Halloween: The Documentaries - It's Time To Really See What's What

Naturally, there have been multiple documentaries on John Carpenter's horror classic Halloween over the years. But actually, not as many as I was expecting, given the number of times it's been released and re-released on DVD and blu-ray over the years. A couple keep getting reissued with nearly every disc, and one or two are only available as separate releases on their own. So this Halloween, I thought I'd break down each one of them, and see what's out there and what's really worth stalking down.

Essentially, I guess you'd say there are three full-length documentaries, and two to three shorter ones, plus a couple featurettes that might be worth mentioning. But you could really nerd out and haggle on what counts as what, because it's obscure. Now, depending on your degree of Halloween fanhood, your take-away could be pretty different here. If you're one of those people with a Michael Myers tattoo and a Halloween bedspread, you might just want to make sure you haven't missed any little thing for your collection. But for the rest of us, it might be worth getting into what each of them have to offer and picking & choosing. Even if you're not particularly a fan and just mildly interested in cinema, Halloween's legacy is interesting enough that it's worth figuring out which is a good one and seeing one of these docs.
Perhaps the best known is Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest, which debuted on Anchor Bay's 25th Anniversary edition in 2003.  This is a fairly good one, interviewing a collection of key personnel, including Carpenter, Dean Cundey, Fangoria's Tony Timpone, producers Debra Hill, Joseph Wolf (executive producer of Halloween 2 and Halloween 3), Irwin Yablans and producer of the entire Halloween franchise, Moustapha Akkad, stars Jamie Lee Curtis, PJ Soles, Nick Castle and Charles Cypher, plus assistant director Tommy Lee Wallace. It's a solid history of the film, covering the score, the debut of the Panavision camera, a unique anecdote about how Carpenter met a kid in a mental hospital whose thousand yard stare inspired Michael Myers and tons more.
One of its biggest drawbacks, however, is its heavy use of clips from the film rather than new content. Especially since most of us watching the film got it as part of a DVD package, and thus had just watched the film, it gets tiresome and obviously takes away from time they could've used to show us more interview footage, etc. And the other drawback was that for most fans, there wasn't much new here. In 2003, this was a lot of covered ground and well-worn anecdotes. Now, you have to expect that to a certain degree - after all, how much can the same people say about the same film?  And there's a lot of core facts you just can't really leave out of a stand-alone documentary. But one does hope for some new stuff amid the standard, and while Charles Cypher was a nice inclusion, it does feel pretty basic. Especially since some of the interviews consist of literally the exact same footage we'd seen before.
Most Halloween DVDs prior to the 25th Anniversary had Halloween Unmasked as its primary extra. It's a twenty+ minute short documentary narrated by Dee Snider that interviews many of the same people and who have a lot of the same things to say. It has John Carpenter, Debra Hill, Irwin Yablans, Moustapha Akkad, Dean Cundey, Tommy Lee Wallace at the Myers' house, Brian Andrews (who played Tommy Doyle), Jamie Lee Curtis (same "gave me a film career" clip in 25 Years of Terror), PJ Soles, Nick Castle and Joseph Wolf. So you'll notice it has a couple exclusive interviews, and even its much shorter running time covers a lot of ground because it doesn't waste so much of it on film clips. It's maybe not quite as thorough as Cut Above, but it comes closer than you'd think based on the running time and moves at a much brisker pace.
