Happy Bloody Birthday from Arrow Films (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

I told ya I'd get to another one of these crazy killer children movies soon. Today's entry is 1981's Bloody Birthday, and boy oh boy. This is a demented one, alright. Almost an early slasher, with children, but even more unnerving drama and weirdness. It's far from a perfect film, I could see a lot of horror fans, especially younger ones, completely not seeing the appeal of this one. But if you get on the right wavelength with it, this film's so good. It must play great with a cult theater audience. But if nobody's screening a 35m print anywhere near you, not to worry, we're lucky to have some good quality home video editions.

Update 9/5/115 - 12/30/18:  Here's a remaster I really didn't see coming.  Only a couple brief years since 88 and Severin released Bloody Birthday on blu in the UK and the states, respectively, Arrow has put forth an all new edition of a film that I dig a lot, but isn't exactly high on the pop horror totem pole.  And hey, it's just in time for my own birthday!  Those previous blus were pretty good, though; so what's Arrow bringing to the table and is it worth a double-dip?
The premise is that, 10 years ago, there was a lunar eclipse as several women were giving birth, and now that it's their kids' tenth birthday, their souls left their bodies astrologically, and umm... Well, it's not explained very well or really made clear, but none of that kooky star chart stuff matters anyway. All you need to know is that a couple of kids have teamed up to go on a killing spree in a small, suburban town. That kid running around with that big gun (it's not really big; he's just small) is a joy every frame he's on screen. Thankfully, this movie doesn't get bogged down in any supernatural or sci-fi once you get past the awkward opening set-up. It's just a messy excuse to get into this weird "what-if" scenario where kids go psycho. José Ferrer has a small role as the town doctor, acting legend Susan Strasberg is a teacher who crosses the wrong student and MTV's Julie Brown, of Earth Girls Are Easy fame (not "Downtown"), has a surprising amount of nudity. Oh, and Michael Dudikoff has a bit part. But the real stars are the kids, and they rock.
Bloody Birthday debuted on DVD in 2003 from VCI, with a matching UK disc from Anchor Bay. It was a decent widescreen release with a couple extras, but there was room for improvement. And improve it did, when Severin remastered and re-released it in 2011 with some fresh extras to boot. Then in 2014, it received nearly simultaneous blu-ray releases from Severin in the US and 88 Films in the UK.  As if that wasn't enough, Arrow then issued a newer version on blu for both markets in 2018.  Well, I've got the VCI DVD, the Severin one, 88's blu-ray and Arrow's blu, so let's have a look.
1) VCI DVD, 2) Severin DVD, 3) 88 Films blu, 4) Arrow blu.
The biggest difference from the blueish, high contrast VCI disc to the later Severin and 88 editions is the more natural, earthy timing. All three are anamorphic 1.78:1, despite the Severin case claiming 1.66:1 with virtually identical framing. 88's blu-ray lowers the frame just a sliver, and is otherwise pretty similar to the Severin disc apart from being a truer HD image with natural grain instead of compression smudging. I don't own the Severin blu, but I understand they're virtually identical, which makes sense considering how 88 seems to be using the same transfer (I've looked up screenshots on other sites, and Severin's blu lowered the frame from the DVD just like 88 did).

But now Arrow's blu delivers a new 2k scan of the interpositive.  I previously wrote of the older blus that, "[t]his is probably about as much detail and clarity as we could ever get from this film," and I'd say Arrow's new transfer bears this out.  Maybe if someone gets a hold of the OCN, but at this point we're not uncovering anything new.  Even the grain looks, well slightly different but generally equivalent.  But that's not to say there's nothing to be gained from Arrow's new edition.  The real star of this show is the color timing.  As much as Severin improved upon VCI, Arrow has taken even greater strides by really separating the colors and making them pop.  They've also found a happy medium with the contrast, the combination of which really makes the previous editions look flat and dull by comparison.

Every disc covered utilizes the original mono audio tracks, in Dolby Digital on the DVDs and LPCM on the blus (the old Anchor Bay UK disc also gave the film a 5.1 mix).  Arrow is the first edition ever to provide (optional) English subtitles.
The VCI doesn't mention it on the case for whatever reason, but it has a pretty neat little interview with the film's producer, Max Rosenberg. He's pretty interesting, and it's a shame this video never gets carried over to any of the later special editions. So yeah, Severin doesn't have a producer interview, but it does have a very long and dry audio-only interview with director Ed Hunt. He doesn't think very highly of this film, so he only spends a few minutes on it, instead droning on about the rest of his career, including a book he wants to sell us. Still, we do get a little good stuff out of it, but they really could've edited it down by 80% or so. Much better is an on camera interview with Lori Lethin; it's brief but engaging. There's also a weird little featurette called A Brief History of Slasher Films which is so far from comprehensive it feels arbitrary, but it's worth the watch. That's about it, except for an easter egg of the promo trailer (we'll come back to that) and a couple bonus trailers.

