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Posts Tagged ‘Italian Horror’

Torture Chamber: DVD Review

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

Torture Chamber (2012)

by Troy Howarth

torturechamber

Directed by Dante Tomaselli

Starring Vincent Pastore, Christie Sanford, Richard D. Busser, Carmen LoPorto, Lynn Lowry, Ron Millkie

A deeply religious woman inflicts psychological scars on her two children.  The older of the two, Mark, goes on to become a priest, while Jimmy is horribly burned in an accident and inflicts terror on everybody who encounters him.  The child is locked away but displays an ability to start fires and inflict harm without lifting a finger.  When he escapes, Dr. Fiore and Mark must attempt to find him before he succeeds in his mission of destroying his mother and anybody who gets in his way…

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Beginning with Desecration (1999), independent filmmaker Dante Tomaselli has established himself as a distinctive voice in the modern horror film.  Working on small budgets and outside of the studio system, Tomaselli explores deeply personal neuroses and obsessions in the context of commercial horror subjects.  Over the course of several films – Horror (2003), Satan’s Playground (2006) and now Torture Chamber – the filmmaker has grown in style and ability while refusing to compromise his very personal and very idiosyncratic vision.

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On the surface, it would seem fair to suggest that Tomaselli has learned much from the dreamy Italian horror films of the 1960s and 70s, but it would be unfair to suggest that he is a mere imitator.  Tomaselli’s approach is deliberately stylized but while he doesn’t shy away from visceral shocks, he doesn’t go in for the type of over the top grand guignol effects that one would expect to see in a film by, say, Lucio Fulci or even the latter-day Dario Argento.  The violence is rough when it occurs, but the film is more of a mood piece on the whole, juxtaposing the dreamworld with reality in such a way as to erase the boundary between the two altogether.  Tomaselli’s characters don’t act like real human beings simply because they’re not functioning in a realistic milieu dictated by concerns of logic.  If anything, they are pawns in a nightmarish dreamscape where anything can happen – and very often does.

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Torture Chamber builds upon the director’s earlier work and emerges as his most consistently accomplished film to date.  Production values are very good.  Makeup and effects are kept practical and old school, which is a major plus, and the various shock sequences are handled with a flair for the tactile which proves all the more effective in context.  The performances are quite good here, in contrast to the sometimes stilted performances found in, say, Desecration and Horror.  Child actor Carmen LoPorto does an impressive job as the monstrous Jimmy, while Christie Sanford is convincing as the religious zealot mother unknowingly causes the tragedy.  Name value is provided by Vincent Pastore (The Sopranos) and Lynn Lowery (I Drink Your Blood), both of whom give depth and gravitas to their characters.  Tomaselli’s excellent use of sound adds to the claustrophic, nightmarish vibe.  Viewers looking for a more straight-forward, linear approach to storytelling may find Tomaselli’s elliptical approach a little hard to warm to, but in a genre currently overloaded with bland remakes and endless sequels, Torture Chamber offers a refreshing alternative.

Video:

Torture Chamber makes its home video from Cinedigm.  The region 1 disc is presented in the appropriate 1.85 aspect ratio and has been enhanced for widescreen TVs.  The transfer is clean and colorful, with strong detail and no distracting authoring defects to report.  It’s a shame that they didn’t elect to give the film a Blu-ray release, as well, as the striking colors would have looked particularly impressive in that format, but even so – this is a handsome presentation.

Audio:

Audio options include a 2.0 stereo track and a 5.1 surround track.  Both tracks are in excellent shape, with the latter in particular having an added kick that really shows off Tomaselli’s intricate sound design.  Captioning options are included.

Extras:

This is where the release really falls down: Tomaselli has recorded some very good commentary tracks in the past, but for whatever reason he does not get a chance to do a commentary for this one… there isn’t even so much as an interview featurette.  All you get is a still gallery.

Film: ***1/2 out of *****

Video: ****1/2 out of *****

Audio: ****1/2 out of *****

Extras: * out of *****

Demons / Demons 2: Blu Ray Reviews

Friday, November 29th, 2013

 

Demons / Demons 2

by Troy Howarth

Demons (1985)

Directed by Lamberto Bava

Starring Urbano Barberini, Natasha Hovey, Karl Zinny, Paola Cozzo, Fiore Argento, Bobby Rhodes, Nicoletta Elmi

Demons 2 (1986)

Directed by Lamberto Bava

Starring David Knight, Nancy Brilli, Coralina Cataldi Tassoni, Asia Argento, Bobby Rhodes

Patrons at a movie theatre get more than they bargained for when the horror film they are watching spills over into reality, unleashing a hoarde of bloodthirsty monsters….

