Kooky Cozzi Paganini Horror! ...Now In HD!

If you like your stylish Italian horror flicks cheap, silly and weird, then you should already have this movie!  But if you haven't been collecting horror DVDs over a decade ago, you probably missed out on Luigi Cozzi's Paganini Horror. But unless you're hung up on your movies being, you know, good by some kind of objective or reasonable standard like a normal person, in which case you'll probably absolutely hate this movie. But assuming you're not one of those people, then I'm here to tell ya, this German import's worth tracking down.

Update 1/10/17 - 10/29/19:  Better yet, just buy the blu-ray!  Because Paganini Horror's been restored in HD for a new special edition from 88 and Severin Films.
If you're not familiar with this one, the plot is real simple. A guy buys a long lost score by the famous composer Niccolo Paganini from Donald Pleasance, who's also the devil or something along those lines. He gives it to his girlfriend, an aspiring rock star, to turn into a modern pop song with her band.  Their manager, Daria Nicolodi, who also might be evil, wants them to shoot their music video in an old mansion that's stuck in a time loop, where some little girl once killed her mother just like Paganini killed his bride and used her intestines to string his violin as part of his pact with the devil.  Plus, Paganini will be summoned in the flesh when the band plays his song, or maybe he's just a masked slasher, but either way his victims come back as ghosts and hmm, okay.  Maybe the plot's not so simple, or even quite comprehensible if you really stop to think about it.  But why would you do that?
It's a fun, attractive and charmingly daft little horror movie about a famous violinist come back from the dead to chase young people around a colorful music video set.  It's attractively shot, Paganini has a violin with a knife that shoots out of it, there are a couple gnarly kills, everybody's running around in silly costumes, the music is upbeat and catchy - including a couple, full blown pop rock performances - and they've got some great location photography.  On the other hand, the whole production is clearly low budget, and set pieces often look very cheap and the impressive casting of Pleasance is wasted with some bland third party dubbing (on the Italian and English audio tracks) and not terribly interesting dialogue... I mean, come on, he's the devil!  Plus, the story really is a mess.  It's co-written by three people, including Nicolodi, which should put this on par with Suspiria, right?  Yeah, no.
So, the cult German label put this out twice on DVD in the early 2000s; all the cool sites like Xploited and Diabolik used to have this in spades.  But now its long OOP.  The first version was a 2-disc set, with the uncut widescreen version and a slightly trimmed 4:3 Italian television cut.  The second disc with the TV cut doesn't have English language options, though, and there are many differences between the two versions except some blood has been trimmed and the picture's open matte.  So I just got the single disc edition, which is completely English friendly, and also happens to be a fully loaded special edition.  It's pretty awesome, except for one little thing: it's woefully non-anamorphic.

But that's not an issue anymore!  Paganini Horror has been restored in 2k from the original negative for blu-rays in both the UK (88 Films) and the US (Severin).  I went with the Severin for a reason I'll get into below, but as you'd expect, they both trample the non-anamorphic concerns with full 1080p HD transfers.
2003 X-Rated DVD top; 2019 Severin BD bottom.
The DVD's non-anamorphic, but at least it's not interlaced, taken from film elements (occasional flecks and dust pop up; but for the most part it's pretty clean) and in the director's presumably preferred 1.66:1 aspect ratio.  But yeah, it looks awfully compressed and low on detail in that tiny window.  The non-anamorphic presentation is a real bummer, because this is a film that relies a lot on its look. And now that we see the film in HD, well, it still looks a little on the grungy side.  I'd put that down more to a reflection of the film itself than its home video representation, except grain does appear pretty pixelated and artificial, so I'm not so sure.  It's unquestionably an improvement over the DVD, don't get me wrong; but I wonder if some Italian company's been sitting on this scan for a long time.  I suppose we're facing "how much money can we be expected to spend on a low-key Cozzi oddity?  We're lucky to get this in HD at all" deal, which is admittedly understandable.  Swinging the pendulum back to the positive side, Severin retains the 1.66:1 ratio with some pillar-boxing, but in comparison to the DVD, we see that they've unveiled more information along all four sides, which is good because the DVD always did feel a little tight.

And audio-wise, X-Rated provide the English, Italian and German mono 2.0 tracks, which is great because you get to hear the alternate voices.  But unfortunately, the only subtitles on-hand were in German, so us English speakers had to stick to the English track unless you're multilingual.  So score some more points for Severin, who include both the English and Italian (they did ditch the German dub), now in DTS-HD with optional English subtitles.  In fact, they include two subtitle options: the proper subtitles (faithful translation of the original Italian) and dubtitles (transcription of the English dub).  Researching it online, 88 also seems to have both audio tracks (in LPCM) with just the one subtitle track.
And did I mention packed special editions? Yes!  X-Rated starts out with a very informative audio commentary by director Luigi Cozzi.  He also provides an hour-long on-camera interview.  Plus, there's a brief clip of him speaking at a film festival.  So you really get his full story across all of that.  There's also a short video clip of him recording the commentary, for a little peek behind the curtain.  But then you have probably the most important extras of all: the deleted scenes.  Some of the deleted scenes aren't much, but others are really out there, because contrary to his producers, Cozzi wanted this to be a sci-fi film; so some of these scenes are pretty freakin' weird and out of left field.  They're not translated, but I'd say 90% percent of what's on sale here is visual spectacle, and the puzzling aspect of them being untranslated adds to the fun almost as much as it detracts.  This release also comes in a very cool looking "hardbox," which is essentially an oversized clamshell case, like those classic horror VHS boxes from the 80s.

