Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Trilogy of Bloody Messes

"I've often compared Blood Feast to a Walt Whitman poem:
It was no good, but it was the first of its kind!" 
H.G. Lewis, 2010

Critique either for or against Herschell Gordon Lewis' 1963 feature BLOOD FEAST is wholly irrelevant in 2011. It literally gave birth to the splatter film, alongside Nobuo NAKAGAWA's 1960 film The Sinners of Hell/地獄, and while I have some issues with the classification it's seen by many as the first slasher film, too. Lewis produced independant exploitation films starting in the early 60s, and found enough success in nudie pictures and graphic violence marathons that he made many more cheap and trashy movies for a little over a decade. He retired on a high note in 1972 after directing The Gore Girl Girls, and happily sat in cinematic hiatus for another thirty years until he made a genuine sequel to Blood Feast... but let's not go there for the time being.

It changed exploitation films permanently, and is arguably just as important in shaping the face of modern horror films as Night of the Living Dead was five years later. It's a foul, grotesque, morally reprehensible film just shy of feature length that parades around the dismembered parts of beautiful women as if they were exciting new products in a TV advertisement. The script is asinine, the acting regularly dreadful, the production values virtually non-existent and the fact that the villain's demise is in the back of a garbage truck was an irony not lost on critics. It's gross, cheap, bottom of the barrel exploitation at its most commercially conscious... but it's also a totally one of a kind, kooky little artifact from a period when you could actually make a movie this fucking ridiculous and people would still go out of their way to see it, just because it was so grotesquely different from what Hollywood was churning out at the time. Make no mistake, it's a terrible movie, but the fact that it even exists is kind of awesome, and I don't blame Lewis - an ad man by trade, and director by chance - for seeing an untapped market and taking it for all he thought it was worth as a joke that turned out to be both fun and profitable.

While it'd take a damn forgiving critic to argue that Blood Feast is "art", it's undeniably a remnant of a cinematic culture that no longer exists, and is such a fundamental building block in the modern age of extreme horror and exploitation films that anyone within earshot should probably watch it, just once. I won't claim that it's good or even that you'll probably like it, but there's something mystifying and almost eternal about the film's utter lack of competency or good taste that makes it a uniquely amusing bit of nonsense, even now almost half a century later.

Something Weird Video have just released the "Blood Trilogy" - Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs, and Color Me Blood Red - on a single Blu-ray through Image Entertainment. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I got it on a whim for a measly twelve bucks, and that the presentation of SWV's very first Blu-ray, Frank Henenlotter's Basket Case (which I'll have to talk about another day) had my hopes quite high for this release... the final product is neither an atrocity nor perfection, but since there are three separate films - each with their own umique issues - I'll talk about Blood Feast at length and make a few notes about the other two films as needed. If I finish the other two and find more to talk about, I'll be sure to do just that, but if I have little else to say on the matter consider that a good thing.

First off, we need to discuss the aspect ratios. All three "Blood" films are presented matted to 1.78:1, while all prior DVD releases were in their 1.33:1 open-matte aspect ratio.  Now I get it, 16:9 is "the new fullscreen" and plenty of titles have been reformatted for DVD and now Blu-ray. I've slowly come to the understanding that so many independent film makers - people who literally made films outside the bubble of Hollywood - really didn't even know, or think, about aspect ratios as a standardized thing. Just to get this ball rolling, Night of the Living Dead, a comparable 35mm independent 60s horror film, was probably cropped to 1.85:1 when it was shown in theaters too. And yet every single Laserdisc, DVD and Blu-ray release have preserved - broadly speaking, at least - the entire original 35mm frame, which is 1.33:1/4:3, once you add in the optical soundtrack.

This is a surprisingly common issue with "independent" productions up until about the 1980s, and I think it's worth quoting a section from Frank Henenlotter's Basket Case introduction verbatim:

"I also left the aspect ratio. Now, you know, uh... when I shot this thing, you know - what did I know? I mean, (laughs) I hold up a 16mm camera, it's square. I shoot the square! You know, it never occurred to me that when this is gonna play in movie theaters that the theaters are gonna show it in 1.85:1 and make it look awful! So when we were doing this we also thought, well, let's see if we- how it looks, it anamorphic 16x9 - you know, 1.85:1... and it looked terrible! I mean if you don't believe me, just take your zoom and, zoom in on the picture. It's just, you lose too much information - everything gets way too close, it's too tight - it was a disaster..."

