Sunday, October 20, 2013
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Sunday, September 22, 2013
Prince of Darkness was made at a time when Carpenter was interested in theoretical physics and quantum mechanics, and he decided it would be a novel concept to present themes of good and evil contained within matter and anti-matter. For the few who don’t know the film’s plot, a priest (Donald Pleasence) is given possession of a key that unlocks a door behind which an ancient, swirling liquid evil is contained within a massive cylinder. The priest arranges for Professor Birack (Victor Wong) and some of his students to stay the weekend at the church so they can study his findings. Once they arrive, strange vagrants surround the church and prevent anyone from leaving. Everyone also begins to experience a bizarre, shared dream that warns them of an apocalyptic future. The mysterious liquid begins to leak from the container, infecting some of the students with its contents and causing them to act violently. Kelly (Susan Blanchard) is afflicted with a bruised mark on her arm, and eventually she is possessed by the full contents of the container, bringing to life the Anti-Christ himself. Only a few survivors are left to battle Satan’s forces before he can bring his father, the Anti-God, back into the world.
Carpenter considers this film as the second in his “apocalypse trilogy” (the other two are The Thing and 1995’s In the Mouth of Madness). Although all three have vastly differing plots, they each share an ending that suggests mankind’s future may not be so bright. Prince presents a lot of intrigue by employing a plot that isn’t needlessly nebulous. Even John himself admits he doesn’t know what some things in the film are supposed to mean. And that’s a good thing, because not everything always has to be explained away. I’ve often found the scariest horror films are the ones where nobody is safe and everything seems like a threat. Here, we’ve got worms and bugs and beetles scaling the walls, a group of nefarious homeless people who seem to spring up out of nowhere to attack, an evil liquid that shoots in people’s mouths like Satan’s personal Super Soaker, a man made of bugs delivering a cryptic message, and the embodiment of Satan which not even Donald Pleasence’s ax can defeat.
Speaking of which, I have to give credit to Blanchard for making that nearly-silent performance as the Anti-Christ so memorable. As if that grotesque, runny, bloody, half-melted skin-falling-of-the-face make-up wasn’t almost enough to make a man dry heave, the sense of wonder she can elicit just by using her eyes added another element to that character. Satan hasn’t been fully formed in around seven million years or so according to the movie, and Blanchard plays the role like a newborn with a profound sense of power. And when her eyes widen, making the whites stand out amongst a bloody mess of red, it looks very goddamn creepy. Big props also to an uncredited Mark Shostrom for handling the gruesome duties on Blanchard’s rotten face. I remember seeing her face as a massive fold-out poster in Fangoria’s Bloody Best back in the ‘90s and the image stuck with me ever since.
Casting was always a strong suit for Carpenter as well, and while we don’t get a Kurt Russell or a Roddy Piper here we do get one Jameson Parker and, with that, one damn fine mustache. Seriously, did someone in makeup put a wig on a NY strip steak and glue it to his lip? I’ll bet that push broom has swept more than a few corners clean. Parker might be one of the few leading men to be upstaged by his own facial hair. He’s a fine leading man, mildly charismatic, but he’s also got a bit of a creeper vibe to him. His early come-ons to Catherine (Lisa Blount) are awkward, but then I guess he is supposed to be a bit of a nerd here, right? Pleasence is here for gravitas, nothing more. Other than saying, “Hey guys, here’s this evil liquid I found”, there isn’t a lot for him to do in the film. He spends half the movie hiding and reading his bible. Peter Jason has his Carpenter debut here, his first of seven films they did together, and he mostly provides comic relief. He’s one of those great character actors that round out a picture and elevate it. Dennis Dun had been seen previously in Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and he plays his character here with the same frantic energy and horn dog nature we got in that film.
As a huge Alice Cooper fan, can I just say how fantastic it was seeing him in a horror movie I love? Just two years earlier he starred in Monster Dog (1985), which is only worth watching for the two music videos he performs. To give you an idea of how bad it is if you haven’t seen it, the director is Claudio Fragasso. Yes, the guy who did Troll 2 (1990). Anyway, Cooper got involved because his manager, Shep Gordon was a producer on the film and suggested Alice record a song for the movie. He did, and then he wound up playing the “leader” of the homeless people, eventually using one of his own stage props to impale a victim who also happened to be listening to the song Cooper recorded for the film.
