SPIRITS OF THE AIR, GREMLINS OF THE CLOUDS UMBRELLA ENTERTAINMENT ALL REGION BLU-RAY IS NOW AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE (LINKS BELOW)
(All screen-caps have been taken directly from the Umbrella Entertainment Blu-Ray, no alterations have been made to the images. Images are uncompressed)
“Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds” marks the 1989 feature film debut of Egyptian-Australian filmmaker Alex Proyas. Proyas is best known for directing the visually arresting film adaptation of James O’Barrs comic book series “The Crow” in 1994. Proyas started his film-making career much earlier in much the same way as Russell Mulcahy (Razorback) in the world of music videos and shorts. During the early 1980’s Proyas directed video for artists such as Fleetwood Mac, Yes, INXS, Mike Oldfield, Cock Robin and Crowded House and produced many low budget short films (Neon, Groping, Strange Residues). Originally conceived as a 45 minute short film with hopes to secure a government grant to fund the film, Proyas was approached by the Australian Rock group INXS to fund a feature length version of the film for theatrical release.
Entering production at the tail-end of the Post-Apocalyptic film boom of the 1980’s, “Spirits” does indeed share similar locales of previous Australian film shot in the Broken Hill area of the Australian Outback. Despite the locales, the film seemingly does not possess any of the well-worn tropes that saturated the genre during the period. There are no flamethrower monster trucks or spikey pseudo-leather daddy bondage get-ups. Proyas‘ aim seems to be minimalism, centered around big concepts, both abstract and concrete. Philosophical themes of death, hope, paranoia, religion and technology are all major parts of the films narrative. Think more Tarkovksy or Jodorowsky than George Miller or Cirio H. Santiago.
“Spirits” is a parable set in the distant future, after an unspecified cataclysm has befallen humanity. Wheelchair-bound, alcoholic Felix Crabtree (Michael Lake) and his deranged religiously-fixated sister, Betty (Rhys Davis) find their quiet, forlorn lives disrupted when a stranger (Norman Boyd) appears at their rundown farmhouse on the edge of a vast desert. Calling himself “Smith”, the black-clad obtruder keeps his origins to himself, but it is later revealed that he is on the run from someone or something in the South. Betty believes that Smith is a demon. Smith mentions his desire for flight – quite a coincidence, as Felix is obsessed with building a glider to clear the mountains to the north and fly off to a new life. Smith and Felix set out together to build a glider and circumnavigate a treacherous mountain range in the North, all the while contending with Betty’s paranoia and general psychosis.
Much like Razorback director Russell Mulcahy, Alex Proyas gift for surreal, painting-style visuals and deeply saturated colors is present throughout “Spirits” 96 minutes. From the films outset, we are treated to a hypnotic and sweeping desert vista complete with burnt orange sands under a backdrop of turquoise sky. A lone wanderer makes his way through the barren wasteland, surrounded by a formation of vintage automobiles buried nose-deep in sand.
Lead production designer Sean Callinan’s bold “found objects as art” visual approach takes basic items and uses their inclusion to introduce symbolism into the films narrative.
Proyas, like Tarkovsky, has a genuine and continued interest in spirituality as it relates to humanity. “Spirits” is filled with symbols representative of religion and technology and even things seemingly added for decoration can hold weight against the films narrative. Take for example, dozens of artfully decorated crosses adorning spaces both inside and out, we later find out that the siblings recently deceased Father was a religious fundamentalist who’s treatment of the siblings, have left both cracked, and left Betty forever scarred with a general mistrust of outsiders and unseen evil. Speaking of Betty (Rhys Davis), she delivers a very theatrical performance that would not seem out of place in the silent cinema of the Roaring 20’s. Her performance is expressive in nearly an over-the-top fashion, and when she emotes there is an certain ‘exclamation” to every action, both in dialog and in movement. With her caked-on makeup, home-made Cello and bizarre Victorian-era dresses, Betty seems to be representative of a bygone era. Davis’ appearance, paired with her performance create an odd juxtaposition between the old world and the bleak, bombed out future.
Michael Lake’s performance as Felix Crabtree is a but more nuanced and has an emotional resonance that for all of Davis flailing and snarling could not equate.One gets the impression that Felix isn’t necessarily in his right mind, but it’s hard to deny his passion and dogged determination.
