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.


Bill Knight said...

Wow! Thank you for your excellent analysis of our Alien 2 On Earth release. It's always great when someone appreciates and recognizes the highest quality work and effort we are putting into our venture and into every one of our releases. Your article is pretty much spot-on with every point you make. It's obvious your technical prowess is very high when it comes to film work and transfers so your thoughts are most appreciated!

Anonymous said...

Christ you are up you're own arse.

You can sense the snide & bile in every word - whether it's the big-head R2D2 blips and farts or your hatred of the actual film itself.

If you dislike this film, then you are entirely missing the point of the Italian Sci-fi/Horror genre and also being utterly unfair judging a 31yr old film from a foreign film industry with an utterly different raison d'etre by yankee mainstream Hollywood-slurry values.

Some people may see you as a guru. I see you as a wanker who couldn't hit a cow's arse with a banjo, much less get the point of the material he/she or it is reviewing.

Kentai 拳態 said...

No need to thank me, Bill. I'm just glad the quality of the release gave anything from Arrow and Blue Underground a good punch where it counts; the presentation of the main feature. I admit that may not have fallen in love with the film you chose to start with, but it's made me excited to see what titles you've got lined up for the future.

As for you, Anonymous, the fact that I dislike ALIEN 2 has nothing to do with me approaching it from "mainstream" critical values. I just think Alien 2 is boring and forgettable outside of one or two gruesome set pieces and an amusing POV gag used at the very end. That's really about all that's worth getting excited about, unless you absolutely must own every film to involve Michele Soavi or the De Angelis brothers. I certainly think that I "get" the film, though; it's a cheap Italian knock-off of a successful Hollywood film from a director who typically didn't work in genre film. What more is there to get, exactly?

You want to talk about fun B-grade Italian horror films from 1980, then let's talk about Cannibal Apocalypse, Anthropophagous, City of the Living Dead, Zombie Holocaust, or Eaten Alive by the Cannibals (plus Humanoids from the Deep, if you don't mind a home-grown effort being in the mix). I own and love all of these films, and embrace both their flaws and their strengths, doing my best to judge them both the period and the culture in which they were created.

If you want to see a better Alien knock off than Ippolito's effort, watch Galaxy of Terror or Contamination. I'm just being honest when I say that the film is unimpressive, even in the confines of cheesy vintage Spaghetti Splatter pictures. You can certainly disagree with me, but suggesting that I don't have a clue what I'm talking about is really reaching.

tldr; Chill, dude. I like Italian horror movies. Otherwise I wouldn't have bothered to review Alien 2 to begin with.