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Scream Factory Reviews

Nightbreed


Boone (Craig Sheffer) may be a troubled young man, but his troubles are just beginning. Set up as the fall guy in a string of slasher murders, he decides he'll hide by crossing the threshold that separates ‘us’ from ‘them’ and sneak into the forbidden subterranean realm of Midian. Boone will live among the monsters. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)

Following the somewhat surprising international success of Hellraiser in 1987, Clive Barker was the toast of the town and the horror world was his cinematic oyster. After handing off Hellbound: Hellraiser II to his friend Tony Randel, he took up production on an ambitious film version of his novella, Cabal. That film, Nightbreed, was shot on a sizable budget with significant studio backing and was designed as the first of a series (at least one sequel was planned at Morgan Creek). But the epic vision was not to be. The producers got cold feet after seeing a rough cut and, claiming that the story and characters were too confusing, demanded reshoots/re-edits, much to Barker and editor Richard Marden’s chagrin. The release date was pushed back several months and two-and-a-half-hour-plus original cut was chiseled down to 102 minutes. Nightbreed was released to negative reviews and flopped at the box office. Luckily, word of the troubled production escaped into the pre-internet fan-o-sphere (mostly Fangoria and Gorezone magazines) and helped build a solid cult fanbase.

I’ve never really liked Nightbreed in its theatrical form. It’s charming enough to not be boring, but does not live up to the revolting, hyper-theatricality of Hellraiser. However, I think even non-fans have been taken in by the production’s back-story. Film enthusiasts can’t resist a good ‘artist screwed over by studio hacks’ story and Nightbreed’s history has turned the concept of a director’s cut into the Holy Grail of its kind. Rumours of an extended cut circulated for decades and finally materialized when a VHS bootleg of the workprint was discovered and added to the reshoot footage to create a 159-minute extended cut, dubbed The Cabal Cut. Despite looking like a VHS bootleg, the extended version made the rounds in the convention circuit and created new enthusiasm for the film. Initially, it was stated that Scream Factory would be releasing The Cabal Cut, but that was corrected when Barker announced that he was overseeing a completely different director’s cut, culled from parts of the theatrical version and restored footage from the extended version. It includes about 40 minutes of ‘new’ footage and deletes some of the old footage to reach a healthy 120 minutes.

I have to admit that I my memories of the original cut are too vague for me to directly compare the two, but do remember enough to verify that the director’s cut is a superior film. The weird tone is more even-handed, creating a better, more potent mix of Barker-level drama and horror. Despite the increased length, the pacing is better and the accelerated storytelling helps cover some of the weaker plotting, especially anything concerning character motivations – though the story is still flecked with holes. Perhaps most important to those of us that weren’t already won over by Nightbreed’s charms, the director’s cut features more gore and much more time with the monsters, which, in turn, gives the climax better dramatic context. I now realize that this is the closest we’ll ever get to Clive Barker’s X-Men. However, it does not solve all of my problems with the film. I still have issues with Barker not maintaining persistent energy levels and dynamic imagery throughout the entire film. There are truly remarkable shots and edits spliced between really bland expositional/dialogue-driven sequences – the kind of generic footage that would’ve never made the cut on Hellraiser. It’s more than likely that the studio’s meddling and limitations hampered Barker’s creativity, but Nightbreed suffers from typical ‘sophomore-itis’ and even a reconstructed version doesn’t feel like a movie from a truly hungry filmmaker – it feels like a compromise.

Nightbreed has been released on DVD in various territories, but Scream Factory’s standard edition and collector’s edition Blu-rays are the only HD options, not to mention the first and only releases of the director’s cut version. The original press release claimed that the deleted footage was only available on the VHS bootleg and that it would be put through a ‘high-resolution digitization process’ to best match the properly-scanned film footage. Thankfully, someone found the original elements in the WB vault, which means that this 1080p, 1.85:1 HD transfer is as consistent-looking as possible, given the multi element source (the special features include some of the raw VHS footage and it looks really bad). The results are very good – much better than we could’ve expected from a composite cut and just as good as we should expect from a movie of its age. The image clarity and level of detail is also consistent (enough to ‘give away’ some of the matte paintings), despite the extreme darkness of some sequences, and there are no signs of DNR enhancement. A handful of the previously deleted scenes include jagged transitions, scratches, and dirty splices, but the overall appearance is barely marred by inconsistencies in grain levels (the more well-lit establishing shots feature some pulsing sheets). Barker and cinematographer Robin Vidgeon utilize a lot of reds and oranges, which tends to flatten the darker shots, but, even at their most vivid, these warm hues are not blocky or noisy. The only realistic complaint I can muster is that some shots have been slightly over-sharpened, creating minor edge haloes.

