Southern Comfort (US - BD RA)
Gabe revisits one of Walter Hill's most underrated efforts on Blu-ray disc...
Nine National Guardsmen enter the Louisiana swamp for routine training, but an error in judgment by one of the team incites an all-out war with some angry Cajuns who know the territory like the backs of their hands. Armed with a precious few bullets and confused by the dimly lit, moss-covered maze into which they've stumbled, the guardsmen know they'll be picked off one by one, until they come up with a solution using the only resources they have left...their wits. (From Shout Factory’s official synopsis)
Walter Hill’s 1981 Louisiana-set, bayou thriller, Southern Comfort hasn’t developed the same devoted cult following or pop-culture credentials as the director’s more flamboyant outings, specifically The Warriors or Streets of Fire. It’s not a groundbreaking/oft-repeated prototype, like 48 Hours or a playful reassignment of genre tropes, like The Warriors, and it doesn’t have Long Riders’ clever casting gimmick (that film starred a number of famous siblings playing famous siblings), but what it lacks in uniqueness, it makes up for in perfect simplicity. It is a classic Walter Hill movie in that it is stringently built around a beautifully uncomplicated concept that allows him to explore the emotional duplicities of ‘manhood.’ Besides John Milius and Sam Peckinpah, very few filmmakers were more obsessed with testosterone than Walter Hill. Hill’s macho dialogue, written in conjunction with Michael Kane and David Giler (who worked with Hill on Alien rewrites), is a little mouthy as the film begins, but these tired truisms are really a front. His antiheroes speak like movie tough guys, because they don’t really know how to be the real thing. Most of them are cowardly and impulsive. The cast, which is made up of a number of the best character actors of the era, portray the subtle descent from confidence into fear and insanity perfectly without losing the melodramatic timbre that is required from the movie’s tone.
Whether Hill ever admitted it or not, Southern Comfort owes a debt to the slasher films that were taking the independent film scene by storm in the early ‘80s. It was financed and produced shortly after Friday the 13th and released during the single busiest year for the genre. Hill’s film is not a slasher and may not have even been made with slasher motifs in mind, but, like the glut of Friday the 13th cash-ins, it is a (surprisingly) gory bodycount movie that is set in a foreboding forest area. The Cajun killers and their command of their environment are reminiscent of supernaturally endowed, all-star killers Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers. Hill’s obsession with manly men doesn’t leave any room for the college kid stereotypes that helped define slashers, of course, but, even with their guns and training, his characters are every bit as helpless against their attackers. Unfortunately, audiences didn’t connect with Southern Comfort like they did with Friday the 13th and its more direct rip-offs.
The more common comparisons are made to John Boorman’s Deliverance (the analogy is all over the advertising materials to this day), based on James Dickey’s novel (1972), and John Ford’s The Lost Patrol (1934). These correlations are supported by the material and Hill’s modus operandi – especially the John Ford angle, as recycling classic western stories in nontraditional settings is kind of his thing ( The Getaway, The Warriors, 48 Hours, and especially Extreme Prejudice all revisit western motifs). The Deliverance comparisons are pertinent to the slasher angle, because Boorman’s film was a crucial peg in the invention of slashers. It even predates the key proto-slasher Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Southern Comfort is often lost in a number of pedigree slasher films that robbed Dickey’s concept, including Peter Carter’s Rituals (aka: The Creeper, 1977), Jeff Lieberman’s Just Before Dawn (1981), Robert C. Hughes’ Hunter’s Blood (1986), and George Bloom’s Brothers in Arms (1988), but it’s too wrapped-up in moral ambiguity and subtext for an apples-to-apples correlation.
