An Introductory Note
Like two of my other articles published on this blog (Fellini VS Fosse and Giallo Fever) this post originally started out life in a little homegrown movie newsletter I used to put out to all my friends (Cahiers Du Movies). I’ve been blogging for a few months now and making various “virtual friends and acquaintances” (some of whom I would even hazard meeting in real life) and it’s become clear from communications from some of them that people who are interested in the weird and wonderful world of cinema are not neccessarily best equipped to negotiate the incredibly complex terrain of availability of prints and differences in prints across the various regions at their disposal. So I’ve decided to dig up and dust off this old article from a few years back (when my personal circumstances were a lot happier than they are now) and rewrite and update it so that it is the most help to “multiregion novices” worldwide. I hope some readers do find it helpful and informative... and I also hope it helps to give an impression of the diversity of films now available to the average viewer in a time when, frankly, we’ve never had it so good... I remember the days when a crappy transfer of a sub par print in the wrong aspect ratio on a tape-chewing VHS machine was an acceptable norm. Thank goodness those days are now long gone.
I contacted a number of the labels in this article to secure permission to use their DVD jackets for the side illustration and I would like to say a big thank you to both Kino and Shameless,
those who responded, for both the permission and enthusiastic support they have given this humble blogger to use their artwork for this post.
This blog post is very much dedicated to C1are Dean of Twiterland... she knows why! Follow her on twitter here... www.twitter.com/c1aredean
It seems to me that starting with the advent of sales of 16mm cuts of films through the post, through to TV and then into the current age of the home video format, the world of cinema has been defined by what lurks in the shadows of the silver screen but is primarily remembered and studied by the versions that we receive in our own homes. Film deteriorates rapidly and unless a new print is re-struck and screened (a rare occurrence for old movies) then the "study" version, as time goes by, is the one we watch on TV, Beta, VHS, Laserdisc or DVD... and whatever other formats the future may hold in store (please... not BluRay!).
And what films are chosen to be remembered by future generations relies on the companies that own them and, to a certain extent, the DVD Labels that put them out. There are major "ready-to-wear" labels like Warners, Universal and Paramount who are happy to give you the the bulk of their current years releases and a few of their classic back catalogue (if you're lucky). But there are also the more interesting smaller “boutique” labels who are not necessarily aligned to one company and are where some of the real gems and classics of forgotten and "so-out-there-I-didn't-even-know-about-it-to-forget-it-in-the-first-place" cinema have now found a home.
For some of these labels it's a real struggle to stay in business, because the films they are putting out have only a very limited appeal, but some of these labels deserve to be recognised for doing such a terrific job. Here then, is my guide to some of the coolest DVD labels currently around...
US Region 1
Cheap prices for cheap transfers. However this label is pure gold for getting out on DVD some of the most sought after rarities you could want. For example, this label actually has two volumes of episodes from the terrible German/American co-produced Flash Gordon TV series from the 50s (not to be confused with the excellent Buster Crabbe serials of the 30s). Or how about the few episodes made of the 50s Fu Manchu TV show which rapidly became politically incorrect. Or perhaps the unaired (and incredibly badly framed but, hey, at least you can now see it) TV pilot Invisible Avenger which was a proposed TV show of Maxwell Grant’s iconic US pop culture hero The Shadow. Who knows what shabbily unreleased gems lay hidden in the vaults of the Alpha Video label... The Shadow knows!
US Region 1 (Also UK R2)
A decade ago, Anchor Bay were pretty much one of the all-time great DVD labels, second only to The Criterion Collection. However, since William Lustig defected, so to speak, to form the Blue Underground label, their releases got pretty bad. A once great label for Italian Giallo and Horror (they have a lot of Bava and Argento on their books), their releases began to go to the dogs when they ditched most of their horror, giallo and spaghetti westerns and started concentrating on fat burning workout DVDs.
However, their back catalogue is a rich vein of previously hard to obtain releases including the definitive multidisc version of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead including all three very different cuts of the movie plus more extras than you can shake a stick at and the only Franco Nero sequel to his original breakthrough hit, Django Strikes Again.