Frank, I love you. And not in any sort of gross way, I promise. I honestly wish some of your contemporaries had the balls to approach their films in the same way. I really don't know if Lewis was involved in there restorations, and with no new special features or press releases about the restorations themselves, it's hard to say if this was something that Lewis was working on side by side with Something Weird Video (henceforth SWV), or if they did it of their own accord. But in any case, why fuck with it now? Is there a valid reason for presenting the films in 16:9 when they had been presented in 4:3 for a decade with everyone having come to the consensus that this was perfectly fine and normal for them?

Amusingly enough, the best evidence we have for these aspect ratios being a case of modernizing the presentation comes in the latter two films. Both Two Thousand Maniacs and Color Me Blood Red are presented in 1.78:1 except for their credit sequences, which zoom out to about 1.66:1 just to ensure that the actual credits don't go missing! Now call me crazy if you like, but if your "new" aspect ratio renders the credits unwatchable, it's probably a sign that either the films were never meant to be shown that way, or that someone wasn't putting enough thought into how they were being presented in the first place, and they should probably be presented open-matte to avoid these sorts of problems. Now I'll stress that Blood Feast (at the very least - I've only watched bits and pieces of the other two as of this writing) isn't rendered unwatchable by this decision, but head room regularly feels just a bit too tight, and with everyone having happily bought the films in 4:3 before I honestly can't fathom why they didn't just repeat the process here. What the hell, SWV? Is 1.33:1 just not good enough for Blu-ray?

Yes, it's entirely possible that drive-ins and grungy theaters played the films matted to 1.85:1, but considering these were all released between 1963 and 1965, it's just as possible that they swapped the projector's 1.85 plate out for a 1.33 plate! Back in the 60s the projectionist actually had some control over the aspect ratio of the print they were given, something that's slowly changed with the technology in general. The American aspect ratio being 1.85:1 for "flat" prints and 2.39:1 for anamorphic wasn't really standardized until the latter half of that decade, and working completely outside the spectrum of the Hollywood circuit it's questionable wither or not Lewis really understood (or even cared?) wither the compositions he was actually shooting would appear that way on the screen - so unlike The Evil Dead and a number of other later productions that have been matted to the determent of their original photography, it's not unthinkable that a competent theater would have played the film the way it arrived in 1.33:1... but fuck it, whatever. I'm sure had they presented the films as they were shot, SWV would be fielding a host of idiots asking "How come there's black bars on my TV!? I thought Blu-ray was supposed to fix that!" Assuming, of course, idiots are lining up in droves to buy H.G. Lewis exploitation films...

The films are cropped, and either it'll bother you or it won't. It's not as if Lewis' photography was top notch to start with - with all due respect he was no Sam Raimi, Joe D'amato or even a goddamn Jesus Franco, but I still feel the films deserve to be presented the way they were shot and had been presented since... well, at least since the Laserdisc came out over a decade ago. I doubt anyone who actually saw them in theaters could remember the aspect ratio perfectly anyway.

Oh, and for the record, the trailers for all three films are presented in their proper 4:3 ratio, and the trailer for Blood Feast is even in HD! Come on, guys... now I swear you're doing it just to piss me off.

Had they left the films in the negative's 4:3 ratio instead of reformatting them for 16:9, or just presented all of the films at 1.66:1 - which would be even weirder, but still a nicer token gesture of compromise - I would have far less to complain about. Frustratingly, that's not the only thing wrong with these transfers. The average bitrate on Blood Feast was a rather meager 17 Mb/s (plus an original mono 2.0 PCM track), which is pretty much what happens when you put 3+ hours of HD video plus several hours of SD supplements on a single BD50. Extras appear to be mostly copy-pasted from the prior DVD releases, with the original Blood Feast trailer and the trailer for Frank Henenlotter's 2010 documentary Hershell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore being in HD (the former in 4:3 1080p, the latter 16:9 1080i). The result is compression that, while not excessively awful, is still occasionally spotty and gives the film a slightly "blotchy" look that I'd have been willing to attribute to minor DVNR, were the transfer not so occasionally rife with natural looking film grain, and even surprisingly fine detail on close-ups. There's got to be some level of temporal processing - likely tuned to remove scratches and debris more than actual film grain - but it's inoffensive enough that I'm honestly somewhat impressed with the level of clarity on display. It's not the reference transfer it could be, but I imagine anyone who actually likes these films and knows what to expect of them will be pleasantly surprised.

PNGs follow. When the disc looks good, it looks... pretty fucking good, actually.

The film is still rough around the edges, clearly. Occasional scratches, stains, extreme gate weave and even missing frames aren't all that uncommon, and the opticals - fades and dissolves and the like - are clearly vintage, immediately dropping in quality and introducing a host of unpleasant side-effects...  in absolute terms yes, these are all image quality problems. That said, the film is what it is, and anyone genuinely upset by the sources inherent to an almost 50 year old camera negative really need to not watch cult films older than they are to start with. Yes, a lot of these issues surely could have been fixed with a little more time and money. But come on, it's fucking Blood Feast. The fact that it's not an upscale is almost a miracle!

