Saturday, December 10, 2011

Fright Night... For Real.

Much controversy has surrounded the new Twilight Time release of the 1985 film FRIGHT NIGHT, and that's really a shame. The film itself is phenomenal, as most anyone familiar with 1980s horror films will attest, combining a legitimate retro-horror story built on the legacy of Hammer films from the 50s and 60s with a sense of dry wit that's been largely called a "horror comedy". A fairly normal teenager named Charley (William Ragsdale) notices that his new neighbor doesn't come out during the day, keeps a bitchin' coffin in his basement, and has seen women disappear into the house only to turn up as corpses on the news the next day. A casual fan of "Fright Night", the local TV station's monster movie theater hosted by the 'Legendary Vampire Killer' himself Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), he quickly puts two and two together and enlists the help of his worried girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse) and socially inept friend "Evil Ed" (Stephen Geoffereys) to help stake the beast. Obviously they think he's flipped his lid, but there's still something about Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) that just doesn't add up... the question is can they can do the math before the neighbors wind up taking a bite out of everyone on the block?

There's clearly a streak of dry humor from start to finish in Fright Night, but this isn't exactly cut from the same cloth as Return of the Living Dead or The Monster Squad; the humor is kept low key, a natural extension of the characters rather than a flat out rolling meta-commentary. (I'll say it again: Fuck you, Scream.) Despite not sharing nearly as much screen time as Charley and his friends, Chris Sarandon as the smarmy blood sucker with class to spare, and Roddy McDowall as the classic horror star turned washed-up cable presenter, a sort of poor man's Elvira mixed with the real life decline of Bela Lugosi, absolutely steal the show with performances that are just as heartfelt as they are genuinely funny - not by hamming it up or dropping bad puns, but by understanding what makes these archetypes tick and pushing them just far enough that they're amusingly over the top without degenerating into obvious parody. Neither of them are spitting out one liners, they just live these roles to the hilt and wallow in the great power and unique melancholy they require until there's nothing left to give. I understand why we focus on the dumb (but not entirely unpleasant) kids for most of the runtime, these two are the heart and soul of the flick, and it's an absolute joy watching them play completely opposite ends of the spectrum, one deadly, sexy and confident to a fault, the other a cowardly old has-been seemingly on the verge of waiting for death to put him out of his misery. The kids are all right, but these two carry so much genuine menace and pathos that they effectively anchor the silly teens into the darker adult world by proxy.

The film's rubber and corn syrup effects augmented with some impressive optically-printed animation have a unique vibe to them that was lost with the advent of digital special effects. It's not that these were "better" - just that there was a certain impact a rubber mask covered in glycerin had, not just on the actor actually in it, but on the actors around them. One of the film's best scenes is McDowall reacting in simultaneous horror and tempered sympathy as he watches a boy degenerate from a deadly wolf to a pathetic naked imp, a shell of his former self that continues to wither away, bit by bit, until only the frail, dying boy is left. It's rare to find an actor who can convey that much, that fusion of fear and pity, without making a sound to start with - but I'm sure it'd be even rarer to get him to react that way without being able to SEE the wretched creature whimpering and clawing at its wounds, trying to stay alive. The special effects don't look "real", exactly, but they do still look pretty goddamn cool. We may have finally perfected the prosthetic decapitation 30 years after Friday the 13th, to the point where it looks as real as any terrorist snuff video - but making it look awesome? That takes talent and imagination, something that throwing endless piles of money at a problem can dull over time.

Fright Night was hardly a gorefest though - it just drives home that almost unnervingly silly vibe the great cast and classy score by Brad Fidel have brought to life, infusing a fun but timeless story that's as much Rear Window as it is The Fearless Vampire Killers with a firm and unapolagetic identity as a 1985 production. It was a superficial and ridiculous decade, make no mistake, but this is one of those films you can point to and say "They don't make 'em like this anymore" - and you'd be absolutely right. Well, yes, they did make another Fright Night... but just watch the trailer for the original and then chase that down with the trailer for "Fright Night 3D". Different eras, different goals and so on. Writer/Director Tom Holland would combine horror and comedy to unique ends as well a few years later in the original Child's Play, but I tend to think that decent enough film doesn't stand up as well as Fright Night does, for a number of reasons. To be fair, though, with the massive franchise it somehow spawned it's impossible NOT to watch Child's Play in the 21st century and know for the entire first "mysterious" hour that the killer was really-- well, you know...