Just recently the label seems to be making some progress at recapturing their old glories (which is why this label hasn’t gone in the graveyard section at the end of this post) with their extras loaded DVDs of the Masters of Horror TV show and two definitive Mario Bava box sets. Their R2 label is also releasing some good titles but, as always with a UK release, check they’ve not been tampered with by the BBFC before making your purchase.
US Region 1
AnimEigo is primarily a label devoted to Japanese anime, but they also seem to be able to get their hands on some other excellent licences and they’ve released some really great stuff over the years. Their releases seem to mirror the UK Region 2 releases put out by ArtsMagic, but since the ArtsMagic DVDs have some truly dreadful, muddy VHS style transfers and are sometimes cut by the BBFC, then the AnimEigo versions are the way to go.
Their box and menu designs are pretty bad but who cares when they have such great transfers taken from some truly pristine prints. Titles such as seven of the popular Zatoichi film series, the six original Lone Wolf and Cub (Baby Cart) movies, the two Lady Snowblood Movies and the Hanzo the Razor trilogy make this a standout label.
US Region 1
Up until about four years ago, Blue Underground were the “new” Anchor Bay. Releasing exactly the same kind of titles in great transfers and with a few extras thrown in for good measure. Brilliant releases such as the uncut versions of the four official Blind Dead movies in a coffin box and Baba Yaga (based on Guido Crepax’s Valentina comic strips) plus a load of great Spaghetti Westerns and Giallo made this a label to be reckoned with.
In recent times however, after their website was effectively down for around a year, they seem to be rereleasing and repackaging the same movies or re-releasing old Anchor Bay titles. And also very much riding the BluRay bandwagon.
Since the market for these kinds of titles is a finite one, it seems to me that they must be really losing money to be putting out this stuff again.
For example, I bought their release of the Spanish movie (but set in England) Let Sleeping Corpses Lie when they first released it but within a year they’d already repackaged it in a two-disc edition under it’s more famous title The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue. Unless they can come up with some fresher releases soon then this label will, I suspect, go under.
Hong Kong Region 3
Celestial Pictures is a great label, and one of the few on this list which aren’t exclusive to Region 1. Celestial are a company which have devoted their entire label to reissuing the literally hundreds (thousands?) of Shaw Brothers movies. A friend was telling me that by this year they reckon they would have released every one, which is a phenomenal output per year. If you want the original Chinese movie versions of the four Monkey movies or the two Water Margin movies (before the Japanese remade all this stuff as TV shows) or even if you want to try some whackier fare like The Super Infra Man, Mighty Peking Man or Oily Maniac, then Celestial is the label for you.
Tarantino is obviously a big fan of the Shaw Brothers movies and you can find the character played by Gordon Liu in the second Kill Bill movie (Pei Mai) in some of these movies going up against Gordon Liu himself. Also, if you were a fan of old villainess Jade Dragon as played by Cheng Pei Pei in Crouching Tiger, HIdden Dragon, then you can check her out in her kick-ass heyday as the star of several Shaw Brother’s classics such as Come Drink With Me and Dragon Swamp.
The Criterion Collection
Region 1 (USA)
If you ask any movie lover or critic what their favourite DVD label is, the chances are they’ll be no hesitation on their part in name-checking Criterion.
Purveyors of the absolute best in world cinema since the dawn of VHS and laser disc formats, Criterion have been consistently raising the bar on quality releases. Admittedly their discs are a lot more expensive than pretty much any of their potential competitors (nearly double the price of some labels) but you really get what you pay for with Criterion. With quality films by such luminaries as Kurosawa, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Suzuki, Fellini, Gilliam, Anderson and Kieslowski... Criterion is the label that makes a DVD player worth having.
Region 1 (USA)
I’ve included this label because you can get stuff you can’t get anywhere else (from vintage erotica to Walerian Borowzyk and cult horror) in an absolutely fantastic presentation with no expense spared. A quality label, worth keeping an eye on.
Region 1 (USA)
Diskotek are releasing some fairly essential stuff if you’re into Japanese exploitation cinema of the 60s, 70s and beyond... like the original Zero Woman movie. They even have the only live action Lupin 3 (an incredibly popular and uniquely Japanese heir to the French Arsene Lupin fortune) on their books. The disks usually contain the original trailers too which are always a fun watch.
