Without unnecessary preamble, here is a list of the best Blu-ray discs from 2009, featuring horror, fantasy and science fiction titles. With so many great releases, it is hard to pick favorites, so the films are presented in alphabetical, rather than numeric, order.
An American Werewolf in London. Though director John Landis bristles at the term “horror comedy”, it’s a genre nevertheless, and one with very few successful entries. Werewolf’s comedy grows organically out of the material, which is just a fancy way of saying that this isn’t a dopey, self-aware parody. Almost 30 years after its initial release, the film still has the power to scare, and remains the best werewolf film of the modern era (or, after Oliver Reed got shot out of the bell tower). Universal’s Blu-Ray release replicated all the extras from the previous DVD (and HD-DVD) edition, but also added a wonderful, fan-made documentary, Beware the Moon.
Big Trouble in Little China. This isn’t the last John Carpenter where the director noticeably gave a damn – but it is close. A cult film in the very best tradition of the word, Big Trouble was a costly flop in ’86 (we were alone in the theater) but was also the first studio film to introduce elements of Hong Kong martial arts that the American film-going public would not appreciate for another decade or so. Fox didn’t add anything to their BD that wasn’t on the previous DVD set (the commentary featuring Carpenter and star Kurt Russell is still one of the most purely fun tracks ever recorded), but their careful BD release should serve as a blue print for how to prepare a HD disc transfer: little-to-no DNR; natural film grain generating enormous detail; and a stupendous overall image.
The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. Blue Underground picked up the gauntlet long ago dropped by Anchor Bay and has been specializing in creating superlative editions of Euro-sleaze and domestic grindhouse classics for years now. 2009 saw the company venturing into HD territory with several of their more popular titles, including Dario Argento’s debut stunner, the first giallo of the ‘modern era’. A tasty combo of Hitchcockian suspense and aggressive violence, mixed with the mod style of the era to form an irresistible cocktail. Argento certainly made wilder films, but rarely better ones. BU’s Blu-Ray wrings every ounce of detail from the 40 year old Techniscope production, demonstrating just how much a careful transfer can benefit even older (and very inexpensive) genre films.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Dismissed by most critics as a pretentious Forrest Gump redux, David Fincher’s elegant, somber, and finally touching riff on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s slim source novella (which could be read in less time than it takes to view the film) was an easy film to dislike. However, Brad Pitt continues to impress us with interesting choices, and we always look forward to the almost clinical precision with which Fincher handles a digital camera. Though the distribution was handled by Paramount, Criterion (as it has with several of Fincher’s previous films) put the disc package together, giving us a pristine 1080p image together with superbly detailed documentary.
The Deep. Yes, The Deep. We know it’s not really genre, but it’s such a thinly veiled cash-in on Jaws that we couldn’t resist including it here. Every couple of years we revisit the film and are duly amazed at how entertaining it is. 2 years after Steven Spielberg’s film of Peter Benchley’s previous best-seller redefined the term ‘blockbuster’, Columbia’s ad campaign deftly married author Benchley’s name with poster art that closely echoed the Spielberg mega hit, emphasizing the presence of Robert Shaw (and Jacqueline Bisset’s frequently wet T-shirt). In truth, the book is pretty junky – and the film reflects that; Louis Gossett, Jr’s Henri Cloche, the film’s Voo Doo villain, is the sort of threatening stereotype that Hollywood was finally beginning to move away from (the scene where his henchmen threaten BIsset in her hotel room is genuinely disturbing and maybe not for the best of reasons). But the location shooting in Bermuda and the Virgin Islands makes for a stunning show, and the Blu-Ray conveys this beautifully – the image is stunning. Plans to reconstruct a longer version of the film never came to pass, but the studio did find several interesting new scenes (along with some nice extensions) that were added for the TV airings.
Dexter Season 1. You could pick almost any of the 3 currently available Dexter seasons for this list, but the breathtakingly strong premier season will suffice for our purposes. Showtime’s main contender to steal HBO’s original programming thunder is still going strong, providing 4 seasons of the edgiest television we’ve ever seen. The show literally shoots the hell out of Miami on digital video, making the city seem alive, vibrant, and, most surprisingly, new – something that Showtime’s Blu-Ray releases display perfectly.
