Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Blu-ray Review: KNIGHTRIDERS (1981)

Dual Format Blu-ray + DVD
Label: Arrow Video
Region: B/2
Duration: 147 Minutes 
Rating: 15 Certificate 
Video: 1080p Widescreen (1.85:1)
Audio: English Mono 2.0 PCM with Optional English SDH Subtitles 
Cast: Ed Harris, Patricia Tallman, Tom Savinni, Ken Foree, John Amplas
Director: George A Romero

Tagline: Ride to Love. Live to Die. 

I remember watching George A. Romero's follow-up to the zombie epic DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) for the first-time and the immediate disappointment that set in immediately afterward. The weird fantasy-action film left me cold, I wasn't sure what I had just watched or why Romero would stray from zombie film making to create such an odd film. I was about 15 at the time and just could not appreciate what George had put onscreen, I was a very unhappy teen. 

I revisited Romero's film as the new Millennium came and went with the Anchor Bay DVD with fresh eyes and it was quite a different experience for me, I could see the film's "chasing the dragon" theme more clearly and how King Billy (Ed Harris) and his troupe of jousting motorcycle carnies paralleled Romero's own long fought battles as an independent film director against commercialism in an industry built on hype and commercial success at all costs.

At the heart of the hard-to-categorize film is King Billy, played by a very youthful Ed Harris, the self-styled King Arthurian idealist whom leads a troupe of anachronistic medieval-styled jousters who dress in armor and sit atop motorcycles in lieu of horses. The troupe travel the country performing their Renaissance-esque show to the delight of drunken locals. Billy is a charismatic and lives according to a  strict code of honor and integrity but problems arise when the cash-strapped troupe come to a divide when a sleazy promoter Bontempi (Martin Ferrero) lures the troupe's star performer, Morgan the Black Night (80's splatter master Tom Savini) with the promise of fortune and fame. That's pretty much the story of the film, the corruption that plagues the troupe when the lure of commercial success infiltrates it's ranks in the face of King Billy's idealistic and unbending ways. 

It's quite a sight when the film opens with a scene of Billy sitting nude in the picturesque forest knelt in front of his sword in a silent moment of prayer, it's a gorgeous scenario that might have you believe it's a Medieval period piece until he straddles his motorcycle with his Queen (Amy Ingersoll). Harris is striking as King Billy, an ardent and stoic idealist in a reality that crushes idealism, it's not easy and you can feel him bend while swearing never to break. It's easy to admire his strict code in the face of financial woes and adversity but we also see the hardships his idealism forces upon the rest of the troupe. Example, when he refuses to give corrupt cops a payoff they beat the snot outta the character of Bagman (Don Berry) until a financial arrangement's can be agreed upon, the incident is one of several factors that drive a wedge between Billy and Morgan, whom felt Billy should have just paid the cops off, but his code of ethics forbid him from doing so and others must pay the price.    

There's a great cast of Romero familiars, notably John Amplas from MARTIN (1976) as the mime Whiteface, Romero's future wife (Christine Forrester) appears in a small role as do DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) alumni Scott Reiniger, Tom Savini and Ken Foree. It's a real treat to see so many familiar faces from Romero's own troupe of performers. Some not so familiar faces include the wonderful Brother Blue as a tattooed medicine-man Merlin and Patricia Tallman (ARMY OF DARKNESS), whom would go on to feature in Savini's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1990) remake, as the local-girl love interest of Sir Alan (Gary Lahti). We also have a sweet Stephen King cameo is author Stephen King as a rather slovenly drunken spectator at one of the jousting events. 

At over two and a half hours in length the film is overlong but certainly entertaining, the tone is off-kilter but the subverted Arthurian lore really comes through. there's a great cast of characters and some fun action-packed jousting sequences, the motorcycle stunt work is pretty dazzling. It's not a perfect film but it's the very definition of a cult-classic, a weird anachronistic fantasy action film from George A. Romero.  

Blu-ray: Arrow Video bring George A. Romero's KNIGHTRIDERS (1981) to 1080p Blu-ray with an MPEG-4 AVC encode and it's a damn sight better than my old standard def Anchor Bay DVD (2000) but it's not quite eye-popping either. Colors are strong, black levels are decent and the 1080p upgrade affords the film some minor depth. Overall it's a sharper image with some scenes being a bit sharper than others, it's a definite upgrade that I would call impressive but not quite stunning. The audio presentation consists of  quality 
English Mono 2.0 PCM with Optional English SDH Subtitles. It's clean and suffices, it's a basic stereo track with some moderate stereo channel separation and depth, Donald Rubinstein's folky score sounds quite nice and dialogue and effects are balanced and free of distortion  clicks and pops, very nice. . 

Reversible Artwork 
Extras on the Blu-ray disc include the audio commentary with George Romero, Tom Savini, John Amplas Christine Romero and film historian Chris Stavrakis ported over from the region 1 Anchor Bay DVD edition. It's an entertaining and informative track, everyone is is in fine form as they point out the myriad of actors onscreen and recall various production notes and anecdotes. 

We also get a selection of brand new High Rising Productions produced special features by way of three interviews with the principle cast. The Genesis of a Legend (13:08) features star Ed Harris reminiscing about his first leading role as King Billy in the film, he seems quite fond of the strange little film. 

A Date with Destiny (12:03) features 80's splatter master Tom Savini recalling his role as Morgan the Black Knight. If you don't already know Savini has acted quite a bit through the years including appearances in William Lustig's MANIAC (1980), Robert Roqriguez's PLANET TERROR (2007) and Kevin Smith's ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO (2008). He's also a director in hos own right, helming the fantastic 1990 Romero-penned remake of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1990) also featuring  KNIGHTRIDER'S co-star Patricia Tallman

Medieval Maiden (17:43) features actress/stunt woman Patricia Tallman discussing moving to NYC just after college only to come back to her hometown of Pittsburgh to work with Romero on what would be her screen debut. She has very kind words for Romero from the perspective of a new actress, she also touches on becoming a stunt woman. 

Separate from the Blu-ray features we get an exclusive 35 page booklet with new writings on the film by author/critic Brad Stevens who does a great job framing the oddball fantasy film in context of Romero's filmography and sussing out the "chasing the Dragon' theme of the film. Calum Waddel offers up an interview with composer Donald Rubinstein, brother of producer Donald P. Rubinstein who worked on several Romero films including BRUISER (2000) and MARTIN (1976). Dan Yakar's archival interview with George A. Romero from American Film (1981) is great, he speaks of a meeting with American International Picture's Sam Arkoff and pitching a medieval period set King Arthur film, it was Arkoff's negative response and Romero's sarcastic quip in response that planted the seed for the film. 

Special Features:
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation
- Optional English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- Audio commentary with George Romero, Tom Savini, John Amplas, Christine Romero and film historian Chris Stavrakis
- The Genesis of a Legend (13:08)
- A Date with Destiny  (12:03)
- Medieval Maiden (17:43)
- Theatrical Trailer (2:27)
- TV Spots (:42)
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Nat Marsh
- 35 Page Collector’s Booklet featuring new writing on the film by author and critic Brad Stevens, an archival interview with Romero and a new interview with composer Donald Rubinstein, illustrated with original archive stills and posters

Verdict: KNIGHTRIDERS (1981) does not enter the top-tier of George A. Romero for me but I do enjoy it a bit more every time I watch, which is not to say I love it. Arrow Video's 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD does the film justice with very nice picture and audio quality and a decent array of special features, a recommend for fans of the film and a cautious endorsement for the uninitiated, it's an odd one. 3 Outta 5