Salo: 120 Days of Sodom - Contentious, Complicated and Cut? (DVD/ Blu-Ray Comparison)

America, your DVD and blu-ray copies of Salo: 120 Days of Sodom are cut!!  ...Well, arguably. The original 1998 Criterion DVD of Pier Pasolini's infamous Salo was one of the earliest DVDs to go quickly out of print and start going for really big bucks on the collectors' market. So much so that there became various bootlegs of it, and even they went up in value, among fans who knew them to be bootlegs! The fervor died down when the film was not only reissued on DVD in another region in 2001, but especially so when it turned out that foreign disc, from the BFI in the UK, was a little bit longer, including a scene missing from Criterion's DVD. Suddenly that was the one for the really plugged in film lovers to own. And so when Criterion remastered and issued their new DVD version in 2008, followed by a blu-ray version of that in 2011, I was surprised and disappointed that they were still missing that scene. Fortunately, BFI had already released their own blu-ray, so I guessed that was the definitive version and picked it up. But was I right?
I mean, this is assuming Salo's even a film you would want to own in any variant. As an adaptation of Marquis de Sade's infamous despite being incomplete novel, 120 Days of Sodom, it's surprisingly faithful. Pasolini's film version has been famously transposed to the period of Mussolini's rule in Salo, Italy (hence the addition to the title) as a commentary on fascism. Briefly, it's about a small group of male aristocracy and their madams who bring a collection of kidnapped teenagers to an isolated mansion to have a months-long orgy, where they explore the ultimate extremes of decadence. I'd always sort of assumed it was very loosely based on the novel, repurposing the general premise to tackle Pasolini's take on the Nazi regime and the more general, human psychology that would allow fascism to rise in any general situation. And that layer's certainly in there; but when I looked into the original writings, I was surprised to see how much this is really a faithful retelling - allowing for the usual shorthand and alterations any filmmaker tends to make when creating a cinematic translation - of what was already on the page, just updated to a new setting and time. Of course characters and details have changed, things were left out, etc; but I think it's interesting, because I've always found the basic "this is a film that shows you why fascism is bad" to be very minimizing, and the arguments both for and against respecting de Sade's work apply fairly equally to the film.
So okay, let's assume now that you do value this cinematic work. I'm not saying necessarily that you should, although there's certainly some undeniable attractive cinematography on hand - which, by the way, could probably be equated to the skillfulness of de Sade's descriptive prose, with the same role in the arguments for preserving his writings - so I'd say it really can't be completely dismissed as a work of art with value. But for the sake of this discussion, you think it's a compelling drama, worth having as the director intended. So you want the longer version that's not missing his scene, right?
The scene in question.
It's actually a fairly short scene, and considering how infamously shocking Salo is in terms of sex, violence and sexual violence, it's surprisingly tame. After the forced wedding (a bit of blasphemy that was probably more meaningful to de Sade than Pasolini), one of the men reads some brief poetry to the guests on a stairway, one of a couple scenes where similar poetry is read. It certainly wasn't removed by censors. And it's been argued that perhaps Pasolini didn't want it in his final cut at all, which is presumably why Criterion didn't reinstate it for their reissue. We'll never really know, because Pasolini was killed while he was working on his final cut. The film had already screened publicly in different international markets, but he'd said the version he was preparing was to be his definitive version. Just before writing this post, I read an argument against the scene's inclusion, basically boiling down to the fact that there's no clear evidence Pasolini wanted it in the film (apart from the fact that he filmed it in the first place), and if he had, it would've been in the version master Criterion had. But it seems like you could make the same exact argument for the opposite: there's no clear evidence Pasolini that he wanted it out of the film, and if he had, it wouldn't've been in the print the British Film Institute has.

So for me, it boils down to this: first, it's a good scene. It's brief, certainly not essential to the plot... but then very little in this film is. It's more a succession of events leading to a forgone conclusion, a character study of multiple people that can be extrapolated to a study of human nature at large, rather than an intricate story of plot turns and exposition. And this is just one more layer, an extra turn of the screw. I really don't feel it hurts the pacing of the film, and I've never heard anyone argue that it should be left out because it was of sub-par quality. So, even though there's a risk of it being excess, and beyond the scope of Pasolini's preferred cut... since we'll never know, I'd rather have it in there as a more complete work. And if nothing else, it's an important piece of Salo's history now, so Criterion should've at least included it as a deleted scene, if not use branching to allow us to choose whether to watch it with or without the scene. Surely, nobody's best answer for how to deal with this scene would be to completely leave it out like it never existed.

