to not get anything new, but we got so much already, you can't say it doesn't feel like a pretty decked out disc.
So look, what we've got isn't bad.  It's certainly a satisfying special edition of a cool but not especially famous little horror film.  I already recommend it as is; but it was a pretty mild advancement to HD.  I honestly don't know how much more there is to pull out of the film, and I at least know better than to expect a technicolor Oz; but again, it was shot on 35, so I'm optimistic.  If BU could can work the level of magic they did with Maniac, which was 16, then this would be a very exciting upgrade I'd jump all over.  🤞

Both Quatermass and the Pits (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Happy 2016, gang! To bring in the new year, we're going to take a look at our first Hammer Film on DVDExotica. Actually, I'm not a huge Hammer guy, but I know a ripping science fiction tale when I've got one in my mitts. Today's film is Quatermass and the Pit, often released as Five Million Years To Earth in the US and other markets generally less well versed in the brilliant writings of Nigel Kneale. This third chapter in the Quatermass saga has been released on DVD plenty around the world, but we haven't got it in HD yet, here in the USA. Fortunately, that's no problem for everybody who's region free, as Studio Canal has issued a top notch blu of it over in the UK.

Update 1/1/16 - 1/8/19: Originally I just had a little bit about the 1958 original version of Quatermass and the Pit, in comparison to the 1967 I was covering.  But now that BFI has just re-released and remastered the original on an awesome new special edition blu, I'm adding full coverage of that, too.
Prof. Bernard Quatermass first ran into trouble in 1953, in the BBC production of The Quatermass Experiment. Now it's 1967, and Quatermass's story is in the hands of Hammer, with Dracula: Prince of Darkness's Andrew Keir now in the title role. It's a fairly heady science fiction story for Hammer, low on monsters and action, but rich in character and ideas. Paleontologists are called in when primitive skeletons are found during the excavation of a new subway tunnel. Then the military is called in when they find what appears to be an unexplored WWII bomb. And Quatermass winds up in between these two factions when they realize that both of these discoveries have been buried beneath the Earth for over five million years. How can that be possible? What does that imply? Everything from ghosts, to Martians, to the devil himself seem to have a hand in this bizarre mystery that reaches right into heart of man's evolution.
The same moment in 1958...
...and 1967.
Like the previous two Quatermass films from Hammer, this is another remake of an earlier BBC serial of the same title (all of which were released on a highly recommended DVD set by the BBC in 2005, pictured right). Unlike the previous two, however, which sometimes lost some crucial points in the crossover, Kneale himself wrote the screenplay, leading to a much more successful cinematic conversion. Expert direction by Roy Ward Baker and lavish production values certainly don't hurt either. This is the first time we see Quatermass in color. The longer version is certainly a richer, fuller story in some aspects, and I miss some details in this tighter recreation, but this is the first time Hammer has really lived up to the BBC originals.
Quatermass and the Pit's DVD debut was Anchor Bay's 1998 Hammer Collection DVD, which was essentially a port of Elite's laserdisc that was released earlier the same year with roughly the same 1.66:1 transfer, audio commentary, etc. It remains the definitive release in the USA to date. Over the years, it's come out on DVD in just about every region of the world, but it wasn't until 2011 when it was given an updated, HD release by way of a blu-ray/ DVD combo pack from Studio Canal in the UK. I've got it here, along with Anchor Bay's original disc, so let's see how much of an upgrade we really got.
AB's 1998 DVD on top, SC's 2011 DVD mid, and SC's 2011 blu bottom.
Well, Studio Canal had the carpet pretty well laid down for them by the fact that Anchor Bay's disc is so old, it isn't even anamorphic. I left the negative space around each image in the first set of shots so you can see how they'd appear on a widescreen set. Studio Canal would have to fail pretty hard not to improve upon that. And they certainly didn't fail. What did strike me, though, was the surprisingly strong difference in quality between even Studio Canal's blu and the DVD they included in the same pack. Sure, it's roughly the same transfer, but it seems even softer and less detailed than you'd expect an SD copy to look.

Anyway, Studio Canal preserves essentially the same 1.66:1 ratio as the past releases, but has unveiled additional picture on all four sides. And for a non-anamorphic image, Anchor Bay's disc looks pretty good, and it's not interlaced, but Studio's new blu certainly stands apart with its crisper, finer picture. Grain and colors look a bit more natural, too (those army uniforms look genuinely green in the new shots); though the difference is only really noticeable in certain shots. Honestly, had AB's disc been anamorphic, I probably wouldn't have bothered to upgrade; but now that I've seen it in high definition, I'm glad I did.

