Blu-Ray Review- The Babadook
Distributor: Scream Factory
Street Date: April 14th 2015
Technical Specifications: 1080P Video, Color, 2.35:1 Aspect Ratio, 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
Runtime: 93 Minutes
“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t rid of the Babadook”
Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook will stay with you long after the final credits roll. It’s not your typical Horror film, and I’m actually finding it difficult to describe it as anything but an incredibly well-executed drama that happens to feature some horror elements. It’s about grief, loss, and the struggles of parenting. There is indeed a Babadook…but exactly what is it and what does it represent? Jennifer Kent has crafted a unique little masterpiece that steps outside the lines of Horror and forces it’s viewers to dig deeper.
In The Babadook, Amelia Vannick (Essie Davis) is a single mother raising her 7-year old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), a child with considerable emotional and behavioral needs. Years prior, Samuel’s father was killed in a car accident while driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth to him. The accident has left Amelia with nightmares, and left her son without a father figure in his life to aid in raising him. Samuel’s daily behaviors wreak havoc on Amelia’s sleep, and things grow more desperate when Samuel brings some homemade weapons to school and gets expelled.
One night the pair decides to read a mysterious pop-up book called The Babadook that Samuel finds in his room. The story starts out innocently enough, but grows more disturbing as they read on. The top-hat wearing, clawed menace from the book begins to haunt their dreams, and soon spills into their everyday life. As sleepless nights begin to make it hard to differentiate one day from the next, and fantasy from reality, Amelia and Samuel fight for their lives against the mysterious Babadook.
My plot synopsis is purposely vague, as I would hate to ruin this fantastic tale for the viewer. Jennifer Kent expanded upon some great ideas she displayed in her short film Monster, and crafted a true genre masterpiece with The Babadook. The acting from Essie Davis in particular is stellar, making for a performance that evokes incredible sympathy from the viewer. Young Noah Wiseman is also particularly good here, delivering a believable portrayal of a boy terrorized by not just a “monster”, but in knowing that he’s different from his peers. The Babadook is both scary and dramatically effective, with plenty of style and atmosphere that easily bests most modern day Horror fare, and comes highly recommended.
This brand new HD transfer of the film looks simply splendid. The interiors of the house offer up a nice blue-gray color palette, which look gorgeously drab. Facial features and fine object detail are a standout, with fantastic depth and clarity throughout. Black levels are also as solid as can be, with an inky perfection that works wonderfully for this type of genre (where anything could pop out from behind the shadows). There isn’t even the slightest hint of artifacts or blemishes here. The Babadook looks perfect on this Blu-Ray from Scream Factory.
The 5.1 DTS-HD audio track is a solid one, and pairs well with the fantastic video quality. Dialogue comes through clean and clear, and the brooding music and background effects are perfectly captured here. The sound design of this relatively single-space film really envelops you in your home theater, maximizing the anxiety while watching.
Scream Factory has provided fans of The Babadook with a fantastic selection of bonus features for this Blu-Ray release. Here’s a breakdown of what’s included:
- Jennifer Kent’s Short Film, Monster: This short film from director Jennifer Kent runs just over ten minutes and shares some thematic qualities with The Babadook. Filmed in Black and White, the story centers on a mother struggling with her son’s insistence that his doll is real. She hides the doll in the downstairs closet, which only unleashes a further disturbance in their home. The “monster” of the film shares more than a few qualities with The Babadook (claws/hands), and the pop-up book that she reads to her son was obviously an early influence on her later film as well. This was rather brilliant, and definitely offers up some scares in a short amount of time.
- Deleted Scenes– Nearly 3 minutes of deleted scenes from the film include: Amelia picking Sam up from school after his suspension, Amelia checking-in on Sam after the birthday party mishap, and Amelia bringing Sam to Gracie’s before her shift. The first two scenes were easily left on the cutting room floor, but I would have welcomed the addition of the final one. Gracie’s line “It’s not a crime to ask for help love” is quite moving, and it further allows the viewer to experience Amelia’s daily struggle.
- Creating the Book with illustrator Alex Juhasz- This nearly 4 minute featurette has designer Alex Juhasz (of The United States of Tara’s opening sequence) discussing and showcasing his handmade pop-up book featured in The Babadook. I loved hearing Alex discuss his designs and the process that he used to create something unique in a territory he was fairly unfamiliar with. Great stuff!
- A Tour of the House Set- This featurette runs nearly 7 minutes and has the crew showing the process that went into creating the interior sets of the house featured in the film. It’s interesting to hear from the crew regarding their color and design choices for the set, which feature a very storybook-like quality to them.
