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by Bill Gibron

11 Oct 2009


Sometimes, technology can be a cinematic godsend. It can salvage an entity long missing from the medium, or reinvent a title that has been unfairly dismissed thanks to poor transfers, unnecessary editing, or a general lack of availability. Add in DVD’s (and now Blu-ray’s) ability to amplify the experience with all manner of contextual bells and whistles and it’s a shame that more movies aren’t given the updated format red carpet treatment. Luckily, Richard Stanley and Severin Films got together to give his rarified masterpiece Hardware a high definition revamp. The results are so revelatory, so outside one’s original perception and opinion of the film that it’s like the commercial cliché states - you re-experience this fascinating future shock sensation for the first time.

The dystopian storyline finds former military grunt turned wasteland scavenger Moses Baxter returning from a trip into the irradiated landscape surrounding one of the last major cities on the planet. Along with buddy Shades, he arrives at a trading post, hoping to get something special for his girlfriend Jill - it’s Christmas after all. She’s an artist and spends almost all her time cooped up in her heavily guarded apartment. With the influx of refugees squatting in the building and a perverted stalker across the way, she’s overly cautious and more than a little concerned.

When Moses brings her the skull piece from a weapon known as M.A.C.H. 13, neither one knows what they have. She adds it to a commission she is constructing. He’s glad he’s made his girl happy for once. They are not prepared for a resulting power surge, the mechanical brain’s ability to regenerate itself and its weaponry, or the killer robot it constructs. It’s not long before both Moses and Jill are fighting for their life, desperate to destroy this murderous piece of hardware before it destroys them.

For many, their first (and only) experience with Richard Stanley’s carefully configured social commentary was a sloppy VHS version that was underlit, poorly cropped, and edited to remove material deemed unseemly by the MPAA - and even then, it was an astonishing work of visionary genius. Taking the tired Terminator conceit and twisting it into something far more deadly and dynamic, the South African auteur mixed a little of his haunted homeland into the narrative, giving us sly inferences on segregation, class warfare, and a person’s inability to avoid the consequences of both. There are also references to Mad Max, untold ‘50s sci-fi schlock, and the advent of computer porn. The results continue to astound to this very day, a movie so dense with visual and psychological meaning that you need multiple viewings to catch everything the then 24 year old (!) was working through.

Perhaps the biggest eye-opener with this new Blu-ray release is how opulent and ornate Stanley’s production design is. We get loads of details in the corners of the compositions, overheard asides that make the narrative all the more multi-dimensional. In essence, this is a battle between war and peace, a private insular world where love and companionship are infiltrated by the military and its ever-present desire to annihilate. The repugnant aspects of the real world (represented by peeping pervert Lincoln) also creep into the calm Jill is trying to manufacture for herself. She wants Moses to settle in, to stop heading out into the dusty orange nightmare than is what’s left of nature and simply share her bed. It’s interesting then that, after the M.A.C.H. 13’s restart, our heroine becomes its most important target. It’s as if the machine can actually sense her anti-establishment view of the world and wants to destroy it once and for all.

There are lots of other interesting themes at work in Hardware, material that makes this more than some sly subgenre workout. Stanley offers up radio shock jock Angry Bob (voiced by Iggy Pop) as an obvious Greek chorus. But instead of simply mocking the means of everyday survival, this mouthpiece has some salient philosophies to push. Lemmy of Motorhead fame also turns up as a cabbie with his own take on things. Together, they form a front that more thoughtful people like Moses and Jill have to conquer and overcome. In Dylan McDermott and Stacey Travis, Stanley finds an unlikely duo. The pretty boy actor thrust upon him by a wary studio (including then executive producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein) just can’t compete with his costar’s ethereal femininity. The final confrontation, which pits beauty against scary scarp iron beast remains the movie’s ultimate statement, a clash for the very soul of humanity heightened by the knowledge that there may be no actual winning strategy.

Stanley is lucky to see his masterwork land at Severin, a company that shows an intense amount of care and consideration for how they manufacture and supplement important outsider titles. We are treated to several short films from the director (including the brilliant “Incidents in an Expanding Universe” which formed the basis for Hardware), a discussion over the sequel which never came to be, a collection of deleted and alternative scenes, and a wonderful, all-new Making of labeled “No Flesh Shall Be Spared”. Featuring many in the cast and crew in updated interviews, we get a marvelous overview of the production and its many problems. Stanley is also on hand to deliver a full length audio commentary that completes the package, highlighting various facets of the filmmaking, including a marvelous robotic villain that more or less fell apart after every take. 