Anchor Bay provided both a 2.0 stereo track and a 5.1 mix. Studio Canal does away with the latter, but their lossless LPCM 2.0 audio is the best of the lot. SC has also added optional English HOH subtitles, which AB didn't bother with.
Another reason I'm glad to have upgraded is the collection of special features. Now, the original DVD was already pretty good in that department. The aforementioned audio commentary is a treasure as it pairs Kneale and Baker, both of whom have now left us. There are a few pauses and gaps, but for the most part they're full of excellent insight and rather fun to listen to. AB's disc also ported over the trailers (one for Quatermass & the Pit and one for Five Million Years To Earth) and TV spots from the laser. It's also added an episode of World of Hammer, a video series Anchor Bay created for their Hammer Collection series, with each DVD including a 20+ exploration of Hammer's films, narrated by Oliver Reed. This particular episode focuses, naturally, on Hammer's entries into science fiction. Unfortunately, it's pretty much all just long clips from the films rather than any kind of documentary look at them, so I found it fairly disappointing. And if you're worried about spoilers, definitely don't watch it, as it shows you the ending of pretty much every film it introduces. The one good thing about it, though, is that it shows you a lot of Brian Donlevy's performances as Quatermass from the first two films, which is pretty illuminating if you're starting with Keir and the Pit. So it is nice to have in that respect.

AB's DVD also had a nice cardstock insert reproducing the film's original lobby card.

Happily, nothing was lost on the blu-ray except for the TV spots. The commentary, World of Hammer and both trailers are still here. And also on hand is a collection of terrific interviews, all fairly robust and not padded out with films clips. We get Kneale's widow, Judith Kerr, who thankfully has a lot of memories about Kneale's work to share. We get a jovial one with Colonel Breen himself, Julian Glover, and we get four expert testimonials from the excellent Kim Newman, Marcus Hearn, who focuses more on Hammer overall, Mark Gatiss and even Joe Dante! Also thrown in are the American opening credits with the Five Million Years title.

Interestingly, however, Studio Canal has only included the extras (any and all of them) on the blu-ray. So if you were planning to purchase this combo-pack for the DVD half, you're in for quite a disappointment.
Meanwhile, the original Quatermass and the Pit debuted on DVD in 2000 from Meridian Entertainment as a slightly abridged version, where all six episodes of the series was edited into a single feature.  In 2005, BBC restored it to its original serial version in a 3-disc set with the other surviving Quatermass serials.  And now, in 2018, the BFI was able to perform further restoration on the film portions and create a new HD version for blu.

I say "film portions" because Quatermass and the Pit, like most BBC programs of the time, was mostly filmed live, with pre-filmed 35mm segments in between.  So, typically, that would involve a brief filmed exterior shot of someone walking into a house, and then cut to the actors on set in studio performing the bulk of the scene live.  Because Quatermass and the Pit is a much more ambitious project with a larger scope and greater production values than your average BBC teleplay of its time, it features more substantial filmed segments featuring longer segments and special effects.  But, still, the bulk of the drama was performed live, and all of that footage was just preserved on video shot by cameras recording the live broadcast.  This means you wind up with a shot like this:
...cutting to a shot like this:
As you can see, we're looking at two different worlds in terms of picture quality here.  In the old days of 1950s television, it would all be reduced to pretty soft, hazy quality and match pretty seamlessly.  But in the days of HD, that means we see some pretty obvious jumping between the two tiers of quality, where it's obvious when we're watching the live vs filmed footage.  This could be a little annoying and immersion-breaking, but I'd say it's more than worth it considering how brilliant looking the footage is.  The opportunity to see the scenes in real cinema quality is something even original BBC viewers in 1958-59 got to appreciate.  So now let's dig a little deeper and compare the SD and HD restorations.
BBC's 2005 DVD top; BFI's 2018 blu bottom.
I remember popping in the 2000 DVD (which I no longer have, so sorry no screenshots from that edition) and being disappointed that they interlaced the transfer.  Now that I'm a little older and better informed, I realize that the broadcast television footage is inherently interlaced, that footage is just as interlaced on the 2005 and 2018 blu.  The live footage has pretty much peaked on the DVD; there's really no perceptible improvement over the DVD and blu.  Until, that is, you get to the 35mm footage.  That footage had already been restored once for the 2005 DVD, so it was already a very visible jump in quality over the live stuff (and no, that footage isn't interlaced), but as you can see, it's another big jump on this 2018 blu with natural film grain, cleaner lines and much clearer detail when you get in close.  Contrast is also a bit better, with truer blacks, but really it's all about that fine detail we're seeing for the very first time in 2018.