Despite vehement denial on Hill’s part, Southern Comfort is also one of the more obvious Vietnam War parables to come out of the era. Unlike many similar films, which hide such messages behind genre tropes (like the cannibalistic rednecks of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Return of the Jedi’s more cuddly Ewoks), this movie directly references the conflict by pitting unfit, unprepared United States armed forces members against a technologically inferior enemy that uses the knowledge of its environment as an advantage (the troop’s sergeant states plainly ‘We don’t know the enemy’s strength or his disposition and while he may have the advantage of familiar terrain, we have the advantage of military training.’). There’s even a title card that marks the year as 1973, not 1980 or ’81, adding another layer of war-themed subtext, because it means that the characters are possibly serving in the National Guard to avoid military service abroad. Yet another unspoken subtext in this deceptively simple little story relates to the soldiers being punished because they have no regard for the natural order. On the surface, they are ignorantly acting out against the Cajuns, but beneath that is the theme that the Cajuns represent indigenous people and wildlife. This draws further parallels to both horror and western genre tropes.
Southern Comfort has been available for some time on MGM’s barebones, but decent-looking anamorphic DVD. This new 1080p, 1.78:1 Blu-ray presentation (slightly misframed from the original 1.85:1 theatrical release) – likely supplied directly from Twentieth Century Fox – is an upgrade in terms of clarity and overall detail. Grain levels don’t suffer issues with DNR application, but are inconsistent. Some images positively shimmer with grain of all shades and sizes, though none as aggressive as those that appear during the opening credits (the foggier scenes are also problematic in this regard). Some of this grain is colourful enough that it might be CRT noise. Hill and cinematographer Andrew Laszlo craft a bleak atmosphere without downplaying the beauty of the bayou environment. This is an issue in terms of the film’s use of source lighting during overcast daylight shots and pervasively dark nighttime images. The grain and darkness can create issues for deeper-set details, but, on average, elements and textures are tight without any edge-enhancement effects. This palette is naturalistic, including lots of greens, grays, and browns (Hill and Laszlo would utilize a more vivid and abstract palette when they collaborated again for Streets of Fire). These hues, along with skin tones, can be uncannily homogenized (the lighter-skinned black guy is the same colour as the white guys in some shots), but more or less match the colours from the DVD release (and older VHS versions, if memory serves).
Southern Comfort is presented in its original mono, as it was on the MGM DVD, but this Blu-ray has the advantage, because it is presented in lossless, 2.0 DTS-HD sound. The track is pretty flat and a little tinny, but never distorted or hissy. Dialogue is consistent in terms of volume and general clarity, even if it’s a hair muffled. Effects work is complex for a single-channel soundtrack, which can become problematic where dialogue is concerned. The scenes with the heaviest environmental ambience tend to lose either dialogue or effects in aural mud. This is likely an unavoidable issue, based on the qualities of the original material, not the fault of bad mastering on the part of Fox or Shout Factory. Southern Comfort was the second of ten collaborations between Hill and virtuoso slide guitarist Ry Cooder. It’s also arguably the best film score Cooder was ever involved with, built mostly around guitar and flute-heavy blues motifs, with a couple of in-film traditional Cajun ditties by Dewey Balfa. The music sounds better on the stereo soundtrack album, but isn’t as flattened as the other sound by the.
- The Making of Southern Comfort (27:10, HD) – A brand new retrospective featurette that includes interviews with Hill (via Skype), producer/writer David Giler (via Skype), and actors Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Peter Coyote, and Lewis Smith. The Vietnam allegory is discussed (Hill and Giler dismiss it more politely than they have in other interviews, while Carradine and Boothe both validate the theory), along with the trials of filming on location.
- Theatrical Trailer
- Still Gallery
Southern Comfort goes on about 15 minutes longer than it needs to (I’m not referring to the final 15 minutes, just general repetition throughout), but is an otherwise well-constructed thriller with plenty of social and political subtext to mull over. Shout Factory’s new Blu-ray is the perfect excuse for people to see/revisit it and features a nice HD picture upgrade, along with a limited, but clear DTS-HD MA mono soundtrack and a new retrospective featurette with the filmmakers.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray 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.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 8th July 2014
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono English
Extras: The Making of Southern Comfort, Trailer, Stills, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Walter Hill
Cast: Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Fred Ward, T. K. Carter, Franklyn Seales
Genre: Action, Drama, Thriller and War
Length: 106 minutes
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