Despite rumours to the contrary about Universal's BD release of American Werewolf sporting a transfer of a brand new hi-def print, this VC-1 encoded 1.85:1 image looks to have been remastered from the same source as the HD edition that came out a couple of years ago. However, I think that this does look marginally better again, having a cleaner, slightly more detailed appearance that benefits from a subdued grain level.
The film has always looked scrappy, gritty and festooned with grain and various incarnations over the years have tended to incur the wrath of reviewers and punters on both sides of the Pond. It's true that a comparatively low-budget horror film from 1981 is hardly going to rival the latest blockbusters in terms of visual quality and gleaming three-dimensional vibrancy, and it is also true that John Landis hardly used the best film stock when he made the picture in the first place ... so the results in 1080p aren't exactly going to be all that revelatory. But the transfer, to me, does not look quite as tired, dirty and worn around the edges. The overall image is still soft and touch murky and prone to swirls of noise, but the BD version does seem cleaner and slightly sharper than before.
Everyone always cites the opening scenes out on the moors as being especially grainy and soft. Well, although these moments are still perhaps the most uniform in being the worst looking in the film, they now look a little sharper, fresher with colour, crisper with background detail - not much, I know, but the scenes in The Slaughtered Lamb have tighter resolved information and a more stable appearance, such as the bottles behind the bar, the texture of the dartboard, the pattern on the landlady's dress. Definition on the backgrounds during the zoo sequence and the exquisite carnage that morbidly transfixes our eyes during Jack's first undead visit, that waggling piece of flesh - all dished up with more depth and detail. And, for those of you who are interested, the screen in the Soho cinema also benefits from the higher resolution. But something that I picked-up on more with this viewing was the detail and texture in the stonework of the buildings in East Proctor, particularly evidenced behind Dr. Hirsch during his trip, when the walls of the Slaughtered Lamb and the church beyond appeared quite revealing. The hairs thrusting out of David's back, the stretching hands and the chango-heads from Baker's feverish imagination don't need to look any clearer or more detailed than they do here. The forest shots of David's grim dreams have a nicely vivid and surprisingly stable appearance, too - I say surprising due to the fact that Ray Andrew had to literally run with the camera through the woods. Then there are the posters on the wall in the tube station - for Landis' own joke movie-inside-the-movie, See You Next Wednesday, and the Zuckers' classic comedy Airplane, which also featured a score from Elmer Bernstein. You really can't complain, and at least there is no overt DNR robbing any of the texture.
Colours are, without doubt, a degree or two bolder than any SD version. The bright, splashy gore, David's red parka, the sights of Thatcher's Britain, the balloons and the attire of the bus queue are slightly brighter here and leap out a bit more than before. Skin-tones are convincing. We've got the red noses of everyone exposed to the elements, the pallid, pasty English sheen and this transfer does not veer so blatantly into the rosier pinks that earlier translations have. The hi-def image may highlight the edge enhancement more, but the colours don't tend to go wandering beyond their boundaries. Contrast has been a little bit ramped-up for this transfer, by the looks of things, though this works well. Blacks, ever-prone to either crushing or getting diluted by intensive grain fields, seem solid enough for shadow delineation. Night-time scenes are very good, generally. The early sequence on the moors seems reasonably defined, with a crisp rendering of the moonlight, the rain, the grass and the actors' breath in the cold air. Likewise, the chaos in the city streets during the climax, which comes over an agreeable level of precision in the textures of light and dark, neon and shadow, headlights and action. Mind you, the always troublesome scene of Jack's visit to David in Alex's flat is still somewhat faded and washed-out, denying us clarity of the undead details of his even more decayed body and the picture, at large, becoming submerged in a murky, ill-resolved mire. Jack's greenish tinge seems to permeate the shadows, but this scene has never looked good.