All editions preserve the original mono audio, but the BBC DVD restored and cleaned it up in Dolby Digital for their edition, making the dialogue a lot clearer.  The BFI blu utilizes that same restoration, but as the booklet states, "the reduced compression of the Blu-ray format mean[sic.] that this audio is now presented with far greater clarity than has ever previously been possible."  But the really noticeable jump in quality happened between the 2000 and 2005 DVDs.  The 2005 DVD also added optional English subtitles not included on the older disc, but which have been carried over to the new blu.
After Meridian's barebones edition, BBC's 2005 DVD came up with some nice special features, especially given the age of the original programs.  But because that's a set featuring all three BBC Quatermass serials, not all of the extras directly or exclusively apply to Quatermass and the Pit. I doubt there are very many Quatermass and the Pit fans who take a complete disinterest in The Quatermass Experiment and Quatermass II, but I'm just letting you know.  So the star special feature has got to be the 40-minute documentary, The Kneale Tapes, which interviews critics, Kneale and even the creators of The League of Gentlemen TV show on the entire Quatermass legacy. Then there's a great, 11 minute split interview with Kneale and Rudolph Cartier, director of all three original Quatermass serials.  There's a brief interview with the special effects team who made the aliens for Quatermass and the Pit, the alternate titles made for the abbreviated version of Quatermass and the Pit as seen on the 2000 DVD, a photo gallery and weird easter egg where footage from Quatermass II is overdubbed with comedic voices.  It also has an in-depth 48-page booklet.

The BFI's blu only ports over the stuff solely related to Quatermass and the Pit, so the special effects interview and the alternate credits, plus some of the photos from the gallery.  Hopefully, this means they're holding onto the rest for a planned upcoming restoration of the first two Quatermasses?!  Anyway, don't be disappointed, because BFI has come up with some stellar, extensive audio commentaries.  It's primarily presented by a comedian named Toby Hadoke, who thankfully plays it straight here and provides much of the standard, information-dump style of expert commentary, but over various episodes, he brings in various people who worked on or were connected with the series to join him, and also plays audio recordings he made of other cast and crew who are sadly no longer with us.  It all adds up to a pretty massive audio-documentary experience.  Toby also beefs up the photo gallery with never before seen images from the production, and there's a brief but informative 8-page booklet.
It's all good news for Quatermass fans. Anchor Bay's DVD of the film was excellent for the 90s, but the time has come to upgrade. And the serial has now gotten an equally impressive upgrade as well.  New, rewarding special features for both versions abound.  Assuming, that is, you can play region B blu-rays, because both the blus covered here are locked.  Don't buy Studio Canal's pack for the DVD, you'd be better off getting one of those old DVDs from Spain, Japan or someplace, which would at least be anamorphic with some extras.  I really don't get the thinking behind that DVD. But the blus are a great way to remind yourself why Quatermass and the Pit, in each of its incarnations, was so impressive in the first place.