Meanwhile in the UK, 88 Films has all the same extras as Severin's DVD and blu: Lethin's interview, the slasher film thing and Ed Hunt's interview. Although they make the good choice of letting Hunt's interview play over the film, like an audio commentary, rather than the single still image Severin held on the screen for 50+ minutes, which helps the talk feel less like punishment. And speaking of commentaries, they've got an exclusive one on their release, by Justin Kerswell, author of Teenage Wasteland, and Calum Waddell. Unfortunately, neither of these guys were actually involved with the filmmaking, so it feels more like a fan commentary. Worse, they spend the entire time chatting back and forth about other films, completely ignoring what's on screen the whole time. But it's better than nothing, I guess. Plus they added a little booklet with notes by Waddell where he does remember to address Birthday.
This is possibly the clearest frame in the whole thing; the rest looks even worse.

The only little thing 88 is missing is that easter egg, which is a bit of a shame. The promo trailer is fun, because it has original film shot for it that doesn't appear in the actual movie, of a hand bursting out of a birthday cake. Both blu-ray editions have added a more traditional Bloody Birthday trailer to their extras, which looks nice in HD, but doesn't have the cool stuff. On the other hand, the reason why Severin hid the promo trailer away as an easter egg is because it's in terrible, digitized quality. It's soft and blocky to the point where you can barely make out what's going on... I think they must've taken it off the internet, uploaded back in the very earliest days of online video.

And Arrow?  They've really shuffled the deck!  First of all, they do include the Rosenberg interview from the VCI disc, so you can finally toss that old DVD.  Then they ditch most of the Severin and 88 material, replacing it with their own, all new stuff.  The best of this is the all new audio commentary by the director, which thanks in no small part I'm sure to their moderator, is infinitely more listenable and engaging than the old 51 minute audio-only director interview.  They also replace the old Lori Lethin interview with a new one, which is about the same length and covers a lot of the same ground.  That's kind of a dead-even one-to-one tie.  They add a new audio commentary by The Hysteria Continues podcast guys and an on-camera interview with Chris Alexander, which is much better than having him do a commentary where he slips right into his time-wasting "let me tell you about my day" mode.  And, interestingly, they have an interview with producer Ken Gord, who wasn't involved with Bloody Birthday but worked with Hunt on other projects.  They also have the trailer, that elusive promo trailer(!) in better though still not amazing quality, a 24-page booklet with notes by Lee Gambin, the standard card for another Arrow release (The Horrors of Malformed Men this time) and reversible artwork.
So, it's an interesting situation.  If you don't already own the film, Arrow is an easy choice, with the best transfer, overall set of extras, and even subtitles.  And the new stuff does a good enough job replacing the old ones that, even though it barely has any of the Severin/ 88 extras, I wouldn't bother going out of my way to pick them up for those additional extras.  But if you already own one of those old discs, is it worth the double-dip?  Ehh.  The colors are nicer but it's not a PQ revelation, and the new extras don't add so much more to the pot.  I was hoping for more of a heavily packed special edition to really wow us early Birthday adopters.  But this is the best addition yet, can't argue with that.

The Definitive Evil Dead 1 and 2 (Laserdisc/ DVD/ Blu-ray/ UHD Comparison)

Well, I mentioned I wanted to tackle the first two Evil Dead movies when I took a look at a ton of Army of Darkness DVDs and blus, and today's the day. We're not going to tackle quite as many obsolete older editions this time around, but we're going to look at the definitive editions for both titles and a several older ones to give an overview. I've actually owned plenty more Evil Dead I & II DVDs back in the day, but I've sold them off at different times. But this piece should still highlight pretty much all the releases worth caring about today.

I shouldn't have to tell you what the Evil Dead movies are. Sam Raimi's original was a fun, scrappy low budget horror film about demonic possession that became a surprise hit due to its imagination and some innovative filmmaking techniques. The sequel, sometimes subtitled Dead By Dawn, is practically a remake with the original team now backed with a more sizable Dino De Laurentiis budget and effects by Mark Shostrom and the KNB guys before they were KNB. They take the opportunity to innovate more, get crazier, even sillier, and take things to more outlandish, epic proportions. Personally, it's my favorite in the trilogy, although all three manage to be different peoples' favorites for their own, legitimate reasons. Do you prefer the more straight horror film of the original, or the far out fantasy of the third? They're all pretty great in their own right, so let's not waste anymore time and the best available versions of the first two Evil Dead flicks.
Update 7/11/15 - 10/15/18: If we're going to talk about the definitive Evil Dead experience, we can't leave out its top level format release.  Yes, Lions Gate just put the original Evil Dead out on 4K Ultra HD, so of course I'm gonna talk about it.