Oh, and by the way, if you did get that 2-disc version, the only additional extras you'd receive are a couple trailers and a small photo gallery.  All the extras of substance are on the single-disc version.
2003 X-Rated DVD top; 2019 Severin BD bottom.
And now we get to why I opted for the Severin edition: the two blus have differing special features, and only Severin included those wild deleted scenes and alternate ending.  What's that?  Oh, why yes, that is an hour glass floating through outer space like some crazy Dr. Who acid flashback.  Somehow that fit into Cozzi's original vision about the devil and a house haunted by a famous violinist.  Yeah, so one little disappointment is that I was hoping Severin would drum up subtitles for these, but oh well.  These still look like they're ripped from a VHS tape, but the image is a little clearer than X-Rated, which was interlaced.

Severin also has the trailer, which was only on the 2-disc DVD set, and it's in HD here.  But they lost of the DVD's other extras, so die-hard fans may still want to track the X-Rated DVD down.  But only die-hard fans, because Severin has conducted their own 30+ minute interview with Cozzi, which really does a more than acceptable job presenting his insight and memories of the film that the DVD extras did.  Both releases also got an on-camera interview with Pietro Genuardi who played Mark, the music video director in the film.  Too bad neither party seems to have reached out to Maria Cristina Mastrangeli, who's been gracious enough to drop by in the comments here, but oh well.  Anyway, both Severin and 88 Films share the interviews, which were done by Freak-O-Rama - who I can't help but notice are starting to become one of the top guys in I-horror interviewing - and the trailer.  Where they diff is that 88 has an audio commentary by Troy Howarth, while Severin has those deleted scenes.  Also, if you bought their limited editions, 88 comes with a slip cover and booklet Eugenio Ercolani, while Severin's comes with a soundtrack CD.
I originally concluded this post by saying that, "Paganini Horror seems like an ideal candidate for a label like 88 Films," and hey, look what happened!  This is another one in what's becoming a regular pattern of 88 releasing it in the UK and Severin in the US.  Again, the deleted scenes were the deciding factor for me between the two, but the good news is that you can't go wrong either way, and casual buyers may want to just opt for whichever version doesn't require them to pay for overseas shipping.  It's great to see this film back in print so hopefully it can find its audience again.

Vestron's C.H.U.D. 2: Bud the Chud - This Chud's for You!

Well, I had another film lined up for today's post, but then I noticed how close to Halloween we are, and I figured I should stick with horror flicks until the end month.  So what's one I've been meaning to cover?  Oh, how about C.H.U.D. 2: Bud the Chud?  I mean, I've got to do a post about it sometime, just to justify the fact that I bought this goofy sequel multiple times.  And oh boy, goofy is the word.
This film really has nothing to do with the surprisingly smart little horror flick that preceded it, except that they call their zombies "chuds" in this movie. The creatures in C.H.U.D. looked and behaved nothing like the zombies here, to the point where it feels more like this film started out as a script with no connection to C.H.U.D. at all (though they at least make a passing reference to them having previously been kept underground). Two students: Head of the Class's Brian Robbins (this was actually released while the show was still on the air) and his buddy steal a corpse from a military installation. Just like Night Of the Creeps, basically. And of course that corpse is really a chud who comes back to life and builds an undead army in their little suburban town. Robbins and his buddy try to keep everything under wraps and recover Bud before they get into trouble, which is made a little easier by the fact that its developed a crush on Brian's girlfriend Katie.  Yes, this is the kind of movie where a zombie gets a crush on a girl.
What works about this movie is that everybody really commits.  I'm not saying the performances are good, or the jokes are funny, but still, everybody's really throwing what they've got their characters.  Like, the "kids" are fine, but you know guys like Robert Vaughn and Gerrit Graham could totally sleep walk through a movie like this and no one would hold it against them.  But instead they're really giving it their all to make this film fun for their limited audience.  They're very big performances.  In fact, as I write this, I'm realizing what this basically is: an R-rated kids movie.  The violence is pretty mild, really.  This probably could've gotten the MPAA to give them a PG if they asked nicely.  It's like if you adapted Return Of the Living Dead for the Nickelodeon station, the same broad deliveries and simple, overdrawn humor.  It really feels like it's made for kids.  In fact, the screenwriter wrote Honey, I Shrunk the Kids the same year.  And it helps a lot that this film is packed with recognizable character actors and famous personalities that bring something extra to their roles, including television icon June Lockhart, Sniglet inventor Rich Hall, Bianca Jagger (Mick's ex), stand-up Ritch Shydner, M.A.S.H.'s Larry Linville, Norman Fell and an uncredited cameo by Robert Englund.  Plus it has a real ear worm of a theme song.
I used to own both C.H.U.D. films on VHS, and I upgraded it to the 2007 UK DVD on a whim.  Unfortunately, I sold it off long before I started this site, so I can't post any screenshots, but it was fullscreen, presumably taken from a videotape master, and completely barebones.  Then it kind of blew everybody's minds in 2012 when Lions Gate unceremoniously released a bunch of previously unseen widescreen masters in a couple of generic, sell-through compilation Horror Collection DVDs.  Wow, suddenly we had a respectable looking edition of Bud the Chud, along with a bunch of others.  I think the unexpected wave of fans who went out, filling forums with which Walmarts had which $5 discs in stock, seeking and buying those collections prompted Lions Gate to start their Vestron line.   And so that strange confluence of events gave way to something I don't think any of us expected to see: a fancy, special edition blu-ray of C.H.U.D. 2
2012 Lions Gate DVD top; 2017 Vestron blu-ray bottom.
The Horror Collection's DVD actually had a pretty nice looking transfer in its original widescreen AR, or at least close (1.78:1).  So it seemed like a safe assumption that Vestron would just present us with that same transfer slapped onto an HD disc.  But no, this seems to be a whole new master.  It's still framed in 1.78:1, but it's pulled out further, revealing a little more information along all four sides.  And the colors are corrected, getting rid of the reddish hue that was cast over the older edition, not to mention pulling a ton of information out of the shadows that was lost to black crush on the DVD.  It's still not a stellar presentation; the image is soft and the shifty grain tells us this film could still benefit from a new scan.  Plus it's low contrast, with no true blacks, giving the movie an overall washed out look.  But there's no debating this is the best the film has ever looked, and I can't imagine anyone's going to go back and give this title yet another HD pass.  So not top shelf but a pleasant surprise none the less.