The 25th Anniversary also debut a short, 10 minute featurette called On Location: 25 Years Of Terror, which interviews only Debra Hill and PJ Soles. Like it's title suggests, it focuses a lot on the film's locations, showing how the infamous Myers house is now a chiropractor's office and the like. But diverges a lot, for example PJ Soles talks about how impressed she was with Debra Hill, how a woman could command so much power on a movie set. Soles doesn't have much to say about the films locations at all, really. Anyway, I wouldn't really count this as even one of the short documentaries, but it is an interesting featurette that's worth the watch.
Speaking of Halloween's 25th Anniversary, we had another Halloween documentary, a feature called Halloween: 25 Years of Terror, released in... 2006. So I'm not sure which three years they're saying don't count, but whatever. This one's narrated by PJ Soles and focuses on the entire Halloween series - i.e. all the films in the series, including the remake. It's a lot like Never Sleep Again or Crystal Lake Memories, except it's only 83 minutes long. So I guess it's more like His Name Was Jason. In fact, one of its producers, Anthony Masi, also produced His Name. So, naturally, 25 Years starts out on the first film, and covers almost all of the same ground, including repeating footage.
Does this interview look familiar?
It interviews a ton of exclusive people, and even though they're mainly from the sequels, there are a one or two from the first film that are only in this. The full line-up is: Irwin Yablans, Moustapha Akkad, John Carpenter, Dean Cundey, Bianca Kajlich (H8), Mark Shapiro (critic), Debra Hill, Nick Castle, Jim Winburn (stuntman from the original), Clive Barker, Chris Durand (Myers in H20), Dennis Etchison (writer of an unfilmed Halloween sequel), Brian Andrews, Sasha Jensen (Brody), a guy who lives near the actual Halloween house, Dick Warlock (Myers in H2), Edgar Wright, Rob Zombie, Nancy Loomis (Annie, and Tommy Lee Wallace's ex), Greg Nicotero, Don Shanks (Myers in H5), British critic Kim Newman, Jodi Lyn O'Keefe, Jeff Burr, Tom Atkins, executive producer Joseph Wolf, Lance Warlock ("boombox boy" in H2 and son of Dick Warlock), Alan Howarth (composer for H2-6), John Ottman (composer for H20), John Fallon (critic who says things like "I get more excited, frightened, what not if I see some hot chick being chased by a killer than if I see some, like, fat dude running around, 'cause, um, she's a hot chick!"), Jeff Katz (New Line guy), Pamela Susan Shoop (nurse in H2), Cliff Emmich (Mr Garrett in H2), Gloria Gifford (Mrs. Albves in H2), Tommy Lee Wallace, Rick Rosenthal, Tawny Moyer (Nurse Jill in H2), Garn Stephens (Marge in Halloween 3), Brad Schacter (Little Buddy Kupfer in H3), Jason Paul Collum (critic), fans, Ellie Cornell (Rachel in H4), John Carl Buechler (special effects on H4), Danielle Harris (Jamie in H4), Kathleen Kimmont (Kelly in H4), Julie King (critic), Paul Freeman (producer of H20), Beau Starr (Sheriff Meeker in H5),  Dominque Othenin-Girard (director of H5), Jeffrey Landman (Billy in H5), Wendy Kaplan (Tina in H5), Marianne Hagan (Kara Strode in H6), Daniel Harrands (writer of H6), JC Brandy (Jamie in H6), Nick Phillips (Dimension Films guy), Thomas Ian Nicholas (Bill Woodlake in H8), Brad Hardin (effects artist on H7), Chris Durand (Myers in H7), Larry Brand (writer of H8), Brad Loree (Myers in H8), Mark Ward of Anchor Bay, a guy who organizes a regular Halloween convention, the mayor of South Pasadena, a lot of fans and Anthony Masi himself.
It's a fun, very fast paced documentary.  But as you can imagine, trying to fit all of the above people into a movie that runs less than 90 minutes, a lot of those contributions wind up being little more than quick soundbites. Plus, a lot of these interviews are lower quality grabs at a convention, or even taken directly from convention panel discussions, rather than direct interviews. And another similarity to His Name: 25 Years has a ton more content that makes the proceedings much richer and more rewarding for fans on the second disc. There are lots of extended interviews and complete panels. So while it was also included in Anchor Bay's 30th anniversary blu-ray boxed set; I highly recommend tracking down the DVD for the over four(!) hours of extras.