Update 12/29/18: And right on the heels of Evil Dead's 4K release, Lions Gate has put out an Evil Dead 2 UHD.  Well, the first one turned out to be a nice upgrade, if also a little bit of a compromise (hint: hold onto one of your older special editions).  Will it be the same story with the sequel?
The original Evil Dead has had an unusually complicated history on DVD. Anchor Bay released it first as a bare bones, full screen (arguably the film's correct OAR) release in 1998, not too long after Elite released it the same way on laserdisc. Then Elite re-released their laserdisc as a special edition in 1999 with two commentaries and some behind-the-scenes stuff. And they also issued that special edition on DVD. Then Anchor Bay took the wheel again in 2002, releasing the 20th Anniversary edition, which had the Elite extras, more and introduced the world to widescreen 1.85:1 version. This widescreen version is a matted down version of the fullscreen version (i.e. it doesn't give us more picture on the sides, just crops the tops and bottoms), but was supervised and approved by Raimi.
So that's why I said the full-screen version is "arguably" the correct OAR. You could make a case for the widescreen one, too, since Raimi made it and prefers it, saying that's how it should've always been shown (and would have been matted for theaters). And it's hard to say which version looks better, either, as it seems to depend on the shot - some look better matted, some look better composed open. It's a debate that's been going on since the 90s, and if you want to start it up again, all you have to do is visit any forum and post an opinion or ask a question about it. It will never be definitively won. And it's led to the unconventional tendency for companies now to release it in both ratios at once. So if you have a strong preference for one version or the other, make sure you're getting what you want; but conveniently, it's cheap and easy to get both in the same package.

There was also a bit of business where Raimi made a few "corrections" to the film, fixing black mattes that didn't totally blend in with the background and erasing producer Rob Tapert who was accidentally visible in the background of one shot. For the most part, only the older, unmatted versions seem to have the pre-fix versions; but the changes aren't exactly as offensive as CGIing Jar Jar Binks into scenes or something. These are little fixes, not creative changes; so I think you'd have to be a real stickler to be bothered enough to only want to a version without them.

So there have been more subsequent releases, perhaps most notably the very dramatically packaged Book of the Dead version, which housed the DVD in an awesome, rubbery mock-up of the Necronomicon featured in the film (Evil Dead 2 also came in one, that also made a screaming noise if you pressed a hidden button on it). Oh, and Anchor Bay also released a lunch box edition, which is just what it sounds like. But I found I was able to let go of all my past DVDs (and laserdisc) thanks to two releases, which add up to a pretty definitive package, including best looking transfers of both versions, wide- and full-screen, and all of the many, many extras. Specifically: Anchor Bay's 2010 blu-ray, and Anchor Bay UK's 2003 Evil Dead Trilogy boxed set.

And in 2018, it makes its UHD debut in a 4k/ 1080p combo pack from Lions Gate.  As is common with these combo packs, the blu-ray half of the pack is the same old blu-ray from the previous release, in this case Anchor Bay's 2010 blu.  Same bonus trailers on start-up, same menu, it even opens with the AB logo.  It's the exact same disc.  But Lions Gate was good enough to come up with new label for it to match the rest of their artwork, which these packs often don't bother with.
Anchor Bay UK's wide DVD first, their fullscreen DVD second,
Anchor Bay's full screen blu (fullscreen) third, their blu (wide) fourth;
Lions Gate's full screen blu fifth; their widescreen blu sixth; and their UHD seventh.
Anchor Bay often would only include the widescreen version in their releases, but the Trilogy box set happily has both. Of course, that's fairly academic now, as their 2010 blu includes both transfers and blows them and all previous editions out of the water. So we won't even ask why the two DVDs seem to have differing transfers not only in the framing, but detail and color timing. It's all been greatly and decidedly improved upon. I mean, look at that random video noise along the top.

Oh alright. Actually, I do know why the full-screen transfer is softer and different. It's actually the pre-corrected version, with Rob Tapert visible, etc. See him there on the right? So if you're a purist, that's another reason to snag the Trilogy set.

But onto new business now.  And to start with, Lions Gate has made the somewhat controversial decision to only include the fullscreen transfer on their 4k disc. It's 1.33:1, just like all the other fullscreen transfers (technically the DVD's 1.32, but it becomes 1.33 when you crop away that excess video noise that isn't part of the picture).  Both the widescreens have the same AR, too: 1.85:1, but you can see there were serious adjustments made within that frame.  And that's kinda the case here, too.  You can see the DVD is more zoomed in than the other three fullscreen transfers.  But between the UHD and the blus, the biggest difference is really the colors, which are more nuanced and less contrasty now on the UHD.  Otherwise, given its 16mm roots, detail, grain etc looks pretty unchanged.  Of course, the UHD does benefit from the increased resolution technically... when you zoom in far enough, detail that starts to break down into pixelation on the 1080 is still smooth and round on the 4k.  I'm not sure you'd see it in motion even on a big ol' 82" TV.  The biggest benefit is really the increased brightness and contrast range.

