Breaking Mrs. Dalloway Out of DVD Prison

Here's a perfect little case study for why everybody should go region free: Marleen Gorris's/ Viriginia Woolf's excellent Mrs. Dalloway.  And it's not just the fact that it's only available as a region locked import blu.  Even if you took a "I'm fine sticking with the DVD for this one," because for some reason people think the most important films to see in HD are big action films, even though explosions, movement blur, constant cutting and shaky camera actually hide lower resolution issues more than any kind of footage.  In fact, steady and languid shots that stay focused on close-ups of fine detail are where you're really going to notice unwanted compression.  But fine, Mr. Stubborn, you still insist you're fine with just standard def for dramas and comedy.  Even then, you're not going to be okay with the US option and you'll need to import a region 2 DVD.
Marleen Gorris is probably best known for her previous film, Antonia's Line.  That's the one that won the Academy Award.  Well, I haven't seen it since the 90s, and I remember it being a good movie, but my recollection is that it was pretty schmaltzy from an era where critics seemed to be singling out charming, cutesy foreign films along the lines of Like Water For Chocolate, Amelie, Little Voice, Chocolat, A Very Long Engagement and so on.  Maybe that's not fair; I haven't seen it in decades, and it's not like I'm trying to say those movies suck.  My point simply is: Mrs. Dalloway is not that.  If you're not super familiar with Virigina Woolf, you could be forgiven for expecting just another feathery, period romance, like Notting Hill for grandmothers starring hopelessly out of touch British aristocrats.  No.  The very first scene is a graphic, slow-motion depiction of a man being blown apart by a landmine, as if Morris is specifically saying to us: whatever delicate little box you've got this movie pigeonholed into, my film is not that.
Mrs. Dalloway, the film and the character, is packed with complicated layers.  Even the structure of the film is bouncing around three disparate stories, seeking out their unexpected connections.  A romanticized past, and an anything but romanticized present filled with regret and thoughts of a life lived wrong, and then a contemporaneous young WWI soldier suffering extreme PTSD returned to a genteel London.  The first is a young and wealthy Mrs. Dalloway and her friends, unwittingly making decisions that would set the course for the rest of their lives.  Then Vanessa Redgrave plays the Mrs. Dalloway who's lived out those decisions, now lost in revery and indecision for over what might have been, her greatest potential now being in a dinner party she endlessly frets over.  Will anyone attend?  All that's put into perspective when she observes Rupert Graves at the end of his rope, permanently traumatized by the sides of life she's never had to acknowledge in her carefully shielded experiences.

Perhaps inspired by Emma Thompson's break out success with Sense & Sensibility, not to mention her own involvement in the development of Upstairs Downstairs, Mrs. Dalloway's screenplay was actually penned by actress Eileen Atkins.  There's plenty of terrific, ever-reliable supporting players including Robert Hardy, Alan Cox, Cersei Lannister herself Lena Headey and a particularly sympathetic Michael Kitchen.  And it's all set to an unforgettable theme, with elegantly photographed English locations.
Mrs. Dalloway debuted on DVD back in 1999 from Fox Lorber Films, and if you're a regular on this site, you've probably learned to wince at DVDs that date as far back as the 90s.  They tend to be pretty grubby, and this is no exception.  I'm talking about non-anamorphic widescreen, the whole bit.  First Look reissued it in 2004, but unfortunately it's the same transfer in new packaging.  Meanwhile, over in Region 2 Land, Artificial Eye released a properly anamorphic edition with a little making of doc and the whole bit in 2003.  And that's been the whole story until the HD age, when one country released it on blu, Germany, courtesy of Alive and Alamode Film in 2013.  Of course, you know what region that makes it.
1) First Look DVD; 2) Artificial Eye DVD; 3) Alive BD.
Firstly, this might be a good time to throw in a reminder that a non-anamorphic DVD isn't just annoying for the extreme window-boxing, and the way it makes modern players distort its aspect ratio.  A non-anamorphic widescreen DVD is inherently lower resolution.  So while a DVD generally sits at 720x480 pixels, in this particular case, it has been shrunk down to 535x293, in order to fit the film's proper aspect ratio into the fullscreen box.  And if those numbers seem a bit off, that's because they still don't get the AR exactly right, coming in at 1.82:1.  Artificial Eye's disc not only doesn't have the non-anamorphic issues, it widens out the image to 1.86:1, most noticeably adding more picture on the left.  You'll notice only AE's disc has an extra tower to the building behind them in the second set of shots.  But there's a bit more on the left as well.  It seems to be slightly horizontally squished, however, since Alive widens the image a tad further, to 1.87:1, but still loses that extra info on the sides.  Frankly, they're all slightly off, and a fancy new restoration could probably fit all that info and slivers more into a proper 1.85:1; but these framings are serviceable enough.