The Italian horror boom was on its last legs in the 1980s, but nobody really knew that at the time.  Dario Argento had usurped the crown of “King of Italian horror” from the late Mario Bava, forging a career as a major celebrity and auteur figure, when he decided to branch out into producing.  His former assistant, and son to the late Italian horror icon, Lamberto Bava had devised a concept for a horror anthology with his friend, screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti, and Argento saw it as a perfect vehicle for his first major “homegrown” Italian horror production.  Argento worked closely with Bava and Sacchetti, refining the concept as a stand-alone exercise in splattery special effects.  The end result, Demons, would become a major hit across the globe.

Lamberto Bava would seize the opportunity to pay tribute to the history of the Italian horror film by working in nods to the works of his father (the mask of the demon can’t help but remind one of Black Sunday) and producer Argento (a poster for Four Flies on Grey Velvet is seen hanging in the theatre lobby), but the style of the film is aggressively modern.  In many respects, it’s a representative horror film of its era, from its emphasis on splatter to its use of heavy metal blarring on the soundtrack.  The central concept is very clever but anybody looking for a cerebral exploration in meta-cinema will be disappointed: this is balls-to-the-wall horror from beginning to end, and there’s no room for subtlety.

Bava came to the film having made several films in the horror and action genres, but at the time of filming his career had yet to catch fire.  Mario had attempted to push Lamberto into directing much sooner, but it would take him until 1980 when he finally made the leap from assistant director to full-time feature film director.  The younger Bava attempted to involve his father in his debut, Macabre, but Mario was adamant that he should proceed without his influence.  The end result was a morbid gem, based in part on a real life horror story, and he would proceed to direct the giallo A Blade in the Dark and the action film Blastfighter.  His work had shown plenty of flair and promise, but it would take the success of Demons to put him into the upper echelon of Italian genre filmmakers.  The film moves at a tremendous clip and delivers on its promise for extreme gore and shocks.  Characterization is nil, however, making it difficult to become emotionally involved in the action.  Much of the acting is also broad and the English dubbing threatens to push the film into out-right parody.  Still, it succeeds where it should – but the end result is not necessarily among Bava’s finest work.

Even so, the film’s excess and abandon ensured that it would become a box office hit – thus necessitating a sequel.  Argento, for his part, was not necessarily keen on sequels, but he wasn’t about to miss out on an opportunity to infuse his production company with a stronger cash flow.  And thus it came to be that a sequel was rushed into production, with much the same production personnel… and one or two of the same cast members, albeit in different roles….

Demons 2 is set an indeterminate length of time after the events of part one; here, the contagion spreads via TV, as inhabitants of a high rise apartment building are beset by a new  plague of demons….

Demons 2 bears all the signs of having been a hastily assembled production.  Though graced with above average production values, the film has an overall cheap air which manifests itself in the highly uneven special effects work.  Sergio Stivaletti had risen to the challenge of making Demons one of the most memorably “wet” horror films of the 80s, but here his work feels half-finished, even amateurish at times.  The little imp demon which terrorizes one character can best be described as looking cute, and as for that dog demon… well, perhaps the less said, the better.  There’s also a serious issue with the tone of the film – on the one hand it feels a bit light, even camp, yet there’s every indication that this is meant to be taken pretty darn seriously.  It could be that Bava was having a bit of fun with the material – this is borne out by the opening shot of what appears to be blood dripping on a knife, which turns out to be jelly – but the end result is schizophrenic and doesn’t carry nearly the same charge as the original.