- The Stunts: Jumping the Stairs– This short featurette runs almost 2 minutes and offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Essie Davis, Jennifer Kent, and the stunt coordinator trying to make a flying-wire sequence work as Essie’s character is moving quickly up the stairs.
- Special Effects: The Stabbing Scene– This one runs 1 ½ minutes and has the crew showcasing the effects work that goes into a “stabbing” sequence in a Horror film, which pretty much just includes clothing and a leg of lamb. What a fun job these folks have!
- Behind the Scenes- Yet another behind-the-scenes featurette that runs nearly 3 minutes and features Jennifer Kent directing the birthday party sequence from the film and one of Amelia’s long nights “zoned out” in front of the television.
- Cast and Crew Interviews- This is the most extensive portion of the bonus features, with individual interviews with many members of the cast and crew. The entire feature runs over an hour in length, but for those of you wanting to dig more in-depth on the film’s deeper meanings, it’s all rather insightful.
- Theatrical Trailer- This is actually several theatrical trailers for the film that last nearly 5 minutes altogether.
As you can see from the “Unboxing” pictures below, this Blu-Ray edition from Scream Factory features some of the most brilliant artwork and overall design of the year thus far. The red matte finish slipcover opens up to reveal a 3D pop-up book effect of the Babadook himself, along with the now-famous tagline from the movie. On the reverse of the packaging you’ll find a plot synopsis, a list of special features and technical specifications, and a continuation of the artwork. On the interior of the slipcover is the standard Blu-Ray case, which has reversible artwork for fans to choose from. The interior of the case features the Blu-Ray disc which also has some standout artwork. Hats off to Shout! Factory’s Mindy Kang for the packaging design!
The Babadook will stay with you long after the final credits roll. It’s not your typical Horror film, being both scary and dramatically effective, with plenty of style and atmosphere that easily bests most modern day genre fare. Jennifer Kent has crafted a unique little masterpiece that steps outside the genre lines and forces it’s viewers to dig deeper. The Blu-Ray edition from Scream Factory features truly outstanding video and audio quality, a wealth of fun bonus material, and the best packaging job of 2015 thus far. The “pop-up” book slipcover is a genius design, and is especially welcome for admirers of unique home video packaging. The Babadook comes highly recommended.
Blu-Ray Review- Blind Woman’s Curse
Distributor: Arrow Video USA
Street Date: March 24th 2015
Technical Specifications: 1080P Video, Color, 2.44:1 Aspect Ratio, Japanese Mono PCM Audio
Runtime: 85 Minutes
Teruo Ishii’s Blind Woman’s Curse is a bizarre and highly entertaining mix of samurai films and traditional Japanese ghost stories. Having seen this and Lady Snowblood after the fact, it’s very clear that Director Quentin Tarantino paid homage to these violent yet strangely beautiful films from the Nikkatsu and Toho catalogs with his Kill Bill series.
In the beginning of the film we meet Akemi (Meiko Kaji), leader of the Tachibana yakuza clan, as she leads her fellow dragon tattooed warriors against a rival gang. This sequence is one of the most beautiful battle scenes I have encountered in film, with a mix of fast action and slow motion camera techniques capturing the dueling samurai swords clashing in the rain. The showdown comes to a screeching halt with Akemi blinding the brother of the rival gang’s leader, Boss Goda. A black cat licks the blood from the injured girls face, growling and staring at Akema as she becomes cursed for what she has done.
We follow Akemi to her prison experience some time later, as she tells her story to fellow female inmates. The blind girl and black cat are giving her nightmares, and she knows revenge will soon follow. Cut to three years later, the local villages are in a state of unrest as the rival gang war over territory reaches a new peak. The blind woman slowly begins to exact her revenge on Akemi’s gang, skinning the dragon tattoos from their backs one-by-one.
Director Ishii’s film is heavy on style and mood, but has a sense of humor about the story at hand as well, as evidence by some of the outrageous facial expressions left on the blind woman’s victims. The female characters are very strong in this, with some of the male roles left solely for comic relief. This is a welcome gender role change from other Japanese films that proceeded Blind Woman’s Curse, helping to usher in a new era in cult cinema’s tough women.
The climactic showdown between Akemi and the blind woman is skillfully done and a treat for genre fans. This movie is a lot of fun, everything from the sincere performances, light comedic moments, matte painting backgrounds, set design, and musical score creates a mood that is undeniably cult and consistently entertaining.