Of course, there are plenty of other factors to consider when looking at the competing releases of this film.
BFI's 2001 DVD on top; their 2008 blu-ray second,
their 2008 DVD third and Criterion's 2011 blu-ray on bottom.
We start with BFI's old DVD (I haven't got the original Criterion DVD, because like I said, it was going for hundreds of dollars), which is soft, crushed, and non-anamorphic, as was Criterion's old DVD. I think it's fair to use the word "revelation" when describing the BFI's new HD master, taken from the original 35mm film elements. There's so much more detail and clarity. But scroll back up to that shot I posted of the scene missing from Criterion's releases. That's also taken from the 2008 blu, but it looks a bit different, flatter. That's because it's taken from a print - the same print that was used for the entirety of their 2001 DVD. So it's not a perfect match, but it's pretty close; and most viewers probably wouldn't notice the shift in quality if they weren't looking out for it.

But as huge of an improvement as it was, BFI's blu is far from perfect. There's some edge enhancement or unsharpen mask used on their version that gives it a dodgy, digital look. Criterion's blu, which is a fresher 2k scan of a 35mm interpositive, is a more natural improvement on that. It's still not perfect - are scans from Italian labs ever? - with some of that edge/ unsharpening effect still present, but it does seem a little milder, and its warmer color timing is a little more pleasing, too. Is it a big enough improvement to make it worth double-dipping if you already have the BFI blu? Does it make worth picking a cut of the film missing the mysterious scene? You'll have to make that call for yourself, but all things being equal, I'd say the Criterion has the best PQ, with both blu-rays being leagues ahead of the old DVDs.

BFI's set is also a combo-pack, by the way. So the second shot in the comparison sets is the standard def version of the 2008's blu-ray transfer. Naturally, it mirrors the blu but splotchier and a little softer. It's also worth noting that BFI's 2008 release, on both their DVD and blu, give you the option to play either the English or Italian version. This not only determines which audio track you hear, but plays an alternate set of opening credits written in whichever language you've selected. Criterion only includes the Italian version of the opening credits. Both discs offer excellent, mono audio tracks in both languages with optional English subtitles, with slightly different translations.
Oh boy, and the extras just complicate things further. None of the old DVDs have any, so that's simple enough, but the dueling blu-rays have a lot of different extras, with some overlap:
  • Ostia: The Death of Pasolini - A music video by a band called Coil, the only extra, besides the trailer, in HD on the BFI set, as everything else is on the bonus DVD, not the blu-ray.
  • Open Your Eyes - A vintage 21+ minute featurette full of on-set footage from the filming of Salo. Fans are gonna want this for sure.
  • Walking With Pasolini - Another 21+ minute featurette, where several experts, including Noam Chomsky, talk about Pasolini and his work.
  • Ostia - A short film from 1988 dramatizing Pasolini's death.
  • Ostia commentary - A commentary track on the short film by its director.
  • Whoever Tells the Truth Shall Die - A fairly well known, roughly hour long documentary on Pasolini and is work from 1981. It's previously been released as its own DVD, where it actually has an audio commentary.
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Booklet - I mean, they're different, but both have substantial booklets.
  • Fade to Black - A 23+ minute featurette where critic Mark Kermode talks about Pasolini's work and murder, with multiple interviews including Catherine Breillat and Bernardo Bertolucci.
  • Salo: Yesterday and Today - Kind of Criterion's version of Open Your Eyes, as it's a vintage doc with old interviews and on-set footage from the filming of Salo.
  • The End of Salo - An excellent 40 minute featurette on Salo comprised of interviews with the cast and crew, including uncredited writer Pupi Avati, on the making of the film.
  • Interview with Dante Ferretti - 11+ minutes with Salo's production designer.
  • Interview with Jean-Pierre Gorin - Over 27 minutes with one one of Pasolini's filmmaking peers from the 70s.
[red = BFI, blue = Criterion, purple = on both]