The biggest bonus here, however, is the transfer. Argue all you want to about 1080p and its variations or the levels of grain and the use of edge enhancement, but when the results are as amazing as the Hardware image, you have a hard time arguing format. The Blu-ray is indeed a shock, a testament to the time taken to remaster the movie, as well as Stanley’s imagination and cinematic creativity. This is a small movie that’s massive in scope, sets and backdrops suggesting vast post-apocalyptic locales and endless miles of sand strewn nothingness. Compositions create concepts of free association, Stanley suggesting things that you must then decipher and determine. Even better, the action and random splatter are handled in an artistic and stylized manner. This is not just a gonzo gorefest. As a director, Stanley uses blood as a means of amplifying his ideas, not drawing your attention away from them.

This makes Hardware all the more appealing, a movie that clearly needed the 19 years of technical advances in digital reproduction to fully realize its audio/visual aims. It also argues for Richard Stanley’s unlikely status as auteur in waiting. After his equally electrifying Dust Devil, and the little seen Brave, he was given the chance to direct the big budget Hollywood update of The Island of Dr. Moreau, featuring Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando. After four days of irrefutable personality clashes, he was fired, replaced by John Frankenheimer. Since then, Stanley has made minor documentaries and a few short films, but nothing to compare to this amazing first shot at fame. Hardware didn’t deserve to be dumped onto home video during the heyday of the VHS. Here’s hoping that two decades later, a new type of technology will broaden its appreciation. As seen here, it definitely deserves it.

by Bill Gibron

11 Oct 2009


Imagine you’re Sam Raimi. You struggle for years to be recognized as a true directing talent, delivering fright films as beloved as The Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, and Army of Darkness while battling a studio system that thinks horror is all you have to offer. You broaden your career horizons with tongue in cheek comic book efforts like Darkman, as well as equally effective thrillers like A Simple Plan. And then, to top it all off, you turn the superhero movie into a multi-billion dollar genre by helming the Spider-man franchise (at three popcorn blockbusters - and counting). Yet like Woody Allen and his ‘earlier, funny’ films, the fans keep clamoring for more macabre. You could direct a dozen visionary dramas and still the geeks will complain about the lack of new dread on your resume.

No wonder the wildly appealing Drag Me to Hell feels like a friendly extended middle finger to all those who keep wishing for the filmmaker to return to his roots. Raimi hasn’t lost his touch with terror, nor has he been avoiding the cinematic type because of a lack of inspiration. The results here - captured brilliantly in a new Blu-ray transfer from Universal - show that, even in a stripped down PG-13 format, the man who made Bruce Campbell’s chin a household name is as feisty and fevered as ever. Working from an original idea (brother Ivan once again contributing the script) and featuring a classic creepshow premise, we get the kind of edge of your seat shivers that haven’t been readily available since the last time we saw the all powerful Necronomicon. Add in the latest technological tweaks, and Raimi is ready for the 21st century.

Our story centers on Christine Brown, a loan officer for a small town bank. She desperately wants a promotion, if only to prove to her boyfriend’s parents that she’s not some hick loser. Unfortunately, in order to get ahead, she’s required to make some cutthroat decisions. When an old woman comes in looking for yet another extension on her mortgage, Christine is faced with a quandary. If she denies the deal, she’ll definitely win favor with the boss. But doing so will also hurt the elderly lady, who doesn’t look too long for this world to begin with.

Naturally, needing the brownie points, Christine turns her down. Next thing she knows, she’s cursed, destined to be tormented by a demon for three days before finally being dragged down to Hell. Looking for help, she turns to her lover. When he appears ineffectual, she has no choice but to contact a psychic for advice. His opinion is not very helpful either. With time running out, Christine must find an answer, or be doomed to an eternity of agonizing torment and torture.