Prince of Darkness contains many of the themes and settings that Carpenter liked to employ – the church’s forced isolation and confined setting, paranoid, mistrust, a small outnumbered group fighting against many, and an ending that suggests things aren’t going to just go back to being how they once were. This film has one of those powerful endings that knows exactly when to cut, leaving viewers’ brains in a scramble trying to hypothesize what happens next. It’s a vastly underrated film, and now thanks to Scream Factory we get it served up on blu-ray with healthy upgrades in both picture and sound, as well as enough extras to keep Satan occupied through the next millennia.
Carpenter shot this film using wide-angle lenses in an anamorphic format, which often results in some softness around the edges. Make no mistake; this is the best the film has ever looked. There’s a moderate layer of grain over the image, preserving the filmic aesthetic. Fine detail receives a big boost over the previous DVDs, as exemplified in the cracks on Pleasence’s face, or the ability to count the individual hairs that make-up Parker’s luxurious flavor saver. An occasional problem with films being seen in HD is that make-up work or other effects lose their magic under the scrutiny of hi-def, but thankfully the only element that’s made more apparent is the matte work used in the beginning. The palette used is fairly dark and devoid of bright colors, but this disc has no problem making sure everything is delineated and crisp. Black levels likewise hold up well, allowing for detail to appear even through shadow. The audio comes with both 2.0 and 5.1 DTS-HD MA offerings. The multi-track is the better choice, allowing the full range of Carpenter and Howarth’s incredible score room to breathe through every available speaker. The rear channels provide nice support to the front mix, enveloping listeners with a chilling ambiance.
Don’t let the back cover fool you, since it erroneously states the disc includes only a commentary with Carpenter, some new interviews, and a trailer. Fact is, there is much more to the disc. Fans will be extremely pleased. The audio commentary should sound familiar to those who owned the Momentum Region 2 DVD. This is a direct port of that track, featuring Carpenter alongside actor Peter Jason, and it’s another winner. Jason is infectiously funny, hardly stopping for a beat between zingers, anecdotes, and questions for Carpenter. There’s a lot of talk about how he directs scenes and actors, what he tries to achieve in scoring the film, and how he views some of the aspects of this movie. Highly recommended for fans. Sympathy for the Devil is a ten-minute interview with John Carpenter, where he discusses his influences on this movie, how it all came about, location scouting, as well as acknowledging that maybe the opening credits are a bit lengthy. Alice at the Apocalypse is another ten-minute interview, this one with legendary shock rocker Alice Cooper. He discusses how film appeals to him, how he got involved with this picture, and the cult status it has attained. The Messenger is a 12-minute interview with special visual effects supervisor Robert Grasmere, who also plays the role of Frank (the “I’ve got a message for you…” guy). He initially was hired on just to do effects, but one night Carpenter asked him if he could act and he said yes. The guy was clearly thrilled beyond belief, still sounding struck by how awesome it was to have his own stunt double as well as a trailer with his name on it. Hell on Earth – A Look at the Film’s Score is a 10-minute piece that finds composer Alan Howarth talking about his work with Carpenter. John knows what he wants and he runs the ship, so it was Alan’s job to be the engineer and see that his vision was preserved. Alternate Opening for TV Version runs for around seven minutes; the major difference being that this presents the film as a dream of Brian’s. Sean Clark’s ever-popular Horror’s Hallowed Grounds pops up here as well, running for 13 minutes we get a rundown on all of the major locations used in the film alongside Clark’s usual parodies and constant humor. All I know is whoever came up with the mustache gag at the end is a damn genius. Trailers & Radio Spots contains one of the former and two of the latter. A Still Gallery runs for around 4 minutes and showcases many behind-the-scenes and publicity shots. Finally, an easy-to-find Easter Egg appears on the second page of extras. Click it to access a 12-minute interview with John Carpenter, as moderated by Brian Collins, at Screamfest 2012 where he talks in depth about Prince of Darkness.