It's tough to say which set of extras is preferable. BFI has a little more, but some of it's oddball (like the music video) or in the case of Whoever Tells the Truth, previously available elsewhere. And since the separate release has its own commentary, you may still feel the need to pick up that disc anyway. Criterion has a lot of nice, new content and tends to focus a little more on Salo than just Pasolini in general. There's enough unique material to compel many collectors to get both releases, I'm sure; but there's overlap in doing that - not just in the fact that they both have Fade To Black, but some of the archival content gets redundant as well. Overall, BFI's set is more of a collection of interesting, pre-existing film that relates to Salo, whereas Criterion's is more like a fresh extras package created for Salo. So which of those two is more satisfying will probably come down to personal taste. Purists might fan the pre-existing films more legitimate, others will find Criterion's direct interviews more engaging. There are no easy choices with this flick, which I suppose is fitting.
In the end, both Salo blu-rays are pretty great, and clearly warrant upgrading from any of those old DVDs you might have. But both are also imperfect and rather unique. There's no definitive release here. I've laid it all out now so you can decide which release is for you... assuming this in many ways offensive and distasteful film is for you at all. We're talking about the actual Marquis de Sade, after all! But if it is, and you're the type of person to sometimes buy more than one edition of the same film, this might be one of those times.

The Ultimate Messiah Of Evil by Code Red (DVD/ Blu-Ray Comparison)

I first saw Messiah of Evil theatrically at an Exhumed screening several years ago. I dug aspects of it for sure, but it was also off-putting and definitely weird. The two friends I saw it with I think thought it was the worst movie they'd ever seen. Meanwhile, I've read online reviews treating it like one of the most masterful American horror films of all time. I was hooked enough that when Code Red released a 35th Anniversary Special Edition, I had to have it, partially to revisit the film but even more so to see extras and learn more about this oddity.
The Sorrow & the Pity wasn't the
only film to cameo in Annie Hall.
1973's Messiah of Evil (subtitled The Second Coming on Code Red's discs, which was its original pre-release title), is definitely its own unique movie. It's got a strong Lovecraftian influence in the story, but that awkward, low budget Americana feel you tend to fine in Mystery Science Theater 3000 movies, like if Roman Polanski directed Manos: The Hands of Fate. It's written and directed by Willard Huyck, who went on to write American Graffiti, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and write and direct Howard the Duck. So imagine the guy who made those movies now doing an artsy horror experiment on an almost amateur level but heavy on atmosphere. If you're having a hard time picturing that, well, that's why your first viewing is sure to get you by surprise, no matter how forewarned you've been. Some of most memorable aspects of my first viewing are just seemingly random bits and pieces, like the crazy art deco interiors of the lighthouse our lead characters stay in, the awfully delivered lines of the young girlfriend who got unintentional, big laughs when she shouted "this food tastes shitty" at the dinner table, and the creepy look of the film's albino villain standing around an old gas station.
When Exhumed announced this film, they said, "Messiah of Evil is one of the finest, most neglected horror films of the 1970s. Only ever released cropped on VHS and on poor-quality, bootleg DVDs, this is one film that needs to be seen projected thanks to its 2.35:1 'scope photography, which is essential to creating the film's bleak mood." This is so true. Their print was pretty aged and worn, but seeing it in 2.35 as opposed to the ugly full-screen discs companies like Mill Creek put out still made a huge difference, transforming scenes that looked ugly, poorly staged and clunky to actually very stylish, artistically framed images.

For a while I was pretty happy with my 35th Anniversary DVD; I didn't feel the need to upgrade right away when Code Red later released their 40th Anniversary blu-ray. But after it was nominated for a Rondo Award for 'best restoration or upgrade,' it got my attention again. Apparently, it was more than just the restored DVD transfer bumped up to HD, it had, as the back of the case states, "2014 color corrected by award winner Steve Peer." Okay, sold. So, now I've got the 35th DVD, the 40th blu, and even one of those old fullscreen (to be fair, I don't believe they're actually "bootleg") DVDs taken from Mill Creek's Chilling Classics 50 Movie Pack. See how far this movie's come.
Mill Creek DVD on top, Code Red DVD mid, and Code Red blu bottom.
Wow, look at that: an evolution to make Charles Darwin proud. You can see Mill Creek really struggled to fit the picture into their 1.33:1 frame, heavily squishing it horizontally to make everything tall and skinny. And they still had to cut off almost half the picture on the sides. There's nothing open matte about their version, it has no more vertical information than Code Red's 2.35:1 discs. The colors are overly brightened and washed out. Oh, and it also has interlacing/ghost frame issues, as you can see in the third set of shots - yuck!
Code Red's 2009 DVD left; Code Red's 2014 blu right.
Meanwhile, there's not really any new detail between the 35th and 40th Anniversary editions - it's not like, oh now I can read the tags on those shirts - but it's a smoother, cleaner image without all the smudged grain of the standard def edition. Look at her chin on the right-hand side (her left), or the grain on her neck. The HD is a nice bump. But most importantly, the new color timing really makes a difference. Everything is much more natural and attractive, another iteration to further illustrate the real talent behind the cinematography. It's a real eye-opener, progressing from my earliest impressions to now - these new screencaps are reminding me of Suspiria, not Manos!