The 5.1 remix, presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio, is obviously a first for the director’s cut, which was likely culled from the 2.0 stereo surround source, but all DVD versions of the theatrical cut have included similar 5.1 mixes. The extra directional effects are sometimes a little rough and overstated (the clapping during a barroom concert is way too loud, for example), but generally blends with the stylized immersion found in the original tracks. The remixed Midian scenes are definitely more successful, due to their more abstract sound design. Christopher Young had just written the music for the first two Hellraiser movies and would seem the obvious choice for Barker’s second film, but Nightbreed ended up being scored by a still up-and-coming Hollywood composer named Danny Elfman, who was developing his pedigree only one year after scoring Batman (in an interesting twist, Young ended up replacing an exasperated Elfman on Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 seventeen years later). This score is the track’s prominent element and positively screams early Elfman (it’s very similar to the Darkman compositions he’d kick out a year later) and covers the film almost wall-to-wall with bouncing and blaring melodies. Do note that some of the music has been looped for this director’s cut, since Elfman was not available to rescore it.

Extras Include:
  • Introduction by Barker and restoration producer Mark Alan Miller (5:30, HD)
  • Commentary by Barker and Miller – This full-bodied commentary track covers the film’s development, concepts, filming, production problems, and the reconstruction of this director’s cut. Both Barker and Miller have a habit of getting lost in nostalgia and congratulating collaborators, but this is a very informative track, including a number of behind-the-scenes anecdotes not already a part of the extensive fan mythology. It’s also a good way for us non-fans to mark the differences between the cuts.
  • Tribes of the Moon: The Making of Nightbreed (1:12:20, HD) – A new behind-the-scenes documentary featuring retrospective interviews with monster actors Craig Sheffer, Anne Bobby, Christine McCorkindale, Doug Bradley, Hugh Ross, and Simon Bamford. This is a celebratory piece that includes extensive discussion about Bradley, Ross, and Bamford’s pre- Nightbreed work, a number of production photos, and some HD outtake footage.
  • Making Monsters (42:11, HD) – Interviews with makeup effects artists Bob Keen, Martin Mercer, and Paul Jones, including Barker’s original drawings and make-up test footage.
  • Fire! Fights! Stunts! 2nd Unit Shooting (20:20, HD) – A discussion with second-unit director Andy Armstrong.
  • Trailer

Note that the Limited Edition version (which has sold out) includes more featurettes, 20 minutes of deleted scenes, and the original theatrical cut.

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Dolls


A precocious girl, her nasty parents, two punk-rock losers and a weak-kneed salesman inadvertently become the guests of two ghoulish senior citizens in their dark, haunted mansion. The old couple makes and collects dolls that, when not sitting still like good little mannequins, creep around in the night, offing the guests one by one! You may laugh at first, but, if they turn on you, you'll regret it...for the rest of your short life! (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)

Moving from the Scream Factory fall releases I feel most obligated to be excited about to the one I’m most genuinely excited about. In a long career of underrated movies, Dolls might be director Stuart Gordon’s most underrated effort (with The Pit and the Pendulum coming in a close second). It was Gordon’s third film, following The Re-Animator and From Beyond (in release order – it was actually filmed a year before From Beyond, as that film was in pre-production, but held back for two years). Though From Beyond was not as well received by critics and mainstream audiences as The Re-Animator, it was popular among horror fans and helped cement his place as the prominent translator of H.P. Lovecraft’s supposedly unfilmable stories. Fans let their rigid expectations get the better of them and Dolls was largely dismissed for not being another gory, sex-caked, satirical Lovecraft adaptation. Admittedly, it’s not as transcendently incredible as Gordon’s first two movies and doesn’t quite share the patented Gordon ‘feel’ that permeates throughout his other good films, but it’s a perfect live-action representation of the EC Comics ironic horror tradition that deserves mention alongside George A. Romero’s Creepshow (it was, coincidentally, released the same year as Creepshow 2, 1987). Dolls is certainly a slight feature. It runs short (only 77 minutes, including credits), it’s a simple and very broad morality tale, and it doesn’t break any boundaries in terms of sex and violence. But filmmakers don’t need to set out to make important entries for their filmographies every time at bat and Gordon has regularly proven throughout his career that he flourishes in modesty.