Fringe Season 1. 2008’s most interesting new show is also one of 2009’s best television releases on Blu-Ray. Fringe is the first of its kind since the glory days of the X Files to really energize us in a weekly series; stars Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson eschew the typical ‘will they or won’t they’ interplay, instead crafting beautifully realized characters who display enough incredulousness to drag along those not already in the black helicopter brigade (a trick that co-creator J J Abrams managed to do more than once this year). The winning first season is well served by Fox’s Blu-Ray set – a feast for the eyes and ears in all the usual A/V categories. But what really won our hearts was the addition of an actual episode guide booklet, featuring well rendered plot recaps along with the vital statistics – a stark contrast to Paramount’s Star Trek Season 3 set, that forces you to peel discs out to read the episode titles off the inside of the cover.
Gremlins. An adequate transfer and no new bonus material, so why is it on the list? Because Joe Dante’s ode to holiday horror just seems to get better with each passing year and would go on my list if it were projected on the underside of a rock
The Hannibal Lecter Collection. The first 3 films featuring Thomas Harris’ increasingly omniscient cannibal Hannibal Lecter came complete with a very pleasant surprise. Silence of the Lambs is a straight reissue of the previously available BD (complete with a so-so transfer and extras so old they’ve got whiskers), whereas Hannibal and Manhunter make their domestic HD debuts. Ridley Scott’s unfairly maligned Hannibal looks very decent, but is missing all the extras of the older DVD release – a feature-rich package that fans who purchase the set would be wise to hold on to. But the set’s prize is Michael Mann’s Manhunter, freed from victimization under the Anchor Bay label, where it received 2 separate – and bungled – releases featuring the omission of an important line of dialog (“My heart bleeds for him as a child…”). The BD of Manhunter represents the first time since a Warner Bros LaserDisc that the original, complete (and superior) theatrical version had been available domestically on home video.
Shaun of the Dead / Hot Fuzz. Available first as Best Buy exclusives, these BDs are thankfully now available everywhere, giving discerning aficionadas of director Edgar Wright and star Simon Pegg’s ’80s-influenced grindhouse aesthetic reason to rejoice. These near-perfect distillations of a teenage life spent loitering in the action and horror isles of video stores may not be everyone’s afternoon tea (there are many right thinking people who still don’t know what to make of Fuzz), but we honestly can’t recall a tastier blend of parody and tribute. Both BDs are A/V knockouts (Fuzz’s lossless soundtrack is one of the very best we’ve ever heard) and carryover the voluminous extras from the previous DVDs and HD-DVDs, with some new material added to boot
The Man Who Fell to Earth. I suppose that we have Paramount to thank for abandoning this difficult, elliptical Sci-Fi tale back in 1976, sending Producer Michael Deeley scrambling for financing, but also making it an easy grab for the Criterion Collection. One of the high watermarks from Nicolas Roeg’s artistic peak as a filmmaker (beginning with Performance in 1970 and ending, arguably, with 1983’s Eureka), this film has been traveling with Criterion since the days of Laserdisc, cumulating in their stunning BD release, bringing in all previous extras to compliment the superlative 1080p image. While some directors assemble films in a traditional, linear fashion, experiencing a Roeg film is like watching all the pieces of a puzzle drop from the box in slow motion right before your eyes, engaging the viewer’s imagination in a way few other filmmakers ever had. Highly recommended.
Monsters, Inc. / Up. What more needs to be said? This fall saw Pixar’s newest film released on BD on the same day as one of their most requested catalog titles, to the delight (and relief) of parents and home theater geeks everywhere. Both discs feature crystal-clear images – the result of a direct-digital download – and enough extras to keep you busy for many days afterwards.
My Bloody Valentine 3D. With everyone going nuts over creation of a 3D world in Avatar, it’s only right to remember this little horror gem, quite simply the best use of 3D that we had ever seen up until Cameron scared everyone else out of the playground. We think there’s a tendency to over praise the original Canuk slasher (look, guys, it’s just okay – okay?) on which this film is based; fortunately, director Patrick Lussier smartly dispenses with the first film’s plot in the opening 10 minutes, leaving him ample breathing room to play. Paramount’s BD gives us the expectedly pristine 2D standard edition of the film, but also throws in a 3D version as well, which worked pretty well with a darkened room and big enough screen.