Region 2 (Dutch)
This is pretty much the Dutch releases of the Redemption label... except they only, so far, deal with the fantastic films of Jean Rollin. Much better prints and tons more extras than the US and UK Redemptions, so if you’re into badly acted lesbian vampire movies with absolutely gorgeous surreal visuals and the odd acting tour-de-force (the last 5 minutes of The Living Dead Girl comes to mind), then this is the label for you.
Eureka Masters of Cinema
UK Region 2
Eureka used to release great world cinema movies in awful transfers from awful prints. All that changed about 5 or so years ago when they mutated into “Eureka Masters of Cinema”.
They have now set themselves up as a kind of English answer to Criterion and in a couple of cases even surpass the Criterion Edition versions of their titles. Quite apart from the most definitive (to date... although that’s about to change) and wholly refreshing presentation of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in a lavish two dis set, you can also get previously unreleased silent classics like Faust!
Also, in the case of Onibaba, they have a few more extras than even the Criterion version and their print of Kwaidan is a longer and fuller print than the Criterion edition too. Always do your research before purchasing!
HVE (Home Vision Entertainment)
US Region 1
Like the modern incarnation of Criterion, HVE are now a subsidiary label of Image Entertainment. A great label for Japanese pulp movies, they have most of the Zatoichi movies on their books in absolutely fantastic transfers and a few of the underrated genius of Japanese directors, Seijun Suzuki’s movies too. So if you’re into blind swordsmen or hallucinogenic colours, HVE is a good label to start out with.
US Region 1
Asides from now owning both Criterion and HVE (who distribute Janus Films - no, not that Janus, the US company), just a glance at the range of titles on offer gives you a pretty good idea of why Image are on this list. Any label who will distribute a french silent version of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, the big screen adaptation of the popular UK TV serial The Trollenberg Terror (aka The Crawling Eye) and a relatively uncut version of Jess Franco’s exploitation classic, Female Vampire, has to be a label worth checking out on a regular basis.
US Region 1(also UK R2)
Quite apart from having one of the all-time great Giallo’s on it’s books, The Killer Must Kill Again (that rare giallo where the audience are in on the identity of the killer right from the start), Mondo Macabre has some unbelievably entertaining exploitation titles in it’s line-up. What with all the fuss they’re making in Indonesia over the last year about the launch of Playboy in their country, it’s easy to forget the obscure Indonesian cross genre Women in Prison/Biker Gang movie Virgins from Hell. But you can watch it courtesy of Mondo Macabre. They also issue some classic Dick Randall trash like the famous Humphrey Bogart’s double’s pseudo giallo The French Sex Murders and the midget secret agent movie, For Your Height Only!
US Region 1
Like Criterion and Masters of Cinema, this is the third really high quality label if you are looking for some of the classiest world cinema releases. Classics like the new super-duper restoration of Metropolis and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari rub shoulders (well, plastic edges) with amazing releases like Nikkatsu’s Go To Hell Bastards - Detective Bureau 2-3 and Three Seconds Before Explosion.
US Region 1
A relatively new label... Severin are, as their name suggests, mainly a purveyor of quality sexploitation such as the uncut version of the campy Gwendoline (adapted from a comic strip by the creator of Barbarella and helmed by the director of the first Emmanuelle movie). They also do a slightly more family-edited version under it’s The Adventures of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik Yak title variant. Interestingly, they also have the movie which Quentin Tarantino has recently “remade”, Inglorious Bastards.
And they've even also started releasing stuff like an extras laden edition of Richard Stanley’s Hardware and the low budget phenomenon Birdemic.
UK Region 0
And then we come to the puzzling case of Shameless and just how in the world are they allowed to put out their releases, for the most part, uncut in Britain.
Shameless are a UK company specialising primarily in giallos (with a couple of horror and sexploitation titles too) and they are doing a fantastic service to the residents of this country. Asides from the odd release which is plagued by the BBFC (New York Ripper is slightly trimmed still) the vast majority of their releases are uncut and often in the most complete form that they’ve been released anywhere before... such as their “fan-cut” of giallo The Designated Victim or their rebuild of the notorious Femina Ridens (released by them as The Frightened Woman).