As usual, feel free to flip your cover art right around to display the original key art beneath your fancy new-art slipcover. I’m not a huge fan of “everything but the sink” artwork, but this one works well - mainly because Jameson Parker’s thigh tickler is given prominent placement. Scream/Shout! Factory are doing everything in their power to massacre fans’ wallets this year, and their latest release of this underrated ‘80s classic is a necessary addition to all shelves. As if it wasn’t enough to provide the best audio and video presentation the film has ever received, they go and dump a big pile of supplements right on top of it. Buy without hesitation, because this is THE definitive release for Prince of Darkness.
Day of the Dead maintains the singular setting of its predecessor, only this time the walls are even tighter with our main group huddled deep below the Earth in a mine; a sprawling, labyrinthine cave that looks more like a massive tomb. Dr. Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille) and Dr. Logan are tirelessly working to find a cure to the zombie epidemic using corpses brought down from up top. Their efforts are made doubly difficult by the presence of Col. Rhodes (Joe Pilato) and his rowdy bunch of troops. Logan’s procedure seem to have worked on one zombie, a “fast” learner named Bub (Howard Sherman), but the surgery is too difficult and esoteric to ever provide a viable means of stopping the outbreak. The possibility of a cure or solution seems dire, especially to the audience, making this less a film about ending the current apocalypse and more a study of how humanity cracks under the pressure of knowing we’re next on the extinction list.
Two aspects of this film that are undeniably stellar are Tom Savini’s gruesome makeup FX work, and composer John Harrison’s score. First off, I know some people who absolutely hate this score and, honestly, I just don’t get it. Harrison previously provided the tunes for Romero’s Creepshow, which was also graced with a chillingly horrific soundtrack. His work here is both ominous and slightly playful, sounding like a mix between synth music to signal the apocalypse and something you’d be listening to on a Jamaican beach, which seems especially fitting given how the film ends. Of course, some of it does sound like it was culled from Jan Hammer’s Miami Vice tapes, too, so I can see where there might be issues for certain listeners. Savini was in rare form here, delivering what are arguably some of his greatest effects to date. He had a stellar team behind him, including current KNB heads Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger. Not to knock Dawn in any way, but the zombie and victim work there can’t hold a candle to the ultra-realistic, hyper-gory palette he brought to life here. From the opening of the film, where we’re introduced to a stumbling, blood-drooling Dr. Tongue, the picture hardly lets up from one stunning, shocking set piece after the next, culminating in the classic Romero full-body pull-aparts fans crave.
Ok, enough yammering about the film. You all know what you’re in for by now. Let’s get to the real reason why you’re here – how does this disc stack up to the countless editions that have come before it? More importantly, how’s the “all-new transfer” that’s touted virtually all over the packaging? It’s good – in fact, about as good as this film is ever going to get – but it’s not perfect, so upgrade accordingly. The previous blu-ray released by Anchor Bay was soft and a bit less detailed, a hindrance due to the minor DNR that was applied in mastering the disc. Many fans may have purchased the region-free blu-ray released by Arrow in the U.K., but that release, too, is plagued by DNR. A side-by-side comparison of Arrow’s disc versus Scream’s shows that grain is almost scrubbed free in the prior’s edition, losing any semblance of detail in the image. Scream Factory’s release is the best possible presentation given the limitations inherent in the source. Day is never going to look reference-quality. The film was shot in a mine, with varying light sources, and while it was all done on 35mm the fact remains that it was a low-budget production and those roots will never recede - however, Scream has delivered the cleanest presentation that is clearly not tampered with in any way, aside from some contrast boosting. Whether or not it’s worth upgrading whatever disc you own currently depends entirely on your personal preference. Some people don’t mind DNR one bit. Hell, they may even love what it does, and so this release might not appeal to them. If you’re a serious fan of the film, though, then I’d suggest this edition if only because you’ll be seeing it as close to the original presentation as possible. Grain is present throughout, although it never gets heavy enough to become obtrusive. Only the optical shots are heavily grainy since that’s just how opticals look. Fans will also be happy to hear that this release finally contains the unaltered mono mix in DTS-HD. The missing and changed effects that were found on both AB and Arrow’s releases have been reinstated here, allowing fans to hear the theatrical track for the first time in lossless audio. It’s a limited track that works hard to pump out all the required sounds, sometimes to the detriment of the intended range. This is how it was mixed, and any multi-channel audio tracks are simply faux to give listeners a bit more oomph.