By the way, Masi also filmed another little short doc called Halloween: The Shape of Horror in 2006.  It features Rob Zombie, Alan Howarth, Malek Akkad (Moustapha's son), Nancy Loomis, PJ Soles and John Ottman, Again, you'll hear that the film was originally to be titled The Babysitter Murders, that the budget was $300,000, and mostly the same info you hear in all of these documentaries.  I don't believe it's been released on DVD at all yet, but I thought I'd throw it a mention.
And I wouldn't really include this as a documentary about Halloween, but since I'm being thorough, there was a 2013 short documentary called The Night She Came Home, which debuted on Anchor Bay's 2013 blu-ray. It's really not about the film, except tangentially, instead covering Jamie Lee Curtis's first horror convention, because she's never done them. She's being lead around by the Horror's Hallowed Grounds guy, and it's really self-indulgent and lacking substance. It's co-directed by Curtis's sister, and mostly consists of shots of her walking and driving to and from places. There's also a lot of soundbites from fans saying how excited they are to meet her. Only around the 38 minute mark, when we hear snippets of her actually speak at the convention, do we find any compelling content.  That lasts for two minutes, and then the last 12 minutes is her driving again, leaving the convention.  The footage of her actual talk would've been great, but I'd say skip this documentary. Or, if you've got the disc anyway, skip to minute 38 and watch for two minutes, then turn it off. It's 95% just convention footage, and we're almost never even let in on the conversations we see them having.
But that still leaves one more feature-length documentary. One that's not available in ultimate Scream boxed set or packaged with any other DVD or blu-ray release of the film. Halloween: The Inside Story. It's a 2-hour television movie that's all about the original; and while it naturally cover a lot of the same territory as A Cut Above and the others; it's got some exclusive interviews and tackles some individual scenes and other elements that aren't in any of the others. The line-up here is: Moustaphah Akkad, Tommy Lee Wallace, Dean Cundey, John Graham (Bob), John Carpenter, Tony Moran (the guy they show when Myers' is unmasked), Nick Castle, Irwin Yablans, Rob Zombie, Carrie Rickey, Anthony Masi, John Kenneth Muir (author of The Films of John Carpenter), Jeffrey Lions (critic), PJ Soles, Debra Hill, Brian Collins (critic), Nancy Loomis, Charles Cypher, Kyle Richards (Lindsey), Brian Andrews, Devin Faraci (critic) and Will Sandin (Michael Myers as a kid).  So even ignoring the critics and stuff, that's several original cast members debuting in this doc. It does admittedly feel a little stiff, like TV documentaries tend to; but I think it's got the best overall coverage, including the most unique bits... everything from brief glimpses of Carpenter's student films to a CGI 3D model of the Halloween house to demonstrate how the famous opening tracking shot was done. It also ends with a bit on the remakes, if that's a plus for anyone. Two of the interviews are archival footage from Halloween: Unmasked, most of them are all new... they even got an all new one with Jamie Lee Curtis! She's finally gotten an all new background and all new anecdotes; and she says more about the film here than in The Night She Came Home.
The documentaries that come packaged with Halloween sets naturally vary in quality and extras depending on which set you've got. But for the solo discs, 25 Years Of Terror is a 4:3 film (with some widescreen footage included), so it's naturally full-frame. It looks fine for standard def, and has standard Dolby 2.0 audio. I already mentioned the heaps of extras that exceed the film itself, but it also has a fold-out insert with notes by Masi and includes a cheesy, full-color comic book called Halloween Autopsis. Inside Story, which is a UK PAL disc by the way, is anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) with Dolby 2.0 audio. It has no extras at all, not even the Halloween trailer; but it does come in a neat-looking slipcover.
There are of course other extras on different Halloween discs... a couple audio commentaries, a Horror's Hallowed Ground episode, TV footage, a few interviews. If you've got the discs, you should definitely check those out, too. But in terms of documentaries on Halloween, now that I've sat down and watched them all beginning to end, I'm surprised to find myself recommending Inside Story for the "if you only watch one" slot. I was expecting to like it the least, a stodgy TV movie with some random British narrator... But it's really got it all. 25 Years of Terror is great for its coverage of the sequels, especially with all the additional 2-disc set content; but for the first film, it falls behind most of the others. So get whichever Halloween DVDs or blus you like - The Scream box set is of course pretty sweet and includes most of the stuff covered above - but I recommend you snag these DVDs as well. They're worth it.

