Sunday, June 29, 2008

Anchor Bay Saves Me Money

I know I said that I wasn't going to bring up Blu-ray on the Kentai blog again, but damnit, this is too good not to have fun with.

I have a confession: I love EVIL DEAD II: DEAD BY DAWN. I love it the way that Catholics love the Pope. I love it in the way that gay men in leather pants and handlebar moustaches love getting their butts pounded. I love it the way emo girls love cutting their wrists and then writing awful angst filled poetry with the two drops of blood that come out from the feeble scizor-cut. I love it the way that Bill Clinton loves fat chicks. I love it the way that pedophiles love the power Pokemon cards have over supple children. I could go on, but I think you get the point.

The Evil Dead is a lovable experiment thrown together by a pack of genuine independents trying to make crap like the world had never seen before. It's not a bad movie, exactly, but just like Last House on the Left and I Spit On Your Grave and Friday the 13th and a dozen other celebrated grindhouse/drive-in classics, they're infamous not because they were particularly good, but because they had balls and weren't afraid to "go there". Once you've castrated somebody or yanked out their intestines, the fact that the whole film is badly dubbed, lacks any narrative common sense and was directed by a guy who's never looked through a camera before became quite meaningless, particularly in the days before you could marathon films via VCR to really appreciate how much better one was over the other. In short, The Evil Dead may be a classic, and it's certainly a revolutionary piece of cult cinema history, but I have trouble calling it a masterpiece with a straight face. Also, pre-anime tentacle rape. It gets bonus points for that.

Army of Darkness is, similarly, pretty good but not my favorite. Actually I'd argue that it's the best of the trilogy in terms of being a competent piece of Hollywood cinema, and it's easily the film that made Bruce Campbell's career what it is, ensuring that his chiseled mug will appear in direct to TV crapfests from now until doomsday. There's just one thing it isn't: a horror movue. There's skeletons and monsters in pits, but the whole show was basically the dry run for Sam Raimi's Hercules and Xena TV shows, and I don't think anyone would call those horror either (or if they do, they need to be slapped). Personally, I like horror films. I'd probably like fantasy films just as much, but there's two problems: there aren't a lot of them, and the majority of them out there... kinda' suck. I know, I know, we've made great strides with stuff like Lord of the Rings and Pan's Labrynth in the last decade, but if you can look me in the eye and tell me Willow, or Dragonheart, or even fucking Pathfinder deserves a spot on my DVD shelf, you're either messing with me or looking for trouble. Army of Darkness was a rarity in that it was a genuinely funny and charming fantasy film, pitting a 20th century goofball with a chainsaw against a skeleton army, and I'll give Sam due credit in saying that the director's cut is a dramatic improvement to the R-rated cut Universal actually aborted out into theaters. So while a fun film, it can't help but stand in the overbearing shadow that is Evil Dead II.

Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn is one of the strangest beasts in horror cinema: the splatstick. By the mid 1980s, Hollywood gore movies had finally caught up with their wily Italian and Japanese counterparts, which were typically much cheaper, but also much grosser. You can only decapitate somebody with an axe so many times before the image loses all impact, and film makers turn to violence with shovels, hedge clippers, and toenail clippers - anything to get a reaction. Exactly how and when this deviation came about, I'm not certain, but by 1987 we had Bad Taste, Friday the 13th: Jason Lives!, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, Sleepaway Camp, Basket Case, Street Trash, and plenty of other gruesome comedy/horror films that went so over the top with ther expected debauchery that taking any of it seriously was pointless. At the tail end of this miniature revolution, there was Evil Dead II, the splatstick film that would remain pretty much un-topped until Peter Jackson gave us Braindead (aka Dead Alive), a film so solid in its' awesome factor that it can convince non-gorehounds that gore can be a wonderful thing.

Anyway, back to Evil Dead II. The film just reeks of cool, it really does. Bruce Campbell's whining is replaced with goofy one liners, spooky monsters that rot before your very eyes are turned into evil flying muppets, walls spew rainbow colored blood and inatimate objects anthropomorph themselves into laughing jerks... have I mentioned that Bruce Campell's dismembered evil hand is one of the best supporting characters in any horror film? That's right, the fucking hand crawls around, makes little monkey noises and flips you off. That's just the kind of film you're getting into. It's also part remake in the sense that, rather than show the whole movie in 5 minutes using recap footage, Sam Raimi literally re-made the first Evil Dead film inside of 10 minutes. Sure, you miss the best set pieces in the process, but at least Linda's been upgraded to a cuter actress and this time we get to see Sam Raimi play Bruce Campbell like a Tetris piece. In effect, explaining what makes the film great is impossible: either you're down with this gruesome Three Stooges routine or you never will be.

