Knightriders (US - BD RA)
Gabe revisits George Romero's most challenging and personal film...
The members of a traveling Renaissance Faire, who saddle up on motorcycles instead of horses, ride from town to town to stage medieval jousting tournaments with combatants in suits of armor and wielding lances, battle-axes, maces and broadswords. The spectacle of this violent pageant soon garners national attention, much to the dismay of the current king of this Camelot. A challenger to his throne arises as they try to maintain their fairytale existence in a world wrought with corruption. (From Shout Factory’s official synopsis)
George A. Romero is, of course, best known for his invention of the modern zombie myth. His name is synonymous with ironic, gory, politically-motivated horror movies. However, like most filmmakers that have found themselves tethered to the genre over the decades, he never really intended on being a horror-centric filmmaker. His non-horror work has proved problematic on both commercial and critical levels, but movies like Season of the Witch, The Crazies, and There’s Always Vanilla offer a purer, more complete understanding of Romero as an artist. His best non-zombie movie, Martin, blends his genre sensibilities with gritty, emotionally-charged, and very personal drama. He touched upon these skills (in a larger arena) for Dawn of the Dead and much less successfully on Monkey Shines, but has otherwise embraced his pulpy roots for his post Martin work. His only other attempt at straight drama was Knightriders, an utter anomaly released between Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow.
Knightriders was, like almost all of Romero’s films, produced independently, but it was well-funded with twice the budget of Dawn of the Dead. In interviews at the time, Romero referred to it as a ‘commercial picture’ and, apparently, intended it to be something of a mainstream crossover. But, Romero being Romero, Knightriders is among the most ironic ‘commercial pictures’ ever made. It’s a straight-faced examination of fringe culture with no major stars, no studio backing, and a nearly two and a half hour long runtime. It’s also ultimately a parable about the dangers and evils of commercialism and, because it’s a George Romero movie, the allegory isn’t exactly subtle. The distribution company didn’t do Romero any favours when they created an ad campaign that implied a lot more action than the film delivers, but then, Romero didn’t do himself any favours, either, when he extended his unusual concept to 145 minutes (it’s the single longest movie in his entire filmography). There’s no mistaking that the runtime is excessive, verging on numbing, but this kind of auteurist, uncompromising storytelling is also what we expect from Romero at his best. Even when trying to appeal to a mainstream market, he can’t help but to poke fun at the establishment.
The concept originated when he wanted to make an Arthurian legend flick. After being turned down by AIP head Sam Arkoff, Romero made a joke that he probably could’ve sold it if he put the knights on motorcycles and cut the thing to rock and roll music (on this disc’s special features, he claims it was Arkoff’s idea in the first place). It’s likely no coincidence that Arkoff’s former associate, Roger Corman, ended up producing a post-apocalyptic motorcycle gladiator movie called Deathsport that beat Knightriders to theaters by three years. The comment was made in jest, but Romero mulled the idea over a while, during which time he was made aware of the Society for Creative Anachronism. He coupled these modern ‘knights’ with the motorcycle concept to tell an overloaded dramatic story about the futility of old-fashioned moral codes in the modern era, which is itself a very obvious metaphor for the state of motion picture filmmaking in the post-blockbuster era. In Romero’s defense, he does paint his idealistic character, King Billy (Ed Harris) – a clear stand-in for himself – as an unreasonable man.
The character relationships depend on the audience buying into these anachronistic games as something genuinely important, but succeed the most when Romero is capturing moments in time that don’t necessarily move the story forward. Scenes where people are just bein’ folks stand out, like a subplot where the troupe’s MC, Pippin (Warner Shook), and the grease monkey, Julie (Christine Forrest, who married Romero on-set), discuss Pippin’s closeted homosexuality. This generates a unique situation where the sequences that would’ve been the easiest to cut end up being the best in the movie, aside from the extended final battle sequence, which occurs without any dramatic stakes. That speed bump aside, I suppose this explains the excessive runtime. The melodrama is typically over-wrought, because Romero operates on an EC comics-level of subtlety, but, even when he’s slamming us over the head with his message, I can’t help but appreciate his take on Americana more than something as undefined as Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider – a movie he was clearly indebted to. The motorcycle stunts are superbly executed and Romero shoots most of them with his camera firmly cemented in place. The process of creating cinematic action via rapid-fire editing instead of dynamic camera movement is a defining visual trait of the director’s work during this era – something he started experimenting with during The Crazies and perfected during Dawn of the Dead. The compositions, made in conjunction with cinematographer Michael Gornick (who he worked with from Martin through Day of the Dead), are uncomplicated, yet thoughtfully structured.
Knightriders is more notable as being Ed Harris’ first leading role, but fans will also appreciate that the cast is brimming with Romero regulars, more than any other film in his repertoire. The troupe’s size makes it easy for the director to parade his friends through the movie as if they’re being fed through an off-screen revolving door. Everyone gets a couple of lines too… well, except John Amplas ( Martin), who plays a mime.
