Prince of Darkness Leaping Again to 4K Ultra HD (DVD/ Blu-ray/ UHD Comparison)

Fans had been calling for a special edition of John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness for dog's years. Fans other than myself, that is. And it's not because I wasn't a fan of the film - in fact it's one of my favorite Carpenter films; I've always enjoyed its supernatural "all Hell breaking loose and anything can happen" theme of horror, a la The Beyond or In the Mouth of Madness. But I'd always been happy with the foreign Studio Canal editions which had a great 2.35:1, uncut transfer and a super fun audio commentary by Carpenter and Peter Jason. I wound up getting the German disc just before realizing there was a French one which also had a short interview and intro with Carpenter as an extra bonus. But either way, I always felt like Prince of Darkness had been scratched off the "desperately in need of a proper release" list, and just shook my head at those people who'd never gone region free.

Update 1/13/15 - 3/24/19: Well, Studio Canal's gone and remastered a whole bunch of Carpenter classics and issued them on 4k UHD, and Prince of Darkness is no exception.  Is it enough of an improvement to warrant replacing your old blus?  We'll have a look.  I also copped a recent SC blu-ray release, so we'll throw that into the mix, too.  And, since this is one of my earliest posts, it had jpg instead of png comparison screenshots.  So I've gone back to the old discs, taken new shots, and replaced them for a higher quality comparison.  ūüĎć
You're just like me if you've been a little reluctant to repurchase this title yet another time.  But the promise of a higher quality presentation for a film that leans so relies so heavily on atmosphere and tone, in addition to even more new extras, was eventually enough to force my collector's hand.  Especially as this atmospheric, anything goes horror is right up my alley.  Some of the other Carpenters I could resist... but never Prince of Darkness.
The film opens by introducing a strong ensemble cast, including Donald Pleasance, Alice Cooper and several returning cast members from Big Trouble In Little China, as a group of clergymen and scientists who will wind up teaming up in a race to decipher the secrets of the universe before an ancient evil wipes out humanity. I like the idea that these characters are racing against the clock to learn. I mean, sure plenty of horror movies have had people striving to figure out something like "the monster's weakness is electricity!" But here they've got to basically crack the secrets of quantum physics and theology that the human race has been working on since the birth of the original man... in about 24 hours.
But it's not nearly as nerdy as all that. It's a wild, yet moody ride that doesn't let the limitations of its tight budget allow you to believe that you know what's coming next. Whether its an army of evil homeless people, zombies, shadowy figures from the future, telekinetic green slime, swarms of killer insects or a giant monster behind a mirror, the film is always creeping up the ante to something new and bigger. And while there are occasional lines of wit and levity, the film does a nice job of playing everything straight and getting pretty far out there without becoming silly or harmless.
I'm afraid to even count how many times I've re-upped for this film.  I used to own the VHS back in the day, and then it was one I just had to own on laserdisc.  I bought the original, 2000 Universal DVD (which I no longer have; but I've got their 2003 reissue for this comparison), because it was anamorphic.  And then I imported the 2002 Studio Canal/ Kinowelt DVD from Germany because it had that exclusive audio commentary, while all US editions were barebones.  Of course, all that changed in the later days of HD when Scream Factory came out with an impressive Collector's Edition in 2013.  Then Studio Canal started remastering all those Carpenters, and came out with an all new blu-ray edition in 2018.  And now they've finally issued it in 4k Ultra HD, initially in a limited edition steelbook in December, then in a fancy 4-disc collector's edition in February, and now a standard 3-disc edition (it was initially announced and generally listed online as a 2-disc edition; but I've got it and there's definitely 3) just this month.