By comparison Fright Night is just as charming as it was in 1985, and I doubt the inclusion of either 3D or Collin Farrel have improved the 2011 version currently cluttering up six shelves at a Wal-Mart or Best Buy near you. I've not seen the remake and kind of doubt I ever will, but from a friend's account of it the 3D film has its own identity for a while, but falls back on scenes cribbed almost word-for-word in the last act. A shame that the script's largely different direction about hanging out with the wrong crowd and being unsure if the neighbor is a vampire or just a normal Las Vegas weirdo decided to give up the ghost in the 11th hour, since the more complex character arcs and shift away from suburbia sounded like they had some potential to at least create a completely different experience... but, back to the original under review.

The new Blu-ray transfer is, according to film restoraration expert Robert A. Harris, a 4K scan of a brand new interpositive. The original Dolby Stereo mix has been unfolded into a 5.1 DTS HD-MA (24-bit) lossless track, and while the 106 minute film has been squeezed onto a single layered Blu-ray, the the only included bonus features are a pair of vintage theatrical trailers and an isolated score (DTS HD-MA 2.0 16-bit), allowing for an adequate bitrate of 23 Mb/s for a film shot in scope, which means 25% of the screen is unmoving and thus easier to compress. Most of you know that I'd love to see 40 Mb/s as the standard for Blu-ray, but in the real world, studios want to save money and so long as the transfer looks decent, I don't see being a BD25 as an inherent negative... take a look at these caps and decide for yourself:

The last screenshot is about as bad as this disc ever gets; I wouldn't call that especially "bad", either. It's likely just a notch below reference and may not blow those of you with front projection setups away, but it's still a very good transfer. Anyone who's seen a few lower-budget 'scope films from this period should more or less know what to expect in terms of focus and grain, and that's exactly what you'll get with Fright Night. It looks very nice - nicer in motion than screenshots suggest, I think - and while Mr. Harris and I may disagree from time to time, he loved the crap out of it. If you trust neither of us, well... I honestly don't know what to tell you.

The audio is being called "front heavy", and that's not an unfair accusation - the film appears to be, essentially, a 5.1 upmix of the original Dolby Stereo track, leaning more towards a faithful recreation of the original sound mix on modern systems than any sort of extensive "from the stems" affair. I've decided to rip the 1.5 Mb/s "core" track and take a look at it as a WAV form to get a better idea of what this track is really made of - just because I *heart* you guys enough to do that sort of thing, even if I'm going to listen to the whole disc with a pair of middle-of-the-road headphones most of the time anyway.

The channels are, in descending order: Left, Right, Center, LFE, Surround Left and Surround Right. Forgive the almost Lovecraftian scroll bar - I had to patch two separate screenshots together to show the whole thing, is all. As you can see there is some basic separation between the left and right channels, but 90% of the sound is coming right out of the center, and the sub is barely there at all. I'm not chastising the mix at all - just saying what the waveform has already told you. It's a pretty basic stereo feature bumped up to an equally basic surround mix, but it's absolutely NOT a vintage Dolby Surround track - that would imply that the SL/SR channels are identical, and zero LFE presence. It's a new mix, and it doesn't sound bad to me... it just, sounds like a 26 year old low-budget horror film. Go figure.

Not to ride Sony's ass on this, but why aren't original mixes included more often by certain studios? I doubt the difference would be notable here, of all places, but it's the sort of thing I feel really should be standard on Blu-ray by now. Include a 7.1 mix and a dozen dubs, go for it - but don't forget to include the vintage theatrical mix while you're at it, you know?