Such a great film deserves a great video release, right? So the "fine" folks at Anchor Bay released a Blu-ray version, complete with 1080p24 High Definition video and uncompressed 5.1 PCM audio. Tits, right?


What you're looking at is a pair of screencaps, the 1999 THX approved DVD release (resized using a simple bicubic algorithm) versus the 1080p Blu-ray. I haven't resized the Blu-ray, but I have cropped them both to save on bandwidth and give you something to focus on. Check out Campbell's gums, lips, stubble... basically everything in this extreme close-up from when he's laughing into the camera (just before the rest of the cast shows up) proves that, even without using any complex sharpening, the DVD from almost a decade ago is actually sharper than the state-of-the-art HD release from 2007. How, I can hear you ask, is that even possible?

Back in 2003, Anchor Bay remastered Evil Dead II using their "Divimax" process, which is basically AB's way of saying "Hey, lookit, we did a new HD transfer all by ourselves! Aren't we awesome?" Both the Book of the Dead 2 DVD, and the Blu-ray were taken from the Divimax remaster. I'll throw up another comparison to prove how awful that idea was:

Behold Bruce Campbell, THE GLOWING PORE-FREE GOD!

Just look at all that fine detail - sweat, stubble, pores, gore, veins in Cambpell's fucking eyes on the THX transfer... and how it all turns into mush, like so many smeared pastels on the Divimax transfer. If Evil Dead II was the only "Remaster" that had this problem, the world would be a much better place, but it seems like every other BD (Blu-ray Disc) to hit the market shows the exact same mushy crap.

You can actually see what the big problem is in the girl hiding behind Bruce: on the THX transfer she's grainy. On the Divimax transfer, she's fuzzy. Anchor Bay's Divimax transfers have pretty much all had Noise Reduction used, which is a fancy digital way to reduce noise by checking the frames before and after the current frame and copy-pasting pixels when the algorithm finds nothing but noise instead of reasonably stable, solid colors. I myself support to the use of NR when dealing with video, because video usually has inherent noise due to low bandwidth... the trouble here is that the THX transfer doesn't have noise. It has natural film grain.

A lot of people - probably the majority of them - don't understand the fairly simple concept that film has grain. You can't "get rid of it" any more than you can get rid of pixels on a digital photo. The photo is made of pixels. You can't get rid of brush strokes on a classical painting. The painting is made of brush strokes. It's a quality of the medium itself, and every film ever shot on film has grain. About all you can do to minimize film grain is to filter it the way we see above, and the side effect is people start to look like shiny wax mannequins. Actors are starting to request that their pock-marked mugs get filtered like this before theatrical prints are even made, which proves that not every transfer was boned at the very last minute. There are some directors that even like this smeared, plasticine gloss which robs them of all the detail they started with by shooting on 35mm film... it's their call, I guess, but that doesn't mean I don't think it's a bad one.

If the point of High Definition over NTSC is to give "more resolution", yet the resulting transfer has been so overly processed that the fine detail has been eaten away to the point where the SD version is actually sharper... did I miss something here? How is the Blu-ray superior, again?

The worst in all this? I only ever bought the Book of the Dead 2 Divimax remaster. So instead of upgrading by buying the Blu-ray ($30 retail/$20 online), I can get the sharper THX DVD for less than $10, which have been sold at Wal*Marts for as low as $7.50. I now regret having NOT picked it up when it was easier to find, but hell, if I don't mind getting a used copy I could even get the numbered tin limited edition with an exclusive 48 page booklet for much less than the price of the Blu-ray.

God bless technology, and the blatant abuse thereof.

P.S. I could throw a fit that the THX DVD has the original 2.0 stereo and the Blu-ray only having the 5.1 upmix, but I'm not even going to bother. This isn't Suspiria, after all...


Storyboard Kermici said...

you think this problem occurs only on old films or recents ones (who are shot at higher def) do get better on BD?

By the way big thanks for you hard work that i can sometime get my hand on ADC ;)

Kentai 拳態 said...

It's a common problem, and had nothing to do with being shot in HD. 35mm film - which is what nearly all Hollywood movies are made on - has far more resolution than 1080p HD.

The thing is, when you make a transfer from grainy film, studios like to "clean it up" by smoothing out the grain, which also smooths out the fine detail. This is especially problematic on low-budget horror films, which are usually really grainy to start with, between taking place in the dark and being shot on the cheap. Lighting and the quality of your film stock have a big impact on grain, and since horror flicks are typically shot on the cheap, even their camera negatives are uber-grainy.