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Scream Factory January Reviews

House Where Evil Dwells/Ghost Warrior Double-Feature

(Release date January 05, 2016)
The indelibly creepy imagery of Japanese ghost stories has become a regular and expected part of the worldwide cinematic language and especially to Hollywood filmmaking following the big business post-millennium Hollywood remakes like Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (2002) and Takashi Shimizu’s The Grudge (2004). But it took a while for spooky geishas and wet-haired ghost girls to catch on in the western world. It wasn’t a lack of trying, though, as the ‘80s were peppered with random B-studio attempts to blend ninja-sploitation tropes and supernatural horror.

The House Where Evil Dwells

(1982)
A century ago, a samurai brutally murdered his adulterous wife and her lover before taking his own life. Now, the Fletcher family has found what they think is their perfect Japanese home – not knowing it's the same house where the murders occurred. But, as strange events escalate and the ghosts of the dead begin to toy with the living, the Fletchers discover they've become unwitting players in a horrible reenactment... one which they may not survive! (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)

An early entry in a small run of ‘80s Westernized J-horror was The House Where Evil Dwells, a somewhat convoluted US/UK/Japanese co-production that mashes-up each of the various regions’ cultural practices. Based on a novel by James Hardiman (rewritten by Robert Suhosky for the screen), director Kevin Connor’s film is, by all accounts, a prototypical ‘foreigners move into a haunted Japanese house’ story, one that is rife with predictable cultural misunderstandings, familial conflicts, and ghostly, unexplained occurrences. At the time, Conner was best-known for his journeyman work on effects-heavy fantasy/sci-fi adventure films – notably At the Earth’s Core (1976) and Warlords of Atlantis (1978) – as well as his Amicus horror anthology, From Beyond the Grave, and a beloved Texas Chainsaw Massacre pseudo-spoof, Motel Hell (1980). The House Where Evil Dwells is more of a standard-issue ghost drama in comparison to those comic book and pulp-inspired movies. When focusing on the American main characters, it’s about as dynamic as a made-for-TV movie and such early instances of haunting are dreadfully mundane (the lady ghost makes the gaijin wife, played by Susan George, say inappropriately sexy things to a family friend and knock over dishes). However disappointing the lack of wacky, colourful hijinks may be, I do admit that the blend of bland naturalism and cinematographer Jacques Haitkin’s occasionally lyrical spookiness definitely fit the material. When it works, the style strikes an effective balance between the Western and Eastern elements of the story. The sultry, premium cable-style sex scenes, startling (though infrequent) bouts of gory violence, and a single sequences involving giant crabs that mumble in Japanese as they attack also help break-up the mundanity of this Amityville in Japan potboiler.
 
The box art informs us that The House Where Evil Dwells is a ‘new transfer,’ so I guess Scream Factory wasn’t handed an uncompressed version of MGM’s previous transfer, which itself was released on a double-sided 1.85:1/1.33:1 DVD. This 1.78:1, 1080p image isn’t outrageously impressive, but certainly gets the job done and improves upon even a decent DVD release with sharper details, brighter colours, and decent element separation. The notable issue here is that the entire transfer appears over-compressed and that leads to a bit of noise, some minor bleeding, and general fuzziness. Grain levels are a smidge inconsistent throughout, sometimes appearing more like machine noise and occasionally clumping up during the darkest sequences, but the general texture is decent. The most obvious compression issues are found in the otherwise rich colours, which sometimes exhibit blocking and banding effects. The original mono soundtrack is presented in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. The sound design is understated with minimal effects work (the buzz of cicadas is often the only sound on the track, outside of dialogue), yet there’s decent aural depth for a single-channel track. A few really outrageous aural moments stand out, like the pre-credit slaughter, which overlaps echoing screams and shouts into a stream of abstract noise. The music is supplied by composer Ken Thorne (the guy that took over the Superman franchise when John Williams left). His romantic cues are excruciatingly sappy (the sex scene song is absolutely asinine), but he hits the right notes when it comes to the scare cues and the generic Japanese atmosphere.

The only extra is a trailer.

