Dueling Blus: Shivers, Arrow vs Vestron

So Arrow released the HD debut of David Cronenberg's horror debut Shivers in 2014, but whoops! They restored the censored R-rated cut originally released to American theaters. This is where we learned that Cronenberg doesn't actually watch the DVDs he officially signs off on. But, gotta give them full credit here, Arrow came through and repressed new editions with the unrated footage restored in full, equal quality. Now, as of April 2016, if you bought the original cut set, Arrow set up a replacement program, and if you order it now from their site, you get proper shrink-wrapped copies of the 2nd pressing.
If you order this from some place like Amazon and aren't sure which disc you've got, you can see right here along the edge of the discs (this is a combo pack, and the DVD has been corrected, too) where it says "2ND PRESSING." So we finally have this movie in a special edition, uncut and on blu-ray. Happy day for me, because Shivers is still one of my all-time favorite Cronenberg films.

Update 5/14/16 - 9/22/20: Vestron lives!  and they've returned to bring Cronenberg's Shivers into the United States with their latest blu-ray edition.  But is it better or worse than what Arrow's already released?
This movie's like the perfect combination of low brow entertainment and high brow sci-fi/ horror, like he's found the perfect intellectual reasoning to excuse presenting us with exploitation fare by clinically exploring the basest elements of human nature. A futuristic high-rise has to have its own medical facility because it's on an isolated island. But unfortunately, one of their doctors has taken advantage of this situation to get away with some medical experimentation where he implants one of the building's tenants with a parasite that cures them of their sexual inhibitions. Unfortunately, it also turns them dangerously feral, and soon these parasites are spreading from person to person, turning everyone into a violent sex maniac.
It's like Night Of the Living Dead within ultramodern architecture, tackling all the taboo cult film issues Night somehow missed. You've got horror icon Barbara Steele, Lynn Lowry looking like a supermodel and Joe Silver, that great character actor who used to play in all of Cronenberg's old films. You've got some slimy effects work by Joe Blasco - the guy who used to have all those double page ads for his school in Fangoria - including chest bursters years before Alien duplicated them. And of course you've got the clever, subversive imagination of Cronenberg back when he was writing all his original scripts. Forty years later, this movie is one wild ride horror filmmakers today still can't match.
So, like I mentioned, Arrow's 2014/ 2016 Shivers special edition is a combo pack (a steelbook version is also available), so we'll be looking at both their blu-ray and DVD.  I've also got the older 2001 UK DVD from Metrodome, which used to be the best edition of Shivers going - in terms of transfer and special features.  The old 1998 US DVD from Image was fullframe; looking at it here, we can see how far we've come.  And of course, now we have the brand new US blu from Vestron.  All versions are the proper uncut version except the pre-recalled Arrow disc.
Image DVD first, Metrodome DVD second, Arrow DVD third, Arrow BD fourth; Vestron BD fifth.
We start with some big differences right at the outset. Image is fullscreen at about 1.30:1, and open matte, as it has all the same information on the sides, and considerably more on the top and bottom. And the aspect ratio's the same between Metrodome, Arrow and Vestron: 1.78:1, but the two blus manage to find a little more picture on all four sides.  That's nice; but that's probably not what struck your eye first, is it? The newer transfers sure are bright! The whites are really strong, effectively erasing some detail on the papers on Silver's desk in the first set of shots, and turning the whole sky off-white in the second set. Where did the blue sky go? It's there on the Image and Metrodome discs.

Well, Arrow's "ABOUT THE TRANSFER" section of their booklet isn't much help. It just says, "Shivers was restored by the Toronto International Film Festival. Restoration was completed at Technicolor with supervision by David Cronenberg, The restored film was delivered to Arrow Films by Lionsgate." Is it a 2k scan? What elements were used? Don't ask us, TIFF did it. Vestron's packaging is even less illuminating, informing us only that this is a "1080p High Definition" transfer.  Gee, thanks.  Well, I'm guessing the answer lies in the source materials. It looks like they used a print rather than OCN, IP or any other earlier film source. That certainly explains why it would be so contrast-y, just like The Killing Fields blu we looked at recently. And the cigarette burns on the film (see the shot of Allan Kolman at his desk, above) certainly suggest it's a print.
Image DVD first, Metrodome DVD second, Arrow DVD third, Arrow BD fourth; Vestron BD fifth.
All that said, the blus are still the best the film has ever looked. The UK DVD was anamorphic, widescreen and free of the typical interlacing issues we often come across here, but detail is still much clearer and more defined on the blu. Arrow's new DVD is already a clear step up, but it's still soft compared to the more refined blu with distinct grain. Image and Metrodome also look overly blu (surely the papers in the first set of shots are meant to be white not baby blue) and murky in comparison. But were the original film elements lost, or can we expect an even more satisfying restoration some day in the future?