I'll also note that both Blood Feast and Color Me Blood Red appear to be taken from the 35mm camera negatives - either that or from stunning first-generation interpositives. Opticals aside the grain is very fine but natural, and print damage is kept to a reasonable minimum. Two Thousand Maniacs, however, is pretty goddamn beaten in comparison, with hot contrast and almost constant print anomalies in the form of emulsion damage and scratches printed into the film itself. I don't know if the negative was stored in a heated rock tumbler or if it's a just sourced from a less than ideal multiple generation print, but my money's on the latter.

The other serious issue I take with the transfer of the Blood Trilogy, however, can best be summed up by the following image:

This is going to get technical for a minute, so bear with me. Black levels are a complicated thing, but the short version is that all DVD and Blu-ray store their grayscale using "Limited" RGB. Black is 16 and White is 235. Computer monitors consider Black to be 0 and White to be 255, so software scales the levels to "Full" to compensate... or if they don't, everything looks washed out (like the images above, except my software is set up properly).

Still with me? I hope so, 'cause it gets even more ridiculous from here. See, "Limited Black" is IRE 0. That's the digital signal by which all modern HD video standards assume is the darkest any pixel in the signal can be. Older analog equipment made in North America assumes that Black is IRE 7.5, which is visibly brighter than IRE 0. (On a "Limited" scale it's a 16, on a "Full" scale it's 30.) For one reason or another, the Blood Trilogy's black levels are set to assume that IRE 7.5 is black - not IRE 0! In plain English, the Blood Trilogy Blu-ray's black levels are set too high, which means if you've got your black levels set properly the films are simply too bright. Even fade-to-blacks remain an unfortunate milky gray, and there's a level of static, blotchy video noise that crops up in the shadows that was supposed to be invisible on a properly calibrated display. If you've set your black levels properly with Avia or HD 709 or, whatever, the entire disc is going to look "off" and show you plenty of noise in the not-shadows you really won't enjoy. I had initially thought that there was considerable DVNR on the darker portions of the film, but having fiddled with the levels digitally to "fix" the IRE screw-up, I realize that what I was seeing is video noise that whoever created the masters assumed would never actually be seen by the viewer.

To prove my point, the following image is a comparison is a split-screen. The left side is what the disc actually looks like... the right side is what it would look like, were the blacks set to IRE 0 instead of IRE 7.5:

Hell of an improvement, isn't it? You can bet the same results by fiddling with your TV, mind you - a couple notches with the "Brightness" setting and you can scale that milky gray into reference black. But this is a fucking Blu-ray: I shouldn't have to set my digital display to analog levels settled on in the goddamn 1950s just so it looks the way it was supposed to! Being correctable is not the same as being acceptable. And just to add insult to injury, the IRE level is 0 for that 4:3 Blood Feast trailer, so that's two to zip from the preview to the actual film... fucking hell, SWV.

Compression is less than great, the aspect ratio is a real head-scratcher, and the black levels are completely fucked. Had I paid $25 for this, I'd be pissed... but for about four bucks a movie, I can't honestly arse up the fury to complain. The release is a flawed presentation of equally (if not moreso) flawed films, and it's going for so dirt cheap that I had honestly expected even less. They're new HD transfers, and if you're willing to overlook the flaws listed above, give Something Weird Video your money and a stern eMail saying "keep track of this shit in the future, please". The IRE 7.5 nonsense is a ball thoroughly dropped, but I'm willing to assume it was just a mistake. Basket Case doesn't seem to have this issue anyway, so let's hope that (not to mention the cropping) is just a one-off...

The bitrate isn't really up to snuff either, but I get it, you want to kick these films out on a single bargain priced disc before Frank's documentary streets - you get what you pay for and all that jazz. I'd love to see two disc sets for a release of this nature in the future, but clearly SWV decided to play to the lowest common denominator. It's certainly not ideal, but with even Synapse's Don May having recently said that Blu-ray "hasn't taken off the way [he] had hoped", perhaps it was a smart move. According to the interview in the comments Christopher was nice enough to link to, Lewis seems just as dumbfounded by this release as the rest of us, so I think it's safe to say he wasn't involved in the 16:9 decision - he likely had nothing to do with this release at all. So take that however you will.

