DVD Review HTF DVD Review: JOHN CARPENTER: MASTER OF FEAR COLLECTION

Michael Reuben

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Michael Reuben


John Carpenter: Master of Fear Collection


Studio: Universal
MSRP: $19.98
Discs: 2
Package: Keepcase w/slipcover
Insert: None
DVD Release Date: Sept. 15, 2009



Introduction:


In time for Halloween, Universal is releasing a collection of four films by John Carpenter in a package that epitomizes “barebones”. Insert a disc, and a menu appears with a choice of two films. Choose a film, and you get another menu that lets you set subtitles on or off, start the film, and that’s all. There are chapter stops for each film, but no chapter guide on the disc or in a package insert. It’s just the four films.

So why should anyone care? Because two of the films – Prince of Darkness and They Live – are Carpenter fan favorites that Universal punted to Image eleven years ago and has now taken back and newly transferred. Of the other two, John Carpenter’s The Thing has been issued numerous times, and the version included here offers no improvement on the 2004 special edition DVD (and, obviously, is inferior to the Blu-ray). Carpenter’s remake of Village of the Damned is a matter of personal taste. It has the sentimental value of being the last film completed by the late Christopher Reeve before his fateful horseback riding accident, but it is also one of Carpenter’s worst films.

For a barebones collection, let’s have simple reviews.




John Carpenter’s The Thing

Rated: R
Film Length: 100 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 (enhanced for 16:9)
Audio: English DD 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH
Theatrical Release Date: June 25, 1982


After Halloween, this may be Carpenter’s most-released film on video. Sam Posten has previously reviewed the Blu-ray and the HD DVD, and I refer any reader not familiar with the film to those reviews. There was also a feature-laden 2004 “collector’s edition” DVD, which, since many of the features were not ported to the Blu-ray (although they appear on the HD DVD), remains an essential item for any fan’s library.

The version of the film in the Master of Fear collection is comparable to the 2004 DVD, but, in a direct A/B comparison, there are minute differences sufficient to indicate that a different transfer was used, probably the same one used for the hi-def discs. I did not spot any obvious reason to prefer either this transfer or the 2004 over the other. Both are solid presentations of the film, with adequate detail, sufficient control of video noise, and black levels as good as the format and source materials will allow.

The audio is the same 5.1 remix that has been heard on this film in all of its incarnations on disc. It’s an effective remix given the film’s 1982 vintage, particularly in its reproduction of the Morricone score, which sounds exactly like a John Carpenter score, only better.




Prince of Darkness

Rated: R
Film Length: 102 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 (enhanced for 16:9)
Audio: English DD 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH
Theatrical Release Date: Oct. 23, 1987


Prince of Darkness is the most classical of Carpenter’s “apocalypse” films. A priest (played by the reliable Donald Pleasence) begs for help from an old friend, the noted physicist, Dr. Howard Birack (Victor Wong, best known as Egg Shen in Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China). It seems that a secret sect within the Catholic Church known as The Brotherhood of Sleep has been hiding a mysterious object for the last 2000 years, but the object is now manifesting strange behavior. Dr. Birack gathers a small cadre of scientists, technicians and graduate students, who camp out in a derelict church in Los Angeles where the object is located and find themselves at an unexpected junction between Revelations and quantum physics. In how many other films is one likely to encounter alternative theories of Christ’s origin alongside reflections on Schrödinger's cat?

Carpenter, of course, takes none of this seriously. It’s all raw material for a whizz-bang, “anything goes” horror film. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any other American horror film, certainly any of Carpenter’s, that has so freely and successfully pillaged so many sources to create something unique: The Exorcist, with its twisting necks and vomited liquid; its sequels and imitators with the ravenous insect swarms; zombie films, as personified by the hordes of homeless (led by an all-too-recognizable Alice Cooper) who surround the church in response to the demonic siren song; slasher films, as members of the group inside the church succumb to the growing power of the evil they’re studying; even Carpenter’s own Assault on Precinct 13, as the shrinking group of survivors barricades themselves into smaller and smaller spaces.

The film’s finale is utterly over the top and probably can’t withstand logical (or temporal) scrutiny. But who cares? The sequence is so tautly edited, and the make-up so revolting, that it all still works, even if it doesn’t quite make sense. Indeed, one of the virtues of a film like Prince of Darkness is to remind us how impressive practical effects can be. No CGI will ever look as disgusting as a swarm of real bugs.

