Sunday, March 27, 2011

Pussyfooting Around TWIN ANGELS


TWIN ANGELS/淫獣聖戦 ツインエンジェル  ranks as one of the all-time great erotic epics of the 20th century. Sure it's not quite as popular as La Blue Girl or as powerful as Urotsukidôji, but regardless it's a classic that no self-respecting fan of tentacle violation and supernatural combat should miss.

Unfortunately, Anime 18 cut the living daylights out of the show over fears that the youthful demon Onimaro-sama would be interpreted as blatant child pornography. I'm not exaggerating when I say over half an hour of hardcore footage is missing from the old Anime 18 DVD release... and the new Kitty Media version is the exact same goddamn thing.

The franchise's freshman effort, Twin Dolls, is completely unedited on Kitty's DVD. If you want to support the franchise buy that. This crap? Either get the A18 version used (it had nicer packaging) or... whatver. Rent it, steal it, I don't really care. Just don't give Media Blasters money for a title that's missing an entire episode's worth of delicious rape.

 You must eat it... just not with your face.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Flesh Eating Upscale: FLESH EATER on Blu-ray is a Joke

First of all, I need to thank WTF Film for their look at Shriek Show's Blu-ray release of FLESH EATER - or, as it's better known in the United Kingdom, "Zombie Nosh". (How I love that title...) I actually do own a copy of this film on DVD, but have yet to sit down and watch it. I guess I just don't get drunk often enough to convince myself that 90 minutes of Rednecks vs Zombies made almost entirely by the dude who played "the graveyard Zombie" over 40 years ago in Night of the Living Dead is the height of 20th century culture, but I'd certainly never fault others who do. To each their trashy own, I say.

Media Blasters has been incredibly uneven with their HD offerings: Anime titles including Moribito - Guardian of the Sacred Spirit and Queen's Blade have been released in their full, native 1080 glory. Versus and Ichi the Killer were obvious upscales of SD Digibeta minted from the start of the century. Visible resolution on MB co-productions including Death Trance and Shadow: Dead Riot are... questionable, but since it's possible that neither of these titles were actually shot or edited on HD equipment to start with, let's be fair and just leave them at 'questionable' for the time being.

So, how does the first non-Media Blasters co-produced Shriek Show catalog title look?

Original HD Frame (cropped to 720p, NOT resized)

Scaled down to 480p, then back to 1080p (again, cropped only)

So... we're back to Standard Definition upscales being passed off as High Definition? Fan-tastic, Media Blasters. Just fucking fantastic.

Yes, I know the "1080p" version looks ever so slightly sharper; but that's the magic of edge-sharpening on upscaled material! If you look at the texture on his collar, the ribbing in his hat or the hair on his manly facial scruff, you'll notice that the NTSC version has the same level of real-world detail, and that's with the downscaling softening the upscale slightly by nature. There isn't any more texture, or depth, or even grain on the Blu-ray - just extra chroma noise which was sharpened after it was upsampled. I could do the same damn thing in AVISynth... and between you and me, I have on more than one occasion.

"But the BD looks better than the DVD, right?" I hear you thinking. "WTF Film even has a split-screen to prove that the BD is sharper, and not interlaced. That's good, right?"

Technically yes, the "1080p" Blu-ray is the better option... but then only because the DVD was a pile of crap to start with. MB was never shy about cranking up the DVNR or encoding transfers as interlaced when they really didn't need to, which means most of the Media Blasters catalog titles would look virtually identical to their Blu-ray editions if they had taken more care when they produced the DVD release years ago.

The only other company out there who regularly releases SD content upscaled to 1080p is FUNimation, and most of the time I'm willing to give them a pass. You know why? Because animation from the late 1990s and up through the mid 2000s was animated in SD and then recorded onto Digibeta. There is no film master to scan in high resolution; when you buy Fullmetal Panic or Daughters of Mnemosyne on an upscaled BD, that's as good as it's ever going to get.

When a feature film was shot on 16mm or 35mm, you can simply go back to the film elements and make a new high resolution scan. Instant High Definition, no re-shoots required. But if you're still upscaling that shit, you're just being cheap and lazy. Maybe they'll trot out the "We can't find the negative anymore!" argument if more people call them on this bullshit, which would be amusing enough to watch. Keep in mind that they found the damn film elements less than 10 years ago for DVD, so unless there was a tragic fire at autuer Bill Hinzman's house that consumed all of the film materials, I don't buy that.

I'll admit that I've had a few knee-jerk reactions to some transfers that may or may not have been sourced from SD materials. But there isn't a single screenshot on the WTF Review that would lead me to assume that this was made from an actual HD master. Media Blasters can't even suggest that it was a "real" HD transfer hit with heavy noise reduction - like many of the blurry Arrow Video transfers kicking around - because the transfer is still noisy as hell!

And before anyone gets the wrong idea, I understand that this was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mmm... and then, uh, released straight to video anyway. It was never going to look especially good, I know that, but it didn't have to look like a DVD hit with a sharpening filter, either. Just look at MGM's release of Wes Craven's Last House on the Left for an example of what even a nasty looking blow-up print can look like in HD. Bill Lustig's Maniac! isn't a reference transfer by any stretch, but even that was actually transferred at 1080p.