Thanks to its cult reputation, Knightriders has enjoyed a nice life on DVD in both R1 and R2. Arrow also released a Blu-ray in the UK that included a new HD transfer, one our own Marcus Doidge gave a glowing review. In the past, Shout/Scream Factory has been willing to ‘lease’ solid HD transfers from already available discs (verification has eluded me, but I assume they reused transfers from Odeon Entertainment’s Witchfinder General and Image Entertainment’s Assault on Precinct 13). Whatever the source, this is a gorgeous transfer. The film’s lack of budget and age show in occasional grain uptakes and fuzzy moments, but this usually coincides with purposefully soft focus. Otherwise, grit is minimized without being eliminated and artefacts are limited to odd white flecks and a handful of scenes that flicker with scanning lines (one scene a couple of minutes after the one-hour mark stands out in particular). Details are tight, assisted by Romero and Gornick’s use of wide-angle lenses, which ensures background textures are just as crisp as their foreground counterparts. There are some slight edge haloes during the darkest scenes, leading me to believe that the people behind the transfer got a little heavy-handed with the sharpening and/or contrast (something also apparent during the infrequent bouts with black crush). The colours are mostly natural, plenty vivid, and consistent. A few of the foggier scenes show signs of DNR smoothing on skin tones in particular, but, again, I believe this is more the effect of soft focus than digital tinkering.
It’s relatively easy to compare this Blu-ray’s transfer to the UK release, based on Marcus’ screencaps, but I have no way of comparing Scream Factory’s DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack to Arrow’s LPCM 2.0 mono. There's only so much to be done with such a track, so it’s probably safe to assume the two tracks are at least similar. The sound quality is limited by the single channel source (Romero also notes that they had problems with production audio a couple of times throughout the commentary track). If I’m honest, I’m going to have to admit that most of Romero’s earlier films weren’t exactly audio design masterpieces. Some scenes have an effective sense of outdoor ambience, like a scene where a church bell rings in the background without overwhelming the discussion, while others are flattened by the roar of motorcycle engines. At worst the track is muddied enough that several engines sound more like one big one and the noise drowns out some of the more intricate foley effects. Donald Rubinstein’s musical score (possibly the best non-Goblin score to ever accompany a George Romero film) is usually still plenty audible when used in conjunction with action moments and gives some of the dialogue-heavy sequences much-needed texture. Rubinstein also plays a part as the troupe’s singer/songwriter.
The extras begin with a group commentary that features Romero, actors Tom Savini, Christine Romero and John Amplas, and is moderated by film historian Chris Stavrakis. This track has been making the rounds since the original Anchor Bay DVD release. Its tone is pleasant, like a storytelling session with old friends, and, though the subject matter is sometimes unfocused, there’s a lot of information about the production that isn’t otherwise available. Amplas doesn’t have a whole lot to say, but everyone else is quite talkative and Stavrakis does a decent job steering the conversation back on track when it flips off the rails.
The new interviews start with Conscience of the King with Ed Harris (8:10, HD), This is shorter than the interview he did for Arrow’s release, but is still a charming look back at the actor’s career before he was famous. This is followed by Code of Honor with George Romero (17:20, HD), a nice companion piece to the commentary track and older interviews I had been reading in preparation for this review. It covers early pre-production/distribution deals, trying to cast a young Morgan Freeman in Brother Blue’s part, Savini’s performance, the redneck locals’ reaction to Ken Foree’s blackness, stunts, King Billy as an idealized representation of himself, and original marketing problems. The final new interview is Memories of Morgan with Tom Savini (10:20, HD) in which the actor/stuntman/special effects artist discusses his earliest experiences with Romero, finally landing a lead role in a film, making mischief on and off of the set, and the film’s impact. The extras are wrapped up with Savini’s behind-the-scenes footage of the stunts (8:20, HD encoded, VHS quality), trailers, and TV spots.
Knightriders might’ve made a better mini-series than a movie, but its episodic, sub-plot-riddled storytelling is the thing that makes it special. There’s certainly no other film quite like it and, excessive runtime issues aside, it is among Romero’s most well made movies. Prospective viewers just need to be made aware that it isn’t the action movie the poster art has implied for three decades now. Shout Factory’s Blu-ray features a wonderful transfer (likely the same one that adorns Arrow’s UK disc), an effective, uncompressed mono soundtrack, and informative extras that include new interviews and the original DVD’s group commentary track.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking the individual images, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 26th November 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono English
Extras: Director/Stars/Critic Commentary, George Romero Interview, Ed Harris Interview, Tom Savini Interview, Behind-the-Scenes Stunt Footage, Trailers, TV Spots
Easter Egg: No
Director: George A. Romero
Cast: Ed Harris, Gary Lahti, Tom Savini, Amy Ingersoll, Patricia Tallman, Scott H. Reiniger
Genre: Action, Drama and Romance
Length: 145 minutes
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