Sense of Wonder: Evil of Frankenstein, Suspiria and the Blu-ray Experience

The Baron prepares to create life in THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN
The Baron prepares to create life in THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN
Should horror, fantasy and science fiction fans with large DVD collections upgrade to Blu-ray? Read on for the experience of one DVD hold-out who finally made the change.

Last week I finally broke down and brought a Blu-ray player. Being a late adopter of new technology, I had put off this purchase as long as possible. I was happy with the DVD format and with the Roku box that allows me to stream Netflix movies instantly onto my 50-inch high-definition television. I knew that Blu-ray offered improved picture quality, and that it would even upgrade the look of my old DVDs, but I wasn’t sure the improvement was worth the money, especially when product reviews suggested that low-end, affordable players were not reliable; for the money, an upgrade DVD player sounded like a more reasonable alternative.  And so I sat, poised on the cusp of indecision, until the home video industry forced my hand.
Why do I say forced? Because, with increasing frequency, DVDs are being released without bonus features that are available on Blu-ray. I’m not talking about features that are possible only with the Blu-ray format, such as picture-in-picture and BD Live; I’m talking about material that once would have been a no-brainer for inclusion on a DVD, such as the alternate endings and behind-the-scenes featurettes that were included on Universal Pictures’ Blu-ray release of THE WOLF MAN but not on the DVD (unless you purchased the two-disc DVD available only as an in-store offer at Best Buy).
Even worse, we are seeing more and more examples of DVDs being released without any bonus features at all, a move that seems deliberately designed to drive the format out of existence. Why purchase a bare-bones DVD of SHERLOCK HOLMES or SHUTTER ISLAND when you could get the Blu-ray with all the extras? (Perhaps these DVDs still appeal to casual viewers who want only to rent, but without bonus features there is no advantage to opting for the disc instead of watching the films via Video on Demand.)
So, when I had an opportunity to get an advance review copy of the new Blu-ray disc for JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, I decided it was time to leave the past behind and boldly embrace the future. After checking out prices and reading some reviews, I opted for the new Insignia Blu-ray Disc Player (model NS-WBRDVD), which offers built-in Wi-Fi connectability to the Internet.
Insignia is the in-store brand for Best Buy; its purpose is to offer good value for customers who do not want – or cannot afford – to go top of the line. My high-def television is Insignia, and it has provided extremely satisfying results for a price that no other brand could match, so I felt confident in selecting their Blu-ray player. Although many reviews warn against going economical when choosing this particular piece of technology, the previous Insignia Blu-ray player (model NS-2BRDVD) had a good reputation; the newer model added wireless capability and, on sale, was available for almost the same price ($129, marked down from $179).
Now, at last we get to the point of this little rumination, answering the question that all you other DVD hold-outs are asking: Was the purchase worth the price? Yes, with one caveat, related not to the disc functionality but to the alleged wireless capability. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
When I popped the Blu-ray disc of JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH into the machine, I saw graphics and images that looked every bit as clear and beautiful as the displays you see in the electronics sections of stores eager to lure you into adopting the Blu-ray format. That was more or less expected, but it’s always good to see expectation met and even exceeded.

Peter Cushing throws the switch, bringing life to his creation
Peter Cushing throws the switch, bringing life to his creation

Since I was not planning to run out and buy a casket-full of Blu-ray discs, the  factor that would immediately determine whether the new player was worth the money was whether or not it would improve the look of my old DVDs. To answer this, I selected my standard test subject: Hammer Films’ THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1963), available on the Hammer Horror Series DVD box set. One of many colorful horror films starring the late Peter Cushing as the brilliant Baron, THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN is far from the best in the series, but it has at least one stand-out sequence: a lengthy flashback, almost totally without dialogue, in which we see Frankenstein bring his creature to life.
The highly visual sequence, filled with impressive sets, props, and special effects (all carefully captured by the graceful camera of director Freddie Francis), is the one I use to judge any new piece of home video equipment; I previously played it on my first large screen television and again when that technological dinosaur was replaced by the current high-def widescreen set. Would the EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN DVD look even better with its standard-definition signal upgraded by the Blu-ray player to suit the high-definition monitor?
Unless my eyes deceive me, the answer is an unqualified yes. This DVD release was roundly criticized when it came out, from compressing two movies per side onto a double-sided disc, yet I have always found the results pleasing to watch, probably because the films themselves looked so good, with that slightly artificial sheen to the color and sets that leaves “realism” somewhat beside the point. On the new Blu-ray player, THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN looked slightly better than before – a rich, beautiful experience that does not leave one unsatisfied. (And a good thing, too – because the film is not available on Blu-ray, so this is the best the movie is going to look for the foreseeable future.)
Suzy (Jessica Harper) at the climax of SUSPIRIA.
Suzy (Jessica Harper) at the climax of SUSPIRIA.

After THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, I next tried out the final chapter stop from the limited edition THX-Mastered DVD of SUSPIRIA. I chose this particular disc because Dario Argento’s 1977 film has long been noted for its striking visuals; even more important, the disc itself includes a series of tests to calibrate your television set to recreate the colors and tones of the theatrical version. With this kind of exactitude, the SUSPIRIA DVD seemed like another perfect test for the capacity of the Blu-ray player to upgrade the signal for a high-def television.
Again, the results were extremely satisfying. The widescreen image (slightly letterboxed, even on a widescreen monitor) betrayed traces of film grain – about the only detail marring an otherwise splendid image. The highly artificial colors came through loud and clear, practically popping off the screen, with a clarity beyond what had previously been delivered by the old DVD player. Even my wife, no fan of the film’s over-the-top violence, volunteered that the picture quality was “beautiful.”
Of course, the DVD is still no match for a Blu-ray disc, and I”m sure a SUSPRIRIA Blu-ray would look even better; nevertheless, the improvement in the DVD image is noticeable, and I think anyone sitting on the fencepost about whether to upgrade really should consider this. If you’re like me, you hesitate, thinking you don’t want to replace all your old DVDs with new Blu-ray discs – but even if you hold onto those old discs, they will look better, especially on a plasma TV, whose deep blacks are suited for cinematic visuals (as opposed to LCD TVs, which reportedly are better suited to sports broadcasts).
Sci-Fi films like AVATAR showcase the beauties of Blu-ray high-def.
Sci-Fi films like AVATAR showcase the beauties of Blu-ray high-def.

This consideration is especially important for Cinefantastique readers. Horror, fantasy, and science fiction films offer opportunities for visual extravagance far beyond the levels seen in most non-genre films. Does it really make much difference whether you see THE BLIND SIDE or 12 ANGRY MEN in high-def – maybe, but not as much as seeing AVATAR, STAR TREK, BLADE RUNNER, or LORD OF THE RINGS.
The next big question is whether or not you will eventually opt to replace your DVD collection. My first impression is that I’m in no hurry. Although Blu-ray has the capacity to deliver a much better image, you do have to contend with the picture quality of the original source: I’m sure that old movies shot in formats like 70mm or Super Panavision (such as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) will look much improved on Blu-ray, but I’m not sure that some old exploitation opus with grainy cinematography will benefit from a Blu-ray transfer – short of a complete digital restoration. For the time being I am content to hold onto the DVDs, but I will finally get around to replacing the still lingering laserdisc collection.
So, would I recommend the Insignia Blu-ray player? Well, that depends on the one caveat I mentioned earlier: although I purchased the unit to replace both my DVD player and the Roku box, I have not yet been able to get the wireless functionality to function, which means I cannot use the Insignia player to stream Netflix Instant Movies (or any other video on demand service). Judging from a search around the Internet, I am far from the only one to suffer this problem. I have no doubt that there is a way to overcome this obstacle (if worse came to worse, I could hook the Blu-ray player to the Internet by an Ethernet cable); but frankly, overcoming an obstacle should not even be a consideration when paying $129 for a brand-new piece of technology. My old Roku box cost $99, and it worked the first time I fired it up. If Roku wireless connection to the Internet easy, then Insignia should be able to do the same, without putting their customers to unnecessary trouble.
insignia blu-ray
click to purchase

My conclusion is that, had I paid full price for the Insignia player, I would feel that the extra $50 (for the new wireless model) would have been wasted; however, since I got the player for the same price as the old, pre-wireless model, I am not inclined to take the unit back to the store and demand a refund. Since I still have my Roku box, I can use that for instant streaming of movies. But customers seeking both a Blu-ray player and a movie-streamer in a single device should be aware of the potential problem; you may be better off spending a little bit more for a player whose wireless capacity works without resorting to customer service.

NOTE: This article has been expanded since its initial posting.

