Scream Factory's Ravenous (A Slightly Controversial DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Last year, Scream Factory aroused a bit of a controversy with their release of 1999's wickedly grisly exploration of man's power over others, Ravenous. It's not the film itself that caused the friction, though it's edgy enough, but the quality of the HD transfer. Of course, this was previously only available in the US on its original, non-anamorphic DVD from Fox (though anamorphic DVDs do exist in other regions), so you can really say Ravenous's blu-ray debut isn't an upgrade. But is it worth it?
Certainly, the movie itself is worth having in your collection. It's one of those movies people often don't consider a horror movie just because it's so good, but by pretty much all objective genre distinctions, it's a full-on horror movie. It's just the sort of horror movie that manages to be enough of a compelling drama with well honed characters and biting social satire.that you aren't solely focused on the suspense or the gore.  But those elements are still there, too, and to a degree higher than a lot of other horror titles.

Guy Pearce's star was just beginning to really rise (Ravenous was about one year before Memento) when he took the role of Captain John Boyd, either a disgraced coward or a war hero in the Mexican-American war, depending on your point of view. Unsure what to do with him, the army sends him off to the very remote Fort Spencer, a very remote military installation only encountered by the occasional wagon train heading west for the gold rush. Run by Jeffrey Jones, the 8-man regiment has gone a bit casual, a bit native and a bit eccentric. But it's a happy little community until a beleaguered Robert Carlyle (at the peak of his career after Trainspotting and The Full Monty) stumbles in with a tale of cannibalism and a Native American legend of the wendigo. Soon everyone has to decide just what they're willing to do to another person in order to thrive and prosper. It's both a very clever and well-paced thriller with a very neat little score, and a substantive, thoughtful film which raises some real questions about how we live our lives. You don't find many films like this one, especially from a major studio, so it's absolutely the kind of film to jump on and add to your collection.

So what's wrong up with this blu-ray and just how bad is it, really? And how different is it from our old DVDs? Should we just hang on to those? Well, let's take a look.
Fox DVD on top; Scream Factory blu-ray on bottom.
For starters, I've referenced anamorphic vs. non-anamorphic discs before, and how non-anamorphic discs like the original Fox DVD are window boxed on widescreen TVs. But just so everyone can see what that really entails, for my first comparison I'm showing the screenshots as they look on a wide screen.  In the blu-ray's case (bottom), it's letterboxed with black bars on the top and bottom, because it's a very wide, 2.35:1 movie. But in the DVD's case, the image is just floating there in the center, surrounded by large swaths of black on all sides, because it's an old DVD that predates widescreen TVs. It was alright on an old 4.3 TV, but just looks small and awkward on a modern set.

Apart from that, though, the DVD really doesn't look so much worse than the blu. You have to zoom in to really get a look at the DVD, and the image quality certainly isn't identical when you do, but it's really not much worse. Here, let's have a couple easier comparisons, without those dreaded black bars.
Fox DVD on top; Scream Factory blu-ray on bottom.
So yeah, I think it's right to say the DVD isn't so much worse than the blu. Apart from being non-anamorphic, I think it was a pretty good looking picture for standard def. But I think it's even more accurate to say the blu-ray isn't so much better than the DVD, and it really should be. It's soft, lacking detail, and some of the edges have halos. The DVD does have some artifacting from being smaller and more compressed, which the blu-ray properly does away with (look at Neal McDonough's chin); but where's the clarified detail? Where's the sharper, more lifelike image we expect from blu-ray?

Well, it doesn't look like Scream Factory has done anything particularly wrong. It's still a 1080p presentation, and despite some public accusations, I don't think they damaged the image too badly with DNR (digital noise reduction) or similar tools. They may have sharpened and/or otherwise tinkered with it a bit; but the real problem seems to be that they just used a very old transfer. And that old transfer had some edge enhancement and other effects used on it that Scream then gave the HD treatment to.
If you were to make a new scan of this film and give it a nice restoration, I believe this film could look dramatically better. But they just had what Fox gave them, which was good enough for the DVD because the DVD, as we've said, was a smaller, non-anamorphic image. So when they "fixed" the image for the old disc, it looked alright. But now that Scream has blown up that "fixed" transfer to hi-def, it just isn't up to the higher standards of blu-ray. You would need to go back another generation to get a nice, high quality blu-ray presentation.

But still, this new version is a little bit of an improvement over the DVD. A blah looking blu-ray, but the best this film has ever looked on home video. And Scream did give us an upgrade in another sense as well.
All the extras, including the many deleted scenes and three audio commentaries, have been ported over from the DVD. Some of the deleted scenes are pretty interesting, and there's commentary on them, too, which is informative. The three commentaries are a bit excessive... the director's one is fine, but I think the two actor commentaries probably should've been edited together into one stronger piece, because both of those tracks often drag in stretches where they haven't got much to say.  Still, I'd much rather have them than not. The trailer, TV spot and a photo gallery were also carried over. We did lose a tiny little easter egg extra with a map of the Donner party's cross-country trail and a look at a wacky promotional item made for the movie; but it was just a photo thing, not an actual video extra; so it's pretty inconsequential.

The blu-ray has kept both audio tracks, the 2.0 and 5.1, both now upgraded of course to HD, as well as the optional English subtitles. It ditched the Spanish subtitles, though, if you care about that. And they gave us an extra little treat of a music and effects only track for lovers of the soundtrack.

But the main new bonus is a brand new interview with Jeffrey Jones, which is pretty substantial. In most DVD extras, the people involved are still in promotional mode, and aren't apt to talk about anything negative. You know, those infamous "oh, he was wonderful to work with. He was brilliant! And that other actor was marvelous! Oh, and she was delightful!" commentaries. But I guess now enough time has passed for Jones to tell us all about how the producers fired the first director and didn't want the second one they were stuck with, and how Carlyle refused to come out of his trailer, etc. So if you want to hear that whole story, this is the interview for you. And yet his enthusiasm and respect for the film really comes through, too. So okay, it's "just an extra," but I'd say it really adds some noteworthy value to the new release.
Just don't look at the white edges around those tombstones. If we ignore it, maybe it will go away.
So, Scream Factory did the best they could, and they at least gave us the best release of Ravenous available. It's disappointing that Fox couldn't cough up anything better, and I'd definitely say this is a less compelling upgrade than many other titles. But as fantastic as a restoration would be, I don't hold out much hope of one. It's a great film, but not a popular enough one that I think many DVD companies are going to see room enough for a second blu-ray of this title in the marketplace, especially one with the expense of a new scan on the price-tag. So just break down and get this already; I did. I mean, what are you going to do? Player manufacturers seem pathologically incapable of programming a zoom setting for a non-anamorphic DVD that will actually just properly fill a TV screen without screwing up the AR or cropping part of the image. If I had a more suspicious nature...

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