[Blu-ray Review] Mini-Thoughts On ‘The Dead,’ ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ and ‘Baby Yaga’

Toronto stringer Mike Pereria is back with another round-up of mini-reviews for the newly released Blu-ray titles available at a store near you.

This morning he takes a look at Blue Underground’s HD release of Baby Yaga, what he calls “one of the most unique films to have emerged from the 70′s Italian genre scene,” along with the astounding Martha Marcy May Marlene, starring John Hawkes and Elizabeth Olsen, and Anchor Bay’s African zombie flick The Dead. Check out all of his scores below and then chime in with your thoughts. Baba Yaga: I always look forward to reviewing anything that creeps out of the immensely unpredictable Blue Underground catalog. Their latest, Baba Yaga is easily one of the most unique films to have emerged from the 70′s Italian genre scene. I would go as far as saying that even now there’s not a whole lot I can compare it to. The world of a young fashion photographer grows increasingly more dangerous and surreal after she’s put under a spell by a mysterious witch by the name of Baba Yaga (famous to those into Slavic folklore). Considering the never-ending stream of beautifully stylish imagery, it’s not hard to see that this film was adapted from a notorious erotic comic (Valentina). It wears its roots like a badge of honor. Ironically enough the film’s greatest attributes, its psychedelic, hyperreal tone is also its biggest enemy. I admired the experience but never found myself detached from the story and characters. That being said, there will be a lot of you who will be smitten by this subversive gem.

You can never go wrong with a Blue Underground Blu-ray. The A/V presentation is impressive for a 38-year-old genre title. Baba Yaga‘s stunning cinematography is well served by the benefits of the Blu-ray format. Unfortunately we are still stuck with the 83-minute theatrical cut. Oddly the additions from director’s 91-minute final cut can only be seen in the Deleted Scenes and Censored Scenes section of this disc. You’ll have to purchase the UK Shameless DVD in order to see the entire unified piece. The special features from the 2003 DVD have been thankfully ported over. You get two fascinating featurettes that tackle the history of the comic book movement in Europe as well as an informative interview with the director.

2.5 out of 5 Skulls

Martha Marcy May Marlene: Martha Marcy May Marlene is an intimate and an increasingly unsettling psychological thriller. It deals with Martha (a starmaking turn by Elizabeth Olsen), a young woman who physically escapes from a cult compound only to find out they’re either pursuing her or mentally, she never left at all. The cult leader is seductively played by character actor extraordinaire John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone and From Dusk Till Dawn). Writer/Director Sean Durkin presents a vivid portrait of the lasting psychological trauma that can be attributed to living in an environment with a singular collective mentality. Martha Marcy May Marlene will leave an unshakable dent on your psyche long after it’s over…whether you like it or not.

The 1080p MPEG-4 AVC video faithfully preserves the subtly stylish and hypnotic 35mm photography. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio is even more effective especially in how it creates tension with a minimalistic approach to its design. Sadly the five uber-short featurettes are completely useless. The prequel-like short film is the only thing that generates any interest.

4.5 out of 5 Skulls

Unforgiven: On the surface, Clint Eastwood’s twenty-year-old masterwork Unforgiven isn’t the sort of title you’ll find in the horror section. On the time of its release, no one could fathom how Eastwood would take the classic American western and all of its archetypes into such an uncompromisingly dark direction. All of the heroic glamorization is bluntly removed out of the equation. Unforgiven is a complex and riveting look at the unsettling flipside of the iconic western mythology. While the film is filled with seedy, amoral characters, nothing is quite as jolting than to bear witness the supposed protagonist of the piece, William Munny succumb to his monstrous true nature in the third act. Unforgiven is the perfect conclusion to Eastwood’s legendary western filmography.

Like all of Warner’s previous digibook titles, the informative booklet is the only new addition. It sports the same disc as in the previous release which is unfortunate since the dated lossy 5.1 mix is still present. The beautiful video presentation holds up to today’s standard. The featurettes are a fascinating look back at the making of this American classic. If you don’t own the old Blu-ray, this is the obvious purchase to make.

5 out of 5 Skulls

The Dead: Like most trends, there is a point where they become exhaustive and overstay their welcome. The zombie sub-genre is one of them. I believe 2009′s horror/comedy Dead Snow was the last time I got a kick out of watching the undead wreck havoc. For the most part, The Dead is pretty routine but I admired how it lovingly stuck to the classic conventions (slow as shit zombies aplenty) as well as taking its subject matter deadly serious. I absolutely love the African backdrop which lends the picture a David Lean-like scope. Zombies lurk within every scene which only heightens a sense of dread and inevitable doom awaiting our protagonists. The super-stiff performance by the charismatically-challenged, Rob Freeman and an overlong running time keeps The Dead from achieving greatness. Other than that, hardcore fans will find more than enough in this ambitious low-budgeter to make it a worthy addition to their undead section.

Considering The Dead showcases some striking locations, I’m disappointed but the murky-looking 1080p MPEG-4 AVC-transfer. I didn’t catch this 35mm-shot film in theatres so this is most likely an issue with the source material itself. The colors are pretty hot while the image is fairly soft throughout. The efficient Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack fairs a bit better but still nothing to write home about. As for supplements, the commentary track by the Ford brothers is the only worthwhile one. It contains engaging insight into the many challenges the filmmakers faced in bring their labor of love to life. It certainly made me appreciate the final product all the more.

3 out of 5 Skulls