Updated: Oct 16
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as star-crossed serial killers Mickey and Mallory Knox.
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“NATURAL BORN KILLERS: COLLECTOR’S EDITION”
4K Ultra HD (Director’s Cut) & Blu-ray (Director’s Cut, Theatrical Cut); 1994; Rated R and Unrated with extreme violence and graphic carnage, for shocking images, and for strong profanity and sexuality
Best extra: A new interview with Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson
IN 1987, when I was eight years old, I became obsessed with the Pay-Per-View trailer of Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning “Platoon,” so much so that I recorded the audio of it onto a cassette tape and listened to it over and over, entranced, as boys are, with war and brotherhood. But, equally with the music of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “The Tracks of My Tears” and Samuel Barber’s emotional “Adagio for Strings.”
When Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July” aired on ABC as a Sunday Night Movie (Parental Discretion Advised), I recorded it onto a VHS tape, and to this day, I still recall where every commercial break falls.
My dad took me to see “JFK” when I was twelve. Never in my life had I gripped the armrests of a movie theater seat like I did that day. My dad also got me the book of the film, which included the annotated screenplay and a slew of additional material. I clipped every article, and every review, saved every magazine cover, and filled a folder I still have with everything I could find about Stone's work.
No filmmaker captured my imagination the way Stone did. His films felt more important and had more on their mind, than anyone else’s. I still consider his run spanning “Salvador” (1986), “Platoon” (1986), “Wall Street” (1987), “Talk Radio” (1988), “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989), “The Doors” (1991), “JFK” (1991), “Heaven and Earth” (1993), “Natural Born Killers” (1994), and “Nixon” (1995), to be the greatest ten-movie run a director has ever had.
(1) “Natural Born Killers” was released August 26, 1994 and with an estimated production budget of $35 million. In his commentary Stone cites Roger Corman movies as influencing the title shot. (2) Mallory dances to the jukebox in the film’s opening diner massacre. (3) Mickey grows tired of this redneck talking disrespectfully about Mallory. (4) Inventive photography like this knife through the window shot keeps the energy high. (5) “The whole world’s coming to an end, Mal,” says Mickey.
“Natural Born Killers” was the wildest and most experimental film of his career, and the most controversial ever distributed by a major studio since Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” (1971). It took five rating passes with the MPAA, resulting in the loss of 155 shots and trims, for the film to receive an R rating. Fortunately, Stone’s Director’s Cut was released on home video in 1996 and has been the go-to for fans ever since.
The new Shout Factory Collector’s Edition features a new Warner Brothers scan of the original camera negative – approved by Stone – and fans can finally appreciate “Natural Born Killers” in glorious 4K Ultra HD with his Director’s Cut” running 3:06 minutes longer and the original Theatrical Cut on Blu-ray.
And it all started with a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino (“Pulp Fiction,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”) about married serial killers Mickey and Mallory Knox on a cross-country murder spree. I remember how my fourteen-year-old mind was in great distress to find out that Tarantino and Stone were at odds over the film. I couldn’t wrap my head around how two of my favorite directors had fallen out over one of the most mind-blowing movies I had ever seen. Tarantino disowned the film, and publicly trashed it, “I hated that fucking movie. If you like my stuff, don’t watch that movie.”
From my point of view, Stone did the only thing Stone could do: He turned Tarantino’s story into an Oliver Stone Film with the help of his co-writers David Veloz and Richard Rutowski.
(1) The Taos Gorge Bridge over the Rio Grande in New Mexico provides the perfect backdrop for the spontaneous wedding between Mickey and Mallory. (2) Mickey and Mallory say their vows in blood. (3) “Baby, by the power invested in me, as God of my world, I pronounce us husband and wife.” (4) The Blood union becomes “Aeon Flux” inspired animation as their blood mergers with the Rio Grande. Mike Smith, known for his work on Liquid Television and Futurama, directed the animated sequence.
The results were stunning. Fueled by one of the greatest soundtracks of the era, produced by Academy Award Winner Trent Reznor (“The Social Network,” “Soul”) with Leonard Cohen’s deep baritone acting as the voice of some dark prophet over several key sequences, “Killers” boasts somewhere in the ballpark of 3,000 edits, offering a dizzying and hallucinogenic trip into a nightmare landscape where our two heroes are serial killers and the law enforcement that pursues them and the media that profit off their killings are somehow far more disturbing.