The blu also ups the audio to DTS-HD, which does sound clearer and stronger. One thing, the only thing, the Mill Creek has going in its favor, however - and even this is debatable - is that it includes the original opening song. Originally, the movie opened with a loud torch song called "Hold On To Love" being sung over the pre-credits sequence and into the opening credits. It was certainly an unusual choice, but so is every other choice in this movie. A lot of fans probably remember that song (it certainly stood out) and felt it added to the film's captivating strangeness. But it's also very campy and detracts from one's ability to engage the film as a serious horror film. Code Red, on both their DVD and blu, removed it at the director's request, and let the scene play out with just its natural foley and sound effects. It does feel more creepy and potentially scary that way (though I'm not sure this film ever actually reaches actual scariness), but it's exactly the sort of thing that can drive purists up the wall.
Code Red's extras are really rewarding, too. ...Of course, Mill Creek has nothing. But Code Red created a great 22-minute making of featurette, including interviews with Huyck, co-writer Gloria Katz, associate editors Billy Weber and Morgan Fischer and director of photography Stephen M. Katz. There's also a separate interview with "this stuff is shitty tasting" actress Joy Bang, which is a 9-minute audio-only conversation, which is pretty fun - she struggles to remember things at first, but she actually has some good things to say. Huyck and Gloria Katz return for a moderated audio commentary, as well. Then there are two of Huyck's rare early short films, a drama called Down These Mean Streets and a short documentary on a performance art piece called The Bride Stripped Down. Oh, and there's a really neat easter egg: a telephone interview with art director Joan Mocine.  She worked on those crazy murals, plus some other paintings seen in the film. A bunch (seven) of Code Red bonus trailers rounded things out on the DVD.

The blu-ray ports everything from the DVD over except(!) the Joy Bang and Joan Mocine interviews, which is a little puzzling and disappointing. It also ditches the bonus trailers, I guess, but that's nothing. The shame is the interviews. I wouldn't recommend double-dipping for them, unless Messiah of Evil is one of your all-time favorite horror movies... or you're living large enough to be a total completionist. Joy's interview never really gets that in-depth, and Joan's is a little dry. But if you've got the DVD and are upgrading, be sure to hang onto it.
Messiah of Evil isn't a movie I'd recommend to everybody. You've got to be really open-minded, prepared to be forgiving of older, low budget films, and be in the market for something different. But for some people, it's going to be right up your alley and you won't just mildly enjoy it, you're going to love it. I'm not sure if I'm 100% in the love category, but I'm getting closer with each viewing. And if you are a fan of this film, there's no question Code Red's 40th Anniversary is the ideal version to own. If you've already got the 35th DVD, yes, the improved picture is worth upgrading. But the really serious fans should note that both previous discs have their reasons for owning, too (the Joy Bang interview and the "Hold Onto Love" song), so keep that in mind.

Controversial Blus: Young Frankenstein (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparisons)

Let's lighten the mood a little. I mean, Bride of Re-Animator wasn't exactly a grim and brooding film, but it's been all horror, holocaust documentaries and crime dramas around here lately. How about a silly Mel Brooks comedy? And hey, it doesn't even have to break theme with Bride, because it's still loosely based on a piece of classic literature of bringing the dead back to life through mad science. All these years later, Young Frankenstein is still a great fun, even though its latest edition, the 40th Anniversary special edition blu-ray, is a little controversial.

