Image Entertainment // 2004 // 95 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // January 23rd, 2013
There are monsters standing in his way.
When told that I am about to review the first feature film by expert special effects artist Robert Hall, whose credits include everything from The Island of Dr. Moreau and Wishmaster to Angel and Firefly, I have certain expectations about what I will see. Tom Savini, in a similar position, debuted with his 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, and similarly, I anticipated a gorefest from Hall. Lighting Bug, however, is not that; far from it. This semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama is an extremely pleasant surprise, one of the finest debut features I've watched in some time, and I'm frankly shocked that I've never even heard of it before now.
Green Graves (Bret Harrison, Deal) loves horror movies and has big dreams of making it as a special effects artist in Hollywood. Unfortunately, growing up in northern Alabama doesn't quite lend itself to support in such a venture. His mother (Ashley Laurence, Hellraiser) is a good woman who makes very bad decisions, worst of which being her marriage to Bone (Kevin Gage, Heat), a genuine piece of garbage, whose abuse is destroying their family. Luckily, Green gets the opportunity to show his monster chops by running the local spook show and finally meets a nice girl in Angevin Duvet (Laura Prepon, That '70s Show), who works at the video store where he rents his horror. These two things give him hope he can see his dream come true, but the monsters all around him continue to conspire against him.
Our esteemed Judge Dave Johnson summed up Lightning Bug very well in his review of the original DVD release, so I'll keep that business short before discussing the Blu-ray release.
Lightning Bug is, in so many ways, a brilliant film. It's far from perfect, but especially given that it's Robert Hall's debut feature, almost all of the problems (meager problems, at that) are almost completely forgiven. Populated with young actors and old favorites, the performances are heartfelt, compelling, and fairly realistic. The only exceptions are those of the almost comically evil villains, including Kevin Gage, who is absolutely fantastic at being a drunk, abusive d-bag, and Angevin's mother (Shannon Eubanks, The Patriot), who go a little bit too overboard with their villainy, lending an unrealistic, though no less compelling, tinge to the production.
The story and script are equally strong, with a sincerity and rare lack of cynicism that is refreshing to see. While it's mostly autobiographical, there are some points that are fairly unbelievable. That doesn't matter much, though, because the whole production is so strong. It moves smoothly, with a clearly defined structure and a deft hand behind the camera. Given the genuine success of Hall directing the picture, it's surprising he hasn't directed more films (his directing output since has been limited to Laid to Rest and ChromeSkull, its sequel, though his effects work hasn't slowed down), but that doesn't matter, either. Lightning Bug is an almost singularly excellent debut. If you haven't heard of it or seen it, go out of your way to see it. It's a rewarding ninety minutes that is worth seeing on every level.
Lightning Bug arrives on Blu-ray from Image Entertainment, and while much of the disc is a carry-over from the DVD, it's still very good. I can't compare it to the original DVD release, but here, the 1.85:1/1080p image transfer looks great. The grain structure is nice and filmic, accurately representing the Super-16 stock they used for the film. Its graininess doesn't detract from the detail of the overall picture, which is solid throughout the frame. Black levels are deep and flesh tones are realistic. It definitely has a low budget look to it, but it performs very well. The DTS-HD audio mix fares similarly. It's a dialog heavy production without a ton of audio tricks, but the effects that are there perform well in the surround channels and the music is very well rendered. On a technical level, this release of Lightning Bug is an excellent piece of work.
The special features are copious and well done, but most are ported over directly from the film's earlier release. The one big difference in the two releases is a complete extended cut of the film, which clocks in at about fifteen minutes longer, and is presented in the same hi-def image transfer and DTS-HD sound mix as the original film. The release cut is the better version, but the extended footage probably better represents Hall's vision for the movie. The problem, as the director discusses during in the commentary for the deleted scenes, that a lot of this footage slows the movie down, and it really does. There are some interesting character pieces, but it doesn't carry that much value over the regular version. Moving on, we have two audio commentaries, one with the director alone and the other featuring the director, Laura Prepon, Ashley Laurence, and producer Lisa Waugh. The first is the informative commentary and the second is the fun one, though it has plenty of information in its own right, and both are worth a listen.
We continue with two featurettes. The first, "Luciferin: The Making of Lightning Bug" comes from the original release and is interesting, if not terribly substantial. The second, "AfterGlow: A Look Back at Lightning Bug" is the other new extra, and presents interviews with the cast and crew, along with critics, a writer for Fangoria, and actors Hall has worked with since, talking about their impressions of the film, which Hall seems to have pushed onto everybody he met.
The disc continues with about twenty minutes of deleted footage, with optional commentary. The big thing of note here is the complete deletion of the great Don Gibb (Bloodsport) from the film, who provides some great comic relief, though as Hall explains, it turned out he wasn't needed because of the unexpected comic performances of many of the other actors, rendering his role unnecessary. It's too bad, though, as Gibb is one of my favorite niche character actors, but at least it's here. Finally, some pointless outtakes, a music video, and a trailer close out the disc. The photo gallery from the original release is gone, but nobody is missing that.
Despite a few character and narrative missteps, Lightning Bug is an earnest and lovely drama that deserves a lot more attention than it has received. Extremely well-acted and directed by the deft hand of someone who was far more talented than his experience level would suspect. I expected horror and this is the rare instance where I'm glad I didn't get it. Instead, I got a very strong coming-of-age film that is both relatable and terribly sad, plus an excellent Blu-ray release on top of it.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Extended Cut
* Deleted Scenes
* Music Video