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Saturday, 8 February 2014

Steelbook Review: DEMONS 2

N.B. This post has been ever-so-slightly-altered since its original posting. Thanks!

Welcome Back!

DEMONS 2 is a troubled-sequel. How could Argento and Bava possibly top the sheer balls-out mayhem of the first? Well, he couldn't. However, that's not to say DEMONS 2 is a bad film. It's not. It's just not as good as the first. With that said, there's still much to enjoy in this sequel.

As less people have seen the sequel, I will give you a brief synopsis. Set in a newly-built (modern) Italian tower block, we meet heavily-pregnant Hannah (Nancy Brilli), and her husband George (David Edwin Knight). They have been invited to a party at a fellow tenant's apartment. The birthday girl, Sally Day, played by Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, is frustrated, because she wants everything (and everyone) to be perfect for her perfect birthday party. As she gets ready, she is watching a documentary on TV, about several teenagers who trespass into a deserted town, due to an outbreak of demonic possession running rife. When they discover the dessicated remains of a demon, it becomes revived, when one of the youngsters places a demonic mask (as featured in the original DEMONS film) on their face, and scratches themselves with it. The resulting blood then helps to revive one Demon, who goes on to resurrect a hellish plague on the world, and infest it with further demons of the nastiest sort. Alongside Sally, several other tenants in the building are also watching the same documentary. But the documentary, is causing some of the tenants headaches and pain. They are being slowly hypnotised, and Demons are wanting to traverse from their world, into the real-world. When one Demon successfully makes it, havoc ensues.

That's pretty much the nub of it. DEMONS 2 is nowhere near as enjoyable as the first one, but I still think it's a fun, silly gonzo flick, and Synapse's new restored Steelbook is certainly an improvement on all other previous versions, which helps increase the viewer's pleasure.

First-off, those of you who know anything about anything about DEMONS 2, know... Well, we'll let Don May Jnr himself explain:
"DEMONS 2 was filmed on the very controversial Kodak 5294 (T400) film stock. This film stock was notorious for being extremely problematic and was discontinued not long after it was introduced. The film stock produced images that were extremely dense, dark and very, very grainy. [snip] The DEMONS 2 grain structure is heavy, for sure, but it is no fault of ours… it’s inherent in the negative. Those more familiar with DEMONS 2 are also aware of the few brief shots in the film (maybe four or five) where the picture jumps and “vibrates” during the film. This issue is also in the original negative and we tried to fix it.
The problem is that fixing the “vibrating” frames just caused additional errors and problems in other areas of the shots. We did send a sample scene to Lowry/Reliance and we tried using digital tools to see if we could do anything to minimise or alleviate the issue. The fixes were just as problematic, so we also had to leave these sections alone. DEMONS 2’s original negative had these issues printed in and it is frustrating. It will continue to be frustrating for all future versions of DEMONS 2. When we contacted DEMONS 2’s director of photography, Gianlorenzo Battaglia, with questions about the film itself and the film stock, he replied by telling us the entire film used Kodak 5294, with the exception of the very final scene of the film with the two actors outside in the morning."
The brief shots, Don May refers to, occur at the following point in the film:
1) During the restaurant outing, between 28m 16s to 28m 24s.
2) When the couple cross the bridge, between 52m 49s to 53m 26s.
3) During the car journey, between 59m 32s to 59m 45s.

In the Arrow release, there was a warning notice about these inherent errors in the film-stock, at the beginning of the film, and an apology, with a hope that "this will not ruin your enjoyment of the film". On Synapse's release, no such note exists, which is fine by me. And to be fair to them, most people who purchase this film, will be fully aware of the problems, and their history. So the lack of notice, is not an issue for me.

For those who don't know, at the three points in the film mentioned above, the image will shake or vibrate, or go slightly blurry. Synapse have certainly tried to correct these errors, and they are less "shocking" than in the Arrow release, where no attempt was made to correct them at all. However, you will notice them. There's no two ways of saying this. The errors are quite blatant, and obvious, but as Don May mentions, there's nothing they (or we) can do about it. With that all said, you either accept them as inherent flaws, or you can wind yourself up bitching about it, and get nowhere fast.

