I love Satan. There, I said it. Okay, maybe I only meant as a movie character. But really, is he not the ultimate cinematic badass? Nameless and faceless, he can be anyone. Elemental and eternal, you can't maim or kill him. And no matter how bad the movie, his name above the title ensures at least a great opening weekend at the box office. Really, could Tom Hanks or Brad Pitt withstand a film as crappy as 'End of Days,' and still survive with their reputation untarnished?
The plot plays like an unholy cross between 'The Exorcist' and every bad cop movie ever made, only funnier. Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as alcoholic ex-detective Jericho Cane (seriously). Now working as a security guard in New York City, he accidentally stumbles upon a new millennium plot by Satan (Gabriel Byrne) to resurrect himself by impregnating an innocent young woman, Christine York (Robin Tunney). Since 'End of Days' is a "millennium movie," i.e., made to exploit all of our then-trendy Y2K fears, of course Ol' Beelzebub can only do the nasty with Christine during the last hour of 1999. (Hope he set his watch to Eastern Standard Time.) Meanwhile, various signs of the apocalypse emerge, such as usual mysterious explosions, a crazed psychotic trying to shoot people, etc., and Jericho discovers that the Catholic Church has long known of the Devil's little 'Da Vinci Code'-like scheme. Can Arnie convince the world of its impending doom, save Christine, untie the bureaucracy of the Church and defeat Satan in a knock-down, kick-ass battle in the middle of Times Square?
If the plot of 'End of Days' sounds ridiculous on paper, it plays even more ludicrous onscreen. Any movie about the Devil can either be totally terrifying ('The Exorcist,' 'The Omen') or totally camp (any of the 'Exorcist' or 'Omen' sequels). Unfortunately, 'End of Days' is largely the latter. It is hard to pinpoint exactly where the film goes wrong. Is it the casting of Schwarzenegger, who just never seems believable as an alcoholic ex-cop? Is it Byrne as the Devil, who hams it up like Freddy Krueger but lacks the oily menace to truly make the character terrifying? Is it the over-the-top, CGI-fueled action sequences, which feel more akin to a 'Terminator' or 'Predator' flick than what is essentially a horror film? Or is it an overload of unintentional, laugh-out-loud moments, like the Devil urinating explosive pee, or Schwarzenegger getting the shit beat out of him by an old lady?
In terms of pure entertainment value, 'End of Day's is a perfectly serviceable Hollywood product. Peter ('Star Chamber,' 'Outland,' 'The Relic') Hyams directs with an impersonal efficiency, and the film is indeed slick. It's dark and moody, with the requisite baroque, end-of-the-world score and lots of menacing shots of inanimate objects, which apparently always signals that something terrible is about to happen in movies like this, even though nothing usually does. I also like the fact that the film at least tries to take itself seriously, and never interjects self-referential humor into the proceedings to lighten things up. Alas, we still end up laughing at the film anyway, but at least 'End of Days' tries to take its own hokum seriously. Sadly, though, and as much fun as I had watching 'End of Days,' Satan needs to find himself a better agent.
'End of Days' is a very, very dark film. Director Peter Hyams has long acted as his own director of photography, and he does double duty again here. Suffice to say the guy seems to have an aversion to any scene with even a glimmer of sunlight -- what would normally look like a brightly-lit exterior here seems menacing. Hence this transfer gives the HD DVD format a real challenge -- brighten it up too much in the name of improving detail and the film's intended mood is destroyed, but keep it too dark and good luck trying to see anything without a flashlight.
All in all, this 1080p/VC-1 transfer handles it rather well. Indeed, it is a dark image. And as is common with material shot with high-contrast film stock in low light conditions, there is a thin veil of film grain apparent throughout, though it is not excessive. Black levels are predictably spot-on, and contrast as mentioned is intentionally harsh. Hyams also chose to shoot actors lit only in the mid-tones, so it is often foreground and background objects that appear brightest in a shot -- quite an unusual style. That leaves the transfer looking soft and flat, yet with a sense of depth and dimension, all at the same time. Hardly a look that will win over everyone, but provided you have your monitor calibrated properly and watch the film in appropriate light conditions, you should be able to detect fine detail even in the darkest scenes.