If the films were $12 each, I'd tell Something Weird to try again. $12 for the whole trilogy... well, my already low expectations have been surpassed by a country mile. This package is in no way as authentic to the film's origins as Basket Case may be, and that's a damned shame. Even if you might think the Blood Trilogy is garbage, I think we can agree it deserved the basic level of quality control I'd expect from a crappy direct to video label. Warts and all though, for fans of ridiculous schlock, it's worth at least what they're asking here. Something Weird Video was off to a great start with Basket Case, but the Blood Trilogy is almost a step backwards. There's still time for them to learn from this mistake, and I hope they use it wisely between now and their third release. The world absolutely needs more ridiculous bullshit exploitation films in HD, and if SWV can deliver without cropping, I'll be back.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Sword of the Berserk

I had been pretty good about not pre-ordering toys for a while. Goddamned things are expensive these days, what with the eternally stable yen officially wiping its ass with the Mighty Joe American Dorral...

But this thing? Oh yeah. This fucker's GETTING PRE-ORDERED, and Damn The Expense! The fact that the missus has a steady stream of adorable moe-blobs lined up from AmiAmi means at least we can split the shipping, as I recently did while getting my hands on THIS gloriously useless and now no-longer readily available bit of PVC. Even so, the "discounted" $37 for a posable hunk of plastic no longer fills me with terror or dread, and considering I used to wince at the thought of paying $37 shipped for Fewture Models Devilman characters which, in my eyes, remain some of the nicest looking bastards to clutter up my home...

Now obviously importing teh animoo was never for the weak of heart, but fucking hell, how do I look at this and think to myself, wow self, that's actually a pretty good deal? What the fuck happened to this country's currency value!?

But back to Guts. Accessories are limited to the stand and Dragon Slayer (pictured), as well as a 'normal' face and an alternate hand for the arm-canon. Surprised he doesn't have the mechanical auto cross-bow or a pint-sized Puck figure, but that just gives them an excuse to pack some optional parts with a Hawk Band Guts, now doesn't it? Pretty sneaky, Max Factory...

Huh! Come to think of it I don't think I've talked about the upcoming BERSERK trilogy from Warner Brothers. That's... kind of because I'm almost dreading them. I've never been sold on CG as a full on replacement for "traditional" 2D animation, and while some of the footage they've shown has promise, just as much of it looks like it's just poorly rendered leftovers from the old Dreamcast game. I'm more than willing to give them a chance, particularly since this may be the only way we'll ever see animated post-Eclipse Berserk, but seeing Nosferatu Zodd reduced to... well, I'll let the trailer speak for itself:

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Croissant Holocaust

Gary Tooze over at DVDBeaver have just posted an EARLY COMPARISON of my dear, sweet Cannibal Holocaust. And with all due respect to DVDBeaver, their screenshots can be a little hit or miss - for example, their recent review of The 10th Victim has actually softened out quite a bit of noise on the screenshots, making the images look a bit less garish than the disc really is. So while I don't intend to hold this up as the definitive comparison, I imagine it's somewhere in the ball park... and if so, I'm calling this one a technical foul.

The entire forest floor is basically a big green mush! There's no grain, nor any delineation between leaves - it all just kind of screams thick 'n' chunky DVNR, with a spattering of MPEG-4 blocking on top for flavor. This is only Shameless' second BD release after The New York Ripper (and they're both cut - thanks, BBFC!), so with very little of their work available I'm almost trying not to assume this is their doing by default; the Italian DVD released in 2004 claims to have been restored in High Definition, and I have little doubt that they've dusted those materials off once again for this release, too. That said, the screenshots on Gary's comparison have a lot of blocking. Wither this is the fault of the caps being recompressed for bandwidth or the actual 23 Mb/s transfer, I don't yet know.

I have little doubt that the 80 odd minutes of brand new special features will be of interest to some, but I think I'm going to sit this one out. 17 POUNDS may not exactly be a fortune for an import Blu-ray, but it's still a bit more than a censored and less than inspiring looking print is worth to me these days.

Sacré bleu!

Anyway, if you're still jonesing for a not-censored High Definition release of Cannibal Holocaust, FRANCE HAS GOT YOUR BACK. I have little doubt that it'll be made from the same materials as the UK release, but only time will tell if it has the same nasty, smeared look to it. There's also no word on region coding or forced subtitles, but it'd be almost unthinkable for a flick shot with English sync sound to not have the "original" dialog track on a French video release. As details emerge, I'll be sure to let you all know. And, yes, it's likely that all BD releases will be missing about 10 seconds from the "Road to Hell" sequence outside of it being presented as a VHS sourced deleted scene - we're just going to have to make peace with that, I think.