So, with that all said, are the audio and visual quality any good? Yes! As with DEMONS, Synapse have vastly improved the print. Not only is it sharper and clearer than all previous editions, but you can see the differences. In this version, detail previously not noticeable (e.g. different strands of hair on people's heads; skin textures, and details on buildings and in dark scenes) now appear, and can be seen by the viewers. Even on smaller large-screen TV's (those under 40-inches) will  notice the differences. Those of you lucky enough to have access to truly spectacular large-screens and/or projector's will see the difference even better.

Colours pop, and are more defined, especially on the Demons' skin, and make-up. The film looks even more vibrant than it ever has, and it feels very much like a real product of the 1980's. (The technology, the hairstyles and, in particular, the fashion-sense easily give the game away, but they can all be easily forgiven.) And yes, there are even bigger plot-holes than in the first one. However, it's still a fun film. And horror should be entertaining, even if it's not especially scary or shocking. Admittedly, the demonic possession of the child, is still quite unnerving.

Audio-wise, it's a nice DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack in Dubbed English, or Dubbed Italian with English Subtitles. Technically, neither are wholly accurate or original, because when filming was underway, many of the cast spoke different languages, and were over-dubbed at a later date. So, although the Dubbed English version is the more authentic, if you lived in or grew-up in Italy in the late-80's, then the Dubbed Italian would be your "original" soundtrack.

The score is not as impressive, though musician Simon Boswell tries hard to at least equal Claudio Simonetti's original themes - and does so to a greater or lesser degree. Yet, the rest of the 80's music, doesn't really work, for me at least. It's certainly not as entertainingly used as in DEMONS, nor is much of it stuff you'll actually recall for those of you who lived through the era. With that said, and in spite of some of these flaws, I still think DEMONS 2 is a worthy sequel. Rarely do any sequels better their predecessors, and this is no exception. But ultimately, it's a fun 85-or-so minutes. For me, Bobby Rhodes appearing again, but in a different role - this time, he's a fitness instructor, complete with camp, skin-tight vest and jock shorts - is still one of the film's many highlights. And yes, as you get nearer to the end, the plot-holes do become crater-like in size, but it's just so stupid, you can pretty much forgive it, bearing in mind the film's plot anyway!

As per DEMONS, you get one dual-layered DVD disc, and a 50gb Blu-Ray disc, and the following extras, originally seen on the UK Arrow release:
- Audio Commentary with recollections from director Lamberto Bava, mechanical creations & transformation artist Sergio Stivaletti, plus genre journalist Loris Curci
- Creating Creature Carnage, an interview with make-up and SFX guru Sergio Stivaletti, plus
- Bava To Bava, in which Luigi Cozzi tracks the history of the Italian horror film.

Synapse has also added the following, to their Steelbook:
- Screaming For A Squel: another all-new interview with Lamberto Bava
- The Demons Generations - Assistant Director Roy Bava speaks about DEMONS 2
- A Soundtrack For Splatter, in which Simon Boswell discusses his care scoring genre films, and
- Demonic Influences, an interview with Federico Zampaglione.

Rounding-off the disc, are a couple of trailers. The extras aren't quite as interesting overall as on DEMONS, but I applaud Synapse for at least including more than Arrow ever did, and attempting to give purchasers more value-for-money.

Whether you want to own this edition of DEMONS 2 will depend on several issues:
1) How much of a completist or collector are you?
2) How much money you are willing to spend?
3) How much you like (or loathe) this sequel.

In my view, it's not a must-own title, in and of itself. It's watchable, but you won't be watching it as often as its predecessor, that's for sure. Nevertheless, if you want to complete your DEMONS Steelbook collection, then the extra material, and the fact it makes a lovely two-item set with the first film, almost makes it worthwhile. Still, I know many people feel DEMONS 2 just isn't worth wasting your time or your money on, and I can certainly see why they feel that way. For me, though, it just about makes it worth owning, and if you are going to own this film, then the Synapse version smashes Arrow's release into dust!

Synapse have said that their may be a regular Blu-Ray or DVD release of both DEMONS and DEMONS 2, at some point, but this is not assured or guaranteed. For now, then, these two Steelies really are the ultimate ways of seeing the films!