Miranda July Videoworks: Volume 1

Miranda July made her feature film debut as writer and director of the intelligently eccentric Me and You and Everyone We Know in 2005, and followed that up in 2011 with The Future. But she'd been making independent short films at least as far back as 1996. And thanks to a curious little outfit known as the Video Data Bank, most of them are available on DVD.

Update 4/30/20: Just a note to say that two of these shorts (The Amateurist and Nest Of Tens) have been included on Criterion's new blu-ray special edition of Me and You.  I've posted comparison shots on that page (they're not strictly identical).  But it's just the two.

So right off the bat, I should establish (warn you?) that these aren't traditional narrative films. These are more in line with, say, David Lynch's early short films, like The Alphabet, which were perhaps more intended to be seen in art exhibits than in traditional viewing environments. In fact, her shorts have played at The MoMA and Guggenheim. So if you're looking for something like her recent comedy short, Somebody, you're going to be disappointed. But if you're a huge fan of Miranda to the point that you're ready to see her early, developmental work - kinda like student films or those Cinema 16 DVDs - you're gonna love this.

The Video Data Bank seems to essentially be a distributor for mostly short and digital films by very independent filmmakers... browsing through their site, July is the one name I recognize in a very large collection. So mostly they're one of those outfits that charges exorbitant prices for DVDs to institutions with attached licensing fees, not really meant for the general public. So, you know, they'll charge several hundred dollars for a seventeen minute film on a no-frills DVD, because the real price is really meant to be for the rights to publicly screen them. But they have a very small run of "Home DVDs," which are sold to the general public at regular retail prices. And happily, Miranda July Filmworks: Volume 1 is one of those.
The menu screen.
Filmworks: Volume 1 (the only volume as of this writing) is a collection of four of her first short films, from 1996-2001. The VDB actually has five of her short films in their catalog, the last of which (2003's Haysha Royko) is only 4 minutes long, so you'd really think could've thrown it on here, too. Frankly, it feels a little cheap; but whatever. It seems like the least compelling of the five anyway - which may be why it was left out. Or maybe they're saving it for an eventual Volume 2. Anyway, let's not be negative and instead focus on the films that ARE included here.
Atlanta (1996) - 10 minutes: The wit of July's features is definitely on hand here, in a short mockumentary about a young Olympic swimmer and her aggressively supportive mother, played by July. It's basically two first person interviews (mother and daughter) edited together with some supporting footage. You can hear Miranda (in character) off-camera, reminding her daughter to say how much she loves her mother during her interview.
The Amateurist (1998) - 14 minutes: Things begin to get abstract as July plays, well, some kind of numerically obsessed expert who monitors and judges a seemingly trapped blonde woman (also July) dressed only in her underwear who she views through a small black and white television. There's definitely humor again, as Miranda struggles with insecurity while addressing the camera, but it might all be too disconnected to bring up any real laughter. Slowly, the film begins to hint at a darker, more serious meaning. 
Nest of Tens (1999) - 27 minutes: Next is the most ambitious of the bunch. Four casts of characters in separate situations are inter-cut between each other. Each set of people seem trapped in the mundanity of their lives. Miranda July is just one of the ensemble here as a woman in an airport complaining on a payphone at a coworker. Again, their are hints of humor in the characters interactions and inability to connect, but it's increasingly overshadowed by a strangeness and melancholy. The tone shifts as animation is added over the footage.
Getting Stronger Every Day (2001) - 6.30 minutes: This one feels almost like a sequel to Nest of Tens. Several characters similar to ones we met in that film are awakened from their dailies lives by visions of strange auras. It's an interesting mix of banal normalcy and a mood of transcendence.

