Abrahams & the Zuckers Week, Day 1: The Kentucky Fried Movie

The struggles physical media has been going through these days can be disheartening.  But there's been some really uplifting activity recently in the combined works of Jim Abrahams and the Zucker Brothers, David and Jerry.  So I thought I'd make a "Week" out of their best films and their current state on home video.  And what better place to begin than at the beginning: their first film together (or separately), The Kentucky Fried Movie?
Their debut is the only film the trio didn't film themselves.  They just wrote this one, with the one and only John Landis taking over the Kentucky Fried directorial duties.  That strange title, by the way, is easily explained; it comes from the filmmakers' origins with The Kentucky Fried Theater.  So while this film plays in some ways just like their better known later work - silly parody - it's unique in that it adheres to what they used to do on stage.  It's a sketch movie.  But there's a particularly long sketch that comes up in the middle of the film, a kung-fu parody with Evan C. Kim as their version of Bruce Lee in a send up of Enter the Dragon.  It takes up about half of the running time, giving this film a very unusual structure.  It's like: a bunch of quick sketches and then forget the sketches, here's a movie, until just when you've forgotten about the sketches at the beginning, here's some more.  They do link it all together with the loose premise that we're watching all of these otherwise disconnected scenes as programming broadcast on a local cable channel.  But after this, they realized their material plays stronger in a single, coherent narrative, which is the form all of their following films would take.
Besides being Abrahams and the Zucker's first film, it's only Landis's second, after his scrappy Schlock.  There is definitely the clumsy feel of creators finding their footing throughout this movie, and it doesn't play nearly as strongly as their more accomplished works afterwards.  But there's still song good laughs and more than enough amusing bits to make Kentucky Fried worth the watch, even if it's not a masterpiece.  Like any sketch show, there at least as many clunkers as successes, but some work, and others are at least cheerful.  And the kung-fu parody is the strongest piece, so it's actually a good thing that devoted so much of their running time to it, despite how out of balance it throws the film.  There are lots of fun cameos and appearances to look out for, including Abrahams and the Zuckers themselves, George Lazenby, Donald Sutherland as the quintessential clumsy waiter, Airplane's scene stealing Stephen Stucker, voice over by Shadoe Stevens, and beloved horror icon Forrest J. Ackerman
The Kentucky Fried Movie was released twice in America.  Anchor Bay gave it its DVD debut in 2000, with a combination widescreen/ fullscreen special edition.  There have been plenty of editions in other regions since, including a noteworthy 2-disc set by Arrow in the UK.  But it's been all standard def DVDs until Shout Factory brought it to blu-ray in 2013, which is pretty much the definitive edition; although it should be noted that a barebones German blu from Koch that came out in 2015 preserves the fullscreen framing, if for some reason you've grown attached to that version.
1) 2000 AB fullscreen DVD; 2) 2000 AB widescreen DVD; 3) 2013 SF BD.
So the fullscreen edition is 1.33:1 and largely open matte, but it also seems to shifting its framing a bit.  Note how the first shot is almost the same but with extra vertical information.  But the second set of shots is clearly panned further to the left.  Curious.  Still, it's decidedly boxier and the extra along the top and bottom seems to be a lot of excess space, so I can't imagine it's actually an AR worth preserving.  The widescreen editions are matted to 1.85:1 (technically, the DVD is 1.84) and appear much more pleasing and correct.  Aside from that, well, the blu is definitely a genuine HD boost.  Colors are mostly similar, though I picked that first set of shots to highlight that it does vary at times, too - the blu's consistently warmer with stronger colors, but there it's really extreme.  Grain is patchy and inconsistent... this is a 2013 blu, not a 2020 one, but it's definitely a sharper, clearer HD boost over the fuzzy DVD.  There's also a lot of artifacting on the DVD that the blu cleans up.  The movie itself seems to be comprised of film elements of varying quality, so it's hard to lay any particular fault on this blu's feet, but I bet a fresh scan of the original negatives, if possible, could yield some big, further improvements.  But as it is, it knocks the DVD out of the park.

The DVD just gives us the basic original mono in Dolby Digital with no subtitles on both the full and widescreen versions.  The blu bumps that mono up to DTS-HD and includes optional English subtitles, so again, another satisfying step forward.
Put now we take a step backwards.  Not a huge one, but it's annoying enough.  See, the DVD had some great extras.  There's a boisterous audio commentary by Landis, both Zuckers, Abrahams and producer Robert K. Weiss.  There's also the trailer, the stills gallery and most interestingly, almost 20 minutes of "home movies" showing us the filming on location.  The blu-ray keeps the commentary and the trailer, but loses the home movies (and the gallery).  Now, it does offer us something nice in its stead: an hour-long on-camera conversation with the Zucker brothers, which repeats some info from the commentary but is still fairly illuminating and entertaining.  That interview was originally created for the Arrow DVD, but Shout brought it here, which is nice.  It's just annoying that we had to lose one good extra to gain the other.  There's probably some complicated ugly licensing business tying it up behind the scenes, but it doesn't seem like too big an ask to not have lost any of the extras.  Oh well.
So hang onto your DVDs if you've got 'em.  But if not, the home movies aren't so compelling that it's worth retroactively double-dipping.  Again, a new 4k edition would be nice, but for this movie, which isn't really as well-loved or objectively good as the later films, I wouldn't expect anyone to tackle the project anytime soon.  This is probably the best we'll get, which happily, is pretty good.  And come back tomorrow for a new 4k comparison you're probably eager to see.

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