Given the film’s high rise setting, it would seem that Bava and co. were riffing on David Cronenberg’s Shivers.  Any attempt at social commentary is strictly superficial, however, as the demons set their sights on a group of overly pretty yuppies, ranging from a med student and his pregnant wife to a high class hooker visiting one of her clients.  Bobby Rhodes, cast as a pimp in the first film, returns as a tough talking gym trainer – and Asia Argento makes her debut as a little girl caught up in the carnage.  None of the actors really get much of a chance to develop anything resembling a characterization, but Coralina Cataldi Tassoni (who would go on to play roles for Argento in Opera, Phantom of the Opera and Mother of Tears) clearly had a fun time playing the spoiled brat-turned-demon who causes much of the damage.

For all its shortcomings, Demons 2 is still a reasonably enjoyable horror film.  Simon Boswell contributes a memorable main theme, and the “lighter” rock fare contrasts nicely to the use of metal on the first film’s soundtrack.  Both films nevertheless fail to come to grips with the full potential of their central concept, making them relatively minor in the context of Italian horror history.  Demons 2 in particular stands as arguably the weakest film Argento had his name attached to for many years – though it arguably looks a lot better today in light of such frustrating pictures as Giallo or Dracula 3D.  Taken in the spirit of “just plain fun,” the films are well worth revisiting; they certainly deliver in the gore department, if nothing else.

Video:

Synapse brings these two cult favorites to region A/region 1 blu ray and DVD.  The 1.66/16×9/1080p transfers blow all previous editions out of the water.  Both films gain tremendously in terms of detail and nuance, with all manner of little lighting tricks and flourishes finally standing out in relief.  Demons looks the best of the two films, as the second one was photographed on a temperamental film stock which resulted in far heavier grain – the second film also contains a few jittery shots which were compromised due to a camera malfunction, so don’t sweat it: it’s not your TV or playback system, nor was it a gaffe on Synapse’s part.  The films are both presented fully uncut and have not been subjected to merciless DNR.  The steelbook packaging for both discs is simply gorgeous.  These releases are a fine example of how to do these titles up right – it’ll be interesting to see what they do with Phenonema, Tenebrae and their recently-announced Suspiria!

Audio:

Audio options on Demons include the 2.0 stereo Italian track, in addition to two different English tracks – one in mono, one in stereo.  The two tracks contain some differences in scoring and vocal performances, and settling on which one to listen to may well boil down to a matter of personal familiarity based on previous home video versions.  The various tracks are in great shape.  Synapse had to do some tweaking on the mono English track, but the changes are so artfully done as to be unnoticeable.  The music and sound effects have a great deal of punch.  Demons 2 includes both the Italian and English tracks, both in stereo.  There are no issues to report with either track – and once again, the music and sound effects pack a real wallop.  English subtitles are included for the Italian tracks, and captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are included for the English tracks.

Extras:

Synapse have rounded up the same extras included in the Arrow blu ray release from the UK.  The commentary track on Demons is in Italian with English subtitles: Lamberto Bava, FX artist Sergio Stivaletti, composer Claudio Simonetti and actress Geretta Rosemary Geretta occupy the track, which contains enough behind the scenes anecdotes and information to make it worthy of a listen.  Demons also includes on-camera interviews with Bava, Argento, filmmaker Luigi Cozzi, journalist Alan Jones and stunt person Ottaviano Dell’Acqua.  Trailers are also included.  Demons 2 isn’t quite as stacked, but then again.. it’s not as interesting.  On-camera interviews with Bava, his son Fabrizio, filmmaker Federico Zampaglione, FX artist Sergio Stivaletti and composer Simon Boswell are included, along with the theatrical trailer.  Fans who picked the films up on laser disc back in the day or who bought the old Anchor Bay DVD editions will want to take note: the commentaries from these releases are not included here, so depending on your fondness for revisiting those old tracks (the Demons 2 track featured Lamberto and Roy Bava, with Sergio Stivaletti), you may want to hold on to the old editions for the sake of completion.

Film:  ***1/2 out of ***** (Demons)  **1/2 out of ***** (Demons 2)

Video: ***** out of ***** (Demons)  ****1/2 out of ***** (Demons 2)

Audio: ****1/2 out of ***** (Both)

Extras: ***** out of ***** (Demons)  **** out of ***** (Demons 2)

Adam Chaplin: DVD Review

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

Adam Chaplin (2011)

by Troy Howarth

Directed by Emanuelle De Santi

Starring Emanuelle De Santi, Valeria Sannino, Paolo Luciani

Adam Chaplin (Emanuelle De Santi) becomes obsessed with bloodlust when his beloved wife (Valeria Sannino) is brutally murdered by a local crime lord (Paolo Luciani)….