Arrow Video’s US release for Blind Woman’s Curse features an updated transfer that is even more impressive than the UK release counterpart. The US version looks slightly darker by comparison, with better contrast and a more authentic overall look to the film. From my original UK review: Arrow Video has breathed new life into this 1970 cult-classic with a 1080P transfer that retains the look of the time period, yet graces us with a remastered image that looks great on a High Definition screen. Colors are authentic and bold, from the slightly blue hue of the timing to the bright red blood spraying on the walls, there is a balance here that looks marvelous. There is some minor print damage in some scenes including scratches and “pops”, but it’s never distracting and adds to the cult atmosphere. Detail is crystal clear in most scenes, particularly close-up shots of the main cast. I also didn’t detect any digital noise reduction or edge enhancement on the transfer, which is always a bonus for those of us that appreciate the original intended look of the film. This is yet another standout transfer from Arrow.
The uncompressed Linear PCM mono track included here is surprisingly powerful, even though it doesn’t have the dynamic range of HD 5.1. Dialogue is supported very well, as are the incredible action scenes. There is a respectable balance to the audio that Arrow provided, and it absolutely sounds authentic to the time period of the film. Swords clang and clash, blood squirts, and flesh peals in glorious detail. There’s a little bit of everything to find safely balanced on this track. Well done.
Arrow Video USA has included the same decent if not relatively limited bonus content here, but the audio commentary alone is extremely informative and well worth listening to. Here’s a breakdown of what’s included:
- Audio Commentary by Japanese Cinema Expert Jasper Sharp– Truly an expert on the genre and time period for Japanese cinema, Jasper’s commentary makes for a very entertaining audio experience.
- Original Theatrical Trailer– This is a short but fun trailer for the film that originally played in front of Japanese audiences in 1970.
- Stray Cat Rock Trailer Series– Four trailers for Nikkatsu studio films also starring Meiko Kaji.
As you can see from the “Unboxing” pictures below, this US Blu-Ray edition from Arrow Video features some spectacular cover art featuring Meiko Kaji and her dragon tattoo by artist Gilles Vranckx. You also have the option of reversing the sleeve for alternate art as well. The included Blu-Ray and DVD discs also feature some nice art with a blood-red color scheme. You will also find a very detailed booklet with behind-the-scenes photographs and an essay by Tom Mes titled Meiko’s Adventures in Professor Ishii’s Erotic-Grotesque Wonderland.
Blind Woman’s Curse is an enormously entertaining cult mix of Japanese samurai films, yakuza culture, and traditional ghost stories. With an odd but fascinating mix of drama, action, and dark comedy, there is a little something for everyone in this film. Though the audio track remains similar to the UK version, the new US transfer from Arrow Video is top notch, further elevating the already sharp looking disc with better contrast and a more pleasing darker image. Though this release is still slightly lacking in the bonus features department, it’s a minor quibble in the scheme of things. Serving as one of Arrow Video’s flagship titles for their upcoming US releases, Blind Woman’s Curse remains an absolute treat to add to the collection, and comes highly recommended.
Blu-Ray Review- Mark of the Devil
Distributor: Arrow Video USA
Street Date: March 17th 2015
Technical Specifications: 1080P Video, Color, 1.66:1 Aspect Ratio, Linear PCM Mono Audio
Runtime: 97 Minutes
The subject of Witchcraft throughout history, along with the truly evil individuals who accused the innocent, has long been a staple of Horror cinema. It is often the most nightmarish history of humankind that makes for the most captivating Horror films, and Mark of the Devil stands alongside Witchfinder General (a.k.a. The Conqueror Worm) as one of the genre’s best.
Based on “authentic documents” from three cases in British history, Mark of the Devil opens with disturbing brutality, as the accused townsfolk in an 18th century Austrian village are burned at the stake and tarred and feathered for their roles in supposed Witchcraft. Count Christian Von Meruh (Udo Kier) eagerly awaits the arrival of his master Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom); the Chief Witchfinder in the region. He respects his master as a good pupil does, but grows increasingly weary of the judgments they are forced to hand down with little evidence. It doesn’t help that Christian’s local love interest Vanessa (the lovely Olivera Vuco) has been accused of Witchcraft from a fellow Witchfinder named Albino (a truly nasty performance from Reggie Nalder). As the number of innocents accused grows substantially, the ulterior motives and hypocrisy of Christian’s superiors becomes more evident. Tensions build and relationships crumble as Christian leads the townspeople in an uprising against the Witchfinders he once aligned with.
Mark of the Devil is a handsomely produced film, aside from the English dubbing of what must have been hard to understand German and Italian accents, which can be quite absurd at times. In the end though, it strangely enhances the unique flavor of the film overall. The beautiful location scenery is truly something to behold, along with historical buildings that once held actual witchcraft trials and public executions that add to the “creepy” factor of some scenes. The score from Michael Holm is also a standout aspect of the film, consistently raising the tension and suspense as the film progressively grows more disturbing. The gore, for the time, must have been fairly difficult to stomach for audiences, and remains disturbing especially given the actual history behind the true cases the film used as inspiration. Mark of the Devil was a treat to revisit in High Definition, and makes for an impressive North American Blu-Ray debut from Arrow Video.
