Collins’ Crypt: Like Movies, Bonus Features Can Be Hit Or Miss

Sometimes you get a great release like HELL NIGHT. And sometimes... well...

In several old Horror Movie A Day reviews, I lament that the gradual shift to streaming/on-demand services would greatly reduce the likelihood of certain VHS-only films ever being brought to Blu-ray or even DVD in some cases, because that's how it usually goes. Whenever a new format is introduced, the focus on getting people to invest in that format by bringing out the big guns - Star Wars, The Matrix, Harry Potter, etc and saving smaller stuff for "later", a day that may never come. It's a bummer, but I get it - the aforementioned blockbusters are the films that fans will easily buy again if they're going to look that much better, and the eye-popping visuals and sound will convince those on the fence that they need to finally ditch their much older formats to boot, so it makes sense to kick off with those to cement the format's status in the marketplace. Now with the decline of physical media, it only makes logical sense that smaller films won't make the jump; if the major studios end up with overstock of their A-list titles, what chance do obscure cult movies have? 

Luckily, it turned out to be one of the seven or eight million times I was wrong about something. While there are of course hundreds of films that remain in limbo, a healthy number of these obscuros have made their way to Blu-ray, often in fancy special editions. We can thank boutique outfits like Scream Factory, Arrow, Severin, and Vinegar Syndrome (apologies to those I didn't name check - there are (thankfully) a lot of you!) for rescuing as many films as they can and giving them their due, especially when it comes to independent films. Unlike studio productions, the rights for indies tend to be tangled up in knots that might be impossible to unravel as films are bought/sold (or split between several parties) over and over throughout the years, leaving the producers of these special editions unable to even figure out who to ask if they can work together on a disc. Films like Fright Night Part 2 and Alligator may never see the light of day on disc again due to their tortured distribution histories (Fright Night 2's is especially weird if you want to look it up - it involves the Menendez Murders), but that doesn't stop these companies and their peers from trying. When you see them put out a disc for a film that had been unavailable for ages, or looked like crap on its previous release, you can bet that they put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into getting it into your hands in a pristine manner.

But these outfits rarely settle for just giving you a cleaned up remaster of the film. Thanks to the advent of streaming services (and, sigh, torrents) they often offer commentaries, interviews, tours of the shooting locations in their current form, etc. to give you more bang for your buck, because if it was just the movie you'd likely be fine with waiting until its inevitable Netflix or Amazon Prime release. Not every bonus feature is going to end up worthwhile, but padding out a disc with features is a surefire way to get people to upgrade or blind buy. Luckily, it's major studio stuff that tends to offer fluffy (read: worthless) bonus features - the films you and I are interested in, i.e. horror movies from the '80s, tend to inspire bonus features that are just as entertaining as the film itself. Case in point is Hell Night, a perfectly enjoyable slasher from the legendary class of 1981, previously released on DVD by Anchor Bay back in the '00s but otherwise unreleased on any superior format. It's not a movie I'll watch over and over, nor was the existing DVD transfer particularly bad (in fact it was quite good for the format, if memory serves), so if the new disc was just the movie with a nicer transfer I'd probably see little need to upgrade. But with several hours' worth of new interviews, I was more than happy to find space on my shelf for Scream Factory's new release.

If you don't own it at all, it's practically a must buy for slasher fans. Hell Night is often overlooked when discussing the "dead teenager" flicks of that era, as it's not as notorious as My Bloody Valentine, doesn't have the iconic kills like The Burning or Happy Birthday to Me, and doesn't have sequels or remakes to keep its name afloat like many of its peers. But it's actually a fairly solid entry in the sub-genre, emphasizing suspense over kills and creating much more likable characters than the average body count entry. Linda Blair, Peter Barton, Vincent Van Patten, and Suki Goodwin are all charming and natural in their roles of sorority/fraternity pledges tasked with spending a night in Garth Manor, the local "haunted house" where Garth murdered his family and killed himself twelve years earlier, save one member who is reportedly still haunting the grounds. Naturally their fraternity overlords think the story is bogus and are using it as an excuse to torment the quartet all night with staged "ghosts" and other pranks, but it turns out there is indeed a killer hunting them. There are no overt assholes in the group - it's just college kids doing college kid stuff in a good-natured way, with Randy Feldman's script finding that perfect balance of making the kids likable enough that the viewer isn't begging the killer to rid us of them, but not so much that we're left bummed out when they're offed. 

In other words, it gets more right than wrong, and when you add the top-notch production value (Garth Manor was composited from two practical locations and some well designed sets, and it works beautifully) you get a film that its cast and crew should be proud of all these years later. I'm sure at one point or another they might have had some misgivings about what they were doing (on his interview, Barton even admits he didn't want to do the film at all at first), but time has been kind to the film and now that they can easily compare it to some of the other films out there at the time, they can rightfully recognize that this is nothing to leave off the résumé. Throughout the interviews (at least, the ones I watched - I'm not joking when I say there are several hours' worth of them, with pretty much every living cast member as well as Feldman, director Tom DeSimone, and producer Bruce Cohn Curtis) the same general takeaway keeps coming up: they knew they wouldn't be winning any awards for the film, they know it's not perfect (it's a bit too long, for one thing), but it WORKS, dammit. The cast gave good performances and added depth to their roles that wasn't on the page (Van Patten, for example, added his character's love of surfing, which he demonstrates as a form of foreplay), and the crew made their $1m budget look twice that - it's on the very short list of slashers from that era that can get marks for its production design and cinematography (by Mac Ahlberg, who went on to shoot a number of John Landis and Stuart Gordon films). 