Both discs just give us the original stereo mix, but it's clean; and really, what else would you need?  Vestron bumps it up to lossless DTS-HD and adds optional English subtitles, so we're all set.
Director David Irving provides an audio commentary that answers pretty much all the C.H.U.D. 2 questions those of us who grew up with the film have had over the years.  In fact, I think I might stick to just watching it with the commentary on whenever I revisit this film from now on.  We also get a couple great on-camera interviews with Bud himself, Gerrit Graham, Katie: Tricia Leigh and special effects artist Allan Apone.  There's also the theatrical trailer and an extensive stills gallery that shows someone (Red Shirt Pictures) put a surprising amount of attention into this title.  Plus, like every Vestron release, it comes in a shiny slipcover.  My first thought was just hoping that Vestron didn't lose too much money on this one and pull out of Vestron before they got to the higher ticket films in their catalog.
Well, fortunately it didn't stop them just as they got started.  I don't know if there's a lot of displeased blind buyers out there, or if this film has built up more of a nostalgic cult audience over the years than I realized.  But it has been a worryingly long time now since the last Vestron release, so my fingers are tautly crossed.  I mean, they still haven't gotten to Metamorphosis: The Alien Factor, Eyes of Fire, or Sundown: The Vampire In Retreat!  But on the other hand, look at all the special editions they've given us that I never thought we'd get to see.  I mean, can you believe Bud the Chud has a director's commentary?

The Latest Evolution In Gremlins 1 & 2

Warner Bros originally released Gremlins as a no-frills DVD in 1999, again in 2001 and finally as a special edition in 2002. That was a pretty strong special edition with a nice transfer, two commentaries, deleted scenes and a few more bits and bobs. But it still felt like it was missing something compared to most special editions. The commentaries were great, but there really wasn't any interviews or documentary features. Still, it was a pretty great disc for Gremlins lovers, and when it came time to port it over to blu-ray in 2009 as the 25th Anniversary Edition, they pretty much ported it over to HD without any changes. It already had a solid transfer, so it still looked pretty good - now obviously in 1080p - and the extras were just the same ones carried over. But last month (just squeezing in on time for the film's 30th anniversary), they've finally re-released it as part of their new Diamond Luxe Edition line.