  

Many horror films are accused of having a fetishistic, even pornographic fascination with sadism and bloodletting.  In his heyday as the so-called “godfather of gore,” the late Lucio Fulci was frequently accused of delivering films which appealed to the basest desires of audience members.  In addition to offering sequences of graphic bloodletting, however, Fulci was also a good storyteller who knew how to make a well crafted, entertaining film.  Works like New York Ripper (1982) retain a nasty edge, for sure, but it can be argued that they have a sense of craftsmanship to go along with the sadism.  Would that the same could be said for Adam Chaplin, a nauseating and ultimately quite ridiculous homage to the gory Italian horrors of the 80s crossed with the equally splattery excesses of the Japanese anime.

  

The film opens with bloodshed – blood shoots, it splatters, it sprays across objects with all the fetishistic glee of a well placed money shot in a porn film.  The film proceeds from one ugly, repetitious sequence after the other, and virtually every scene ends – or begins – with more bloodshed.  The effect is deadening within the first five minutes – a great pity, as there’s still another hour and twenty minutes to go.  Viewers who truly don’t require anything but constant bloodletting will likely find this to be quite “bad ass,” but those who also have a yen for old fashioned qualities such as characterization and plot will likely be checking their watches on a regular basis.

  

The film is a vanity project of sorts for writer/director/star Emanuelle De Santi.  De Santi’s portrayal of the title character is as blank as it is obnoxious.  De Santi clearly took great pains to prepare for the role, but he comes off looking like a particularly lame hair metal musician with a steroid habit.  He never allows one to understand the character or what really makes him tick.  Sure, the film pays lip service to the old chestnut of the loner avenging the death of his wife, but so little attention is given to their relationship that one is simply supposed to take it on faith that his passion for her has driven him to such extreme acts of sadistic violence.  De Santi’s performance is dull and listless, no matter how many times her makes his best “Hulk smash” face and beats the living tar out of his supporting cast members.

  

Unfortunately, De Santi the director is every bit as uninspired as De Santi the actor.  The film is tiresomely burdened with a dreary visual aesthetic – lots of murky shadows, half light and an overwhelming blue tint.  If the objective was to create a dreary futuristic look, it’s successful on that level – but it makes for a dreary viewing experience.  The digital photography and copious makeup effects are professionally done, but it’s all too overwhelming and repetitious to be effective.  The end result is depressing rather than enjoyable, and no amount of splatter in the world can make up for that.  Italian genre junkies may want to see it for the sake of completion, but others would do well to avoid this one.

Video:

Adam Chaplin makes its NTSC DVD bow courtesy of Autonomy Pictures.  The 1.78/16×9 transfer looks as good as the photography will allow.  Black levels are appropriately deep, and the dreary color scheme  is accurately rendered; the plentiful bursts of red stand out very well indeed.  Detail is sharp and the print appears to be fully uncut.

Audio:

The Italian soundtrack is in excellent shape.  Music and sound effects have plenty of presence – there’s a whole lot of “wet” sound effects work due to the splatter factor, and it’s very well served in the mix.  Removable English subtitles are included.

Extras:

Extras include some puff PR-style featurettes, all running in the area of 2 minutes a piece, covering everything from the film’s anime influence to De Santis’ work out regimen…

Film: * out of *****

Video: *** out of *****

Audio: **** out of *****

Extras: ** out of *****

Black Sabbath: Blu Ray Review

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

Black Sabbath (1963)

by Troy Howarth

Directed by Mario Bava

Starring Boris Karloff, Michele Mercier, Jacqueline Sassard, Mark Damon, Susy Anderson, Glauco Onorato

Following the success of his directorial debut, La maschera del demonio (release in the US , in an altered edition, as Black Sunday), Mario Bava became a premiere specialist in the horror genre. He continued to explore other territories, often with a macabre sensibility, before making a true return to the genre with I tre volti della paura. As an artist, Bava was prone to self-deprecation. He seldom spoke well of his own work, and derided himself as a hack in the few interviews he ever granted. When it came to this film, however, he allowed himself a certain pride. Looking at the film, it’s easy to see why: I tre volti della paura is a virtual compendium of his strengths as a filmmaker, and it remains one of his finest achievements.