This label feels like it’s taken over from where Anchor Bay, Blue Underground (Shameless have the definitive cut of the aforementioned Baba Yaga) and No Shame left off in the US... definitely worth a look at some of the titles they have in stock.
They are also quite handy in that, if they are not showcasing the films “uncut” status on the front by way of a sticky label, they are certainly putting the cut/uncut status on the back at the bottom with the technical details of the disc. So if you are picking it up in a shop you know exactly what you are buying.
Great label. Power to them!
US Region 1
Shriek Show, a sub-label of Media Blasters, has some assorted horror titles and some really important giallo’s such as Umberto Lenzi’s Spasmo and the classic All The Colours of the Dark! Worth taken a look at their catalogue.
US Region 1
Synapse have had a number of interesting exploitation movies on their books, and easily one of the most entertaining company logo’s I’ve seen. You can also get the uncut Christina Lindberg classic Thriller (aka They Call Her One Eye aka Hooker’s Revenge) which was the inspiration of the Daryl Hannah character in the Kill Bill movies. Also a wonderful series of exploitation trailer DVDs called Forty Second Street Forever (named after a New York cinema where these kinds of movies used to screen).
It turns out they are now also the official distributor of the Panik House Label... a great label devoted to Japanese Pinku and the odd horror. With an absolutely fantastic Pinky Violence Box Set featuring four pinky biker gal movies and a rare song compilation from one of the leading Pinku actresses, they entered the DVD market very strong with some outstanding packaging featuring clear or pink transparent boxes. Their titles included Sex and Fury, which co-stars swedish groin-throb Christina Lindberg, and which out Snowblood’s the Lady Snowblood movies as being a movie much closer to the style of the original Lady Snowblood manga. They also distributed the sequel, Female Yakuza Tale.
US Region 1
Another sub-label of Media Blasters, TokyoShock has some classic Japanese movies on it’s books. The first, third and fourth Female Prisoner Scorpion movies in a boxed edition, for example. And the first season of the original Zatoichi TV show. Also the, seen to be believed, Toho monster classic Frankenstein Conquers the World (aka Frankenstein VS Baragon) in which the Frankenstein monster grows to a giant size and battles a dinosaur type monster in it’s definitive 2 disc presentation featuring three different cuts of the movie.
US Region 1
Wild East have been going for quite some time now releasing an interesting array of spaghetti westerns and have now also branched off into Italian crime thrillers. They have some great titles on their label including much sought after spaghetti’s such as Day of Anger and The Grand Duel. Some of their early, out of print releases are much sought after collectors items.
The Label Graveyard
And finally a small tribute to the labels which aspired to fill much needed holes in the DVD market but which couldn’t generate the revenue needed to stay afloat.
US Region 1 and Italian Region 2
NoShame was (and still is in Italy) a successful Italian DVD label specialising in some truly great giallo and other genres like crime thrillers and sex comedies. Unfortunately it’s Region 1 label suffered some mishaps early on in it’s life where DVDs wouldn’t play on certain machines and the label soon lost interest in releasing for the US market which is a great shame as they have a lot of highly sought after films within their grasp.
Rise Above Entertainment
US Region 1
A commendable label committed to the release of some of the 52 plus Santo films. You too can watch as masked wrestler Santo and his friends (like Blue Demon) wrestled werewolves, zombies, Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula etc. Unbelievably though, even in this enlightened age of postmodernistic viewing habits, the market for Mexican Wrestling movies in the US seems to have been not enough to have sustained this label. Another loss to movie lovers everywhere.
Toho Masters Collection
US Region 1
Finally a label that would release definitive Godzilla movies, not just in their redubbed, recut, rescored crappy American incarnations, but also in the original versions, in Japanese with English subtitles. Beautiful silver packaging too. Unfortunately this label only had the rights to a handful of these films but at least it’s a start. Their startling transfer of the second Gojira movie, Godzilla Raids Again (the only other Godzilla movie asides from the original in black and white) was a holy grail for G-fans everywhere.
If you have a favourite label, leave a comment and I’ll check it out!