A Pair of Vincent Prices #2: The Last Man On Earth (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Now we come to the movie that made me spring for The Vincent Price Collection (Part 2) in the first place, a real horror gem: 1964's The Last Man On Earth.  Not to say that every other Vincent Price film in the set is junk or anything... The Comedy of Terrors is always amusing, and Dr. Phibes 2 would've been a much bigger draw if it was packaged with Part 1, but it's still pretty far out in its own right.  But The Last Man On Earth, now there's a film we all need in our horror collections.
Based on Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, Last Man On Earth is an obvious, very strong inspiration for George Romero's Night Of the Living Dead and its follow-ups.  Price is the titular last man, after the civilization has been brought down by monsters.  Technically, they're vampires, but as shambling, moaning, corpse-like shells of the people they once were, with limited intelligence and abilities, compulsorily drawn to consume the last remaining human life... they're basically Romero zombies with a handful of distinctions.  The most important of those, I suppose, is that these creatures only come out at night, because, as vampires, they shun the sunlight.  This means Price's nights are spent in classic NotLD-mode, boarded up in his house as the creatures lay clumsy siege, banging weakly at the doors and windows.  Then in the days, he's free to go out and explore the ravaged cities, pillage abandoned storefronts and homes for food and supplies, more along the lines of the later Dead films, Walking Dead, etc.
But this film doesn't just earn its credit by beating Romero to the punch of many of his key concepts and set pieces; it's a pretty great little sci-fi/ horror flick on its own terms.  Last Man is actually an Italian production, but thankfully, with Price doing his own voice and the bulk of the film centering on one man painfully alone in the world, it gets away with its dubbing except for a few, brief moments.  Honestly, it took me owning the film on various films for years to even realize it wasn't all-American, striking me instead as maybe just a little extra low budget.  But it got over any production value-related concerns by being a surprisingly faithful adaptation of a great little book (Matheson is an excellent genre writer, whose only fault might've been spreading himself a little too thin; and that's one trait that doesn't show in I Am Legend).  It's smart and surprisingly effective dramatically.  There have been much bigger, showier, major studio shots at the book, and this one remains the comfortably seated as the best.
1971's Omega Man, with Charlton Heston, takes some bold liberties with the story, making the vampires much more lucid and letting us into their point of view early on.  They have philosophical discussions with each other and concoct plans to get at Heston.  I'm willing to overlook the central conceit that an entire, fully intelligent society of people have spent years unable to roust one determined man out of his LA apartment; but you can't overlook how the second half of the film gives up on most of its ideas halfway through.  It slowly fizzles away into an excuse for big, doofy action sequences, like Heston riding around a football stadium in a stunt-filled motorcycle chase with everybody waving around machine guns and leaping over explosions.  We keep racking up the flat-out dumb moments (Rosalind Cash avoids capture by posing like a mannequin in a clothing store?  Is this Scooby Doo?) and eventually stall out in a silly, sappy conclusion that just fails to deliver on the messages of the original story.

Then, I used to have trouble putting my finger on what rubbed me the wrong way with 2007's I Am Legend starring Will Smith.  Sure, it made some pointless alterations and is plagued with unfortunate CGI of its time - and it has that shameless Shrek ad dumped into the middle of the film - but it's relatively faithful and ambitious.  I think lately I've decided that it just comes off as a lighter, more shallow retelling... sort of the typical post-apocalyptic teenlit flick that have come into vogue in the 2010s, except it just happens to star a grown man.  I'm sure when it started out, somebody had earnest intentions of finally crafting the perfect on-screen depiction of Matheson's novel; but it quickly Frankenstein'd into a star vehicle with alternate endings happily throwing away the story's ultimate irony in search of a crowd-pleasing, Hollywood conclusion.  It's like a Twilight Zone without the final twist to give it all its meaning.  "Audiences felt the guy's glasses breaking was a bummer, so now it's just a quick tale of a guy who gets to read a lot of books!"
So there isn't a bunch of Rifftrax DVDs this time around (although, yes, there is a Legend Films colorized edition out there), but otherwise its the same line-up of suspects as last time.  Like I've said, I've owned a couple previous editions of this film, including a VHS tape and an old Diamond double-feature.  But the first Mill Creek DVD from the Chilling 20 movie pack will give you a rough idea of what pretty much every old, gray market edition looked like.  Then we have Scream Factory's fancy, 2014 HD restoration from their Vincent Price Collection II boxes set.  And finally we have Mill Creek's most recent edition, from their own 2017 Vincent Price Collection.
1) 2005 Mill Creek DVD; 2) 2014 Scream Factory blu;
3) 2017 Mill Creek DVD.
Part of what's worked against The Last Man On Earth, especially in comparison to the other Legend adaptations, is how awful its typically looked on home video.  This is a very wide, 2.35:1 film (or technically 2.34:1 as it appears on Scream's blu), presented in a boxy, full frame transfer that doesn't open up the vertical mattes, but just hacks off the sides.  Specifically, the 2005 DVD chooses the unusual aspect ratio of 1.42:1, which hey, just add it to the endless list of flaws.  I mean, could a DVD transfer be any worse without intentional sabotage?  The framing is also non-anamorphic, interlaced (of course!), and even the non-interlaced frames are so heavily plagued with digitization and who knows what else that every moment is littered with noise and interference.  The film almost looks cross-hatched.  It's also washed and over exposed, giving it a pale, hard-to-look-at feel, and it's full of print damage, from constant flecks and spots to vertical lines running through entire scenes.  The opening credit scenes are also horizontally crushed to try and fit all the writing on screen, though amusingly it still fails and cuts off a lot of the text.  It's just ghastly.

