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Movies with Multiple Versions

Today’s episode examined films that exist in multiple versions. Unrated and extended cuts have become commonplace since studios figured out that releasing multiple versions of a movie is an easy way to generate new revenues from old products. It’s worth noting that a “director’s cut” is different from an unrated or uncut version. “Unrated” just means that this version was not submitted to the MPAA’s ratings board and “uncut” generally means that some additional footage was inserted into the movie. In some cases, unrated or uncut versions are assembled by the studio using footage that the director intentionally discarded. If the film is labeled as a director’s cut, then it generally can be taken as the filmmaker’s preferred version or at least one that the director signed off on. What follows is a look at alternate versions that transformed the layout and character of the film.

Dawn of the Dead

1978’s Dawn of the Dead was George A. Romero’s follow up to his zombie classic Night of the Living Dead. The movie exists in three different versions. The theatrical cut of Dawn of the Dead runs 127 minutes and was Romero’s preferred version. It includes all the gore and the soundtrack is a mix of library music cues and an original score by the band Goblin. There is also a 139 minute version of Dawn of the Dead which was an early cut shown at the Cannes Film Festival. It includes extended scenes and virtually all of the music consists of library cues. Much more radically different is the European cut of Dawn of the Dead which was reedited by producer Dario Argento. This third version, titled Zombi, runs 119 minutes. It is cut from the same material but the European version has a very different tone. The Zombi cut is faster paced, omits many humorous scenes, and removes most of the library music in favor of Goblin’s score. The theatrical cut of Dawn of the Dead is the version most widely available in the United States.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the grandparent of what we now know as director’s cuts and special editions. The movie stars Richard Dreyfuss as a man who has an encounter with extraterrestrials and tries to reciprocate contact. The film was an ambitious piece of science fiction and the production went over budget. Director Steven Spielberg wanted an additional six months to refine the film but Columbia Pictures was in dire financial straits and needed the movie released in November 1977. After Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a hit, Columbia gave Spielberg an additional 1.5 million dollars to complete a “Special Edition” version on the condition that he include shots of the interior of the alien mothership. Spielberg agreed but he never liked revealing the inside of the spaceship. In 1998 Spielberg created a third cut of Close Encounters that removed the interior spaceship shots while retaining other changes. Recent disc releases include all three versions of the film.

Blade Runner

Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction film Blade Runner was an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The movie is a futuristic noir detective story in which an investigator tracks down a group of renegade androids. Two different cuts were shown in theaters in 1982: the American version which was rated R by the MPAA and the international version which included more violence. The theatrical versions included a voiceover and a happy ending that were forced onto the movie by studio executives over the objections of director Ridley Scott. After a workprint of Blade Runner was accidentally shown at a film festival in 1990, public interest swelled and a new version, called the director’s cut, was released in 1992. The director’s cut of Blade Runner did away with the voiceover and restored the original, more ambiguous, conclusion.  Ridley Scott returned to Blade Runner once more for the 2007 version referred to as “The Final Cut.” It incorporated Scott’s changes but the filmmakers also used digital tools to fix continuity problems and clean up the special effects. The Final Cut is the definitive edition of Blade Runner although some disc releases include additional versions of the film.

Legend

Blade Runner was just one of several Ridley Scott films to have multiple versions including Alien, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, and The Martian. But aside from Blade Runner, the most significantly recut of Scott’s films was his 1985 fantasy adventure Legend. Once again, two versions were shown during the film’s original theatrical release: the 89 minute American version and the 94 minute European version. The European cut was closer to Scott’s original vision and the American cut was significantly retooled. Whole sequences were moved around and reedited, the ending was changed, and Jerry Goldsmith’s score was replaced with music by Tangerine Dream. In 2002 Scott created a 113 minute director’s cut of Legend. This cut used the European version as its basis and includes Goldsmith’s score. The director’s cut is the better film but many fans who grew up watching Legend have an understandable affinity for the 1985 version. The Blu-ray release includes the director’s cut and the American theatrical version.

Alexander

Oliver Stone’s 2004 picture Alexander was an ambitious biopic of Alexander the Great starring Colin Farrell and Angelina Jolie. The film was widely considered a dud in 2004 with the picture’s detractors criticizing the performances, the pacing, and the editing of the action scenes. Stone recognized the film’s problems and reissued various versions of Alexander on disc. The most aggressive revision was the 2005 director’s cut which removed seventeen minutes of footage and added nine minutes of new footage. But Stone also reorganized the narrative, telling the story out of sequence, in ways that sped up the pacing and strengthened the themes. The director’s cut was also criticized. The film dealt frankly with Alexander the Great’s bisexuality but some regarded the director’s cut as deemphasizing his sexual orientation. Stone then released Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut in 2007. This version ran 214 minutes and it retained the narrative reorganization of the director’s cut while restoring much of what was removed from the 2005 version as well as adding additional footage. Stone returned to the film for its tenth anniversary with 2014’s Alexander: The Ultimate Cut. At 207 minutes, it was shorter than The Final Cut and represents Stone’s final draft. The critical regard for Alexander has improved with each revision. It’s still a flawed movie but it is also a very interesting one.