“I’ve seen the future, brother. It is murder.” — Leonard Cohen, “The Future”
Boasting an all-star cast, including Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as star-crossed serial killers, and Robert Downey Jr. in one of the best roles of his career as tabloid TV journalist Wayne Gayle, Tommy Lee Jones as the hot-blooded prison warden, and Tom Sizemore as the twisted cop in hot pursuit of our “heroes.”
Harrelson may have seemed an odd choice at the time, known mostly for his comedic work on NBC’s “Cheers” and the comedy hit “White Men Can’t Jump,” but his casting was a masterstroke. The actor’s father was serving a double life sentence for the gun-for-hire murder of a federal judge and Stone believed there was an “element of criminality” to Harrelson and that he had the “smile of a wicked baby.”
In Matt Zoller Seitz’s knockout book “The Oliver Stone Experience,” Stone said, “You have to remember what was happening in this country in 1991, ‘92, ‘93, with the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan thing, and Lorena Bobbitt, the woman who cut off her husband’s penis, and the TV coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial – I mean, I’ve never seen so much attention paid to a murder! It was a new kind of coverage.”
(1) Mallory makes a conjugal visit. (2) Reminiscent of the peyote scene in “The Doors,” Mickey escapes a prison sentence on horseback into a tornado. (3) 16mm b&w film brings Mickey and Mallory’s road trip to life. (4) Rear projection used outside the window is an example of the film's use of psychological states. (5) Matching wedding rings of the serpents. (6) Roger Dangerfield is brilliant as Mallory’s abusive father. (7) Mallory seduces Balthazar Getty (“Lost Highway”) in one of his first role. (8) The late Tom Sizemore embodies corrupt and sleazy copy Jack Scagnetti, hot on the couple’s trail.
The three-disc set includes four new interviews with editor Hank Corwin, makeup effects artist Gordon J. Smith, cinematographer Robert Richardson, and producer Clayton Townsend, who says, “My memory of the controversy surrounding ‘Natural Born Killers’ was more of a nation being uncomfortable with being judged for their insatiable need for this kind of news coverage and what it said about Americans. At the time, people just couldn’t take the mirror being held up like that.”
Richardson, fittingly, has the most extensive interview, discussing how he was hired to shoot Stone’s “Salvador” because of his documentary work in El Salvador for PBS under very dangerous conditions, the brotherhood that developed between him and Stone that grew increasingly volatile over the years, and the improvisational shooting of “Natural Born Killers.” Most fascinating is his work with three of cinema’s greatest filmmakers, Stone, Martin Scorsese (“Hugo”), and Tarantino (“Inglourious Basterds,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”), in which he discusses the difference in their approaches, even addressing Tarantino’s feelings about “Killers.”
During my decade as a filmmaker, I’m lucky enough to call Oliver a friend, as well as his son, Sean, and was able to meet him on several occasions after making some of my own films “The Fault in our Stars,” and “The Stand” TV series. I reached out to him when the Shout Select 4K Ultra HD release was announced to see where his head was at all these years later.
During our exclusive High-Def Watch interview Stone said, “‘Natural Born Killers’ was made at a time when I felt strongly there was what I’d call a ‘sickness in the land,’ somewhat like an ancient plague cursing Thebes in Greek tragedy. In the early ‘90s, I noticed an upsurge of violence in American behavior. Of course, that violence was there from the beginning, but now, it seemed to be more and more celebrated – or, at least, announced by our media, and became a way to attach more viewers to the epidemic of television and gossip.”
(1) Stone, always drawn to desert landscapes, recalls “The Doors” again as the couple have a marital spat. (2) Mickey and Mallory take shelter with a kind Native American (Russell Means) who sees their demons. (3) Snakes feature prominently and deal Mickey and Mallory their just desserts after Mickey accidentally kills the Native American. (4) Subliminal cuts showcase Mickey and Mallory’s psychological states. (5) Cinematographer Robert Richardson used 1000 green bulbs to light the pharmacy scene. (6) Mickey tries to procure “rattlesnake juice.” (7) Rodney King’s beating inspired Mickey’s take-down by law enforcement. (8) Scagnetti holds Mallory hostage and threatens to hurt her to subdue Mickey.
The Shout Factory release also contains all the legacy extras going back to the Pioneer LaserDisc Special Edition from the ‘90s and a number of featurettes from Warner’s 20th-anniversary edition. The 15-minute “Method in the Madness” features interviews from Stone, Corwin, and technical advisor Dale Dye; the 22-minute “Evolution: How Would it All Go Down Now?” includes interviews with co-stars Lewis and Harrelson who says, “When I first saw it, I was a little speechless. I couldn’t simulate everything. It was a whole different brand of a film.” Lewis was shocked by the amount of negativity from the media. “We were subject to such venom and hostility,” she says.