If you’ve bought the old Anchor Bay DVD, the special edition Anchor Bay DVD, the Anchor Bay blu-ray, and the Arrow blu-ray, chances are you know that with every new edition of Day comes a few new bonus features along with the loss of a few. This release from Scream Factory is no different, featuring a bit of the old and a bit of the new. On the recent side of things is World’s End: The Legacy of Day of the Dead. a full-length documentary, presented in HD, that runs for around an hour and a half. This lengthy doc features many of the usual suspects – Romero, Savini, Nicotero, Pasquale Buba, Howard Sherman, Pilato, etc. – along with a few faces we don’t see so much – Cardille, Gary Klar – all of whom reminisce fondly about their time on set. Some of Savini’s on-set footage is spliced in here, too. The documentary’s only problem is that much of what’s discussed has been said other places a hundred times before. I’d call this “definitive” only in the sense that most of the anecdotes and information about the shoot have finally been collected in one piece since everyone available spills their guts. I mean, how many times can we hear about the fridge going out and the pig guts spoiling, right? It isn’t that the information isn’t of value, just that this piece runs very long and it doesn’t feel like it’s covering any new ground. I loved it for the candid recollections and to hear a fresh perspective from old faces, but it brings no new shit to light, so to speak. Two audio commentaries have been ported over from the Anchor Bay blu-ray, the first with writer/director George A. Romero, special effects artist Tom Savini, production designer Cletus Anderson, and actress Lori Cardille. Too many people on one track can sometimes be a bit much, but everyone seems to get a word in when the time is right here. The second track is with filmmaker Roger Avary. He’s a big fan of the film. I don’t know who tracks like this appeal to, frankly. I only care to hear from those involved in making the movie; I don’t really care about the first time a young Roger Avary watched it. Right? Behind the Scenes Footage from Special Effects Creator Tom Savini’s Archives is the same 30-minute featurette that appeared on the previous blu-ray. Presented in full-frame, this is the footage Savini shot of the film’s many gory set pieces. Wampum Mine Promotional Video is an eight-minute ad for the services provided by the mine. No mention of facility use during a zombie holocaust. Underground: A Look Into the Day of the Dead Mines follows Ed Demko (is this guy a fan? no clue) through the mine locations, although a lot of it is Ed posing and reciting film lines with blurry shots of the mine in the background. It’s a bit like Horror’s Hallowed Grounds lite. It’s unfortunate they couldn’t have lowered Sean Clark down into that mine for his usual segment. A selection of Theatrical Trailers and TV Spots have also been included. Finally, there is a Still Gallery containing images including: Behind the Scenes, Day of the Dead Locations, Posters & Lobby Cards and Miscellaneous. The disc loses some features from both the Anchor Bay and Arrow releases, so completists are going to want to hang on to those.
This release from Scream Factory can’t be called the definitive edition of Day of the Dead because it still fails to collect all of the available bonus features in one convenient location. I know that probably isn’t even possible (well, with enough money anything is), but I’m sure fans are just tired of having to re-buy their favorite films over and over, filling their shelves with yet another copy acquired for a handful of new extras. At least this release goes the extra mile in delivering an image that presents the film as accurately as possible, outshining both previous releases by an appreciable, albeit minor, degree. The new features are well-produced, featuring recent interviews and collected tales, but in bringing not much new information to the table many fans may find even a lengthy documentary doesn’t satisfy their hunger. For those who don’t own any prior releases (there has to be at least a few of you), and even those that do, this stands for now as the best release available.