The Bird With The Crystal Plumage has probably never looked better on home video than it does here on Blue Underground's 1080p release. But, this said, there are still some issues that the transfer has not been able to overcome.
Presented in its original 2.35:1 ratio, the film is certainly much more stable than many other versions have been, though there are still odd judders here and there. Damage to the print is only minimal and the image, itself, is quite clean and bright. The grain, you'll be pleased to note, remains intact and there doesn't appear to be any sign of overt or unwelcome noise reduction having taken place.
Colours have been boosted. We've got some horribly gaudy reds very early on - the intended target's red dress - and yellows are a touch in-your-face, too. Carpets, curtains, clothes and, of course, blood, have all been enhanced. Just look at the red cross beaming out from the ambulance. The sea of yellow jackets when Sam ends up engulfed by the boxing convention have a “pop” that isn't entirely welcome. Other colours, such as greens and browns, look a little more natural and controlled. The odd paint-strokes that we see tend to leap from the screen too. It is only fair to say that many other editions of the film have had such doctoring, so this is not entirely unexpected.
The contrast is a lot more uniform and consistent than I have seen it before, although there are small occasions when it does fluctuate. Some background flickering that appeared on an earlier release and also, but to a lesser degree, on Blue Underground's own SD disc, can still be seen. There is shimmering on some patterned objects, and this is particularly evident during the foot-chase when Sam runs alongside and then goes through the corrugated iron wall to evade the hitman. Blacks are definitely better than before. There are a couple of moments of reassuringly atmospheric shadow-play, and the final act, with Sam entering some very dark places, is actually very rewarding after many washed-out and murky-grey prints.
Sadly, one of the old disc bugbears presents itself still. The edge enhancement which has been fairly horrible in the past may have been reduced quite a bit, but there are times when it is distracting. Dark outlines - suits and shirts, heads etc - when seen against light backgrounds still produce some haloing. But I will say that detail is greater than you may have seen before - admittedly not by a long margin, but this is a very agreeable improvement. Close-ups offer much better definition of faces, hair, eyes, clothing, splintering wood and gleaming blades. Skin textures and tones also benefit and look, to me, to be far more natural than I've seen them on previous editions. The depth of the image, too, is much greater and provides some terrific frames and shots to savour. The look up the stairs, Sam and Julia walking down the street at night just before Reggie Nalder makes his assassination attempt. The view looking down on the injured Monica at the start, and her agonised crawl towards the camera. Suzy Kendall running at her attacker and most of the scenes set in her apartment, for that matter, possess a detailed and vivid sense of depth. The external shots of the Roman streets, night or day. You get the picture - the Blu-ray's MPEG-4 encode really brings out Storaro's wonderful cinematography like it has never been seen on home video before.
All things considered, this is definite step-up from any previous release you may have seen. It may not be all that major an upgrade, but to lovers of Argento, this must surely be the one that presents his debut at its best. Being charitable, I'm awarding this a 7 out of 10, possibly because of the showcase it affords Storaro's wonderful cinematography.
A short while back I was moaning about Blue Underground putting out Gary Sherman's cult semi-nastie, Dead & Buried, on Blu-ray with a couple of utterly wasted lossless surround tracks on it, and not having the decency to keep the original mono audio on-board. Well, they've gone and done it again with Argento's debut feature. Not only have they given us erroneously enticing English tracks in DTS-HD MA 7.1 and Dolby TrueHD 7.1, and then both Italian and English DD 5.1 EX flavours, but they have gone and left off the original mono options that adorned their own Special Edition. Just why they insist on doing this for their Blu-ray releases is beyond me.
But, let's take a look at what is actually on offer here.
Bearing in mind that Italian horrors movies from this period were dubbed after the filming had ended - the multi-national actors usually spoke their lines on-set in their own languages (which must have been confusing as hell, mustn't it?) - you have to expect some hefty lip-synch problems. Even the Italian mix suffers from the same thing. This goes with the turf, I'm afraid, and, to be perfectly honest, is just another part of the genre's screw-ball charm. But dialogue isn't highly prioritised and you won't find a natural sound to voices, much in the way of any directionality to them or even a smooth and consistent reproduction. Some voices are shrill or barked, others drop down a peg or two and sound submerged. This is no particular fault of the transfer, however, just the state of play considering how it was all mastered in the first place. As such, you can't really complain. And, the truth is, that with either the DTS or the TrueHD tracks - and there is nothing between them, folks - dialogue does sound clearer and more distinctive than before. Still doesn't sound authentic ... but then it never did.
Ennio Morricone's score receives a more reliable presentation. The haunting pop-lullaby main titles have more warmth than I've heard before and the various moments of absolute discord for the attacks, whilst still hardly aggressive, have more body and clarity to them. The odd gunshot or breaking glass effect isn't going to startle you and their steerage is unlikely to convince you either. Bass is not exactly in much demand and the sub will sit this one out. The surrounds, whichever track you choose, do zilch, either - but then this should hardly be a shocker. Blue Underground's idea of wraparound, though I can't accuse it of being overt or glaringly concocted, is still a complete misnomer. There isn't any. The rears occasionally support the score, or pick up some of the action material, but there really isn't anything here to talk about, I'm afraid. It is stretching things by mixing the audio into 5.1 in the first place. But to extend this out to 7.1 is absolutely preposterous. There's nothing there to hit these channels. Wisely, Blue Underground do not go out of their way to create anything to splash around back there, but this begs the question once again - why bother with pseudo-surround tracks if you have nothing to warrant them?
