A Second Look At the VVitch

So here's a re-release that's come around the bend pretty fast: 2015's The VVitchThe VVitch is a very stylish, somewhat mainstream horror film that came out on DVD and blu-ray in 2016.  4k Ultra HD discs were the brand new thing at the time, and we all said this should've come out on UHD.  It was a new release from a major studio (Lions Gate) with a heavy emphasis on its look and atmosphere - perfect for UHD.  But no, just the DVD and BD.  But I guess enough of us kvetched about it that LG has brought it back to stores as one of their attractively-priced horror UHDs, in line with Halloween, American Psycho and Evil Dead 1 & 2.  This definitely would've been the sweet way to go in 2016, but since we were all forced to grumble and buy the BD then, is it worth double-dipping already now?

Update 5/15/19 - 9/17/22: Updating a UHD?  Well, when the filmmakers want to take another crack at the HDR grade, and the publisher is prepared to put together a suite of compelling new special features, it doesn't sound unreasonable.  So today we'll look at their limited edition, BD/ UHD combo-pack, with a single disc release scheduled for release this October.
The VVitch (double v's to tip us off to the film's old English trappings) is an immediately impressive horror film: an atmospheric slow burn.  Subtitled on-screen as A New England Folk-Tale, the film follows a family of early American settlers who separate from their puritan community and attempt to make their way on their own.  And almost immediately they are set upon by a seemingly endless succession of signs and effects of witchcraft.  It's a real potpourri of classic early American folklore and earnest reports of witches out of New England history.  This gives us a wonderful combination of authenticity - helped immensely by the cast and production design's ability to capture the period - and an entertaining kind of hellzapoppin' madness where anything can happen next and you never know what's around the next corner.  And despite centering around a nuclear family, The VVitch isn't precious about keeping the unit whole or elevating children and animals out of harm's way.  It's a rare horror film where you genuinely don't know who, if anyone, will be alive by the end of the film.  And yet the characters are flush enough that it winds up satisfying on a dramatic level as well.
1) 2016 LG DVD; 2) 2016 LG BD; 3) 2019 LG UHD.
The VVitch is a dark film, where you'll be struggling to make out imagery in the low contrast, candlelit footage from start to finish.  And the naturally subtle, darker tones of HDR actually increases that.  But when you do lean forward and really peer into the darkness, you can see there actually is more detail to be deciphered in those patches.  But we're really talking about subtle shades of gray here, and I'm not saying that just because this film is by its nature hugely under-saturated.  The colors generally are a little richer when you can make them out, like the mother's green shirt in the second set of shots.  The 4k resolution is easier to demarcate.  The blu looks distinctly grainier than the UHD; but remember, this film was shot on digital, so we're not talking about capturing grain the way we usually are with catalog titles.  On the UHD, that's peeled back giving an almost softer look; but when you get in close, it's obvious that the UHD is smooth and photo realistic well into the point where the blu-ray is breaking down into jagged, pixelated edges (for example, look at the boy's eyes).  Also, curiously, the 1.66:1 aspect ratio of the DVD and blu shifts ever so slightly to 1.67:1 on the UHD.

Now, two years after the initial version of this post was written, there was a bit of a controversy about the HDR of Lions Gate's UHD.  Writer/ director Robert Eggers and his DP Jarin Blaschke appeared on the Team Deakins podcast, saying:

Eggers: We had to do an HDR version of the film, which for such a low contrast movie, like, it really did not work at all.
Blaschke: Yeah, don't watch that.

So Second Sight delayed their release in order to work with Eggers in creating a new HDR grade.  And this summer, it started shipping.
4) 2022 SS BD; 5) 2022 SS UHD.
So, you might be surprised how subtle the differences between the new HDR grades are.  Actually, the two 1080p blus might appear more different - Second Sight's blu is brighter than the Lions Gate's (and is 1.67:1, like the two UHDs).  But yes, their UHDs are different, too; and I do see it as an improvement (disappointingly, the book included with this release doesn't get into the transfer at all).  But most viewers probably wouldn't notice any difference at all without conducting a direct comparison like this one.  It's a shot-by-shot alteration where the colors have been tweaked, and in general the image contrast seems slightly higher, which does make detail and shadowy images slightly (key word) easier to discern on their televisions.  I feel comfortable saying that Second Sight's UHD is now the best, definitive edition,; but fans who replaced their old discs expecting revelations will probably be disappointed.

All five discs give you just the one, official 5.1 mix, lossy on the DVD but in DTS-HD on the blus and UHDs (yes, it's the same DTS-HD track on all four).  And they all include optional English, with additional Spanish ones on the US discs.
Extras are also good but the same across all US editions, except for the one minor advantage that the UHD doesn't have an over ten minute stretch of on-startup bonus trailers you have to skip like the DVD and blu.  But they've all got a fairly engaging, if not super enlightening, audio commentary by the director, a roughly half hour Q&A with the director, star & two authors on Salem witches who dominate a little too much of the conversation, a nice but brief featurette that finally lets us hear from the rest of the cast, and a neat little stills gallery of design sketches.  All three US editions also come in slick slipcovers.  Oh and yes, the BD in the UHD combo-pack is the exact same BD that was sold in 2016, including the outer label.
Extras are not the same, however, in the UK.  Key US supplements have been retained, including the commentary and on-set featurette.  And a whole bunch of new goodies have been created.  First up is a second audio commentary, this time by Anna Bogutskaya, one of the critics from the Kermode and Mayo radio show.  And... it's alright.  She doesn't provide much if any info that can't be found in the other extras, and there are periods of dead air and a strangely repeated anecdote, verbatim, near the beginning and end of the track.  But when she gets into analysis, she gets more interesting.  I'll take it.

Better still, though, are all the on-camera interviews.  Eggers' new interview offers plenty that wasn't already covered in the commentary or other features, and is probably his best piece across all discs.  And they interview all four leads, who all have good memories and insight to share.  Anya Taylor-Joy is an impressive get now that she's become an in-vogue movie star, and Kate Dickie has an amazing story about working with the raven.  There's also a roughly 10-minute Q&A with several of the cast and crew, and the "proof of concept" short film Eggers made called Brothers when he was trying to get The VVitch funded.  Plus, as you can see above, the swag is truly impressive.  There is a hefty, 150-page full-color hardcover book full of essays, six art cards, a digipack for the two discs, and a nice and sturdy outer box.

We did lose a two things, though.  The Salem Q&A is gone, though that was pretty much the weakest feature on the original discs.  And the stills gallery is also gone, however the book is replete with images, which definitely trumps the on-disc gallery.  It would've been nice to hang onto those, and dig up the trailer, but SS has the overall superior set of features for sure.
So, is it worth triple-dipping?  It depends how hardcore of a fan you are.  Second Sight's new UHD is the best presentation of the film, the extras are more rewarding, and the packaging is quite impressive.  Lions Gate already gave us a solid 4k UHD that honors the uptick in format, and even then, we weren't getting a massively improved transfer (due to the dark, low contrast nature of the film) or any new special features.  So most horror fans will probably still be perfectly satisfied with the original 2016 discs.  But 2019 and 2022 were both genuine steps forward, and if you want the best edition of this film, Second Sight has indeed taken the lead.

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