Hammer Horror Series – Retrospective DVD Review

Yesterday, in a review of THE RAVEN (1935), I mentioned that, although the number of my DVD purchases is rapidly declining, thanks to the availability of movies through services like Netflix Instant Viewing and Amazon.com’s Video on Demand, I still appreciate the opportunity to own a boxful of favorite titles at a discount price, even if there is a diminished bit-rate that results from compressing two films onto one side of the same disc. After recently obtaining a 50-inch widescreen plasma television, I hauled out my Hammer Horror Series box set and tried out a few films, just to see how they looked, and the results were fantastic – not Blu-ray quality to be sure, but nevertheless bold and beautiful, as Hammer Horror should be. BRIDES OF DRACULA, CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN – all of them looked great. Perhaps a more perceptive eye than mine could have detected some flaws such as artifacting, but I found the viewing experience to be perfectly satisfying.
For those of you who do not know, Hammer was an English movie production company that began remaking Universal’s horror classics in the 1950s, except that Hammer’s films were in Technicolor instead of black-and-white, and for the filmmakers were not afraid to actually show things like vampire fangs and a stake going through the heart. Many of the best films were produced by Anthony Hinds, directed by Terence Fisher, and written by Jimmy Sangster, with Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin in STAR WARS) and/or Christopher Lee (Count Dooku REVENGE OF THE SITH) in the starring roles.
The initial spate of Hammer films (CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, HORROR OF DRACULA) were not really remakes, strictly speaking; rather, they were new films based on the same literary source material. After the first few, Universal Pictures struck a deal with Hammer, which did result in some literal remakes (such as the Hammer version of THE MUMMY, which draws from several elements in the Universal series of films from the ’30s and ’40s).
The two-disc “Hammer Horror Series” contains eight films from the British studio that reshaped the horror genre in its own bloody image. The titles all came out in the early 1960s, when the company was simultaneously sequelizing their earlier hits and also poking around the in the graveyard for new spirits to evoke. Thus we get not only sequels like BRIDES OF DRACULA and EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN but also new versions of old monsters (PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF), interesting variations on familiar themes (KISS OF THE VAMPIRE), and a couple of black-and-white psychological thrillers (NIGHTMARE, PARAONOIAC).
What is especially nice about this collectionis that, although most of the more famous horror titles were already gathered together in the previous “Hammer Horror Collection” DVD box set, the films on the Hammer Horror Series DVDs are amost equally deserving of attention: all are entertaining; most are quite good, and a couple are classic in their own right; combined together, they make a must-have collector’s item for fans:
BRIDES OF DRACULA is the second in the company’s Dracula series. Although it suffers from the absence of Christopher Lee’s Count, Peter Cushing is back as Van Helsing, fighting off a handsome blond vampire (the obvious inspiration for Anne Rice’s Vampire Lestat). The production values are excellent and the story packs a few surprises.

Oliver Reeds Leon takes a turn for the worse
Oliver Reed's Leon takes a turn for the worse

CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF remains probably the best werewolf movie ever made. You don’t see the wolf much; the story is more like a tragic history of a hapless human, cursed from birth with the taint of lycanthropy, which emerges briefly in his younger years, then sprouts full-blown as as adult. The late Oliver Reed plays the werewolf; the film is very good but very depressing (it ends tragically, as most werewolf movies do).
PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was an attempt to do a different kind of “horror film,” with an emphasis on bigger production values and the tragic romance at the core of the story. (Supposedly, Cary Grant was slated to play the title character, so the script was written to de-emphasize the horror.) It’s an admirable effort but not quite the masterpiece it was intended to be; still, it’s much better than the interminable Claude Rains version from the 1940s.
PARANOIAC and NIGHTMARE are two psycho-thrillers, of which Hammer made several in the 1960s, following Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. The Hammer efforts are not match for Hitchcock, but they are good-looking productions, and director Freddie Francis (an Oscar-winning cinematographer) knew how to use the camera to good effect, even if the scritpts are a bit mechanical in their attempts to yield unguessable surprise endings.
KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, for some reason, is the Hammer film for people who don’t like Hammer films. Although I’m not quite sure why, I think it has something to do with the plot, which is structured a bit like a Hitchcock thriller: a honeymooning couple comes to town; the bride disappears; and when the husband searches for her, the locals claim never to have seen her. Of course, everyone is silent because they are in a thrall to the vampires in the castle. The film has a fairly remarkable ending: instead of stakes and crosses, a magic incantation sends a swarm of vampire bats that bleed the living dead dry. Unfortunately, the special effects are not as good as the concept, so the execution falls flat.
Also noteworthy: If you saw KISS OF THE VAMPIRE on late night television in the U.S.A., you saw a bastardized version. Not only were things cut out, but also new scenes were added to pad out the running time. And we do mean pad: absolutely interminable dialogue with periphieral characters who never interact with the main cast, but just stand off in the sidelines talking about stuff we already know.
NIGHT CREATURES is a bit of a fake-out. It’s actually a thriller about smugglers who disguise themselves as ghosts and/or monsters to scare everyone away and thus insure the secrecy of their operation.
EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN is actually one of Hammer’s lesser Frankenstein films, but Peter Cushing is, as always, interesting to watch in the role. The problem seems to have been that the film was designed to be more like the old Universal horror films, so the fresh and bold Hammer approach of the previous Frankenstein installments was abandoned in favor of embracing old-fashioned cliches like torch-wielding villagers. Like KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, this film had pointless new scenes added for American television.
The set is disappointing in only a couple of ways. First, there are no bonus features, not even a trailer. Second, the films included date from the period when Christopher Lee (who had co-starred with Peter Cushing in the first round of Hammer horror classics), was away in Italy, working on films like HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD; it seems a shame to have a Hammer box set in which one half of the greatest horror double team of all time is not represented by even a single title.

Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski. This version has been slightly updated.