As much a directing tour-de-force as a showcase for some sensational up and coming actors, Drag Me to Hell is why many of us fell in love with fright in the first place. It’s a wonderfully wicked journey with a genial genre guide who clearly knows all the horror hot spots. Even in a teen friendly format, Raimi revels in making people squirm. There are sequences here that should have even the most cynical scary movie buff hiding their head in gleeful gross-out shame. In fact, the highly touted “Unrated” version of the film is more of an MPAA mandate than a true amplification of the grue. The minimal amounts of added blood and bile are almost indistinguishable from the original theatrical cut. But anytime you mess with the original edit and don’t show it to the ratings board, they demand it go out sans score.

It really doesn’t matter since it’s Raimi behind the lens, the man who married laughter to legitimate scares to create the first true horror comedies of the post-modern age. Here is a filmmaker in full control of his faculties, able to elicit gasps out of scenes as simple as a young woman wandering around an unfamiliar house. We get fly attacks, projectile nose bleeds, false teeth fu, and enough old lady sputum to make an entire nursing home staff nervous. There is also a marvelous moment toward the end where Raimi pulls out all the stops, Evil Dead style, to turn a séance into a marvelous bit of audio/visual overkill. What’s even more appealing is the director’s desire to stay firmly within the kind of fright films he loved and loved making in his youth. There is no desire to go torture porn or full bore bloody. Instead, he wants to craft a rollicking rollercoaster ride where the inevitable downtime helps prepare us for the continuing chaos to come.

Drag Me to Hell has an expert cast ready to lead us through this maelstrom of motion picture menace. Alison Loham makes a perfect victim - savvy without being too smart, innocent but with enough bad-girl baggage to guarantee she won’t go down without a fight. She is matched well by Justin Long who gives new meaning to the concept of the well-intentioned wimp paramour. Solid support comes from David Paymer as the unscrupulous boss willing to play his employees against each other for greater business bonuses, and Dileep Rao as that classic fright night character - the psychic with an ever-changing means of making things better (or in his case, worse). The real star here though is Lorna Paver, made-up to resemble a rotting human ogre, her broken teeth and cloudy eye a sure sign of impending evil. Thanks to the Blu-ray, the level of nauseating detail in her performance is accentuated for squeamish viewers to revel in.

It’s too bad then that Raimi was too busy with Spider-man 4 pre-production to sit down for an audio commentary (the film’s less than stellar box office might have aided in that lack of availability). He’s a great narrator through his own films and a true fan of the genre. We do get a few production diaries, but they’re not the same. Indeed, the lack of complementary bonus features on this digital presentation presents a problem. Fans who’ve longed for Raimi’s return won’t be happy with something they feel is basically barebones. Yet those new to the man’s way with macabre probably could care less. For them, it’s a wonderful high definition transfer of the movie and that’s all that’s important. Luckily, the Blu-ray of Drag Me to Hell succeeds in said category. It’s also a brilliant return to form from someone who never really left. Once again, Raimi will have a hard time living down his legacy. When the movie is as good as this one, it’s not hard to see why.

by Bill Gibron

10 Oct 2009


Hey - novice fright filmmakers. Here’s a mandatory rule of thumb to follow when trying to deliver the shivers. If you can’t show your gore, don’t make a movie that is more or less reliant on same. If your version of the Memphis Meat Cleaver Massacre is going to feature all of its kills off-camera, perhaps you shouldn’t even bother. True, budgetary concerns can be a factor, and perhaps that best buddy of yours wasn’t the F/X wizard he claimed to be, but if you can’t unleash the sluice, you should definitely alter your cinematic intentions. Are you listening Gnaw and director Gregory Mandry? We get that you want to make a UK version of a cannibal cavalcade, a combination of The Hills Have Eyes, Tobe Hopper’s Texas Chain Saw epic, and about a billion other human meat spectacles. But no blood = no good. Sorry, it just can’t be said any other way.

Our story begins with a young girl vomiting (how prophetic). Her name is Lorrie and she is traveling to a remote cottage with her pals Jack, Judd, Jill, Matt and Hannah. They want to settle in for a weekend of partying and other illicit activities. But when they arrive at their location, their plans are quickly sidetracked. Blackstock Farm seems deserted, and while the table is spread with all manner of cakes and savory meat pies, the overall aura is dark and dreary. Things don’t get much better when creepy proprietor Mrs. Obadiah shows up. She seems overly nice, desperate to stuff her guests with all manner of steak and kidney snacks. Of course, what the visitors don’t realize is that the flesh is not prime - it’s people. That’s right, our gang has landed smack dab into the middle of an isolated butchery, Mrs. Obadiah and her sinister son harvesting the clientele for all the best cuts.