The New York Ripper. Another catalog triumph from Blue Underground, and from a film that I’d have bet never to have seen on Blu-Ray this quickly. Fulci’s last great sickening glorious mess of a movie was first rescued from grey-label purgatory by Bill Lustig during his time with Anchor Bay, but that non-anamorphic transfer pales before Blue Underground’s BD release. The image pops with vivid color and detail that we would have thought well beyond the abilities of the film’s inexpensive film stock. Even if the movie itself isn’t to your specific tastes, just marvel at the irony that such a nasty, grungy little film can look this good.
Night of the Creeps. One of the longest sought after DVD releases finally arrived in 2009, followed by a Blu-Ray release – a double blessing for fans of director Fred Dekker’s loving ode to everything from ’50s drive-in chillers to zombie movies. Both the BD and DVD – from the same master used for the HD showings on the lamented MonstersHD network – look terrific. (Now if only we’re able to include The Monster Squad on next year’s best of BD list.)
North by Northwest 50th Anniversary Edition. Okay, it’s a thriller, not horror, but hey, it’s Hitchcock. Simply put, this is the best looking BD transfer we’ve yet seen. The first HD Hitchcock on home video comes as the result of an extensive (and expensive) restoration effort that is nothing short of breathtaking. Many believed that color value issues have plagued many earlier releases of the film; with the studio tweaking them too much to get that extra “pop” – but the image on this version you can practically drink. Everything about this release, from the book-style case to the extras – right down to the superb cover art just whispers ‘class’.
The Prisoner – Complete Series. The UK release may be more of a conversation piece – we’d still love to flip through the hard back book that came with it – but the lower price point of the domestic set (Amazon had a nearly 50% discount) made this one of the year’s best values. The brainchild of much-missed star Patrick McGoohan, The Prisoner is a genuine television landmark that only grows more impressive with each passing year (unlike AMC’s recent retooling, an entertaining but utterly forgettable experience). Unlike many other UK shows of the time, this was shot on 35mm (as opposed to the cheaper and more common 16mm), and A&E uses the same beautiful transfers as the lauded UK set, making this the best that the show has ever looked.
Repulsion. Another Criterion release that has been stalking the shelves over the years in several incarnations dating back to their original Laserdisc. The supplements may not have changed (no reason to – they’re terrific) but it’s been fun to watch the image quality – the most important aspect of any release – get better and better. Roman Polanski’s paranoid, hallucinatory horror has never looked better, with its precise B&W photography leading us alongside Catherine Deneuve as she descends into madness within the confines of a South Kensington flat.
Star Trek – Season 1. Though any of Paramount’s full-season sets of the original series could have made the list (even with their typically high price points, thankfully whipped into shape by large online discounts), the first season of the original Star Trek series is still the show’s finest. Not just for the quality of the episodes (a list which includes “Arena”, “Balance of Terror”, and our personal favorite, “The Galileo Seven”) but because the show was simply better produced in its first year; notice the rich lighting schemes, utilizing complex shadows and gels, that are mostly absent from later seasons. Episodes can be viewed in their original form or in the (extraordinarily well done) enhanced versions with new digital special effects. Menu navigation has been improved over the HD-DVD version – we don’t miss the ride in the turbo lift. The only black mark is the lack of an episode guide, something Paramount did include on the previous SD DVD sets.
Star Trek (2009). What more can be said? J J Abrams performed what we thought would have been an impossible feat this year, rebooting the Star Trek feature film franchise that had all but been beaten into the ground after a run of lackluster Next Generation films. Everything about the franchise feels new – and not just the music, photography (love those lens flares), and costumes – but the jaunty style and boundless energy of the cast (with particular honors going to Pine and Quinto who had the biggest shoes to fill). Beloved by geeks and norms alike, the film was a well-deserved triumph, raising expectations for the BD release that were met, and then some; a gorgeous image, a thumping yet subtle soundtrack, and well-chosen extras.