Just to prove that MB is capable of making an incredible looking Blu-ray, here's a (cropped) screenshot from what, to the best of my knowledge, remains their only 1080p release to be sourced from an actual 1080p master:

SD boobies? Not on THIS blog!

Understand that I don't want Media Blasters to fail... I just want them to release titles that look more like Queen's Blade. Not in the "big titted anime" sense (...well, not all the time!), just in the "it's an HD release from an HD master" sense. That isn't too much to fucking ask, is it?

I do hope that anyone remotely interested in actually watching Hinzman's low-budget redneck gorefest buy The Zombie Pack II instead of the BD - not only do you save a few bucks, but you also get Mario Girolami's Zombie Holocaust and Andrea Bianchi's Burial Grounds essentially for free. Just so we're clear, this is what's on my shelf, and I didn't buy it for Flesh Eater...

Why do reviewers go out of their way to praise releases that are this poor? Sometimes it's just denial, or even ignorance - I've been guilty of both myself at one time or another. Plenty of people (and I'm not pointing to anyone specific here) don't want to bad mouth a product they get for free, I get that - if I said any of the above about a title MB gave me gratis, they'd never make that mistake again. Others still don't want to say anything to harm an industry they want to see flourish, which I think is the strangest reason of all; if you can't be honest and say that a product is shit, you're protecting a product that rightly deserves to fail. Flesh Eater on Blu-ray is just one of those products.

EDIT: While most of the Shriek Show catalog titles are still MIA, this one was actually released about six months ago. So forget everything I said about WTF's "Early" review... not that MB can get a title out en-masse on release date to save their business these days anyway. (Seriously now, how many weeks did it take non-Amazon retailers to get Queen's Blade?)

Forget. Forget. Forget...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Motion Compensating For Something

Since we're all reasonably clever people here, I'll say that "NTSC is 30 frames per second" and "PAL is 25 frames per second" and assume you understand that's the basics - there's far more to it involving Hz and colorspace and all that, but that's the most obvious difference. NTSC is 30fps,  PAL is 25fps - that's by far the most obvious and important difference between the two. The US, Canada, most of East Asia and parts of South and Central America are all NTSC. Europe, Africa, and pretty much everywhere else is PAL. So far so good, yeah?

When you're lucky, NTSC transfers of film based material are transferred at 24fps and use 3:2 pulldown to jerry-rig 24fps playback on a 30fps signal. PAL just speeds up film to 25fps and pitches the audio slightly so you "can't hear" the difference. (Liars!) They're both clever in their own right, and whilst 3:2 pulldown introduces "frame judder", PAL introduces speed-up, so they both have their native flaws. PAL has higher resolution than NTSC, but both pale in comparison to 720p, so all of that's more or less irrelevant now.

What really grinds my gears are standards-conversions, though. It's inevitable that, every now and again, an NTSC country will get a PAL master tape (or vice-versa). At that point speeding up the frames to PAL or slowing it down to NTSC may no longer be an option, and the only realistic solution is to run it through a converter box that blends the original frames together at a new frame-rate. The runtime stays the same, as does the audio pitch, it just does one of the following:

* Drops 30fps down to 25fps and blends frames together (NTSC > PAL)

* Adds new frames up from 25fps to 30fps by blending frames together (PAL > NTSC)

Both processes are "destructive" to the integrity to the source material, and once it's done, it can't really be un-done. You just have to deal with the fact that frames have blending, jerky motion and interlacing when they really shouldn't. It's the very nature of the beast.

If you're clever enough to dump the original PAL or NTSC source on a computer, you can remove the redundant frames (IVTC) and then just change the framerate to whatever you want, thus creating a "real" NTSC transfer from a PAL source, or vice-versa. I've done it plenty of times before - I did it for an official label release about a year ago, and actually just did it again for an upcoming Kentai Films title. You can't always do it, for one reason or another, but there was one instance when I was working with a different label that I assumed would be converting 25fps back to 24fps NTSC, since they had done that in the past, but they didn't.  A shame nobody actually like, you know, told me. Or even sent me a copy I could inspect. But enough about days gone by!

It's unfortunate that more studios don't request the masters be sent in their native frame-rate and do this, but you basically need to have somebody on hand who knows exactly what he's doing to do it properly - who knows what pitch the film's audio is supposed to be at, who knows how to manually deinterlace individual frames, and who knows when a source is just plain fucked. Plenty of labels are basically out of luck by default, and even some very reliable studios have managed to fark the process up for one reason or another. But with a careful eye, a transfer made within the last 15 years, and a willingness to manually inverse telecine that bad boy it should be possible damn near every time.

So, tell me friends: What happens when you live in an NTSC country, and you're tasked with converting a PAL transfer to the local frame-rate... that was already an NTSC > PAL conversion to start with?

Two words - CRY BLOOD.

Having compared this NTSC > PAL master to the "other" NTSC master available, that Asian source is such a festering piece of analog dung that it honestly isn't even worth considering. It even has "hard" interlacing, too, so you can't even perform an IVTC at all. The PAL source - despite having a completely screwed up framerate - looks like it was a decent digital transfer from a stable 35mm source, and having tweaked the colors I think that, in the broadest sense imaginable, this particular film has never looked better on DVD.