However, one thing that I noticed a little bit more with this version - and I ran this, the HD and the SD for comparison - was that the landscape during the title sequence, not specifically the words themselves, had a weird sort of judder that, the more I looked at it, the more disorientating it became. This is the long shot for when the van comes down the road, just before the crane lowers the camera. Have a look, folks, and see if you get the same effect. It certainly seemed odder to me on the BD than any other version. Another slight difference was in the now almost supernatural green glow emanating from Nurse Gallagher's eyes, seen especially during her first scene in the film, less so in her second. Looks boosted a little too much to me.
Scratches and nicks still exist, but to no distracting level. Edge enhancement can still be seen around horizons, hills, signposts and Gerald Bringsly's head and shoulders, but I wasn't too bothered by any of that either. Three-dimensionality isn't grand, but there is some depth to the image during some external daylight scenes and the final moments, down in the alley, seem to carry the best of all worlds - depth, clarity and deep blacks. Overall, this is a finely remastered presentation of the film ... although it clearly isn't what many had been led to expect.
I gave the HD transfer a 6 out of 10 a couple of years ago. This now claws its way to a 7.
Universal see to it that American Werewolf is now the recipient of a full lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 track. Now, the arguments for enhancing older movies with souped-up audio mixes rages on all the time. I, myself, have absolutely lambasted and denounced many bogus surround tracks with utterly superfluous and redundant multi-channel makeovers. But, hey, call me hypocritical if you like, but there are certain movies that, by their very nature, demand something with a little more bite than they ever had before. Of course, once you go fooling about with sound mixes, you should also make sure to supply the original audio track as well, just to be on the safe side which, sadly, they haven't done with Landis' film - but, guess what, I'm actually very happy with this newer and decidedly more vigorous mix.
We've had DD and DTS 5.1 for American Werewolf before, even the HD had a Dolby Digital Plus track but, folks, this new sound design blows them all away. First up, though, this is not a “golly-gosh, wow, what a wraparound” experience to compare to anything more recent and with full surround sound in mind all along, but it is a very appreciable step-up from anything that the film has been bestowed before.
The assault is still very much frontally based, though it contains more width and more precise positioning, a greater bass presence, though this is spread around the speakers and not essentially lent over to the sub. It is clearer and a tad more natural than I've heard it before - that's a little subjective, I suppose, I mean voices can still sound slightly harsh, or tinny, or even subdued, but, for me, the level of dialogue, the ambience and the detail within was noticeably more engaging. Bernstein's music comes over very well and certainly possesses more clinical and instrumental depth and clarity. For instance, the terrifically creepy second visit that Jack makes to David, the one in Nurse Price's flat, features a much better rendition of the cue that accompanies it - listen to how Bernstein's music drops lower and much more ominous after the initial eerie tinkling and dark lyricism that commences the track. The tragic East Proctor theme is also cleaner and more open to instrumental positioning.
Of course, the things about this track that you will immediately notice and either love, as I did, or hate, are the massively embellished effects. The inclement British weather has a significant boost, with some marvellously threatening thunder that very definitely ripples overhead and all around the room. This hits us on both occasions in East Proctor. The fierce rainfall is also much more dynamically reproduced and steered with conviction around the speakers. Does any of this convincing, though? Well, if I'm honest, no, not really. But let me stress how much more enjoyable and atmospheric this becomes. As I said earlier, some movies cry out for a more pronounced audio expression and American Werewolf certainly sounds more thrilling and involving in this department than ever before.
But it isn't just storms that are going to buffet you. We have that awesome howling that is steered all around the set-up. Well, I say all around - there is still that element that I felt was a missed opportunity on every other occasion when the first beast stalks our boys out on the moors. We get some great distant howls, then a terrific snarl from the front left that travels round to the rear left, turning into a deep, snorting grunt ... how cool would it have been to have had the the effects then move all the way around us? Yes, I know, the detail was never there to begin with and, in fairness, I shouldn't be wishing for the engineers to go create something out of the blue, but, ahhhh, it would have been amazing, wouldn't it? The Doctor Who Series 2 episode, Tooth And Claw about, yep, a werewolf, featured just this very effect on the DVD's surround track and it sounded great.
