Terror Tuesday: The Slow Death Of DVD Special Editions

Brian bemoans the dearth of meaty special features on modern horror DVD releases.

Last weekend, for obvious reasons, I pulled out one of my 3-4 DVDs of John Carpenter’s Halloween and watched the TV cut of the film for the first time in years. To non Hallo-philes, this is an extended version of the movie that aired on NBC in 1981, which contains a few brand new scenes that were shot by Carpenter during the production of Halloween II. The scenes were commissioned when they realized that the original movie was too short to air with commercials in a two hour block (and being a low budget production, they didn’t have any deleted scenes to toss back in). And because Carpenter is awesome, he shot the films in 2.35:1 Panavision even though they were created specifically for a TV broadcast, though they had never been shown that way until they were discovered in the late 90s when the first big special edition of the film was being prepped for DVD. So the scenes were remastered and cut into the film, and this version was given its own disc on the limited edition 1999 release of the classic slasher (I have 13337/50000).

Just over ten years later, the second disc on most DVDs is a “digital copy” of the movie that you can play on your fucking iPod.

It wasn’t until I pulled that Halloween DVD out that I realized how far the “special edition” has fallen over the years in general. You never see this sort of thing anymore – guys actually had to dig out these elements and put them into the movie, not to mention create the other original content on the disc. It probably cost almost as much to put together this DVD (including the remastering, rights acquisition, man hours spent digging up the materials, etc) as it did to make the movie in the first place. But here’s the thing – that wasn’t unusual back in those glory days when DVD was first hitting the mainstream. To this day I have two rows on my shelf dedicated to those two disc DVDs in their giant cases (which won’t fit in my slotted DVD rack), not to mention goofy things like tins and customized boxes (like the Masters of Horror set, which came in a mini “crypt”). 

Many of them also had booklets – liner notes, photos, new introductions by the director or maybe a film critic… in other words, there was something actually “special” about these special editions.

Nowadays, beyond the occasional big ticket item like the LOTR or Star Wars films, you almost never see these sort of mammoth sets anymore, particularly for horror movies. Most of them don’t even have actual special editions – as terrible as it was, Nightmare On Elm Street was one of the bigger hit horror films of 2010, yet its DVD only has a few deleted scenes and a generic making of along with Blu-ray exclusive features (brief interview/behind the scenes snippets). No commentary, no in-depth documentary, etc. Compare that to the special edition DVD of Platinum Dunes’ equally successful Texas Chainsaw Massacre from six years before, which had three commentaries and hours of material (spread across two discs), including a documentary about Ed Gein! For twenty bucks, you got a set that would take nearly a full day to go through in its entirety, plus crime scene photos and things like that. Now, you can be done with the (disc-only) Nightmare set in about three hours or so, which costs the same amount.

Now, one could easily point to the quality of the films themselves – Chainsaw is considered a success on the creative level as well (especially compared to pretty much every following Dunes film), whereas even producer Brad Fuller seems to look down on Nightmare, but it still has its fans, many of whom insist it’s not only better than any other Dunes film, but the Wes Craven original as well! As misguided and wrong as they may be, don’t the fans of that piece of shit deserve a worthy special edition for their 20-25 bucks? Ditto the company’s Friday the 13th, which offered an extended cut (note – not a legit “Director’s Cut”) of the film but little else.

It’s no coincidence that the past few years have also seen the rise of streaming viewing, which I think is the real culprit here. With so many folks watching movies on Netflix Instant (or worse, their iWhatevers), there’s less of an incentive to create worthy bonus material when such a sizable portion of the audience is going to be seeing a “movie only” version anyway. Sure, if they have a few deleted scenes or outtakes laying around, toss them on the disc – they barely take up any room on the disc anyway. But when is the last time you saw a second disc on a horror movie DVD that wasn’t just the digital copy?

More troubling – I’m also seeing (hearing?) fewer and fewer commentary tracks. I actually skip watching movies on Instant because I’d rather wait for the DVD when I know there’s a commentary on it – I consider listening to it part of the “job” of reviewing the disc, plus I just enjoy them more often than not. But lately I don’t need to bother waiting most of the time, since the disc doesn’t have a track anyway. The great thing about commentaries is that there’s no “rule” to who can be on them – one of my favorite tracks of all time is Roger Ebert on Dark City, a movie he had no involvement with at all. So if there’s a high profile movie (like the last couple Dunes productions) that doesn’t have a commentary, I almost feel kind of ripped off. Between the director, the writers, the actors, the very high profile producers, there certainly could have been SOMEONE willing to share their detailed thoughts as they sat down with the 90 minute movie again. Seems like they could/would just have a key grip sit down with a few beers and talk about it if they couldn’t get any of the principals, just to have another bullet point on the back of the package to entice folks like me. But there’s no “extra mile” anymore, and worse – they’re not even bothering with stuff that used to be standard, like the insert with the names of the chapters, something that has gone the way of the dodo. What’s next? Removing chapter selection?*

There are some notable exceptions. Last year’s Frozen had a nearly full length documentary about the film’s production that was just as compelling at the movie itself, plus a pair of commentaries with very little repeated information. And as much as I loathed the film, you can’t say Rob Zombie didn’t deliver for fans of his Halloween remake, with two versions of the film, a commentary, and (on the 2nd release) a four hour behind the scenes look at its production, plus all the usual stuff like deleted scenes and outtakes.