I have two real options: Doubling the frames and Converting the frames. The former means that I literally repeat every 5th frame to convert 25fps into 30fps. The result is an exact replica of the already fucked PAL source... except now the stuttering is even worse than it was before. The latter means that I blend all of the frames a second time - this means the transfer doesn't suddenly stop-and-go, which is good, but also means it has that weird, "busy" look during movement you might associate with cheap Soap Operas or home movies relating to video cameras that capture 30 frames a second. Neither method looks especially good, but they're the only option I had left once the original NTSC frames were destroyed completely.

In the end, I decided to make two transfers and let the label decide which they find less offensive.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Midnight Legacy and ALIEN 2: A Match Made In Hell

The tradition of lavish restorations and comprehensive special features for so-called "Cult Movies" dates back to the early 90s, when Elite Entertainment went out of their way to compete with the Criterion Collection by offering titles like Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Maniac Cop and The Evil Dead with bonuses like deleted scenes, theatrical trailers, director's commentary, and original letterboxed aspect ratios where appropriate. It was a very different age, when videophiles were willing to spend $50 on a single movie across three discs, when "Dolby Digital" at 320kbps was thought of as the height of audiophile nirvana, and when a 27" 4:3 TV was considered "big".

For the better, I'd argue, times have changed pretty dramatically. Today we can buy Blu-ray transfers that regularly look better than an archival 35mm print for $10 a piece, and watch them on a TV that's as tall as the viewer is for less than the price of even a moderately priced new motorcycle. Audio is typically lossless, sounding bit-per-bit identical to the digital DAT source tapes, and MPEG-4 compression has improved to the point where compression artifacts and film grain are, often enough, totally indistinguishable. If you're a film fan but would rather watch Thelma and Louise, The Godfather, Forest Gump, or even that god-awful Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings cartoon from the comfort of your own home in quality that the multiplex could never hope to deliver - then friends, there's never been a better time to be alive.

Of course, it's not quite all roses and rainbows and sunshine pouring out of the format's back hole. For all the advances the technology has brought us, there's still the human element preventing a lot of releases from being all that they could be. Plenty of films are released using older masters that only scratch the surface of the quality that lurks on the negative, or continually use poor compression practices and render the spectacular resolution of their HD materials smeared into oblivion. Worse still are studios which release classic titles but don't take the time to ensure that the releases are uncut, properly color timed, or otherwise in the condition the materials readily available would allow them to be released in.

While offering an obscure VHS-only title on DVD in widescreen and uncut was more or less a guaranteed sale at the turn of the century, I think a lot of fans are weary of spending money, again, just to get a slight boost in quality. This is especially problematic for genre labels who have milked their "big" properties until the teat ran dry, and are trying like mad to convince you to buy the damned films all over again. Don't get me wrong, I love The Evil Dead and Hellraiser as much as the next geek, but how many fucking times do you give Anchor Bay $30 before you say "enough!" ? (They have all of it anyway, don't they?)

With this mounting apathy towards the current "triple-dip and beyond" in mind, it wasn't by mistake that Midnight Legacy announced that their very first title would be ALIEN 2: ON EARTH/ALIEN 2 SULLA TERRA. An obscurity even by the slightly skewed standards of Spaghetti-Splatter fanatics, Alien 2 - or "Alien Terror" as it was known in the UK - was released on video a few times in the early 1980s through Europe and Asia to cash in on the Ridley Scott film ALIEN before the "real" sequel, ALIENS, made it largely irrelevant. It never got an official US release of any sort, and just as importantly it never had any DVD release - no, not even some obscure, cropped, hard-Dutch subtitled and German dubbed release... it was videotape or nothing, baby.

Of particular note was that the keepcase for the release (housed in a classy slip-sleeve, even!) proudly stated that the film was digitally restored in 2k resolution from the original camera negatives in Rome on a Digital Intermediate, and that the audio mixes would be as respectful to the original (typically MONO) sources. When even low-rent titles like I Spit on Your Grave have only a new 5.1 surround mix on Blu-ray, clearly preservation of the materials as they were created are Midnight Legacy's first - and perhaps only - priority. Before you go pointing at Blue Underground and Arrow Video as having done the same thing, understand that they typically license the films and then release whatever HD transfers they get. Plenty of the Euro Horror titles we see coming out now are based on masters made several years prior, and Midnight Legacy has promised - yes, right on the friggin' box of their inaugural release - that they're never going to settle for an HDCAM-SR transfer that's been sitting on a shelf in Rome for any length of time. They're doing their own transfers from scratch each and every time regardless of what materials already exist, and they're all proprietary materials - they're not giving those masters out to anyone else... if they did, what good would a Midnight Legacy transfer be? They'd essentially be doing the work and spending the money for every other label outside of the US and not seeing a dime for it.

Though nobody behind the company has ever openly compared their work to those of Criterion Collection, the same hardware setup and lab technicians that Criterion Collection regularly work with handled the restoration, with one of the the company leaders - more on him in a moment - having flown to Rome to oversee the transfer personally. Finally, they announced that it would be a strictly limited pressing on Blu-ray only (though distributors have since convinced them to offer the title on DVD, as well). Once it's sold out, that's it. Don't expect a $20 MSRP re-release down the line, ever. If you miss it, fuck you pal, you weren't cool enough to have it anyway.