Trick ‘r Treat . Now here’s a rare Halloween treat, a horror film without ‘Saw’ in its title that was actually released in October (sort of). Why Warner Bros sat on director Michael Dougherty debut effort for 2 years is a mystery – one made even more mysterious by the fact that the few showings that they did allow at festivals received amazingly positive reactions. Trick ‘r Treat is a Valentine’s card to Halloween season – an intertwined anthology resembling Creepshow as filmed by Quentin Tarantino. A well-handled release could have netted a fortune for the studio, who even managed to screw up the video release by putting out too few copies, causing big box stores to routinely run out of stock. The Blu-Ray is a great show off for the lovingly photographed film, which also includes the nifty animated short that inspired the film’s lead character.
Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut. Clearly not to everyone’s taste, Zach Snyder’s long awaited film version of Alan Moore’s graphic novel masterpiece is, at worst, too slavish to its source material to really breathe on its own. But at its best, Watchmen is a panoramic look at an alternate-universe 1980s where powerless masked heroes match wits with a mysterious villain who seems to be targeting them. The Ultimate Cut incorporates all the changes that were made to the Director’s Cut from the previous BD edition, and adds the Tales of the Black Freighter storyline (the comic that the kid is reading at the newsstand which had been a larger part of Moore’s graphic novel) – pushing the running time over the 200-minute mark.
Zodiac. Alright, we promise that this will be the last time we’ll be putting Zodiac on any year-end best list. David Fincher’s true-crime masterpiece was the best film of 2007, the HD-DVD was the best disc release of 2008, and the BD release early in 2009 qualifies it to appear here as well. The digitally-shot film looks luminous on BD, a pure, direct transfer of the theatrical experience, and the extras are among the best, most thought-out we’ve ever seen – both in terms of the film itself and the actual (and still officially open) case.
…And a Not So Special Mention
Not all was glory in the land of cinefantastique BD releases. Here are some of the worst and/or most disappointing.
Godzilla – King of the Monsters. A reminder to studios of what can happen when a sub-standard SD master is brushed-off and passed-off as HD. While it’s true that Classic Media could only work with what they get from Toho Studios, a basic quality check should have stopped this from ever leaving the pressing plant (1080i?!?)
The Legend of the Drunken Master is not the same movie as Drunken Master II. The problem, of course, is that Miramax probably doesn’t even know that an alternate version exists. Legend is edited and dubbed (though Jackie added his own voice at least) featuring a crummy new soundtrack and sound effects thought to be more pleasing to Western ears.
Catwoman. Think of the titles of all your favorite films currently unavailable on BD and insert them here.
Gladiator. DNR runs rampant over this disc, with digital scrubbers working so hard that actual, vital film images have been removed. See the first battle scene and watch the Romans launch fiery balls of nothing in their catapults. A redo of this is in order – now.
The Last Emperor. Vittorio Storaro’s unified theory of aspect ratio strikes again, with Criterion allowing hi m final say over their transfer and cropping the 2.35×1 image down to something closer to 2.0×1. Not only does this violate Criterion’s mission statement (to present films in their original aspect ratio) but it ruins an otherwise wonderful release.
The French Connection. William Friedkin will certainly never be accused of viewing the world through rose colored glasses, but that’s exactly what you’ll think you were wearing while watching this BD. Wild Billy is very frank about his theories behind the changes in color timing (there’s even an extra devoted to the color timing on the disc) but that doesn’t change the fact that this gritty masterpiece is now a pastel-colored mess on Blu-Ray, bad enough in some scenes that there is actually less detail than the SD DVD. And for those of you thinking, “They came for Connection, and I said nothing”, keep in mind that color timing for The Exorcist BD is already underway under his supervision.
Let the Right One In. One of the best genre films of recent years deserves better than to have the English subtitles simplified to the point of ridiculousness. It’s one of those head-scratching errors (like the recent omission of 10 minutes from John Huston’s The Dead) that never seem to get an adequate explanation. A revised edition is out, but no exchange program announced for those duped into buying the original release. Not too smart to alienate those who pre-order…