Audi-wise, The DVD had a 5.1 mix, plus a stereo mix and a French dub that was on the widescreen version only.  And no subtitles.  The blu-ray has a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix, plus the French dub, and English and Spanish subs.  The UHD has the same 5.1 TrueHD track, replaces the French dub with a Spanish one, and adds a third set of subtitles (making the always welcome distinction between standard English and SDH).

So it's really two areas that complicate matters beyond it being a simple case of DVD > BD > UHD, and necessitates multiple editions for serious fans. One is the widescreen transfer.  If you want that, you have to forgo the new 4k UHD and stick with one of the blus.  And the second area, which is even more convoluted, is the extras.

See, there's actually two versions of the blu-ray. The limited edition and the non-limited. The limited edition is a single disc release that only includes an audio commentary (and some bonus trailers for other AB releases) for an extra. Interestingly, it's a new one, by Raimi, Tapert and Campbell. The previous commentaries had Raimi and Tapert on one and Campbell on the other. This one replaces that, probably mainly so Anchor Bay wouldn't have to keep licensing the commentaries from Elite. So already that's one reason to hang onto the older DVDs: the blu only has the new commentary, the Trilogy set has the two older ones.

The only way to tell the limited edition and non-limited edition blu-rays apart, at least by their front covers, is the green stripe running along the top. The non-limited edition has the same cover art, just minus that stripe. And it has the same UPC number, so things get real confusing. The limited edition is theoretically long sold out, but I've found that almost no online sellers know enough to differentiate between the two versions (same UPC and all), so you have to be very careful ordering online if you're trying to secure a particular one. But that means, to your advantage, sellers are often unwittingly letting the limited edition go for the very cheap price of the non-limited edition, so you can snag it super cheap with a little bit of luck and smarts.

But it's worth the trouble, because the bonus disc includes some really great stuff, many of which was brand new for this release. It includes a the original 53 minute making-of, a 60(!) minute feature on deleted scenes, a 29 minute featurette called The Ladies of the Evil Dead Meet Bruce Campbell, a 32 minute reunion panel, and four featurettes called Discovering the Evil Dead, Unconventional, At the Drive-In and a really short one entitled Book of the Dead: The Other Pages. There's also some brief make-up tests, four TV spots and the trailer. Holy cow, that's the special edition fans have been wanting since the 90s! Unfortunately, the bonus disc is a DVD, not a blu... it would have been nice to get all these new extras in HD. But they're just extras, so it's not that crucial, and the content is great enough as it is.

Meanwhile, the Trilogy has a couple of those extras, including the Discovering the Evil Dead featurette the trailer and the TV spots. But, besides the two commentaries, it has more of the older extras not carried over to the blu, including a 26 minute documentary Bruce Campbell directed himself called Fanalysis.  It also has the same behind the scenes and outtake footage that dates back to the laserdisc. Oh, and there are also little easter eggs of a make-up test and footage from an Evil Dead screening, plus an 8-page booklet.
But that's still not all. The Trilogy also has some exclusive extras, some of which are pretty dodgy, but still worth noting at least. The best of the bonus disc extras is the vintage episode of The Incredibly Strange Film Show, which interviews Raimi back in the late 80s. But then things get weird, with a collection of extras hosted by a rather irritating lady who sits in a tree [pictured above], with titles like Bruce Campbell: Geek or God? Rather than featuring anyone involved with the making of the film, they're a collection of interviews with mostly British journalists, including the awfully controversial Allan Bryce. Most of this stuff is pretty dry, and it doesn't help that it's mostly shot in low video quality; although some of these guys come off better than others. But nobody tells you much you won't already have known going in. The most interesting segment is a short on how the film was marketed in the UK, featuring interviews with the guys who drew the UK poster art, since they at least have a modicum of first-hand involvement. But this stuff, I'd say, should be reserved for the serious fans who really want to see everything. Otherwise it's very skippable. There's even a very cheap rock music video "inspired" by the Evil Dead, which was performed by one of the experts interviewed previously.

Still, though, the Trilogy box is a nice cheap way to get Fanalysis and the Incredibly Strange Film Show episode into your collection if you otherwise just have the blus. And the other odds and ends are at least better to have than not.

And the new UHD combo-pack?  Prepare to be disappointed.  Again, the blu is the same 2010 blu Anchor Bay released, so it has no extras but the newer commentary.  And the UHD?  Same deal; just that one commentary.  Nothing else included, not even the trailer.  Surely they wouldn't've had to license that from AB?  Well, it does come in a slipcover.
Now, Evil Dead 2 has a pretty similar story, except Elite only issued their version on laser, and left all the DVDs to Anchor Bay. In this case, I hung onto mine, because not only did I get the limited edition "blood red" laserdisc, where the disc itself is colored red (definitely something you don't see), but as you can see in the photo, I've had mine personally signed by Bruce Campbell. So it's a pretty neat collectors' item, and as a bonus, we can throw it into the comparisons.

