Blu-ray Reviews of THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978), THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (2005), and THE ORDER

     October 23, 2010

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20th Century Fox is one of the most frustrating companies to deal with when it comes to Blu-ray. When it comes to their big releases, they do great work, but when it comes to catalog, it’s hard to say or know what you’re going to get. It’s great that they’re putting a lot of catalog out – like Warner Brothers they seem invested in the format – but if you already have the film on DVD, you may have to hold your old copy if you want the supplements. The 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Return of the Living Dead, the 2005 remake of The Amityville Horror and The Order all come with varying degrees of their original supplements on Blu-ray. And my review of this quartet of Blu-rays follows after the jump

Phillip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is easily the best of the lot. Kaufman’s treatise on the upcoming decade had a bunch of weirdos (played by Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright) noticing that everyone around them is starting to become boring. There are signs that things are going poorly, like when Kevin McCarthy makes a cameo (he was the lead in the original), but it gets noticeably bad for them when Adams’s boyfriend turns. But it’s not that everyone is turning into Republicans so much as that aliens are colonizing the Earth through pod people, who replicate people while they are sleeping and make them boring. So the protagonists must stay awake and have no idea who is left, and who can be trusted.

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Kaufman taps into the end of the hippie movement (the film is set in San Francisco) and uses horror to create a strong allegory showing how many of those people have grown to become boring. And Kaufman does tap into the idea of youth vs. responsibility in a strange way. But what he does brilliantly is mood, and the movie is expertly directed and lit (the DP was Michael Chapman). Their sense of paranoia is pitch perfect, and the camera helps intensify one’s discomfort. Kaufman’s also assembled an ace cast, with great supporting turns from Goldblum and Cartwright. One of the great coups of the film is that Leonard Nimoy plays a self help guru, and he shows that he’s more than just the pointy-eared guy, while also playing off his innate cultural alien-ness. The ending of the film has become a meme, but it’s still one of the great shock endings of any horror movie. Basically, it’s a perfect film.

The Blu-ray also comes with a DVD copy of the film’s first pressing, which means the DVD is a non-anamorphic flipper, but it offers a commentary by director Phillip Kaufman that is not included on the Blu-ray, which does include all the supplements from the previous special edition DVD. The Blu-ray comes with a general making-of (16 min.) with comments from Sutherland, Kaufman, W.D. Richter, DP Michael Chapman, and Veronica Cartwright among others, then one on the special effects (5 min.), a piece on Ben Burtt’s sound design for the movie (13 min.), the film’s cinematography (5 min.) and the film’s theatrical trailer. The film looks terrific in widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS 5.1 HD. Still, I have no idea why the commentary wasn’t ported.

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Next best is The Return of the Living Dead. Since the release of Night of the Living Dead, George Romero’s vision of the undead has been taken as the accepted cinematic norm. Featuring slow-moving creatures who are unstoppable outside of a shot to the head, until Return the zombie mythos has nearly been standardized by the numerous (mostly Italian) zombie flicks that followed, including Resident Evil. One of the best things about Dan O’Bannon’s Living Dead is how it updates those rules. O’Bannon’s zombies are fast-moving, and the only way to stop them is to destroy every moving part of their undead bodies. They also are not interested in just eating people, but they specifically crave brains.

Frank (James Karen) trains young pup Freddie (Thom Mathews) in the ways of their medical-supply warehouse, and then shows him the most frightening things he’s ever seen: remnants of the corpses from the freak accident that inspired Night of the Living Dead. And when Frank accidentally bumps one of the containers, he lets loose a gas that re-animates anything dead, including bisected dogs, butterflies, and a cadaver. Contacting their boss Burt (Clu Gulager), the three try to get rid of the living dead now in their warehouse, but after turning to local mortician Ernie (Don Calfa), they burn the remains, only to have the ashes absorbed by clouds, which rain down on the local cemetery and create more zombies. A fairly tight horror-comedy that scores well on both points, Return of the Living Dead decides to include stupid teenagers (including Linea Quigley and Miguel Nunez Jr.) as was the way at the time. Either you enjoy that they are the lamest excuses for cinematic punk-rockers ever filmed or you get the joke that they are meant to be fresh meat, with this satire being most obvious in the character of Trash (played by B-scream-queen Quigley), who likes getting naked for no apparent reason.

The Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (1.85:1) in DTS 5.1 HD and the original 2.0 stereo. There was a second special edition done for the movie, and that disc is included here, and has the same supplements as the Blu-ray, which also includes the content from the first release and the additional supplements. There’s a commentary by Dan O’Bannon and production designer (and zombie-maker) William Stout, and a second cast and crew commentary featuring Stout once more, with cast members Calfa, Brian Peck, Quigley, Beverly Randolph, and Allan Trautman. Also included is an interview with O’Bannon and Stout (14 min.), a making of (20 min.) which gets comments from Clu Gulagher, James Karen and the commentators. Then there’s “The Decade of Darkness” (23 min.) on the MGM-owned horror movies of the era, with interviews with Stuart Gordon, Joe Dante, Elvira, John Landis, and Tony Timpone among others. Rounding out the set are two trailers, a zombie subtitle track, and an “in their words Zombie speak” subtitle track. Make way for comedy.

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The Amityville Horror remake is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. The original film is long and boring, this is noisy and boring though about a half hour shorter. Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George star as the couple who buy a haunted house because it’s cheap. Then their kids (including Chloe Moretz) start getting weirded out and possessed. The film comes somewhat to life when Rachel Nichols shows up as the babysitter, if only because she’s a hottie, and then George talks to their priest, played by Phillip Baker Hall, who gets to reenact the most famous scene from the original.

The original film was based on a book that was based on a true story that was later debunked. The original film’s success had a lot to do with good house casting, because it was never a good movie to begin with. The remake then had room to show that it was going to be a haunted house story, but under the Platinum Dunes production label (the house of Michael Bay, Andrew Form and Brad Fuller) it becomes filled with loud cat scares. Because they’re hemmed in by the “true story” nature, not a lot happens, but it happens noisily. The tonal shifts in Reynolds’s performance are noticeable, and he appears to be in two different movies. They never cracked the narrative, and instead of the character unraveling slowly, the constantly migrate from acting with it to spooky to back to normal again as if they’re off their meds. But no one calls them on it, because the film has to hit an acceptable running time length. Garbage. The Blu-ray comes with the film in widescreen (2.35:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1. All the previous extras are relegated to the DVD copy included with, other than the film’s theatrical trailer. But if you love the movie, then the upgrade is worth it. Because obviously, a film like this should be preserved as loudly as possible.

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Following the pattern of older Fox catalog titles, The Order just replicates everything from the DVD, and doesn’t include a DVD copy. Just as well. Heath Ledger stars as Alex Bernier, a young priest who is conflicted about his future in the church when he’s asked to investigate a murder, which may have been casued by a “sin eater.” Old school restitution is on the way, as Alex is joined by his friend Father Thomas Garrett (Mark Addy), and he tries to make peace with the woman he loves, Mara Sinclair (Shannon Sossamon).

Written and directed by Brian Hegeland, this is almost all of the main people who worked on A Knight’s Tale, which was supposed to help launch Heath Ledger into superstardom. This was the follow up project, and it received less love as it was dumped theatrically by Fox. There are some good ideas here, and Hegeland is a clever writer, but the film never connects. There’s a weird sense that you can see what it’s trying to do, but it never comes to life. Curiously inert.

The Blu-ray comes in widescreen (1.85:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 surround. The transfer is solid, but was likely done a couple years back for HD cable, so it doesn’t have the same vibrancy of more recent transfers. Extras include a commentary by Hegeland, eight deleted or extended takes (19 min.) with optional commentary from Hegeland, and the film’s theatrical trailer.


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