Godzilla (1954)

The original Godzilla was released in 1954. This film introduced audiences to the giant lizard who tramples his way across Japan. Godzilla was a metaphor for the devastation wrought by World War II and specifically the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The movie was recut to play in other territories but the most significant changes were made for the version shown in the United States. Retitled Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the movie included new scenes with Raymond Burr as an American reporter who witnesses the kaiju’s rampage. The American version has a lighter tone than the original Japanese cut and it omits some of the more violent and disturbing images. References to the atomic bomb were cut as well. The American cut of Godzilla was released in 1956 and was such a success that for many years it became the dominant version shown throughout the world. The disc release of Godzilla by the Criterion Collection includes both the Japanese and American versions.

Bad Santa

The 2003 comedy Bad Santa was the story of an alcoholic safecracker, played by Billy Bob Thornton, who poses as a shopping mall Santa and robs the stores on Christmas Eve. The movie exists in three different versions. The theatrical cut ran 92 minutes and when the movie was released on disc it was extended to 100 minutes. That longer version, marketed as the “Badder Santa” edition, was created without the input of director Terry Zwigoff. Both the theatrical and extended cuts of Bad Santa include a voiceover in the opening sequence as well as additional scenes which were added at the behest of producers who wanted to make Billy Bob Thornton’s character more likable. Filmmaker Terry Zwigoff did not like these additions and an official director’s cut was released subsequently. However, the director’s cut of Bad Santa is actually the shortest version, running just 88 minutes. The Blu-ray release of Bad Santa includes the extended cut and the director’s cut.

The Alien Series

The first four Alien films have alternate cuts. In the case of the 1979 original film and 1997’s Alien: Resurrection, the changes are slight. Ridley Scott has acknowledged that the theatrical cut of Alien is his preferred version. The 2003 extended cut removes some of the existing footage to accommodate the new material and some of the long tracking shots are shortened. But Aliens and Alien 3 are a different matter. The second film was directed and co-written by James Cameron and it was the filmmaker’s first foray into extended editions. The theatrical version of Aliens was already over two hours but a special edition of the movie debuted on laserdisc in 1991. This version was seventeen minutes longer with the additional footage deepening the characters of Ellen Ripley and Newt (Sigourney Weaver and Carrie Henn) as well as reinserting a set piece involving automatic weapons. Even more significant was the alternate cut of Alien 3. This movie was plagued by production problems and behind-the-scenes drama. The movie was regarded as a disappointment and director David Fincher has mostly refused to discuss the film or participate in retrospectives about it. Disc releases of Alien 3 have featured what’s called an “assembly edit” in addition to the theatrical version. The assembly edit includes about thirty-seven minutes of new or alternative footage. The story of Alien 3 is fundamentally the same in each version but the assembly edit offers a different feel and gives the characters more nuance.

Snuff

In the 1970s and 80s there was a persistent urban myth about snuff films, supposed underground films that depicted actual murders. Around this same time, filmmaker Michael Findlay created the 1971 film Slaughter, a low budget picture about a murderous Manson Family-like cult. Slaughter didn’t go anywhere and went mostly unseen in its original form. Producer and distributor Allan Shackleton acquired the film and created a new ending. The final moments of the revised movie break the fourth wall to depict a film crew murdering and dismembering a woman as though it’s an actual snuff film. The movie ends abruptly with no end credits. The filmmakers of Slaughter were not consulted about this new ending. Slaughter was retitled Snuff and released in 1975 with a marketing campaign that insinuated it was an actual snuff film. The gimmick was enough to get the film noticed and Snuff sold tickets and incited protests.

Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers

The sixth entry of the Halloween horror franchise, subtitled The Curse of Michael Myers, attempted to explain the masked killer’s motives. The filmmakers concocted an elaborate explanation that dealt with runes, bloodlines, and an ancient cult. When a test audience disliked the picture, The Curse of Michael Myers went through a significant reshoot and reedit that reduced the length of the movie, inserted gore and removed exposition, and completely reworked the ending. However, actor Donald Pleasence, who plays Michael Myers’ nemesis Dr. Loomis, died between principal photography and the reshoot. The new climax that the filmmakers pieced together didn’t make any sense. The eighty-eight minute theatrical cut of The Curse of Michael Myers opened in cinemas in the fall of 1995. Although it was profitable the movie was regarded as a disappointment. The original version, dubbed “The Producer’s Cut,” began circulating on bootleg VHS tapes and fans clamored for an official release. Shout! Factory issued the producer’s cut on Blu-ray in 2014. It contains about forty-minutes of alternate or additional footage and the story makes more sense. But the cult storyline is stupid and both versions of The Curse of Michael Myers were different takes on a fundamentally bad idea. Both versions are now available on disc.

The New World

Filmmaker Terrence Malick is known for taking a long time to work on his films and he reportedly will spend a year in the editing process. Malick did significant retooling of The New World. The film was a drama about English colonists arriving in North America and their relationship with the indigenous people, focusing on John Smith’s relationship with Pocahontas. The version that played in New York and Los Angeles in December 2005 ran 150 minutes. The New World was then cut down to 135 minutes for its wide theatrical release. Aside from its technical faculties the film wasn’t especially well regarded in 2005. Malick continued to work on The New World and released a 172 minute cut in 2008. The extended cut includes chapter titles and allows the pacing to take on a poetic quality and several critics regard the 172 minute version of The New World as a masterpiece. The Criterion Collection Blu-ray of The New World includes all three cuts of the film.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Zack Snyder was tasked with overseeing the DC film series starting with Man of Steel. Following the mixed response to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Warner Bros. began second guessing Snyder. During the postproduction of Justice League the filmmaker lost control of the movie. Directorial duties were turned over to Joss Whedon who, according to recent reports, rewrote and reshot about three-fourths of the movie and Whedon’s version of Justice League was released to theaters in 2017. Snyder’s fans petitioned Warner Bros. to restore his version of the film and the studio eventually acquiesced, allowing Snyder to complete his original intentions. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is, without question, the better version. It is not, however, a rediscovered masterpiece. Like Snyder’s other DC films, Justice League is emotionally cold and it misses the core appeals of superhero stories and four hours is a long time to invest in a film that is just okay. Read the full review of Zack Snyder’s Justice League here.

Superman II

Justice League was not the first Superman film in which behind-the-scenes drama led to different versions. 1978’s Superman: The Movie and its sequel were shot simultaneously. The production was an enormous undertaking and the shoot got behind schedule and went over budget, fraying the relationship between director Richard Donner and the film’s producers. With most of Superman II’s photography completed, the decision was made to abandon further filming in order to make first film’s release date. Superman: The Movie was a huge success but the relationship between Donner and the producers deteriorated and Donner was fired off the sequel. He was replaced by Richard Lester and the script for Superman II was significantly overhauled and much of the movie was reshot with a lighter and campier tone. Lester’s Superman II was released in 1980 and was a hit but for decades fans speculated about the existence of an alternate version. In 2006 Warner Bros. released Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. This version was tonally and stylistically consistent with the 1978 film and was overall a much better movie although at least one sequence relied on test footage and this version reused the around-the-world resolution from the first film. Both versions of Superman II are available on Blu-ray. Each one has its virtues and although Donner’s cut is superior the ideal solution would be a Superman II supercut that assimilates the best of both versions.

The Exorcist Series

All of the movies in the Exorcist series have been subject to alternations. The original 1973 film tells the story of a girl who is possessed by the devil and the pair of Catholic priests who attempt to save her. In 2000 an alternate cut marketed as “The Version You’ve Never Seen” was released. It reinserted several scenes including an expanded ending that softened the finale. This version is now billed as the “director’s cut” although it’s more accurate to call it the William Peter Blatty cut. Blatty, who produced the film and wrote the script and the original novel, was upset that some viewers came away thinking that the devil won and the new version was made at his request. Most Blu-ray editions of The Exorcist include both versions. The subsequent Exorcist films also had alternate versions. Exorcist II: The Heretic was a disaster and it was pulled from cinemas and re-edited in the middle of its theatrical run. Exorcist III, which was directed by Blatty and based on his novel Legion, was forced to undergo changes in postproduction. Shout! Factory has released Blu-ray editions of Exorcist II and III that include multiple versions, although the director’s cut of Exorcist III is more of an assembly using poorly sourced footage. Most tumultuous was the Exorcist prequel. The original version was directed by Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ and directed 1982’s Cat People. Schrader’s film was a meditation on the problem of evil and when executives at Morgan Creek saw it they shelved the movie and hired Deep Blue Sea director Renny Harlin to reshoot nearly the entire picture. Harlin’s version was released in 2004 under the title Exorcist: The Beginning and it was a critical and commercial failure. Morgan Creek then let Schrader finish his version and released it directly to DVD with the title Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist. Although deeply flawed and never properly completed, Dominion was an intellectually interesting story.