1) 2002 Kinowelt DVD 2) 2003 Universal DVD 3) 2013 Scream Factory BD
4) 2018 Studio Canal BD 5) 2019 Studio Canal BD 6) 2019 Studio Canal UHD
Interestingly, there's a sizeable amount of difference just between the two DVDs. The Universal DVD is much softer, paler, and and has uglier color timing.  It's also interlaced, yuck!  The German DVD doesn't have those problems, but is instead splotchy and suffers from some obvious tampering with edge enhancement or some kind of unsharpening mask, which honestly would've been more passable in 2002 than today, when we're looking at it on larger, higher def screens. It's aspect ratio also went off a bit, from Universal's proper 2.35:1 to 2.30:1.  Regardless, that all became academic when Scream brought the title to HD and we could chuck both sets of flaws in the bin.  The new colors looked more vivid and natural on the Scream discs, and when you right click to see them in full size is when you really notice the difference.  Standard def compression gives way to clean lines, the AR is brought back to 2.35, and the blu just looks more natural and energetic, with a sliver more picture around its edges to boot.
1) 2002 Kinowelt DVD 2) 2003 Universal DVD 3) 2013 Scream Factory BD
4) 2018 Studio Canal BD 5) 2019 Studio Canal BD 6) 2019 Studio Canal UHD
But now is the age of the Studio Canals... and I have to say, I was initially worried when I checked out the 2018 blu-ray.  It's very similar to the Scream, still holding at 2.35:1, but loses some shading and contrast, looking a bit softer and flatter.  Dare I say a step backwards?  Yeah, for real.  Of course, I should have remembered that, with BD/ UHD combo packs, the BD half typically doesn't get the new transfer and is just a copy of the label's older blu.  I haven't seen their 2013 blu, but I've got to assume that transfer is what we're looking at here.  If that's the case, though, it does kind of put a lie to the claim of "BRAND NEW RESTORATION" splashed across the cover of their 2018 blu-ray release.
_____________
Correction 4/9/19: Read the comments below for screenshots of said 2013 blu, which is indeed different from SC's new one.  So, okay, credit where it's due, SC did utilize their new restoration for their 2018 blu-ray, too.  It just looks disappointingly washed out, losing delicate information in the color shading that even the older Scream blu has.  I apologize for my cynicism there; but still, like I said pre-correction, the bottom line is:
_____________
Buyers of that release prepare to be let down; unless you're just in it for the new doc (more on that later), you're better off sticking with the Scream Factory.
1) 2002 Kinowelt DVD 2) 2003 Universal DVD 3) 2013 Scream Factory BD
4) 2018 Studio Canal BD 5) 2019 Studio Canal BD 6) 2019 Studio Canal UHD
Anyway, not to worry.  The new UHD really is the best this film's ever looked.  It's a fresh 4k scan of the original camera negatives and color-graded and approved by the DP.  So that softness is completely gone here, with film grain looking the more complete and natural than ever before.  The previous blus have resolved a lot of grain, but it's also always been patchy, especially on the SC blus.  That patchiness is gone, now, with every speck present and accounted for.  The contrast is a bit dimmer, but thanks to the broader HDR, it allows them to pull out more information.  For example, look at the lamp behind Dennis Dun's head in the last set of shots... you can see the light-bulb inside, which was always washed out in the brights of the previous discs.  And on a 4k TV with the brightness properly set, those lights don't look so dull as they might on a computer monitor.  It all results in a more natural, authentic looking color schemes where skin tones look the most like actual skin, etc.  All of that said, though, if you're looking for a revelation in additional detail, it ain't really here.  We really seem to be pushing the limits of what's been captured on the original film; there's not much more genuine detail to be discovered.

