The “Director’s Cut.” The “Extended Edition.” The “Unrated Version.” Since the dawn of the DVD era (and even earlier), it’s been a Hollywood staple for filmmakers and studios to add footage and tinker around with movies for home video. Sometimes this leads to genuine improvement, while other times to disaster. In this week’s Roundtable, we take a look at some of the best and worst of these altered movies.
In my instructions to the staff, I specified that any version of a movie different than what played in theaters is fair game, whether or not the director specifically endorsed it. Our picks are below. I’ll start things off this week.
- Best: ‘Brazil: Final Director’s Cut’ – Terry Gilliam’s battle with Universal Studios during the production of ‘Brazil’ is the stuff of legend. The film represents the director at his creative peak, and is without reservation his masterpiece. Nonetheless, the studio just did not understand it at all. Chairman Sid Sheinberg in particular pretty much hated everything about it, and insisted that the picture be taken out of Gilliam’s hands and dramatically re-edited. Well, Gilliam was having none of that. He fought Sheinberg tooth and nail in the media until finally wearing the man down. Eventually, the movie was released to theaters with a running time of 132 minutes. That version maintains most of Gilliam’s directorial intent, but had 10 minutes of material cut out as a compromise to the studio. His full 142-minute cut was only released to theaters in Europe. This is Terry Gilliam at the top of his game, and every second of footage is worth cherishing. Eventually, the Criterion Collection licensed the film and allowed Gilliam the opportunity to put together his “Final Director’s Cut” (which is mostly the same as the European cut, with a few minor tweaks). That version has been released on Laserdisc and DVD, and is desperately needed on Blu-ray.
- Worst: ‘Brazil: Love Conquers All’ – This, then, is Sid Sheinberg’s version of the movie, and it’s a travesty. Not only did the studio head whittle the film down to a length of only 94 minutes, he had literally every single scene re-edited without any participation or supervision from the director. Footage was shuffled around to present much of it out of the original context. Alternate takes and lines of dialogue were substituted. The result is a dramatically different (and ludicrously inferior) movie that goes completely against Gilliam’s vision and artistic intentions. Even when Sheinberg gave up his fight over the theatrical release, he still tried to stick it to Gilliam by releasing this version to television. Criterion included it as a supplement in the Laserdisc and DVD box sets for its academic value. This is an object lesson in the importance of editing to the filmmaking process. If you dare watch it, be sure to do so with the audio commentary, which points out every single change and explains how detrimental each is.
- Worst: ‘Dune: Extended Edition’ – Sorry, but I had to slip in one more pick for “Worst” that’s of particular personal significance to me. As I explained at length in my Blu-ray review on this site, ‘Dune’ is my favorite movie. I won’t deny that it’s a very flawed film, but I still maintain that there’s a great one in there if you look for it. Of course, it was a box office bomb for Universal Studios (ah, them again!). TV rights went to MCA, which attempted to recoup the investment by re-editing the movie and selling it to syndication as a two-part miniseries. Minus commercials, this longer version of the picture runs about three hours total. Since one of the biggest complaints about ‘Dune’ was how condensed and rushed much of it felt, you’d think that adding more footage would make for an improvement. Unfortunately, MCA hired incompetent hacks to do the editing, and they totally botched the job. The miniseries version is laughably awful in every respect. It opens with a cartoon, and has storyboard drawings inserted throughout in place of special effects. Shots are repeated over and over again, and inserted into scenes where they don’t belong. Entirely new scenes have been cobbled together using random shots culled from other existing scenes. While a small amount of interesting footage that David Lynch shot but discarded has been added back to the movie, little of it actually improves the film any. Instead, the new edit destroys any sense of continuity or storytelling coherence. This thing is an abomination. Lynch was so disgusted by it that he had his name removed. The miniseries was credited to the DGA pseudonym “Alan Smithee” as director, and “Judas Booth” (a name Lynch picked out and should convey his feelings) as screenwriter. Eventually, Universal renamed this the ‘Extended Edition’ and released it on DVD, but the Blu-ray version contains only Lynch’s theatrical cut.
