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Blu-ray Reviews
Blu-ray Disc reviews by Tim Salmons of The Digital Bits

House (Criterion Blu-ray Disc)

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House (Hausu)
1977 (2010) - Janus Films (Criterion)
Released on Blu-ray on October 26th, 2010 (Spine #539)
Released previously on DVD


Film Rating: A-
Video (1-20): 17
Audio (1-20): 15
Extras: B

The nutshell: a group of seven teenage girls spend the night in a house that turns out to be haunted. The catch: this is no ordinary haunted house.

Seemingly the work of a madman set loose with a film crew, House (known as Hausu overseas) is one of the most artfully insane pieces of celluloid ever to grace a movie screen. From the brilliant minds of director Nobuhiko Obayashi, his daughter Chigumi Obayashi and screenwriter Chiho Katsura, House is not so much a film as it an experience. It sticks with you long after you've seen it and, if you're like me, you have to go back and watch it again. It's been seen by many as a stream of consciousness from the minds of the young women in the film, and to others as simply just an exercise in experimental filmmaking. It was an art house favorite in the late 70's and developed a very minor cult following, but this is the first official U.S. release on any home video format. The fact that it got a release at all is reason enough to celebrate, let alone being picked up by one of the most respected names in the home entertainment market: Criterion. The editing and pace of the film can be compared to modern works like Domino, but this film also contains an enormous grab bag of in-camera effects and filming techniques that distinguishes it more prominently. Matte paintings, animation, crash-zooms, various frame rates, alternate angles, video effects, constant panning, color-filtered lighting... well, you get the idea. I could go on and on, but the bottom line here is that this film must be seen to be believed.

Now before I get into the A/V quality of this disc, I'd like to start off by clearing up a discrepancy. There's been some minor controversy regarding the film's aspect ratio, due mainly to the Masters of Cinema Region 2 DVD. On that release, a cropped 1.55:1 presentation was utilized from the original negative. The reasons for this are unknown, as far as my research has lead me to believe. It may have simply been just a simple error. In that presentation, you can see a slight bit more of visual information on the left and right sides due to the wider aspect ratio. The film itself was originally shot using 35mm film stock, processed and then cropped to a 1.33:1 aspect ratio for theatrical release, which was the preference of Nobuhiko Obayashi himself and what is being presented on this Criterion release. I personally prefer to see it the way it was intended to be seen, but the improper cropping on the R2 release has left some fans wondering if they're getting the full picture. If you want to be technical about it, no, you're not getting entirely what was shot. But if the image hadn't been cropped for release, the dead space in the negative (the black bars on each side of the screen) would most likely contain instances of crew members standing in shot, special effects set-ups, shadows, equipment, etc. The point is that it was shot with full screen totally in mind so you're getting exactly what was intended. Now that that's settled, let's move on.

As far as image quality goes, no previous release can surpass it. The images are crystal clear with a very consistent and barely noticeable amount of film grain. Colors are vibrant and strong while the contrast is Criterion's usual high without overexposing the image. People have complained for years about the quality of the image due to it being available only on bootlegs, but now one can marvel at the striking visual detail of a hungry piano, a demon cat, or a flying blood-spewing decapitated head. The great quality does tend to reveal the crudity of some of the special effects work, but none of that matters to me in a film that is absolutely off its rocker. Rest assured, this is a marvelous-looking picture.* The original uncompressed mono soundtrack has also been included. I found it to be surprisingly boastful in areas, and just like the visuals on-screen, the audio is mixed for a completely batshit experience. I can only imagine how this movie would play with a 5.1 presentation (it would really suit it, in my opinion). So it's a very pleasing soundtrack, just completely off the wall. There's also a "new and improved" optional subtitle track that is supposedly more accurate in its translation than the aforementioned R2 release.

Supplementing the package are a few extras including a short film by the director entitled Emotion, which was a hit on college campuses in Japan and eventually lead to the making of House. There's also a 46 minute documentary entitled Constructing a "House", which features interviews with the director, his daughter and the screenwriter. There's a brief 4 minute video appreciation by director Ti West (House of the Devil) and also the theatrical trailer. Last but not least is a 22 page booklet featuring an essay by film critic Chuck Stephens. A couple of disappointments I have with this set is that it doesn't include the 90 minute documentary from the Masters of Cinema release which featured additional interviews and possibly covered more ground. Most likely a rights issue kept it from being included, so maybe we'll see it in a future release. I would have also like to have seen a stills and artwork collection of some sort. Other than that, this a very nice set of extras to complement such a great release.

Let me be clear here and say that House simply won't be for everyone. This is not a movie you can just throw on and not put much thought into while you're watching it. You'll find yourself being constantly bombarded with visual information in the most insane and creative ways possible. It is simply too much for some people to take in, and you might feel a little exhausted after sitting through it. But if you're someone who is tired of the humdrum horror fodder and you're looking for an experience like no other, I highly recommend House - in all of its psychotic glory.

[*NOTE: The Criterion DVD version features a slightly windowboxed presentation in order for the complete image to be seen on all televisions. Some cinephiles will complain about the loss of quality, but I believe if you're going for image quality, stick with BD. It's not a major issue and you can still enjoy the film just fine, but I thought it might be worth bringing to people's attention.]

Tim Salmons

Repulsion (Criterion Blu-ray Disc)

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1965 (2009) - Sony Pictures (Criterion)
Released on Blu-ray on July 28th, 2009 (Spine #483)
Also available on DVD

DTS-HD Master Audio

Film Rating: A
Video (1-20): 19
Audio (1-20): 15
Extras: B

The beautiful but odd young Carol, played by Catherine Deneuve, spends time alone at a flat in London while her sister is away on vacation. As her psychosis becomes more and more pathological, she quickly descends head-first into homicidal hysteria.