When you hear the premise and read the title, you expect certain things from Gnaw. You expect ample amounts of arterial spray, characters carved open with guts and other F/X offal spewing out all over the screen. You anticipate lots of skin snacking, villains making vittles out of the various heroes and heroines. There should be a few sequences of extreme vivisection, power tools and other unreal implements of death utilized to make mince out of the cast members. And the filmmaker should relish in the grue, providing gallons of the red stuff in a blood-infused orgy of murder and mayhem. Unfortunately, Gnaw offers none of these things. Like a Friday the 13th sequel from the good old MPAA censorship days, this is a dull little fright flick that hopes to get away with killing its constituents off screen, away from prying eyes. In doing so, director Mandry destroys his chances for cinematic success.

There is nothing else holding our attention here: not the worked up soap operatics between one incredibly jerk and the two girls who go ga-ga over him; not the nice guy destined to finish last (and perhaps, be picked off first); not the oversexed couple who can’t keep their hands off each other long enough to recognize the man in the corner with the animal carcass covering his face. Even the old lady with the bad British teeth is so obvious a red herring that her arrival should be met with a complimentary cup of cucumber sauce. Gnaw is needlessly slow, overarch in its exposition, tedious in its tendency to backtrack (how many times do we need to see Lorrie puke to recognize the early onset of pregnancy) and unable to deliver anything remotely resembling dread. In its place, we get some decent local atmosphere, a couple of clever set-ups, and a moment of two of suspense so fleeting it barely matters.

Mandry may deserve credit for doing his best with what is clearly an underwritten screenplay (by Michael Bell and Max Waller), but in a direct to DVD domain where clots and gratuity rule, offering neither is a recipe for commercial disaster. Fans who come looking for an unusual bit of bloodshed will go away angry, while seasoned gorehounds will demand their poorly spent rental fees back. Since the story set-up is so basic and borrowed from a dozen better fright films, Gnaw has to try and distinguish itself from the rest of the pack. Sadly, all it can do is wallow in its own amateurishness, going about its splatter-less slaughter in an anemic a way as possible. If this movie were any more by the numbers, it would come with a set of paints and a numbered black velvet canvas.

The digital packaging doesn’t improve matter much. Since this movie was made on that newest of interim technology - the high end video camera - the transfer retains a true homemade feel. Even the attempts at ethereal lighting and exterior ambience come face-to-face with such a set-up’s limitations. As for added content, Dark Sky Films finds ways of making even the most meaningful bonus features feel dry and uninteresting. The behind the scenes featurette does offer some insight, but its often overtaken by an inordinate amount of backslapping. The commentary from director Mandry is equally self-congratulatory. While he does recognize the movie’s limits, he also argues for the effectiveness of the various deaths. Clearly, he is watching something other than what the audience can enjoy.

Like many examples of the genre, a half-baked horror film like Gnaw demands rebuff. Even with the caveat that creep-outs, like comedy, are very personal in perspective, keeping the good stuff off the side is a scary movie no-no that only the rarest film can overcome. It takes a certain level of cinematic skill and categorical creativity to keep an audience interested once you’ve revealed your lack of splat. Gregory Mandry, while capable, just doesn’t have that level of motion picture legerdemain to offer. Instead, he drags us out into the country and leaves us there to rot, assured that he can somehow salvage the static situation. He can’t. Gnaw needed to be over the top and ultra-extreme in its treatment of the cannibal call. Even the Sawyers would find themselves snoring through this ineffectual mess. 

by Bill Gibron

10 Oct 2009


The genre film, by its very nature, is a bit of a cinematic chameleon. It can function as humor, social commentary, political diatribe, and in rare cases, sobering human tragedy. Coated in the usual celluloid garment of horror and/or science fiction, it takes talent and determination to traverse its pitfall-laden path. Ten years ago, Daniel Myrick made movie history of sorts by releasing his first person POV frightmare The Blair Witch Project. Along with collaborator Eduardo Sanchez, he created a night terror that functioned as a documentary, a pseudo-realistic look at fear as it happened, and a full blown web phenomenon. A critical and commercial ‘event’, the filmmaker retreated for a while, unsure of his next move. Now, almost a decade later, he’s returned with a fine film entitled The Objective (new to DVD from IFC Films). And once again, he has taken the standard scary movie and tweaked it with something different - a little speculative scope.