In a way, these shorts, especially as they move forward, evoke a lot of the same feelings later found in her feature work. They may be less relatable, and they're not the thorough cinematic entertainments her features are, but you can definitely feel Miranda's hand on every frame. These feel like Miranda July films.
Everything's 4:3 and I presume accurate to the low budget way they were shot and intended to be seen. There are no extras, subtitle options or anything apart from the four films themselves, improving in quality as they go forward.

Filmworks: Volume 1 is dated 2005, so ten years later, Volume 2 isn't looking too likely. One of the short films from this set, Getting Stronger Every Day, was also released on a DVD titled Peripheral Produce - All Time Greatest Hits, but certainly for July fans, you might as well skip right over that and get this, which includes three of her other shorts. It would be an understatement to caveat that this collection is not for everybody. It's not for most people. But July fans will definitely find the value in this collection. So if that's you, check it out.

Demonoid Is Bad-Ass! A Halloween Homerun By Vinegar Syndrome

I don't do many blind buys anymore, so it's nice to be really pleased with one when I make it. I mean, I did check out the trailer before-hand, but I was also told Demonoid really doesn't live up to its trailer and awesome cover. And to be fair, in a big way, it doesn't. It kinda sets you up for that wild devil monster to be running around taking heads like Rawhead Rex with a giant sword at least part of the time, but nope. That sword-wielding devil is an image you see in the film, but that's all. Still, it's a pretty fun early 80s horror flick with fairly high production values.

Demonoid is a Mexican film, but don't let that put you off. It's English language, has British/ American stars and mostly set and filmed in America. Director Alfredo Zacarías (The Bees) talks in the extras about he finally had a big budget for this one and it shows. Impressive locations in Mexico, Las Vegas and California, nice sets, big stunts, and star power with Oscar nominees Samantha Eggar and Stuart Whitman. It's also tightly paced and relatively smartly written.
Eggar comes to Mexico to be with her husband who owns a silver mine. Deep inside, she uncovers a hidden chamber that once belonged to Satanic cultists who worship the hand of the devil, which they kept in a convenient, hand-sized little coffin. Of course the brash foreigners ignore the locals' superstitious and set the hand free. It runs around from time to time in classic crawling hand fashion, but spends most of its time becoming other peoples' left hand, giving them power but turning them evil. The good guys want to destroy the hand, the possessed have their own plans for the hand, and the hand has plans of its own. This leads to great scenes like one where a cop throws a handcuffed Eggar into a plastic surgeon's office, pulls his gun on the nurse and demands, "cut my hand off or I'll kill you!" Good times.
Or he just says "I want you to cut my hand off," depending which version you watch. Yes, there's two distinct versions of this film; and thankfully, Vinegar Syndrome has included both. Let's break it down.

The "main" version, in that it's the one that plays if you just press Play Film at the start menu, is the US version with the onscreen title Demonoid. It's 80 minutes long. But if you go to the Special Features menu, there's the option to play the International version with the onscreen title Macabra. That one's 90 minutes. So that's the uncut version, right? Oh, it's more complicated than that. It's sort of like Re-Animator, where the shorter version is the bloodier one, and the softer cut has a bunch of extra content. And these versions are quite different, more so than the two Re-Animator cuts.
A scene and character that only appear in Macabra.
For example, here's how the opening scene plays out after Eggar meets her husband's assistant:

"He's sorry he couldn't pick you up at the airport, but uh, he couldn't leave the mine. Mines are very jealous, like most females."
"Is a mine a female, Pepe?"
That's why men risk their lives to have them. And no matter how hard you try, a mine won't surrender its treasure... if you're not lucky."
"Has Mark had any luck yet?"
"Mr. Baines is a good miner and knows the trade will. But, uh... in Lacemada..."
"What about Lacemada?"
"It's cursed."
"Come on, Pepe. Come on, let's go to the mine right away."

