Release Date(s)1996 (June 21, 2022)
Studio(s)Solomon International Pictures (Blue Underground)
- Film/Program Grade: C-
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: B+
As of this writing, Uncle Sam is director William Lustig’s final film. Though he’s open to producing, particularly the long in gestation remake of Maniac Cop with Nicolas Winding Refn at the helm, he’s mostly resigned himself to remastering films in the highest quality for his company Blue Underground (which we’re all reaping the benefits of). In terms of a release, 1996’s Uncle Sam received the short end of the shrift. It went straight to video in the US, despite being shot in widescreen with excellent cinematography. The film has its share of problems, but it ultimately didn’t deserve its fate. I personally remember seeing the lenticular box for it at the video store and being totally underwhelmed thanks to the glut of theme-based and boogeyman-led horror and slasher films being released at the time. Fortunately, Uncle Sam is a little better than most of those types of films, but it needed a bit more TLC to really push it into the horror comedy stratosphere.
Master Sergeant Sam Harper (David Fralick) is killed in action due to friendly fire while in Kuwait. His body is brought home to the town of Twin Rivers by military personnel, including Sergeant Twining (Bo Hopkins), to his sister Sally (Leslie Neale) and his nephew Jody (Christopher Ogden). Jody has been instilled with the idea that Sam was a hero and can’t wait to grow up to fight for his country, despite the disapproval of those around him, including his teacher Mr. Crandall (Timothy Bottoms) and war veteran Jed Crowley (Isaac Hayes). On the Fourth of July, Sam comes back to life to slay those whom he deems to be un-American. As he works his way through the townspeople during their annual Fourth of July celebration, it’s up to Jody to realize that Sam isn’t what he thought he was, and with Crowley’s help, they must try and stop him.
Despite it’s artwork and general premise, Uncle Sam doesn’t quite go for the kind of sardonic approach that its title would lead you to believe. You can definitely feel the presence of Larry Cohen who wrote the film, but the material is played a little too straight. Even Lustig admits that the film is too leisurely paced and, as he states in one of the audio commentaries, that they made a “Lifetime movie” instead of a horror film. It feels labored, and it’s well over a half hour before the killer in his Uncle Sam getup actually shows up. Everything leading up to that is mostly devoted to a young boy trying to navigate his feelings about the military, the government, and patriotism; not to mention dealing with his mother and Sam’s widow, both of whom admit that Sam was abusive. There are no bad performances, per se, but the actors are definitely giving performances for a different kind of film and not a wry horror romp as promised.
Regardless of the clunkiness of its execution, Uncle Sam is not without merit. It offers fine cinematography by relative newcomer James A. Lebovitz, who had worked in other capacities for William Lustig on previous projects, as well as great special effects make-up and effective fire stunts and explosions (the latter being infamous for shattering most of the windows in the small town where the film was shot, even making the local news the next day). As such, the film gets better on repeated viewings, and its notions of questioning blind patriotism continue to remain relevant.
Uncle Sam was shot by cinematographer James A. Lebovitz on 35 mm film using Arriflex cameras, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Blue Underground revisits the title on Ultra HD with a new 25th anniversary 4K 16-bit scan and restoration from the original camera negative, which was finished as a 4K Digital Intermediate and graded for high dynamic range (Dolby Vision and HDR10 options are available). It’s an outstanding presentation—reference quality even—further emphasizing what a shame it was that this was a straight-to-video release. Medium grain is tightly-knit with high levels of fine detail, particularly in darkened environments. The opening scene is set in Kuwait, which is dark by design, and both it and Uncle Sam’s make-up is more nuanced in the depth-laden shadows. Saturation has been enhanced by the new color grades, allowing for richer levels of green and black, and of course, red, white, and blue. The image is also clean, stable, and well encoded, even enhancing the opening title sequence (which features clips of old newsreels and short films). All in all, this a solid presentation that improves upon the film’s visual quality.
Audio is included in a new English Dolby Atmos track (7.1 Dolby TrueHD compatible), as well as English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish. Like its video counterpart, the film’s new Dolby Atmos track and 5.1 companion offer great clarity. Both tracks exhibit strong surround movement and placement, from ambient moments to the booming explosions toward the end of the film. The Atmos height channels benefit from the extra space, and dialogue exchanges are clear and precise. Neither track is thoroughly rich in dynamics or mind-blowing sound design, but the various elements are handled deftly.
Uncle Sam on 4K Ultra HD sits inside a clear amaray case with a double-sided insert, featuring artwork that was used for multiple home video releases of the film (including DVD and Blu-ray), and new artwork, which is replicated on a lenticular slipcover. The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary with William Lustig, Larry Cohen, and George B. Braunstein
- Audio Commentary with William Lustig and Isaac Hayes
- Uncle Sam: Fire Stunts with Audio Commentary with Spiro Razatos (Upscaled SD and HD – 9:48)
- Deleted Scene (Upscaled SD – :53)
- Gag Reel (Upscaled SD – :40)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 1:34)
- Poster & Still Gallery (HD – 51 in all – 26:31)
The first commentary with William Lustig, Larry Cohen, and producer George B. Braunstein, which was recorded for the 2004 Blue Underground DVD release, is excellent. The three men discuss the film while watching it together, but also provide plenty of stories about the making of it, and also acknowledging its shortcomings. It’s clear that they had a good time making the film, and despite its problems, they’re happy to talk about it. (Just as a side note: Larry Cohen makes a joke about being in Sam’s coffin, which is a little eerie given his passing.) The second audio commentary with William Lustig and Isaac Hayes, which was recorded for the 1998 Elite Entertainment LaserDisc and DVD releases, is not quite as good, but still worth listening to. Lustig does most of the talking, explaining things as they go along, with Hayes game to ask questions and be involved, but the chemistry isn’t as strong as it is between Lustig and Cohen in the first track. Uncle Sam: Fire Stunts features a mix of footage from the film and behind-the-scenes footage, occasionally with audio commentary by stuntman and stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos. The Deleted Scene is a brief moment that was trimmed in which one of the men (William Lustig’s brother) who brings the coffin containing Sam into the house speaks with his sister. The Gag Reel is an amusing set of scenes cut together to imply something unsavory between the kid and the adults. The Poster & Still Gallery features 51 images of promotional stills, behind-the-scenes photos, newspaper clippings, posters, and home video artwork.
Uncle Sam shines in 4K Ultra HD in a way that will surprise even the most jaded of horror fans, especially those who saw the film when it was originally released and haven’t looked at it since. As is their forte, Blue Underground offers a quality presentation with good extras in an attractive package.
- Tim Salmons