CIA agent Benjamin Keyes has been sent back to Afghanistan, a country he left ten years before, to track an unusual signature on a satellite image. It’s been one month since the horrible events of 9/11, and the US government wants to make sure that some rogue members of the Taliban aren’t hiding a loose nuke up in the desert mountains. Seeking a former source in a remote village, Keyes takes a highly specialized group of soldiers along on the mission. They include no nonsense Chief Warrant Officer Hamer, Sergeants Cole and Sadler, and Master Sergeant Tanner. They also bring on a local, Abdul, as their guide. Once out in the field, they find little relief from the ongoing battle. After an ambush leaves them injured and short on supplies, Hamer demands they return to base. But Keyes is unrelenting. He has a tip that what he is looking for is locked in Afghanistan’s notorious Hill of Bones, a sacred site that might also turn out to be this regiment’s final resting place.

The Objective is a classic suspense thriller. It plays with the audience, giving it only the information it needs to follow the occasionally confounding plotline. It provides simply drawn characters, crystal clear motivations, an environment that’s both alien and unfriendly in nature, and a finale which shines an intriguing new light on everything we’ve experienced before. Myrick, taking a noted turn toward a more mainstream motion picture dynamic here, delivers on the promise inherent in the set up. The narrative is mission oriented, and the intrinsic nature of such a storyline helps smooth over rough patches of pacing, scripting, and occasional directorial indulgences. Myrick makes some mistakes here and there, but we forgive the flaws, thanks in part to our desire to see the events come to a climax.

And it’s an interesting journey along the way. Working with an accomplished cast that really disappear into their roles, we find ourselves face to face with the hostile Afghan wasteland, and endless need for water and supplies, and a strange set of lights that seem to be following our military men. During these seemingly sedate establishing scenes, The Objective does something very sly. It establishes the conflicts and desperation that will come to define the latter part of the action. Even the minor military scenes, US armed forces fighting unseen enemies with rocket launchers and an unshakable resolve, add to the tension. Before long, Myrick has us shifting toward the edge of our seat, anticipation over what will come next filling our head with visions of death and dread.

That The Objective fails to fully deliver on said promise is one of its few weak points. Clearly, because of its micro-budget and aesthetic limitations (small cast, insular concept) Myrick cannot completely explore the ideas he’s working with. The whole CIA/UFO angle is underdeveloped, left to a series of sensationalized buzzwords. Similarly, we are dealing with a post-9/11 scenario with the war in Afghanistan only a few weeks old. Yet everything about the military operation screams “been there/done that.” Finally, the acting can be hit or miss. Jon Huerta and Matthew Anderson are very good as suspicious army men, while lead Jonas Ball earns more than a few missteps with his gravitas. Still, the script by Myrick, Mark A. Patton, and Wesley Clark Jr. (yes, the General’s son) is solid and even surprising at times.

Indeed, there’s another angle available, one that merits consideration especially in light of the actions being depicted. One could easily see The Objective as an indirect commentary on our cultural hubris and lack of understanding when it comes to our “enemy” in the Middle East. The US soldiers see diplomacy in a handful of chocolate bars, yet revert to stereotypical responses whenever their Islamic allies let them down. All engagement is “shoot first, never question ever” and once they are lost in unfriendly terrain, the camouflage comes off completely. Myrick may not have intended to make a statement about how America undermines its own efforts via a lack of consideration, sensitivity, and basic common sense. Outside of anything supernatural or beyond this world, The Objective seems intent on being critical of our nation’s inflated opinion of our own international import.

Some of this intent is discussed as part of the content on the recently released DVD from IFC Films. Myrick is on hand for both a marvelous Making-of and an insightful post-Tribeca Q&A. Both times, he confirms his desire to put politics into the film while finding a pleasant balance between various “otherworldly” elements. Director of Photography Stephanie Martin is also on hand to add her two cents, discussing the difficult shoot and the decisions on how to best render the more “mysterious” facets of the storyline. With a wonderful transfer and a lot of post-production detail, the digital package helps support The Objective‘s subtext.