Jason Bovberg (Connected Home Media)
- Best: ‘Blade Runner: The Final Cut‘ – One of the first “Directors’ Cuts,” and one of the greatest. I remember catching the fabled “workprint” version at the Nuart in Los Angeles back in 1991. It was a director’s cut that didn’t have the benefit of the director’s approval! Nevertheless, I remember falling in love with one of my favorite films all over again. Gone was the unnecessary bored-Ford voiceover. Gone was the ludicrously slapped-on happy ending. And spliced in was the powerful dialog change, “I want more life, FATHER.” It was a mesmerizing experience. Later, Ridley Scott seemed to stumble through various “director’s cut” permutations, not quite getting it right until the recent 2007 Final Cut, which incorporates the best workprint variations and uses subtle CGI and clever dubbing to fix some of the movie’s more famous gaffes. In the recent “Making of the Final Cut” pieces on the HD DVD and Blu-ray editions of the film, you can see how the team dealt with the obvious stunt double in Zhora’s death scene; and you’ll marvel over how they used Harrison Ford’s son Ben to smooth out unsynced dialogue. In this rare example, we now have a better version of a genuinely classic piece of filmmaking. And if you don’t like it, the original theatrical version is still very much available.
- Worst: ‘Star Wars: Special Edition’ – Oh, here we go again, you say. Hasn’t this been beaten to death? No! We can never stop complaining about what ‘Star Wars’ has become. The ‘Star Wars: Special Edition’ of 1997 generated a lot of excitement, and indeed, it offered some pleasures – namely, CG-tinkered special effects throughout, particularly impressive during the climactic battle scene. However (and this is a huge “however”), we also got dubious revisionism such as Greedo shooting first, a decidedly fake-looking CG Jabba floating around a herky-jerky Han Solo in Mos Eisley, and (most insultingly) a doo-doo joke. I could probably live with these horrors if not for that fact that they now comprise Lucasfilm’s official version of ‘Star Wars.’ The original version I saw in 1977 is practically forgotten, given only a token release on non-anamorphic DVD some years back, with no Blu-ray edition in sight – probably never. I can’t think of a stronger example of the wrong way to approach a director’s cut. Dazzled by computer technology of the late 1990s, George Lucas tore mercilessly into his masterpiece. He was far too preoccupied with whether he COULD make sweeping changes, and never stopped to think about whether he SHOULD. Probably the worst thing about the stupid ‘Special Edition’ goofery is the silliness that the Mos Eisley entrance became: an extended cartoony sequence filled with pratfalls and ridiculous robot humor – aimed apparently at mentally stunted children – that really should have warned us all about the tone of the eventual and even more embarrassing prequel trilogy.
- Best: ‘Halloween II: Unrated Director’s Cut‘ – ‘Halloween II’ is, by and large, a mess. But the mess that was released in theaters doesn’t hold a candle to the mess that Rob Zombie unleashed on home video late last year. This is a mess that’s emotionally complicated and bolder in a narrative sense. It takes risks that the studio (the always-strapped-for-cash Weinstein Company) advised Zombie against. When was the last time you saw a character as screechy and unlikable as Scout Taylor-Comtpon’s Laurie? (And yes, this is a compliment.) ‘Halloween II’ takes all those dark detours that the theatrical presentation avoided, such as the scene when Sherriff Brackett (Brad Dourif) comes across a room where his daughter Annie (Danielle Harris) has been murdered. In the theatrical cut, Zombie shied away from sentimentality, knowing that a bunch of rude teenagers would undoubtedly make or break the film’s box office chances. On home video, he’s edited the scene with bits of footage of the girl as a young child, as Brackett would have remembered her. In a similarly impressionistic way, he elongates the opening hospital chase to include some dreamy flourishes. At the end of the movie, he chooses a more appropriate song to conclude with, instead of the pulse-pounding (and expected) theme music of the original film. It may not be to everyone’s tastes, but ‘Halloween II’ in Director’s Cut form proves to be the rare remake that’s also blisteringly original. I will fight any man that claims otherwise.
