Saturday, December 29, 2018

WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979) & WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK (1993) (Second Sight Blu-ray Review)


Label: Second Sight Films

Region Code: Region-Free
Audio: English PCM 1.0 Mono with Optional English Subtitles 
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1) 
Director: Fred Walton
Cast: Carol Kane, Charles Durning, Rutanya Alda, Charles Durning, Tony Beckley

The original When A Stranger Calls (1970) is one of those urban legend-based films that I think every horror fan of a certain age grew up with, I certainly did, having watched in in my early teens, right around the time I started babysitting a pair of annoying kids for a friend of the family, everytime the phone would ring my heart would stop, it was always n my mind. I didn't end up babysitting the kids for very long, which turned out to be a good thing, a few weeks after I stopped watching them they burned their house down  while their granny was watching them, apparently they were playing with matches while grandma was asleep. 

The film opnes with highschool teen Jill Johnson (Carol Kane, Scrooged) babysitting the young children of Dr. Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano, Graduation Day) and his wife (Rutanya Alda, Girls Nite Out). She finds herself alone in the house while the children are asleep upstairs, and while doing her homework begins receiving phone calls from a creepy voiced man who inquiring "have you checked on the children?". These calls goes on for a good while throughout the night, finally unnerved she rings the police who say they will trace the calls,  calling back a short while later and telling her that the calls are coming from inside the same house as her! She runs for the door just as the police arrive, and it turns out that the kids have been dead for hours, murdered by a disturbed man named Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley, The Fiend) who made his way into the home earlier in the night at some point. 

Forward seven years later and Jill is now married with a pair of her own children, unaware that lunatic Duncan escaped from the asylum he was sent to years earlier. But former cop turned private eye John Clifford (Charles Durning, The Dark Night of the Scarecrow) who worked the original case is now on the trail of the escaped lunatic. This middle third of the film is slow-burning with Durning tracking the homicidal loony through the city, the film had such an electrifying and genuinely creepy opening 20-min that this part of the film slows it down considerably, it's not ruinous but I always find it a bit of a slog.

While I find that it's slowed down I do enjoy the cast here, Beckley is very good as the disturbed man, in fact he portrays the character in such a pathetic sort way that you kind of feel bad for him, he gives the character some humanity. Though you never doubt that he's a madman, just barely able to contain his homicidal madness, at one point following a woman named Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst, The Dead Zone) home from a bar where he's just received a beat down from the bar patrons after harassing her. He manages to creep his way into her home, and she just barely manages to get him out, not realizing what a threat he posed until Durning turns up on her doorstep the next day and lays it out for her, Dewhurst turns in a fine performance as a woman past her prime, lonely, but not that lonely. 

Things do pick up in the final third with Duncan inexecplaiably tracking down Jill to a restaurant where she is dining with her husband while her kids are home with a babysitter. He calls her at the restaurant and sending chills down her spine with the familiar phrase "have you checked on the kids", leading to a wonderfully suspenseful finale that nearly lives up to the first 20-min of the film. The film drags a bit in the middle but the beginning and end are fantastic, making this slice of suspense a classic thriller with some real nail-biting moments.  

The cast is great, the lensing is solid, the score is creepy, and it's well directed by Fred Walton, who also directed the maligned but awesome 80's slasher April Fools Day (1986), which is also sorely in need of a proper Blu-ray release.

Second Sight have also included the direct-to-cable TV sequel to the film, When A Stranger Calls Back (1993), which reunited director Walton with stars Durning and Cane who reprise their roles, adding a new babysitter to the mix by way of teen Julie (Jill Schoelen, Popcorn) who while babysitting a pair of kids receives a knock at the door from a man who says his car broke down nearby, it plays out much the same way as the first film, with the same results for the poor kids, and moving forward five years when Julie is a student at a local college, still traumatized by her experience years earlier, and now with someone stalking her. Enter Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) who is now a counselor at the same college as Julie, who calls in Durning's character to assist with the case. This was my first time watch of the sequel, for a direct-to-cable TV sequel is was well-done, mirroring the original but adding some new twists and turn, very glad second Sight saw fit to include it on this set. 

Audio/Video: When A Stranger Calls (1979) arrives on region-free Blu-ray from Second Sight Films presented in 1080p HD, framed in 1.85:1, looking very filmic. The new scan of the film elements showcases plenty of natural looking grain that hasn't been DNR scrubbed or tinkered with unduly. The colors are solid and saturated, blacks are deep and shadowy,  and we get some modest fine detail in facial close-ups and with clothing textures throughout. When A Stranger Calls Back (1992) is presented in the original full frame aspect ratio in 1080p HD, audio is 2.0 PCM with optional English subtitles. 

