The Dark Half Blu-ray Review
Written by ZigZag
Blu-ray released by Scream Factory
Written and directed by George A. Romero
1993, Region A, 122 minutes, Rated R
Blu-ray released on November 18th, 2014
Timothy Hutton as Thad Beaumont
Amy Madigan as Liz Beaumont
Michael Rooker as Sheriff Alan Pangborn
Julie Harris as Reggie
Robert Joy as Fred Clawson
Beth Grant as Shayla Beaumont
Royal Dano as Digger Holt
Rutanya Alda as Miriam Cowley
Glenn Colerider as Homer Gamache
Kent Broadhurst as Mike Donalson
As a boy, Thad Beaumont suffered debilitating headaches that his mother feared might be a tumor. Doctors surgically removed what proved to be an unformed twin “consumed” in utero, and almost immediately following the procedure an enormous host of sparrows filled the sky. Now an adult, Thad is a professor at the local university and a somewhat successful author. The academic stuff is fine, but the real money comes from the pulp fiction he creates under the alias “George Stark”. When someone threatens to blackmail Thad to keep his secret, he decides to go public and kill off his pseudonym. A macabre photo-op is organized featuring the author and his wife, happily shaking hands over a freshly-dug and marked grave.
In a strange twist of fate, it would appear that Stark has manifested himself into a living being, not content to be “killed off” prematurely. His mission is simple: everyone with a hand in creating the photograph must die, and soon those close to the author are being murdered. Thad's headaches return, as do the sparrows, and he is convinced Stark is real. Local sheriff Alan Pangborn desperately tries to believe Thad is innocent, but when fingerprints at the crime scenes indicate otherwise, the investigation takes a possibly supernatural turn, as the main suspect has a solid alibi. Who is really responsible for these crimes, what does he want from the Beaumont family and why are the sparrows gathering?
For anyone not paying attention twenty-five years ago, the premise of Stephen King's novel The Dark Half, was inspired by the revelation that the author had been pumping out a series of books outside the horror genre, under the alias Richard Bachman. When faced with paying a blackmailer, he went public with the story and managed to parlay this experience into a bizarre Jekyll & Hyde story that mirrored his situation. Longtime friend and collaborator George A. Romero (Day of the Dead) adapted the book and made a film version for Orion Pictures in 1991. What nobody outside the studio knew was how perilously close bankruptcy loomed, and when the studio finally closed doors, it took another two years for the movie to get released.
Romero hasn't had much luck playing the Hollywood game, and when it comes to being an artist seeking creative freedom, his perspective isn't too far removed from King's own. His films are all very personal stories, filled with social commentary and a general disappointment in the cruelty humans can inflict upon one another. If Romero's previous film Monkey Shines was a man versus nature story, then The Dark Half is very much one of man versus himself. With this picture he explores man's darker side, the evils within, that in this case can only be quelled by the discipline of creativity, specifically writing.
Timothy Hutton (Turk 182!) stars as both Beaumont and Stark, and shows great range as an actor usually limited to playing the tormented good guy. Thad Beaumont is forced to face his inner demon and protect his family, while those he loves are being attacked by his vicious doppelgänger. Amy Madigan (Field of Dreams) does a fine job as the supportive and understanding wife, Liz, but is given little more to do than be the loving archetype. Michael Rooker (Guardians of the Galaxy) tries on his good guy hat as Sheriff Pangborn and reveals a sensitive side frequently absent from the toughs he usually portrays.
The legendary Julie Harris (The Haunting) turns up in a small but pivotal role as Reggie, Thad's university colleague, and it is really nice to see her again. A quintet of character actors rounds out the supporting cast including Robert Joy (Land of the Dead) as troublemaker Fred Clawson, Kent Broadhurst (Silver Bullet) as a photographer, Royal Dano (Something Wicked This Way Comes) as Digger Holt, Rutanya Alda (Amityville II: The Possession) as Miriam and the always-welcome Beth Grant (Our Very Own) as Thad's concerned mother.
Most of Romero's features tend to run a little long and The Dark Half is no exception. These are deliberately-paced films that take their time moving from the dramatic elements into the realm of horror. Younger genre fans may grow impatient with the lack of momentum or nudity, but for anyone willing to invest the time and trust the storyteller, there is a rewarding payoff to the tale. Not everything works here, but Romero steers the movie with a confident hand that builds the tension to a nice threatening level before releasing it. His earlier collaboration with Stephen King, Creepshow, was a black-comedy salute to EC Comics, but what they bring audiences this time is anything but lighthearted.
Video and Audio:
The Dark Half is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and looks quite nice, given that all previous releases were full frame. Colors are strong, black levels solid and there is plenty of small object detail. Some of the optical effects in the finale have always looked a little underwhelming, and the crisp new presentation does nothing to improve that.
There are two audio options, a default DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix and a DTS-HD MA 2.0 track. Both are serviceable, but I prefer the expanded 5.1 option, as it opens up the music and sound design, particularly the fluttering of wings.
English subtitles are provided for anyone in need.
The audio commentary with George A. Romero is an engaging discussion with Cinephobia Radio's Stuart Andrews, similar to the one they recorded for Monkey Shines. This time around, there is more of a rant against studio interference plus tales of troubles with the cast and crew. Romero singles out Hutton's method acting style as a source of conflict and marvels at the tension he shared with his cinematographer, Tony Pierce-Roberts (A Room with a View).
The Sparrows Are Flying Again (36 minutes) features interviews with Romero, his producer Declan Baldwin and longtime editor Pasquale Buba, all of whom relay the difficulties in making the film while answering to studio pressures. Special effects artists Everett Burrell and John Vulich discuss their work creating the numerous “stunt birds” in addition to the blood work. Second unit director Tom Bubensky was in charge of filming all of the live birds and their shifting flight patterns. While actors Michael Rooker, Robert Joy, Rutanya Alda and John Amplas all have nice things to say about the production, Rooker gives the most honest assessment of the cast and his comments are refreshing. There's a lot of information shared in a relatively short running time, so check it out, but pay attention.
A collection of deleted scenes (8 minutes) are presented full frame without much fanfare. These are mostly extended character beats and were wisely trimmed from the 122-minute feature.
A behind-the-scenes set visit (16 minutes) shows the writing room under construction and offers a look at various practical effects, mostly those involving mechanical birds and an animatronic Stark. There is also some nice model and miniature work found here.
A second behind-the-scenes peek (9 minutes) shows the master at work as Romero blocks the action of a scene and then we get to see the rehearsal process as he spends time with the actors.
The original (unfinished) ending featured Stark being carried away by sparrows, and some of this footage can be found in the on-set effects footage (listed above). The storyboards for this sequence are included as a hint of how the scene would have played.
The Electronic Press Kit (EPK, 7 minutes) from 1993 offers a series of interviews with key cast members and Romero, intercut with behind-the-scenes footage.
A collection of EPK raw material interviews (7 minutes) provide extended clips with the on-camera talent before being edited down.
A still gallery (47 images) showcases members of the cast and crew both at work and posed for specific shots to promote the film
The original trailer and a TV spot round out the special features on this disc.