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There’s nothing like receiving some eagerly-anticipated new releases during the depth of winter, titles to warm one’s movie-going soul, which Arrow has fulfilled this week with their big 4K UHD restorations of CONAN THE BARBARIAN and its 1984 sequel CONAN THE DESTROYER. Both films have been meticulously restored from their respective original negatives, in 4K with Dolby Vision HDR, contain all the soundtrack options (and isolated scores) you’d hope and are stacked to the gills with supplements, offering fans a spectacular new way to enjoy both John Milius’ 1982 classic and Richard Fleischer’s 1984 Saturday Matinee-styled, PG-rated follow-up.
Naturally, most of the attention will be turned towards CONAN THE BARBARIAN (127/129/130 mins., 1982, R), and for good reason: the Dino DeLaurentiis production, directed by John Milius from a script he’s credited with alongside Oliver Stone, is a sweeping, operatic adventure classic. The movie that truly launched Arnold Schwarzenegger’s big-screen career, with Arnie perfectly embodying Robert E. Howard’s title hero, “Conan” acknowledges its pulpy origins and was elevated by Ron Cobb’s production design and other artistic attributes into becoming the perennial that it’s considered today, Milius infusing elements from past gladiator epics and other sources (including Japanese fantasy) into its visual realization of Howard’s world.
Schwarzenegger’s first-ever starring vehicle makes good use of its star’s now-patented humor, with several sequences (most notably a meeting with none-too-subtly disguised hippies) boasting some deft comedy. Most of the movie, though, is action and myth – larger than life, and also unabashedly romantic in places – and it’s all grandly presented with Basil Poledouris’s truly awesome, career-defining symphonic score, Duke Callaghan’s nifty Panavision cinematography, a solid cast and a memorable villain in James Earl Jones’s Thulsa Doom, whose stare still sends chills down your spine.
Even with its confident storytelling, charting the story of Conan’s life and revenge against the cult leader who exterminated his village as a child (including his parents), Milius still takes the time to let his world breathe. This isn’t a film where every second is packed with fights, as Conan occasionally takes a break from the beheadings to contemplate his existence. The Barbarian also romances sleek warrior Valeria (a perfectly cast Sandahl Bergman), gets help from a wise wizard (Mako), and ultimately learns life lessons from a King (Max Von Sydow) hoping he and his band of thieves can return his wayward daughter (Valerie Quennessen) who’s been taken by Doom.
“Conan” has, understandably, long been a viewer favorite, with a myriad of releases on every home video format confirming its enduring popularity. This new Arrow 4K UHD (2.35) is the best of them all, presenting a Dolby Vision HDR 4K restoration of the original negative, the movie presented in no less than three different versions to boot. The colors and details are what you’ll notice the most in the UHD presentation – a little warmer and the detail level higher than you’ve seen it before at home – but it’s respectful to Callahan and Milius’ original visual look. The new transfer doesn’t run as “hot” as some UHDs sometimes can, making for a highly pleasing visual appearance enriching the film without changing its intended design.
Sonically the original mono was restored for this UHD while a Dolby Atmos mix is also present, repurposing an excellent 5.1 remix that was produced back in the DVD era. Unlike some 5.1 remixes, this track went back to the original scoring masters so Basil’s score features true channel separation and comes across brilliantly as a result (some modulation in its emphasis with the chorus having been dialed out/absent in a couple of places excepted). There are always quibbles fans have with these remixed tracks in terms of their relationship with their predecessors – I’ll just say the film demands the stereophonic treatment and the Atmos mix does much more justice to both the movie and Poledouris’ music than the limited fidelity of its original mono track (not going with Dolby Stereo was a regrettable cost-savings measure by DeLaurentiis at the time of the movie’s production).
Arrow has included seamless branching for all three versions of “Conan the Barbarian” as well: these include Universal’s original 127-minute theatrical cut, the 129-minute International Cut, and Milius’ 130-minute “Extended Version” which is the best of the group. The latter two also include the full original ending of the film with Poledouris’ score playing out as it was originally intended, Conan carrying off the Princess into the sunset of Howard’s Hypoerborean world on a grand, spectacular musical flourish.
Nobody does extras better than Arrow either at this stage of the game, and this two-disc Limited Edition is packed with featurettes and goodies both new and carried over from preceding releases – not just Universal’s U.S. releases but the Fox editions available in overseas markets as well.