Update 5/9/17:  Ah, nice to see a non-horror film (though there's an obvious connection, of course) rise up the right-hand Most Popular column for a change.  So I started thinking if I could add anything as a little treat, and got my hands on the 2006 DVD.  Now it's a little more thorough for ya. 👍

Update 4/12/19:  Okay, another two years and this is still by far our most popular post.  So what can I do to honor that?  I'm adding another disc to the comparisons... this time the blu-ray from the 2012 Mel Brooks Collection.
One of the fun things about Young Frankenstein is that it doesn't just parody Universal's super famous 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein, but also its sequels. In fact, Young's story has more in common with Son of Frankenstein. This helps things from feeling as overly familiar as another retread of the original story would, and it also provides a lot of fun references and in-jokes for people familiar with the rest of the series to pull out. Kenneth Mars' Inspector Kemp character, with his wooden arm and over-the-top German affectations probably strike many viewers as just a crazy, random character Brooks threw into the mix out of pure zaniness. But it's actually a direct parody, with a bit of gentle barb to it, of Lionel Atwell's Inspector Krogh, right down to gag of him sticking his throwing darts into his own wooden arm - that actually comes right from the originals!
The fact that this sticks so close to the classics is a large part of what makes this film work, as we've seen some other Brooks films go off the rails without the core structure to hold them together. It's almost like they're working with an earnest, serious Frankenstein script, and the amazing cast of actors - including Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn and Cloris Leachman - are just goofing around and making it a hilarious comedy. This is helped immensely by the great black and white cinematography, lavish score, and classic editing techniques, including iris fade-outs and dramatic establishing shots. First they made a great, traditional Frankenstein movie, and then they added the comedy to that foundation. Something Dracula: Dead and Loving It, for just one example, was lacking.
So, Young Frankenstein is quite a popular film that's naturally had a number of DVD releases over the years. It debuted on laserdisc in 1983, and got a special edition in 1996, where a lot of its current extras debuted. It came out on DVD in 1998, and again in 1999 - and that's the DVD I first purchased, and the first one we'll be looking at in our comparisons. There was a remastered edition in 2006, which was made as part of a Mel Brooks Collection boxed set but also sold separately; and that lead the way to its special edition blu-ray in 2008, both of which we also have today. In 2009, it was also included in the Mel Brooks Collection blu-ray boxed set. that was originally sold in a big, somewhat unwieldy-sized box with an impressive 116-page book, and in 2012, that same collection was sold in a more standard amary-sized case with a pretty generic 16-page booklet. And then of course, you probably remember all the press and hype last year's 40th Anniversary blu-ray release got, with all sorts of exciting new special features and an amazing transfer. But, whether you got the the original 2008 blu, the MB Collection blu or the new 40th, you actually got the same disc. Hence the controversy it generated among collectors. Now I've got all three blus here on my desk, and those DVDs, so let's have a look.
Fox 1999 DVD first; Fox 2006 DVD second;
Fox 2008 blu third; Fox 2012 blu third; Fox 2014 blu fifth.
Ooh, I forgot my old DVD was non-anamorphic; that makes me extra glad I updated to blu. Apart from that, the DVD doesn't look too bad.  And the 2006 DVD looks almost identical except that it's been anamorphically enhanced, which in the days of widescreen TVs is nothing to sneeze at.  Also, the framing has been shifting around ever so slightly.  The original DVD is a little off of a proper aspect ratio at 1.82:1, the 2006 DVD is a smidgen closer at 1.83:1, and finally the blus land squarely on 1.85:1.  What this winds up meaning is that the old DVD technically shows a bit more around the sides and bottom, but less on the top.  Then the second DVD shows more on the top but less on the bottom, and the blu finally settles on what you see in the shots above.
left to right: 1999 DVD; 2006 DVD; 2008 blu; 2012 blu; 2014 blu.
So being anamorphic gives the second DVD more resolution than its predecessor, but naturally, in terms of detail and clarity, the blu looks even better than either DVD. Which blu? Any of 'em, because they're all exactly the same! And I don't mean they just use the same transfer, though they do. I mean, both discs are exactly the same - same encodes, same language options, same extras, same menus. The only difference is the label affixed to the exterior. They are exactly the same disc.

