In his interview on this Blu-ray disc, George Romero frowns on the original poster art for Knightriders, disappointed that it fails to convey what kind of a movie this is, exactly. I was sort of surprised to hear that because I always thought that the artwork is all the review anyone really needs: Ed Harris, clad in a full suit of armor, clutching a flail, and straddling a high-octane motorcycle. Done! You've got my
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I can see why Knightriders might not be the easiest sell, though. Even at this relatively early point in his career, Romero's name was already inexorably tied to horror. Knightriders, meanwhile, is a two and a half hour film about a traveling band of renaissance faire jousters on Harleys. No nightmarish creatures. No gruesome makeup effects. Not even a villain in the traditional sense. Barely released theatrically in 1981, Knightriders remained for far too long nothing more than a footnote in Romero's filmography...one that happened to be sandwiched between Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow. Even its releases on home video have been kind of spotty, bouncing around from label to label on VHS and long out of print on DVD. Shout Factory has recently gotten their hands on the film, and it's a thrill to rediscover this forgotten favorite now that it's found its way onto Blu-ray.
Billy (Ed Harris) isn't just the leader of this traveling ren faire troupe; he's their king. He's created his own miniature society that's anachronistically trapped somewhere between the past and present. They parade around in homemade suits of armor, knock each other off motorcycles at breakneck speeds with lances, and generally eat, drink, and be merry. It's just that Billy sees his troupe as some sort of artistic collective. Some of his 'subjects', meanwhile, look at themselves as professional entertainers, and their king's drive for the purity of his art isn't getting them paid all that well. They schlep over to another barely discernable speck on the map, draw in a modest crowd, and hardly bring in enough cash to cover food and enough gas to do it all over again. Billy's principles run so deep that he's willing to throw away thousands of dollars, spend a night in jail, and even look on helplessly as one of his closest friends is violently abused, all because he refuses to pay off a corrupt cop looking for a payday. The knights-on-bikes concept is on the cusp of something, but these squabbles over money and control split the group apart. Morgan (Tom Savini) tires of being shoved to the sidelines and signs with a promoter, at long last leading his own team. One of Billy's most gallant knights, Alan (Gary Lahti), takes off to sort out his own conflicted feelings. What's left of Billy's troupe slowly crumbles into ruin. Everyone's forced to deal with the fallout of getting their way and floundering because of it.
Knightriders is one of those movies that I'm amazed even exists. It's in many ways fiercely uncommercial. Knightriders could've rested on its high-concept laurels but is instead a two and a half hour character-driven film with scores of subplots. When it limped into theaters from an uninterested distributor, next to no one knew what to make of its anachronistic imagery. There isn't a dragon or even some sinister villain to vanquish. Morgan is arrogant, sure, but he's not a bad guy. He wants to be king, but that's nothing to demonize Morgan for; hell, he's earned the crown by the rules of the troupe time and again, repeatedly besting Billy in combat. Morgan, as frustrated as he is, respects Billy enough not to give him too hard a time about it. Knightriders doesn't scowl at Morgan and his followers as being consumed by greed. They're already making a little money doing what they do; why not explore what other
opportunities are out there or experiment with what could be next for the troupe? Things do quickly go south for Morgan after striking out on his own with a sleazy promoter (Martin Ferrero), but it's not because he opted for commerce over creative control. Similarly, Billy isn't portrayed as some stoic hero. His compulsion for the purity of his art is modeled after Romero himself. As the core of the filmmaking scene in Pittsburgh, Romero too had a small band of professional artists who, for better or worse, looked up to him as their leader. Romero turned down potentially lucrative projects to do things his own way, and his generally loyal cast and crew stuck with him and suffered to a certain extent for it. Billy's unflinching commitment to his principles isn't necessarily something to be proud of, and Knightriders explores both the good and the bad that go along with that.
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While there are legions of knights with their own subplots and plenty of arguments about artistic purity, Knightriders also doesn't lose sight of the fact that it's a movie about knights jousting on motorcycles. There's a hell of a lot of action, just about all of which revolve around the troupe's tournaments. The number of knights squaring off at once varies, as do their weapons of choice, keeping the battles from ever feeling stale or more-of-the-same. The breakneck stuntwork remains startlingly effective more than thirty years later, feeling so much more real than the CG-equivalent would be if Knightriders were being hammered out today. The way the motorcycles are violently flung into the air, warriors thrown from their high-octane steeds at impossible speeds, knights being pounded by battle axes, maces, and lances...it's intense and visceral beyond words. Even though this was my third or fourth time through Knightriders, I still found my jaw dropping and shouting "oh, shit...!" at some of the more spectacular spills. The film's two and a half hour runtime sounds daunting, but there's more than enough action and meaningful characterization to hold my interest the whole way through.
I wouldn't say that Knightriders is my favorite of George Romero's films, but I really do love it, and I'm impressed by how well this strange, wonderful movie continues to hold up all these years later. It's not for everyone, to be sure, but Knightriders is a film well worth discovering (or rediscovering!) on Blu-ray and comes enthusiastically recommended.
Compared to the Anchor Bay DVD from 2000, this Blu-ray release of Knightriders is an absolute revelation.
