Lightning Bug isn't a horror flick, and yet it's a film I'd bet many genre fans can relate to...those of us who grew up devouring Fangoria and GoreZone month in and month out, daydreaming about being the next Tom Savini or Rob Bottin. See, high school senior Green Graves (Bret Harrison) has a knack for creating gruesome monsters: doodling, sculpting,
and eventually building full-size demented creatures. If he were somewhere in sunny Los Angeles, that'd be one thing. Living in crushing poverty in Fairview, Alabama at the tail-end of the 1980s: the buckle of the Bible belt...? Not so much. Green knows this is his way out...that this is his calling in life. Until that day comes, he has to struggle with a well-meaning but hopelessly alcoholic mother (Ashley Laurence), a violently tempermental stepfather (Kevin Gage) who demands that this little shit get his head out of the clouds, and a puritanical community that looks at Green's creations as some sort of communion with the devil.
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Embattled dreams, a single mother, alcoholism, poverty, kissin' cuzzin' jokes, a dumpy trailer, spousal abuse, Bible thumpers, a newfound girlfriend with a dark past (Laura Prepon): on its surface, Lightning Bug might look like a couple hundred other coming-of-age dramas, dutifully checking off just about every cliché on the list. What I initially dismissed as more of the same quickly drew me in, though. For one, Lightning Bug is wholly sincere, not some cynically contrived drama to cash in on a bunch of laurels from however many different film festivals. Its emotions are real, aided in particular by intensely powerful performances by Ashley Laurence, Laura Prepon, and an ambitious yet vulnerable Bret Harrison. Green's passion for creature effects beams brightly throughout every last frame of the film. That he's a horror fanatic resonates with me, seeing as how I wasn't too far from that age when I tumbled headfirst into the genre, but I think anyone with an artistic calling can relate to his plight.
I appreciate that there isn't some singular nemesis or obstacle Green has to overcome to be happy. Sure, sure, Green struggles with his stepfather's incendiary temper, his girlfriend's fundamentalist Christian mother (Shannon Eubanks), and a smug, condescending sheriff's deputy (Hal Sparks). What he's ultimately pitted against, though, isn't
a person or a tactile thing; it's a way of thinking...succumbing to the certainty that there isn't a life beyond the borders of this sleepy little town. With a turbulent life at home and a community that sneers at him as some kind of psychopath, Green's monstrous creations are the closest thing to a sanctuary he has, and those bursts of happiness are soon stripped from him as well. This is a story about following your dreams, yes, but it goes beyond the familiar "work hard, and believe in yourself!" beats; it's about the suffering that's sometimes necessary for one's art, a willingness to take risks, a capacity to endure, and the ability to leave the rest behind.
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Lightning Bug draws deeply from the life of its writer/director, as Robert Hall also grew up in this very same town in Alabama and went on to found a prominent effects shop in Hollywood. It's not exactly the sort of film I'd expect a horror effects wizard to helm for his first time to the plate as a director, but that's kind of the point. Hall coaxes near-unilaterally fantastic performances from his cast and builds such powerful emotions that it feels like the work of a seasoned professional, not a first-time director. In making a movie like this, Hall takes risks not far removed from the character standing in for himself, and there's certainly something to be said for literally putting his money where his mouth is. Actually filming in a remote speck on the map in Alabama lends Lightning Bug a wonderful sense of authenticity as well. It's just been far
too long since I escaped into a movie like this.
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I'm honestly not left with a lot to complain about. I guess Lightning Bug might be a bit too overstuffed, though. For instance, Green has a kid brother who gradually becomes deeply religious. A good bit of time is spent fleshing that out, and yet he's never actually given any sort of dramatic or emotional hook. Even if the point is to show how different the brothers' reactions are to their plight, he could be cut out of the movie altogether and it wouldn't amount to any difference at all. I don't know, it's just that no matter what flaws might be staring me in the face, I could easily shove them aside. Some people seize an opportunity to direct because it's the next stage in their career; meanwhile,
I'm left with the sense that Lightning Bug is a film that Robert Hall had to make. It's borne of passion, and that's absolutely contagious. Lightning Bug alternates between cute, playful, haunting, and horrific. It's bursting at the seams with honesty, and that sort of sincerity really does go a long way.
I'm very glad to have had the chance to discover Lightning Bug now that it's found its way onto Blu-ray,
and I very Highly Recommend that anyone who's made it this far in my rambling review do the same.