I haven't seen the amount of press this blu-ray got in a long time. All the major newspapers and magazines ran articles, I even remember this getting written up in my local paper. And a lot of them implied (surely out of ignorance rather than a malicious attempt to mislead, but I wouldn't be surprised if the press releases they received were happy to give the wrong impression) that this was a fancy new and improved edition, with at least a bunch of compelling new extras. And if you look at them now online, there's tons of people commenting "can't wait to get this!" But we've already got it - it's the 2008 blu. All you got was new, worse cover art and (an admittedly neat gatefold) slipcover.
That said, though, it's not like the 2008 blu was in dire need of improvement. The 1.85:1 image looks nice, and grain is very clear and untampered with. Once you get a good look at the grain, there's not going to be any more detail to be mined from further scans. It's got uncompressed 5.1 audio and the original mono, plus a couple foreign dubs and multiple subtitle options. There's really no need for a 2014 upgrade.  The only real problem re: this controversy is the vast amount of publicity implying that this was something new and more than just a repackaging repress.  Sure, the Mel Brooks Collections were just repackaging the same discs, too; but at least they didn't give fans the impression we'd be getting anything new... just a nice way to get all (or at least many) of his films in one go.  It wasn't marketed to us as some sort of upgrade.  A lot of people were understandably upset they'd been misled into needlessly double-dipping.
Again, the extras are the same on all the blus. My local paper explicitly stated Mel Brooks recorded a brand new audio commentary, but it's the same one that goes all the way back to the original DVD. Still, it's a very robust collection that doesn't call for a whole lot more, and the 2008 blu did come up with a bunch of new extras in addition to the ones from the DVDs (both DVDs have all the same extras), all of which they ported over. So you've got Brooks' (old but still fine) commentary, and eleven interviews that can be viewed over the film itself (that wonky "bonus view" feature) or straight forward by themselves. There's the 21 minute documentary from the DVD and a new 41 minute documentary. Some of it also delves into the Young Frankenstein Broadway musical, which closed in 2009. So you might be wondering why they suddenly cut to a bunch of teenagers to get their interpretations of the characters, but I guess it would've been a little more relevant around the time of the first blu-ray.

Anyway, there's also a collection of outtakes, deleted scenes in SD and deleted scenes in HD. You might wonder why anybody would want to watch the SD ones if the HD ones are available; but it's because they're actually completely different deleted scenes; so be sure to watch both. There's a lot of great footage to go through! There's also a new interview with the composer, and vintage black and white interviews with Wilder and Feldman. Plus, there are galleries, a trivia track, TV spots and multiple trailers. I could've done without the Broadway asides, but overall it's a very fun, rewarding collection that's both informative and funny.
The good news about the 40th Anniversary edition is that it's cheap. It was priced to sell through at less than $8. So definitely pick it up if you haven't got this one already. The DVDs had a bunch of great extras - which, again, were carried over - but the new stuff is worth upgrading for, not to mention the boost to HD. If you've got the original blu-ray though, separately or in the Mel Brooks Collection - whatever you do, DON'T DOUBLE DIP.  😬

Manson V. Manson, DVD Comparison of the Definitive 1973 Documentary

There have been a lot of films, documentary and narrative, about Charles Manson and his followers, but one doc has always stood out above the rest: 1973's Manson.  This film was co-produced and co-directed by Robert Hendrickson and Laurence Merrick. Well, there's been some debate over whether both actually co-directed, or who actually was also involved with the writing, etc. It's a bit like Poltergeist; we'll never really know for sure whether Hooper or Speilberg was behind any particular sequence, we can just guess. But the actual film credits list the pair as both producers and directors and Joan Huntington as the sole writer, so I'm gonna go with that regardless of what's on the imdb or other sites. At any rate, the film turned out pretty amazing - it was even nominated for an Oscar - so everybody must've been doing something right.
Manson starts out a little dry with the deputy district attorney Vincent T. Bugliosi and a narrator flatly stating the facts of the multiple murders over some photos and footage of the gang walking to and from court. The narrator borders on the cheesy side, with lines like "he invaded the hippy scene, a venus flytrap among the flowers," and it all follows a long, musical title sequence. But once it gets into the actual interviews, the film comes alive in a very engrossing, disturbing way. The Manson members have been interviewed while the trials are still on-going; they're not behind prison bars talking about how Manson brainwashed them, they're comfortably home on their ranch holding knives and daring the cops to come and get them. These are surprisingly honest, forthcoming conversations when they're right at the height of the trip they're on. One of the girls (Squeaky?) opens with a rifle in her lap, starts out by calmly explaining,