First off, the fresh and/or new inclusions are led by Paul M. Sammon’s informative commentary (I had forgotten Gil Taylor was dumped as cinematographer just days into production) and a newly assembled isolated stereo track, available on the extended cut. There are also brand-new interviews with conceptual artist William Stout, costume designer John Bloomfield, FX crew members Colin Arthur and Ron Hone, actors Jorge Sanz and Jack Taylor, assistant editor Peck Prior, and VFX artists Peter Kuran and Katherine Kean. Admirers like “The Northman” director Robert Eggers also chip in a few minutes to discuss their love for the film, while other interviewees include “Conan” book author John Walsh and Milius writer Alfio Leotta.
On the musical end, a number of videos from the 2006 Ubeda Film Music Festival, from Basil’s performances of the score (in 5.1) to interviews with the likes of frequent collaborators Paul Verhoeven and Randal Kleiser, have been included. So too is “Remembering Basil,” Dan Goldwasser’s tribute to Poledouris following his untimely passing later that year.
Other supplements will be more familiar to fans. These include John Milius and Arnold’s wonderful commentary track from the 2000 DVD, which will be best appreciated by “Conan” buffs since neither go into great detail about the history of the production. Instead, it’s clear that Schwarzenegger hasn’t seen the movie in many years, since he’s totally forgotten about individual sequences and laughs throughout at the movie’s wonderful disregard for political correctness. The two get along well together and it’s the kind of commentary that you will actually find yourself wanting to listen to, even if it’s probably best digested in brief, 15-minute doses.
A more elaborate history of “Conan”’s long road to the silver screen is covered in detail in Laurent Bouzereau’s archival, 2000 documentary “Conan Unchained,” a 52-minute effort that presents an insightful look into the production and filming. Bouzereau went to great lengths to interview every significant member of the production: Milius, Arnold, DeLaurentiis, Oliver Stone, Ron Cobb, co-stars Sandhal Bergman and Gerry Lopez, and Basil Poledouris of course. While DeLaurentiis wanted Ennio Morricone to write the music (he would ultimately score Dino’s rocky production of “Red Sonja” a few years later), Milius campaigned for his “Big Wednesday” friend and the rest is history. The documentary is filled with great bits of trivia, including producer Ed Pressman discussing how Ridley Scott and a host of other directors had been previously approached before DeLaurentiis settled on Milius.
Arrow has also included the outtake reel and 1982 EPK with on-set interviews and rare production footage; trailers; the Universal “Conan Archives” still gallery; and two featurettes that were exclusive to Fox international DVD/Blu-Ray releases (“Conan: The Rise of a Fantasy Legend,” which looks at Howard’s pulp origins, and “Art of Steel: Sword Makes & Masters”). Even Jon and Al Kaplan’s “Conan The Barbarian: The Musical” parody makes an appearance.
While a box-office success (albeit one that barely outpaced the far cheaper “The Sword and the Sorcerer” also during the spring/summer of 1982), Dino DeLaurentiis opted to shift gears for the sequel. Thinking Milius’ epic was a touch too violent – and reading the wider marketplace of PG-friendly fantasy films that were percolating in the Spielberg/Lucas era – it was decided CONAN THE DESTROYER (103 mins., 1984, PG) would be more of a kid-friendly genre exercise.
DeLaurentiis originally tapped Roger Donaldson to helm “Destroyer” but re-assigned him to “The Bounty,” leaving Dino to reconnect with his “Barabbas” director Richard Fleischer. Working off a story by Conan’s Marvel Comics writers Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway, this follow-up drops Milius’ heavy mythology and world view for a decidedly more straightforward action tale wherein Conan leads a party surrounding a young princess (Olivia d’Abo) to retrieve a mystical horn. That will enable a scheming Sarah Douglas to reawaken god “Dagoth” and also, she claims, bring Conan’s lost love Valeria back to life.
Backed by Schwarzenegger’s looser and more humorous performance as Conan, “Destroyer” surrounds our Barbarian hero with a returning Mako but otherwise new cast of supporting faces. These run the gamut from effective stunt casting (Grace Jones’ turn as a tough warrior) to bizarre (hardwood legend Wilt Chamberlain as one of Douglas’ goons) to underwhelming (character actor Tracey Walter in the comic relief role Danny DeVito was allegedly slated to fill). Douglas is terrific in her scenes but it’s d’Abo who strikes up some solid chemistry with Schwarzenegger, ranking – along with Jack Cardiff’s lush, color-drenched cinematography – as the movie’s strongest asset.
Shot in Mexico at the same time DeLaurentiis’ “Dune” was being filmed, “Conan the Destroyer” is a lumbering if mildly agreeable Saturday Matinee time-filler. Stanley Mann’s script plays out much more like “Krull” than its predecessor, but honestly, it’s not even as good, with merely serviceable special effects and not a ton of energy in terms of its pacing. Certainly this sequel was good for us kids back then to get into the theater (I remember being so excited the film was PG!), yet overall, the picture doesn’t invite a favorable comparison even to other mid ‘80s fantasies that were in multiplexes around the same time.