There have been fewer issues of Evil Dead 2 in general, and we don't have the dual fullscreen/ widescreen thing going on (although Anchor Bay did once include an open matter version as a bonus on one of their old discs, possibly just out of habit). Elite released their laserdisc in 1998 with a commentary by Raimi, Campbell, Greg Nicotero and Scott Spiegel, plus a 30-minute making of and the trailer. Anchor Bay released it as a bare-bones non-anamorphic DVD in 1998 and then spruced it up as an anamorphic special edition with the laserdisc extras in 2000. There were a couple more releases - in a tin, a THX version, and the book of the dead version - but nothing more was ever really added to the mix. The disc in the trilogy is pretty much the same as all post 1998 discs: anamorphic, with the same extras from the laserdisc ported over.

But there is one complication in that Evil Dead 2 later saw two, quite different blu-ray releases. The first came from Anchor Bay in 2007, essentially just bringing their old DVD into the high definition market. And then a newer 25th Anniversary Edition from Lions Gate in 2011, which surprisingly kicked Anchor Bay's disc in the teeth. It had an all new transfer, the old extras once again carried over, plus a whole bunch of new stuff, finally giving this film the definitive special edition it deserves.

Or, at least, it was the definitive edition before a new format rolled into town.  Now that we've got a 4K Ultra HD disc, can we toss our 25th Anniversary blus?  Let's take a look and find out.
Elite's laserdisc first; Anchor Bay UK's DVD 2nd;
Anchor Bay's blu-ray third; Lions Gate's 2011 blu fourth;
Lions Gate's 2018 blu fifth; and their UHD sixth
Ick. Look at Anchor Bay's blu-ray. I mean, sure, it's an upgrade from the old 1.80:1 laserdisc, and maybe even the 1.84:1 DVD. But it's looks like the compression noise of the DVD wasn't cleaned up so much as DNR'd away. At least it's finally exactly 1.85:1, but the image looks so smooth and washed out, with weird sharpening around the edges. The closer you look, the worse it gets. Actually, with that terrible edge enhancement, I think I do prefer the DVD. But then, wow, look at Lions Gate's blu-ray's transfer (also 1.85:1). They must've taken a whole new scan; it's so much more detailed and cleaner. It's also a little less green, which is nice. Yaknow, Lions Gate gets a lot of flack (which they deserve) for sitting on a ton of great catalog titles (at least pre-Vestron), but when they come through on a title, they really come through.

And now, they've improved things even further with their UHD (the blu-ray it's packaged with, by the way, is just another copy of the 25th Anniversary Edition).  Grain is more natural and thoroughly captured even than their blu.  I know "better grain" isn't a big selling point, but it's a quick way to verify a higher quality image.  And that higher quality definitely yields us a more vivid picture.  I can't say there's a heap more detail, like we're counting every individual hair on Bruce's head, since we seem to have pretty well hit the limit of what was captured on film.  But what we do have is a decidedly more genuine, filmic experience.  Colors take advantage of the greater range, too, becoming darker and less contrasty, which is also an improvement.  Despite still having an AR of exactly 1.85:1, the framing is slightly tighter than their blu (and much closer to AB's), though not to the point where you'd notice it without a direct comparison like we have here.

Audio-wise, the laserdisc just had a basic mono track and no subs, while the DVD just gave us a 5.1 mix, plus German, Italian and Spanish dubs and a host of subtitles, including English.  The AB blu actually gives us two 5.1 mixes: LPCM and a lossy Dolby Digital, and strips away all the foreign subtitles, just leaving the English.  Lions Gate just gives us the one DTS-HD 5.1 mix, plus English and Spanish subtitles, on both the BD and UHD.  Yes, it seems to be exactly the same audio mix on both editions, but that's alright, since the blu's lossless track was already excellent.
Extras-wise, the Anchor Bay blu did come up with a little something extra. In addition to the stalwart laserdisc extras, they added a new featurette called Behind the Screams. It's just a 17 minute collection of photos narrated by Tom Sullivan, but it's kinda neat, and at least gives us a little more Evil Dead 2 content.

But then Lions Gate swoops in. They bring in all the laserdisc stuff: the commentary, the making of, and the trailer. They pick up Behind the Screams, too, so completists you don't have to worry about getting the Anchor Bay blu just for that. But then they come in with a treasure trove of new stuff. Most notably, they have a full-length (98 minutes), seven part documentary on Evil Dead 2 called Swallowed Souls, which is pretty comprehensive. They could have released just that doc by itself and I would have bought it. And then just to fill in any remaining gaps, they have a another 30 minute behind-the-scenes featurette called Cabin Fever, and a cool little 8 minute thing on the film's locations. Plus there are four stills galleries and several bonus trailers. ...And the blu was so cheap, too; it was like a budget release except really a top shelf, first class special edition.