With the $5 Wal*Mart bargain bin and fucking iTunes driven culture that's consumed the entire home entertainment market, Midnight Legacy stands as a unique aberration concerned with quality first and profits second. "The Criterion of Italian Horror?" I hear you thinking. Well... yes, and no. Criterion has built a brand for itself over the last 20 years, and people who have zero interest in films like Jigoku: The Sinner of Hell and Sweet Movie will buy them without a second thought simply because it's on the Criterion label. There's a certain blind loyalty by cinemaphiles built into that name, and despite the people behind Midnight Legacy being no less concerned with their titles, you simply can't create that level of trust and dedication in your audience overnight... but they're off to a damn good start. Founded by Bill Knight of the (now-defunct) Midnight Video bootleg empire, and co-founded by Dolph Chiarino - for all intents and purposes, the blood that flowed through Shriek Show's veins during their peak years and the man overseeing the restorations personally - the pedigree behind this label is impressive enough. Though they're not usually mentioned in the liner notes, they've both worked extensively with studios like Synapse and Blue Underground over the years, so it's only fitting that they're finally taking the next step and running a label on their own.

But none of that means much if the quality of the release is less than optimal, and with all this talk of 2k scans and OCN restoration, they're all but promising customers the moon itself... so how's about I just shut up and you take a peek at these:

(Resized to 1440x816 and saved as JPG -
Sadly, Blogger can't handle 1080p images.)

ALIEN 2 looks un-fucking-believable, and these scaled-and-compressed screencaps do not do it justice. Aside from the title sequences and a smattering of stock footage (including roughly the first five minutes of the film), the negative looks so clean you'd think it was shot yesterday; the color timing is even and natural from start to finish, the 35mm grain - if perhaps lighter than expected - appears totally organic, and the detail on display is simply mind blowing. There's no way Alien 2 looked even half this good the day it premiered, and just in case you aren't totally convinced, the extras include a VHS sourced trailer which shows how the film had looked up until Midnight Legacy got involved. Saying "Night and Day" doesn't even cover it... it's really more like "Alive" and "Mummified". In a shocking move where compression is king, the Midnight Legacy crew actually tells you the bitrate right on the case, and at 36 MB/s it literally could not look any better if they'd tried... heck, they used a dual layered BD-50 despite the whole disc's worth of video content only clocking it at 25 gigs and change! Now THAT'S dedication!

(Yes, Blu-ray goes all the way up to 40 MB/s, but, the concept of diminishing returns starts kicking in on material that isn't 16mm grit-fest.)

While I can't share the audio with you in the same manner, I will say that it's presented in lossless DTS HD Master Audio 2.0, and is about par for the course: Despite there being zero channel separation, the glass masters were still mixed and stored in stereo, and they are presented just as they were created. There's some minor hiss and a bit of high-end static through the feature, but removing it further would have only distorted the mix, resulting in a film that sounds like it was dubbed underwater. And seriously, anyone expecting Alien 2 to be a sonic workout should be ridiculed as much as anyone who expects a 1980 Italian Alien knockoff to feature mind-blowing CG enhanced musical numbers. That just isn't what these films are about, and virtually every "surround" mix for a film of this nature is either a glorified mono track with dead space outside of the center speaker, or an atrocity clumsily tossing sound effects around like a hackey sack at a peg-legged tourney. 7.1 mixes are all well and good, but the original mix should always take precedence.

The film is also presented in its' original uncut version, which has literally never been seen outside of Italian 35mm prints thirty odd years ago. I'll admit, not much of the restored footage is all that exciting - a few frames here and there - but the full Italian credits are finally presented as they were shot, and if I'm not mistaken there's a few extra frames of gore, too. All prior home video releases also tinted the final reel bright fucking orange for reasons still unknown - Midnight Legacy presented the footage with neutral color, and even got input from the film's director of photography just to make sure it wasn't an intentional effect. (Why did that even happen to start with? Seriously, it's so bizarre looking I'd love to know the story behind it.)

The entire film is presented in English, but vintage Italian films are a rare breed in which different actors would speak different languages on set, specifically to be dubbed over later; it's obvious that some of the cast is speaking English and some aren't, so at least for this film the English "version" is no less a valid presentation than Italian.

While I know some people have been  a bit disappointed with the special features lacking any interviews or commentary tracks... let's be honest for a second here. Most of the interviews you get for 30 year old Italian horror films on old Shriek Show and Image DVDs are worthless anyway. "Well, I don't remember for sure when we made the film... did I co-star with a blond woman, in a van? Was that the same film?" (And so on.) Sure I'd love to hear what Michael Soavi has to say about his early appearance - but what the hell is there to tell? Instead Midnight Legacy opted to restore all of the deleted and alternate scenes just as they did with the film, which - at least in my eyes - is the best sort of extra you could hope to get for a film of this nature.

There is the Dutch-subtitled VHS sourced trailer, which looks like fried asshole of course. There's also a collection of B-Roll footage (in the same amazing HD quality as the feature!) showing alternate and extended takes, plus special effects shots before they were optically printed with all of their necessary elements. Excluding chapter 4 (more on that in a minute), there's about 8 minutes of B-Roll footage, including an extended take of what's sure to be one of the film's most memorable splatter effects.