See, the thing is, horror fans LIKE this stuff! I’m sure no one would be too upset if Real Steel came to disc without any meaty supplements, but a bare-bones horror movie release is sort of an insult to our collector/obsessive nature. Take a movie like Paranormal Activity 3 – 75% of the trailer is not in the movie itself. If that movie came to disc and didn’t have those deleted scenes that we know exist (plus the other usual stuff), it’d be like Paramount flat out telling you that they didn’t bother putting any effort into the disc release. Sure, that might not mean much to the average soccer mom who heard the movie was scary, but it would be a slap in the face to the hardcore fans who were championing the series in the first place . Hell, we even listen to commentary tracks – talk about any John Carpenter movie with a fan for a few minutes, and eventually his/her appreciation for the accompanying commentary (very few JC films lack one) will enter the conversation.

It’s also a bummer for budding filmmakers. I lucked out with the timing when I was in film school; I was there from 1998-2002, aka the glory years of DVD special editions. Nearly every movie had a commentary, and I swear I learned more from those than I did in any of my classes. It was like part of my schedule – I’d pick up a new disc or two on Friday (when I got my paycheck; I still worked one day a week throughout most of college), watch the movie(s) that night or the next, and listen to the commentaries the following morning. Sure, some of them were nothing more than the actors goofing off, but you could learn something about the filmmaking process from a variety of perspectives. Especially on (typically low budget) horror films – those things you pick up on could actually be applied to what you might do during your summer off from film school, if you were so inclined (as opposed to hearing Michael Bay talk about Transformers – until you have 200 million at your disposal, there’s not a lot there that’ll be useful for your backyard film). And it bored the shit out of me, but if you’re starting to get interested in lighting and being a DP, check out the commentary for Carpenter’s In the Mouth Of Madness – most of it is about how the film was lit, since he’s accompanied by his DP Gary Kibbe. These free “film school” lessons are more often than not more entertaining and useful than any book your Film II teacher might have you read, and hey! You get to watch a horror movie while you do it! But with these things becoming harder and harder to come by, you won’t be able to use your DVD collection to keep up with the advances in digital film (and lighting for it), so it’ll be back to boring textbooks.

It just seems to me like the studios just don’t care anymore, even when it comes to “second tier” library releases that fans probably already own anyway. As I pointed out in my Halloween DVD article a few months back, BAD contributor Phil Nobile had assembled new interviews with most of the Halloween II team (Carpenter, Rick Rosenthal, Jamie Lee Curtis, Dean Cundey) when he was putting together his Inside Story doc on the first film – some of them discussing H2 in depth for the first time since the film’s release.

Yet Universal wasn’t interested, and thus the only extra on the disc were a few deleted scenes and Terror In The Aisles, which I believe was put on as a bonus feature just so they could avoid the rights clearance issues. With the storage capabilities of Blu-ray, you could have fit all of this (and more) on the disc easily, and these were bonus features that were already created/edited! But Uni said “No thanks”, and instead went out of their way to edit Moustapha Akkad’s name out of the movie. Classy.

I could go on and on with other examples (and those increasingly rare exceptions; certainly last year’s Alien Blu-ray collection set the standard for putting out a library title on disc), but I think the point is clear – we’re going backwards. The quality of even a “high def” stream is still unacceptable at times, yet the increasing popularity of watching movies that way is having a negative effect on us hardcore movie nerds who enjoy the wealth of supplemental material that used to be commonplace. More and more discs come along without any notable features, and stores don’t stock as many (I have yet to even find that Halloween II Blu-ray in stores). Plus, with so much focus on streaming, it appears as if we may never get quality disc releases of certain “B” titles – who is going to bother finally putting out a widescreen version of Chopping Mall now?

Sure, there will always be the big name titles coming along with all those bells and whistles (Evil Dead 2 is about to get its umpteenth release, with new features yet again), but those movies make up a very tiny percentage in the history of horror. It’s the Chopping Malls of the world – and the die-hard fans of them – that are getting the shaft.

*I wrote that joke and then, I shit you not, later that night I put in a Blu-ray of a movie called Ghost Month that did NOT have chapter selections – not even half-assed chapter breaks every 10 minutes like you find on some budget discs. I fell asleep halfway through it and had to fast forward through the movie to find my spot. Kind of like… VHS!