Audio comes by way of an PCM Mono track that is clean and well-balanced, the creepy score from Dana Kaproff (Empire of the Ants) springs to life nicely in the mix with nice depth and fidelity. Optional English subtitles are provided.

Extras on the disc include new interviews with director Fred Walton, actors Carol Kane and Rutanya Alda, and composer Dana Kaproff, plus the original 22-min film that inspired the film. 

We were only sent a "check disc" for the purpose of this review so I have no comment on packaging, booklet or the soundtrack CD that accompanies retail version of the release. 

Special Features: 

- The Sitter - Short Film (22 min) HD 
- The sequel ‘When a Stranger Calls Back' HD
- New int. with director Fred Walton (17 min)
- New Int. with actor Carol Kane (17 min) 
- New int. with actor Rutanya Alda (5 min) 
- New int. with composer Dana Kaproff (8 min) 

Limited Edition Contents:
- CD Soundtrack
- 40-page perfect bound booklet with new essay by Kevin Lyons
- Reversible poster with new and original artwork
- Rigid slipcase packaging

When A Stranger Calls (1979) gets a first-rate presentation from Second Sight Films, who were also kind enough to include the cable TV produced sequel, plus a handful of quality extras. Fans of suspenseful thrillers and creepy home invader films should absolutely dig into this nail-biting double-feature.   

Thursday, December 27, 2018

JOHN CARPENTER’S STARMAN (1984) (Scream Factory Collector's Edition Blu-ray Review)


Label: Scream Factory

Region Code: A
Rating: PG
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (2.35:1)
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1 with Optional English Subtitles
Director: John Carpenter 
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen, Charles Martin Smith, and Richard Jaeckel

In 1977 we launched the Voyager 2 space probe into outer space, inside it was a peaceful message inviting alien life to visit us back here on Earth. John Carpenter's Starman (1984) examines what might happen if alien life took us up on that offer, and as you can well imagine, we aren't as hospitable as the invitation might have suggested. The film opens when an alien object is detected entering our atmosphere, jets are scrambled to intercept and launch a missile at it, with the ship crashing in a fiery ball in the mountains of Wisconsin. From the wreckage arises a blue ball of energy, it's the alien life form, which then floats to the nearby home of recent widow Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen, Scrooged). Exploring the home the alien clones itself a humanoid body, from DNA found in strands of hair that belonged to the woman's late husband. She awakens from a grief stricken night of drinking to the startling sight of the cloning process, an infant lays on the floor, transforming before her very eyes into the form of her deceased husband. 

Terrified by what she sees she tries to run away but is kidnapped by the "starman" (Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski) who forces her to drive from Wisconsin to the Barringer Crater in Arizona where he will rendezvous with  alien rescuers, having already determined that Earthlings are not very friendly. From here the film turns into a road trip movie with Jenny as his unwilling driver, she makes several attempts to escape her alien captor, but over the course of a few days they begin to bond and indeed fall in love. John Carpenter made a love story about an alien explorer and grief stricken human coming together, it's actually pretty warm and fuzzy, but also other worldly and strangely uplifting for a Carpenter film. 

Jeff Bridges is fantastic as the naive and  curious alien spirit who landed on Earth, speaking in a stilted sort of way and acting peculiar, as a new to the human form and emotions alien would be. The relationship with Karen Allen's character is well developed and really pulls at the heartstrings, with her struggling to cope the grief of her late husband while having to travel with the alien likeness of him via Bridges character.

The baddies in the film are the U.S. government, of course,this by way of NSA Director George Fox (Richard Jaeckel, Grizzly), along with SETI scientist Mark Shermin (Charles Martin Smith, Trick Or Treat) who is also pursuing the alien, but is more sympathetic to his plight and comes around to aid him on his journey. 

I've loved this film since I was a kid, back when I wasn't really aware of the Carpenter's body of work as a whole, and once I started following his career I think I still didn't think it was odd film for him, it still has his visual style, it feels like a Carpenter film without the menace. What sort of makes it stand apart is how damn uplifting and positive it is, it's not your typical dark Carpenter film. It's a love story wrapped in a science fiction film, and it really works, thanks in large art to the chemistry between Allen and Bridges, the pair together really pulled on my heartstrings when I was a kid and even still now brings a tear to my eye. Their performances really hold up, I think this film easily has the best performances of any of Carpenter's films.

The special effects are quite good too, from the transformation/cloning scenes on through to the alien ship arriving at the meteor crater during the finale are top-notch and hold up. The cinematography from Donald M. Morgan (Christine) is gorgeous, a particular favorite of mine in the scene of Jenny and the Starman saying goodbye at the crater, with red lighting in the background and lit by a blue laser from above filtered through wafts of smoke, it's a rather stunning image.  