Meanwhile, each disc climbs in resolution.  Alive's blu looks like an old master, with only sporadic film grain and a bit of softness to it.  But it's certainly clearer and sharper than AE's DVD, which in turn preserves more detail than First Look's.  The colors also become increasingly less faded, with First Look appearing particularly low contrast with decidedly gray blacks.  The blu is single-layered, 1080p.
All three discs feature a fine Dolby stereo mix.  The back of the blu-ray case has the DTS Master Audio logo, and all the websites seem to credit this disc with DTS-HD, but what's on the disc itself seems to actually be a lossy AC3 encode.  None of the releases offer English subs either, so if you need those, tough luck.  First Look does, however, throw in Spanish subtitles, and Alive naturally has German, along with a complete German 5.1 dub, which is also in AC3.  So, no, that doesn't explain the DTS thing either.  😕
Extras are nothing special, but not nothing at all.  First Look just has the trailer, but Artificial Eye has the trailer plus a fifteen minute 'making of' featurette.  It's promotional and nothing amazing, but it's genuinely informative and worth the watch, catching interviews with many of the cast and crew filmed on location.  Thankfully, Alive keeps the featurette, but despite promising the trailer on the case, loses it, instead only offering a bunch of bonus trailers.  But the featurette's the main thing; as long as that's present, I'm happy.  AE's DVD also includes reversible artwork, and technically so does Alive, as they do that typical German thing, where the reverse is the same thing minus the garish ratings square.
So as you can see, it's not the most amazing blu-ray in the world.  But I think the odds of this getting a fancy 4k restoration are pretty low, and this is the best we've got.  More to the point, however, the US DVD is intolerably poor.  So if you care about this film (and you should), you've got to break those region 1/A chains.