Watching The Seventh Seal Grow With Criterion (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal is pretty much the art film that comes to mind when people think of art films.  The cloaked figure of death playing a game of chess with a knight on the rocky beach, or leading a parade of departing souls across a bleak landscape... it's been parodied, imitated and referenced that it's one of the most iconic images of cinema - especially foreign cinema - that people who've never even seen the film will recognize it.  So it's fitting that this is sort of a flagship title that Criterion has released again and again.  Six times now, if you count the laserdiscs, since we've just had another brand new remaster this year (or technically last year - happy New Year's, gang!) with their massive boxed set of Ingmar Bergman's Cinema.
But it's not the kind of impenetrable art film people are leery of when films like this are brought up.  It's not the kind of film where you lean over to your spouse to ask, "why did the cowboy tie those balloons to the bicycle?"  And you somehow need to intuit that the bicycle represents Mother and releasing your fear of aging or blahbitty blah blah.  Those films exist, too, from the early collaborations between Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali or the works of Maya Deren (the original chess on the beach!), to stuff like Richard Foreman's Strong Medicine and even quite recently with Darren Aronofsky's Mother.  Say what you will about that film, but it's got to be the most popular everything's-a-symbol-for-something-else movie in a long time.  ...The Seventh Seal is not that.  It's a very simple story slowly and directly told that any dummy can follow and relate to as easily as any cop show or sitcom.  The only symbolism you need to figure out is that the dark hooded figure who keeps ending everybody's life and who everyone calls Death... represents death.
Not that this is as shallow and unfulfilling as your average cop show or sitcom.  It's a very relatable existential journey.  Admittedly, this isn't my favorite type of Bergman film... if you can even call it a type, when it stands out so uniquely from Bergman's body of work or even cinema in general, like a lighthouse surrounded by the sea.  But it does fall into that drier, more intellectual side of the bin.  You know, I'm much more a fan of the emotionally, relationship driven films of his later career.  Give me Fanny & Alexander or Autumn Sonata any day!  And Bergman scholar Peter Cowie once wittily and aptly said, "fans groan when Bergman approaches a church."  This is smack dab in the middle of his Christian crisis of faith phase.  But it's just so well made, with brilliant set pieces and authentically period production values.  Now I've seen it a whole bunch of times, but years ago, I'd approach it with trepidation... will it still hold up?  Or will it feel like sitting through a classroom lecture?  Was I just easily impressed with it because I was younger and its reputation is monolithic?  But no, it's one of those movies, if you turn it on the TV, I'll sit down and get pulled right into it.
For those who don't know, The Seventh Seal is the story of a squire and his knight, recently returned to their plague-ridden homeland from the Crusades.  When Death comes along to take them into the next world, the knight delays him by challenging him to a game of chess.  So long as the game stretches on, they will remain, because the knight is determined to discover the ultimate answers to life's mystery before he lets go.  But death can't be outrun and he can't be cheated, so they only have a short time to quest for meaning, during which they journey with a wandering troupe of players, a blacksmith and his wife, and a devious seminarist who all get unwittingly drawn into Death's past.  A strong literary quality, Gunnar Fischer's stark compositions and powerful performances by some of Bergman's greatest actors including Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Bibi Andersson and comedian Nils Poppe all come together to make this one of the most unforgettable films of all time.
Criterion first released The Seventh Seal on DVD back in 1999, spine #11.  In fact, their first laserdisc edition was spine #10, dating all the way back to 1987, and yes, that was a special edition with a commentary, too.  Then, in 2009, they remastered it for HD, releasing it on DVD and blu with even more special features.  But 2009's pretty old for as far as blu-rays go, so I don't suppose it's too surprising that when they included it in their massive 2018 boxed set of Ingmar Bergman's Cinema, they gave it a fresh scan and all around new edition.  How far has the film come in Criterion's hands?
1) 1999 DVD 2) 2009 DVD 3) 2009 BD 4) 2018 BD
Criterion's first DVD is so old, it probably would've been non-anamorphic.  But fortunately the film's fullscreen, so I think we dodged a bullet there.  Despite the film always being in the same AR, though, I left the negative space around the first set of images to show the interesting, differing ways Criterion handled the pillar- and/or window-boxing over the years.  Most curiously, the concurrent 2009 discs are actually quite different in that regard, with the DVD being distinctly windowboxed around all four sides, whereas its supposed blu-ray mirror is not.  And as you can see, it's not because they just left it like the old DVD, which only has slight horizontal slivers.  And even between the two blus, seeing them stacked one on top of the other clearly illustrates how the widths of the image don't line up with each other, as the actual aspect ratio shifts between releases, ever widening as it goes from 1.31:1 to 1.32:1 to 1.34:1 and finally landing at 1.38:1.  In the case of the new blu, it's because the new scan is unveiling a little bit more on the sides, but in the case of the 2009 blu, I think it's just been slightly horizontally stretched.  And yes, the old DVD does actually have a few pixels of extra vertical picture even the latest blu lacks.