The gunshots that fell the first monster, poor Paddy Ryan has to play the humanised corpse steaming in the frigid air, are wild and heart-lurching. They blast out from the front speakers with more power and force than the DD + track managed. Police sirens, the clumsy clatter of medical pans dropped to the floor, SLR's blasting out, the crashing of the beast through the cinema shutters - and the nice bouncing clomp of a the inspector's noggin off the bonnet (or hood as Landis insisted on calling it) of the cop car - all sound much more distinct and better placed within the soundscape. There is some added surround ricochets from the nasty Nazi machine-guns in the Kessler household, and listen to that enhanced sizzle as the fire they start suddenly erupts. There is even a more bassy thump for when Bringsly's briefcase smashes open on the escalator, followed almost immediately by a ferocious roar from a lion in the zoo that rips right out at us. And then, for fellow gorehounds, we have some greater clarity and little more detail in the chomping, chewing and gristle-spitting kills, plus some sharper effects for the bodies getting squished and crushed in the pile-up in Piccadilly Circus.
So, I have to say that I'm very pleased with this DTS-HD MA track. It takes an old stereo track and packs it with a punch, several blurty surround effects and a vigour that Landis could only dream of back in 1981. Purists won't like the fact that the original audio has been omitted but then it hasn't been featured on disc before, anyway.
Personally, as obviously beefed-up as it is, I think the experience that this track helps to deliver is worthwhile and, as such, earns itself an enjoyable 8 out of 10.
The extras on this BD release from Universal are culled from the original DVD release and HD Combo, and, best of all, come with new material and both BD-Live and D-Box Motion Control functionality.
We retain David Naughton's and Griffin Dunne's Commentary, that vividly recalls the jokey spirit and fun atmosphere of the production. The pair certainly have a good time watching their own on-screen antics and there is plenty of mileage made out of Naughton's enviable intimacy with Agutter. On the downside, they sometimes appear quite forgetful - then again, it was a long time ago - and have a tendency to kick back and just watch the movie for lengthy spells. Still, it is nice to hear the pair reminisce. Listen to Dunne trying to describe the SAS training along the Brecon Beacons - “the British stormtroopers,” he calls them. Another interesting snippet is that Cat Stevens refused to allow his song Moon Shadow to be used in the movie, because he actually believes in the existence of werewolves. Dunne doesn't really paint just how excruciating the make-up process was for him, although this will acutely observed and commented on in the big documentary, Beware The Moon.
We get the brief (5.13 mins) Making Of that is nothing but pure nostalgic EPK. Made at the time of the film's production, it reveals Landis to be a garrulous, yap-happy guy who is actually much hairier than the werewolf. There are some nice contemporary shots of Naughton undergoing his latex coat, some brief behind the scenes stuff and a little buffoonery with Landis's cameo stunt work during the Piccadilly Circus carnage. Not bad for a vintage glimpse, actually.
The Interview with John Landis runs for 18.17 mins and is directed by Adam Simon and filmed on a very atmospheric set full of props and waxworks. Some from the movie. Here, Landis reveals the genesis of the screenplay that he wrote whilst in Yugoslavia working on Kelly's Heroes back in 1969. Still just as hairy and off-the-wall, his sense of humour and genuine enthusiasm is infectious, if a little OTT. As interesting as he is, I doubt very much that I could stay in his company for too long. Some of the clips used (and there are a great deal, but they are well-utilised to emphasise his points) actually seem of slightly better quality than the image on the disc, itself. Despite his insistence on having very realistic violence, he says of the transformation that it is “essentially an erection metaphor.” HUH? Very candid and ribald throughout, he recalls Maggie Thatcher's dislike of youthful hooligans, and waddles through a terrific joke at the end.