Still, it’s the shivers that count, and while Myrick may not make our spine tingle like he did back in the late ‘90s (though this critic personally loathes The Blair Witch Project), The Objective is still an impressive piece of work. It never tries to do too much and keeps within its carefully controlled elements until the last act histrionics take over. Even then, the final beat is so satisfying, so ambiguous and ambitious that it makes the whole experience seem that much more special and worthwhile. It’s hard staying relevant after onli-nation declares you and your so-called “classic” a one-hit wonder. Yet Daniel Myrick has actually made three other films since leaving the unfriendly confines of Burkittsville (The Strand, Believers, and Solstice). With The Objective as yet another example of his growth as a director, it’s clear his early success was not a fluke. This is one filmmaker who can spin the genre into any shape he wants, and come out triumphant.

by Bill Gibron

6 Oct 2009


For Walt Disney, it was the realization of a dream, nearly a decade of wondering if his already successful short film style could actually be expanded to feature film length. While history would argue over its claims of being “first” (Russia and Germany might have something to say about it), it remains the beginning of a movemaking mythology that continues to this very day. Without Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, there would be no House of Mouse, no Happiest Place on Earth, no Hannah Montana or Jonas Brothers. Had it failed, had it really been “Disney’s Folly”, it would have sealed the fate of the fledgling studio forever. Instead, it opened up an entire artform to a new and appreciative audience - and now modern viewers can experience something similar with the brand new Blu-ray release of this undeniable cartooning classic.

But the final product was not the end result of some manner of presto-chango magic - no matter what Tinkerbell and the rest of the company’s mascots argue. For several years prior, Disney was himself overseeing a massive preproduction that utilized thousands of ideas, sketches, character interpretations, and other sources of inspiration which were then tapped into, twisted around, and frequently discarded. Much of this material was lost over the course of time, but what remains has been carefully cataloged and preserved in Disney’s own massive archives/library (over 60 million pieces, and counting). For the Diamond Edition release of Snow White on home video, Lella Smith, curator of the Walt Disney Animation Studios - Animation Research facility, opened the vaults to explain how things went from a famed Brothers Grimm fairytale to a make or break product for the upstart inventor of Mickey Mouse.

“There were lots of European artists involved initially”, Smith said in a recent roundtable interview celebrating the Blu-ray release, “Walt meet several of them during his travels abroad, and he brought them on to consult.” It was a painstaking process, one that involved a lot of design and redesign. “Snow White was original blond, almost a Betty Boop type,” she explains, “in keeping with the style of the times. Actors were also brought in so that movement and human qualities could be studied.” But don’t think for a moment that Disney used rotoscoping to create its characters (a process which sees animated cells culled from actual filmed footage of people). “The animators would be livid,” she laughed. “This was all hand drawn - meticulous and painstaking.”

Perhaps the most difficult element to realize, however, was the dwarfs. As far back as 1934, the studio was worried about how they would come across onscreen. “Walt sat down in a meeting,” Smith explains, “and in one afternoon, more or less defined and described what he wanted.” Hoping to inject some humor into the film, he hoped the little men would be easily identifiable and easily relatable to the audience. “Early names like ‘Wheezy’, ‘Jumpy’, and ‘Baldy’ give you an idea of what they were thinking,” she says, though early drawing showed gnome-like beings barely distinguishable from each other. Disney wanted the names to inspire the artists, and it wasn’t long before the now memorable characters of Grumpy, Sleepy, Happy, Doc, Bashful, Sneezy and Dopey were born.

Still the process took time. “From 1934 to 1936 - two full years - the animators fretted over the dwarfs”, Smith reveals, “with perhaps the biggest changes coming to Dopey and Grumpy.” Everyone loved the mostly mute, child-like creature with oversized ears and a heart to match - but he wasn’t always so loveable. “He was initially seen as an old man, bearded and insular,” she points out. Disney wanted him more fun loving and innocent. Over time, it was decided that Dopey would be younger than the rest, at least in appearance. There was a similar strategy with Grumpy as well. “He was initially seen as some bitter, angry guy,” she laughs. Over time, the animators chosen to ‘lighten’ him, to give him what Smith considers the biggest onscreen personality shift of any single facet in the film.