You know what else you get? An 8 page booklet!  Booklets are a rare treat these days, one I've grown to miss as Blu-ray has overtaken my DVD collection by storm, and there's a number of nice glossy photos and the original poster on the back, plus a sheet with production credits and special thanks. No chapter listing... but we'll talk about that in a second. There's also a lengthy essay on the film written by Julie Kirgo which is a nice touch unto itself, though I'll admit I'm not totally on board with her theory of Evil Ed being a subtext for closeted homosexuality. English language vampire mythology is literally rooted in homosexuality and later sadomasochism, and I viewed their brief relationship as that of one social pariah to another - not a suggestion that they share a homosexual bond, particularly when the entire last act is about Chris Sarandon fang-humping the life out of Amanda Bearse! (That said, I'm somehow totally not shocked that Marcy from Married... With Children is a lesbian. What, are you?) The passing implications between Sarandon and his ghoulish "roommate" (Jonathan Stark) as possible homosexuals actually works brilliantly as a cover story; who would suspect the pair of nondescript, cable-knit sweater wearing gays restoring a very special episode of This Old House as a pair of blood drinking prostitute murderers? Anyway, Kirgo's made her case and I'm grateful that she had plenty of nice things to say, and even some fun production anecdotes to share - such as McDowall's point of inspiration for his character, and it's not his namesakes! - even if I personally think some of it's a stretch.

You'll also find a link to Icons of Fright's "Unofficial" commentary tracks, which for legal reasons they couldn't put on the disc, but any clever S.O.B. with an iPod should really be able to download them and watch the commentary with the Blu-ray anyhow. Not an extra on the disc, unfortunately, but appreciated all the same. You also get a fun lil' fridge magnet - or, at least I did. A friend of mine wasn't so lucky, but as several others have reported getting one I assume it was just an isolated slip-up. As mentioned in brief, the only extras included on the disc are two vintage theatrical trailers - and curiously, they're cropped to 1.85:1, despite the film proper being in 2.40:1. They look a little worse for wear, but being duplicate elements and optically reframed besides, that's only natural. I honestly don't like it when they use the vintage trailer audio and re-cut the "restored" footage on top of it; I'd much rather see how nasty the film looked when it was marketed in the weeks before it came out, and you don't need to restore the trailers at all to give us a peek into that little sliver of the film's history.

The only thing I will shake my head over is the authoring of the disc itself. For one thing there's a main menu, but no pop-up menu. It's perplexing, perhaps just a bit annoying, but I've got all these unused buttons like "Audio" and "Subtitle" on my remote for a reason, and this is it. What's less forgivable are the fact that the chapter stops are placed at 10 minute intervals, like clockwork. I know chapter stops aren't the most important thing on ANY release, and yes, films are meant to be watched front to end anyhow, but... seriously? You guys are charging $30 for these discs and you can't take the ten minutes it'd take to put the chapters in natural scene breaks that have something to do with the movie? Even those low rent Echo Bridge assholes do that, and they squeeze four films onto a single BD50! It's a shame, since this is the first time in a long time where the back-end authoring of a disc has actually been the only major disappointment.

The authoring isn't the controversy, though; as I've mentioned before, Fright Night is only being made available through Twilight Time's parent company, Screen Archives Entertainment - though you can now purchase it through (from SAE as a third party seller, anyway). It's $29.98 plus about five bucks shipping, end of story. You can get similar 80s horror films on Blu-ray from Amazon and Best Buy for half that, sometimes even less - so why is Fright Night so expensive? There's been discussion raging on over this fact ever since the details were made public a few months ago, but the short version is middle-of-the-road catalog titles just don't sell well on Blu-ray, and studios like Sony make substantially less selling a few thousand copies of a $10 movie than they do selling a new movie at $25 that they've started to lose interest in them completely.