Keep in mind that word is Grindhouse Releasing is recording brand new material for Cannibal Holocaust. We will get an uncut Blu-ray here in these United States... just, knowing Sage and pals, probably not any time soon.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Game of Death in Stunning Low Definition

Bruce Lee himself remains a fascinating cultural icon, if absolutely nothing else. He started life as a child star, literally appearing in his first film at the age of one, and made numerous minor roles as a youth through the fourties and fifties. Born an American but raised in Hong Kong, he returned to his motherland at the age of 18 with nothing but a hundred bucks in his pocket and likely enough charm to talk a nun out of her virginity while asking for directions to the bus station. His emergence as a superstar introduced the world at large to the often guilty pleasures of martial arts mayhem, and he's inspired literally countless imitations - both sincere and snide - from virtually every corner of the world. He was one of those men that simply defined badass, and having been snuffed out literally the moment he had the world by the balls, all we can do as purveyors of pop culture is sit back, and wonder what may have been.

He spent several years being a nobody in the Dream Factory's eyes until he landed a gig in the 60s as the Asian Sidekick(TM) Kato to TVs The Green Hornet, and made a number of minor appearances on American television for the next few years... it wasn't until he auditioned for the  Kung Fu TV series and lost to Bill himself, David Carradine, that he finally said "fuck all y'all" and returned to Hong Kong where his remaining Hollywood credits and appearances performing a home-grown martial arts style landed him a gig with Golden Harvest. He produced three complete films with the company (the naming conventions of which confuse people to this very day), and was midway through a fourth when Hollywood finally came to him, specifically in the form of Warner Brothers begging for him to headline the first ever American kung-fu epic, Enter the Dragon, affording Lee the budget, professionalism and mass-market appeal that the fast 'n' dirty world of post-dubbed Hong Kong cinema simply couldn't afford to give him. Lee knew he couldn't pass up that chance, and put his fourth Hong Kong film on hold to complete his first Hollywood movie... only to die less than a year after it opened in his prime, denying the world both the best years he had in store, and the inevitable cinematic humiliations that have slowly but surely faced his contemporaries like Jackie Chan, Sonny Chiba and Chuck Norris.

 Bruce Lee was so awesome, it'd be gay if you DIDN'T get a boner from this picture.

Robert Clouse, director of Enter the Dragon and by that point a close friend of Lee's, felt that Lee's final testament - his unfinished Hong Kong picture, featuring an epic battle between 5'7 Lee in a yellow track suit and a 7'2 Karim Abdul Jabaar as his towering opponent - would perhaps inevitably become one of the most iconic fight scenes in cinematic history. The film was planned to be Lee's own personal triumph, a film showcasing his own unique brand of martial arts, Jeet Kune Do, and he was already planning to finish production once Enter the Dragon was finished... something Lee's untimely death simply didn't allow. Despite 100 minutes of raw footage having been shot, that only amounted to perhaps two reels of usable footage, and all of it was out of context. As a way to honor Lee's spirit - or just cash in on his passing, depending on how cynical you view the whole - Clouse resorted to a combination of look alikes, stock footage, and even some boggling scenes where Bruce's face is literally pasted over his stand in during post-production, just to convince the audience that the generally Chinese looking stand in is really the one and only Bruce Lee! Only the climactic battle tower scenes were really done, so Clouse essentially created an entirely new feature film as an excuse to use Lee's fifteen minutes or so of footage... for what it's worth, the documentary Bruce Lee: A Warrior's Journey - included on the WB Special Edition release of Enter the Dragon - features every worthwhile scrap of Game of Death in its original context, and while obviously not perfect, remains as close as we'll ever get to seeing what Lee was trying to give the world.

Anyway, Robert Clouse's train-wreck of a tribute was released as Game of Death worldwide starting in 1978. It's certainly open to debate wither or not films like The Big Boss and Way of the Dragon were particularly good films to start with - they were fluffy, insubstantial films that mostly captivate by way of Lee's natural charisma and his (particularly for the time) energetic and wholly unorthodox fight choreography. Lee is in both of these films really the diamond in the rough... but if that's true, in Game of Death the restored footage of Lee is more like the tasty peanut lodged in a stinking turd. The movie is as retarded as it is bizarre, but never quite crosses into that point where it's so pitifully terrible that the whole thing just becomes hilarious. No, it's just bad. But just like a number of bad movies, there's something oddly magical about watching it. Like a train that crashes, explodes, sprouts wings and then crashes itself headlong into a school for children with learning disabilities... it's just so unbelievably awful that it's difficult to turn away. It's also a must see for anyone with even a passing interest in Lee, just to see where his career may well have gone had he survived much longer. It's a bad movie with a capital "Jesus Christ!", but it's also one that contains fleeting moments of brilliance buried under all the painful dreck... and yeah, it's also got real footage of fans grieving at Lee's very public memorial service. I rarely make it a point to say that a director has made a decision in poor taste - I tend to like that sort of thing, after all - but Clouse's inclusion of real fans and possibly friends and family members weeping over his grave is just... ghoulish. It's almost in worse taste than putting Lee's final footage in such a ridiculously silly picture. But hey, that's showbiz.

