Friday, July 22, 2011

Blu-ray Review: OBSESSION (1976)

Label: Arrow Video
Region: ABC (Region FREE)
Rating: 15 Certificate
Duration: 98 mins
Video: 2.35:1 16x9 1080p
Audio: English LPCM Mono and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: Genevieve Bujold, Cliff Roberston, John Lithgow
Tagline: The Love Story That Will Scare The Life Out Of You

Brian De Palma gets unnecessarily hammered for his Hitchcock fetish but it's never irked me the way it does some, I actually relish it, much like I did JJ Abram's Spielberg nostalgia porn SUPER 8 - I ate it up with a spoon and asked for seconds, but it was not always so for me, no sir. Like many my introduction to the films of Brian De Palma came with viewings of the Stephen King adaptation CARRIE, but this came along prior to my interest in film as a bodies of work by specific directors, it was just another awesome scary movie at the time. Unfortunately my deeper awareness of De Palma's filmography came with THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, SNAKE EYES and RAISING CAIN, a series of films that really put me off De Palma's work. I was in my late teens at the time, and walked outta the cinema scoffing RAISING CAIN, I thought it was simply horrendous stuff, though I will say that a recent viewing of it has much improved my opinion of that film, I was in my teens, what the shit did I know anyway? It was just this past year that a rewatch of CARRIE  spurred me to seek out a few of his earlier works, so I snatched up BODY DOUBLE and DRESSED TO KILL and what can I say? I was floored by how utterly captivating these films were, both wonderfully twisted Hitchockian thrillers with no small amount of deliciously pulpy subject matter. And after slapping myself for not doing so earlier so began a Brian De Palma journey of sorts. Apparently my rediscovering of De Palma's early works is well-timed for at this very moment I'm waiting for my Criterion Blu-ray of BLOW OUT to arrive and both DRESSED TO KILL and SCARFACE are coming to Blu-ray in September. I also continue my quest for both SISTERS and PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, hopefully at a price that won't break the bank, such is the life of a poor blogger.

OBSESSION opens in 1959 New Orleans. Michael Courtland (Cliff Roberston, SPIDER-MAN) is a wealthy real estate broker celebrating his 10th anniversary with his lovely wife Elizabeth (Genevieve Bujold, DEAD RINGERS). It's a grand occasion with a large celebration at his Southern home attended by friends, associates and his business partner Robert La Salle (John Lithgow, BLOW OUT). After the festivities have ended and every one's departed for the evening the family are settling in for the night when the unthinkable happens, his wife and daughter are kidnapped. Michael discovers a ransom note demanding $500,000. He contacts the authorities who arrange a sting operation which spins wildly outta of control and the ensuing car chase results in the fiery deaths of both mother and child.

Now fifteen years later Michael is still deeply distraught over the deaths of his beloved family, he blames himself in part for going to the authorities. He regularly visits the enormous monument he's erected in their memory on a vast parcel of land which remains undeveloped, to the chagrin of his business partner. Robert convinces Michael to accompany him on a business trip to Florence, Italy where their firm is brokering a real estate deal with a group of wealthy Italian businessmen. While in Florence Robert attempts to distract Michael from his mourning with women and wine but it has little affect on him. As it turns out Michael met his late wife here at a church years earlier. He makes a day trip to the church and is quite startled to meet a young woman named Sandy (Bujold) who is the spitting image of his late wife, it's uncanny. Michael immediately begins courting the young woman, he's completely obsessed with her, at one point training her to walk like his late wife. If you've seen VERTIGO this will be very familiar territory, De Palma makes no efforts to disguise the film as anything other than a love letter to Hitchcock's film. It's a whirlwind romance and they fall deeply in love with each other. Michael whisks Sandy away to New Orleans with the intention of marrying her.

Once she settles into the house Sandy becomes more aware of the circumstances behinds his wife and daughter's death, and just how truly similar in appearance she is to his wife after viewing a portrait of the woman. At the same time his obsession is becoming worrisome to friends and business partner,and  they call in his psychiatrist whom it seems Michael have not seen in some time. The encounter it's deeply unsettling to him. It's pretty obvious that he is lost in a fantasy, angered by his partner's meddling he sells his share of the real estate business and severs ties with pretty much everyone. At the same time he is haunted by dreams of Elizabeth and Sandy merging into the same person, the dreams are blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, and his sanity is crumbling fast. At the height of this confusion Sandy is kidnapped and Michael discovers a ransom note demanding $500,000, history is repeating itself. At his sanity's end he is determined to not to make the same mistakes again, which lead to a truly twisted finale featuring Michael reliving the events from 15 years earlier culminating in a series of reveals that are disturbing on several different levels.

As the deeply troubled but sympathetic widow Cliff Robertson sells the film, sadly my only recollections of the actor outside of Uncle Ben from SPIDER-MAN is as the president from John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM L.A.. The stunning Genevieve Bujold was only slightly more familiar to me having recognized her from the medical thriller COMA and David Cronenberg's DEAD RINGERS. These two fantastic performances anchor the films tragic love story with nuanced, subtle performances. In only his second film John Lithgow, who recently knocked it out of the park in season 4 of DEXTER, is pretty great as the deceitful business partner, though he's clearly too young to play the part convincingly in my opinion.