I'm sure people will piss and moan that there's not a director's commentary or an hour long interview with the special effects team or, whatever, but I think presenting the film itself and a host of never-before seen footage their sole priority was really in the feature's best interests. I'd much rather Bill and Dolph focus on the films first, and then the stories behind them later; I'm all for learning more about how these cheap production were made, getting interviews when they're relevant and all that, but I'd much rather have a properly restored print without so much as a trailer than I would a cut or cropped or low-quality print with even the best director's commentary.

The only complaint I have for the extras is that the final deleted scene is actually the film's theatrical trailer - it just lacks the on-screen titles, which probably could have been re-created digitally and have been synced to the (I admit poor) English dubbed audio from the Dutch trailer included on the disc! So why didn't they? Near as I can tell they knew what it was, but the cost to have put all the various analog elements back together would have been far more time and money than it was worth, so I can't fault them for presenting the "finished" trailer in less than optimal quality, and still allowing us to see the 'raw' trailer free of titles and any audio in 1080p - which in and of itself is a rare-enough treat. Besides, preserving that B-Roll as it is rather than fussing with it and hoping to see what might have been isn't exactly what Midnight Legacy is trying to do here, so I'll give them a pass for doing what they promised to do in the first place.

As other have noted, there is one oddity that crops up from time to time... I'll just post the most obvious example, since it's so damn weird...

Check the missing bits on the helicopter blade... interlacing, right? Well... not quite. The film was scanned as individual frames and kept that way on the Digital Intermediate, not as 1080i HD video fields, so the only explanation I can come up with is that the scratch-repair software (Pixel Farm) is treating progressive content as interlaced, and thus "fixing" these frames as if they were combed when they're really not. Supposedly Criterion has the same problem with the titles they restored for Blu-ray (Seven Samurai, etc), so if we can give them a pass, I think we can extend the same exact courtesy to goddamn Alien 2.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't spot one or two points where the audio quality shifted for the worse, or that I didn't see a number of (always minor) digital artifacts I can only chalk up to scratch repair mistaking "real" detail for debris. However, these are problems I see on the very best releases out there, and rather than single any more of them out and earn some bonus geek points I'll simply note that they are there, and that the presentation is still an impressive 90+ out of 100. We must never forget that this was an Italian knock-off probably made for no more than a million dollars solely to turn a buck on Ridley Scott's masterpiece, and as such we have to be thankful that it even exists anymore, much less that it exists on Blu-ray using nothing but archival materials and looks better than most of the Blue Underground titles available - for better or worse, probably the best genre label we've had for more than one release.

So, what's the real bad news here? Remember how I said there was a reason Alien 2 was never released on DVD... well, that's because the film is a piece of shit. Virtually every charming moment the film has to offer is shown off in the original three and a half minute trailer, and the other 80 minutes are just as dull as watching feces coagulate. It takes them half an hour to get into the cave where most of the film's "action" takes place, the body count is pitifully low, the soundtrack is middling and the monster effects are laughably poor. There is, I suppose, such a thing as "so bad it's good" - but this isn't it. This is JUST bad.

And yet, beneath all of these obvious and top heavy flaws is a film that's strangely representative of the whole Italian film industry from this period, a simpler era in which making a crappy movie about a bunch of idiots in a cave getting picked off by pulsating blue rocks was the norm, rather than the odd exception that got shat as a SyFy Original. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only notable genre picture from director Ciro Ippolito, which in and of itself is a blind leap of faith away from the usual studios - Anchor Bay, Arrow Video, Shriek Show and the like - releasing mostly films from more familiar names like Fulci, Bava and Argento. The film may suck pretty hard, but for B-Movie aficionados and Euro Horror junkies alike, this is bound to be far from the worst thing you've ever sat through. I suppose the easiest way to convince you (or not) is to show you the original trailer and let you decide for yourself if you're willing to watch the other 80 minutes surrounding this shit... though at least if you watch the full film there's one amazing, tasteless gore shot in the first reel not present here:

People must always remember that all cinema is art... it just may not always be good art. But that doesn't make it any less worthy of being made available to a wider audience, or that the best effort should be made to preserve it for generations to come. Those 35mm negatives and glass master tracks are going to waste if nobody pulls them out of storage to present viewers with the chance to watch them again. Though Midnight Legacy may have started with a stinker, that doesn't mean they spared any expense or treated it with any less care than they would have if they were working with the negatives for any highly respected or even more "fun" film. This is a release of an obscurity done right for old fans and newcomers alike, and the bar has been raised pretty swiftly for the rest of the genre labels that are still standing.

It may sound ridiculous for me to recommend to anyone within earshot that you spend $30 on a crappy movie, but Midnight Legacy has made such an impressive foray into the dark and unpleasant underbelly of forgotten Italian Horror that I think they've earned the recommendation all the same. Besides, Bill and Dolph are hard at work on films that suck much less than this, and if anyone deserves your support, they do. The disc looks fantastic, sounds about as good as I imagine it ever will, and includes every scrap of footage the camera negative has to offer. It may not be the most fun 84 minutes I've spent watching people get eaten by monsters in a cave - and trust me, I've seen my fair share of films matching that description - but I'm still glad I got a chance to see it, and the fact that I could watch it on a presentation as gorgeous as this made the otherwise unpleasant experience all the more inspiring.