In Rick Baker's Interview (11.12 mins) he says how he wanted to create a bipedal monster, like the ones he grew up watching, but that Landis preferred the hound-from-hell look that we see in the final film. Based loosely (thank God) on Baker's own dog, Bosco, the monster is shown in some fantastic test and unused footage, and I have to say that it looks utterly brilliant - even when shuffled along on a wheelbarrow. We see it stalk around a corner in the subway in a shot that I wish they'd kept in the film, and plenty of extras from the rampage through the streets of the capital. God, I love that wolf! The little bit of wiggly flesh hanging from Jack's ripped throat gets a special mention, too. More top stuff. Baker well and truly deserved that Oscar.
In Casting The Hand (10.53 mins) we are treated to some archive footage of David Naughton having his arm cast in foam latex and alginate for the great FX of the hand-into-paw shot. We appreciate the time limit on manipulating the substance before slapping it on and leaving it to dry. It is a thoroughly messy process and it takes some considerable effort to get his hand back out again - but just look at the results. Landis is on hand, too. On hand - geddit? Oh, never mind ... I'll get my (fur) coat! This bonus has received a fair bit of flack from reviewers in the past for being boring. Yep, maybe it is. For some. Me, I love this stuff.
Then we get three minutes of Outtakes that feature some Landis stunt work on the careering London bus, a bouncing severed head take, application of blood to the wolf's fangs and the stab wounds on Agutter and some crew hi-jinx. But, the piece-de-résistance has to be the unusual, and silent, mock interview with Landis on-set, when the walls fall down around him to reveal the naked cast of See You Next Wednesday romping in the background. Nice gimmick and worth a freeze-frame for the majestic Linzi Drew.
Then there are the storyboard to film comparisons detailing the climactic chaos (2.25 mins) and the photo-montage (3.42). This cool selection is set to Elmer Bernstein's score and comprises colour and black and white stills from the film, itself, together with cast and crew portraits and makeup application. Nice - it's also the only to way to appreciate Bernstein's haunting score away from the film until it receives an official release. I'm not counting the double CD appreciation of Bernstein's work or the numerous bootlegs.
The earlier Production Notes and selected Cast and Filmmaker Biographies for Naughton, Dunne, Woodvine, Agutter and Landis don't seem to have made the journey to the new format but the new stuff that we get way more than compensates.
Besides a 7-minute “new” interview with Rick Baker, cheekily entitled I Walked With A Werewolf that, if I'm honest, is only worthwhile for the hints and design imagery for his work on the forthcoming - and frustratingly long-delayed - remake of The Wolf Man (coming Feb 2010 ... if we're lucky!), we are blessed with the brand-new labour of love retrospective making-of documentary from ardent fan Paul Davis. Now fan-based material can be decidedly hit and miss, but this massive and highly enjoyable study of the film from every conceivable angle is the real deal and put many studio-produced endeavours to shame. Running as long as the film and featuring virtually everyone who was involved in its creation, from either in front of, or behind the camera, this offers howlingly good value for money from start to finish. In fact, even at this exhaustive length, I didn't want it to end.
Aptly labelled as a “Kesslerboy Production”, Davis' comprehensive study of what must be clearly be his favourite movie, shows him retracing the doomed Americans' trek around rural England and Wales - shot for shot location studies on the moors and hills, a visit to the real Slaughtered Lamb, actually the The Black Swan in Surrey, a traipse across the Queen's back garden, that doubled for the boys' unlucky deviation from the main road - and then on to the locations used in London. This would be cool enough - with a few fellow Marines, quite some time ago now, I've walked along over the hills that lead to the fictional East Proctor, as well - but Davis gets, wait for it, Landis, Naughton, Dunne, Agutter, Woodvine, David Schofield (the dart player), Michael Carter (Gerald Bringsly), the ever-grinning Brenda Cavendish (officially David's first victim) and even the ever-buxom Linzi Drew (who played Brenda Bristols ... and is still amazingly hot twenty-eight years later!) to wax lyrical about their now cult-slavished experiences making the movie. And not only that, we have extensive anecdotes from Rick Baker and his team of assistants, we hear from the cinematographer Robert Paynter, producer and fellow Yank amongst so many bemused Brits George Folsey, First AD David Tringham, Mrs John Landis, who supplied the costumes, art director Leslie Dilly, editor Malcolm Campbell, sure-footed steadicam operator Ray Andrew and ...deep breath ... renowned stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong. Even if Rik Mayall doesn't show up - or even get a mention, for that matter - you have to admit that this is a truly sterling effort from Davis to get this mob back together. Even more impressive is the fact that they deliver such an informative, laid-back and completely frank account of their time spent smothered in latex, freezing their bits and bobs off in a severe British winter, orchestrating chaos in an ever-crowded Piccadilly Circus, under the watchful eyes of the real constabulary. This is warts 'n' all and often very funny. Landis is as enthusiastic and off-the-wall as ever. Naughton now looks like Kyle Mcklachlan and Dunne looks like a cross between Roman Polanski and the weedy bad guy from Quantum Of Solace.