For a thriller with such a deeply fucked-up finale the film is steeped in pure romantic melodrama, at it's heart it's a tragic tale of romance gone wrong, which is immeasurably enhanced by Bernard Hermann's (PSYCHO, VERTIGO) sweeping score which accentuates the film's deeply romantic leanings. The film is lyrical in it's soft focus cinematography and the gorgeous gliding camera movements enhance the otherworldly qualities of the film, for this much credit must be given to cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND). I found myself entranced with the film though I would say it does have a particularly deliberate pace which may threaten to throw off viewers looking for something more psycho-sexual or feverishly pulply from De Palma like DRESSED TO KILL and BODY DOUBLE but stay with it, it's a well-crafted thriller that's evocative of a bygone era with a dizzying twist that won't disappoint.

Blu-ray: Arrow has given OBSESSION a brand new 1080p HD transfer and the film's grain structure is left nicely intact. I saw no clear evidence of heavy DNR scrubbing in effect here, if it was used it was done so appropriately and respectfully. The film's preference for soft focus cinematography has a slightly gauzy effect that adds a dreamy quality to the proceedings but doesn't really allow for the razor sharp fine detail that some viewers may expect from Blu-ray but when compared to the alternately sourced clips from the featurette on the disc it's pretty obvious this is an improvement in every way. The color scheme feels  natural if a bit muted, though some of the reds do occasionally pop. The image does not appear to have been color boosted or artificially heightened, it's a very natural looking transfer that's sure to please.

Audio options include English LPCM mono and a DTS-HD Master 5.1 track with optional English subtitles. It's nice to have Bernard Herman's lush score in lossless surround sound, it's a powerfully dramatic score, almost overpowering at times. The 5.1 gives the film some breathing room but I had no issues with the original mono audio either. There were no snap, crackle or pops noted during playback, it's a very clean and dynamic audio presentation.

By Arrow standards the supplements are pretty slim but quite interesting. They begins with Laurent Bouzereau's 2001 documentary OBSESSION REVISITED which is ported over from the now out of print R1 Sony DVD. It's a great watch and features interviews with De Palma, writer Paul Schrader, actors Cliff Robertson and Genevieve Bujold, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, editor Paul Hirsch and producer George Litto. De Palma right off the top tells of the fim's origins beginning with screenwriter Schrader and himself seeing Hitchcock's VERTIGO and immediately wanting to do something similar, he also speaks about the difference in opinion between the two about the film's ending which led to Schrader disowning the film. It's a great watch and the numerous film clips prove to be a great measuring stick by which to judge the Arrow transfer, it's quite impressive. Also included are two of Brian De Palma short films; WOTON'S WAKE (1962) and THE RESPONSIVE EYE (1966)  which are presented in their original fullframe aspect ratio in 1080p. The film's are in pretty rough shape and have pretentious film school leanings but should prove of value to De Palma fans. There's also the original theatrical trailer in 16x9 1080p. Like most of Arrow's releases the extras aren't merely limited to the AV presentation, there's a slipcase, 4 reversible art options, a collector's booklet containing an essay from author Brad Steven's plus Paul Schrader's screenplay, originally titled DEJA VU which includes unfilmed sequences. One thing I found slightly conspicuously absent was the non-inclusion of any supplements from High Rising Productions who are usually all over the Arrow titles. A quick tweet to Nick Frame from High Rising Production's garnered this response "all extras were brought in with the master - no need for anything from us this time - very nice extras though!". Well, there you have it, and I would agree, very nice extras indeed.

Special Features:
- Exclusive collector’s booklet featuring an essay on the film by critic and author Brad Stevens
- Paul Schrader’s original screenplay of the film in a perfect bound booklet. With the original title Déjà vu, Schrader’s original script includes unfilmed sequences and sees the tripartite structure deal with the past, present and future of Michael Courtland.
- Obsession Revisited: Interviews with director Brian De Palma, stars Cliff Robertson and Genevieve Bujold and more!
- Early Brian De Palma short films: WOTON'S WAKE (1962) and THE RESPONSIVE EYE (1966) 1080p
- Original Trailer (1:35) 1080p
- Original art by Tom 'The Dude Designs' Hodge

Verdict: OBSESSION is not as lurid or deliciously pulpy as either DRESSED TO KILL or BODY DOUBLE but it's still a dark melodramatic thriller that's up to it's elbows in Hitchcock devotion with a satisfyingly disturbed shock ending. It's early still in his career and he isn't quite the Brian De Palma of legend we know but the pieces are being set in place and coming to fruition, that's for sure. The film is definitely overshadowed by CARRIE, which was released that same year, but it deserves more attention and now that we have a great Blu-ray from Arrow Video I say have at it and enjoy.