Update 1/23/15 - 10/21/19: Gremlins has just taken the plunge into the next generation of home video: 4k Ultra HD.  But hey, let's sweeten the pot even further, and add coverage of its delightful sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch!  Oh, and since this was one of my oldest posts, all the comparison shots were jpgs, so I've swapped those out with fresh pngs, too.
It's not surprising that this keeps getting reissued, as Gremlins is one of the early summer blockbusters, produced by Steven Speilberg, no less. Joe Dante brings us his always welcome combination of horror, nostalgia and yucks in this tale of a Rockwell-esque small town that gets overrun with gremlins. As Dante says in the extras, the film starts off almost like Son of E.T., with affable Zach Galligan getting a magical, cuddly pet for Christmas from his father who was passing through Chinatown.  But it takes a turn for the dark when that pet winds up giving birth to an army of nasty, little green monsters who delight in causing mayhem and murder. Hoyt Axton, Phoebe Cates, Dick Miller, Keye Luke, Judge Rheinhold and Corey Feldman co-star in this wild ride that's almost fun for the whole family. This and the other film Speilberg made that year, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, were key films in the MPAA's decision to create the PG-13 rating.
Gremlins debuted on DVD as a barebones flipper disc back in 1999.  That was followed up in 2001 with a single-sided (widescreen-only), equally barebones disc in 2001.  Personally, I held out for the subsequent special edition that came out in 2002, which is the first disc we'll be looking at here.  So DVD-wise, third time was the charm.  Gremlins first hit blu-ray, then, in 2009, with all of the extras from that 2002 special edition.  But Warner Bros didn't get me to double-dip until they came out with their fancy Diamond Luxe Edition in 2014.
The scuttlebutt of that two-disc Luxe set is that disc 1 is exactly the same as the 2009 blu-ray. No new scan, no improvements in the transfer, even the menus are identical. It's the same disc in new packaging. Nice packaging, mind you... My scan here doesn't do it justice, since it's a cool metallic packaging. Gizmo's shadow that just looks like a solid dark gray is actually reflective like a mirror and the logo looks much redder when it's reflecting light. So in terms of the main film disc, it's another case of the ol' double-dip.  But with disc 2, it became more of an enticing upgrade, at least if you're interested in special features.  And there have been other reissues along the way: double-bills with Gremlins 2, releases in other regions, or sometimes it was re-packaged with Goonies.  But for those of us interested in an actual upgrade of the film presentation itself (after all, 2009 is pretty old for a BD), there was nothing until this month, when Warner Bros gave us a new, 4k restoration for a 35th Anniversary Ultra HD release.  It also comes packed with a blu-ray, which again, is exactly the same 2009 BD that was also included in the 2014 Luxe Edition.
2002 DVD top; 2014 BD middle; 2019 UHD bottom.
If you're looking for vast leaps forward in detail and clarity, Gremlins upgrades might be a little too subtle for some fans.  To be fair, part of that says more about the quality of the 2002, improved SD transfer than a problem with the blu-ray.  It's a damn good looking DVD.  But you can see how the movie posters are a little easier to read starting with the BD.  It just still feels a bit soft in places, though this is likely down to the film itself as it varies scene by scene... i.e. not just detail, but film grain seems light in the snowy scene above (which might be due to the opticals of the opening credits, which obviously aren't on-screen in this particular frame, but do appear around this sequence); but it looks very accurate and filmic, especially on the UHD, in the previous comparison shot of Billy and Gizmo.

Another interesting point is the framing.  First of all, none of these are 1.85:1 like you'd think they should be (and like the cases all claim they are).  The DVD is 1.78:1, and then the BD is slightly hemmed in to 1.77:1.  Despite that, however, the blu-ray has pulled out to display considerably more information along the edges, particularly the sides.  The UHD gets rid of BD's slight (we're literally talking 4 pixels wide) pillar-boxing, but surprisingly zooms back in, losing the extra information the BD revealed and showing even a bit less than the DVD.  Mind you, I'm not necessarily saying that's a bad thing - the BD might've revealed more than the filmmakers' intended - but it's certainly surprising.
2002 DVD top; 2014 BD middle; 2019 UHD bottom.
But as for what you're really going to notice in motion as you watch the film? It's the stronger colors more than anything. Now, the BD actually "pops" more than the DVD or the UHD, but don't mistake that for a good thing.  It pops because lights are flaring out and color contrast is souped up.  For example, you can only make out the light-bulb in the streetlamp with the Christmas wreath on the UHD.  Remember, the benefit of HDR isn't necessarily more extreme colors, it's the ability to display a much broader range.  In other words, a ton more shades of reds, greens, etc in between the polar extremes rather than just pushing the extremes much further out.  I don't want to go too far off into the weeds on this one, or become "that guy" who links you out to a technical webpage full of color spectrum graphs.  But in brief, the result is that the image captured on film may not look more and more candy-colored, but instead appears more photo realistic, a more accurate representation of the reality the cameras were pointed at.

Audio-wise, I'm not quite as pleased, but it's fine... Let's start with the DVD.  It gave us a choice of the original Dolby stereo mix or a 5.1 remix, plus French and Spanish dubs and English, French and Spanish subtitles.  The BD does right by the 5.1 mix, upgrading it to Dolby TrueHD, not to mention adding even more dubs (German, Italian, Japanese, and an additional Spanish dialect) and subs (Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, two Portuguese dialects, a second Spanish dialect and Swedish).  But they leave the original stereo mix in lossy compression.  And the UHD?  It's basically the same as the blu, though they add even more dubs (Russian, Czech and Hungarian) and subs (Chinese, Czech, Hungarian, Russian and Thai).  But they drop the Portuguese subs and worst of all, instead of boosting the original stereo mix to something lossless like I expected, they drop it entirely.  Not that there's anything wrong with the 5.1 mix per se, but come on.
Now let's get into the special features, because I have a lot to say here, too.  The 2002 special edition introduced a lot of great stuff, and thankfully all of that has stayed with us across every iteration to follow.  There are two audio commentaries: one with Dante, producer Mike Finnell, and effects artist Chris Walas, and one with Dante, Galligan, Cates, Miller, and Howie Mandel (the voice of Gizmo).  If you've ever heard a Dante commentary before, you know they're an ideal mix of entertaining good humor and informative insight.  And the additional cast of characters just helps to liven things further.  There's also a few deleted scenes, with optional commentary, a vintage featurette, and a couple of trailers.  Good stuff, but light in the video features.  Something they finally came along to flesh out in the Diamond Luxe with their new bonus disc. 
The first doc is a half hour long and brings in a lot of the key, missing people from the old extras. We finally get to hear from Steven Speilberg and writer Chris Columbus, as well as producers Frank Marshall. It's impressive they got Speilberg in for this, and Columbus has a lot of interesting insight. And a documentary on a Dante film without Joe Dante himself just wouldn't be right, so he's back, as are Finnel and Galligan. These guys do repeat a couple of anecdotes from the commentaries, but overall it's a really nice piece. Then the second feature comes in just a little under twenty minutes and focuses on the special effects, especially the design and puppetry of the creatures. Pretty much everybody from the last doc is back again, but they've also added Walas and Mandell.  Both docs focus on the new interviews, but also include a nice helping of behind-the-scenes footage - it's fun to see all the crewmen operating Gizmo through a huge mess of controls and cables running through Galligan's clothes that was always just out of frame in the final film.