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Ghost Warrior

(1984/86)
While exploring a cave, two skiers find the body of a 400 year-old samurai warrior entombed in ice. He is brought to the United States in a hush-hush operation and revived through cryosurgery. Unfortunately, he is then forced to battle for his freedom, dignity, and life. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)

The second half of this ‘80s Japanese exploitation show is J. Larry Carroll’s Ghost Warrior (aka: Swordkill), which was produced under Charles and Albert Band’s Empire Pictures in 1984, but hadn’t been released until ‘86. Ghost Warrior has some minor horror elements, but belongs more to the gritty crime world of Death Wish and cut-rate comic book world of 1990’s Captain America – a comparison I make mostly because the title character is a hero trapped in ice who is thawed out decades later. And I assume that this comparison would be welcome by writer Tim Curnen, who was purposefully mashing up elements of samurai fiction with the ‘man out of time’ motifs used in various Captain America stories for decades. It’s certainly not an original idea, but the old-meets-new, fish-out-of-water story beats have a pleasant, if not ridiculous familiarity – especially when compared to the doldrums of The House Where Evil Dwells. Ghost Warrior was Carroll’s only movie as director, though he did co-produce a number of Empire/Full Moon releases (including David Schmoeller’s Tourist Trap, which he also co-wrote, 1979) and would write an awful lot of television cartoons (everything from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe to Hypernauts). His work is very typical of the Empire machine in that it overcomes conspicuous budgetary constraints with colourful photography, charmingly cartoonish production design, and clear-cut action sequences. Ghost Warrior isn’t a movie I’ll be revisiting again anytime soon, but it is definitely the superior movie in this underwhelming little double-feature.

Apparently, this is not a new transfer (otherwise, the box art would tell us, right), so I’ll assume this 1.85:1, 1080p image is taken from the same source as MGM’s limited edition anamorphic DVD. For the record, there were also reportedly German and Japanese anamorphic releases. The results are similar to the House Where Evil Dwells transfer, though with fuzzier details and significantly more print damage. The lack of fine texture is particularly problematic, to the point that this could be mistaken for a DVD upconvert, while the grainier, dirtier picture quality sort of works for the B-movie material. There are flecks, tears, and inconsistent grain levels, but compression artefacts are minimal, at least compared to the other movie on the disc. Cinematographer Mac Ahlberg’s photography is a bit understated, compared to his work with Stuart Gordon for Empire (including Re-Animator, Dolls, and From Beyond), but it’s still pretty vivid and contrasty enough to qualify as ‘comic book like,’ which lends itself nicely to 1080p. Black levels are relatively pure and the warmer hues don’t suffer from blocking and bleeding effects. The original mono sound is presented in two-channel, DTS-HD Master Audio. This is another low-energy mix that is mostly dialogue and music-driven. Performance and incidental effects are somewhat muffled, while action scenes maintain better layering. Seeing that Ghost Warrior was a Band production, it’s no surprise that the music was supplied by Charles’ younger brother, Richard Band. Band’s score is pretty whimsical with Japanese-themed motifs that sometimes disappear during the quieter sequences, but spring into action during, well, the action sequences.

Again, the only extra is a trailer.

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Scream Factory January Reviews

The Guardian

(1990, release date January 19, 2016)
A handsome young couple finds the perfect live-in babysitter to look after their newborn child. It seems like a fairy tale, until ancient, supernatural forces turn the couple's dream into a nightmare. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)

William Friedkin is enjoying a minor renaissance lately with movies like Bug (2006) and Killer Joe (2011) and renewed public interest in his career has sparked curiosity concerning some of his, shall we say, less successful projects. His first major early box office flop, The Sorcerer (1977), and his one-time Razzie nominee, Cruising (1980), have been positively re-evaluated by critics and fans, so why not take a look at his more objective failures with new eyes? This brings us to The Guardian, Friedkin’s first return to the horror genre in the 17 years after the release of The Exorcist. Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a triumphant rebound from obscurity floundered through a very difficult production process. No stranger to controversy and cursed productions, Friedkin was brought onto the film after Sam Raimi dropped out to make Darkman and he immediately began to make drastic changes. Now, if you’re thinking “Sam Raimi and William Friedkin have very different creative instincts/personalities,” you’d be correct. Apparently, what was originally intended to be a slightly satirical adaptation of noted humorist Dan Greenburg’s novel The Nanny (1987), was turned into a typical, Friedkin-esque psychological drama. Herein lies the film’s biggest issue – Greenburg’s story is silly and probably would’ve worked better in the context of a movie that acknowledged its silliness.