For audio, the DVDs seem to have matching Dolby Stereo tracks, though only the Kinowelt also has German and Spanish dubs.  Interestingly, Universal only has Spanish and French subtitles, not English, while Kinowelt has all three plus plenty more languages.  Scream has the same stereo mix, too, except bumped up to DTS-HD, but also throws in a DTS-HD 5.1 mix, plus English subtitles.  And Studio Canal mostly stays that course (they switch the stereo mix from DTS-HD to LPCM, but I didn't notice any difference), but adding French and German dubs with English, French and German subtitles.
The Universal DVD has nothing but a fullscreen trailer, but Kinowelt added that commentary.  It's quite excellent.  Carpenter's always a great one for commentaries, but Peter Jason really knows his stuff, and is able to remind Carpenter of a lot, correcting him multiple times, and also adding a plenty of levity.  So thankfully, it's also included on all the subsequent BD and UHD releases.

Now, for some reason, the back of Scream's box really undersells their extras. It just says, "audio commentary with director John Carpenter" (no mention of Peter Jason).  And then, the only other thing it says, besides the theatrical trailer, is "new interviews with director John Carpenter and Alice Cooper." Those are true, of course. The Carpenter interview is interesting and does a good job of not being too redundant with what he says in the commentary, despite having recorded them many years apart. And Cooper's interview is fun and gets into the back-story of how they wound up working together.  But there's a lot more than just those two interviews, including things a lot more compelling than the trailer which somehow got billing in their stead!
Effects supervisor Robert Grasmere has a really fun interview about winding up as a cast member in the film, and having not one but two death scenes in the film. Then there's composer Alan Howarth who talks about working on the music with Carpenter. Especially rewarding is another episode of Horror's Hallowed Grounds, where they visit almost all of Prince of Darkness's old locations today. You also get a seven minute segment of the television version of the film, which features some interesting footage not seen in the theatrical version, although the quality is lacking, as it just seems to have been taped off of broadcast TV and added with the channel's watermark pixelated out through the whole thing. Plus there's a stills gallery and radio spots. And finally, there's an entertaining, 13 minute Q&A with Carpenter from a 2012 screening where he takes questions from their host and a general audience. All together, it's a pretty rich package, with reversible artwork and a slipcover as well.
But Studio Canal didn't just bring their new scan to the table.  They have an all-new, 34-minute documentary by the guys at Ballyhoo, who really knocked this one out of the park.  It's a bit of a trade-off, in a way, because SC has carried over some, but not all of Scream Factory's extras.  So they keep the Carpenter interview and Horror's Hallowed Grounds, but lose the Q&A and the Howarth, Grasmere and Cooper interviews.  Fortunately, all of those guys are in the documentary, so it's not much of a loss.  They basically retell all the same stories and anecdotes from the interviews, though the Scream Factory interviews went a little more in depth.  I.e. they all tell how they got involved with the project and their experiences on it, but only SF also asks them what they thought of the movie afterward.  But the new doc adds some good new stuff, with experts putting this film into the context of Carpenter's career at the time and providing some interesting interpretations.  Even better, they talk to more cast and crew like Sandy King, cinematographer Garry Kibbe, one of the stunt guys, etc.  So yeah, it's pretty terrific.  Studio canal also throw in two vintage interviews with Carpenter from 2003 (the French ones I mentioned in the opening paragraph).  One, labeled as an "Intro" is actually a fairly substantial, and another is a brief clip, clearly filmed at the same time, with Carpenter watching on the end of the film on a TV and commenting.  It also comes in a nice slipcover.

Just to keep things clear, the 2018 blu-ray release is two discs, with the movie on one disc and the extras on another blu.  The standard 4k UHD is three discs (again, preorder listings that said "2 discs" are just flat-out wrong), with the UHD of the movie, and then the same blu-ray of the film, and the same additional blu of extras.  The steelbook also contains those same three discs.  And if you copped the Collector's Edition, you got those three discs plus the soundtrack CD as a fourth disc, as well as an exclusive 45-page book, poster and art cards.
So, surprise surprise, this new 4k restoration on the new, higher grade format is the best edition going.  But, you know, that Scream blu still holds up awfully well.  If you need the best, you know what to do; but if you've got the Scream and you're on the fence, you might want to prioritize other upgrades.  This set is terrific, but it's for a film that's already been taken care of pretty well, you know, as opposed to all those M.I.A. titles.  That's definitely not a knock on this release, just that the need for it was comparatively pretty low.  But you know me; I could never turn down the Prince Of Darkness.

4 comments:

  1. I think you meant to say Universal for the R1 DVD since they have the US rights and Paramount never released it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Whoops - you're right! For some reason, I always conflate those two. I never mix up Warner Bros with MGM or Sony with Fox, but for whatever reason, about 50% of the time I say Paramount, I mean Universal, and vice versa.

      Delete
  2. The new SC BD does differ from the old SC one. New restoration from UHD file?:

    https://caps-a-holic.com/c.php?a=1&x=622&y=225&d1=12531&d2=12559&s1=124550&s2=124919&l=0&i=0&go=1

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Huh! Look at that. I guess, yes, the new SC blu does use the same restoration. It's just has an underwhelming, washed out look to it.

      Slow reply because I wanted bust out my own discs and look closer, but yeah. The framing matches 100% (which isn't true of the other releases like the Scream Factory blu), and yeah, the blu loses detail in the brights and all that just like I wrote in the review, but as disappointing as it is (I haven't changed my mind that the SC UHD > Scream blu > SC blu), I guess it WAS taken from the new restoration.

      Delete