Controversial Blus: Psycho From Texas

Oh boy, I have been super excited at the prospect of finally getting Psycho From Texas since Dark Forces first announced it, and... I guess we got it?  PFT arrives for the first time on blu, as volume 6 of Dark Force's Retro Drive-In Double Feature series, paired with The Gates of Hell (I've also just updated that page, so for a proper comparison of Gates/ City Of the Living Dead, click that link).  Dark Force's response to fans' concern that this release could wind up being an upscale, "[w]e do not divulge our process but we create new high def masters from the best available remaining elements and have a team of the top technicians to restore and do the color correction on them resulting in what will be the BEST AVAILABLE VERSION ON THE MARKET. Trying to harbor on details of how we achieve that is immaterial," [my emphasis] does not exactly inspire confidence.  But advance word of their color correction at least seemed promising, and it's not like there's any other blu-ray release of this film on the horizon; so at the very least, their claim of this being the best version on the market is probably true.  So fingers crossed, this double-dip will be worth it.
2014 Code Red DVD top; 2019 Dark Force BD bottom.
Well, I guess the first hurdle to get over is whether Psycho From Texas is worth adding to your collection in the first place.  Originally released as Wheeler in 1975, Psycho is a bit of a hybrid slasher horror and crime drama.  It shirks the typical Hollywood story structure largely because it's actually based on a(n uncredited) true story.  On April 11, 1967, two middle-aged men in El Dorado Texas broke into the house of George James, then kidnapped him, forcing him to write checks before he eventually escaped and his captors were arrested.  And I have to say, once I learned that they were telling a true story, a lot of the filmmakers' decisions started to add up and it does make the proceedings more compelling.
2014 Code Red DVD top; 2019 Dark Force BD bottom.
Then things get even clearer once you know that additional scenes of sex and violence were shot and added to the film five years later to spice it up and take it from a PG to an R, hence the retitling to Psycho From Texas.  There's a great write-up over at Cool Ass Cinema that tells the whole story of how this film was also then taken from the director and re-edited by the production company.  And yes, it's this spiced up and recut version we have on disc today.  I'd imagine the original version was far more Fargo than Friday the 13th.  So that's another reason everything feels a little strange.  For conventional audiences, this can easily be dismissed as a flat-out bad movie.  But for the enthusiast, who will appreciate the quirks and shirking of conventions, there are enough positive qualities to make this film worth examining.
2014 Code Red DVD top; 2019 Dark Force BD bottom.
John King III clearly dived deep into his performance as the titular Wheeler, also the titular psycho, in a film that's primarily interested in exploring his motivations and inner workings.  This is partially a character study and possibly a study of how a true crime unraveled.  The guy who plays his partner is genuinely creepy, too, once things get dark; and this film isn't afraid to get as grim and sleazy as its real life counterparts presumably did.  But it has a sense of humor, too.  Plus, PFT is one of scream queen Linnea Quigley's earliest film appearances (she only entered the picture in the additional 1980 scenes).  But on the other hand, some of other performances have a clunky, amateurish feel, some of the humor is highly questionable, and the movie is saddled with a somewhat charming but undeniably cheesy country soundtrack that lays thick and heavy over the on-screen action.  Plus the fact that one character chases another through the woods for nearly a half an hour of screen time (admittedly, they do cut away to other scenes during this part) is a real test of audiences' patience.
2014 Code Red DVD top; 2019 Dark Force BD bottom.
Psycho From Texas more or less debuted on DVD in 2014, as part of Code Red's 2-disc Six Pack Volume 3 collection (follow that link for a more in-depth look at that release and the five other films).  I say "more or less" because, strictly speaking, Linnea Quigley has been selling autographed DVD copies of Wheeler (which I'm guessing is a rip of the old Paragon VHS) on her website long before that.  And now in 2019, Dark Force has joined forces with Code Red, and used their same master "featuring extensive scene by scene color correction," to deliver this film's blu-ray debut.
2014 Code Red DVD top; 2019 Dark Force BD bottom.
Both releases present the film at 1.78:1, although the DVD has minor pillarboxing in the overscan areas, and is very slightly squeezed, leaving 1.76:1 of actual picture.  Dark Force fixes that and shifts the image slightly, revealing an extra sliver of info along the top.  As you can see in the first set of shots, the credits suggests this transfer has been slightly misframed, so I guess that shift corrects that by 1% or so.  For anyone really curious about this movie's framing, like I was, I grabbed a shot of the fullscreen transfer from the 2011 documentary Screaming In High Heels[left], where you can see slightly more vertical information with the mattes removed, but it crops substantially more off the sides.

Anyway, all the framing and the prolific print damage is identical across both releases because they've not only used the same source 35mm print, Dark Force has used the same scan Code Red made for their DVD.  The mystery is whether that scan was truly HD, which would determine whether Dark Force's blu is truly an upscale or not.
2014 Code Red DVD left; 2019 Dark Force BD right.
And to that end, well, I've gotta say, I don't see any restored detail on the blu, and it has the same, soft look.  Though grain is a little stronger in spots.  That said, there's no question that the color correction makes a big difference, and really enhances the quality of the image.  Everything from skies to flesh tones are much more natural, shadows are deep and what was faded is now (mostly) vivid.  It gives a nice, bolder separation to elements in the image that at least lends it the illusion of boosted resolution.  Dark Force is right that this is the best available version on the market, but that doesn't mean this isn't an SD image upscaled for an HD disc.  And as we can see when we get in close, there's some weird combing going on around the images (look at the hairline, or under the eye), like they used some kind of sharpening filter.  Perhaps that's the process they don't want to divulge.  Well, at least it's dual-layered.