Hot on the heels of his debut success with Knife in the Water, eager young filmmaker Roman Polanski made the visually-compelling Repulsion in 1965. In this particular film, claustrophobia and isolation are put to the test in what's more attuned to a psychological thriller rather than straight out horror. We're never quite sure why Carol is the way she is and we're never told. Visual clues are given to us but nothing absolutely concrete. In other words, interpretation plays a major role in the film's outcome. Has Carol been this way since childhood or is her psychosis simply brought on by intense loneliness? It's really up for grabs and it's one of the reasons why the film still holds a remarkable amount of drawing power. Polanski would go on to further examine female isolation in a more horrific manner with Rosemary's Baby, but it's Repulsion that really shows his hunger and skill as a filmmaker.

Criterion's Blu-ray upgrade shows off that skill even better than its DVD counterpart. Upon comparison, they are pretty much identical, although the DVD presentation seems to lose a very slight amount of visual information toward the top of the frame. Getting a proper framing of a 1.66:1 aspect ratio on a digital format can be a difficult task to pull off, so I can't fault the team behind the DVD release. While having the film properly framed, the Blu-ray presentation is also a bit warmer, meaning the contrast is the least bit higher. The images are crystal clear and the grain is solid and intact, but the backgrounds benefit greatly from the new hi def transfer. Shadows are more solid and reveal more visual detail than previous releases. Overall, it's an extremely sharp and rewarding presentation. The original uncompressed monaural soundtrack has also been included. Dialogue is pretty even and Chico Hamilton's amazingly psychotic 60's score really stands out.

As with all of Criterion's recent upgrades, the DVD extras all carry over. They're brief, but they're also very entertaining. An audio commentary with Roman Polanski and Catherine Deneuve is included, as is a documentary on the making of the film, A British Horror Film, a French TV documentary from 1964 that was filmed on the set of the film (the most fascinating extra, in my opinion), the original theatrical trailers, and a 12 page booklet with an essay by Bill Horrigan.

Heralded by critics and film fans since its release, Repulsion remains a staple in the psychological horror genre. This is Roman Polanski at his absolute best, and with this stellar release from the folks at Criterion, it simply cannot be passed up.

Tim Salmons

Videodrome (Criterion Blu-ray Disc)

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1983 (2010) - Universal (Criterion)
Released on Blu-ray on December 7th, 2010 (Spine #248)
Also available on DVD

DTS-HD Master Audio

Film Rating: A+
Video (1-20): 19
Audio (1-20): 15
Extras: A+

"Long live the new flesh."

David Cronenberg's 1983 science fiction masterpiece Videodrome has been heralded by many to be his greatest and most through-provoking work.

One year after Ridley Scott challenged viewers (via Phillip K. Dick) with the concept of 'What is human?' in Blade Runner, Cronenberg challenged audiences with the question 'What is reality?' Using a basic plot device of a rather sleazy cable TV owner who is determined to find the whereabouts of an underground pirate broadcast portraying the tortures and murders of its guests live - only to have his world become more and more unraveled the deeper he digs, making him question not just his morality but his sanity. Featuring some of the most impressive special makeup effects work ever from the one and only Rick Baker, this equivalent of a bad acid-trip has developed a legion of fans and helped put David Cronenberg on the map as a masterful filmmaker to be contended with.

As far as the video itself is concerned, Criterion's previous DVD release was a watershed moment in the film's home video release history, and now it's safe to say that this Blu-ray release surpasses it in superiority. To say the least, the video presentation is stunning. The most scrutinizing and tiniest bit of visual detail is here on display. Everything is extremely sharp, colors are even, blacks are deep and skin tones are very naturalistic. With one of the sharpest transfers I've ever seen, the film grain is absolutely solid throughout. This is not only the best this particular film has ever looked, it's also one of the best that any film from this period has looked on Blu-ray. This is a tried and true representation of a film negative and what the format was invented for. Definitely a title to show off to your friends. On the audio side of the things, you get the original uncompressed mono soundtrack. It's a very good soundtrack and complements the video very well. Dialogue is mixed well within the sound effects and score, so the aurally astute should have no problem while listening in.

Carried over from the DVD release are all of the remarkable supplemental materials. Starting with two audio commentaries, one with Cronenberg and cinematographer Mark Irwin and the other with actors James Woods and Deborah Harry. Next, Camera, a short film by Cronenberg, Forging the New Flesh, a small documentary about the film's groundbreaking makeup effects, Effects Men, an audio interview with Rick Baker and video effects supervisor Michael Lennick, Bootleg Video, all of the footage of "Samurai Dreams" and seven minutes of other transmissions used within the film - all with audio commentary from Cronenberg, and finally Fear on Film, a roundtable discussion made in 1982 by Mick Garris that features John Landis, John Carpenter and Cronenberg himself. You also get the original theatrical trailers and a short promotional featurette along with a stills gallery and a 36 page booklet featuring essays by writers Carrie Rickey, Tim Lucas, and Gary Indiana.

There's no denying that Videodrome is not only a genre classic but just a classic film in general. Worthy of seeing again and again and finding new things every time you see it, this amazing Blu-ray package can be of great help in that regard. An astounding A/V presentation along with a bounty of extra features to dig through, this is, without a doubt, one of the finest Blu-ray releases on the market today and belongs in any film fan's collection. Extremely recommended.

Tim Salmons
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