In an effort to (apparently?) overcome the absurdity, Friedkin and co-screenwriter Stephen Volk (who may not be to blame, because he had been on the film since the Raimi days) awkwardly try to inject a sense of everyday realism. They emphasis the matter-of-fact doldrums of raising children and working paycheck to paycheck with bumbling expositional dialogue, as well boring events that accidentally highlight the goofiness of the ‘evil nanny in the employ of a killer tree’ part of the story. I’ll give you an example – one scene exists purely so that the protagonist couple, played by Jenny Seagrove and Dwier Brown, can establish that they both have to work to keep the house and will need a nanny. There’s no emotional register in what they say, which is strange enough, but then the scene ends with the camera zooming into a phonebook ad for a nanny service and, instead of that being the end of it, Seagrove reads the contents of the ad aloud before Friedkin cuts. In terms of technical direction, Friedkin’s wilder sensibilities crop up every once in a while in the form of dreamy slow motion, foggy sets, and fisheye camera angles, but he’s also clearly holding himself back in favour of a music video-meets-daytime soap opera aesthetic. The whole thing is so off-putting, detached, and bizarre that it’s almost interesting. The best analogue is actually The Phantom Menace. Both films are full of stiff performances, stilted dialogue, and boilerplate story beats that dull their impact, yet they clearly weren’t the results of lazy filmmaking. There is, however, a confusing beauty to all this this nonsense. Ultimately, the balls-to-the-wall climax is worth the price of admission, but it’s so Raimi-esque that one can’t help but wonder how much better it could’ve been with Sam at the helm.

Despite the developing cult of interest behind the film, The Guardian never had an official DVD release in North America. And, though there were anamorphic versions available in the UK, Germany, and Australia, no one from any territory released a Blu-ray until now. I even assume that Scream Factory’s 1080p transfer was taken from a new scan altogether, because it is presented in the OAR of 1.85:1, instead of 1.78:1, like the old DVDs (I also can’t find any verification that it aired on television in HD). This is a pretty disappointing transfer. Grain levels can be thick and noisy (more like machine noise), contrast levels are over-cranked, and there are cases of notable print damage (including some chemical stains and flecks of white). The damage is negligible, I suppose, but the noisy grain creates issues in colour consistency (otherwise, vibrancy is an upgrade over DVD versions). The heavy contrast/gamma balance is the biggest hurdle here, though, and probably the most easily avoided. Despite occasionally tightening textures, the super black shadows are crushed so hard that loads of detail go missing and the highlights are brightened to the point of blooming. It’s genuinely impossible to discern anything during some of the nighttime sequences and fiddling with the TV’s brightness settings didn’t help. I suppose it’s possible that this is what Friedkin wanted the movie to look like – this is the guy that chose to darken and overcool The French Connection for its Blu-ray debut, afterall.

The original stereo-surround soundtrack has been preserved in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. This is a particularly strong track for Scream Factory, specifically when it comes to the clarity and punch of Jack Hues’ progressive keyboard and symphonic score. The surrealistic dream and horror sequences exhibit wonderful depth and clarity, even at high volume levels. Though clean, dialogue tracks and some of the incidental sound effects are ‘off’ or at least disjointed, like an alternate language dub track. It’s possible that there was some kind of issue during the production of this Blu-ray, but the slightly echoey quality sort of works with the movie’s dopey, detached feel.