Now the UHD itself only has two special features on it, including the audio commentary.  But because it includes the 25th Anniversary blu as well, that means we get 100% of those special features.  So unlike with the first Evil Dead, you don't need an older special edition in addition to your UHD to have everything.  Also unlike the first Evil Dead, this UHD introduces a new special feature, an almost hour-long, all new documentary.  Because the previous extras talked to pretty much everybody involved and already scared up every behind-the-scenes anecdote there is to tell, this new feature had to go in a different direction.  They talk to nine other horror filmmakers about Evil Dead 2, and the influence it had on their work.  All told, the line is: Roger Corman, Guillermo del Toro, Edgar Wright, Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Splice), Jan Kounen (maybe not a big horror director, but he made that Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky movie), Xavier Gens (he did a couple obscure indie horrors and was one of the 26 ABC's of Death directors), Fabrice du Welz (even looking him up on the imdb didn't clarify anything for me), Eric Valette (best known for the English language remake of Takashi Miike's One Missed Call, I guess) and Marcus Nispel who did the Texas Chainsaw and Friday the 13th remakes for Platinum Dunes.  Can you tell this doc was made in France?  Anyway, it's kinda neat.  And this release also comes in a cool, shiny slipcover.
It's really awesome how good the final blu-rays came out for both these films, and with surprising terrific new extras for both. In the age of "do we really need another Evil Dead disc," the UHDs earn their keep, too.  Especially the second one.  It's just a little annoying that you need to find an older disc of the first Evil Dead to have most of its key special features.  And if you still want more after those, get that UK set.  It's got all kinds of weird odds and ends.

Lunatics: A Love Story, On DVD At L(e)ast

High on the list of movies that are still in desperate need of some kind of DVD or blu-ray release (there wasn't even a laserdisc!) is Josh Becker's Lunatics: A Love Story from 1992. But technically, strictly speaking, if you're really going to get picky and split hairs about it, you should know that there is sorta kinda actually an at least semi-official DVD release of it. It's sold exclusively through Becker's site. I mean, it's a DV-R, not a pressed DVD; but hey, if Warner Archives can do it...

Update 2/12/15 - 12/27/18: It's finally here: a genuine, official release of the film!  But it's DVD only?  What's up with that?
In recent years, we've seen excellent special edition blu-rays of the early Evil Dead team's works... (Night Of) The Intruder and Thou Shalt Not Kill... Except from Synapse, Crimewave from Shout Factory, all three of which had also been issued many other times by many other companies. Code Red even gave us The Carrier.  And These blus are great releases in terms of restoring and presenting the film (well, except for the big screw up on The Carrier, but that's a whole other post), in terms of terrific extras, and in terms of just being fun indie movies. I'm very happy to have them in my collection. But I honestly think anybody who enjoys any of those films would get at least twice the kick out of Becker's Lunatics. It's got higher production values than a lot of them, A more engaging cult-film oriented story with likeable characters, and stars Ted Raimi and Bruce Campbell. So where's Lunatic's special blu?
Lunatics has a bit of a Psychos In Love premise, where two completely deranged lunatics wind up meeting and falling in love. But instead of being psycho killers, this is a pair of sweet, harmless loonies, who just face a ton of external problems dealing with the world. Raimi is a paranoid and completely delusional poet who covers his apartment in tinfoil to try to fend off his delusions of evil surgeons (mostly played by Bruce Campbell), rappers (played by the legit hip-hop crew Detroit's Most Wanted, who rap aggressively at him in his mind) and nightmarish spiders. He winds up crossing path with the ultra sweet Deborah Foreman, who seems to good to be true except for the fact that she's completely neurotic and possibly cursed after being dumped by her heel of an ex, also played by Bruce Campbell (essentially his Crimewave character reprised). A large part of the fun of this movie is seeing the world through Raimi's eyes, where his wild delusions are as real as anything else, and the lengths he'll ultimately go for a totally deranged romance. It's full of creative shots, like Raimi seeing his couch extend to a crazy length, separating him from Foreman. In other words, it's a charming rom-com where our hero just happens to have to take a baseball bat to fight a giant stop-motion spider that only exists in his mind to get the girl.
Instead, until just this year, our only option in the US or abroad was this DV-R Josh Becker sells to tide fans over while we wait, and wait, and wait. But if Becker had any kind of quality source materials for this film, he hasn't used them here. I mean, just look at the menu to get an idea of how no-frills this DVD is.