There's a final third featurette, which is just about five minutes long, but focuses on Hoyt Axton. It's all vintage footage of him clowning around on the set and talking about his music. It's fun, and all three of these new extras make you wonder why, if they had all this great footage, they never included it on past editions. Oh, and there's a weird pair of digital comics, where sections of the plot are retold through drawings and sound effects. I think they're based on old tie-in children's books and/ or records that came out back in the 80s, so that's a bit of extra fun for the super dedicated fan.

And none of that new stuff is included in the new UHD set.  Blahhhhhhhh  It's just the original 2002 extras, much of which is only on the 1080 BD.  At least it comes in a slipcover?
Anyway, by the time Gremlins 2: The New Batch came out, it was a whole new decade.  A lot had changed from 1984 to 1990, and one thing sequels tend to fail at is adapting.  You might argue Gremlins 2 did, too; and it's not the stand-out film the original was, with a lot of goofy awkward moments, heavy-handed comedy and blatant retreads of set pieces from the original.  But its saving grace is they let Dante back at the helm, and seemingly let him go completely wild and indulge nearly every whim.  All of his favorite actors are back - even those who died in the first film - and chaos reigns.  The effects are bigger, with new mutant gremlins, a fresh big city locale and John Glover as a new corporate villain.  Sometimes this film is straight-up parodying its predecessor.  Paul Bartel and Hulk Hogan break the fourth wall, Christopher Lee plays a character named Doctor Catheter and Leonard Maltin cameos as himself, delivering the critical panning he really gave to the first film, only to be killed this time by the vengeful critters.  Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck even appear in the opening sequence, animated by Chuck Jones himself.  It's madness!  And as such, it winds up meriting its own existence, perhaps not a truly worthy sequel, but certainly a spectacle that won't want to have missed.
Gremlins 2 didn't hit DVD as quickly as the original.  Its first debut was in conjunction with Gremlins 1's third DVD, the 2002 special edition.  So happily, they made that one a special edition, too; and that's one of the discs we've got here.  Then it kind of gently rolled out onto blu-ray in 2012, the other disc we'll be looking at today.  There have been some repackagings since then, including double and triple features, and some alternate cover art.  But there's really just the two versions so far, with no fancy Diamond Luxe or UHD editions in sight yet.
2002 DVD top; 2012 BD bottom.
As you might expect, there's a much less complicated story to tell here.  Once again, they claim to be 1.85:1 on the cases but are actually 1.78:1.  The DVD is slightly pinched, which the BD corrects, but otherwise it looks like they're using the same master.  That said, the HD boost is very clear, with a sharper image and natural grain which is smudged and blurry on the DVD.  The colors are separated a little better, too.

Unfortunately, the story of the audio is a disappointing retread of the first film.  The original DVD gave us the choice of the original stereo mix and a new 5.1, plus French and Spanish dubs and subs.  The blu-ray bumps the 5.1 up to DTS-HD, adds some more dubs (German, Japanese and Portuguese) and subs (Danish, Finnish, German, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, Swedish and a second Spanish dialect).  But once again, they dump the original stereo mix.
The special features are simpler but reasonably satisfying this time around.  First we get another first class Dante commentary, backed up by Finnell, co-writer Charlie Haas, and Zach Galligan.  There's another collection of deleted scenes, also with optional commentary, a gag reel, a vintage promotional featurette, an alternate scene shot for the VHS release (hidden as an easter egg on the DVD, but it's on there) and the trailer.  A retrospective or something would be great, but I guess my expectations are bit more tempered given this isn't the Speilbergian blockbuster the original film was.  Oh, and this set of extras is the exact same on the DVD and Blu-ray.
So things are pretty alright with the Gremlins films, though they could be better.  I'd love to see the original audio mixes restored for HD, and I'm particularly annoyed that this new Gremlins UHD dropped the Diamond Luxe extras.  They could've stuck 'em on the UHD, since the film only takes up 56 GB.  But if you're a big enough fan of the film to want everything, I guess you won't mind copping both the Diamond Luxe, UHD and the standard BD of The New Batch.  Considering how many films are still missing proper DVD or blu-ray releases at all, I guess it's hard to complain.  But I wish we could enjoy the sweet 4k step forward without these annoying steps back that have come along with it.

Werner Herzog's Encounters In the Natural World

If you've been following my coverage of Werner Herzog's films on blu, you've seen me me bring up Revolver's Encounters In the Natural World set a few times now.  So, no more beating around the bush, here it is!  And a couple relevant DVDs for comparison, and a "bonus" DVD review, which will make sense when we get to it.  Three of the films in this set have already been covered on other pages, so you can click through to their respective pages for complete coverage of The White Diamond and La Soufrière & The Flying Doctors of East Africa, which I've just updated.  Real quick though, I'll just briefly summarize that White Diamond is interlaced, and looks almost exactly the same as the German BD, but it has a unique 'making of' doc.  And the two short films are standard def upscales, though they at least eliminate the interlacing problems from the DVD box set, making them at least minor upgrades.  Happily, however, the other two films in the set are not similarly compromised.