It's worth noting that "Game of Death II", a direct sequel to the film we're talking about today released in 1981, is sometimes considered Lee's really final movie. The truth of the matter is someone found outtakes from Enter the Dragon, slapped them in a totally unrelated movie and viola - they have the absolute flimsiest leg to stand on in calling it a 'new' and 'never before seen' Bruce Lee movie. It's an interesting historical footnote, but little else, at least in the context of Lee's career.

Bruce's brief stint as a major film star has had a very mixed quality of HD releases. Fortune Star restored his three Hong Kong pictures and released them on English-subtitled Blu-ray via Hong Kong media mainstay Kam and Ronson. His first proper film, 1971's The Big Boss, is by far the best of the bunch and boasts an absolute reference transfer that you'd swear were shot yesterday, proving that the age of a film has absolutely nothing to do with quality. His two Hong Kong follow-ups, Fist of Fury and Way of the Dragon, look substantially less impressive with weak color timing, overzealous grain removal, and generally just look...  kind of like shit. They're not upscales, as a number of later Fortune Star/Kam and Ronson BD releases would be, they're just very unimpressive and over processed HD masters that looked passable on DVD and didn't age as well as The Big Boss, for whatever reason. Also, all of the Bruce Lee films discussed here have also been subjected to extensive, and frankly embarrassing 5.1 remixes, but that's really a discussion unto itself - if ever given this option, just watch the films in Mandarin mono and be done with it. (The Big Boss actually has an alternate rockin' soundtrack for the Cantonese dub which I'm partial to - but again, that's another story.)

His one and only "real" Hollywood feature, Enter the Dragon, was released on Blu-ray and the now-defunct HD DVD format by Warner in 2007. It was an earlier transfer sourced from a 1080i master made only God knows when. They properly performed an Inverse Telecine process to convert it to 1080p, but the final result lacks vertical resolution and has some pretty nasty aliasing from start to finish. Still, it's overall a decent looking transfer that, heinous aliasing aside, still puts the new scan from Hong Kong to shame. Also, that HK release is dubbed in Chinese only; despite the genre's broad preference for shooting silent and then dubbing into Mandarin first, Enter the Dragon was an all-English production shot with sync sound. It might be simpler to think of them as alternate versions of the film totally, since the Hong Kong cut does include alterante titles and a few brief scene extensions, even when compared to the "Restored" Warner Bros. edition we have now.

Mein gott!

Up until recent weeks, Lee's "final" picture has been absent on Blu-ray, apart from as an overpriced bonus disc (more on that in a minute). German label Universum Films have finally corrected it by releasing Game of Death under its' Deutsch title, MEIN LETZTER KAMPF - or "My Last Fight" for those of you not quite familiar enough with Hitler's autobiography to guess the English meaning of the title - on a Region "B" Blu-ray as either a single disc or part of a box set including his other three Hong Kong features. The title has been released uncut with an FSK16 rating, and includes its original English audio, albeit in a 5.1 remix. German 2.0 mono and subtitles are also included, and all the ridiculously gaudy English title sequences are as American fans will remember them. No relevant extras are included, but so long as the transfer looks great, hey, who cares!

 ...should I even be surprised?

I sadly can only give these Universum Film guys the benefit of the doubt, since they sourced the other three Lee films on their label from the same HD masters Fortune Star released on BD in Hong Kong. There was that "Bruce Lee: The Legendary Collection" box set by Fortune Star released less than one year ago (roughly $85 USD), and it contained Game of Death as an 'exclusive' after the rest of Lee's martial arts films were released as single discs... and now I think we all know why it wasn't given a stand alone edition. The film is an eye-rolling hodge podge of stock footage and optical effects where they literally paste in Bruce Lee's face over that of his stand-in(!!), so to some degree the film is never going to look "great" - but there's really no reason for it to be sourced from an NTSC fotmatted Digibeta, damn it!

For what damning praise this is, it's still worlds better than earlier cringe-inducing Fortune Star/Kam and Ronson upscales like Police Story and Bullet in the Head, which not only look like DVD, but like bad DVD. Paramount Japan is going to release this in November, and I can only imagine they're going to be stuck with the same shoddy upscaled master, too. To be totally fair, it still beats the prior Fortune Star/Warner Brothers R1 box set DVD release by a country mile. That thing was drowning in DVNR and scratch repair oddities, while this release goes the total opposite route and presents each and every scar and scrape on the print humanly possible. You can immediately tell when they're falling back on stock footage from his three Hong Kong films because of the coarser grain structure, and having been distracted by the heinous smearing on the five-disc R1 Fortune Star set, I can't say this isn't still a pretty notable improvement. But even so, it's got no more resolution than NTSC DVD is theoretically capable of, and has no reason being sold as a "1080p" release of any sort - much less be held as some sort of super special bonus disc or anything worth going out of your way to import.