Anyway, the new Mill Creek DVD has essentially the same widescreen transfer as the blu, just a bit worse.  It has a sliver less info on the right-hand side, and more importantly is vertically stretched to 2.22:1.  It's not interlaced, but it is heavily compressed, even for SD, which winds up scrubbing detail and adding a lot of jpg-style artifacting.  Also the darks are a bit light and everything's a bit greyer and flatter.  The blu-ray itself nicely retains film grain, and I have to say, finally seeing it in this condition has genuinely increased by appreciation of the movie as a whole.  Growing up with PQ like the old Mill Creek DVD really added to the feeling that this was a cheap, well intentioned but junky picture.  Seeing it restored to 2.35 (or okay, 2.34) with clearly high end 35mm detail, professional lighting and composition, etc, you suddenly realize no, this is a real movie.
But there's more than just the technical picture quality to consider.  There are slightly different running times, which I at first attributed to just alternate opening logos.  After all, only the 2005 DVD includes the original American International Television logo and music.  The 2017 DVD just starts with the fade-in after that, and Scream replaces it with a modern MGM lion logo.  The 2005 also ends with another AIT logo, and the blu with another from MGM.  But there's a much bigger difference.  The 2005 DVD also cuts out the final lines of the picture!  And if you're familiar wit the film, they're pretty key to the entire point of the story.  So that just makes the older disc even less desirable compared to later editions, except it's such a dramatic editorial change, I think you could say it's effectively a different cut of the film, and possibly also worth owning for serious fans, if only for a bit of novelty value.  But yes, for most of us, it's just one more very compelling reason to upgrade if you've just got one of the old editions.

Anyway, the sound quality on the 2005 DVD is about as abysmal as the picture.  Of course both DVDs just include the basic mono in 2.0 with no subtitles or any kind of options, but the 2005 is much noisier, with crackles, hiss and even the sound of reels turning embedded in the sound.  The 2017 DVD clears all that up.  It's a bit tinny, but generally fine.  Then Scream rounds that out even better, in lossless DTS-HD of course, with even more robust sound and more distinct dialogue.  Scream also adds optional English subtitles.
Naturally, the DVDs are just as unhelpful in terms of special features.  They have absolutely nothing.  But the blu-ray has a couple choice goodies that add some genuine value.  First up is an audio commentary by two critics.  They have a lot of good info, and the interplay between them keeps things lively.  They do have a habit of pointing out how unvampire-like the film's vampire's are, which actually speaks more to their ignorance of vampire lore than a flaw in the film, since what they call mistakes are sometimes actually rather thoughtful references.  But that's a real nitpick of an overall very worthwhile commentary.  Still, experts are one thing and the actual filmmakers are quite another, and to that end we get vintage interview with Matheson himself.  It's a bit short but tightly edited and rather candid.  Definitely worth the watch.  There's also a stills gallery of some nice, vintage promo shots and colorized lobby cards; and the set itself includes a nice, full-color, 32 page booklet, which touches on Last Man in addition to everything else.
So this disc isn't as impressive as Criterion's Night Of the Living Dead, but it feels almost as essential.  And as I said with The House On Haunted Hill, it's a shame you can't buy this edition on its own.  Also, as with House, this is also available in Umbrella's Vincent Price Collection; however, this time it is available separately.  So that might be an option, but it's barebones.  And the only other blu-rays seem to be a rather poorly reviewed German disc and a couple of those "fake" SD upconverts.  So Scream's the ideal choice, except you're forced to buy the whole collection.  And unfortunately, the end result of that seems to be more horror fans are just going without and this film isn't getting the contemporary recognition it really deserves.

1 comment:

  1. Italian dvd runs a couple minutes longer, English version was trimmed.

    ReplyDelete