The Abyss

Several of James Cameron’s movies have had alternate and extended versions including Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Avatar but the Cameron film that improves the most in its longer iteration is 1989’s The Abyss. The story concerns a deep sea drilling crew who encounter florescent beings in an oceanic trench. The production was a logistical challenge with the cast and crew spending a lot of time in the water and the film had some groundbreaking digital effects. However, the running time was quite long, the special effects technicians had trouble realizing the tsunami that figured importantly into the climax, and the test audiences didn’t respond well. Cameron elected to remove thirty minutes of footage from The Abyss. The 140 minute theatrical version had better test audience scores but it didn’t make much sense. After the technological advances of Terminator 2, Cameron returned to The Abyss and special effects technicians finished the work they had begun years earlier. The Abyss: Special Edition, running 171 minutes, was released in 1993. The longer cut of The Abyss still had a lot of problems but it at least made sense. The Abyss: Special Edition was released on DVD but the film is not available on Blu-ray in any version.

Apocalypse Now

Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War opus Apocalypse Now has been subject to several versions. When the film premiered it did not have end credits; moviegoers were instead given a program as they would when attending live theater. When Apocalypse Now went into general release the end credits rolled over imagery of the Kurtz compound burning to the ground and in later versions the credits were simply white text over a black background. The 1979 theatrical cut of Apocalypse Now ran 147 minutes. A workprint version, running 330 minutes, has circulated as a bootleg but has never been officially released. In 2001 Coppola created Apocalypse Now Redux which reinstated deleted scenes and reordered existing footage, bringing the running time to 196 minutes. The new footage was interesting and pumped up the themes but many of the additions were unnecessary and slowed the movie down. For the film’s fortieth anniversary, Coppola recut Apocalypse Now again for what was called “The Final Cut.” This version removed some of the sequences added into Apocalypse Now Redux, improving the pacing and bringing the running time to 182 minutes. The 2019 version is Coppola’s preferred version. Apocalypse Now has had numerous home video releases featuring different cuts. The 4K Blu-ray release includes all three official versions of the film.

Dumb and Dumber

Dumb and Dumber was a 1994 comedy starring Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels as a pair of idiotic friends driving across the country. The movie was a huge hit and it is one of the best comedies ever made. The PG-13 theatrical cut ran 107 minutes but an unrated cut running 113 minutes was released on Blu-ray. The unrated cut includes alternate and extended scenes but this is an example of more is less. The theatrical version is far superior to the unrated cut. A prime example of how delicate comedy can be, the shorter cut is tighter and funnier and has more agreeable tone. Unfortunately the unrated cut of Dumb and Dumber is the only version that has been released on Blu-ray. The theatrical version can be found on DVD.

Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings trilogy was adapted from the classic fantasy novels of J.R.R. Tolkien. The three films were shot in one simultaneous production (although significant reshoots were done between the installments) and the films were released in consecutive years between 2001 and 2003. The theatrical versions of The Lord of the Rings were not short; each installment ran about three hours. For the home video release, filmmaker Peter Jackson created significantly longer expanded editions with thirty to sixty minutes added to each episode. The extended cut of Return of the King runs over four hours. Altogether, the longer versions of Lord of the Rings are superior, adding texture and characterization, but the films also become increasingly self-indulgent, a quality that would bedevil Jackson’s later work and especially his three film adaptation of The Hobbit. Both versions of The Lord of the Rings are available on Blu-ray.

Star Wars

The most contentious of all director’s cuts and special editions are those of the original Star Wars trilogy. It’s worth noting that George Lucas tinkered with these films throughout their lifetimes. In 1997, Lucas created the Star Wars: Special Edition trilogy which reinserted deleted scenes, used digital technology to replace special effects and populate the movie with additional creatures and droids, insert new dialogue, and change some of the backgrounds. Alterations were made to A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi although the first film underwent the most significant changes. Lucas revised these changes for the 2004 DVD release and the 2011 Blu-ray release. There were additional changes to the version appearing on Disney+ in 2020. The edits were of dubious value. Some additions added value but others did not meld with the analog source or were stupid and distracting. The Star Wars: Special Edition was so controversial because Lucas retired the pre-digital versions of the films. Only the special editions would exist in perpetuity. That prompted Star Wars fans to create their own versions, most notably the Despecialized Edition, which fans have restored and circulated in bootleg form. Lucas also amended the Star Wars prequel trilogy for their home video releases but nobody cared. Read more commentary about the Star Wars Special Editions here.

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