A couple of quick notes before I move onto the technical end of the presentation, though. First, this Blu-ray disc features two cuts of Lightning Bug, one of which I don't believe has ever been available on home video. Second, the 'original' version of Lightning Bug has been fiddled with a bit, and that may or may not ruffle the feathers of purists. Most of the changes are digital nips and tucks to strengthen some of the visuals. There's also a smirking insert in the video store that threw me off. Green walks through all these racks of clamshell VHS tapes, and all of a sudden, there are the covers for Laid to Rest and ChromeSkull: Laid to Rest 2, produced as recently as 2011. Yeah, yeah, I get the joke, but...anachronistic! C'mon, though, if that's the only thing I'm complaining about...
Nevermind that Lightning Bug was filmed right at a decade ago; the photography has a indeterminate sense of time to it, to the point where if I didn't know better, I'd absolutely believe its cameras had been rolling back in 1987. Considering that the movie is set somewhere around then, that dated quality ultimately works in Lightning Bug's favor too. Of course, that doesn't translate all that well to traditional high definition eye candy.
Even for a fiercely independent 16mm production, Lightning Bug is considerably softer and less detailed than anticipated. Texture and clarity are at best a marginal improvement over what I'd expect to see from an upconverted, well-mastered DVD. I don't have Anchor Bay's standard definition release of Lightning Bug handy to do a direct comparison, but if this blows the 2005 disc out of the water, that says more about the DVD than the presentation on this Blu-ray disc. I'm not going to say for certain that Lightning Bug is a straightahead upconvert, but so little definition and detail are resolved that it's somewhere in that general ballpark. I mean, open these screenshots to full size and tell me if there's anything the least bit "HD" about them:
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I'd expect a 16mm indie to boast a crisply rendered sheen of grain; here, it's chunky and generally indistinct, far more DVD-like in that sense than what I'd expect out of a newly-minted Blu-ray release. Director Robert Hall bemoans the lack of a gritty texture in one of his audio commentaries, but this goes beyond that. Its palette is somewhat strangely saturated and doesn't really strike me as playing in Blu-ray's colorspace. On the other hand, black levels are substantial, and what speckling there is can readily be shrugged off.
Presumably all of this met with Robert Hall's approval, though. After all, Lightning Bug did pass through the digital arm of his special effects company for this Blu-ray release. Even grading on a microbudget indie curve, though, Lightning Bug looks decidedly lackluster in high definition.
Both versions of Lightning Bug have been encoded with AVC and are presented at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 95 minute cut preferred by Hall has been authored at a higher bitrate than the extended version. Between the two separate presentations of the film and an onslaught of needlessly upconverted extras, Lightning Bug takes up the better part of this dual-layer Blu-ray disc.
On the other hand, Lightning Bug's 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks -- one for each cut of the film -- are a staggering improvement over anything I'd expect a DVD to be able to deliver. Easily the highlight of the lossless 5.1 audio is the music, particularly the startling distinctness and clarity of Kevn Kinney's contributions. Though the front channels expectedly shoulder the bulk of the work, the surrounds are used frequently and effectively as well. The rears are teeming with atmospheric color and do a brilliant job establishing a sense of place. Even though the lower frequencies aren't relentlessly rattling, the subwoofer makes its presence known when it counts. There's a good bit of stereo separation up front, dialogue is consistently rendered cleanly and clearly throughout, and...well, aside from some light clipping
in a couple of loudly shouted lines, I'm really not left with much to grouse about at all here. A strong effort.
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Both cuts of Lightning Bug are accompanied by Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks (448kbps). The 95 minute version of Lightning Bug also offers a Dolby Digital stereo surround track (448kbps) and a pair of audio commentaries. There are no dubs, subtitles, or captions.
This Blu-ray release of Lightning Bug carries over the extensive slate of extras from Anchor Bay's DVD from 2005, and there are a slew of very noteworthy new additions along for good measure. For whatever reason, the overwhelming majority of them have been upconverted from standard definition.
- Extended Version (110 min.; HD): Don't confuse this with a director's cut, even though this is closer to the version of Lightning Bug that was making the festival rounds. The fact that it's only available under the 'Extras' submenu and doesn't have any commentaries along for the ride make it that much clearer that the tightened 95 minute cut of Lightning Bug is the preferred version.