Vestron didn't dig any up, that's for sure, clearly using the same TIFF restoration (and on-screen title cards confirm as much).  Because that's the big question now that there are competing blus on the market: which is better?  Well, the only real notable difference is that Vestron's is a softer encode.  Flipping between screenshots of Vestron and Arrow, grain seems to recede into obscurity.  It's subtle enough that most casual fans won't notice a difference, but if you want to be sure you're getting the best edition possible, Arrow is still champ.  Well, at least in terms of PQ.

Arrow and Vestron also bump up Image and Metrodome's Dolby 2.0 mono tracks to a lossless LPCM and DTS-HD tracks, respectively.  And they also add English HoH subtitles, where the DVDs had none.
But we've got to talk extras, because there's a big distinction there, too. The Image and Metrodome DVDs just have one key extra: an on-camera interview with David Cronenberg. He tells you all the key stories and basic info for the film, in a brisk but informative piece. But that's about all there is, besides a trailer; though technically Metrodome also has a photo gallery and bonus trailer for Cronenberg's second feature: Rabid.

Arrow comes with three major pieces. First up is an all new featurette directed by Calum Waddell, which cross-cuts interviews of Barbara Steele, Lynn Lowry, Allan Kolman, Joe Blasco, and film critic Kier-La Janisse, who ties it all together. This is a great piece that's both fun and gets a lot of details and stories about this film that haven't been covered elsewhere. Then there's an even better featurette, which is more of a comprehensive making of piece that was clearly made for television. It's got some cheesy animated credits, but once you get past that, there's great interviews with Cronenberg (including clips from some vintage TV pieces), producers Ivan Reitman, John Dunning, Alfred Pariser, and Andre Link, cinematographer Robert Saad, plus Joe Blasco, Lynne Lowry, Allan Kolman, plus critics Peter Morris, Bart Testa and Jason Anderson. One or two anecdotes repeat, and some basic history of the film, but they're mostly distinct and work well together.

Arrow also has a video essay, like Criterion does, by critic Caelum Vatnsdal, which is okay. It makes me wish Arrow had licensed the Cronenberg interview from the older DVDs, since I'd rather hear Cronenberg talk about a dream that inspired a scene in this film than this guy telling us second-hand that Cronenberg had a dream that made him feel ___. But it's still better to have it than not. And all the features together (the first two run about 45 minutes apiece) really do give this edition the feel of being a full special edition. Arrow also has the trailer, a stills gallery, reversible artwork (that's kind of a spoiler, if you think about it), a postcard for one of their other releases (I got The Long Good Friday) and a hefty 48-page booklet with notes by three critics and some words from Cronenberg himself, taken from the book Cronenberg On Cronenberg.

But Vestron has brought their A-game, too.  They don't share any extras in common with Arrow, but they did preserve that Cronenberg interview from the DVDs.  More excitingly, they managed to get him to record an audio commentary, which is pretty great.  He admits, though, that he hasn't seen this film in decades, which makes it clear how a cut version was able to get past TIFF and Arrow despite supposedly having been an approved transfer by him.  Anyway, that's the real gem here, but they also sat him down for a new on-camera interview (where he mostly just repeats anecdotes from the commentary... this is the most skippable of all the Shivers extras), and recorded their own interviews with Lowry and Blasco.  They also created a second commentary with producer Don Karmody, which is a nice treat, despite moderator Chris Alexander repeating all of his anecdotes verbatim on both commentaries.  There's also an archival audio-only interview with John Dunning (who's since passed) and a nice, on-camera follow-up piece with his son.  Finally Vestron packs on two trailers, a TV spot, three radio spots and a stills gallery.  Vestron doesn't seem to go in for the booklets, but they do house their release in a sporty slipcover.
Deciding on a winner is going to be come down to a lot of personal taste.  Strictly in terms of image quality, Arrow does win, but with both discs using the same master, it may not be a very important distinction.  The real battle is in the special features, which are very different across releases.  I think I might give the edge to Vestron here, but both have top notch features and both talk to key players that the other disc is missing.  Like, you've gotta have that Cronenberg commentary, but you really hate to lose Ivan Reitman.  Fortunately, Vestron has given their latest releases a very consumer-friendly, budget-conscious price point.  So dedicated fans who already have the Arrow release can happily pick up the Vestron disc "just for the extras" without the usual financial sting of double-dipping.  And more casual viewers can just pick up the Vestron, or hang onto their Arrows, confident that whichever release was easier to obtain is competitively excellent.  In brief, it's good news all around and everybody wins. ūüĎć

1 comment:

  1. I love this movie, I have watched it more often than any other Cronenberg film. The fact the apartment building on Nun's Island still exists and can be lived in is dreamy! One day perhaps...

    ReplyDelete