Otherwise, colors appear a bit too pumped up for my taste. Reds and oranges are especially vivid, to the point where detail and sharpness appear obscured. However, the improved color definition of high-def is immediately apparent when compared to the standard DVD release -- just the city skylights in the film's many fly-over establishing shots boast incredibly rich, striking hues. I also didn't have issues with compression artifacts like those that marred the DVD; however, there were a few select shots, such as the blue skies in the opening action sequence where Arnie saves a man hanging from a building, that displayed what appeared to be slight noise.
'End of Days' is one of the latest HD DVD releases to get a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, and still so far one of the few. It also reminds us that an encoding format, no matter how terrific, is still limited by its source material. 'End of Days' was never the all-engrossing, sonic maelstrom I hoped for on standard DVD, and listening to this new Dolby TrueHD track, it can only do so much with relatively dull sound design.
However, I should say that, put into perspective, 'End of Days' is a good mix. The action bits certainly pack oomph, especially anything with an explosion in it. Still, it is disappointing that a horror/action film like this would be so front-heavy in the dialogue and scare scenes. Most of the effects and the score are directed to the fronts, and there is painfully little ambiance in the rears. Where's the moody musical stingers? The eerie atmospheric sound effects, such as wind and rain? The zippy pans between all five channels? It's all largely lacking, which is surprising given the film's budget.
Thus, the improvements on the Dolby TrueHD track are largely limited to enhanced dynamic range. Indeed, the sense of depth and presence to the mix is noticeably superior. The .1 LFE really displays added oomph -- such scenes as the opening rescue, Arnie's subway battle with the Devil, and the climactic duel all benefit from added force and impact. However, while the quality of the discrete sound effects in all channels is an improvement, the rears don't really pop out like the best Dolby TrueHD tracks currently out there. Again, it is not that 'End of Days' doesn't sound good, but by far this is the least exciting upgrade I've yet heard for the new audio format.
Universal ports over all the same extras included on the old standard DVD release, and it's a dated package. Granted, 'End of Days' is no masterpiece, but it is still hard to get excited about six year-old, reheated supplements.
The only true highlight is a screen-specific audio commentary with director Peter Hyams. This one really surprised me. Hyams is funny, personable and not at all pretentious about the film. No, he doesn't actually mock it, but it is refreshing to hear a director speak with such quiet wit and candor. Hyams offers a nice series of antecedents on working with Arnie, the film's obvious cinematic influences, and the various effects sequences, which now seem too CGI-phony. Still, this is the rare commentary that made me admire the filmmaker more, even if his film kinda sucks.
Next up are two featurettes. "Spotlight on Location" is your usual EPK piece that features on-set interviews with all the principals, including Hyams, Schwarzenegger, Robin Tunney and Gabriel Byrne. Just what you'd expect, everyone warns how "scary" the film is going to be, and that it might even become a "new classic of the genre," which of course is hilarious. "The Effects" is just that -- nine short vignettes on various action scenes. Each is comprised of a few bits of behind-the-scenes footage, but since some of this stuff is now rather dated, it doesn't offer much insight into modern techniques.
There is also something called "Book of Revelations" on the disc, but my darn Toshiba HD DVD player couldn't access it. Even with the latest firmware upgrade, I kept getting the same damn error code over and over. However, checking the standard def DVD, it is just a series of text info on the history of Book of Revelations, which I find absolutely ridiculous anyway. Still, these kinds of features should work on all players, shouldn't they?
Rounding out the package are a couple of promotional music videos by Rob Zombie and Everlast, and unusual for a Universal title, the film's theatrical trailer.
'End of Days' doesn't really work as a horror film, or an action film, or even as an Arnold Schwarzenegger film. But I still enjoyed it on the level of camp, and it never fails to entertain. This HD DVD also does as good of a job as is likely possible in presenting a very dark transfer and lackluster sound design (bravo to Universal for including a Dolby TrueHD track), and the supplements are only fair. Still, if you are a fan of the film, this is likely the best presentation 'End of Days' is ever going to receive on home video.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.