Both discs feature the original mono track, though it's in uncompressed DTS-HD on the blu.  There are no subtitles on either release.
The Gates Of Hell
There are no real Psychos From Texas extras, but of course we get more than just the one movie.  Code Red's Six Pack, of course, features the five other movies and a bonus trailer.  And Dark Force's is a double-feature with The Gates Of Hell.  Again, you can see a proper comparison to multiple other releases of that film on its own page, but here's a quick screenshot.  In brief, it's a decent scan of a 35mm print.  It's fairly damaged, with lots of green chemical lines, and it leans pretty blue.  Naturally, it falls short of Arrow's recent restoration of the OCN, and has none of the special features or alternate language options, but at least it has a naturally filmic transfer that's clearly a higher quality scan than PFT is sporting.

The only other feature on the disc is the option to watch this in "Damon Packard's Drive-In Mode," which plays both movies in a row as a double feature.  And in between the two films, this feature adds about fifteen minutes worth of vintage drive-in ads and theatrical trailers.  This release also comes in a very attractive, glossy glow-in-the-dark slipcover.
2014 Code Red DVD top; 2019 Dark Force BD bottom.
So, when all's said and done, how happy am I with this?  Well, the color correction really does help a lot, so this is a genuine upgrade.  But considering how expensive this release is, I really can't recommend it to anyone except die-hard Psychos From Texas fans (all four of us).  The Gates From Hell half of this double-bill really is pointless considering the film's already been restored from the OCN, but the fact that it's a higher resolution scan just points up how frustrating this situation is.  Imagine if they'd spent that money to re-scan Psychos instead.  Even if there's no better source than the print Code Red used in 2014, it would still look better than what we've just been given.  But what-if's aside, this is less of a jump from DVD to Blu than it is a jump from one DVD to a better DVD.  If you need the best available version on the market, this is it.  But in Wheeler's case, that ain't sayin' much.

Update #6, Absurd: Anthropophagus Part 2

Exotic blu-ray collectors surely remember when 88 Films ran an Indiegogo campaign in 2015 and netted almost $17,000 to restore two "classic" Italian horror films: Zombie Holocaust and Burial Ground.  Well, this time they've gone even bigger, collecting roughly $105,000 to restore four more dubiously "classic" Italian horror greats: Aenigma, Massacre In Dinosaur Valley, Beyond the Darkness and today's entry, Absurd, the aptly titled sequel to Joe D'Amato's Anthropophagus.  Oh, and there will also be a fresh restoration of that film, too, this summer.  Well, I contributed to that campaign, too, and I've been enjoying the harvest.

Update 1/30/17 - 8/22/19: If we're doing Anthropophagus, it only makes sense to throw Absurd into Update Week, too.  You might be starting to detect a pattern here: 88 Films restores an Italian horror classic for the UK market, and then a year or so later, Severin releases it in the US.  But it's not just a case of more or less identical discs just being demarcated Region A or B; they're always quite different from each other.
George Eastman is back as Nikos (or is it Mikos?), the crazed Greek killer, here to spread a little nihilistic madness amongst some unwitting victims.  Eastman is also back as scriptwriter, and D'Amato back behind the lens of this off-beat giallo/ slasher hybrid.  This time Nikos has made his way to what the filmmakers would have us believe is America, being pursued by a Dr. Loomis-like priest, who knows the secret to killing the madman.  Yeah, this film makes the leap franchises like Friday the 13th and Halloween would make years later: the killer most be some kind of superhuman monster (hence the alternate title Monster Hunter) to keep coming back in sequel after sequel despite having been killed at the end of the last one.  In our case, he basically has Wolverine-style healing powers and can only be truly killed by destroying his brain.  I guess it's thanks to those powers that he doesn't have the burned, balding look from the first movie; but he does arrive on the scene in a great homage to the finale of the previous film.
So it's a bit of a step down to lose the exotic Greek locations of the original film, and this film is definitely taking a lot from Halloween, from babysitters in peril, the sheriff searching small town streets, to kids referring to Nikos as the boogeyman.  But there are worse films to crib from, and bringing Nikos to America works in a fun, logic-free way.  And Absurd has a lot of things going for it, including some great kills, another bizarre-o little kid dubbed by a grown woman, some notable performances by Annie Belle, who's just beginning to regrow her hair back after House On the Edge Of the Park, and Edmund Purdom.  Oh, which reminds me: listen to a cameo from Pieces' infamous big band music in this film as well!  When I first saw this film, it was on a friend's bootleg DVD, which was a very murky VHS rip.  All I remembered were a few good kills and so much talk about football (to sell us on the fact that they're in America), that the Rams vs the Steelers began to feel like a legit subplot.  I was amused, but it really felt like some bottom of the barrel, shot on video effort, like the Violent Shit films (all the more fitting, then, who would go on to make Anthropophagus 2000).  But now that I've seen it restored, it looks and feels much more like a real movie.
NOT a shot from 88's new blu; don't worry folks!  I found this transfer online
that looks just the way I remember my first viewing experience.

