Arrow Video’s ‘Donnie Darko’ Limited Edition Blu-Ray: The Horror News Network Review

by John Evans

Over a decade before fans were fawning over Stranger Things‘ 1980’s horror and pop culture nostalgia, Richard Kelly practically invented this formula for homage with Donnie Darko. In celebration of the 15th anniversary of the film, Arrow Video has created a beautiful 4K restoration of both cuts of the movie, taken from the original film negatives. This version of the film was released in U.K. theaters for a short period in late 2016, and Arrow Video followed up with a definitive home video package for the movie, which contains these lovely transfers and a mountain of engaging special features. This release is a must-have, even for casual fans of the movie.

Donnie Darko is one of the most interesting and engaging movies of the early 2000’s. Richard Kelly (a first-time unknown director at the time) managed to pull unforgettable performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Patrick Swayze, Jena Malone, and numerous supporting cast members in order to tell a unique story through the comfortingly familiar lens of 80’s nostalgia. Enhanced by a perfect score and soundtrack, the movie provides a haunting experience that you’ll love thinking about long after the credits have rolled. The theatrical version of the movie offers just enough information coupled with a thick fog of mystery which allows viewers to have very different perspectives on the themes and motifs of the film. The director’s cut (which was created about three years after the film’s initial release in response to growing fan interest) clears up a lot of that ambiguity and makes for a less powerful and slightly less engaging film, in my opinion. Both cuts have been restored for this set and they’re offered on two separate discs for optimal resolution, so fans will be happy to have options regardless of the version they prefer.

Donnie Darko is a beautiful-looking movie which benefited strongly from the efforts of Steven Poster as cinematographer. Unfortunately, it never looked great on previous blu-ray releases. The transfer always came across as blurry with unremarkable definition in its colors and shadows. The difference between earlier releases of the film and the new Arrow Video version is night and day, and the improvements can clearly be seen by even an untrained eye. The restoration is crisp throughout, retaining the glorious grain of the original film elements while avoiding any of the digital noise which plagued the original transfer. The blacks appear darker in this version, but the transfer retains solid black levels in its darker scenes. Since my experience with Donnie Darko has always been on home video only (I didn’t catch it until it first came out on DVD), I truly felt like I was watching the film like I’d never seen it before with this Arrow set. The trailer above displays scenes from the new 4K restoration, and examples of the crispness and color representation I’m talking about can be seen in the clip.

The packaging alone is an excellent indication of what fans can expect in this high quality box set. The set features new artwork of numerous bits of iconic imagery by Candice Tripp. The printed collector’s book has an introduction by Jake Gyllenhaal and interviews and analyses related to the film. The set gives you a lot to peruse and enjoy before ever inserting a disc into your player.

Like all Arrow Video releases, the special features for this box set are simply unbelievable. You get all of the standard extras like commentaries, deleted scenes, etc.; but you also get the kind of depth of study that Arrow is known for. One example of this is The Goodbye Place, an early student film of Kelly’s which shows the beginnings of his creative process in exploring some of the themes and motifs which would later be expressed in Donnie Darko.

The included full-length documentary, entitled Deus ex Machina: The Philosophy of Donnie Darko, is worth the price of the box set alone. Clocking in at just about an hour and a half, the film covers the entire creative process of Donnie Darko from the earliest ideas to the reception to the finished product. I never realized before just how instrumental Drew Barrymore was in the creation of the film, and I never had any idea that Christopher Nolan may have saved it from complete obscurity after it failed to garner support at Sundance Film Festival. Since so much time has passed since the production of the film, Richard Kelly and Steven Poster are more candid in sharing anecdotes of the difficulties in getting the movie made than I ever expected. It seems that despite the positive buzz over the script, the fact that the movie was being directed by a first-timer caused most elements of the filmmaking process to be second-guessed by studios and producers. Many of the famous musical sequences and creative shots of the film were up for debate during production. Poster even explains just how difficult it was simply to get the powers that be to allow them to use anamorphic widescreen lenses to shoot the film! The documentary shows how Donnie Darko became what it is loved for today by the creative talent fighting the right fights during production and standing behind a certain set of non-negotiables.

The interviews with actor James Duval in the documentary are some of its finest. Even though he was able to participate in the movie as Frank the rabbit, he is clearly invested in the movie as a fan as well. His knowledge and excitement over all of the little bits of both cuts of the movie is fun to watch. He’s not the only person interviewed who clearly loves Donnie Darko, but his investment in the material is contagious, and his analysis of specific scenes of the movie are particularly thoughtful.

What I’ve described of the special features is just the tip of the iceberg! There’s content related to the movie’s famous soundtrack, there are isolated clips of the “Cunning Visions” infomercial videos made for the movie, and there is content which explores the fan response and dedication to Donnie Darko. This set is as complete as it gets.

Arrow Video gets everything right with their Donnie Darko limited edition box set. Once you watch this transfer of the two cuts of the movie, you simply won’t be able to go back and watch previous releases of this movie. Beyond that, the exhaustive special features offer a comprehensive study of pretty much everything ever compiled for the film. This is a surefire release that is worthy of a spot in every fan’s collection.

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