Extras include:
  • A Happy Coincidence (22:00, HD) – During this brand new interview, actor Dwier Brown pleasantly rambles about Friedkin’s best and worst habits, the technical aspects of the special effects scenes, and admits that he didn’t really like the script.  
  • From Strasburg To The Guardian (10:10, HD) – Another new actor interview, this time with Gary Swanson (who only appears in the prologue). He excitedly recalls his work with Friedkin, his early part in Gary Sherman’s Vice Squad, and working on his first big Hollywood film.
  • A Mother's Journey (11:30, HD) – The last of the new cast interviews features actress Natalija Nogulich (another prologue-only cast member), who’s stories about meeting Friedkin are oddly similar to Swanson’s and Brown’s (she also mostly worked in theater).
  • Scoring The Guardian (6:40, HD) – Composer Jack Hues discusses his score in yet another new interview.
  • Tree Woman: The Effects of The Guardian (13:10, HD) Makeup effects artist Matthew Mungle talks about his work on the film in the last of the Scream Factory exclusive extras.
  • Return To The Genre (17:30, SD) – This interview with Friedkin was taken from Second Sight’s UK DVD. He dismisses the early script, says he never read the book, recalls personal experiences with nannies, casting, and various production difficulties. Unfortunately, it seems that Scream wasn’t able to get the rights to Friedkin's commentary that appeared on the Australian and German discs.
  • The Nanny (13:20, SD) – Another Second Sight interview and another stage-to-film story with actress Jenny Seagrove. She’s the first cast member to really talk about the continuously changing script.
  • Don't Go Into The Woods (21:00, SD) – Co-writer Stephen Volk finishes up the Second Sight interviews with a lengthy chat about his career and The Guardian’s problematic screenplay. He’s the only interviewee that talks about Sam Raimi’s contributions.
  • Still gallery
  • Trailer


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Jack’s Back

(1988, release date January 26, 2016)
One hundred years ago, Jack the Ripper slashed his way through London's red light district. Now, a modern-day maniac is honoring the event by mutilating L.A.'s ladies of the evening. Has Jack the Ripper been reborn? The police are stumped and the prostitutes of L.A. are scared. The only person with a chance of solving the murders has a problem of his own – he's the LAPD's number one suspect. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)

Jack the Ripper is an extremely popular subject for horror movies, due largely to the fact that he was never caught. Some Hollywood screenwriters enjoy concocting the ‘truth’ of his identity, while others like to cast him in ‘what-if’ scenarios alongside other historical and literary characters (i.e. Dr. Jekyll, H.G. Wells and Sherlock Holmes). Then there’s a smaller subset of movies in which the Ripper ‘haunts’ modern generations via (possibly) supernatural means, reincarnations, previously unknown relations, or at the hands of a copycat. Such a list would include Peter Sasdy’s Hammer-produced proto-slasher Hands of the Ripper (1971), Christopher Lewis’ SOV The Ripper (1985), E.W. Swackhamer’s made-for-TV Terror at London Bridge (1985), Phil Sears’ Ripper Man, 1995), John Hough’s Bad Karma (2002), and Shawn Anthony’s SoulMate: True Evil Never Dies (2012). Sasdy’s film is definitely the best of the bunch (as you’d probably expect from a ‘70s Hammer release), but Rowdy Herrington’s once-forgotten flop Jack’s Back has also developed a strong and deserved following since its original home video release.

Produced in 1988 to capitalize on the 100th anniversary of the Ripper’s crimes and mostly remembered as the movie where a young James Spader plays twins, Jack’s Back is a stylish post-slasher thriller in the vein of Donald Cammell’s White of the Eye (1987) and Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986). Herrington’s screenplay isn’t quite as esoteric as that comparison might imply and Herrington’s music video style doesn’t have as much timeless appeal, but this gory, Argento-esque psycho-thriller matches the general spirit of those films. The enthusiastic style and likeable (though heightened) performances (Spader strikes a nice balance between nebbishly charming and tortured in his dual roles) help carry the occasionally nonsensical plotting and heavy-handed political ambitions through their paces, ensuring that even the most trope-heavy expositional sequences are tonally interesting. The twist ending is awfully easy to guess, unfortunately, but that’s sort of par for the course, I guess. Directly following this, his directorial debut, Herrington brought his brand of heightened melodramatic reality to the similarly silly Road House (1989), the forgotten Cuba Gooding, Jr./James Marshall boxing drama Gladiator (1992), and the Bruce Willis ego-trip/mega-flop Striking Distance (1993), before disappearing into STV/limited release movies. The closest he got to reclaiming the type of horror-tinged glory he achieved with Jack’s Back was I Witness (2003), which also starred Spader. I’m not sure if anyone saw that one, though.