I'll be back again soon, with more debate and discussion on another interesting area of extreme cinema. For now, though, thank you for reading.

Steelbook Review: DEMONS

Welcome Back,

Thank You for your patience. Well, here they are both are. I've kept them separate, as it makes things easier and although many things that apply to one, apply to the other as well, the review was a little too long. I hope you enjoy them!

When Synapse Films announced they had acquired the US rights to release Lamberto Bava's cult 80's Italian horror flicks DEMONS and DEMONS 2, it generated a huge amount of global interest. These two films are very much loved amongst cult horror film fans, and are beloved for a very good reason: they're damn entertaining! In the UK, Arrow had recently released their Steelbook of the two DEMONS films, and it had had reasonable reviews. However, many hardcore fans mourned the fact that it only contained two soundtracks: the Italian Dub track, with English Subtitles, and the European English Dub track. The well-known and most popular American English Dub track, had mysteriously been omitted.

When Arrow was contacted by fans, they stated that the original audio materials for the American English Dub track weren't in a viable state, and that they could not afford to do the extensive restoration work on them, to bring them up to scratch. At the time, it was also stated in the Arrow-love-fest forums, over at Cult Labs, that it wouldn't be possible to sync the American English Dub track to the new HD restoration.

Alas, as is so common with Arrow's responses, one Cult Labs member managed to sync the Dub onto Arrow's new HD restoration, and it took him about an hour to do so. So, to be fair, Arrow seemed to be pulling-off another "We just can't be arsed" response, which is so typical of them.

Their Steelbook release, eventually came out in April 2013, and was reasonably good. I purchased it, and to be fair, it was a good version of the film. However, it was far from the best release. Both films came on 25gb Blu-Ray discs, rather than 50gb ones. Though not a major problem, it did mean that the films had a bitrate averaging only 17Mb per second. Adding on the extras, and you feel that the film is being stifled. The extras were minimal (amounting to about 20 minutes per film), and the colour had an odd green-ish tint to it. There was the supremely annoying Italian intermission placeholder, inserted into the middle of DEMONS, that spoils the mood, and takes viewers completely out of the film. (I discovered not long after, that this is how the film originally played in Italy. That's fair enough, but in the 21st Century, it was a bad decision to retain it!) There were problems with the DEMONS 2 negative, which supposedly couldn't be corrected. They occur at three points in the film, but more on those later on. Blacks weren't as pure as they should have been, and the new artwork (courtesy of Jeff Zornow) as shown to the right, was - in my opinion - hideous. Another abomination of a reinterpretation, that was wholly unnecessary, and made the films look even tackier than they actually were.

There was additional problems with the Arrow release, that many fans were upset by. Arrow's Limited Edition Steelbook, which still hasn't sold-out to this day, was supposed to be the "last word" in the film's release: the absolute best release ever. It wasn't!

Arrow chose to leave out the posters, and the newly-created and official DEMONS 3 comic-books, all of which were included in their standard Blu-Ray and DVD releases. This made the Steelbook version far less collectible in my view. Despite numerous complaints and questions, Arrow kept fobbing fans off, promising much and eventually delivering nothing. Ultimately, fans were told if you wanted these bonus extras, either buy both the Steelbook and the standard releases, or just the standard releases. Hardly the best way to treat your fans - you know, the people who keep you in business.

So, when Synapse announced the films were going to be released later that same year, and were going to deliver the ultimate in HD DEMONS releases, expectations were high, and fans rejoiced. Could and would Synapse pull things off? The simple answer, is yes! They smashed every expectation into oblivion.

Initially, there was major concern, that the Steelbooks would be both Region-A/1 Locked, as they were Dual-Format (DVD and Blu-Ray disc) editions, and that they would not be purchasable by people outside of the United States. This turned out to be true, and upset many. The reason for the Region-Locking, was simply down to the Italian rights-holders, so was a contractual necessity. And in regards to the availability, Synapse releases were only made available directly from their own website, which only allows products to be shipped to customers with a US-based address. Thankfully, DiabolikDVD came to the rescue, and they were able to get their hands on a small number of both of these Steelbooks, which they were then happy to sell to anyone, anywhere - which is how I got my hands on them. Sadly, you had to pay about £35 / $58 for each title, which angered a lot of people who felt such films didn't warrant such a high price mark. Synapse did explain, that because the titles were expensive to Licence, and that the Steelbooks were limited to 3000 copies of each film, a higher-than-usual price tag was a necessity. They would have loved to have sold them for standard retail price of your average Blu-Ray (about £20 / $32), but it simply wasn't feasible.