Update 1/24/20: Added the US Image blu-ray of Encounters.  Turns out it's not as close to the UK BD as I would've guessed...

Update 6/23/22: The Wild Blue Yonder finally hits HD as part of Shout Factory's new Herzog: The Collection, Volume 2 blu-ray set, but it's not a 100% net positive.
So let's begin with 2005's Grizzly Man, probably the best known of the films in this collection, if not one of Herzog's more famous works period.  That's largely because it takes an intimate look at the heavily publicized and grisly (you can accuse me of making a pun, but I wonder if Herzog wasn't making it first) death of environmentalist Timothy Treadwell.  He spent well over a decade documenting his time camping in Alaska to live with grizzly bears until one of them ultimately killed and ate him.  If you're even remotely familiar with Herzog, you don't need me to tell you that he treks out to the same Alaskan wilderness to examine the locations and interview those who knew him.  But we're able to go so much deeper thanks to the hundreds of hours of recovered footage Treadwell had shot of himself out there, capturing everything from dangerously unique nature footage to shockingly personal emotional breakdowns and rants.  He even managed to record his violent, final moments, which we don't hear directly, but the descriptions are graphic enough.
I first saw this when it was brand new and purchased the DVD day one on its release date.  But feeling like "now that I know what happened," I never actually revisited that DVD until it was time to write this article.  And I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised by how well it held up and reinforced by initial impressions of the film.  Grizzly Man is so much more than its lurid details.  All the interviewees' perspectives paint such a vivid picture, many of whom I'd completely forgotten but who add so much heart to the story.  And Herzog certainly doesn't disappoint in regards to flexing his talents to match robust musical performances with exotic footage.  As a true crime-type documentary, this is one of the best, and as a "natural encounter" film, it's pretty stunning, too.
Lions Gate released this film on DVD in the US in 2005, and put out nearly identical discs in nearly every territory, throughout the next year.  In 2009, Revolver brought it to blu-ray in the UK, both as a solo disc and packaged in this 'Natural World' boxed set.  It's pretty much the only blu-ray release of this film anywhere in the world, although Lions Gate has reissued it in the UK in 2015.  But yeah, as of this writing, it's British BDs or nothin' if you want this film in HD.  So I guess I should state now that Revolver's discs are region free.
2005 US Lions Gate DVD top; 2009 UK Revolver BD bottom.
Both discs are presented in 1.78:1, and seem to have been struck from the same master, but you might notice the framing isn't 100% identical.  The DVD seems to be slightly stretched vertically, which means the blu restores tiny slivers of additional picture along the top and bottom when it fixes that.  As is common with documentaries, this film is comprised of footage from various sources, with varying levels of picture quality.  But the original footage Herzog shot for this film, the highest quality stuff, was apparently shot on 16mm and blown up to 35.  So 2009 is pretty old for a blu-ray, one could probably go back to the negatives today and create a more impressive scan (for 16mm, I don't see a lot of grain here!), but this is clearly the one master the filmmakers released that everybody has to work with.  So colors and everything are otherwise the same across the US and UK releases, with just the naturally increased resolution of a higher res BD disc to add a little extra clarity to the SD compressed DVD.  In brief, you'll mostly just notice that the blu looks a little bit sharper on your TV.

Audio-wise, Revolver goes a little further.  Lions Gate's DVD has a strong Dolby stereo mix.  Revolver gives us the choice of that stereo track, now in lossless LPCM, or a new 5.1 mix in DTS-HD.  On the other hand, the DVD offered optional English and Spanish subtitles, while the blu has none.
But the pendulum swings back to Revolver's side again in the special features.  Lions Gate basically featured one big extra: a 50+ minute documentary about the recording of the soundtrack.  It's pretty great, filmed in-studio at the time of recording, letting us witness the performances and hear from all the players.  And we get to see Herzog's very hands-on way of working with the musicians.  Besides that, there's just the trailer and a bunch of bonus trailers.  Unfortunately, Revolver was a bit lazy and forgot the trailer, but thankfully they carried over the big doc.  The only problem with the doc is that it's entirely about the soundtrack, so it leaves you a bit thirsty with regards to the rest of the movie.  And Revolver addresses this with an additional feature not on the DVD (or Lions Gate's 2015 blu), a piece by Mark Kermode, where he gives us a little history on Herzog and then interviews the man himself.  Famously, this is the interview where Herzog gets shot and wounded(!) by someone with an air rifle mid-interview.  I'd seen a low quality video of this online years ago, but it's nice to get a proper copy of it here.  And as I said, it finally gives you at least a little insight into the other, non-soundtrack, aspects of the movie.
So okay, story time now.  One of the musicians for Grizzly Man was guitarist Henry Kaiser, and apparently during the very sessions we see in the documentary, Herzog spotted some footage on Kaiser's laptop.  Kaiser was sent to the South Pole on an artist's grant to perform and record a CD down there, and while he was there, he went diving underneath the icebergs.  He filmed it, and when Herzog saw the strange and utterly unique images Kaiser had captured, Herzog decided to do two things.  The first was to ask Kaiser if he could use this footage in a new film; and that film became 2005's The Wild Blue Yonder, a rather eccentric - even by Herzog standards - science fiction film starring Brad Dourif.
The Wild Blue Yonder is almost a documentary film, blurring the lines between docs and narrative fiction in a different but thematically similar method to the way Lessons Of Darkness did.  It's comprised of four elements: Kaiser's underwater footage, a bunch of rarely seen NASA footage shot in the 80s, new non-fiction interviews Herzog conducted with NASA scientists, and the element that transforms the film into fiction: a monologue by Dourif in the role of a space alien who's landed, and failed to rebuild his civilization, here on Earth.  It's very strange but fascinating as all of these documentary elements are forged into this alien's narrative.  It ultimately plays far more like a piece of cinematic poetry than a Star Wars romp, so mainstream audiences be warned.  If the phrase "art film" makes your head ache, this is exactly what you hate, and I feel for the poor Blockbuster customers around the world with no idea who this Werner Herzog guy was and just saw a DVD cover showing a space ship and the star of Critters 4 on their new release wall.  But for my fellow aficionados, oh what a treat this is!
2006 US Subversive DVD top; 2022 Shout Factory BD bottom.