Jack’s Back had two official UK DVD releases (one anamorphic, the other full-frame) and I believe SD versions cropped up on television and streaming services (Netflix specifically). Scream Factory’s Blu-ray Combo Pack represents the first Blu-ray and DVD version available on the North American market. This 1.78:1, 1080p transfer was newly transferred from the original 35mm negative (restored by Pinewood) and improves upon memories of those SD versions with tighter details, better gamma correction, and slightly brighter colours. However, like the aforementioned White of the Eye, Jack’s Back is a very foggy-looking and grainy movie. This does make it difficult to judge the transfer by the same standards as the other movies on this page. Cammell and cinematographer Shelly Johnson embraced soft focus, diffused lighting, smokey sets, and other stylistic choices that don’t lend themselves to sharp edges. There are also some pulsing qualities and blown-out whites that could not have been avoided without completely changing the intended look of the film. Colours are more consistent than previous releases, including blue (rather than white) skies and natural skin tones. Speaking of sharp edges, there has been a little overcompensation in that regard and, coupled with slight compression, it leads to some halo effects.

The original stereo soundtrack has also been restored and is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. It’s not the liveliest track, but it’s very clean and precise with natural dialogue tracks and simple effects work. Danny Di Paola’s original score is a strange mix of typical ‘80s horror synth keyboards, Herrmann-esque suspense cues, and sultry, noir-themed sax melodies. The music is more or less the only aural element that has any impact in the stereo channels and is given a decent LFE support.

Extras include:
  • Commentary with Rowdy Herrington – This new commentary with the writer/director is very down-to-business. Herrington comes prepared with an extensive history of the production, which he intersperses between more screen-specific descriptions of technical achievements. The anecdotes and side notes fill the time efficiently with only a bit of a slowdown as the film passes its middle act.
  • The Making Of Jack’s Back (23:50, HD) – This relatively extensive retrospective featurette covers the film from inception through production, shooting, casting, and release. It includes interviews with Herrington, producer Tim Moore, actress Cynthia Gibb, and cinematographer Shelly Johnson.
  • Trailer


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Scream Factory January Reviews

Sonny Boy

(1987/89, release date January 26, 2016)
In a remote desert town, a psychopathic petty crook (Paul L. Smith) and his transvestite girlfriend (David Carradine) kidnap an orphaned infant, cage it like an animal, and train it to steal and kill on their command. Years later, when the half-wild Sonny Boy escapes and embarks on a bloody rampage, the couple's monstrous attempt at "child development" provokes the local populace into vengeful retaliation. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)

Robert Martin Carroll’s Sonny Boy might be the most obscure title that Scream Factory has ever released, at least as a single movie release (as opposed to a double or quadruple-feature). This obscurity is largely tied to the fact that it is a really, really weird movie. It’s as if Carroll and screenwriter Graeme Whifler (‘additional dialogue’ is credited to Peter Desberg, Ph.D.) had ideas for three or four different genre films and, instead of choosing one, they Frankensteined them together into a tailor-made cult film. However, the strangest thing about Sonny Boy is that the people that made it took it very seriously. Yes, there are jokes (funny ones, too) and the concepts are silly enough to invite giggles, but there’s also an overridingly somber and oddly moralistic tone. The whole film is a not very well disguised metaphor for the real-world consequences of child abuse, yet the most graphic violence is presented with soothing music and voice-over and the more concrete representations of domestic misconduct are laced in satire. Perhaps Carroll’s sensibilities are just this arbitrary. Maybe he and his collaborators are genuinely insane people. Given the almost meticulous style, it’s more likely that he revels in forcing his audience to draw their own conclusions.