Universal never issued a “Special Edition” of “Conan the Destroyer” in the U.S. but MGM produced one that was released in many overseas markets on DVD. Their supplemental package included a 17-minute interview with Basil Poledouris, recorded in 2001, plus a conversation with Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway, as well as two commentaries: one featuring Richard Fleischer, another a separately-recorded cast commentary featuring Olivia d’Abo and Tracey Walter. All of these extras premiere in a U.S. release here for the first time alongside another archival commentary – this one with Sarah Douglas and critics Kim Newman and Stephen Jones, taken from the Sanctuary UK DVD release likewise of some years ago.
Sweetening the pot are, of course, all-new Arrow supplements including another commentary from Paul M. Sammon, a full-bodied isolated stereo score track, and brand-new interviews. These include casting director Johanna Ray; costume designer John Bloomfield; art director Kevin Phipps; veteran stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong; and another talk with “Conan” author John Walsh. Trailers and image galleries round out the release, the 4K UHD (2.35) again featuring a superb Dolby Vision HDR presentation with the original mono sound also offered. There’s also a new Dolby Atmos remix derived, Arrow states, from music/effects elements, but it’s much more of a “rechanneled stereo” track than it is the overhauled and discrete remix that can be heard on “Conan the Barbarian”’s multichannel effort.
Both movies are housed in their own hardbound cases with booklet notes featuring some common (Walter Chaw’s essay) and unique elements (Paul Sammon’s on-set reports) plus a mini-poster. Note Arrow has also released a lower-priced two-volume set, THE CONAN CHRONICLES, that’s likewise available, though some collectors may prefer each film in its own specialized packaging with original theatrical artwork. Either way, Crom will be pleased with two discs sure to rank with 2024’s best!
Also New From Arrow
MURPHY’S WAR Blu-Ray (107 mins., 1971, R; Arrow): Odd WWII action movie finds Peter O’Toole as an English sailor whose fellow crew members are killed by a German U-boat attack in the Tropics. After being nursed back to health by a kindly nurse (Sian Phillips), O’Toole decides to take on the enemy man-to-man in a personal, all-out assault that John Rambo would be proud of.
Peter Yates directed this uneven adventure film, with a beginning half-hour that seems to have been cut down from something much longer. There’s little character development but many lengthy set-pieces, such as O’Toole putting a downed plane back together and searching local rivers for the elusive German vessel. Throughout it all, the Stirling Silliphant script – based on a Max Catto novel – doesn’t quite come together, leaving O’Toole to carry the show in a strong performance that the story itself never matches, with a plot that’s not sufficiently fleshed out enough. And, in keeping with ’70s cinema, there’s a downer of an ending without much resonance.
On the plus side, Douglas Slocombe’s widescreen cinematography is quite good, and there’s an effective, though sparse, music score composed by John Barry in association with Ken Thorne. Barry reportedly wrote the major themes for the film, leaving the conducting and supervision to Thorne (the first of several collaborations between the two).
Arrow’s debut Blu-Ray of “Murphy’s War” sports a decent though not spectacular Paramount catalog master (2.35, mono) with colors that occasionally appear a bit faded and/or “off.” Extras include a half-hour, excellent archive interview with editor John Glen, who would go on to a lengthy career in the James Bond series; a visual essay from critic David Cairns; additional archive interview with focus puller Robin Vidgeon and critic Sheldon Hall; and Philip Kemp booklet notes.
INSIDE THE MIND OF COFFIN JOE Limited Edition Blu-Ray (Arrow): The twisted mind of Brazil’s Jose Mojica Marins is celebrated in Arrow’s six-disc, lavishly-packaged limited edition box-set “Inside the Mind of Coffin Joe.” Sporting 10 of Marins’ films including his “Coffin Joe” trilogy, this hardbound-encased Blu-Ray box has been restored from the best available elements, offering 1080p transfers of every movie, lossless mono audio, and a bounty of extras.
On-hand here are ”Ze do Caixao”’s debut picture, AT MIDNIGHT I’LL TAKE YOUR SOUL, sporting a 4K restoration from a 35mm interpositive and 35mm print, an archive commentary with Marins and others, a video essay by Lindsay Hallam, and “The Strange World of Jose Mojica Marins,” a full documentary on the actor/director. Other discs couple THIS NIGHT I’LL POSSESS YOUR CORPSE and THE STRANGE WORLD OF COFFIN JOE; THE AWAKENING OF THE BEAST and THE END OF MAN; WHEN THE GODS FALL ASLEEP and THE STRANGE HOSTEL OF NAKED PLEASURES; HELLISH FLESH AND HALLUCINATIONS OF A DERANGED MIND; and the belated finale, EMBODIMENT OF EVIL, with “Coffin Joe” trying to find the perfect woman to bear his offspring.