Originally, there was no high def option for this one, just US and UK DVDs.  The US disc from Subversive had better extras, so that's what I've got.  But now that Shout Factory has released it on blu in their Herzog: The Collection, Volume 2 set, I've got that, too. The film is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen and looks alright, if a bit muddy, by which I mean soft and a bit low on contrast.  Even in HD, although now it's certainly less muddy.  But it still looks like Herzog was shooting with digital cameras of its day. The biggest issue, as you'll plainly observe above and which affects each "area" of the film (underwater, NASA old, NASA new and Dourif) equally, is that it has a nasty interlacing problem.  So even in just fixing that, the Shout update is a huge upgrade.  Of course, that's not all it does.
2006 US Subversive DVD top; 2022 Shout Factory BD bottom.
Here are some more comparisons, so we can also see some of the footage Herzog incorporated into the film, not just the stuff he shot himself.  The film grain that's soft and murky on the DVD of the NASA footage is a lot clearer on the blu, and that undersea footage is much sharper now.  That footage is where you probably appreciate the boost the best (apart, again, from that interlacing which ran through the whole movie on the DVD).  This movie was always going to have a bit of a dark, low-fi look, but it does a much better job of reaching its potential now.

Subversive's disc comes with a fairly basic but clean Dolby stereo track and no subtitle options.  Shout bumps that stereo track up to DTS-HD and adds optional English subtitles.
But I mentioned good extras, and this is where Subversive shines.  First of all, we get another documentary about the recording of the soundtrack, which is shorter than the Grizzly Man one, but otherwise plays almost like a direct sequel.  But here, they definitely don't leave you saying that's great about the music, but what about the rest of the film?  We also get an audio commentary by Herzog and Dourif; and Herzog commentaries are always pretty great.  And that's embellished further with two sizeable on-camera interviews with Herzog and Dourif.  There's also the film's trailer, plus five bonus trailers.  The insert is actually a nice, fold-out poster for the film, and this DVD even came in a slipcover.  So yeah, Subversive didn't skimp.

Shout did, though.  There are no extras on their blu, for this or any of the films included in their latest Collection.  So buy that for the films, but hang onto the DVD for the special features.
But now, back to story time, because there's more to this saga, which directly ties Wild Blue to the other films in this set (which makes it all the more shame Revolver left it out of their box).  Because Wild Blue was made quickly, managing to come out in 2005, the same year as Grizzly Man.  But Herzog still wasn't over his interest in this crazy underwater footage.  So the following year, he and Kaiser (for whom this is his sole production credit) went back to the South Pole to explore for 2007's Encounters At the End of the World.  Kaiser dives and discovers more otherworldly imagery beneath the ice, but Herzog also takes the opportunity to examine the entire settlement, talking to the eccentric people who've decided to stay down there and take in all the other sites.
So yes, this one's a "pure" documentary, and probably the more generally satisfying experience for it.  Everybody there seems to be a delightful character, from the dedicated scientists to the guy who drives the trucks.  And yes, the underwater chunk of the film can feel a bit redundant if you've just watched Wild Blue, but in a vacuum it's still breathtaking and fascinating.  But thankfully, Herzog has found just as interesting a world on top of the ice as beneath it.  Besides a tiny community of charming eccentrics, Herzog delves into beautiful ice caves, finds the anti-March Of the Penguins story of a single penguin who goes mad and determines to march hundreds of miles to his certain death, and oh yes, he winds up staring down another active and deadly volcano.  La Soufrière, Into the Inferno... this is becoming a suicidal habit for him.
Anyway, this film is one of Herzog's more broadly distributed films, thanks to some backing from the Discovery channel.  Image released pretty packed special editions on both DVD and blu-ray in 2008 here in America, and there have been similar releases in other parts of the world.  Revolver, of course, took care of the film in the UK, releasing it both as a solo disc and as part of this box in 2009.  And their release stands out as it features even more, exclusive special features.
2008 US Image DVD top; 2008 US Image BD mid;
2009 UK Revolver BD bottom.
I wrote a bit, recently, about how people often seem to be under the misapprehension that action films are the most important to see in HD, because of all the explosions and kinetic energy blasting out of the screen.  But I'd argue that a film like this is really the most important candidate.  Because explosions, car chases, airplane stunts etc are typically a mass of motion blur and detail you'll never be able to make out regardless of the resolution.  But here, where the film is slowly panning and exploring all new, complex vistas, thriving with strange, alien life and colors, reaps all of the benefits of HD and holds it up on display for you like a visit to the Louvre.  And this film was primarily shot with digital HD cameras.  In fact, we're told these were the very first ones, provided by Sony, which shot directly to blu-ray discs and were constantly malfunctioning in the extreme conditions.  So yeah, in a way, it's still not the most impressive HD.  That shot above in the tent really shows the flaws, like edge enhancement and digital flaws which were presumably, unfortunately, native to the camera.

