Controversial Blus: Tremors

Alright, gang.  If I didn't cover this release sooner or later, I'm pretty sure they'd pull my DVDExotica license.  Yes, today we're finally tackling the... "controversial?"  More like "infamous" blu-ray release of Tremors from Universal.  Yes, this release stands right alongside - or maybe even in front of - Predator as one of the most notorious DNR jobs in blu-ray history... made all the worse for it happening to two of the most beloved, crowd pleasing genre of films of their day.  And looking at it now, the DNR might not even be the most disappointing thing about this crummy disc.
Tremors is one of those small big budget (11m in 1990) studio flicks that tends to have a short lifespan but was fortunate enough to generate a lot of good will.  You know, for every Mummy, there were four or five Relics.  Writer/ Director Ron Underwood would go on to make the Oscar-winning City Slickers right after this, and it feels like a lot of the spirit of that film germinated here.  It's a sort of family-friendly, PG-13 horror film that's still effective enough, in terms of effects, suspense sequences and attractive horror ideas (the concept of these monsters right beneath us under the ground, attracted to the vibrations we make, is pretty darn cool), to hold onto its base audience as well the mainstream viewers captured by its humor and ensemble cast.  And they really struck gold with that cast.  Kevin Bacon is their biggest name lead, but we've also got great turns by Fred Ward, country music star Reba McEntire, John Carpenter all-star Victor Wong and Family Ties' Michael Gross who made not seem like a big get on first appraisal, but who turned himself into the heart of the franchise.
Universal's presentation of Tremors may not show it much if any respect, but it's clearly one of their star selling titles.  Stores like Best Buy and FYE still put it out on display every Halloween to this day.  They first released it all the way back in 1998 and reissued it in 2000 and again as a double-feature with the first sequel in 2001.  They released an 'Attack Pack' in 2005 of the first four films, a 2009 re-release packaged with "movie money" for Land Of the Lost, an HD-DVD in 2007, the 2010 blu-ray, a 2013 blu-ray edition of the 'Attack Pack,' with a reportedly slightly better transfer, an 'Anthology' collection on both DVD and blu in 2016 of the first five movies, a 'Complete Collection' of the first six films on DVD and blu in 2018, and an FYE-exclusive steelbook release of the BD in 2019.  And this is just the US releases I'm talking about here.  I've got the original DVD and the most recent, 2019 blu.  So let's see how we've come.
1998 Universal DVD top; 2010/2019 Universal blu bottom.
To be fair, the blu-ray is clearly a sizeable improvement over the DVD.  But that's only because the DVD also looks like it has something seriously wrong with it.  Like, ordinarily, I'd look at a blu-ray like this and say, that's such a pitiful HD bump, just hang onto your DVD.  But annoyingly, you can't even do that, because the DVD is nigh unwatchable on a modern television.  Right off the bat, the DVD widescreen (1.85:1), but non-anamorphic.  That's typical of really old DVDs like this, which might make it more forgivable, but certainly not acceptable.  But even putting that aside, and the extra-compressed resolution that inherently smaller image has to have, it looks awful, like the detail has been filtered away.  Where'd Kevin's mouth go, for instance?  It's also got some unattractive edge enhancement haloing going on, but given the state of the DVD presentation, I'd say that enhancement is actually necessary, as it's the only way viewers could make out what they're supposed to be looking at.

And I think that's the big clue as to what's wrong with this blu, which yes, is the exact same blu in the new steelbook as the first release.  It's still got the "2010" on the label and everything.  Well, apart from the DNR, which smooths over not just the film grain but subtle detail like hairs and clothing threads.  I mean, look at Fred Ward's close-up a little higher up; it looks like they blasted him with Botox.  But the DNR, while a serious flaw and I realize this is an extreme statement, doesn't even strike me as the blu-ray's most egregious flaw.  It's that over-the-top edge enhancement.  It makes it look like someone drew crayon lines around random parts of the image, and creating random highlights (suddenly you can't take your eyes off that shovel in the background of the nighttime attack scene).  And like I said a moment ago, you see it in the DVD, too; but there you kind of need it because the image is so over-compressed and digitized.  It has no place in an HD image, but I assume that's what the problem is.  Universal struck their transfer from the same, ancient HD master they made way back in the time of (if not before!) their 1998 DVD.  So it's got all that junky tinkering because they applied it for low quality transfers of the time, not the modern, HD age.  And even though Universal is still re-releasing this as recently as this year, because it's clearly one of their top sellers, they're unwilling to strike a new master, even though it desperately needs one.
See how the edges of his jeans have a thick dark outline, with
a second bright, light outline around that? That's edge enhancement.
Anyway, besides all that, there's very sporadic dirt and print damage on hand, but it's just single frame stuff that flashes right by.  And the blu is at least also matted to 1.85.  They frame the image slightly higher than the DVD, which might actually be a slight improvement.  The colors and levels are essentially the same, because, again, it's surely the same master.  The fact that the 'Attack Pack' disc reportedly looks the same except for being less DNR'd makes that the preferable, but still crappy, option.  But it also suggests the DNR was applied for the blu-ray after the rest of the tweaking to the master.  And after all, who would need to scrub away even more detail from that DVD.  One would hope Universal could've at least used that version for these recent BD reissues, but honestly, this whole mess is unacceptable in 2019.  Tremors needs a fresh scan more than nearly any other film that's already been given a blu-ray release.

The audio situation is actually fine, with the DVD offering the original stereo mix in a solid Dolby track, as well as additional French and Spanish dubs and optional English and Spanish subtitles.  The blu-ray gave us a new 5.1 mix in lossless DTS-HD, plus the French dub and English, Spanish and French subs.  Sure, I would've liked to hang onto the original stereo mix, but the two tracks didn't strike me as terribly different to my ears, so it's a small quibble compared to the PQ drama.
As for extras, I have no complaints.  This is a big, popular sci-fi/ horror flick, so you expect some quality content, and we get some.  Primarily, we get a 'making of' documentary, which is a little under an hour.  It's fairly comprehensive and successfully entertaining, so I'm happy.  We also get an amusing outtake reel, plus a couple very brief (2-3 minutes) featurettes and two trailers.  And by the way, I'm describing both the DVD and blu-ray, because everything is exactly the same on both.  The Attack Pack also includes extras for the other three Tremors films included in that set, but nothing else for the original.  The steelbook obviously comes in a unique steelbook case... although not so unique, because it's pretty much identical to the Zavvi steelbook released in the UK.  So yeah, there's room to grow.  Some individual interviews could get deeper with key cast and crew members, and an audio commentary or two would be ideal.  But what we get is at least good enough.
Every time a new Tremors project comes out... and they still are!  The most recent one was 2018.  There are five official sequels, a TV series and a remake that brought Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward back, which to this date has been shelved but at least partially shot.  And each time, I figure this has got to be the renewed interest in the Tremors franchise that finally prompts Universal to restore the original.  But it never is, and it's downright depressing.  Releasing this old corpse of a transfer in 2019 is downright criminal.  And I'm sure a label like Scream Factory or Arrow would be thrilled to get their hands on it the studio can't be bothered to do it themselves.  So here's me doing my part to throw my voice into the arena and hopefully nudge Universal into taking a little action; but as we inch further and further into "the death of physical media," hope wanes.  I think our best shot now is, since Tremors is still an earner, a 4k Ultra HD, which would require a proper restoration.  Of course, even then, you know the second half of the combo-pack would still be this creaky 2010 BD.  😜

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