Just in time for the Halloween season, Warner Bros. are rolling out two huge genre titles onto 4K UHD Blu-ray, and they could not be more different from each other while both existing under the banner of proud horror. Currently, WB are the only major studio rolling out catalog titles on the new format with this kind of consistency, and so far the results have been extremely impressive, which takes off some of the sting of buying titles that are very likely already on your shelf. (If you’re someone like me who began movie collecting during the VHS era, you know the pain of having bought certain titles over and over. I’ve owned twelve different versions of the original HALLOWEEN over the years, and that doesn’t even count the 4K UHD release, because I’ve not yet taken that plunge.)
The first to hit the new format is 1984’s GREMLINS, featuring the ‘80s powerhouse trifecta of Steven Spielberg (producer), Chris Columbus (writer), and Joe Dante (director). This odd, horrifying and hilarious Christmashorroradventurecomedy is one of the most unique films to come out of the 1980s, horror or otherwise, and if nothing else, has definitely proved its staying power over the last 35 years. Garnering only one sequel (rare for a successful horror property, though GREMLINS 3 has been the stuff of “maybe it’ll happen” updates on film websites for years), GREMLINS not only manages to stand head and shoulders above the last 35 years of horror, but that it manages to remain a pop culture curiosity based on such a gonzo concept is what makes the film so impressive.
Throughout his career, Joe Dante consistently straddled that line between PG and R-rated horror, never settling too firmly on one side versus the other. His playful tone has a lot to do with this, along with the violence present in most of his movies that never goes too far. (In fact, it was partially thanks to GREMLINS that the MPAA introduced the PG-13 rating, as the film’s PG rating led to public outcry from furious mothers.) GREMLINS is a supreme example of this. The cutesy poster art featuring adorable Gizmo, along with its lighthearted tone, easily conjures thoughts that it’s a horror-adventure movie for kids a la THE MONSTER SQUAD or THE GOONIES…until the Gremlins spawn from Gizmo and start wreaking havoc. Questionable scenes include the little monsters shooting a wheelchair bound woman through the window of her house where she splat-lands on the hard, icy ground outside, or the Gremlins themselves meeting their own grisly ends in garbage disposals. It’s this distinctive viewing experience, along with the right amount of emotional weight (the love story between Zach Galligan and ‘80s dream girl Phoebe Cates’ characters is adorable), that makes GREMLINS easy to revisit – especially at Christmas.
Speaking of alternative Christmas titles, the most recent of Warners’ two UHD releases is Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, THE SHINING, based on the novel by Stephen King. The famed author infamously despises Kubrick’s adaptation, and from a book purist point of view, I can see why, as the character of Jack Torrance doesn’t undergo the same dramatic change in the film as he does in King’s story. Instead, Nicholson plays him as a prequel to a maniac – someone we can just feel is going to lose his mind once the Torrance family is wintered into the Overlook Hotel over several months. Having addressed that, THE SHINING is masterful as a horror experience. It’s impeccably shot, with a staggering amount of detail, right down to the Penrose stairs design of the now-infamous carpeting that stretches across nearly the entirety of the Overlook Hotel. It’s this kind of detail that relegates THE SHINING as being one of those titles where you notice something new every time you watch it. My most recent viewing of the title had me, finally, noticing that the horror the evil of the Overlook unleashes upon the Torrances has been specifically curated to terrorize each family member’s specific fears. Jack is a struggling alcoholic, so the hotel appears to him in the form of ghostly bartender, slipping him liquor that doesn’t exist, but off which Jack becomes intoxicated, anyway. And meanwhile there’s Wendy, “a confirmed ghost story and horror movie addict” – if you’ve ever stopped to wonder why THE SHINING, which for most of its running time had been so good at scaring the audience with meticulous and abstract set-pieces, would suddenly rely on hokey skeleton props covered in hokier spider webs, it’s because that’s the kind of thing that scares her. And then there’s little Danny, whose special power allows him to see THE SHINING for what it really is, and what lurks around every corner.