But it's still a true boost to HD when it counts.  The underwater footage is all the more intense and organic on blu-ray, delivering the exact experience of the viewer being sucked in and journeying through an alternative universe that the filmmakers were certainly going for.  Unfortunately, I suppose, there'd be little benefit to a fresher 4k transfer, as we're presumably pushing the limits of the native footage already; but it's certainly preferable to the noticeably softer DVD.  You can really see the difference, for example, in the numbers on the cardboard box in the second set of shots.  The UK BD corrects the aspect ratio a bit, too, as the Image discs leave in a little dead space in the overscan (which I left in the first comparison shot, so you can see for yourselves), slimming the 1.78:1 ratio of the BD to 1.77.  The difference is mostly accounted for by the DVD being slightly squished horizontally, though you can see the Image BD, which isn't squished, still has a little dead space of its own.

The major difference between the two blus, though, is that Image's is interlaced - yuck!  You can see it a bit in the second set of shots, but many frames are far worse.  There's also a very slight color difference... notice in the first set of shots that the snow looks a pinch greener on the Revolver disc.  I might prefer Image's colors, but the interlacing totally invalidates it as an option.  I'd probably choose Image's DVD, even, over their blu.  Now, I've seen some listings for Revolver's blu suggest that it's also interlaced, but I'm happy to report that's not true; it's progressive.  Many of the extras are interlaced, but not the film itself.

The DVD and Revolver blu both offer both stereo and 5.1 mixes, but the blu bumps the 5.1 up to lossless DTS-HD (their stereo is still PCM).  Image's blu actually has three tracks, the lossless 5.1, the lossy 2.0 and another lossy 5.1.  Strange, but okay.  Image, like Lions Gate, did throw in English and Spanish subtitle options (on the DVD and blu), though, which Revolver again neglects.
So now onto the extras.  Like I said, Revolver has more, but Image - on both their DVD and blu - already had quite a lot.  They provide another excellent Herzog commentary, this time accompanied by Kaiser and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger.  We also get Kaiser's original deep sea that he originally showed Herzog during the scoring of Grizzly Man, which yes, we do see parts of in Wild Blue Yonder.  Here, it's all compiled as a roughly half-hour short film, scored and edited by Kaiser.  And we get a similar but shorter compilation of images he captured above ground at the South Pole in his earlier trips, too.  In fact, apart from the trailer and one extended interview with Herzog and the diving team, all the other extras are essentially the collected works of Henry Kaiser.  We get an entertaining short where he plays his music "around the world," and then witnesses an exorcism of some local construction equipment by the scientists.  And we get some extra footage he shot of some seals, where the lines between content made for public consumption and self-indulgent home movies begins to blur.

But that's where Image ends.  Revolver has everything listed above, even the trailer, but also some more stuff.  Unfortunately, it's basically all more of Kaiser's "home movie" stuff.  There's a twenty minute video where he talks about each one of his guitars and shows us him playing each one in different parts of the South Pole (I suspect this is the video he created to satisfy his initial grant), and two more short films' worth of the underwater diving footage, which by this point just feels like "more of the same."  Finally, there's a very silly mockumentary Kaiser made about a seal-loving environmentalist gone mad with the other scientists on location, which consists of 90% landscape shots and 10% jokey narrative.  Look, I'll always choose more over less; it's better to have the option to watch content you may or may not be interested in than no opportunity at all.  But if you have the US blu-ray, I promise that you don't need to run out and import the UK to replace it just for these additional extras.
Revolver's box is a very pleasing, thick box with a lid that lifts up to reveal the three blu-rays each in their own amaray case.  Revolver has released all three of the features separately, with mostly identical discs.  But there's one key exception.  The White Diamond blu only has the two short films (Flying Doctors and La Soufrière) on the same disc in the box set.  The solo release is The White Diamond by itself.  Both versions also include the same 'making of' doc for The White Diamond ...and yes, I've looked into it, both are interlaced.  But the shorts are unique to the box set.  I'd recommend it, even if you'd still prefer to track down the Australian blu of White Diamond (apparently it's not interlaced) from Shock because the set isn't particularly expensive, and the other discs are worth the price on their own.  Plus you'd still need the Revolver Diamond for the 'making of' doc.  So you might as well get yourself the shorts and attractive packaging as a bonus.