All that's finally changed, however, right?  Umbrella Entertainment has finally put Lunatics out as a proper special edition DVD, with commentary by the director and an interview with Bruce Campbell!  Or, at least, that's what was originally listed on their website.  Then they revised the page to say it was barebones and 4:3.  And say what you will about the DV-R's menu, this one doesn't even have a menu at all.  So just what have we got here?
What a great special effect - he has no face! Oh... it's not supposed to be like that?
201? Becker Films DV-R top; 2018 Umbrella Films DVD bottom.
Next you'll tell me that Bruce isn't supposed to be a hologram in this scene...
The Becker disc doesn't even come in a case; you just get a plain paper envelope with the disc inside, which at least has a nice label, I guess. But let's talk quality. It looks like it was recorded off of television onto a VHS tape, and then transferred to digital using a dodgy process with a pull-down issue adding interlace ghosting to some of the soft, murky frames. A "Love Stories" watermark even pops up intermittently throughout the film, showing us that this was taped off of the Encore channel.

So, given that, Umbrella's disc is a substantial improvement.  The image is unfortunately sourced from tape (which explains why they didn't make a blu), but given that, it looks about as good as it can.  It's soft and low on detail, but still substantially clearer and sharper than the DV-R.  The colors are much more accurate without that green haze plaguing the previous version, and the blacks are deeper.  The interlacing is corrected, and while they're both fullscreen, Umbrella's disc adds a few slivers of extra picture.  And of course, there's no ridiculous "Love Stories" watermark.

Umbrella just gives us a basic Dolby 2.0 mix, but it's fine, and clearer than the Becker Films disc. It has no subtitles or any kind of feature, not even the trailer... which Umbrella links on their own site, so why couldn't they at least slap that on here?
 
One small plus side is that Becker signs the discs if you ask him when ordering. So at least the DV-R could be a bit of a collector's item, and since it just came in a paper sleeve, you can just slip it in the Umbrella case.  Because, as disappointing as Umbrella's DVD is, it's certainly rendered the old version obsolete.  And I guess, since we're looking at a video tape source, that's all the rights owner has access to?  Assuming that's the case, this'll be the best we ever get.  So I recommend Umbrella's DVD since it's a movie well worth owning, and the official pressed disc is at least watchable... just so long as you know what to expect in terms of quality.

Dueling Blus: Christmas Vacation (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

I wonder how many fans are even aware that Warner Bros quietly replaced their old blu-ray edition of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation with a new remaster in 2015? It was done, at least in part, to fan criticism that they kept repackaging and re-releasing the film (the original 2006 release, the 2008 "Essential Holiday Collection," the 2009 limited edition tin, the Walmart exclusive with the Clark Griswald Funko pop keychain) with the same old disc inside.  So when they announced upcoming steelbook and Diamond Lux editions, and they kept getting pelted with questions of whether this will be a new transfer, they finally conceded.  Unfortunately, it's not always clear which disc you'll be getting when you buy this in stores, and some have even argued that they prefer the older master anyway.  So that seems like the perfect situation to dive into here for this holiday season.
Christmas Vacation is one of those very rare sequels that's as highly regarded, possibly even more so, than its original counterpart.  You've got, what?  Godfather II, Evil Dead 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight and I suppose Ghoulies 2?  And even in about half of those cases, I still prefer the firsts.  My point is: it's a rare feat.  And this is thanks in no small part, I'm sure, to the return of screenwriter John Hughes.  Sync him up with the Lampoon legacy of sarcasm and parody, and you've got a film with just enough bite to keep us adults in our chairs every time it airs.  They lost him in the later entries, and boy do you feel it.  In fact, unlike European Vacation, this is the only other Vacation film to be based off of an original short story Hughes wrote for the Lampoon in the late 70s.  So you'd be right for feeling this and the first are bolstered by having substantial source material to stand on.
Besides the writing, you've got an amazing cast.  Besides the ever interchangeable children, almost all of the original cast return, including of course Chevy Chase and Beverly D'AngeloRandy Quaid and Miriam Flynn, who were left out of the last film, return as Cousin Eddie and Catherine.  And this time around,  those interchangeable kids turned out to be pre-fame Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki (Rosanne, Big Bang Theory).  Another Vacation vet, Brian Doyle Murray, returns to play a new role (Chevy's boss), and Julia-Louis Dreyfus is their yuppie neighbor.  And that's practically just the beginning: the extended family introduces a cavalcade of classic character and old Hollywood actors.  You've got the great E.G. Marshall, Remington's Steele's Doris Roberts, Diane Ladd, Mae Questel (Woody's mom in New York Stories), John Randolph and the Puppet Master himself, William Hickey.  So virtually every line is being elevated by an excessively talented delivery.
Christmas Vacation debuted on DVD all the way back in 1997, but it was fullscreen and barebones, so I held out for the 2003 Special Edition.  Not that it was much of a special edition, with just one special feature to speak of, but we'll get to that.  Anyway, that 2003 DVD was repackaged plenty of times, but in terms of the actual disc, that's been the sole, definitive edition until it was brought into HD in 2006, on both blu and HD-DVD.  And I've already told the story from there, so I'll just point out a few important little details.  First of all, don't bother looking for the aforementioned Diamond Lux edition, as that release was cancelled.  Consequently, the remastered blu was originally a steelbook exclusive.  Today, it kind of is, but there have been multiple reports online of people buying the standard blu-ray release in recent years, which still has the 2006 info on the back cover, but actually has the remastered blu inside.  So it's a bit up in the air what you might find if you buy one of those; but the steelbooks always have the remastered edition (and bear the "remastered on blu-ray" banner on the back).  Finally, I should point out that there are actually two steelbooks: one with the blu and a digital download, and one with the blu and a DVD.  The one with the code doesn't have a DVD, and no, the one with the DVD doesn't have a digital download code.  I've got the DVD one, so we have four discs to look at today:
1) 2003 WB Special Edition DVD 2) 2008 WB Ultimate Collector's Edition BD
3) 2016 WB steelbook DVD 4) 2016 WB steelbook BD
So, where to begin.  Well, first of all, the DVD included in the 2016 steelbook is the same old 2003 special edition DVD, so it doesn't feature the new scan or anything.  It's the exact same old disc: widescreen 1.78:1 (all the cases, from the 2003 DVD to the 2017 remastered blu, claim 1.85:1, but they're all incorrect), anamorphic and generally pretty good for DVD.  You can certainly see the compression, though, and say what you will about the old blu-ray, it definitely cleans up the picture and gives us a noticeably sharper, clearer image.  But at its heart, it's using the same root master, with the framing marginally adjusted to 1.77:1 (it has very slim pillar-boxing). The grain's fairly natural and there are hints of edge enhancement and/or sharpening, but it's kept to a decent minimum.