As a result, the bonus features are worth your time - they're honest, but not dismissive. So if you're a Hell Night fan, I can't imagine a scenario where you'd be displeased by its bonus content - they even reveal the name of the actors who played the killers (they were uncredited in the film and not previously disclosed on the earlier DVD), so it's a no-stones-unturned kinda deal. Contrast that with 1983's oddity Disconnected, which also recently hit Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome in a special edition package. The film was never released on DVD; a planned release was scrapped before it hit shelves, and there had been no news about why or if it would resurface. I had given up hope of it ever being widely available (as a result I had to leave it out of my book, which pained me) until Vinegar announced it as this year's Black Friday surprise release, the news of which prompted me to buy a copy within seconds of hearing that it was available for order - before I even saw that it was a full fledged special edition. The movie would have been enough, but seeing that it had commentary and some new interviews with writer/director Gorman Bechard as well as co-star Carmine Capobianco made me very excited, and I tore off the plastic and dove into the disc the day it arrived in the mail.

And a couple hours later, I was... well I wouldn't say heartbroken, but very sad nonetheless, as Bechard seemed to have little interest in talking about the film - yet agreed to do a commentary track with Capobianco anyway. They point out shooting locations and a few random bits of trivia, but for the bulk of the 84 minute film they're just kind of reminiscing about... well, everything but the film. There's a lengthy story about a dog destroying a couch that appears in one character's apartment, and lots of anecdotes about their other films (Psychos in Love, in particular), but it often feels like they would be willing to talk about anything besides the movie they're ostensibly commenting upon. There's even a chunk where they wonder if anyone's listening (and say to ask Vinegar Syndrome for a new car if they've gotten this far - I prefer full-size sedans, for the record), without seeming to realize that if anyone had turned it off by then it would be because their lack of interest left the viewer feeling cold. In his interview, Bechard says of his fourteen feature films he'd put it at the eleventh best, and that as he continues to make more features (he has five in the works) it will continue to slide down. I mean, there's nothing wrong with being candid and honest, but only to a certain point - after a while it starts to feel like he not only looks down on the movie, but people who like it, as well. 

I mean, not for nothing, but Disconnected is hardly a conventional movie, and that's why I was excited about a commentary in the first place, assuming it would explain/justify some of their more unusual choices. It borrows some language from the slasher textbook, but it's also got supernatural elements, police procedural scenes (including a bizarre series of interviews where Capobianco's character talks directly to the camera, usually to fill in gaps in the plot), and a minor psychological thriller flair. Bechard even throws in some arty touches, like a character's nervous breakdown presented as a series of still frames, which is the kind of thing I was hoping to hear about when I took time out of my life to listen to him talk about the film. Instead, Bechard merely notes that the sequence is "cool" and then talks about a clock. The rest of the time they just offer private jokes, info about other movies, some dead air, etc., and by the time it was done I felt I knew little more about the film than I did when it started. They both admit they haven't watched it in years, and only a fool would expect them to have iron-clad memories of 35 year old production (especially if they hadn't considered it their finest work), but I was at least hoping Bechard would offer some insight into his storytelling choices (such as killing the murderer off with thirty minutes to go), the memorable soundtrack (XTC's "Complicated Game" is used to great effect), etc. You know, normal commentary stuff, instead of me considering the possibility that they might end up going out for lunch halfway through and leaving the recorder running.

Thankfully, it's rare that I have that kind of reaction to a film's bonus features, and ultimately I'm just happy to finally have the movie on disc. It's a shame that they didn't seem more enthusiastic about the film, or that they didn't have more of its participants on hand (where the hell is Frances Raines? She was MIA from The Mutilator disc too), but since it seems Bechard himself (as opposed to a studio) owns Disconnected he could have sat on it forever out of spite. He might not think much of the film, but at least he seems to recognize that other folks (such as myself) enjoy it and would like to be able to watch it properly (and legally!), so we can thank him for humoring us. But it got me thinking: for films that haven't been released before, do we even need bonus features to entice us? I would have bought Disconnected even if the only bonus feature was the trailer, just to finally have a copy - I didn't need to be buttered up with commentary and interviews, and then I regretted watching them anyway.

I'm curious what you guys think about bonus features in the streaming age - are you still more likely to buy a disc if it has extra content? Do you even watch them if so? And what's the worst commentary you've heard on one of these kind of discs? I mean, we've all suffered bad studio movie commentaries (John Woo's M:I 2 one is legandarily awful, as he only speaks up every 10 minutes or so), but it's rare to get a clunker on a boutique, label's special edition of an older film. At the end of the day, no one's forcing us to watch these things, but when they're part of the package we're paying for (often at a premium; you're not going to find things like this for $5 in a Best Buy dump bin) I sometimes wish that there was a bit of quality control over their content. Ideally, they'd all be like Hell Night, where the participants are both plentiful and eager to back up your appreciation of a film - not make you wonder if you're wrong for liking it.