Alien 2 isn't winning any favors with me, but Midnight Legacy has already proven themselves to be a studio that should make the rest of the genre labels very nervous. Fans are fickle creatures, I know, but they tend to remember the very bad as well as the very good. There's a lot of very, very bad Euro Horror and Cult Horror BDs out there, but if Midnight Legacy can keep up this standard (and I know they will) we'll finally have one studio we can buy everything from, satisfied that the presentation will be unedited, complete, and in the best quality those negatives can physically offer. I'll be getting my hands on each and every title Midnight Legacy puts on the market, and my fingers are crossed that they'll be doing this for a very long time to come.

You can purchase the disc at Amazon, Best Buy, Diabolik DVD - anywhere. I don't care where, I'm not making a dime off of ad revenue or affiliates. I just believe in these guys, and I know the more people are willing to pay for Alien 2, the more likely we are to get even more impressive titles and releases out of them. So reach into your wallet and trust; if not in me, then in Midnight Legacy. They've earned it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Material Girl II: All Secrets (Except Titles) Revealed!

Finished another project in full that I can't directly talk about here, and thankfully this one only took a couple weeks - not months! Suffice to say the materials for it were much less horrifying than the last legitimate DVD I worked on, so I just smoothed out some ugly primitive digital-video related issues, synced up a couple audio tracks, and was disappointed to find that I had to edit the ever living shit out of the subtitles.

Honestly, I can't believe the script I worked from was ever approved by anyone, much less a legitimate US DVD licensor; there's a scene where the English word "Africa" is translated as "America". I only wish I were making that up...

Now I'm sure a few savvy consumers will watch the release when it comes out, seeing the film again for the first time, as is so often the case. They'll contemplate on the experience, wallow in the nostalgia they once had for it with a newfound appreciation that comes with revisiting a classic, perhaps take a slow sip of Ballentine's in their drawing room, preferably whilst wearing a smoking jacket, draw in a deep sigh, and write the following on their blogs and twitter accounts - dictated, but certainly not read:

"It's been DVNR'ed - I can tell by the pixels and having seen quite a few DVNR in my day. Boycott them. Steal the disc and then take a shit on it. Burn the studio to the ground with pitchforks and torches! Murder the employee's children! NEEEEERRRDDD-RAAAAAGGGEEEEEE!!"

To these inevitable dissertations, I'll confirm that there is some processing on the materials I was given. However, there was digital tampering long before I got to them - though as I said, I'm dealing with a decent source instead of a nightmarish one, it's still an analog transfer from the turn of the century, and neither looks like glorious 35mm nor was ever a reference telecine to start with. There was, unfortunately, an irregular coating of smeared, inconsistent analog noise that simply wouldn't compress into anything but cringe inducing mosquito noise, so yes, I may have smoothed over some of the high-frequencies before compression. I went through about a half-dozen filter combinations until I found one that I felt retained as much detail as was humanly possible whilst still eradicating much of the distracting noise which often looked nothing like "reall" film grain. I assure you all, whatever minor advantages I could have squeezed out in terms of sharpness of "grain structure" (which was already borked) would have turned to macroblocking anyway.

Had this looked like a legitimate 35mm print to start with I wouldn't have filtered it at all, but I'm working from a transfer that's old enough to be in the fourth grade! What can I say? I'm an independent DVD post house, not a Vatican Warlock Assassin... they must be throwing out my paperwork. I never hear back from that damned Pope.

I'm going to be getting my hands on an NTSC copy of the "other" project I'm doing for my boss later in the week, at which point I'll be doing some exhaustive comparisons between it and the PAL materials I have already. If he prefers the PAL sourced transfer I'm more than happy to deliver it to him, but I just want to make sure that we've explored all options available to us before we make any rash decisions. I make these discs for him, certainly, but I also make them for you. If I wouldn't use Print X as a master for my own release, I do what I can to find what I would - that's only fair to my boss, and all the fans who are willing to support the release. Mind you the licensor I'm working with is (thankfully) quite good about sniffing out materials to start with, but sometimes you're just stuck with picking between a rock or a hard place.

I won't lie: Both of them suck. But I think with some TLC the one we were trying to avoid using might actually suck just slightly less. Until I can actually get my hands on the original disc and not a badly re-compressed bootleg I've had kicking around for years, though, I can't be sure.

Both of these are films I really like, too, so you can imagine I'm trying everything I can think of with the materials at hand, just to see what happens.

Apologies to anyone who cares about the Kentai Films sales site. I do know the navigation is somewhat broken, and I'm looking into what I'll have to do to fix it. I'm thinking "Scorched Earth" might be the only realistic option to do that, but we'll find out in the next week or two.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Material Girl

It really sucks when you've got everything to make a release perfect save for one little thing. Sometimes it's a just deleted scene, or a lone trailer, or a decent quality piece of key art. Often you'll have a mountain of stuff waiting to become a nice little DVD, but you need to hold off on it all and make sure you have that one missing piece to make the whole release come together...

So what happens when you get that piece and it DOESN'T FUCKING FIT?

In my latest misadventure, I was given a PAL transfer to convert back to NTSC. Nothing unusual; there's no shortage of films where the PAL masters are superior to the NTSC transfers kicking around, and in this particular instance the PAL print was the only one that didn't feature burned-in subtitles we didn't want. Awesome, right? Well, it could have been, if said PAL transfer wasn't actually an interlaced NTSC > PAL conversion.