Dolls wasn’t the first genre film to exploit childhood fears of murderous dolls (interestingly enough, they played a big part in EC-inspired horror anthologies, like Roy Ward Baker’s Asylum and Dan Curtis’ Trilogy of Terror), but pre-dated the vastly more popular (and still ongoing) Child’s Play series and encouraged producer Charles Band to start the Puppet Master and Demonic Toys series, both of which became keystones in his Full Moon empire (Band and Gordon continued collaborating on Robot Jox, The Pit and the Pendulum, and Castle Freak). Dolls’ more unlikely legacy is as a progenitor of the kiddie horror industry. Despite a few spurts of blood (Empire Pictures reportedly mandated more gore to match Gordon’s Lovecraft films, but most of it was dropped), the gore is stylized enough to be hesitantly referred to as ‘family friendly’ and it epitomizes a brand of horror that has since been co-opted by children’s television. Formerly popular series, like Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark?, brought thrills to kids without stepping over lines of taste or talking down to their audiences. Also like Dolls, these shows are forced to contend with minuscule budgets.

Dolls has made appearances on a barebones MGM DVD, HD television, Netflix HD streaming, and a UK Blu-ray from 101 Films. My eyeballs tell me that all of these versions and Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray have been taken from the same source MGM transfer. I had originally intended on including comparison screen caps from this release and the UK disc, but stopped when I realized that they looked so much alike (there are slight colour differences, but this is probably attributed to the fact that Shout Factory’s discs force me to use VLC player for screen caps). Gordon and cinematographer Mac Ahlberg shot Dolls using strong, expressionistic shadows and acrylic colours to imitate the look of the comic books that inspired the film and the HD upgrade makes a world of difference in terms of the purity of both the blacks and colours. Occasionally, the reddish qualities of the warmer hues create minor low-level noise and the hardest black edges lead to minor haloes, but the overall effect is much sharper than the DVD version (even a bit sharper than the TV/Netflix versions were). Grain levels appear natural and consistent, even during the darker sequences (it only cakes up briefly during shots of the stormy sky, which I’m pretty sure are stock footage inserts, anyway). Minor scuffs, flecks, and scratches are peppered throughout the film, but are not distracting (aside from the scene where Ian Patrick Williams finds Carolyn Purdy Gordon dead and mutilated in bed – there are some weird trickling effects).

German and Hong Kong DVD versions of Dolls featured 5.1 sound, which Scream Factory’s has included here alongside the original 2.0 stereo mix (the 5.1 mix is not listed on the box art, which is funny, because 101 Films’ box art mislabels its 2.0 mix as 5.1). Both tracks are presented in lossless DTS-HD Master sound. The 5.1 remix is more of a hindrance than an upgrade, mostly because it doesn’t change any of the occasionally awkward dialogue and effects shifts already present on the stereo track. Normally, you’d expect a similar remix to move such things to a designated and discrete center channel, but, in this case, both the 5.1 and 2.0 versions spread them over the stereo channels. The only difference is that the remix includes sometimes annoying reverb effects. Despite these slightly off kilter results, the audio is clean, featuring only small fuzz during the shrillest moments (like when the punk chicks scream). Other stereo movement, like scurrying, laughing dolls, and the rumble of thunder outside, is more potent and well-balanced on both tracks, though significantly louder in 5.1, which is, I suppose, the remix’s advantage. The score, by Fuzzbee Morse and Victor Spiegel (not Richard Band, for some reason), includes a handful of memorable melodies, but, like many Empire/Full Moon soundtracks, it’s pretty thinly spread. The music sounds nice enough without the additional rear speaker influence and the lean keyboard sound probably wouldn’t benefit too much from a discrete LFE channel, but the 5.1 version does offer more overall depth and dynamic range.

Extras include:
  • Two commentary tracks from the MGM DVD release:
    • Director Stuart Gordon and writer Ed Naha
    • Cast members Stephen Lee, Ian Patrick Wiliams, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, and Carrie Lorraine
  • Toys Of Terror: The Making Of Dolls (38:20, HD) – A retrospective featurette includes new interviews with Gordon, producers Brian Yuzna and Charles Band, screenwriter Ed Naha, effects designers Gabe Bartalos and Gino Crognale, and actors Carolyn Purdy-Gordon and Ian Patrick Williams.
  • Storyboard-To-Film Comparison (also from the MGM DVD, 8:20, HD)
  • Trailer and trailers for other Scream Factory releases
  • Photo gallery