With that all said, fans accepted this issue, but now the speculation began...

The best news, was that Synapse promised fans would get all three audio soundtracks for the original DEMONS movie. Fans could then choose to view the film in any version they wanted, and could hop between each one, at any point during the film. Synapse then announced that a complete restoration would be undertaken by themselves, to make both films as perfect as humanly possible. Every single frame would be ploughed-over with a microscope, and corrections made, to make these films look even better than if fans had seen them back upon their day of release. Most fans, myself included, were amazed that these two reasons were justification alone to pay the higher-than-usual asking price, but there was more.

All-new extras were to be included. Not only had Synapse been allowed to include all of the (few) extras from the UK Arrow releases, but new and additional extras were to be created, specifically for their versions. These included rarely-seen trailers, interviews with cast members, and new making-of's. At this point, fans couldn't get enough of Synapse's news. And then, the Steelbook artwork was announced. The sublime images you see at the top of this review, shows you what Synapse had commissioned, from artist Wes Benscoter. Not only was the artwork true to the original feel of both films, it enhanced them.

Synapse truly were pulling out all the stops, and the announcements reached fever pitch! Their Facebook page, was full of questions from customers all dying to know more. We simply couldn't get enough information!

As the weeks passed on, Synapse then published a major announcement on their website  here updating fans. As we have come to expect, Synapse really did leave no stone unturned in order to create the perfect releases of these two seminal horrors. And, in mid-October, copies started to get sent out to customers.

So what have we got? Quite simply, these two Steelbooks are unlikely to ever be bettered, ever! Sublime doesn't even come close to stating how fucking great the work Synapse has put in, into creating two of the most perfect releases of a film I've ever owned. To the other 2999 people who own these sets, I'm sure you'll agree with me, that they are worth every single penny. Those of you who felt they weren't willing to pay so much for these two films, you've sorely missed out!

Let's start with the first film: the Steelbook artwork is beautiful. Although not the original DEMONS poster artwork - the one showing the demons with mirrored eyes, climbing the stairs from inside the cinema auditorium - it's new enough not to hack hardcore fans off, whilst being instantly recognisable as being from the film. When you look at this art, you instantly know what you are getting! Mr Benscoter has done himself and fans of the film proud. Upon opening the tin, you have two discs: one dual-layered DVD, and one, 50gb Blu-Ray. Also included is a spoof Metropol Cinema Ticket, designed to look exactly like the one in the film. On it, is some info from Don May Jr of Synapse, and a short note about the film's transfer. (Fans will be delighted to hear, that Lamberto Bava asked Synapse to remove the infamous "End Of First Half" intermission title-card present in Arrow's release, meaning the film now plays completely uninterrupted.)

Whichever version you watch, DVD or Blu-Ray, you get a truly outstanding 1080p restored version of DEMONS. On the Blu-Ray, the bitrate is regularly over 20Mb per second, and sometimes reaches the 30-31Mb per second transfer rate. So, this beats Arrow's transfer into the cellar, and urinates all over it with glee! Never has the film looked and sounded as jawdroppingly amazing as this. From the opening scream, as the DEMONS title zooms-in to the original 1.66:1 Anamorphic Widescreen ratio, before the stellar opening title music from Claudio Simonetti (of Goblin fame) booms out, you know you are in for one hell of a treat. This is how DEMONS was always meant to play: in crystal HD clarity, with a joyously excessively loud, brash, and in your face Synth score!

Every frame oozes with detail! Even fans who may have seen this film countless times via TV, VHS or DVD editions, will find and experience something new here. It really is just the best transfer anyone could have wished for! Don May and his team should be rightly pleased with these releases, as their hard-work and tenacity has paid off in spades! It's all up their on your screen, and the evidence is indisputable! DEMONS really has never looked so good!