The Master of Fear collection’s presentation of Prince of Darkness is the single best reason to acquire the set. A comparison between this video transfer and the 1998 version is a demonstration of how far we’ve come not only technologically but in the sensibility of telecine colorists. The 1998 version had the contrast cranked up to an absurd level. Everything was too bright; colors were too assertive; and video noise was plentiful. The transfer was the equivalent of putting a TV in “torch mode” so that its image would pop on the display floor. The new transfer puts the contrast back to its proper level, revealing vast amounts of detail that were blown out in the prior image. Video noise is minimal, and colors are still strong where they should be (e.g., the green of the mystery object and the red of blood). Black levels are decent, allowing one to distinguish objects in the many dark scenes in the church’s abandoned corridors.

The film’s audio is again delivered in DD 2.0, but the mix is not identical. The levels on the new disc are somewhat lower than on the previous Image disc, but not to such a degree that an increase of several db on the volume knob won’t compensate. Played through a decoding scheme such as DPL2 or Logic7, the mix has a respectable amount of ambience, and Carpenter’s characteristic score is well-reproduced.




They Live

Rated: R
Film Length: 95 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 (enhanced for 16:9)
Audio: English DD 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH
Theatrical Release Date: Nov. 4, 1988


They Live may be timely again. The film was made during a period of economic hardship, and it tapped into a populist sentiment that the game had somehow been rigged. No matter how hard you tried, certain people seemed to get ahead, while others couldn’t catch a break. There have always been conspiracy theories to explain why, and They Live proposed a simple one: All those well-to-do yuppies in the 1980s were aliens.

Despite being included in the Master of Fear collection, They Live is more of a comedy than a horror film. The first clue is that it stars wrestler-turned-actor Roddy Piper as perhaps the least convincing down-and-out drifter ever to appear on film. The second is Piper’s hairdo, which is the most beautifully coifed mullet ever sported by a guy who’s supposed to be broke. The third is that Piper’s character doesn’t have a name (he’s listed in the credits as “Nada”). And the biggest giveaway is that, two-thirds of the way through the film, just as the plot should be kicking into high gear, Carpenter stops the action so that Piper can have a five-minute smackdown with Frank (played by Keith David, a real actor, but one with an imposing physique) for no good reason other than that’s what Roddy Piper is good at.

The pretext for the smackdown is that Piper wants Frank to put on a pair of specially treated sun glasses that allows the wearer to see the world without interference from the camouflaging signal being beamed everywhere by the aliens who have secretly infiltrated our society. Without the signal’s disguise, the aliens among us are revealed, and guess what? Just about everyone with money is one of them! They control the police and the military; they communicate secretly through hidden features in those fancy expensive watches; and they’ve concealed subliminal messages throughout our world telling us to “Obey”, “Stay Asleep” and “Consume”. Yes, folks, it turns out those tinfoil-hat-wearing nutjobs were right after all.

Once the smackdown is concluded and Frank has finally put on the glasses, the rest of the film is taken up with Frank and “Nada’s” joint efforts to reveal the aliens to as many other humans as possible. Their plans don’t bear close scrutiny, but they do lead to an entertaining conclusion.

The transfer of They Live in the Master of Fear collection is a significant improvement over the version released by Image in 1998. The older transfer boosted the contrast at the expense of detail, but the newer one reflects the more enlightened contemporary approach that prefers retaining picture information over making the image “pop”. Here, too, the image on the new transfer is noticeably more stable and free from video noise. In addition to the improved detail, black levels are also superior. One would expect a better disc after eleven years of advancement in transfer and compression technology, and the disc delivers it.

The film’s DD 2.0 has been given a remix similar to that applied to Prince of Darkness, resulting in a somewhat lower overall volume. As with the earlier film, the difference is not significant, and playback through DPL2, Logic7 or any similar decoding scheme will yield more than adequate results.




Village of the Damned

Rated: R
Film Length: 99 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 (enhanced for 16:9)
Audio: English DD 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH
Theatrical Release Date: April 28, 1995


Carpenter’s Village retains the basic plot outline of the 1960 British black-and-white original (itself based on a short story entitled “The Midwich Cuckoos”): The remote town of Midwich (English in the original, American in the remake) suffers a mysterious incident in which it is completely cut off from the outside world for most of a day. Everyone in town passes out, as does anyone who crosses an invisible perimeter that encircles the town. When the incident ends and the residents awaken, every woman of child-bearing age is pregnant, regardless of personal circumstances.