Arrow Video makes their U.S. debut with a stellar transfer for Mark of the Devil. Simply gorgeous is an understatement. To be honest, I was a little worried during the “fish-eye” lens opening credit sequence, which appears intentionally Vaseline-smeared, but features more than few unwelcome artifacts. But as soon as the credits are over, the vibrant colors light up the screen, the natural film grain is intact, and definition and detail in faces, clothing and scenery are pristine. The bright-orange blaze of the witch burnings, crimson red blood, and lush green summer scenery all add to the beauty of this transfer. Extremely well done!
The Linear PCM mono audio track does a fine job, even with the sometimes laughably bad dubbing that accompanies the print. It’s a front heavy track that captures the music, background effects, and subtle sound design well enough for fans, while never fully capturing the immersive experience of a multi-channel job.
Arrow Video has provided fans of Mark of the Devil with an incredible array of bonus material for this Blu-Ray release. Here’s a breakdown of what’s included:
- Audio Commentary by Michael Armstrong– The Director sits down (along with moderator) to discuss the Blu-Ray release of the Uncut version of his film. Fans will be incredibly pleased with Mr. Armstrong’s behind-the-scenes stories from the making of the film, its controversial subject matter and advertising in both Britain and America, and discussion of the actors from the film. Fantastic and informative!
- Mark of the Times: The New Wave of British Bloodshed- This documentary from High Rising Productions focuses on the “new wave” of British Horror directors from the 1960’s and 1970’s and features contributions from several experts in the field. Clocking in at over 47 minutes, this piece offers fascinating insight into the British Horror genre including the catalog of beloved Hammer films. Filmed in High Definition, this is a nice companion piece to this set and is endlessly engaging for fans of the genre.
- Hellmark of the Devil– This featurette has author Michael Gingold (of Fangoria fame) discussing the distributor of Mark of the Devil, Hallmark Releasing Corp., and runs just over 12 minutes. Hallmark’s unique advertising of their films released in America included the “barf bag” gimmick, posters featuring stills & actors from other films, and creative trailers that offered truly groundbreaking slogans that pulled audiences into theaters.
- Mark of the Devil: Then and Now- This featurette runs just over 7 minutes and features some truly gorgeous locations from the film, as seen in the film, and how they appear now in 2015. Set against the film’s score and a series of running images, it’s fairly simple but effective nonetheless, and makes one appreciate the lengths the filmmakers went to achieve some breathtaking location shoots among the landscapes and architectural beauty.
- Interviews- Several separate interviews are presented including Udo Kier, Michael Holm, Herbert Fux, Gaby Fuchs, Ingeborg Schoner, and Herbert Lom. Udo Kier’s take on the film’s production is especially fascinating, as he details the issues regarding Michael Armstrong being credited as the Director even though the production designer actually finished shooting the film. Udo felt that Michael had “too many artistic ideas” for the studio heads to deal with at the time. Great stuff!
- Outtakes- Just over 3 minutes of random footage/test shots from the film. Some of the “clapper” scenes and effects shots are seen here from production. I may add that the footage is in ridiculously good shape! Looks beautiful in high definition.
- Gallery- Posters, lobby cards, VHS sleeves, and other memorabilia from collector Christian Holzmann that lasts about 2 ½ minutes.
- Trailer- The original theatrical trailer for the film runs roughly 3 ½ minutes and is in pretty good shape! The gory trailer includes some of the great effects shots from the film, nudity, and plenty of thrilling suspense scenes.
This Blu-Ray edition from Arrow Video features impressive newly-commissioned artwork Graham Humphreys and has the likes of Udo Kier, Herbert Lom, and Reggie Nalder on the cover, along with some horrific witch-hunt imagery. On the reverse of the packaging you’ll find a plot synopsis, production stills, a list of special features, and technical specifications. On the interior of the case is the Blu-Ray disc complete with a reversible wrap featuring the original theatrical artwork. Last but not least, an illustrated booklet is included featuring essays by Adrian Smith and Anthony Nield. This is quite the gorgeous package!
Mark of the Devil stands alongside Witchfinder General as one of the best the sub-genre has to offer. The film itself is handsomely produced, with beautiful location scenery and historical buildings that once held actual witchcraft trials, which add to its eerie effectiveness. The Blu-Ray edition offers up a gorgeous transfer with vibrant colors and natural film grain, along with an impressive audio track to boot. The special features are the absolute standout though, with the Mark of the Times documentary and captivating featurettes that will surely please fans of the film. Mark of the Devil was a treat to revisit in High Definition, and makes for an impressive North American Blu-Ray debut from Arrow Video.