The film is “hosted” by the great Boris Karloff, who would form a strong bond with the director during filming. With typical sly humor and charm, Karloff introduces three tales of terror, each focusing on a different strain of horror. The first segment, The Telephone, deals with a high class call girl (Michele Mercier) who is terrorized by a series of lewd phone calls from her ex-pimp, who has just broken out of prison… The second segment, The Wurdulak, deals with a vampire (Karloff) who returns from the grave to feed on his loved ones… And the third, The Drop of Water, deals with a nurse (Jacqueline Sassard) who is hounded by a guilty conscience when she steals a ring from the corpse of a dead medium…

 

The film was produced in collaboration with American International Pictures, who had eagerly followed Bava’s career following their successful domestic release of Black Sunday. AIP had picked up all of Bava’s films but one (Hercules in the Haunted World, 1961), and in each case they saw fit to meddle with his original intentions by changing dialogue in the dubbing, recutting scenes, and rescoring the films with music by their favored in-house composer, Les Baxter. In the case of I tre volti della paura, however, they would surpass themselves. While Bava had already shot alternate footage for their US release of The Girl Who Knew Too Much (which they retitled as Evil Eye), here AIP ’s involvement became far more extensive – as did their demands. Bava’s cut of the film builds gradually and presents the stories in a carefully constructed manner. As Bava biographer Tim Lucas has noted, the imagery even dovetails in a specific manner – the Telephone ends with a man being stabbed to death, while the Wurdulak begins with the discovery of a stabbed man; the Wurdualk ends with faces peering in through a window, while The Drop of Water opens with a woman peering out of a window. The attention to detail is exacting, right down to the use of ambient sound and specific color hues. Alas, this attention to detail would be lost on AIP , who were more concerned with marketing the film to a thrill-hungry adolescent audience. Thus, they decided that changes needed to be made, from top to bottom. Bava had a hand in some of these changes – for example, seeking to capitalize on Karloff’s presence, they requested that he shoot some linking segments, which he did with his customary visual ingenuity; these segments were not used in his final cut of the film, however, wherein Karloff would appear at the beginning and end only, in addition to playing a key role in the middle segment – but much of the damage was done without his participation or blessing. First things first, they elected to change the order of the stories – believing The Telephone to be the dud segment (which, in a sense, is true), they decided to move it to second place… but not wanting to dispense with Karloff’s star turn too early, they elected to make Drop of Water the first segment. This had the effect of getting to the real meat of the film much too early, as Drop was deliberately placed last in Bava’s preferred order because it was the segment with the greatest impact. The Telephone was moved to the second spot, because it was seen as mere filler – and in AIP ’s version, it truly was, as they would remove the “adult” content (hints of lesbianism and prostitution, etc) and rewrite it into a half-assed ghost story in the dubbing process. Less changes would be imposed upon The Wurdulak, as it fulfilled the “monster” quotient being a vampire story – and in offering up a heaping helping of Karloff, it seemed an ideal note to go out on, so it was moved to the final slot. Interestingly, one major change that AIP pushed on Bava would be retained for the director’s cut, but would dropped like the proverbial hot potato from the US edit. At the end of filming, AIP contacted Bava, worried that the film was too horrific and could use some comedy relief; he concocted a final fade out wherein Karloff, still dressed in costume from The Wurdulak, addresses the audience while sitting astride a horse… after finishing his dialogue, the camera dollied back revealing the illusion for what it really was: an aged actor rocking with laughter atop a tacky stuffed nag, as Italian technicians work hard to convey the notion of a forest full of trees on a cramped sound stage. It was an ingenious idea, rife with meta-cinematic connotations, but the brass at AIP were not amused; they elected to drop the scene, but Bava loved it and opted to include it in his own edit of the picture. In addition to the major changes in the editing and dialogue, AIP also brought Les Baxter in to compose a noisy cacophony of noise that passed itself off as a music score; where Bava used long stretches of silence, with ambient sound artfully employed, Baxter would resort to wall to wall “carpeting” with his music, smothering the soundtrack with shrieking overstatement in order to convey, quite precisely, where the audience was meant to feel suspense and when they were supposed to jump. Needless to say, audiences of the time were unaware of the tinkering, nor would they likely have cared if they did; Bava’s name was not a household item, anyway, and it’s not like AIP was tinkering with the work of a “major” filmmaker-auteur figure. It was simply business as usual – and for what it’s worth, it paid off: Black Sabbath was a huge hit in the US , while Bava’s edit was met with the usual indifference that greeted his work in his native country.