Sonically, there are the three soundtracks I mentioned. On the Synapse release, you get each of the three (Italian with English Subs, European English, or American English) in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Like the image, the sound pulsates and the clarity is startling. Every tiny sound can be heard, and it helps drape the film in this intense kind of aural atmosphere, spooking the audience. (Watch this film with the lights out, and the sound turned-up, and you'll experience DEMONS like never before!)

I chose to view DEMONS with the well-known American English track, and all the classic - and cheesy - lines are there, including the so-naff-it's-genius dialogue from Nina, when she shows Ripper a (naked) baby photo of herself at one year old, and he remarks: "Already selling your twat, eh?". And let us not forget Bobby Rhodes as Tony the Pimp, and his immortal line: "What the hell happened to Rosemary?", after Rosemary has been a little too-long in the Metropol Cinema's Ladies restroom, before she turns into the splatteriffic first demon.

Yes, it's all here. Uncut, uncensored, with none of the "Coke" removed either. (Coca-Cola took umbrage at their product featuring in the film, in the instantly recognisable 80's red-and-white design, with Ripper and his gang snorting cocaine through a straw, out of a Coke can, whilst on a drive!) It really is one of the finest transfers of a cult horror film I've ever seen, and it adds immensely to your enjoyment of it. In no time at all, you'll be tapping your way to Go West's We Close Our Eyes, and Simonetti's title theme music too.

DEMONS is short, sweet and to-the-point. It won't ever outstay its welcome, and even though there are huge plot-holes - literal and figurative - you can forgive any or all of them, because it's just so damn fun. (When was the last time you saw a helicopter crash into a cinema, in a film?!) And the deliberately truncated end-credits, are fantastic. Just when you think everyone and everything is fine, Bava throws in a final curve-ball just to unsettle you! Fantastic stuff! This is simply a joyous piece of cinema! I really do love it. The special effects still hold-up to today's standard. The scene when a demon is born out of a human host, as it bursts out of the host's spine, still creeps me out. Likewise Rosemary's (Geretta Giancarlo) transformation, when her teeth start to drop out, as her face deforms and putrefies, is beautifully twisted.

And that's just the film.

Afterwards, there's about 70 minutes of extras, not including an audio commentary with various members of the cast and crew - namely director Lamberto Bava, make-up effects artist Sergio Stivaletti, musician Claudio Simonetti and actress Geretta Giancarlo, (under her full and correct name of Geretta Geretta) - reflecting on the film's inception and creation. Alongside this, you get the original Arrow extras:
- Dario's Demon Days, in which Dario Argento discusses the inception of DEMONS
- Defining An Era In Music, in which composer Claudio Simonetti talks about the DEMONS Soundtrack, and
- Luigi Cozzi s Top Italian Terrors: Cozzi discusses the high points of Spaghetti Splatter movies.

However, Synapse also include:
- Profondo Jones: The Critical Perspective, in which Alan Jones (author of many reference books on Dario Argento) discusses DEMONS from a more critical analytical point-of-view
- Carnage At The Cinema, an all-new 30-minute interview with Lamberto Bava
- Monstrous Memories, another all-new 30-minute interview with Luigi Cozzi
- Splatter Stunt Rock, where stuntman Ottaviano Dell’Acqua talks about some of the - frankly, quite freaking crazy - stunts that feature in DEMONS, and
- Dario And His Demons, another interview with Argento on the cult classic.

On top of this, there are some extras, such as trailers and TV spots, to round things off. All-things-said, this is as near to perfect as fans of this cult 80's splatter flick could have hoped and asked for. It really is a truly delightful item to own.

If you get a chance to buy it, as it's still available, then you really owe it to yourself, to save-up and invest in one of these Steelbooks, because it really is as near to perfection as we will ever get. You can then, as I did, jettison the infinitely inferior Arrow version as well, and replace with a set, by a company who really do know how to restore a film properly. This really is a delightful little item, and once you see it in your own hands, you will wonder how on earth you failed to resist for so long!

Up next, DEMONS 2, which you can access  here  to read.