- Worst: ‘King Kong: Deluxe Extended Edition‘ – Here’s something that really grinds my gears. There were some problems in the original 2005 version of Peter Jackson’s ‘King Kong’ – largely the unresolved arcs of the kid played by Jamie Bell and the sea captain. Logic (and a sense of narrative follow-through) would have sent Bell to join the army, vowing to avenge the death of his mentor and ultimately dying at the hands of a rampaging Kong. The captain should have come to the opening night of the Kong show, only to be trampled by Kong or the adoring hordes. But no. In the Extended Edition, we get more dinosaur bullshit on the island (a giant fish – oh boy!) and a few more minutes of Kong rippin’ it up in ol’ New York. What’s even more fascinating about this is that Jackson dispenses some priceless wisdom on the DVD of ‘The Frighteners’ (which may or may not be coming to Blu-ray). He says there that when you have a subplot that isn’t working, cut out all of that subplot, because it will end up bringing down other parts of the movie. Jackson should have listened to his own advice and not allowed these hanging chads of plot to dangle without resolution.
- Best: ‘Touch of Evil’ – Studio execs have been ruining movies since the movie business began. More often than not, it seems they stick their noses into things when they have the absolute least business getting involved. That was certainly the case whenever Orson Welles stepped behind the camera after ‘Citzen Kane.’ Starting with his second feature, ‘The Magnificent Ambersons,’ it seems some cockmonkey was always ready and willing to jump in, bring in a hapless cohort, and go wild with the guillotine splicer. One of the most well-known cases involved Welles’ 1958 noir masterpiece ‘Touch of Evil,’ which features one of the most famous, unbroken opening shots in movie history. Shortly after Welles screened his cut of the film, Universal took over, slapped opening credits over the length of the first shot, and hacked the movie down to 95 minutes. When Welles saw that version of the film, he composed a 58-page memo to the studio’s head of production, detailing the best ways to fix the film and pull the studio’s collective head out of its figurative butt. That memo, unfortunately, was ignored until 1998, when Walter Murch (‘Apocalypse Now‘), Bill Verney (‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’), Peter Reale (‘Battlestar Galactica‘), Bob O’Neil (the restorations of ‘Vertigo‘ & ‘Rear Window‘), Rick Schmidlin, and Jonathan Rosenbaum took the memo, and did everything in their power to restore the film’s elements and set things right. The newer version, running 111 minutes, is as close as we’ll likely ever get to Welles’ original vision. The opening scene is now untouched, and numerous elements have been carefully restored to the proceedings. If you’ve never seen ‘Touch of Evil,’ this is the version to catch! It’s a true classic.
- Worst: Any “Unrated” Judd Apatow Home Video Release – Judd Apatow is the reigning king of comedy. Whether directing or producing, he’s currently at the top of Hollywood’s comedy heap. His movies are funny, I’m a fan. I also adore his initial forays into television production. But someone really needs to slip him a copy of Walter Murch’s book on film editing, because the guy doesn’t have a clue when it comes to cutting a movie. Any time I’ve seen one of his movies in the theater, I’ve felt it was about a half hour too long. Then when the Unrated Cuts hit home video, the movies often become bloated, unwieldy messes, filled with long gaps that I guess serve as good opportunities to freshen your beer and fix a sandwich, without the inconvenience of having to press Pause. Certain comedy masters (John Cleese is a prime example) work and work on their productions in order to make sure every minute crackles. Their projects are all the better for it. With Apatow, even with the ability to include two dozen variations of the same lines in the ever-present “Line-o-Rama” special features, his movies just grow more and more unwieldly. I guess it’s good to be king, because no one messes with your stuff (see above). But in ten years, these movies are going to feel really, really dated, because they just don’t move along at a fast enough clip.