But these shifts in aspect ratio are really slight, and none of the discs, even the 1999 DVD, suffer from issues like interlacing, DNR, burnt in subtitles or any other issues that tend to plague lesser releases.  They're all pretty high quality discs from Criterion.  So yes, the newer versions are better and the DVDs aren't in HD, but by and large, even the oldest DVD still holds up pretty well.  You could slap that on your TV today and it'd still look pretty good.
2009 BD left; 2018 BD right.
Still, the blus look even better.  2009 suggests an old master, before 2 and 4k scans came into prominence; but it holds up quite well.  Detail is strong, black and contrast levels are bold, the film elements themselves are clean and well preserved.  This would've been an A+ blu in 2009 and still rate a solid A today.  But not only is the latest blu a fresh 4k scan, but this time they were able to take it from the 35mm original camera negative.  So it's a slightly darker, less contrast-y image, as it's able to rely on it's broader range of light and shadow.  And more noticeably, the grain is a lot finer; it's actually quite light here.  Has it been slightly DNR'd?  If so, it's not to the point of destroying anything in the image; but this new scan doesn't pull out much by way of additional detail either.  Instead, it mostly seems to give us a more direct view of what has been captured, without the additional interference we've always lived with from the grain generated by later generation film sources.  To be a little clearer, I'd say it's about a dead tie between the two blus in terms of detail, grain and resolution, with one benefit trading off for another; but the new version wins in terms of the brightness and contrast.

Every version, from 1999-2018, features both the original Swedish mono track (in LPCM on the blus) and an English dub with optional English subtitles.  The 1999 DVD has some sibilance scratching that the later editions clean up.  Apart from some echo and background hiss, the English dub's not terrible, I suppose; but when you're familiar with Sydow's distinctive voice, hearing the milquetoast American Joe voice they give him sounds a little goofy.
In terms of special features, the 1999 DVD is interesting since it has a few minor things left off of future editions.  One thing that's never left us, though, is the audio commentary by Criterion's in-house Bergman scholar, Peter Cowie, which debuted on the 1987 laserdisc and has been an interesting and informed companion on every subsequent release.  There's also the trailer and a 4-page booklet with notes by Cowie.  But then we get to the 1999 exclusive stuff.  First off is a restoration demonstration.  You can understand why they'd leave that off, since it's touting a transfer that's since been replaced on later, newer discs.  It's also interlaced, which makes their restoration look a lot less impressive than it is.  So it's hardly anything to cry over.  But what's more interesting that later discs have discarded is two film clips, from Bergman's The Magician and Wild Strawberries, with audio commentary by Cowie.  Together, they total about 18 minutes, and are basically there, I suppose, to put Bergman's work into an educated context.  I suppose Criterion would just prefer you bought their Magician and Wild Strawberries discs, and anyway, they'll make up for what little they lose by how much they wind up adding.
The 1999 restoration demonstration
The 2009 releases include an all new introduction Bergman recorded for The Seventh Seal during the filming of the documentary of Bergman Island.  Speaking of which, Criterion has also included the documentary film, Bergman Island.  I've already covered that documentary thoroughly on its own page here, so I'll just let you know real quickly here that the version on the Criterion discs is an abridged version, cutting the original 173 minute doc down by more than half to just 83 minutes, so you'll still probably want to track down the uncut version.  Still, as a freebie, it's nice to get here.

The 2009 versions also throw in new video essays by Peter Cowie and Woody Allen, an almost 20 minute audio interview with Max von Sydow, and a nice career overview (again by Cowie) appropriately entitled Bergman 101.  It also includes a longer (24 for the DVD, 28 for the blu) booklet with notes by Gary Giddins.  The 2018 edition keeps everything from the 2009 discs, but adds nothing new, with the obvious exception, of course, for the fact that it comes packaged with all the other Bergman films, and the extras associated with those.  The set also includes a bonus disc with several docs and features about Bergman in general, but there's nothing else Seventh Seal-specific.  The Giddins essay from the previous booklets is back again, too, in the box's massive 248 page book.
So, each subsequent release of Criterion's The Seventh Seal has been a nice little upgrade.  But considering how strong they started, has it been absolutely essential to replace each edition with the latest?  Maybe not, depending how hellbent you are on always having the absolute highest quality version available, versus a simply satisfyingly watchable copy of the film.  But for many of us who are double(or quintuple)-dipping on this film whether we'd otherwise elect to or not, simply by virtue of getting it in Criterion's essential new box, it's much more satisfying to know that we're getting an updated, superior version as opposed to an identical replacement.  And as of this writing, said box is the only way to get Criterion's new 4k version; but I assume it's only a matter of time until the 2009 individual blu is replaced by the 4k version in individual packaging.