88 Films brings us the HD debut of Absurd, though to be fair, there was a bit of mid-ground between that ugly bootleg I saw and now.  There have been a couple low-quality foreign releases over the years, and finally an official DVD from MYA Communication in 2009.  Even that was non-anamorphic and had to composite in elements from a VHS print to present a fully uncut version of the film.  In 2017, we have a brand new 2k scan of the original film elements, 100% uncut with no compositing.  And we're given two versions: the English and Italian.  And no, that's not just a question of alternate audio, they're two different cuts of the film.  So let me break that down.
A scene only in the English Version.
So to start with the obvious, yes, the English Version has the English dub and the Italian Version has the Italian dub with optional English subtitles.  The two versions also have alternate credits sequences written in their native languages (though both use the fake, Americanized names).  But besides that, the English version is several minutes longer.  And that's not due to credits playing at different speeds or anything dull like that.  It's a longer version of the film with whole scenes only included in that cut.  And it should be noted that the English version has all the exclusive extra scenes; there's nothing in the Italian version that you don't see in the English.  So what's unique to the English Version?

6:40 There's more to the beginning of the scene with the biker punks harassing the drunk.

8:08 Only the English version returns to the operation on Eastman.

11:05 There's a whole scene with the cop visiting the mother and boy after Eastman broke in.

23:20 We have a couple more shots of Eastman running through the streets at night.

45:40 There's an extra scene of the parents' football party.

1:25:30 Katya Berger is chased down a couple extra hallways.

In 88's audio commentary, they must be watching the Italian Version, as they mention some missing footage but assure us we're not missing any gore.  But the situation's even better than that thanks to the inclusion of the longer, English Version.  Even the footage they specifically cite from the movie-censorship page is in that cut.

And of course now we have another contender: 2018's US blu-ray from Severin.  It also has both versions of the film taken from a 2k scan from the original negative.  The same one?  We'll have to check.
1) 88 Films 2017 English BD; 2) 88 Films 2017 Italian BD;
3) Severin 2018 English BD; 4) Severin 2018 Italian BD.
So they seem to have used exactly the same scan and final transfer for both versions, but just to be thorough, I threw in comparisons of the English and Italian cuts.  The framing is slightly letterboxed to 1.85:1 and grain looks very natural.  The color-timing looks great, too; so I don't see any reason to wait for a label in another region to pick this up and tweak it.  I did spot an instance of dirt in the lens (in another screenshot below), but overall this film is very clean and steady.  It's really a trip to think Absurd has wound up looking this good.

But now we need to put our glasses on, because we have dueling restored blu-rays to compare.  Severin's blu is also 1.85:1 and unlike with Anthropophagus, the framing seems to be identical to 88's.  And detail seems to be the same right down to individual specs of grain.  I'm guessing they used the same scan.  But of course you can see the colors are quite different.  It looks like they've added blue night filters to these scenes, or at least leaned much more heavily into the blues to give them an authentic moonlit look.  But, of course, the bulk of the film is indoors, so let's do another quick comparison to see if those colors differ, too.
2017 88 Films BD top; 2018 Severin BD bottom.
Yup, they sure do!  88 generally has paler colors, which Severin deepens.  They also definitely go for blacker blacks, where 88 is content to leave the blackest areas as gray, perhaps to show that they aren't crushing any detail away.  88's remaster already looked pretty terrific, but I'd say Severin has made it even a little more attractive.