Notice above how I said that all of the NTSC transfers were inferior? Even with all of the blending and stuttering relating to the frame-rate conversion, this is still true. The materials for this film just suck that hard, and I'm damned if I do and fucked if I don't, so I'm throwing as many ridiculously complex scripts as I can come up with at the materials I have on hand and hoping that my client feels that one of them sucks dramatically less than the other. None of them are unpleasant, but when I look at the miserable NTSC version everyone watched years ago, I feel this is still the lesser or two evils.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Not This Rose Colored Hell Again...

Wild Side FRANCE

Arrow Video UK

Blue Underground USA

I thought by the time Blu-ray hit the scene I could be done comparing multiple transfers... I figured we'd get one decent HD scan of the negative, different countries would slap their local languages on them, and we could finally move on with our lives. Of course, I should have known that for any film made by Dario Argento there HAS to be a half-dozen releases, and they all have to be completely different. I don't know why... it must be goddamn law or something.

INFERNO is a film I was lukewarm to when I first saw it a few years ago, but I've been curious to give it a second try ever since. It's a bizarre experience not unlike a nonsensical fever dream, not quite terrifying like Suspiria and Deep Red before, just bizarre and violent. I'll admit that I find it the weakest film from what I consider Argento's strongest period (1975-1987), but I certainly can't dismiss it as a total misfire - especially after witnessing the failure of The Mother of Tears since! But regardless of what I think of the film as a work of narrative horror, it sure is pretty, and as such how those visuals are presented on Blu-ray are probably of the utmost importance. With all due respect to Kieth Emerson, the presentation of his score doesn't have nearly the same impact on the film as it does on Suspiria.

First, let's tic the most obvious issue off: Arrow Video used DVNR to remove virtually all of the grain from the transfer. Yes, Inferno is a pretty gritty looking affair, and to Arrow's credit the DVNR hasn't resulted in overly waxy faces or a major loss in detail. Reports are that it has an unnerving "sterile" look in motion though, as if Inferno was shot on HD Video instead of film. I'll come right out and say it - I'm a grubby little grain lover - so while the Arrow release probably could have looked far worse, it's out of the by default. It's a shame, too... Arrow included some really nice exclusive extras on that set.

The Wild Side French version has more information on all four sides, and by far has the most neutral color timing of the three; white appears white, and neither contrast nor color saturation seem to be overbearing. Unfortunately it also gives the film a slightly dull, washed out look that'll be easier to see in just a moment. The Wild Side disc also has "forced" French subtitles when watching the film in English, so unless you're willing to re-author this yourself it might not be worth it.

Blue Underground appears to have identical framing to Arrow, which is... odd. But okay, I guess, since we're only losing somewhere around 3-5% f the frame, which would be normal at an actual screening. It has stronger saturation and crushes blacks slightly, which helps hide some of that over-exaggerated grain. I'd say it was the strongest of the three transfers, but the film has undergone an exaggerated blue push. I'll admit it doesn't look so terrible in the above example, but let's examine another scene...

Wild Side

Arrow Video

Blue Underground

Okay, now this... this is just fucked. While I'll freely admit that the washed-out qualities of the Wild Side transfer have left his jacket looking positively ghastly with all that exaggerated, over-exposed film grain there's no way that blue, dingy color on the BU transfer can be totally right. It looks like I've closed one eye wearing old-school 3D glasses! In this particular instance the Wild Side transfer is the best of the bunch; Arrow's saturation boosting helps the glowing rose lighting, but it's made the fake blood a bit too vibrant and smeared some of the detail hiding in the prosthetics.

How about one more set, just for fun?

Wild Side

Arrow Video

Blue Underground

...and now the Blue Underground transfer looks superior? Yes, the blacks are crushed slightly, but take a look at his armpit on either the Arrow Video or Wild Side transfers and you can tell they're pushing low-exposure footage to make it brighter than really is. I've never been totally happy with the levels during the finale on the Anchor Bay transfer - I've always thought it looked too dark to appreciate the intricate art design that was lurking in the crushed shadows, which seemed to defeat the purpose of building such a gorgeous set for the final reel -  but I'll admit that it looks preferable on a purely technical level to the washed-out gamma on both the Arrow and Wild Side transfers. So I dunno'. This one shot looks better on the BU transfer, but it may not hold up over the course of the whole sequence.

Overall the Wild Side transfer very closely matches the remastered Italian DVD from 2007, whilst the Blue Underground transfer is extremely similar to the 2000 Anchor Bay transfer - just check Michael MacKenzie's comparison. This was from the same period that AB was consulting with cinematographers to be certain their classic films were being presented accurately, so it's entirely possible that input was given by Inferno's DP, Romano Albani - but I can't for the life of me find anything other than the box, other than saying it was "transferred from the original vault negative materials" - which for all I know means an IP was consulted rather than Mr. Albani himself. He certainly wasn't interviewed like Luciano Tovoli was for Suspiria, and getting "approval" from anyone is usually something you tout on the case if you bothered to do it...

