Black Freighter/Under The Hood DVD Review
Available now is the double feature DVD tying in to Watchmen, and is a must for fans of the film or ground breaking comic series.
As Watchmen readers know, the pirate adventure Tales of the Black Freighter, was a comic within the comic. As an eager kid read it at a newsstand, sometimes the panels would spill over into the narrative of the Watchmen tale. Originally, film director Zack Snyder wanted to film Black Freighter in a manner similar to how he approached 300, but due to budgetary and time constraints, chose to make it a stand-alone animated feature instead. And it was a good choice as Black Freighter is a lush, engrossing story. Written by Snyder with Alex Tse, and directed by Daniel Delpurgatorio and Mike Smith, this 25 minute short film mirrors its printed inspiration beautifully. 300’s Gerard Butler is the primary voice, narrating the descending horrors faced by his sole survivor of an attack by the titular ship of ghouls. Washing ashore, he uses the bloated carcasses of his dead crew as a makeshift raft, fighting sharks and his own descent into darkness, to Davidstown. It is here that his wife and daughters live, and it is also the Freighter’s next target. At least that’s what the captain believes.
The mini-comic inside Watchmen gave me just as many memorable moments as Watchmen did, and it’s satisfying to see them on the screen. It’s filled with simple, yet bold colour choices and gross visuals such as seagulls eating brains and plucking eyeballs. Thus the R rating is understandable, compared to the PG of Under The Hood. The animation is superb and fluid and though not a lot happens, it’s still highly entertaining. You don’t have to look too far to see the allusions to Watchmen’s thematic explorations. Though at first a dark pirate tale may seem an odd companion to a superhero deconstruction, it does sit proudly on the same shelf, just like the other film included on the DVD.
The live action Under The Hood is an imagined documentary about the life of Hollis Mason, who was the original costumed adventurer Nite Owl in the 1940’s world of the Watchmen. Played by Stephen McHattie, as he did in the film, it also includes interviews with Carla Gugino as Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre, her agent and former husband, as well as bad guys (also seen in the film) Moloch, and the imprisoned midget Big Figure. Set in 1985 TV host Larry Culpeper (played by Ted Friend) introduces us to his 1975 report on Mason in an episode of the Culpeper Minute. He and Mason talk about Mason’s career as a baddie-basher, first as a cop, and then as Nite Owl, in the Gunga Diner. Dialogue from Alan Moore’s Under The Hood excerpt is used, and it brings a geeky smile to my face as Mason explains how he constructed his costume, his motivations for being a superhero (“because it was fun, and the right thing to do.”), how he was inspired by the mysterious debut of the first costumed do-gooder, Hooded Justice, and the assembling of the Minutemen (whose members are seen in authentic looking news footage).
Tying into DC Comics’ rich history, Mason mentions also being wowed by Superman’s first appearance in 1938 in Action Comics #1, and the Golden Age Green Lantern and Blue Beetle are also shown on comic covers.
The archival footage of WWII is used well, but we are only jarred out of the realism when obviously Photoshopped pics of the young Mason are revealed. The whole Hood doco really is well done though. The interviews look like they’ve been lifted directly from 1975, with their slightly grainy and faded look, without being distracting, and the 1985 ads for products such as Veidt’s Nostalgia fragrance, and Seiko’s cutting-edge LCD watches, just add that extra realism.
The actors are vital to these kinds of endeavours. All the cast sell the premise well. Sometimes these kinds of fake docos can be very unconvincing, but writer Hans Rodionoff, director Eric Matthies and the actors pull it off ably.
The extra features are a nice touch too. Usually on straight to DVD experiences like this, the bonuses are usually just an afterthought from the marketing department. However, with Under The Hood, Black Freighter plus the extras the running time for the whole shebang comes in at a rather impressive 2 hours.
Story Within A Story – The Books Of Watchmen is essentially a combination of behind the scenes footage of Watchmen and Tales of the Black Freighter. There are interviews with cast members (Stephen McHattie, Carla Gugino, Jeffrey Dean Morgan), DC creators of the original maxi-series (Jenette Kahn, Len Wein, artist Dave Gibbons and colourist John Higgins) and the director of Under The Hood, Eric Matthies. It’s not exactly a riveting 25 minutes, but is necessary viewing for those unaware of the importance of Alan Moore’s original extras, such as newspaper cutouts and prose pieces as well as the Black Freighter pirate comic that runs within, and alongside the Watchmen story. And if you feel like getting intellectual, influences of Black Freighter, such as German playwright Bertolt Brecht, are mentioned by a few of the interviewees.
Curiously, it also includes a behind the scenes look at the original Nite Owl, Hollis Mason attacking a punk in his home. I assume this will be on the Director’s Cut of the film. Speaking of which, it’ll be interesting to see how director Zack Snyder manages to squeeze the Black Freighter into the film itself when the Director’s Cut DVD is released in July.
The other substantial extra is Chapter One of the Watchmen Motion Comic, which also runs at 25 minutes. I’ve seen so-called animated comics before, and the concept has been around for a long time, but this is far and above the best approach I’ve ever seen. The original Watchmen comic really does come alive, but I’ll say more once I check out the whole 2 discer Motion Comic soon.
The final inclusion amongst the special features is the first look at Green Lantern: First Flight, the next animated DVD release from Warner Bros./DC. It’s being released in July and it looks fantastic, and is a nice present for Hal Jordan, seeing as it’s the 50th anniversary of his creation this year.