Still, if you've got Kung Fu Fever and absolutely nothing but the post-mortum patchwork insanity of Game of Death on Blu-ray will satisfy you... shit son, you've got some issues. This pile of crap can be had for the laughable price of 15 Euros, and I won't link to where you can buy it, since I'd feel bad if you actually paid money for this worthless waste of space. Just pay attention to private download sites, grab a 720p rip of somekind and call it a day. If you want all of the Fortune Star BDs the box set is no more expensive than getting them as single discs, and you'll get some exclusive bonus material in the process, too. If you do already own the singles for the films you want, do yourself a favor and tell Fortune Star to eat a dick.

Much like masturbating with a fist full of Bengay, Game of Death is a uniquely masochistic treat I'd recommend only once. The German Blu-ray release, however, can be safely avoided at all costs.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Our Suffering Is Indeed Legendary...

HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II is one of those incredibly frustrating films. I do love it, and I make no apologies for it. I'd argue it's the only legitimately good Hellraiser sequel in existence, and easily the better film of Tony Randel's I've seen, who's other claim to infamy - the 1995 live action Fist of the North Star - is its' own unique level of Dante inspired Hell that we may have to talk about at a later date. As was so often the case, a friend of mine - a child of the 80s, make no mistake there - suggested I watch the Hellraiser sequel, and being young and stupid I decided to watch it before seeing the first film... didn't matter. In the end I loved it enough to seek out the first film and wallowed in Clive Barker's terrifying vision of extreme masochism, loathing and the breakdown of the family unit; for all the shitty unrelated follow-up movies Doug Bradley would be stuck in for the next 20 years, the original 1987 Hellraiser is a legitimate masterpiece on every level that could possibly matter, with strong leading performances, unsettling acts of violence, and Barker's own lust for the (male) human form made both beautiful and horrifying by the glorification-slash-destruction thereof.

So why is Hellbound a problematic film? It's not the usual "it's not as good as the first movie" excuse; with any due respect Randel's clearly no Barker, but the film's grotesque special effects and clammy atmosphere, at times, eclipse the film which inspired it. The story of the heroine returning to the literal bowels of Hell to rescue her father is an interesting twist on the formula of the first story, and her new friend - an idiot-savant who's perception of reality suggests she may be a Cenobite in training - gives the film a satisfyingly meaty substory that never gets properly explored, but is compelling in its own right (and likely would have made an infinitely better follow-up than Hell on Earth). The new villainous heavy hitter, Doctor Channard allows the fan favorite Cenobite - dubbed 'Pinhead' not by Barker but by his adoring audience - allows us to see that even monsters may possess humanity, and the film's conflict with "Leviathan" keeps the spirit of the first film's finale while literally trumpeting it up ad-nauseum. Even Christopher Young returns to expand the score that drives the first film, crafting a haunting score that's often more in tune with dark fantasy than straight up horror films.

The first two Hellraiser films aren't "scary" in any traditional sense - well, the first one is occasionally, I suppose, but the shuffling deformed ghoul in the attic quickly gives way to the amorphous threat of something sadistic and malevolent coming for your loved ones... but it's something they themselves have to invite. Like a drug addiction, the horrifically scarred Cenobites and their implements of sacrilegious torture are beings that the 'victim' must call out for themselves by playing with an ornate puzzle box. Few who end up with it don't understand the risk it possesses, but it pulls everyone around them down into the cold and clanking doom that consumes all who seek the limits of pleasure and self-satisfaction. Both Frank Cotton in the first film and Doctor Channard in the sequel willingly knock on the Devil's door, and to a large extent they get exactly what they wanted out of it. Hellraiser's terror isn't in the things that lurk in the dark and say "boo!", it's that niggling knowledge that, deep inside, we all want something selfish, something dark and forbidden that we can only have through horrible, destructive means. Pinhead and his followers were not the villain in these first two films, which in turn makes their potency as a means to unnerve the viewer that much more effective. We may not be like Pinhead, a dedicated monk with a warped perception of duty... but what about Frank and Channard? We're probably closer to them in one way or another than we'd ever like to admit.