Felix spends hours on end alone in his workshop obsessively tinkering away, dreaming of a different life just over the mountains. It is alluded to towards the middle of the film that previous attempts at flight took his ability to walk and left him confined to a wheelchair. It may be his deteriorated mental health or the severity of his alcoholism that propels his passions, but his outward and internal struggle is at the films emotional core.
Norman Boyd as “Smith” in his only film performance was not as multi faceted or dimensional as I’d hoped, but I did find a subtle menace to the character and I had genuine suspicions about his intentions. He doesn’t have many lines or character development, and mostly just stands around grimacing at Felix.
Another of the films strong points worth mentioning is it’s Peter Miller composed score. Miller creates a haunting electronic soundscape with flourishes of Morriconian bliss. The score much like the film itself, can be hopeful and triumphant one moment and discordant and tense a moment later.
Overall, the dynamics between the small cast kept me engaged and uncomfortable for the films 96 minutes. The films pacing seems to be deliberate, but also may be maddening for those hoping to get to a resolution without embracing the ride. Some may call it sluggish, but I appreciated the time with these strange and quirky individuals, isolated from whatever world remains after the fall. And just when you think there is a resolution, even bigger philosophical questions are raised and will have you scratching your head and wondering why ‘Spirits” never had a proper continuation. Overall the film is visually stunning, imbued with philosophical and religious symbolism and populated with odd and interesting characters. This film may not be every ones taste, and while sharing similarities, there is certainly no other film to compare “Spirits” to, not even Proyas later works.
VIDEO:Codec: MPEG-4 AVC (30.36 Mbps)
Aspect ratio: 1.26:1
Original aspect ratio: 1.33:1
“Spirits” has been regarded as something of a lost film for nearly 30 years, And even in the digital society we live in, it has been hard to come across anything above a second generation VHS scan ripped onto a DVD. Thankfully in 2018 Umbrella Entertainment have revived the film with a brand new 2K scan from the original 16mm Camera Negative. This new scan is absolutely stunning. High contrast, saturated colors, deep inky blacks, filmic grain structure and nice sharp lines. Of course a film this vintage has some blemishes, but Umbrella has managed to do an excellent job with clean-up. Truly a top-tier presentation of an under-seen film by one of films most visionary auteurs. No signs of digital tooling or noise reduction are present.
AUDIO:English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit)
English: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 (48kHz, 24-bit).
I generally prefer 2.0 audio tracks for older films and this one is no different. DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 is well balanced, dialog is clear and easily understood. Peter Millers soundtrack is at the forefront (though it sounds a bit bigger with the 5.0 track)
Overall, both 2.0 and 5.0 are both well balanced and clear. No audio dropouts or sync issues appear.
– Audio Commentary with Director Alex Proyas – Alex Proyas speaks in-depth about the production of the film, the Broken Hill shooting location, the difficulty of shooting on such a tight budget. He shares how many key shots were concieved and ultimately performed and also shares some stories from set.
– Audio Commentary with Composer Peter Miller
and Editor Craig Wood
– Interview with cast member Michael Lake (36 minutes) – New interview featuring lead actor Michael Lake. Lake discusses working with Director Alex Proyas and the productions hectic shooting schedule. How it was important for himself, Davis and Boyd to film takes in as few attempts as possible as to not waste film. Lake discusses many aspects of his experience working on the low budget film. Lake touches on Peter Miller’s ace score and also discusses Proyas’ filmography. I don’t know what it is about Lake, but I find him absolutely fascinating.
– Interview with cast member Rhys Davis – Davis discusses her short-lived acting career, she shares a few anectdotes from the set, discusses the shooting location. I was hoping to hear a little more about her wild and over-the-top character and her motivation for the role. But overall, a pretty informative interview.
– SPIRITS: Making a Post-Apocalypse Western
featurette (24 minutes) Vintage shot-on-video video diary recalling the production of “Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds”
I absolutely love this style of ‘Making of” featurette and how raw and candid it is. The camera travels around the set during the filming of many key scenes and I found it fascinating to see how they certain films were shot.
– SPIRITS SONG music video – (4 minutes) – A fun and strange artifact, with music production by Peter Miller and featuring vocals by Karina Hayes. All 3 cast members (Davis, Lake, Boyd) make short appearances in this zany video that is very much a product of its time.
– Image Gallery – Production stills, theatrical and home video artwork, behind the scenes photos, concept art. The image gallery also contains 2 Easter Eggs, one is the Proyas short film “Eyeball” which I was not familiar with, but was a cool little horror short.