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Squirm


When a powerful storm knocks Fly Creek, Georgia's power lines down onto wet soil, the resulting surge of electricity drives large, bloodthirsty worms to the surface – and then out of their soil-tilling minds! Soon, the townspeople discover that their sleepy fishing village is overrun with worms that burrow right into their skin! Inundated by hundreds of thousands of carnivorous creatures, the terrorized locals race to find the cause of the rampage – before becoming tilled under themselves! (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)

Jeff Lieberman’s Squirm is probably best-known among genre fans as the butt of so-bad-it’s-good jokes, like a regular stint as late-night movie on Ted Turner’s TBS station (usually following an Atlanta Braves) and a popular episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. This has framed the film as little more than a dopey curiosity for years, but it’s worth noting that these TV-friendly versions edit out a number of the more gruesome and memorable moments. When viewed out of the comedic context, Squirm is actually one of the better and more genuinely creepy films in the nature run amuck subgenre – which had seen a considerable resurgence during the 1970s, following the runaway success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Sure, Lieberman’s concept – thousands of flesh-eating worms attacking a small town – is silly on paper, but all animal revolt is inherently goofy out of context. It’s the quality of the execution that makes the difference.

Squirm was Lieberman’s first feature-length movie. Despite a lack of experience and a nearly non-existent budget, he managed to make a professional-looking product that includes a considerably epic climax, where a house is basically devoured by a sea of writhing night crawlers. The film is shot using understated, naturalistic photography that hints at the more stylized imagery of Lieberman’s next two films, Blue Sunshine (1978) and Just Before Dawn (1981). Lieberman’s career was too brief and underseen to make any major impact on the genre, but his early movies have a unique and measured dirtiness to them, similar to what Tobe Hooper achieved with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Eaten Alive. Though Just Before Dawn is his masterpiece (and one of the best films of the slasher genre’s golden era), Squirm has an effectively gritty quality that helps authenticate the more skin-crawling (like, literally skin-crawling) sequences and sets the stage for the budget-busting finale, which transcends the obvious fact that Lieberman is filming thousands of inert rubber tubes. Perhaps more importantly, Lieberman’s script takes its cues from The Birds and Jaws by focusing most of his storytelling efforts on characters, instead of the creatures (in fact, a number of the characters are directly influenced by characters in Hitchcock and Spielberg’s masterpieces). Some of his ‘naturalistic’ dialogue is a bit stiff and some of the supporting performances are tweaked too campy, but the human interest aspects generally work, despite Mystery Science Theater’s hilarious claims to the contrary.

Squirm was shot on a tiny budget, but not so tiny that Lieberman and cinematographer Joseph Mangine couldn’t shoot on 35mm film. Like Dolls, it has been available on DVD for some time and was already released on Blu-ray in the UK, though by Arrow Video, instead of 101 Films. Based on the screen caps that appear on Marcus’ review of Arrow’s release, It’s probably safe to say that both discs used the same MGM HD scan for their 1.85:1, 1080p transfers. Squirm is a very dark movie, which has proven problematic for various VHS and DVD releases over the years. Even this relatively clean HD version has issues with indiscernible night sequences and muddy daylight photography. However, the 1080p upgrade does punch-up highlights, sharpen details, and brighten the earth-tone-heavy palette. Grain levels are pretty thick, but consistent, and print damage is minimal enough.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound meets the expectations set by other shoestring movies from the ‘70s – though the sound design is actually more aggressive and abstract than similar productions. The dialogue track is uneven, due mostly to volume discrepancies in set-recorded and ADR’d performances. The incidental sound effects are also a bit tinny and scratchy, but the stylized sounds, including storm noise and the evil worms’ unnatural screams, are strong and well-layered along with the music. Robert Prince’s unsettling string and keyboard score sets the stage for the film’s gloomier moments and is pretty dynamic considering the mono track’s other limitations, especially the vibrating ‘wub wub’ sound he uses to represent the worms.

Extras include:
  • Writer/director Jeff Lieberman’s original MGM DVD commentary track
  • Digging In: The Making of Squirm (33:10, HD) – New retrospective interviews with writer/director Jeff Lieberman and actor Don Scardino.
  • Eureka! (7:00, HD) – Lieberman further discusses his inspiration by physically taking the interview staff to his childhood home to recreate a worm-zapping experiment.
  • Trailer
  • TV spot
  • Radio spot
  • Still gallery
  • Trailers for other Scream Factory releases


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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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