Nine months later, all of the children are born within hours of each other. They share the same strange eyes and unnaturally blond hair. As they grow, they also seem to share the same mind, communicating silently, and demonstrating an enhanced capacity for learning. Most frightening of all, they manifest the ability to control the minds of others around them, which they do not hesitate to use against their enemies. Attack the children in any way, and they will make you harm or kill yourself. As word arrives of other such colonies spawned from similar incidents around the globe, the Midwich children appear to be some sort of vanguard for an alien invasion. It falls to the father of the children’s leader (George Sanders in the original; Christopher Reeve in the remake) to make a terrible choice between the child he still regards as his own and the future of humanity.

The 1960 original retains its creepy effectiveness, because the script (co-written by Oscar-winner Sterling Silliphant) is a model of lean efficiency. Carpenter’s film, the script of which is credited to another of the original’s co-writers (George Barclay), is a textbook example of how more can be less. There seems to be more of everything:


• more children;
• more deaths;
• more gore (the children don’t just dispatch their enemies; they seem to delight in punishing them, which is wholly at odds with the cold alien intelligence they’re supposed to represent);
• more special effects, courtesy of ILM, whose technicians not only light up the children’s eyes when they’re using their powers, but also give them a rainbow of colors, dilating pupils and demonic flashes;
• more plot, courtesy of a shady government scientist with her own agenda, played by Kirstie Alley (who, in what may have been intended as a nod to The X-Files, is also a chain smoker); and
• more conflict, thanks to an unlikely subplot that sees one of the children developing human feelings and separating from the group, thereby setting up a potential sequel that, mercifully, was never made.

But by far Carpenter’s worst indulgence of “more” is giving the children additional dialogue. The alien children in the original were unnerving precisely because they said so little. Here they have a lot of lines, and unless a director is lucky enough to find a group of Dakota Fannings, most child actors lack the skill to play convincing demons. When your film’s “Big Bad” sounds more like a homegrown brat, the film is in trouble – and it doesn’t help that the camera has to linger on the kids while they’re speaking so that you can’t help but notice their blond wigs. By the time Carpenter reaches the final confrontation between Reeve’s anguished parent and the children led by his own daughter, the film’s villains have lost their credibility, and all the CGI and pyrotechnics in the world can’t achieve even a fraction of the tension that the original managed with just a voiceover and a few superimposed images.

I have not seen Universal’s 1998 DVD release of Village, but I would be surprised if it looked as good as this version being issued nearly eleven years later. The image is clean, detailed and colorful. Black levels are good, and artifacts are minimal. The movie may be terrible, but the transfer doesn’t make it worse.

Of the four films in this collection, Village was the only one released in the era of discrete 5.1 sound, and it shows. In the opening scenes where a shadowy alien presence passes over Midwich, the LFE channel gets a workout. The surround channels take a turn in scenes like the wild shootout when the children force police and army units to turn their guns on each other. Dialogue is always clear and distinct (although that isn’t necessarily a benefit, as noted above).




In Conclusion:

The chief reasons to acquire this collection are They Live and Prince of Darkness, either as upgrades to the existing discs or as a first-time purchase. If you don’t already own The Thing, this is an inexpensive way to add a copy to your collection. No one should acquire the Master of Fear collection for Village of the Damned, but given the bargain price, you shouldn’t let the presence of that film dissuade you either.




Equipment used for this review:

Denon 955 DVD player
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display
Lexicon MC-8
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub
 

SilverWook

Effects Supervisor
Senior HTF Member
Joined
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Messages
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Bill
Image was releasing DVD's in 1988? The mind boggles.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't Universal remaster Prince of Darkness and They Live when they reissued them separately several years back?
 

Michael Reuben

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Messages
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Those were 2003 releases, which I don't have for comparison, but what I recall is that people who saw them said there was no difference (or I would have acquired them then). And thanks for catching the typo.

It's probably worth adding that Universal also issued this same group of films as a "Carpenter Collection" in 2003; so this is effectively a replacement. Since we know that The Thing has been redone (more than once) since that time, it's pretty likely that the other titles were redone as well. Particularly with Prince of Darkness, the quality would seem to indicate contemporary technology.
 

Hank E

Stunt Coordinator
Joined
Feb 26, 2003
Messages
185
I stumbled across this today (didn't know it was coming out) and decided to buy it on the chance the films were remastered. Thanks for the review.
 

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