...The bolded text is how the scene plays out in Demonoid, while all of the text is how it goes in Macabra. That kind of thing happens all throughout the film, but that's only one kind of change on hand here. Another is that the film has alternate takes. So it's not about missing or included footage, but scenes played different ways. Most notably, the most violent scenes are played differently between the two versions. In Demonoid, a guy uses the hand to grab a woman's face and crush her skull. In Macabra, he does a traditional Hollywood neck snap move.
Another big difference is the pre-credits sequence. Macabra doesn't have one, but Demonoid has a whole, involved scene where ancient cultists fight and kill each other over the hand. Directed by Jim Wynorski, it has the only nudity in the movie (a female cultist has her shirt torn open) and is the only scene that takes place in this time period. Also, if you think about it, this adds 3-4 minutes to Demonoid, meaning Macabra doesn't have 10 minutes of additional footage, but 13-14.
In Macabra, the zombie (yeah, there's a zombie in this, too) slowly digs and pulls himself out of his grave. In Demonoid, he flies out of his grave in a brilliant explosion! The final, climatic shot of Demonoid isn't even in Macabra. In Demonoid, every time the devil exerts his influence (which is often), the screen flashes an image of the devil with his sword aloft; in Macabra, the scenes just play normally. The entire soundtrack is different. Macabra has a bombastic soundtrack with a vocal chorus, while Demonoid has a mellower, key-heavy soundtrack. They're so different.

But which is better? It's hard to say; they both have pros and cons. VS probably made the right choice in making Demonoid the default version. First of all, horror fans usually want the bloodier versions. Demonoid is also faster paced, has the nudity, and some cooler moments. On the other hand, Macabra isn't just all excess exposition. There's some fun severed hand high jinx with it crawling up Eggar's shower drain(!), and a creepy scene where someone with the hand pets and talks to the bodies he's got tied up in his office. And even when it is extra exposition, it kinda helps the story make more sense. I also prefer Macabra's soundtrack (it's the one VS used for the menu screen). But then again, there are at least two points I noticed where the Macabra scenes seemed edited incorrectly, so the scenes made a little less sense. Minor details, but still noticeable. So I can't really declare one better than the other; it kinda makes me want to whip out the editing software and make an "Integral Cut." But they're different enough that you can just watch both.
Vinegar Syndrome's new blu-ray/ DVD combo pack isn't quite Demonoid's debut on DVD. There was an uncut, widescreen DVD from Laser Paradise, but it only had German audio. And there's a Spanish audio-only DVD from Laguna. Both of those were the Macabra version, for the record. So this is its HD debut, the complete debut of the Demonoid cut, and most importantly it's the film's English language debut, so this is going to be most American's introduction to this film, and it's a first rate presentation.
Demonoid blu on top' Macabra blu 2nd, Demonoid DVD 3rd, Macabra DVD 4th.
When I read that Macabra was being included like an extra, I was expecting a cheap "VHS rip" type transfer, like some other discs have done (Retribution comes to mind) when they could only find proper film elements for the cut version. So I was delighted to see that both versions of the film are proper 2k restoration from the 35mm original camera negative. I can't even really tell them apart if it weren't for the fact that I labeled them. And since this is a blu-ray/ DVD combo pack, we've got four transfers to look at. All are 1.78:1 and look fantastic. Grain comes and goes depending on the shot, but I put that down entirely to how the film was shot, not the transfer. Besides the obvious compression splotchiness on the DVD versions, there's not much to point out. It's a top notch transfer all around.