"Whatever's necessary to do, you do it. When somebody needs to be killed, there's no wrong, you do it. And you move on. And you pick up a child, and you move into the desert. You pick up as many children as you can. And you kill whoever gets in your way, this is us."
She's not saying that as a threat, she's giving us as an explanation for why they're perfectly reasonable, and a pitch for why you should come join them. She has the demeanor of a farmer explaining to their child why an animal has to be killed for food, except in her mind it's about escaping a society she's rejected, and if members of that society prove to be difficult, they're perfectly expendable. It's disturbing and yet the most genuinely insightful and truthful. Even if you're not particularly fascinated with the whole Manson thing, you should see it just because it's a great documentary.
Now this film's had a bit of a bumpy road on DVD. Long available and treasured on VHS, it took a long time to arrive at all on a more modern format. Eventually an indie label called Beverly Wilshire put this out on DVD, with a transfer that looked like it was ripped right off the old tape. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that DVD was unauthorized and pulled from release. But in 2008 it was made available again by Hendrickson himself through his original Tobann film company. You could just order it by sending a check or money order to the address on his site after filling out a long form, and more recently, he's been putting up his version on EBay and Amazon, which is a definitely more convenient.
His DVD is a home-made DV-R; just look at the no-frills menu. But it comes in a personalized, signed case (he also signs the disc itself), and he's purportedly gone back to the original film elements to make a new, widescreen transfer. Well, I've got it right here, and I've also got the old Beverly Wilshire disc, so let's finally see what the deal is here.
Beverly Wilshire DVD on top; Tobann DVD bottom.
So first of all, it's true, Tobann's disc has definitely made a new transfer, and it's a noticeable improvement. It's now widescreen at 1.66:1, as opposed to BW's 1.33, and it's a clear case of the widescreen having more picture on both sides rather than the fullscreen version being open matte. So that's a big step up. A big disappointment, however, is that it's non-anamorphic, so you'll be watching a tiny picture floating in a sea of black. And it's not a huge amount of new detail or clarity arises from this transfer, probably due to the original film quality... the BW disc, in that regard at least, actually did an alright job. The BW disc has other problems, though... look at that crazy distortion at the top of the picture, where it all bends to the left. It also has occasional video issues like horizontal bars and interlaced ghost frames. Tobann's disc also has ghost frames (although never the same frame), so it's kind of a tie there. The colors are also different, with Tobann's disc a bit on the green side and BW's a bit on the red side. Bottom line: the Tobann disc is the one to go with, not just because it's official, but because it is genuinely the superior transfer. I just wish, in 2015, he'd at least make new, anamorphic DVDRs.

Now, extras-wise, of course, neither disc has anything. But, for the price of a second disc, you can also get Inside the Manson Gang, which is essentially a whole new documentary, edited together out of all the unused footage from the original Manson doc. This comes in a similarly personalized, autographed DVD-R, and is a full, feature-length (85 minute) doc. It's another non-anamorphic widescreen picture of roughly the same quality as the original, though the saturation is boosted here for a more colorful experience.
How is the movie? Well, it doesn't stand so well on its own. It's relies a lot on heavy-handed narration, and isn't nearly as powerful or interesting. Like how I said everyone should see Manson because it's just a great film? Well, I'd recommend Inside the Manson Gang solely for the Manson enthusiasts who will get excited just at the prospect of seeing more, previously unreleased footage of the "family" living their day-to-day lives on the ranch. If you read that last statement and thought, "yes! I need that," than this film delivers. Otherwise though, I'd say it flops as a film... but all the vintage footage still works as a pretty nice extra if you're willing to shell out double the price for a "2 disc set."
Hendrickson's site seems to have gone down now, otherwise I'd link it, but he's still selling copies of his films on Amazon and EBay. I think you can also by full, hardcopy transcripts of the film if you're so inclined. Now, I'd love it if a company like Synapse or Criterion were able to license this title and give it a new 4k scan for blu-ray, and maybe get Hendrickson to do a commentary (Merrick, tragically, was murdered in 1977). But that doesn't appear to likely, so I'll lower my sights and just hope Hendrickson will someday change his DVDs to be anamorphic. I mean, I could do that for him on my home computer. Still, though, flawed as they may be, his discs are definitely the best way to go, and this is a film that deserves to be owned in the best edition possible.