Audio/Video: Starman arrives on Blu-ray from Scream Factory using the same HD master as the 2009 Blu-ray, which is not a bad thing, that disc looked quite nice, presented in 1080p HD widescreen (2.35:1). Grain is present and nicely managed throughout, colors looks solid, blacks are deep and skin tones look natural. Some of the opticals do show some inherent softness to them, but I really enjoyed the presentation. I would have enjoyed a new 4K scan from the OCN but this will do for now, until we get an eventual 4K UltraHD release, which several other Carpenter films have enjoyed, so this one cannot be far behind.

Audio comes by way of an English DTS-HD 5.1 with optional English subtitles. Everything sounds great in the mix, well-balanced and clean, no issues with distortion whatsoever. The score from Jack Nitzsche (Cruising) sounds fantastic with some nice presence in the mix, it's so good that I don't even care that Carpenter didn't score the film himself. 

Onto the extras we get a new 24-min making-of doc 'They Came from Hollywood: Re-visiting Starman' featuring interviews with director John Carpenter, actors Jeff Bridges, Charles Martin Smith and script supervisor Sandy King-Carpenter. It's a nice retrospective, everyone seemed to love working on the film, too bad no new interview with Karen Allen. She does show up on the 11-minute vintage EPK also found on the disc. There's also a audio commentary with John Carpenter and Jeff Bridges which I do not believe was on the previous Sony Blu-ray, but it was on an import version some years back, I am pleased to see it carried over for this release, Recorded in 2000 the track is very pleasant and congenial,, the two have a relaxed chemistry and have fun reminiscing about the film, it's right up there with the Carpenter/Russell commentaries in my opinion.

The disc is buttoned-up with trailers, TV spots, and a gallery of images including posters, press books, lobby cards, behind-the-scenes pics, including some of Jeff Bridges own photos he shot on set. The single-disc release comes housed in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with a sleeve of reversible artwork, and a slipcase, featuring a new illustration from The CRP Group as well as the original movie poster.  The new artwork really does capture the vibe of the film, the disc itself features an excerpt of the new illustration.


Special Features: 

- NEW They Came from Hollywood: Re-visiting Starman – featuring director John Carpenter, actors Jeff Bridges, Charles Martin Smith and script supervisor Sandy King-Carpenter (24 min) HD 
- Audio Commentary with director John Carpenter and Jeff Bridges
- Vintage Featurette (11 min) 
- Teaser Trailer (1 min) 
- Theatrical Trailer (2 min) 
- TV Spots (2 min) 
- Still Gallery (8 min)

Starman (1984) is a strong sci-fi story, an emotional love story, and a fun fish out of water, road trip movie all wrapped up in a visually dazzling Carpenter film. While Scream Factory's Blu-ray doesn't improve on the A/V from the Sony release from 2009 they have added some great new and vintage extras that make this an essential buy for any Carpenter fan. Scream Factory continue to do good work bringing the films of John Carpenter to market with good looking transfers and spiffy new extras, this one is very east to recommend.  

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

HACKERS (1995) (88 Films Blu-ray Review)

HACKERS (1995) 
Label: 88 FilmsRegion Code: B
Rating: Cert. 12
Duration: 105 Minutes
Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, 2.0 DTS-HD MA with Optional English Subtitles
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (2.40:1)
Director: Iain Softley
Cast: Jonny Lee Miller, Angelina Jolie, Fisher Stevens, Lorraine Bracco

Synopsis: They can break any code and get inside any system. They are often still in their teens and already under surveillance by authorities. They are the hackers. Zero Cool - real name Dade Murphy - is a legend among his peers. In 1988 he single-handedly crashed 1,507 computers on Wall Street and was forbidden by law to touch another keyboard until his 18th birthday. It’s been seven years without a byte... and he’s hungry. Kate Libby, handle Acid Burns, has a souped up lap-top that can do 0 to 60 on the infobahn in a nanosecond. When the two collide, the battle of the sexes goes into hard drive. But all bets are off when master hacker The Plague frames Dade, Kate and their friends in a diabolical industrial conspiracy. Now they are the only ones who can prevent a catastrophe... unlike any the world has ever seen.

Hackers (1995) opens in 1988 with an 11 year-old hacker kid Dade Murphy (Jonny Lee Miller, Trainspotting) who goes by the name of "Zero Cool" being sentenced to probation and banned from using a computer until his eighteenth birthday. His crime? Crashing over 1500 computer systems and sending the stock market plunging. Forward seven years later and on his eighteenth birthday we find him hacking into a local TV station, changing the programming to run a vintage episode of The Outer Limits, so obviously this kid is cool! However, he's kicked out of the TV stations system by another hacker, a competitor that goes by the handle of "Acid Burn", he himself now going by "Crash Override".