Both versions of the film have DTS-HD audio and optional/ removable subtitles. Macabra also has a French dub, which I guess also makes this Demonoid's French debut.
Extras-wise, this isn't a splashy special edition, but it does have some good stuff. Besides Macabra, which I'd say is more than an extra, the main thing is a 15 minute interview with the director. He's pretty interesting, enthusiastic and answers most of the questions you're likely to have after watching the picture. So I'm really glad to have it. There's also two trailers, one for Demonoid and one for Macabra, each with very different narration. There's also a very short TV spot and a stills gallery of some cool promotional artwork. This release also features reversible artwork with the Macabra title, but the Demonoid cover is just too sweet to ever flip around.
Mind you, this isn't likely to be anyone's favorite horror film. And while this is technically an 80s horror, it's 1981 and foreign, so it retains a lot of that 70s atmosphere. Don't come in expecting a Hellraiser or Nightmare On Elm St.; but this is a pretty well-crafted, fun horror film that keeps things entertaining, without getting juvenile or cheap. In other words, a perfect little package for Halloween.

I, Claudius: The Epic That Was

You really don't get much better than 1976's I, Claudius. It won a bunch of BAFTAs in the UK and Emmys in the USA, but all that tells you is that it's on the level of other BAFTA and Emmy award winners, not how much greater it is. And if any film snobs want to say, oh sure, but that's television, they'd be hard-pressed to point to a film more gripping than this classic. It's the HBO series before HBO series that HBO has yet to match, it's the most famous Masterpiece Theater series to this day, it's possibly television's greatest achievement. You'd think, then, that we could get a decent little blu-ray release of this that doesn't look like crap.
I, Claudius is an epic tale of ancient Rome that spans generations. It's all seen through the eyes of Claudius (still Derek Jacobi's signature role), a crippled royal progeny who has no real chance of attaining to power, but is given a first-hand view of everyone else's rise and fall. Over the 12 episodes (or sometimes 13, but we'll get to that), rulers live and die. Sex, murder, love, betrayal; it's an insane and true history, based on Peter Graves book of the same name, where we see an impossible to replicate cast pass through. Brian Blessed to Patrick Stewart to John Hurt as the infamous Caligula. Some of these performances are so commanding, it's impossible to imagine the show without them... until it's time for them pass on and they're supplanted with others just as impressive. It's like if each season of True Detective managed to replace Matthew McConaughey with someone just as effective each time, season after season. I still remember my first time watching this I, Claudius and thinking constantly that there's no way this can continue to operate on this level without Brian Blessed! How can it go one once the conniving Sian Phillips is out of the picture? But it never falters.
I've seen this series get flogged a bit for staying in flimsy, wobbly sets. I actually think I, Claudius has some pretty excellent sets with high production values, clever use of ceilings, authentic look dressing, etc. It's true when it's wartime, for example, we never see the battles; the camera never goes there. It's all kept off-screen. And yeah, I'm sure it was never in their budget to see hundreds of armor-clad extras charging down hillsides at each other waving swords. But that's not a short-coming. I, Claudius is about the ruling aristocracy, not the poor citizenry that toiled under them. I expect a one main reason people think of this film looking cheaper is that we've never been given the opportunity to see it not looking like mud.
I, Claudius has been released on DVD a couple of times over the years. We first had it early from Image, who technically released it twice: first as a 5-disc set on single layer DVDs, and then again shortly after as a 3-disc set of dual-layer discs. These are essentially identical releases apart from that change, and I've got the original 5-discer here for our comparison. I'm surprised, by the way, to see my spellcheck here accept "discer" as a word. Anyway, it was released in a fancier 5-disc boxed edition by the UK's BBC in 2002. This had some additional extras and a new transfer. Then most recently, in 2008, Acorn issued a new USA 35th Anniversary Edition. How do they all compare? I'm glad you asked!
Image on top; BBC mid; Acorn on bottom.
Now, admittedly, I mentioned hopes of a blu-ray earlier (and I do hold those out), but it would be wrong to expect I, Claudius to look beautiful. Like most BBC productions of this era, it was shot on tape, not film. It can never be made to look like The Wizard of Oz. But I think it could look better than this. Subtle improvements have been made, particularly in the jump from Image to the BBC release; and maybe I'm wrong, but I think we could do better. But putting aside what could be, let's look at what actually is.

