Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Blu-ray Review: BLOW OUT (1981)

BLOW OUT (1981)

Label: Arrow Video 

Region Code: B
Duration: 108 Minutes
Audio: English LPCM Audio English with Optional English SDH Subtitles
Video: 1080p Widescreen (2.35:1) 
Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow

Brian De Palma’s rarely did it better that with this visceral thriller from 1981 brilliantly shot by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond with a fantastic performances from John Travolta, Nancy Allen and John Lithgow. It starts of wonderfully as we are thrown into a screening of the low-budget slasher Coed Frenzy with some great Halloween-esque POV camera work, it's deliciously plump with lurid images, gratuitous nudity and creepy stalking, as the camera tracks the slasher's movements at a college dormitory he works his way from voyeuristic peeping to stalking a co-ed in the steamy shower room, as the perp is about to plunge his blade into her voluptuous body she gives out the most groan-inducing scream you've ever heard, it's hilariously awful. 

We are pulled out of the film and it's revealed that a b-movie producer and his soundman Terry (John Travolta) has been tasked with capturing a more horrific scream and to come up with some less generic wind effects to lay over the film. To this end he heads out to the local park late one night to record some sounds effects when he witnesses a car lose control and careen into the nearby creek, the entire episode is caught on audio. Terry dives into the icy waters and drags a young woman named Sally (Nancy Allen, Dressed to Kill) from the submerged car to safety, we discover that the deceased driver of the car was the Governor and a Presidential hopeful and Sally was a paid escort, the whole affair definitely smacks of an inversion of the Ted Kennedy Chappaquiddick incident in '69. Afterward Terry listens to his audio recording of the incident and hears what he believes to be a gunshot just before the car tire blew out and it lost control before plunging into the drink, and the intrigue begins. 

Also figuring into the mystery are a seedy private eye with a name that just sounds so appropriately bottom-feederish, Manny Karp (Dennis Franz),  who just happened to be at the park the same night with a high-speed camera and catches the whole thing on a series of pictures. In a fantastic pre-Dexter appearance John Lithgow's Burke attempts to cover-up the assassination by staging a series of serial killings attributed to "the Liberty Bell Strangler". Jack befriends Sally at the hospital and the two begins sleuthing the assassination themselves when the cops prove expectantly useless, both are unaware they are being stalked by Burke, as the film plays out it's quite the nail-biter, the devastating rooftop finale is exquisite, this is a damn fine thriller. 

i think this is Travolta's finest work, he's a flawed protagonist, a very Hitchcockian character, just an ordinary guy caught up in a murderous web of intrigue and   Nancy Allen's Sally as Travolta's wide-eyed love interest is sorta a ditsy dame but with a pure heart, perhaps a bit annoying but pretty sympathetic and you completely feel for her character, the love story is never over-sugary, it's sorta cute and innocent. 

Blow Out is a superb and cynical thriller and it gets better with each viewing, it's helped in no small part by Zsigmond's gorgeous cinematography,he just pulls you right in and we get many of Brian De Palma's signature techniques, there's no shortage of spinning pans, split-screen, the split diopter lens and intricate tracking shots, this including a wonderfully slasher-riffic tracking shot at the start of the film which was lensed by the inventor of the steadicam, Garret Brown.  I love De Palma's voyeuristic  tendencies and there's a lot to enjoy here visually, this is great stuff.  Blow Out is completely engrossing watch, it's has great suspense, a tragic love story, a commentary on low-budget filmmmaking and a weird slasher element. It has pretty much everything you want from a thriller and probably a bit more plus it's a gorgeous film. 

Blu-ray: Blow Out comes to Blu-ray in the UK from Arrow Video with an MPEG-4 AVC encode in 1080p and it's gorgeous. I have the Criterion disc and at a glance it would appear to be the same director approved restored transfer, colors are true, there's some nice depth and clarity to the image and a fine layer of natural films grain, this is a very pleasing presentation. 

Audio is presented in English LPCM Audio English with Optional English SDH Subtitles and it does the job without resorting to an artificial 5.1 surround mix though to be honest that would have been nice, too. The film sports some very nice sound design but the uncompressed stereo track is nice with a good balance of dialogue, effects and Pino Donaggio's wonderful score come through crisply. 

Onto the Fiction Factory produced special features we get some great retrospective interviews with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, Nancy Allen producer George Litto and on-set photos by photographer Louis Goldman plus a theatrical trailer, it's great stuff and on par with Criterion's selection of extras. 

Black and White in Colour: An Interview with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (27:41) is a lengthy interview as the cinematographer touches on the red, white and blue theme featured throughout the film, something I never quite realized before. He also speaks of De Palma's love for the split diaptor lens, , the Garret Brown steadicam shot, shooting the Liberty Day Parade sequence. 

Rag Doll Memories: Nancy Allen on Blow Out (21:28), still quite a looker the starlet recalls the reception of the film upon release, the process that lead to working with  Travolta post-Carrie and her characters "rag doll" persona plus Ann Roth's costuming. She also goes into filming the underwater scenes despite her claustrophobia, working with John Lithgow and her character's fate plus dealing with some of the more scathing reviews of the film. 

Return to Philadelphia: An interview with Producer George Litto (18:37) features the always entertaining producer reflecting on the trio of films he produced with De Palma, securing financing with only a seven-page outline, casting the film, the theft of several reels of films during production and Al Pacino almost landing the lead.  

Multi-tracking Blow Out (28:06) features composer Pino Donaggio  speaking about his early career as a recording artist, scoring the film after original composer Bernard Hermann passed away, his use of synthesizers and orchestration. The interview is conducted in Italian with English subtitles.  

Features are finished-up with a Original Theatrical Trailer (1:45) and a gallery of on-set photos by photographer Louis Goldman. If I were going to nit-pick the edition it would be that it does not include a Brian De Palma short film. Arrow's Blu-ray of Obsession (1976) included both Wonton's Wake (1962) and The Responsive Eye (1966) while Criterion's Blow Out (1981) featured Murder a la Mod (1967), otherwise this is on par with the Criterion edition in A/V and features.

Special Features:
- Black and White in Colour: An Interview with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (27:41)
- Rag Doll Memories: Nancy Allen on Blow Out (21:28)
- Return to Philadelphia: An interview with Producer George Litto (18:37)

- Multi-tracking Blow Out (28:06)
- A gallery of on-set photos by photographer Louis Goldman
- Original Theatrical Trailer (1:45)

Verdict: A truly suspenseful watch from start to finish, Brian De Palma's Blow Out (1982) is the director's finest moment, it all comes together right here and Arrow's Blu-ray is top notch. Brian De Palma fans should be in a state of nirvana knowing that Arrow are also bringing The Fury (1978), Sisters (1973), Dressed to Kill (1980) and Phantom of the Paradise (1974) to Blu-ray in the very near future! Arrow's Blow Out gets a high recommend, essential. 4.5 Outta 5