If you have the original Anchor Bay DVD on your shelf, you've already seen these additions in a rougher form; they're a more visually polished version of what's in the deleted scenes reel. Among the new scenes here are an early food stamp scam, a longer and deliriously over-the-top version of Deputy Dale's talk show, Green enlisting his brother's help in swiping a set of car keys, and an entire subplot with the boys' crazy Uncle Marvin (Revenge of the Nerds' Donald Gibb) who's nowhere to be found in the final cut! The shorter version of the film is better paced and feels more tonally consistent, but it's pretty terrific to see this footage reinstated just the same. The quality is comparable to the 95 minute version of Lightning Bug, by the way, and I believe this marks the first home video release of this cut of the film.
- Luciferin: The Making of Lightning Bug (21 min.; SD): Lightning Bug's original making-of featurette splices together talking head interviews, footage from the set, and even some of the original audition tapes. Among the topics of the discussion are what drew each member of the cast to this film, working alongside first-time director Robert Hall, how filming in such an incredibly small town wound up being so advantageous, and how seasoned fx veteran Hall kept a greater distance from the movie's makeup effects than you might have thought.
- Afterglow: A Look Back at Lightning Bug (25 min.; SD): The newly-produced retrospective "Afterglow" catches up with much of the cast and crew, as well as coaxing comments from some of Robert Hall's other friends and collaborators, such as Darren Lynn Bousman, Lena Hedley, and Thomas Dekker. Some of the material from "Luciferin" has been repurposed here, but the bulk of "Afterglow" is original and digs deeper than that earlier featurette. The highlights include the psychology behind the film, what the lightning bug metaphor represents, the ultimate moral message to take away, smalltown fear and aggression, the reveal that Laura Prepon fielded a good bit of 2nd unit direction, and a list of some of the visual effect enhancements added in for this Blu-ray release.
- Deleted Scenes (20 min.; SD): Since most of this footage has been repurposed into the extended version of Lightning Bug, I guess you don't
need me to retread that again, although there are a few snippets -- hey, a fantasy exorcism! -- that didn't make it into the longer cut unless I dozed off or something. Writer/director Robert Hall offers optional commentary that's far more insightful than the usual "we cut it for pacing" notes that you usually get with these things.
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- Outtakes (5 min.; SD): Blown lines. Manic bursts of laughter. Hal Sparks riffing relentlessly. You know the drill.
- Audio Commentaries: Both of the commentaries from the 2005 DVD have found their way onto this Blu-ray disc. In the first, writer/director Robert Hall goes it alone, delving into how deeply Lightning Bug draws from his own life, pointing out subtle homages to Halloween, differentiating a self-funded film like this from other low-budget efforts, and marveling at the talents of his 21 year old D.P.
Hall is joined in the second commentary by producer Lisa Waugh and actresses Ashley Laurence and Laura Prepon. The four of them talk about Hall trying desperately to cast one role by making the rounds in strip clubs, the joys and occasional headaches of lining up locations in a sleepy little town in Alabama, addressing criticisms of Southern-fried stereotypes, and noting that the bars in the jail cells were the only things that were actually built for the film. Hall has a tendency to say some of the same things in just about the same exact way he does in his other commentary, but I found both to be well worth a listen.
- Music Video (4 min.; SD): A video for Kevn Kinney's "(Welcome to the) Sun Tangled Angel Revival" has also been included.
- Photo Gallery (HD): Lightning Bug's extensive image gallery features 85 production stills, promotional shots, and poster art.
- Trailers (4 min.; HD / SD): Rounding out the extras are two trailers. One is an upconvert of the original trailer, and the other has been newly produced for this Blu-ray release.
The Final Word
Lightning Bug is a smartly crafted, resonant, and remarkably engaging story about the pursuit of dreams against the most impossible of odds. This isn't an "...and they lived happily ever after!" sort of coming-of-age film, though; it's about determination in the face of adversity and loss. Green's passion for his craft is infectious, certain to warm the cold, deadened hearts of horror fanatics like myself with a similar lifelong fascination with makeup effects. The film is emotional without feeling cloying or oversentimental, it doesn't hesitate to take jaw-droppingly bleak sharp turns, and what threaten to come across as small-town Southern drama tropes are elevated by a set of terrific performances. Highly Recommended, despite my reservations about the presentation.