 

Mercifully, the film is now available in its original form, though the obvious drawback of having Karloff dubbed into Italian by an unidentified performer makes some viewers reluctant to embrace it this way. Karloff fanatics will therefore tend to gravitate towards the US edition, while Bava loyalists will tend to prefer the Italian language version; this is, perhaps, as it should be. Sadly, this has the side effect of making it impossible for either side to fully appreciate every facet of this marvelous film. The Italian edit is the far more cohesive and enjoyable experience as a film, but the absence of Karloff’s marvelous line readings is a definite drawback. The magnificent, shudder-inducing moment when he turns to the camera and says “I am hungry…” doesn’t pack the same wallop in Italian, for example. Still, when one considers everything else that is gained, the Italian edit offers the far stronger edition of the film as a whole. Karloff’s performance is a real treat, demonstrating that he would have made a very effective Dracula, but it is but one of many pleasures to be had. The original version of The Telephone, for example, is far more mature and intriguing than the one AIP retooled for matinee audiences. It still has some problematic aspects in terms of plotting – one is left wondering how the “real” culprit behind the calls was able to spy on the protagonist, for example – but it plays much better and has been accurately identified as a major link in the development of the giallo subgenre. The Wurdulak and The Drop of Water suffered less obvious interference in the US edition, but the substitution of Roberto Nicolosi’s low key score with Baxter’s bombast did its own fair share of damage. In either cut, Bava’s mastery of the medium is apparent – but the richer hues and tones of the Italian prints stand in contrast to the cheaper processing done by AIP . As a stylistic exercise, it represents one of Bava’s most sumptuous achievements. On a deeper level, it works as a marvelous rumination on Bava’s favorite themes, with Drop of Water standing as his ultimate statement on his personal convictions about fear and terror.

 

Video:

 

Arrow Video have had a spotty track record with Italian genre films. Their releases are typically stacked to the gills with goodies and elaborate packaging, but their transfers have ranged from the satisfactory (City of the Living Dead) to the downright atrocious (Tenebrae). Happily, they appear to have made some marked improvements in recent months, and their releases of Mario Bava’s films have, in all instances, outclassed the concurrent releases in the US by Kino/Redemption. Black Sabbath marks the first time they have issued one of Bava’s films ahead of the US competition, with the Kino/Redemption release slated for a later date. If their previous releases are any indication, the main feature itself will have been struck from the same master – but the Arrow edition has already rendered the Kino obsolete in that it offers both distinct edits in HD for the first time in any format.  Both films are presented in 1.66/16×9/1080p on blu ray, with a standard edition DVD also included.  The Italian version looks the best – it has the stronger color scheme, and this is faithful to the original theatrical prints: whereas Bava imbued each frame with artful color values, the AIP prints were done with less care and as such, the colors don’t pop quite so vividly.  Both edits are in great condition, with sharp detail and no issues to report as far as DNR is concerned.  No matter which edit you favor, this edition does them both justice.

Audio:

The mono, lossless soundtrack for both edits is clean and clear.  There are no issues with hiss or distortion to report.  Newly translated English subtitles are included for the Italian edit; they are clear and easy to read throughout.  English SDH option is also included for the English track.

Extras:

Extras include the informative commentary by Tim Lucas on the Italian edit, familiar from Anchor Bay’s DVD release as part of their Bava box set.  The only other HD extras are a trailer gallery and a half hour featurette which focuses on the differences between the two edits – this is presented as a film clip/onscreen text feature, with no interview material.  The remaining extras, including an on-camera intro by Italian horror authority Alan Jones (exclusive to this edition), and a featurette interview with costar Mark Damon (held over from the Anchor Bay release), are presented as SD on the DVDs included in the three disc set.  Liner notes by Lucas and David Cairns are also very well researched and written.

Film: ***** out of *****

Video ***** (both edits) out of *****

Audio: ***1/2 out of ***** (both edits)

Extras: ***** out of *****