The old Image disc is the weakling of the bunch. A bit on the red side, low contrast, and I'm not sure if it's a compression problem with the old discs or if the newer versions have been artificially sharpened (some tools like that have definitely been overused on them anyway), but the Image is softer than the later releases. Perhaps more significantly, the BBC and Acorn discs have a little more picture on all four sides. And while there's no fancy 5.1 lossless mixes anywhere to be had, the audio has been perked and cleared up post-Image. For that matter, if you need or desire subtitles,

The differences between the BBC and Acorn discs are much slimmer. One is NTSC and one is PAL; that's about it. I think you could safely summarize that Acorn basically just brought the better BBC set over to the states. And that almost applies to the extras as well.
Both Image sets and both of the later ones all include the feature length documentary The Epic That Never Was. Interestingly, this documentary is not about I, Claudius at all. It's a black and white BBC doc from the 60s about an older film version of I, Claudius that was attempted in the 1930s but never completed. If you enjoy these recent films about other films that were never made, like The Death of Superman Lives or Jodorowsky's Dune, this is like those, but maybe a little dryer. If you were looking forward to learning about I, Claudius, however; this was probably a disappointment.

That's all the Image releases had, but the BBC introduced a whole bunch more. Firstly, there's another feature length documentary, I, Claudius: A Television Epic, made for the BBC DVD in 2002, which like its title implies, actually is about I, Claudius this time. Director Herbert Wise, Derek Jacobi, George Baker and more share their experiences. It's pretty much what most of us probably assumed The Epic That Never Was was before we watched it. Then there's also a 37-minute featurette where the cast talk about their favorite scenes from the series. There's an extended scene that was shot but clipped from the series, and the alternate ends to the edited episodes.

Okay, yeah, let's talk about those.
So the series was originally twelve episodes long. But when it was initially broadcast in America, they decided to re-cut the episodes to 13, presumably so they could add more commercials or something. They didn't make any substantial changes to the episodes, just changed where the first couple begin and end. And if you're a completist, you can watch those altered openings and bits in the newer set's extras. But basically, yeah, the series should be twelve episodes; but if you're watching it in thirteen, you're not missing out on anything.

And as far as missing out on stuff in terms of censorship cuts, you're pretty safe. There's plenty of talk online of broadcast episodes being cut (there's murder and even some toplessness going on in this series) but all of these DVD sets are uncut. No worries on that account.
But wait! There's more! All those extras I just described as being on the BBC set are also on Acorn's Anniversary set. Good news for Americans who never went Region Free. But there is also another little short extra they didn't import over, an 8 minute collection of clips of award speeches given when this series won so many awards in the 70s. Hardly essential, but still a nice little extra.

And inversely, Acorn came up with their own short extra: a 12-minute extract from a contemporary interview with Derek Jacobi, where he talks more about his journey as an actor than I, Claudius (although he does mention it briefly), but it's still interesting. Like the Awards bit, it's nice to have but not exactly worth running out and double dipping for on its own. The Image and Acorn sets also came with inserts.
So, there it is. Although they may not look too dissimilar, there is a good deal of improvement over the Image sets all told. Between the BBC and Acorn set, though? I've read a few things praising the 35th Anniversary as a bit of a revelation, but it's pretty much just the BBC disc brought over to NTSC with a few alterations. So, as far as which between the two is preferable, it's pretty much which of the short extras you find preferable, or if PAL bugs you. You may as well just choose by convenience, which is easier or cheaper to pick up. Don't double-dip, though; it's really not worth it and you're gonna be disappointed by the slim new extras. If you've still got the Image discs, though, that's a different story.

Frankly, however, they're all old and look kinda shabby, even considering the nature of the source materials. Next year is the 40th Anniversary of I, Claudius, and I'd love to see one of these labels tackle a blu-ray and see just what can be done with a fresh scan and modern technology. And they could combine those last little extras, just to be satisfyingly definitive. It's a pretty important work after all.