Humor was also important to Disney, and he had dozens of writers, most with experience from his Silly Symphony line of shorts, writing gags for the film. “The jokes were plotted like they were in silent comedies,” Smith outlines, “Walt would pay an unheard of $5 for each one that made it into the film - and this was the Depression, remember”. Of course, many didn’t make it into the final cut. “There were jokes with Sleepy more or less napping anywhere he could - a clothesline, a wash basin - and an entire sequence where the dwarfs combed their beards with a rake.” Entire subplots were also deleted to shorten the fretted over running time. One of Smith’s favorites, a sloppy soup eating scene, was actually animated but ultimately removed to quicken the film’s pace.

Such a painstaking approach definitely shows in the final product. For anyone unfamiliar with the 72 year old masterpiece, the story is simple. Snow White is the stepdaughter of a wicked, vane queen. When a magic mirror explains that the child is the fairest female in the land, Her Majesty gets mad and sentences her to death. Escaping her fate, Snow White ends up in the woodland cottage of seven dwarfs. After some initial trepidation, the little men take to their newfound charge. When the queen discovers that Snow White is still alive, she plots her demise. She poisons an apple, dresses up like an old beggar woman, and confronts the young girl. Sadly, she bites the forbidden fruit, fallen into a death-like sleep and is buried in a glass coffin. Only the love’s first kiss can cure her.

Considering its age, it’s reliance on then popular creative contrivances like slapstick and sight gags, and an almost operetta like use of the songs (“Music was VERY important to Walt”, Smith points out), some might consider Snow White dated. Past transfers have failed to fully exploit the gorgeous color schemes used and the new Blu-ray reveals details that even someone as familiar with the material as Smith was/is astonished by. “The process was so clear,” she states, “that you could see the fingerprints of the animators on the individual cells.” A massive clean-up, involving the placement of the entire film into a computer and the remastering of thousands of individual images, results in an experience so startling, so unbelievable in its artistic vision and home theater clarity that it inspired gasps - as well as a new found love for Walt’s efforts.

The film itself is indeed astonishing, the “every trick in the book” approach revealing scenes of stunning power (Snow White’s escape through the woods, the dwarfs’ final confrontation with the Queen/Witch) and undeniable humor (the superb “Silly Song” sing-along). You can see the attention to every facet of the filmmaking here - from the control of character to the desire to mimic old masters in the background plates and production design. What Walt wanted more than anything else was his animated feature to “feel” like a real film, to have the same emotional heft and dramatic reach of the quality live action titles of his time. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs exceeded his wildest expectations. Instead of being an artistic albatross around his neck, it became the benchmark for a near perfect run of additional cartoon classis (Pinocchio, Bambi, Dumbo, Fantasia, etc.).

In addition, the Blu-ray overloads the viewer with vital behind the scenes information. Sure, there are games and other goofy diversions for the kids, but the best bits here include a commentary track by John Canemaker (very informative and enlightening), a chance to visit Walt’s first studio, Hyperion, a look at some newly discovered storyboards that suggest Disney was planning a Snow White sequel (!), and an in-depth overview at how the first commercially successful full length animated feature went on to change the entire face of the artform, forever. Indeed, Smith points out that many of the lessons learned on this film continue to be carried over to this day. “Snow White proved that realism and heart had a place in the genre,” she argues. “It would become the blueprint for every animated feature to come.”

And indeed, it did. In revisiting the film in the new format, it’s clear why Snow White was a success. It’s fresh and funny, similar in style to the shorts that were popular at the time while expanding and reinventing the notions of what makes animation work. It’s clever, and slightly calculated, made to highlight the talent it took to realize Walt’s dream. It even harkens back to the immigrant experience, giving recently arrived Americans a chance to see some of the visual beauty they were familiar with and grew up with abroad. As with any first, it has its awkward elements, and moments that stretch the boundaries a bit too far (the Queen’s transformation sequence feels like a run-through for Fantasia), but there’s no denying its place and providence as a true motion picture classic. “Walt wanted Snow White to his cement his legitimacy” Smith says. “Instead, it cemented his legacy.” And on Blu-ray, it’s easy to see why.

 

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