Additional commentaries, deleted scenes, archival featurettes and fantastic packaging grace the rest of this bloody, off-the-wall set, including an illustrated collector’s book with writing by Tim Lucas among others; reversible sleeves, a double-sided fold-out poster, 12 postcard-sized art cards and more – the definitive package for fans of this eclectic material.
Also New & Noteworthy
CUTTING CLASS 4K UHD (91 mins., 1989, Unrated; MVD): Wacky high school horror-comedy from director Rospo Pallenberg (yes, John Boorman’s creative “associate” on “Excalibur”!) stars late ‘80s scream queen Jill Schoelen, Donovan Leitch (Ione Skye’s brother), Roddy McDowall, Martin Mull, and a young Brad Pitt. The tone is predictably wacky but this pre-“Scream” effort is consistently watchable throughout, right down to its memorably comic final shot!
A minor cult item that’s managed to endure on home video over the years, “Cutting Class” receives a stellar new MVD Rewind Collection 4K UHD release this month. The brand-new 4K restoration (1.85) from the original camera negative is leaps and bounds over previous releases, offering a strong array of colors and added details. The mono sound is likewise fine with extras here including lengthy interviews with both Jill Schoelen and Donovan Leitch; a “Kill Comparisons” look at the difference between the R-rated and unrated versions; a standard-definition transfer of the 91-minute R-rated version; an archival VHS retailer promo; the original trailer; mini-poster, collectibly “retro” artwork, and Blu-Ray copy, likewise remastered. Strongly recommended for genre fans!
BLOOD FEAST 4K UHD (99 mins., 2016, Not Rated; Synapse Films): A hapless man (Robert Rusler), who’s moved his family to Paris, finds himself drawn to a statute of Ishtar – one that does something far worse than compel him to rewatch the Dustin Hoffman/Warren Beatty bomb of the same name. Instead, he becomes a cannibal and murderer who will do anything to quench her thirst in this remake of the Hershel Gordon Lewis ‘60s low-budget gore favorite. Synapse’s 4K UHD is out this week sporting a Dolby Vision HDR grading with 5.1 DTS MA sound and assorted extras: a featurette, music video, promo teaser, 2018 Red Carpet premiere footage, a “scare cam” and the original uncut version of the film.
THE BLUE JEAN MONSTER Blu-Ray (96 mins., 1991, 88 Films): Quirky Hong Kong effort offers something different than the usual martial arts affair, wherein a deceased, stalwart police officer is zapped back to life by lightning, after which he can fight crime as a monster-like “undead cop” after receiving subsequent jolts! Comedy, horror, action and general goofiness abound in Ivan Lai’s 1991 HK import, preserved on Blu-Ray by 88 in a new limited edition (1.85, Cantonese mono with English subtitles) featuring a slipcover and double-sided foldout poster. Extras include an interview with assistant director Sam Leong, the Hong Kong trailer, a stills gallery, and reversible artwork.
THE BOOK OF HARTH DVD (63 mins., 2022; MVD): Pierre Guillet’s award-winning documentary follows conceptual artist David Greg Harth as he enters the final leg of a 20-year-mission, carrying a Bible which he has signed by assorted celebrities and other luminaries on red carpets around the world. Noam Chomsky, John Waters, Kevin Smith and Paul Schrader are just a few of the familiar faces who appear in “The Book of Harth,” debuting on DVD February 6th from MVD featuring deleted scenes and commentary.
JUSTICE LEAGUE: CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS Part One 4K Ultra HD (93 mins., 2023, PG-13; Warner): First of three installments adapting the popular and “pivotal” DC Comics story line “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” based on Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s story of the World’s Mightiest Heroes being recruited by the “Monitor” – culled from multiple Earths, all to fight an antimatter apocalypse. Loads of heroes pop up with even a few oddball appearances sprinkled in, but the story seems awfully fragmented and unnecessarily so considering this is the first of a trio of episodes – the likes of which hopefully will improve from here. Warner’s 4K UHD offers deluxe Steelbook packaging, a HDR10 transfer, 5.1 DTS MA sound, a Digital HD code, and extras including the featurettes “Crisis on Infinite Earths Part 1: Crisis Prime(r)” and “The Selfless Speedster.”
NEXT TIME: JENNIFER 8 and new Kino Lorber releases! Until then, don’t forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to our email address. Cheers everyone!