Both the original mono audio tracks are presented in lossless LPCM 2.0 on both discs and sound surprisingly good.  Carlo Maria Cordio's soundtrack really rocks.  And the Italian version has optional/ removable English subtitles on 88's disc.  On Severin, both versions have subtitles, which match their audio tracks.  So one bonus point to Severin there.
Oh you want extras, too?  Yeah, this film's got some good stuff.  First up is that aforementioned audio commentary.  It's another one by The Hysteria Continues podcast guys, and I'm not usually a big fan of theirs (in terms of audio commentaries, not the podcast itself), but I think they're getting better.  Typically, one of them seems to prepare and know a lot about the film, acting as sort of an expert commentary, and the other guys just interrupt him and annoy the listener.  That dynamic hasn't really changed, but I think they've dialed it down, and at least two of them are plugged in this time.  They provide some good info in the first half, despite the other guys kinda phoning it in, and the jokes-to-commentary ratio is, well, mostly fine.  They do keep the energy up throughout (though the added scenes do force some pauses in the track).  Halfway through the movie, though, they seem to run out of things to say and just go on super long tangents about their favorite slashers or other movies that came out in 1981.  So you could probably turn it off once you start getting into that territory; but the first half is worth a listen and does add some value to the disc.
Besides there's still more, even better stuff.  The crown jewel is the interview with George Eastman.  He's unfortunately a little dismissive of this film, but is still very interesting as he talks about his working relationship with D'Amato and more.  And there's another, in-depth interview with Michele Soavi, who played a small early role in this film as a biker.  Because his part was so brief, he does start drifting off into more general topics like the decline of the Italian horror scene, but you're definitely not going to want to skip this one.  There is a limited edition booklet, which I think means later printings won't include it, by Calum Waddell.  It's 16-pages and all about the Video Nasties.  Now, as an American, the story of that whole drama never really struck a chord with me, but I really like how this booklet presents each of the 39 Video Nasty titles that were actually prosecuted (out of 72 total films that were branded Nasties) with artwork and a brief description of every single one.  It also features reversible artwork with the film's original, Italian title (Rosso Sangue); and for supporters of the indiegogo campaign, this release also came in a very cool looking slipcover.
So what's Severin brought to the party?  Well, first of all, they carry over 88's interview with Michele Soavi.  But that and the trailer are the only extras the two releases have in common.  But Severin has conducted their own interview with George Eastman, which is almost twice as long.  And while it's certainly not a formula that twice as long = twice as good, this one's nicely focused on the film at hand, and he's even a little more up on the film, this time cheerfully calling it "not bad."  We don't get an audio commentary, we do get a solid 20-minute vintage interview with D'Amato himself.  It's shot on video and has forced subtitles despite the fact that he's speaking in English.  It's a lot of fun, though it's more of a career overview piece.  He basically shares an anecdote or two about each of his many films (including Absurd), actually talking the longest about Anthropophagus.  You'll definitely get a kick out of it.  Anyway, then Severin has their own reversible artwork and slipcover, and the first 3000 copies also include a soundtrack CD.
I never really loved Absurd; it was an entertaining watch for me, but not much more.  But the chance to see it fully restored and look like a completely new film made this one of my most anticipated titles.  And I am definitely not disappointed.  In fact, I'd say I've become much more of a fan now having watched this on blu, so I'm really glad.  And now in 2018, we've got options.  Between the two, I'd go with the Severin, it looks slightly better and I'll always take interviews with the filmmakers over experts/ fans.  But I definitely wouldn't bother replacing one disc with the other, and the new unique extras are slim enough that you really don't need both.  If you're deciding between the two, yeah go with Severin; but you really won't be going wrong with either one.