Overall, these tracks don't harm the film, but they do little to re-invigorate it either. Arguably, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage will never be able to provide much of an aural experience - I mean we're not talking Suspiria, here - so perhaps we should be thankful for the ever-so-slightly widened dimensionality that these lossless tracks actually do offer. Even so, I would be less critical if Blue Underground just kept the original mono options as well.
All the extras featured here have been culled from the Special Edition SD that Blue Underground released. Nothing new has been added to the package.
By far the best extra on this release is the fabulous commentary from film critics Kim Newman and Alan Jones. A big fan of both writers - I've followed Jones since I was a nipper reading his reviews of all those slasher-pics in Starburst since about 1979 - I relish the opportunity to hear them banter about a topic that is obviously very dear to them. To be honest, I prefer the team-up of Newman and Stephen Jones more - simply for the wonderful rapport and sheer brevity - but this is a great listening experience as well. Jones has written the epic tome, Profundo Argento: The Definitive Guide To The Films Of Dario Argento, so it seems logical that Newman concedes, at least initially, to play second fiddle to the more obvious expert in the field. Yet, this proves not to be entirely the case as Newman, himself, has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the genre and a mouth that just doesn't know when to stop. Anyway, it should come as no surprise to discover that this chat-track is fact-packed, anecdote-rife and thoroughly entertaining from start to finish.Newman also provides a wonderful little story about how he was once called upon by the police to help them identify a “time” by the recording of a film's soundtrack broadcast on TV - his point being that such cinematic devices as vital clues being picked-up by people listening to taped recordings of voices over the phone actually do happen in the real world, as well. Frankly, this is the sort of commentary that I can readily listen to again and again and I look forward to more such collaborations.
Blue Underground have provided the same quartet of interviews that graced their Special Edition SD release. First up is a surprisingly decent session with Dario Argento, himself, entitled Out Of The Shadows. Notoriously uncomfortable and laborious when it comes to such things as discussing his own work on-camera, the filmmaker actually comes over quite well this time out, no doubt because of his evident pride at what he accomplished on his fledgling directorial mission. He describes the less-than-overjoyed reaction he gained from Morricone when he provided the musical genius with ideas of how he thought the score should sound, and he manages to answer the question that both Alan Jones and Kim Newman posed when commentating on the movie - about whether or not a real camera was dropped from a sixth floor window to obtain that incredible swift-descent shot. The interview lasts for 18 minutes.
Next up is The Music Of Murder, an 8-minute look back at the film with Ennio Morricone, who describes how he came up with the score and how he liked to work with Argento. He also briefly mentions his later collaborations with the filmmaker on the likes of Phantom Of The Opera, The Stendahl Syndrome and Four Flies On Grey Velvet. To be honest, Morricone is such a big-hitter in this department that only a scant few minutes is just not enough. His input on disc material such as this is unbearably sparse and home entertainment simply begs for a full-on, comprehensive study of his prodigious work.
Then we get a chance to hear from Dario's first DOP, Vittorio Storaro, in a 10-minute interview called Painting With Darkness, in which he discusses his techniques and innovations for the film. Quite honest about the importance of his role in the making of this, or any film, Storaro talks about his use of intense close-ups to harness the emotions and inner-workings of the characters during moments of high tension. Dario's love of POV shooting and the unusual angles that are incorporated are also looked at in a, sadly, all-too brief session.
Finally, in Eva's Talking, we hear from Eva Renzi, who played the highly-strung Monica in the film. Unfortunately, Renzi, who died of lung cancer in 2005, just uses her opportunity here to remark about how little she actually cares for the film and her part in it. Like Argento, she is no fan of Tony Musante and, to be honest, although she is sincere and is only telling us about her experiences and should not, therefore, be knocked for how she feels, this sort of rains of Crystal Plumage's parade. Renzi, at least, speaks in English, whilst the other three are subtitled.
It must be said, however, that whatever misgivings this final rant has, the overall cluster of interviews are well worth the effort. I'd love to have heard from Tony Musante, though.
The disc is rounded-out with the film's US and Italian trailers and a couple of TV spots.
It is great to see Blue Underground releasing early Argento, and their handling of The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is, for the most part, quite satisfying. The high-definition transfer marks a suitable upgrade from their SD edition, even if they have, as they did with Gary Sherman's Dead & Buried, omitted the original mono track and misled us with bogus surround options. The extra features may not be exhaustive, but even if there was only the commentary to contend with, I would feel immensely satisfied.
Tame compared to what Dario Argento would go on to produce, Crystal Plumage still pushes a few boundaries and takes its subject of insanity and murder very seriously indeed. Offering a few shocks, a tight script and some terrific performances, it remains a remarkably assured debut from someone who, during these early years, would go from strength to strength. More of a straight-on thriller than an out-and-out horror film, this is still edge-of-the-seat stuff that more than holds its own against the painting-by-numbers slasher-flicks doing the rounds today. Argento took the Giallo genre by storm, gripping it by the throat and pushing a stiletto blade against it. He was educated by Cinema, and this clearly shows with his innate ability to take what has wowed audiences before and filter such rich homage through his own resolute and audacious determination to create neo-gothic nightmares of extravagant excess. And, as a result, his own technical innovations and stylish visual impact have never been equalled. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage may have borrowed from many films that had gone before it, but it would go on to influence a great many more.
Fans should not think twice about picking this up. And, for everyone else, Blue Underground's new edition still comes highly recommended.
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