So the old blu wasn't so bad, and the new blu is a modest upgrade, but an upgrade nonetheless.  The new transfer is taken from a fresh 2k scan of the interpositive, not the OCN, so it's not the fresh burst of detail fans might've been expecting.  But the grain and what soft detail there we have is captured more clearly, and the colors are a little stronger.  The framing's been restored to 1.78:1 (no more pillars), and is actually a little tighter, losing a little picture on the sides.  It looks good, though, and I trust that it's more accurate, just like the blue filters.  Yeah, that's really the most noticeable distinction: the new blu restores blu filters to outdoor nighttime scenes (of which this film has quite a lot), that have been missing from all previous home video releases.  You can see it in the first set of shots with Beverly on the front stoop.  I have to admit, when I first saw screencaps online, it looked a little too blue.  But now that I've had time to live with both, the older editions do feel incorrect, and the filters do belong there.
Being an early blu, I guess it's not surprising that the Dolby stereo track is the same as the DVD, decent but lossy.  Another real advantage of the remaster is that the 2.0 track has been boosted up to DTS-HD.  All versions have optional English subtitles, though the foreign options differ a bit: the DVDs have a French dub and French and Spanish subs.  The old blu keeps all of that and adds a Spanish dub, while the new blu drops the French dub for a second Spanish one (Latin and Castilian).
Considering how beloved and constantly reissued this film is, it's surprising how few extras have been made for this.  The 2003 Special Edition introduced one key feature, and it's pretty much all we've ever gotten.  That said, though, it's pretty good.  It's an audio commentary with the director, producer, Beverly D'Angelo, Randy Quaid, Johnny Galecki and Miriam Flynn.  There's enough of them there that it stays fun and energetic all the way through to the film, but they're restrained enough that they're able to impart lots of good info and anecdotes without talking all over each other and becoming intelligible.  But that and the trailer is all we get.

Even with the jump to blu-ray, that's it.  I did get the limited edition tin of the old blu-ray, though, which certainly delivered the good sin terms of novelty packaging, if not actual video features.  It comes with a series of themed coasters, a pin, a mini Moose mug (about Barbie size), a Santa hat (bigger than Barbie size, but still too small for a human head), and a little box of powdered snow.  It's a pretty attractive tin, though, and the interior case is a cool green.  There was also a DVD version of this tin with the same contents except for the alternate disc, and that tin is snow white instead of red.  And of course the new blu comes in the steelbook, so that version has fancy packaging, too.  But no new features.
So okay, it's still not the loaded special edition this film deserves.  Maybe we just have to wait for an eventual UHD.  Then they'd have to go 4k... although in terms of special features, it seems like those discs are paring back more than they're broadening any horizons.  Anyway, that's the future.  For the present, Warner's remaster is the best version going.  You'll definitely get it if you go for the steelbook, or you can roll the dice on a standard amaray case.  It's an inexpensive double-dip, even in the steel; so you might as well go for it, especially if you watch it every year like my family does.  🎅