In many ways, THE SHINING plays like an anti-horror movie, constantly circumventing expectations. One of the biggest changes of the book comes from Dick Halloran’s long, weathered descent into frigid snowy conditions to get back to the Overlook once Danny telepathically calls him for help, and after everything he goes through to arrive back, he’s instantly killed by Jack in the hotel lobby. It’s easy to look at this and say, “well, that was pointless,” but it’s, in fact, a genius move – a way to say, “in a normal horror movie, he would be their hero,” but in THE SHINING, anything can happen.
If a filmmaker can make a movie that leaves behind one indelible image that will live on in the minds of future audiences, that’s a huge accomplishment. THE SHINING leaves behind dozens; pick your poison: the hand-holding Grady twin girls, the bloody elevator, the ghostly woman in room 237, the hedge maze, Nicholson’s crazed face pressed against a chopped hotel door, and this list honestly goes on and on. This is what makes THE SHINING a towering giant of the genre, and one that will absolutely live forever.
GREMLINS had a legendarily terrible Blu-ray release back in 2008 when the format was just catching on, and in spite of this, the studio would re-release the title in multiple gimmicky versions that recycled the same poor disc. Thankfully, the 4K UHD disc is a major improvement, falling back on a more filmic look and highlighting more detail. However, some scenes suffer from a slight darkening not inherent to the source material, many of them during scenes of overwhelming practical effects and puppetry, which unfortunately obscures some of the results. It’s certainly not enough to affect your overall enjoyment, but there’s always the hope that new video formats will serve as the ultimate experience, a flawless endeavor that, for now, cannot be improved. That can’t be said for this new release, but it’s worlds better than what’s been previously available. (The standard Blu-ray copy enclosed with the 4K UHD disc is that same 2008 release, right down to the incredibly tedious navigational menu.)
As for THE SHINING’s picture quality, the results are even more impressive. The prior Blu-ray from Warner Bros. was no slouch, but this new UHD incarnation is a tremendous uptick in quality. Having said there, there’s a very minor point of contention (which seems to happen every time a Kubrick title is released on video) having to do with the aspect ratio. Despite the legend, Kubrick never preferred the 1.33:1 full screen format; instead, he considered it for future broadcast purposes while preferring to shoot in 1.85:1. This newest release very slightly crops the previous 1.85:1 into a 1.78:1 presentation, sacrificing very little information at the edges of the screen. Purists of this will no doubt fly into a rage, and I can understand why, but the change is minimal, and what you get in return is more than worth the revisionism.
There are no new special features to speak of on either release. In fact, the 4K UHD discs only contain the previously available commentaries. The standard Blu-rays, which are the previous releases, contain all the special features.
As usual, there’s always room for improvement when it comes to new releases of prior titles, whether it be in technical presentations or supplemental avenues. In the case of these new 4K UHD releases, both are huge steps up in terms of the former, while the supplements remain baseline. (Why either title doesn’t have a new, comprehensive making-of documentary is beyond me, but that’s the strength of third-party distributors.) Except for the lack of new supplements, and the truly terrible new cover art (THE SHINING isn’t bad, but GREMLINS has the laziest art I’ve ever seen, making it look like a wallpaper background for Windows 95), these new releases are easy recommendations and are now available.
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Tags: Belinda Balaski, Blu-ray, Chris Columbus, Christmas, Chuck Jones, corey feldman, Danny Lloyd, Diane Johnson, Dick Miller, Frances Lee McCain, Frank Welker, Glynn Turman, Harry Carey Jr., Holidays, Horror, Howie Mandel, Hoyt Axton, Jack Nicholson, Jerry Goldsmith, joe dante, John Alcott, Jonathan Banks, Judge Reinhold, Keye Luke, Michael Winslow, Nicky Katt, Peter Cullen, Phoebe Cates, Polly Holliday, Rachel Elkind, Scatman Crothers, Shelley Duvall, Stanley Kubrick, Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, Tony Burton, Wendy Carlos, William Schallert, Zach Galligan