We hear about the gypsy burial from Landis all over again, but this time it is furnished with on-set photos from the shoot of Kelly's Heroes, the experiences of Dunne, who hated the makeup process and was even inadvertently kidnapped during one scene, the trials and tribulations with the censors and with test screenings and about everyone's love and respect for the British crew and, naturally, of their overall fondness for the film and what it went on to become. Landis recounts a couple of moments that were filmed but eventually got the chop - one of the winos being hoisted out of shot and then his severed torso being plopped back down in front of his buddies, and a piece of toast sliding out of the gaping hole where Jack's throat used to be - and, my God, don't you just wish that he'd reinstated them? Oh, and stick with the show throughout the end credits, because there are a gaggle of pseudo-outtakes and further memories revealed. David Schofield's tale of the intimidating stranger coming up to him actually on the Tottenham Court Road platform late one night - the scene of Bringsly's murder - is priceless.
Although best viewed as one full-length documentary, this excellent chronicle is also chapterised and can be viewed in separate, or bite-sized instalments.
Well done to Paul Davis for such a loving, funny and downright entertaining exploration.
Overall, you cannot deny the value of this selection of bonuses, revealing, as they do, a deep respect for the movie and certainly adding to the package. A while ago, I said that the package was worth it for the extra wolf footage alone, but with this Beware The Moon documentary we are, quite frankly, being spoiled.
Hotly anticipated on BD, Landis' grisly gem certainly comes up with the goods and makes for sure-fire worthy upgrade. It leaves all SD version behind and goes a couple of steps further than the HD version, adding a few new features whilst cleaning up the image quality somewhat and defiantly boosting the audio.
The film itself remains a rare thing indeed, in that it succeeds both as a comedy and as a terrific horror film. The opening scenes on the moors are a supreme example of likeable people facing horrific circumstances, the perennial fear-flick staple of there's something out there working the senses overtime. The FX are wonderful, not only for their time but standing up extremely well and even trouncing most similar-themed CG work that we see today. The gore is still a vivid and nasty delight - and let's face it, you just can't have a proper werewolf film without some ferocious disembowelling and throat-ripping, can you? - and the characters are well-drawn and reasonably credible, given the outlandish (or should that be out-Landis) circumstances. I still have some lingering doubts about the extracurricular care afforded tourists by the NHS, though ... but you simply can't complain about an in-her-prime Jenny Agutter's bedside manner, can you?
The Slaughtered Lamb has made it into horror film history, if not the Good Pub Guide, the London Underground has never been better employed as a terrifying setting - Creep, pah! - and the whole Thatcherite era of Great Britain is splendidly evoked. And it took a Yank to do it. David's tragic tale is etched with comedy, cruelty and pathos and, if the film has a peculiar only-half-completed vibe, then I feel this only adds to its atmosphere and notoriety - you simply don't want it to end.
With Paul Davis' simply excellent retrospective documentary providing virtually an entire new film on the topic, I've just got to say it, haven't I - it's a howling success!
Without a doubt, the best filmed treatment of werewolfry so far, and it surely belongs in any horror buff's collection. Until The Wolf Man, then ... all together now, “Blue moon ... you saw me standing alone ...”
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