- Best: ‘Team America: World Police – Uncensored and Unrated’ – I like any version of this movie as long as it includes the scenes of the Matt Damon puppet. If you get the Unrated DVD, there’s also a crew member’s hand dressed up as Ben Affleck at the F.A.G. meeting, which is just icing on the cake. To this day, every time I see Matt Damon, I quietly say to myself, “I’m Matt Damon!” in that ridiculous Trey Parker puppet voice.
- Most Wanted: ‘Pretty in Pink’ – The alternate ending where Andie ends up with Ducky. Although this is not released, it’s certainly one of the most talked about and debated endings in the history of ’80s movies. It’s akin to the age old debate as to whether Simon Le Bon or John Taylor is cuter. I personally think the filmmakers made the right call on the ending. However, Andie and Blane would have broken up by the end of the school year when she found out that he had the hots for a mannequin that looked like Kim Cattrall.
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
- Best: ‘Almost Famous: Untitled – The Bootleg Cut’ – ‘Almost Famous’ proved to be such an entrancing film in its original theatrical release, and the greatly extended ‘Untitled’ cut further heightens its strengths. ‘Untitled’ is so wonderfully immersive, adding additional splashes of color to its characterizations as well as its recreation of 1973. William’s mother barking at a small town shop owner for painting “Xmas” on a window, a DJ played by Kyle Gass stoned out of his mind and giving Stillwater free reign over the airwaves, a conversation about how the smallest and most subtle flourishes in a song can be the most memorable things about them, a really touching scene where Penny realizes she’s being left behind – All of this just makes my attachment to these characters that more intense, draws me more deeply into their world, and certainly leaves their shared passion for music more infectious. Those who missed out on this extended release of Almost Famous on DVD should note that a region-free Blu-ray disc is readily available across the pond, and it’s well-worth importing.
- Worst: ‘Army of Darkness: The Director’s Cut‘ – I guess I’m just trolling for hate mail. ‘Army of Darkness’ really is one of my all-time favorites. Maybe it’s because I’ve watched it to the point of rote memorization that I have such a tough time with the longer “Official Bootleg Edition” that Anchor Bay re-re-re-releases on DVD every couple of years. The overly tasteful sex scene seems out of step with the tone of the rest of the flick. “Good… bad… I’m the guy with the gun” is one of the most memorable lines Ash lobs out, and it gets the axe here for whatever reason. The epic siege near the end is extended but just seems like needlessly more of the same. This longer version of the climax, like quite a few of the many other minor additions throughout the movie, doesn’t really contribute anything other than slowing down the film’s manic pace. Even though Sam Raimi wanted to end the movie on a down note, I’ve always been a fan of the hyperkinetic she-bitch battle in the S-Mart we saw theatrically. It just seems like such a perfect tag to close out the ‘Evil Dead’ series. And… c’mon, with everything Ash suffered through for three movies straight, he deserves a moment of triumph. Maybe I’m just overly possessive of zombie-esque theatrical cuts. A lot of the extensions to George Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead‘ – especially Gaylen Ross’ “Real brothers or street brothers?” line – make me cringe too, and the clunky ‘Night of the Living Dead‘ update is another monstrosity altogether.
- Best and Worst Simultaneously: ‘Highlander II: The Renegade Version’ – I was originally going to pick two, one best and one worst. But ‘Highlander II’ fills both roles so beautifully. The original theatrical version is one of the worst sequels of all time and completely altered the back story of the Immortals. It’s a film in such dire need of a new cut that just about anything would do. Sadly, the director’s cut of ‘Highlander II’ that completely edits out all the outer space nonsense somehow makes it even worse. Lines are cut in half and the new back story doesn’t make things any better. It’s as if there were a director’s cut of ‘Phantom Menace’ where Jar Jar was taken out, but was replaced by more Jake Lloyd in every scene.
Now tell us your picks in the comments.