Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Celluloid Ramblings: That's the Sad Thing About a Blu-ray Civil War, Little Johnny; It Pits NEIGHBORS Against NEIGHBORS

by JB
This week, gentle readers, I reach into the depths of esoterica. (NOTE TO SELF: Name for a NEW weekly column in 2020: “The Depths of Esoterica!”)

More than six years ago, I wrote a column about John Belushi’s final film, Neighbors, and bemoaned its availability only as a Sony MOD disc. I am a fan of the film and thought that it deserved better treatment. You can read that original column here.
Last week, the fine folks at Mill Creek Entertainment released the film on Blu-ray as part of their “Retro VHS” series. I guess this makes sense because the film never got a proper release on DVD. Mill Creek is rereleasing a gaggle of films in a cardboard sleeve designed to make them look like VHS rental tapes. I know everyone loves Blockbuster memories (#BlockbusterMemories), but are VHS rental tapes themselves something people miss? Do people my age generally get soggy with nostalgia when the subject arises? Do they opine, “Oh sure, I could watch one of my 1,500 Blu-ray discs, or watch a movie streaming on one of the eight online services to which I currently subscribe, or watch a film that’s available on VOD from my cable provider, BUT WHAT I WOULD REALLY RATHER DO is put on some pants and drive to a strip mall, rent a VHS tape that a thousand strangers have manhandled, cart it home, stick it in my machine, and enjoy a pan-and-scan transfer in standard definition marred by occasional scan lines, miscellaneous streaks, and mysterious moiré patterns. Better return it on time or I will be charged extra!” This was paradise, no? Ah, the glorious memories of “fuzzyvision.”

When I first read about Mill Creek’s Retro VHS offerings, I really thought they were going to go all in on the concept and offer shitty VHS transfers to go along with the cute yesteryear packaging.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The new transfer of Neighbors (and I believe it is a new transfer) is stunning. I spent an hour or two comparing it to the “original” Sony Blu-ray transfer, and it’s quite a bit better… and a steal at only $8.99.
Obviously, comparing two discs is very subjective. I went back and forth and, even though both discs were encoded at the same bit rate of the high 20s to the low 30s (mbps), I detected many differences that lead me to think that Sony supplied Mill Creek with a new transfer (though I haven’t been able to verify my suspicion.) The new Mill Creek disc is clearer and brighter with less grain. Of course, we could argue about film grain in home video transfers until the cows come home (“Actually, I’d rather argue about this with the cows ‘til YOU come home.” —Groucho Marx). Some people like a little touch of grain to remind them that they are watching film. While I certainly shudder at the thought of “motion smoothing” and video noise reduction turning all of my movies into the uncanny nightmare that was watching Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit film in that high frame rate abomination, I still think grain is bad. The new Mill Creek disc has noticeably less grain.

The new Mill Creek disc is noticeably brighter and has a clearer soundtrack. The old Sony MOD disc had a soundtrack that sounded “loudifed,” which is what happens when the replicating engineer boosts all the sound levels. Many music lovers have accused Apple Music of doing this in an attempt to make downloaded music sound better on shitty headphones. This matter of “loudifying” the soundtrack becomes very germane when discussing Neighbors, because Neighbors already has one of the most obnoxious soundtracks in history.

Fearing that the audience in 1981 might not recognize Neighbors as a comedy because it is a black comedy, the producers of the film hired Bill Conti to write soundtrack music that is the terpsichorean equivalent of your dumbest second cousin sitting next to you for the entire movie, poking you in the ribs every two minutes and shouting, “DO YA GET IT?” In the very first scene, as protagonist Earl Keese (John Belushi) is returning home from work at the end of the day, the soundtrack breaks into a bizarre, off-key kazoo rendition of “There’s No Place Like Home.” When Earl showers and primps for a forthcoming sexual assignation, Conti slathers “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees at top volume because, you know, Saturday Night Fever had that famous sequence where John Travolta gets ready in his bathroom for a night of dancing. Ha. DO YA GET IT?
Back in 2012, I wrote, “I have read that a score that too closely follows the action on the screen is known in the business as “Mickey Mousing.” But this score goes way beyond that – this score is just goofy. And by “goofy” I mean it is Goofy… fucking Mickey Mouse… in a mouse hole… a mouse hole made of music.”

TANGENT: During this viewing, I noticed another attempt by the producers to “salvage” a film that the studio just didn’t like. In one of the last scenes in the film, Belushi emits a maniacal laugh very much like his character Bluto from Animal House. It happens when Earl picks up the family television and hurls it across the room. I think this short scene is a reshoot—Belushi’s hair looks quite a bit different than it does in the rest of the film. It looks like months after principal photography wrapped, his hair grew out, and this is the make-up crew trying and not succeeding at matching it to the rest of the footage. It’s as if the producers were so afraid that audiences simply wouldn’t accept a comedy this black, with Belushi playing a character this different from his past big-screen buffoons.

The final difference I noticed were the chapter stops. Though the old Sony MOD disc had no menu, it did have chapter stops that were uniformly placed every ten minutes. Clearly a lot of work went into that, by which I mean that no work went into that. The new Mill Creek disc has better, more sensible chapter stops, though they are not named and appear nowhere on the packaging or any menu screen.
Do I think you should buy this new release of Neighbors? Yes. I now consider myself an idiot for buying and not burying the old disc. In the words of Dan Ackroyd as Vic: "That was very foolish, Earl… and it could get you snuffed!"

I am glad that this odd, uneven, and goofy dark comedy finally has a decent presentation. One could wish for the original score by the punk band FEAR that Belushi himself lobbied for, or the score that composer Tom Scott actually delivered but that was rejected by the studio, or an Ackroyd commentary track—but I guess that sometimes we don’t deserve nice things. It’s fine. Still, Neighbors is a movie I like very much and for nine bucks, you might too.


  1. Do you know how many reviewers talk about chapter points? NONE!!!

    Thanks for the review. I saw it for the first time a couple of years ago and i really liked it. I'm thinking of picking it up now

  2. Definitely sounds like it's worth the $9. Love this review. Thank you!