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The lifeless, ruddy palette from the DVD is replaced by cooler, more natural hues. Fleshtones are finally accurate, and the grass and foliage look green rather than scorched for months on end under the summer sun. Don't be thrown off by the excessively soft and hazy first few minutes; Knightriders is kind of a knockout once the optically printed titles are out of the way. Clarity and fine object detail are robust. Knightriders' filmic texture is present to some extent but unintrusive. I'm not sure why Anchor Bay presented Knightriders at an aspect ratio of 1.66:1 a lifetime ago, but this Blu-ray disc offers the film in a way closer to what was likely seen in theaters on these shores, matted instead to 1.85:1. Though less information is accordingly presented at the top and bottom of the frame, this high definition release reveals a touch more on the sides. There really isn't anything in the way of wear or damage. The image doesn't hold up as well under very low light, such as Billy standing up against the doughy deputy sheriff, but I'm sure that's owed to the original photography. Though I did find myself wondering why grain wasn't more pronounced at times, feeling as if some sequences looked a touch more video-like than I would've expected, and suspecting that the texture of the grain wasn't quite right...I don't care. I know how Knightriders has always looked for me up to this point, and this is such a startling improvement that the rest honestly doesn't matter. I really am floored by how gorgeous Knightriders looks on Blu-ray, especially compared to the musty, old Anchor Bay DVD, and
it's as close to an essential upgrade as they come.
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Knightriders' hefty runtime demands a dual layer Blu-ray platter, and that's exactly what Shout Factory has given it. Again, the film is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and you probably don't need me to tell you that it's been encoded with AVC.
Knightriders features a 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack in two-channel mono. Romero discusses the limited recording options in his commentary track, explaining why the motorcycle engines don't snarl with the sort of ferocity you'd probably expect. That's why, as Romero puts it, the audio really doesn't have any balls. The film's dialogue sounds its age but is clean and clear enough, really only suffering during a couple of shouted line readings. I love the Arthurian-style score, and it's rendered respectably well on this lossless soundtrack. There aren't any dropouts, clicks, pops, or excessive hiss to get in the way. Nothing astonishing but a solid effort just the same.
A set of optional English (SDH) subtitles are also along for the ride.
- Audio Commentary: Recorded shortly after production wrapped on Bruiser, George Romero is joined by his wife Christine, Tom Savini, John Amplas, and film historian Chris Stavrakis for a very different sort of commentary. It's less of an intense dissection of the making of Knightriders and more like a handful of longtime friends catching up. They throw out a slew of really amazing stories, such as Knightriders' producers collecting a check so the Knight Rider TV series wouldn't have to change its title and Romero getting hitched while cameras were still rolling elsewhere. The Morgan Freeman debacle mentioned in the interviews is brought up here with a different level of detail, and apparently Tony Todd and Lawrence Fishburne were considered as well. My favorite part was just hearing Romero, Savini, and company look at lifelong friends and collaborators on-screen and talk about what else they've gone on to do...how they've bumped into members of their old Pittsburgh crew on projects all across the globe. If you're a Romero fan,
chances are that you'll have a blast with this commentary.
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- Behind the Scenes: The Stunts of Knightriders (8 min.; SD): Also carried over from the Anchor Bay DVD is this reel of home movies, presented without narration, while filming was underway.
- Interviews (36 min.; HD): Shout Factory and Red Shirt Pictures have put together more than a half hour of newly-conducted interviews. Ed Harris is the focal point of "Conscience for the King" (8 min.), speaking about what a significant role Knightriders was in the early years of his career, more for an opportunity to play the lead rather than instant celebrity or whatever. Among other topics of conversation, Harris also speaks about his interpretation of Knightriders' unhinged ending and mentions that he knew to ride motorcycles from a guest stint on C.H.I.P.s. Awesome.
Tom Savini chats for ten minutes about auditioning for Romero in high school and how it was past time he got a chance to play a lead role. Improvised dialogue, stuntwork, his effects work on this and some especially memorable slasher flicks at the time, and his previous experience on two wheels rank among the highlights. I especially enjoyed hearing about the pranks that Ed Harris would pull at the hotel.
George Romero not surprisingly scores the lengthiest interview, clocking in at seventeen minutes all told. Romero mentions how it was Sam Arkoff that convinced him to ditch horses in favor of motorcycles, casting Savini despite heavy resistance from the other producers, the unrelenting weather that didn't stop abusing the shoot even when it moved indoors, and how this is his second favorite film of his, ranking only behind Martin. ...and, yeah, Romero does speak about how Billy is modeled after himself. All three interviews are definitely worth a look.
- Trailers and TV Spots (3 min.; SD): A few promotional snippets round out the extras.
The Final Word
Movies don't come a whole lot more unique than Knightriders, a sprawling, character-driven piece about creative responsibility...about the collision of commerce and art...and, oh, yeah, about armored knights beating the hell out of each other on motorcycles. Shout Factory's high definition release of Knightriders eclipses the ancient DVD from Anchor Bay -- it's one of the most dramatic DVD-to-high-def upgrades I've ever come across -- and they've assembled a worthy slate of extras while they were at it. Knightriders isn't going to play that well for everyone, but if you've made it this far in the review, chances are you'll love it every bit as much I do. Recommended.