In the 24-minute “Chaos Rising: The Storm Around ‘Natural Born Killers’” (2001) Stone recalls what drew him to his two leading actors and Tom Sizemore, who talks about the music Stone would play in-between takes. Robert Downey Jr. agrees it was a wild experience, “This was a nuts shoot,” he says. Harrelson found himself the sanest person on the set. “That was a first,” he said. Producer Jane Hamsher recalls how Stone kept the energy at a fever pitch, “It kept everyone on edge.” The film was finished in 56 days, and “I don’t think a lot of us slept,” Stone says. “It was a surreal experience.”
The 4K disc and Blu-ray include Stone’s commentary during the Director’s Cut originally recorded for the 1996 laserdisc. The third disc includes deleted scenes and an alternate ending with introductions by Stone.
(1) Tommy Lee Jones plays Warden Dwight McClusky, who houses the infamous mass murderers in his prison. (2) Robert Downey Jr. apes Geraldo Rivera as Wayne Gayle, who wants a jailhouse interview with Mickey Knox. (3) Mickey shaves his head for his network debut. (4) “It’s just murder. All God’s creatures do it. You look in the forests and you see species killing other species, our species killing all species including the forests, and we just call it industry, not murder.”
Warner took the honors of scanning the original 35mm camera negative (1.85:1 aspect ratio) and the variety of other lesser formats (16mm, Super 8, Hi8, and Beta video) inserted throughout the visual frenzy and mastered in TRUE 4K. Only the 35mm film stock gets the full benefit of the higher resolution. In a quick-shot wide-shot from below the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge in New Mexico, where Mickey and Mallory have a spontaneous marriage, the 4K disc provides so much more detail with the vertical rails on the bridge fencing and the background landscape. The larger the screen the more obvious the disparity – especially if compared to the previous 2014 and 2009 Blu-rays.
Natural film grain on the 35mm footage is evident, but not to the level of Sony’s 4K remastered work, while the grain on the 16mm and Super8 footage is very large as expected.
Stone also effectively used front and rear-projection photography (which provides “psychological backgrounds), plus animation, stock footage, and clips from other films, including “Scarface” and “Midnight Express” which Stone wrote, as well as TV commercials (Coca-Cola was notoriously unhappy to find out how one of their Super Bowl ads was utilized).
Another big difference is the HDR10 and Dolby Vision grading, to which I can attest “Killers” has never looked better. In particular the bold color palettes, with bright reds and greens. Check out the pharmacy scene, which required Richardson to employ 1,000 green fluorescent bulbs to achieve the sickly lighting after Mickey and Mallory are bitten by rattlesnakes. Natural facial toning reduces the excess reddish faces on the 1080p disc.
The HDR10 peak brightness hits 841 nits and averages 462 nits, while the 4K master was encoded onto a 100 GB disc and varies from the mid 50 Megabits per second and tops nearly 100 Mbps.
The six-channel DTS-HD Master soundtrack is still quite effective bounding around the room with its powerful score assembled by Reznor with song fragments and harrowing effects, while the front and center dialogue doesn’t get lost. Cohen’s bassy voice is extremely powerful, especially through a good size center speaker, as he sings “Waiting for a Miracle” and “The Future.” “Sweet Jane” by the Cowboy Junkies; Robert Gordon’s “The Way I Walk”; Reznor’s “Burn” and “A Warm Place”; Patsy Cline’s “Back in Baby Arms” and two dozen more songs are featured.
Seven years after ‘Natural Born Killers,’ Stone’s self-reflective documentary “Oliver Stone’s America,” gave us a glimpse of what he felt about the film. “I’m very proud of the film. I think it’s one of my best works. It’s a total Rosetta Stone of the early ‘90s in America, and in it you can find the sickness of our society. Look for it, but don’t come after me, I’m the messenger.”
The late Chicago Sun-Times ‘At the Movies’ film critic Roger Ebert gave “Natural Born Killers” his highest mark, a major ‘Thumbs Up’ and four stars. “Seeing this movie once is not enough. The first time is for the visceral experience, the second time is for the meaning.”
There’s no other film like it, and there never will be again.
— Josh Boone, producer, screenwriter, director
(1) Mickey stages a daring escape that sparks a terrifying riot. (2) McClusky and his guards try to stop the couple’s escape.