What's especially troubling is the fact that Blue Underground's press materials says the following:

Blue Underground is proud to present INFERNO freshly transferred in breath-taking High Definition from the original uncut and uncensored negative, complete with exclusive new Extras!

If by "Freshly Transferred" they mean 'Circa 2007', then this is absolutely true. The framing is 100% identical to the Arrow Video release, and the grain structure is the spitting image of the Wild Side transfer, so I'm confident that all three transfers were taken from the same ultimate HD source with different levels of tinkering along the way. Their press materials for DEEP RED read almost the exact same way, so my expectations are so low I'm still liable to trip right over them.

As for what transfer of most reflects Dario Argento's original fever-dream intent... honestly, I have no fucking clue. Some Argentophiles swear up and down that the Anchor Bay/Blue Underground transfers match what they've seen projected on 35mm, but I don't know nearly enough about the film's production history to know if they were specifically trying to give it that blue-hued and high-contrast "look". I feel the overall saturation of the Arrow transfer is the easiest on the eyes, and the neutral color timing on the Wild Side master is preferable to any other release floating around, but the Blue Underground transfer has fixed the wonky black levels... if only by crushing them. Each transfer has its own unique positive qualities, and odds are consumers will either just buy the local release for simplicity's sake, or they'll buy them all and never be totally satisfied.

Worse yet, we aren't even through with Inferno on BD: German cult label Camera Obscura promised last year to deliver the ultimate release of Inferno, including not only a host of exclusive extras but their own transfer approved by the film's director of photography. If you're looking for the "last word" on the film that version might be the one to wait for, though you may have to wait for some time. Camera Obscura promised their release would be available before Blue Undergrounds, but with the US release slated to ship March 29th and the German release nowhere to be found it seems their bravado proved at least slightly false.

With Arrow Video and Blue Underground both having a multitude of exclusive special features, it becomes hard to recommend one over the other. Arrow's transfer is the least impressive of the three, but it has the most extras by a wide margin. The Blue Underground release has a few brand new goodies and is pretty damn cheap ($20.99 for Amazon pre-order as I type), but the color timing has me scratching my head. The French release is a bare-bones affair with a fairly nice looking transfer, but it's also the most expensive and has forced French subtitles... I guess it's kind of a no-win situation no matter where you turn. I said from the start that I'd wait to see the Camera Obscura and Blue Underground transfers before I spent a dime on either of them, and with all of the above images I still think that'll be the safest path to take.

But hey, maybe this will be the worst thing Dario Argento related we can talk about this year-

...oh, how could I EVER forget?

Did I ever mention that his next film was "Dracula 3D", and that from the looks of things he's somehow making in 1992? Fuck me. Now I'm not saying I want il maestro to drop dead or anything, but goddamn man! Can't you retire already? Nothing good could possibly come of this combination, and if saying "Dario Argento directs Dracula 3D" wasn't proof enough, the fact that poor Rutger Hauer has been dragged into the mix only makes matters downright repugnant.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Love To Crop

The 1993 Hong Kong exploitation film LOVE TO KILL/虐之恋, the brutal and disturbing follow-up to his award winning performance as the infamous "Bun Man" in The Untold Story,  is just one of those films that's much harder to get a decent copy of than it ought to be. There was a Laserdisc release the following year featuring a letterboxed transfer and English/Chinese subtitles on the print, but it was very heavily cut (87 minutes) and the Cantonese track reverts to Mandarin around all of the scenes where the editors were clearly tasked with removing the worst of the rape, murder, beatings and other abuse that Wong's wife has to suffer through before the credits roll.

A decade or so later the film resurfaced on DVD in Taiwan, and the good news was that the film was "extended" to a runtime of roughly 90 minutes. The downside for the visual presentation was the quality of the transfer, which featured very blown-out whites and a general softness that makes the whole film look hazy - particularly when compared to the prior LD, which was surprisingly easy on the eyes for a 15 year old analog video releaser. Worse yet, the Taiwan version only has Mandarin audio, so if - like me - hearing Anthony Wong speaking poorly dubbed Chairman Mao approved dialect makes you want to kill yourself, it makes for a bit of a frustrating experience.

The latest release was from the Hong Kong DVD distributor City Connection. Despite including the Cantonese audio missing from the Scholar disc, the bad news seems two-fold; not only are there no English subtitles of any sort on the disc, but the transfer is 4:3, as well! Just a shitty pan-scan transfer of old materials, I bet... cheap bastards!

Scholar TW DVD

City Connection HK DVD

...huh! Guess they found an open-matte print and did their own telecine. Groovy. Maybe that Untold Story City Connection DVD isn't pan-scan, either? (Need to investigate that further.)

The City Connection DVD is also the full 91 minute version of the film, and is reputed to include every scrap of footage known to exist, making it *the* version worth keeping by default.

While the City Connection print is the clear winner, neither transfer is immaculate. For all the increased detail and additional picture information on the City Connection DVD, it's still an interlaced/analog transfer that dates back to 2003 - or even earlier. Still, it's the lesser of two evils, and it even includes the original Cantonese audio in the best shape it's ever been in... which is to say it defaults to Mandarin several times, but I guess that's just an ear-destroying flaw this film is going to have to live with forever.

Of course the Hong Kong DVD lacking subtitles means this title will take some time to finish, but rest assured that Kentai Films is going to use the HK print when the time comes.