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Home Vision Entertainment presents
Wisconsin Death Trip (1999)

"It has become hard to induce the living to bury the dead."
- Newspaper article written by Frank Cooper

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: February 22, 2004

Stars: Ian Holm
Other Stars: Jeff Golden, Jo Vukelich, Marilyn White, Marcus Monroe, John Schneider
Director: James Marsh

Manufacturer: Ascent Media
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, gore, suicide, depravity, brief nudity, full-frontal infant nudity, homecoming queens)
Run Time: 01h:17m:59s
Release Date: February 24, 2004
UPC: 037429183625
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

It's well known that Wisconsin has a reputation for mental derangement: Ed Gein, the necrophiliac model for Norman Bates and Leatherface, was from Plainfield, Wisconsin, while cannibal serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was from the state as well. And of course, not just one but two dOc reviewers (Robert Edwards and yours truly) hail from just a few miles away from Black River Falls, the small town that was the focus of what is undeniably the most demented coffee table book of all time, Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip (1973).

Lesy's book was a combination of 1890s newspaper articles from The Badger State Banner published in Black River Falls, detailing life and death in the town, combined with the period photographs of Charles Van Schaik. These photos are not only of portraits, but most famously the memorial photographs of dead children and infants in their coffins. The controversial book is brought to life in this documentary by British writer/director James Marsh, recreating the newspaper articles with live-action vignettes, incorporating some of Van Schaik's original photos and voiceover by Ian Holm. Even though most the cast is made up of nonactors chosen for their homeliness, Marsh manages to get very striking performances, notable for their flat affect that's perfectly appropriate for depicting the deadening effects of life under these circumstances.

It's bad enough living in depressed northern Wisconsin today; it's hardly imaginable how difficult it would have been a hundred years ago, when the bitter cold (far worse then than it is today) was combined with almost complete isolation and the financially ruinous results of the Panic of 1893. The results were inevitably disease, madness, and frequently death. The subject matter is almost entirely devoted to the inhabitants of Wisconsin losing it in one manner or another, frequently ending in suicide, or being sent to the Mendota Asylum for the Insane in Madison (and even then the outcome was not infrequently suicide as well). The black-and-white photography details stories of obsessive love, revenge, hatred, isolation, child brides, burial alive, murder, mutilation, mayhem, and every manner of going berserk, all punctuated with the periodic whoosh of flash powder.

"It is safe to assume that nowhere in the length and breadth of this great continent of ours can be found a more desirable residence than Black River Falls."

While most of the stories are brief vignettes, there are a few recurring characters. One of the most amusing is Mary Sweeney (Jo Vukelich), a cocaine-addled former school teacher who set upon a tour of Wisconsin via train, smashing windows everywhere she went. Her somewhat comic tale is contrasted with that of Pauline L'Allemand (Marilyn White), a down-on-her-luck opera star who sang in Delibes' original production of Lakme—she winds up in a swamp shack eating cattle food, developing religious mania before she, too, gets committed. The film is set up with segments representing each season, beginning in winter and coming full circle to the winter again after the all-too-brief and frequently intolerable summer.

It should be noted in defense of the locality that many of the stories are taken from around the rest of the state, from Kenosha to Superior, and not all of this parade of horrors took place in this one small town. And of course, the nastiest segments are utilized, compressing a decade of dementia into a bit over an hour.

The film is often beautifully shot, with the pursuit of a posse after a hooded 13-year-old murderer being given a poetic beauty, while adulterous lovers frolicking in a barn are given a gorgeous treatment of light and shadow with the floating dust giving the scene a fairy tale atmosphere. There's also a striking montage of several of the stories that artificially links them together into a kaleidoscopic fracturing of the senses that, combined with an edgy soundtrack, provides a compelling simulation of insanity.

The generally bleak character of the photography is broken up by color footage of modern-day Black River Falls. Though much has changed (the children are healthier and far less likely to die young), there's still a certain flirtation with death. Gun obsession from childhood is still visible today, and not far beneath the happy homecoming parades are modern-day tales of headless bodies found buried in the woods, told by the Jackson County Sheriff. Stalkers were in evidence even then, with numerous obsessive lovers shooting their prey and then attempting to kill themselves. A woman loses it and drowns her own children, an antecedent to an almost identical story from a few years ago. The parallels of the past and the future make an interesting counterpoint to the more blatant themes of the seamy underbelly that lies behind the romance of the frontier and the stoic German and Scandinavian settlers hewing a life. Even though Black River Falls was no longer quite the frontier, it was still an isolated life, with great potential for darkness. Prairie Home Companion this ain't.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic widescreen transfer is quite nice indeed, despite the film originally being shot on Super 16mm. The black-and-white segments have an excellent greyscale (except when an intentionally boosted contrast is used for effect). A couple of scenes are intentionally very grainy as well, and the grain there could have been rendered better. The color segments look fine. Edge enhancement is not a problem. Home Vision happily uses an RSDL format for the disc, permitting an extremely high bit rate hovering between 8 and 10 Mbps.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby Surround track is generally unremarkable, with the narration and dialogue quite clear and free of hiss. The music (including Delibes, Schumann, and others popular in the period) sound quite good. The posse segment features hoofbeats that pass over the viewer. Mary Sweeney's smashing glass has a good presence as well.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
4 Deleted Scenes
Production Notes
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director James Marsh and director of photography Eigil Bryld
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 00h:46m:41s

Extras Review: Home Vision provides some good extras to this haunting tale. The director commentary gives excellent background to its execution over three years, as well as the influences of modern photographers such as Diane Arbus. Marsh is articulate and makes for an interesting storyteller here as well as in the film itself. The DP has little to add, but his presence gives the commentary an easy conversational style that makes it highly listenable.

Midwestern Gothic, a documentary on the making of the documentary gives some interesting details regarding the shooting, though it's shot on video and suffers from a great deal of aliasing. Particularly interesting are the stunt segments where a farmer burns down his home and sets himself on fire after discovering his wife's infidelity. Four deleted scenes are included, with still more suicides and murders. They're in nonanamorphic widescreen (about 2.00:1) but generally look quite finished and must have been cut late in the process.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

The dark side of historic Wisconsin, and by extension the potential of darkness for all of us, is examined in this masterful recreation that is frequently beautiful in its horror. The extras are worthwhile and the transfer is excellent. As an added bonus, you'll learn how to make sheep's head stew, should you find yourself in desperate straits and equipped with a sheep's head.


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