Dade and his now divorced mom have moved into a new area and he enrolls in a new high school where he meets up with fellow hackers, like minded guys with cool hacker handles like "The Phantom Phreak",(Renoly Santiago), "Cereal Killer" (Matthew Lillard, SLC Punk), "Lord Nikon" (Laurence Mason, The Crow) and Joey Pardella, whose apparently not cool enough to have a hacker handle (Jesse Bradford, Cherry Falls), plus girl-hacker (Angelina Jolie, Girl Interrupted) who it turns out to be "Acid Burn". Jolie's character and Dade start pranking each other, with her stranding him on the roof of the school looking for a pool during a downpour, and then he sets off the sprinkler system in revenge, but of course there's some sexual chemistry brewing between the pair, heck they even got married after they filmed the movie, and I do think you can sense that chemistry in the film, the pair are the standouts of the bunch.

In an effort to prove his bones, or in the hacker terminology of the film, to become "elite" newbie Joey hacks into the super computer called at a mineral company, some legendary system known as the "gibson", downloading a partial file labeled "garbage", but it turns out it's anything but trash. This security breach alarms the computer security officer Eugene "The Plague" Belford (Fisher Stevens, The Burning) who uses all his resources to frame the group of hackers for a malicious virus he created to cover-up his own crime, creating a worm that will embezzle millions of dollars from the company by siphoning off fractions of a cent from each transaction, which sounds an awful lot like the premise of Office Space (1999).

The film is certainly dated with tech stuff that was once seemingly so far ahead of itself, in '95 not everyone was computer savvy, and I already had an aversion to techno-thrillers, so I skipped out on the film back in the day. It was kind of fun to watch it now twenty plus years later though. I have never been a huge Angelina Jolie fan but I do know that this was a big film for her career, even if it tanked at the box office. She's got some nice presence here, as does co-star Jonny Lee Miller. Maybe it's my age these days, but I think all the kids in this film are annoying as shit! None more so than Matthew Lillard, this guy was one of the more annoying actors of that 90's era, and his performance here has not aged well, the braided hair, the punk rock aesthetic, it's sort of SLC Punk-ish. Then we have Fisher Stevens as a bad-ass hacker who is the big baddie, he does alright I guess, but he's definitely no big bad, the scene of him on a skateboard during the hand-off of a computer disc had me in stitches.

Be on the lookout for appearances from Penn Jillette as a game-crazed IT guy and Lorraine Brocco (Goodfellas) as The Plague's corporate accomplice. In my opinion the film is a very middle of the road 90's youth culture techno-thriller with very low stakes, I never felt any threat or high stakes here for the characters, but it's got some vintage 90's visual pop culture flavor that will probably appeal to a lot of people who were grunge-era teens at the time, but not for me.

Audio/Video: Hackers (1995) arrives on region B locked Blu-ray from 88 Films  in 1080p HD framed in 2.35:1 widescreen. Grain is present, colors look vivid, blacks are good, but the master looks like an older one, it doesn't look like this is a new 2K scan or anything, there's some bits of print damage you can see from time to time, but it's a solid presentation overall. 

Audio comes by way of English DTS-HD MA 5.1 and 2.0 with optional English subtitles, dialogue is crisp and clean, and the score from Simon Boswell (Dust Devil) sounds fine, but I find the techno bump and thump annoying, not by bag at all. Of note, this looks to essentially be the same release of the film we saw from Shout! Factory a few years back, but this release includes the original 5.1 theatrical mix, which was absent on the Shout! Factory release.

Extras include a brand new and exclusive audio commentary by Director Iain Softley and Film Critic Mark Kermode, plus an over hour-long retrospective doc that should please fans of the film, there's also a trailer for the film. The Limited Edition first print run of this release from 88 Films includes a Gloss O-Card slipcase and a 150gsm fold-out poster.

Special Features: 

- Limited Edition Gloss O-Card slipcase [First Print Run Only]
- Limited Edition 150gsm Fold-out poster [First Print Run Only]
- Audio Commentary by Director Iain Softley and Film Critic Mark Kermode
- The Keyboard Cowboys: A Look Back At Hackers - Brand-New Interviews With Director Iain Softley, Cast Members Fisher Stevens, Matthew Lillard And Penn Jillette, Costume Designer Roger Burton, Visual Effects Artist Peter Chiang, And More! (64 min) 
- Original Trailer (2 min)

As 90's techno-thrillers aimed at the youth culture go this was entertaining stuff I guess, if vintage 90's computer effects, bad techno, rollerblading, and hacker hangouts sound like your idea of a fun time have at it, but I probably won't be watching it again anytime soon. That said, if you're a fan of it this is a good looking edition with cool extras and packaging.