The tropes and images are often familiar – scary redneck family units, crazy transgender people, criminal organizations, Christian imagery, angry mobs chasing a misunderstood monster, a big Sam Peckinpah-worthy shoot-out climax, et cetera – but everything's off-kilter and slightly nightmarish. The dialogue all sounds off-the-cuff (I’m beginning to think Peter Desberg, Ph.D. isn’t a real person), the storytelling pace is sluggish and episodic in the most random sense, and, though they’re incredibly specific in terms of appearance and mannerisms, the characters are underdeveloped by design. Any time I thought I finally had a handle on the tone, Carroll and Whifler would throw another wrench in the works. And, of course, there is the all-star character actor calibre of the cast, including David Carradine in drag, Paul L. Smith revisiting the cartoonish brutality of Bluto, Brad Dourif sporting multiple punk hair-dos, and Sydney Lassick in full whiney brat mode. Sonny Boy isn’t always great, but it is a fully unique experience and the kind of thing I hope Scream Factory pursues more of now that the big ticket catalogue films are starting to run out. Apparently, its cult following wasn’t enough to get Carroll another directing gig until the year 2000, when he was put in charge of a teen pregnancy drama called Baby Luv.

Again, this is a very obscure title – one that has not been officially released on DVD or Blu-ray, according to my (admitedly limited) research. There was an HD television version (it appeared on MGM HD and TCM Underground) that probably matches this 2.35:1, 1080p Blu-ray debut. This is a sometimes dirty print that includes more small scale damage than any of the other films discussed on this page, but it’s also a mostly natural-looking and consistent image. Sonny Boy is another relatively foggy-looking movie and I assume that it is this way on purpose. It’s hard to tell when the movie is so strange, but the diffused lights, dusty/smoky environments, and streaking lens flares seem toward point to a carefully orchestrated look. Even though some of the finer details are obscured by heavy grain (that occasionally has the appearance of telecine noise) or diffusion, textural clarity and element separation is pretty tight. The neutral palette appears accurate with occasional poppy highlights and relatively deep black levels. It’s certainly not a perfect transfer (the suspicious telecine look does bother me), but it’s definitely an upgrade over, well, watching nothing at all.

In addition to its digital rarity, there were both cut and uncut VHS versions of Sonny Boy. My best estimate is that this Blu-ray, which runs just under 99 minutes, is an uncut version, but would welcome a correction from someone that knows better than me.

The stereo soundtrack is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. The sound design is minimal, devoted mostly to dialogue and subtle effects that were most likely captured on set. There are very few stereo effects aside from some car horns/engines moving across the screen, gunshots, and the echoes of Sonny Boy’s voiceover. Some scenes have a slight underlying buzz, but the overall soundfloor is low and quiet. The on-screen dialogue is a bit soft without sounding muffled. Carlo Maria Cordio’s score is a generally folk-rocky affair, inspired by “Dueling Banjo” and the western motifs of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. There are only three or four tracks, so repetition is a problem, but sound quality is nice and even delicate at times. There’s also a catchy theme song, "Maybe it Ain't," composed and performed by Carradine several times throughout the film.

The all-new extras include:
  • Commentary with director Robert Martin Carroll and actress/uncredited re-writer/Carroll’s wife Dalene Young – The first of the two new commentary tracks is a sweet and extensive discussion from the director, who takes the reins for most of the track in order to run down the long and winding history of the film. Immediately, Carroll makes it clear that he also thought that Whifler’s screenplay was strange, but fascinating (apparently, the studio that asked him to direct completely hated the project even before filming began). A lot of the track is devoted to how much the story was changed to fit his equally strange predilections. Carroll also engages in the typical director’s commentary lingo with behind-the-scenes anecdotes, praise for the cast & crew, and mention of the various locations. Young’s input is minimal and usually in reference to characters.
  • Commentary with writer Graeme Whifler – The second track is moderated by Variety’s Matthew Chernoff and more of an extended interview than a proper ‘commentary,’ which is actually great, because I’m not sure if Whifler would’ve delved as extensively into his own back-story without prodding. Whifler’s inspirations turn out to be based largely on stories he heard while working blue collar jobs  and hanging out at a ‘dyke bar.’ He had basically no input once filming had commenced (or much contact with Carroll since) and completely hated the final movie, which deviates from his screenplay considerably. The cult following seems to have softened his opinion a bit, but he still complains a lot (usually in reference to Sonny Boy’s angelic appearance). Chernoff does a good job of marking some of the major differences between the script and film.
  • First draft of the script (accessible via BD-ROM)
  • Trailer


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* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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