If you want to see great movies like Fright Night, The Rapture and Mysterious Island (among others) on Blu-ray, then don't think of Twilight Time as some perverted mutation of the home video market; see it as the future that deserving titles will get. Because without this more expensive limited edition model, there is no future on Blu-ray for these films. 25 years ago, Laserdisc served a niche audience that favored quality over convenience, and for those that are still willing to pay top dollar for high quality features, this could be the way the market swings towards in 2012. I admit that the price is higher than I'd like it to be, but Fright Night is a fantastic film. I'd rather pay $35 for this than the same price for three films I don't especially care for, but I know that everyone has their limits.

Rest assured that, if not the Best Blu-ray Ever, Fright Night' audio and video presentation is perfectly fine. It's a little dark, a little soft and sounds pretty front heavy, but anyone expecting something different must not have known what they were signing up for to start with. It looks and sounds the way I can only imagine Fright Night should, and if you've ever seen this on cable, DVD, or even a 35mm print, you've never seen it look or sound this good. If that's worth $35 to you, indulge. If not, hey, there's always Sony's DVD re-release... but I'm not even going to link to that. You know a contemporary classic like Fright Night deserves better.


Anthony1138 said...

Truthfully I was a bit apprehensive about opening Fright Night when it arrived, since there were no reviews posted at the time. I didn't want to be stuck with a $35 shitter, figuring if it got universally panned I'd just send it back for a refund and hold on to my DVD (wishing for a better/cheaper BD eventually). Thanks to your review, I bit the bullet and popped the disc in for a spin.

The transfer is pretty solid from what I watched so far. The audio is certainly a step up from the DVD too. I also appreciate the booklet, which seems to be a luxury only found in Criterion and Arrow BDs these days. The lack of extras and annoying DVD style menu are pretty weak though. I really wanted a full on special edition for the price, but in the end I'm still happy to have another one of my favorite films on BD.

Oh, and I got a $20 magnet too. ;)

Kentai 拳態 said...

I can't blame you for being nervous Anthony, but all the reviews out there suggest that Twilight Time did a bang-up job with both THE EGYPTIAN and MYSTERIOUS ISLAND - and hey, for $45 shipped they had damn well better!

If paying double for a great looking transfer of an awesome movie is the price we'll pay going forward, I'm perfectly okay with that: I'll probably buy fewer movies, but I'll enjoy having them on the shelf even more. Glad to hear you took the plunge and cracked the plastic wrap - if you know what the film's looked like on DVD and cable, you surely won't be disappointed.

And dude, that sweet magnet? TOTALLY worth the extra $20. :D

Kriztoffer Swank said...

I gotta admit that thirty bucks for a single-layered disc leaves me feeling a bit empty somehow. :( I'm sure that feeling'll melt away once I'm watching the Blu-ray, but it bothers me that they didn't give the film more room for better encoding.

I picked up the soundtrack, but apparently some time after I did so, SAE offered a deal to buy both together and get something like ten bucks off. Le bogue...

Kentai 拳態 said...

I've slowly reached that point of no return where the concept of "price" has become irrelevant. (Anime will do that to you, I'm afraid.) That's not to say I often blindly throw cash around - I look for better deals like everyone else, and sometimes I pick up a title simply because it's so cheap I'd feel like an asshole not buying it...

For what it's worth, the transfer here is damned good, single layered or not. A higher bitrate might would have kicked up a few scenes from their current 8.5~9.0 to a full fledged 10, but I'm happy enough with what $30 got me. That said, if they had tacked another five bucks on the retail for a BD50 I would have paid it... but what with the majority of the internet having triumphantly raised its middle finger and silently agreed to just download the fuckin' thing anyway, I can't imagine it would have helped sales one bit. I'm damned curious to see just how long it takes for the title to sell out. I mean, assuming it does.

I'd probably be more upset by the whole "Holy shit, it's a BD25?!" thing, but after reading that the infallible Criterion Collection squeezed Fanny & Alexander - a 5 hour-plus film - onto a BD50... I just can't do it. If under 20 Mb/s is "good enough" from Criterion Collection for an almost universally critically cherished film that has a goddamned intermission - a totally natural and appropriate point to split the film and spread it across 2 discs! - we're all fucked. Most of us just don't realize it yet.

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