At face value, the second Hellraiser film isn't bad; it brings back characters with unfinished business, sets the heroines on a quest in a strange land, and most of the journey is a fire-cracker of gruesome entertainment. In broad strokes, everything was done right for a sequel to build on the original while adding new elements to the table, and for what it's worth, it rocks the living shit out of the better parts of its production. Where the film falls apart, however, is in its conflict with one of the principle players from the first film... I'm going to spoil the shit out of the first two films now, so you'd best go watch it and come back later - I'll mark the spoilery bits in red text, so if you keep reading... well, don't blame me. Seriously though, I'd recommend you get that Anchor Bay Blu-ray before it's gone, because man, that Image "Midnight Madness" release is no great shakes. (More on that in a minute, though...)

Larry Cotton's sleazy criminal brother, Frank, seduced his then-fiancée Julia before he was torn to pieces in an alternate dimension populated by masochistic spirits known as Cenobites. When Julia discovers that Frank still exists in their new house as a blood-thirsty skinless ghoul, she seduces men to give him the blood he needs to revive... but in the end, Frank still needs skin, and steals it from his own brother. Kirsty tries to sell Frank out to the Cenobites, but finds that Julia has betrayed him and already taken her father's identity. Much as the Cenobites are bitter about leaving a potential victim behind, they do take Frank back with them, and Julia is tortured to death by "The Box" off-screen during the finale.

First of all, Hellbound opens with the realization that Julia can come back to life because she died on that that mattress, and feeding "it" blood will bring her back to life. Frank himself doesn't seem to know how he was able to come back, so why the hell does Kirtsy know how this crap works? Barker's earlier The Hellbound Heart - a novella that was, essentially, the screenplay for the first film - describes via third person narrative how Frank kept a connection to this world - through sperm, no less! But so what? Kirtsy may have survived the horrors of the Cotton house, but it's not like she's taken the period between this film and the last to read the works of Aleister Crowley and Antoine LeVay or anything. She just "knows", magically.

All right, fine, I guess I can take a logical leap of faith if it'll take me from Point A to Point B. I mean, I'm watching a film about a box that opens a portal to a BDSM themed eternal Hell, so why shouldn't I be able to swallow the above scripted non-sequitur?

The second issue I take with the sequel is that she believes that her father - Larry - is already in Hell. In fact, that was the premise of the shooting script. Far as I can tell, Frank just sucked his organs dry and skinned him - Larry didn't touch The Box, so why is he damned!? Does that mean everyone Frank dry-humped and drank like juice boxes are rotting away on a spiked pole covered in fish hooks, too? Well that doesn't seem very fair...

But the big issue is that the film presents us with a quest which is unobtainable. "Save Larry from Hell" is the premise of why Kirtsy's willing to go back, and is essentially her entire motivation as a character. She sees Larry leaving her messages in her room - which, honestly, makes me wonder why he doesn't just keep on walking if he can get out far enough to write bloody messages on her wall. Seriously, how does Hell work in this flick? Is it an honor system? Do the Cenobites just leave the gate unlocked and only give you a stern talking to if you don't go out accompanied? Yeesh! But anyway, the BIG TWEEST!! is that Larry isn't even in Hell - it was uncle Frank all along! Suck it, good story telling! The film essentially has us walk down this dark and dreary pathway for an hour with the hope that Kirsty can save the remnants of the one person she cared the most for and then gives us a really anticlimactic and horrifically skeezy pseudo-incest game of cat and mouse.

Holding aside the implications that this "trick" ending leaves us with, the reason for it is simpler than I'd always hoped: Andrew Robinson, the actor who played Larry (and Frank in the finale) in the first film, simply thought he was worth more than the producers did. So rather than do something clever like re-cast him or disfigure him, the producers just said "Fuck it, get rid of Larry all together." Don't modify Kirtsy's motivations or anything sensible like that, no, just cut that asshole who wanted a decent wage out and assume the picture holds together without him. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG? The twist does, I suppose, give a rather deafening and brutal feeling of hopelessness and loss in a film that's already a bleak crawl on its belly from start to finish, but the lack of an acceptable resolution for Kirsty's character really does make the final escape feel quite meaningless. Tiffany earns her freedom, but in the end all Kirsty has is the mistaken assumption that her wicked stepmother is dead and gone forever... well, it would have been mistaken if the producers hadn't said "fuck all" and realized that Doug Bradley was the more imposing visage of the two.

Still, even with plot holes you could probably fly a Cessna through Hellbound delivers its fair share of unsettling atmosphere, grotesque gore and tries - however unsuccessfully - to tie up the loose threads of its predocessor while opening the door for something even bigger. What Hellraiser 2 does right it does so well that I can almost forgive what it does wrong... I just can't forgive it to the point where I'll ever acknowledge it as being on a level playing field with the first feature.

So, those Midnight Madness Blu-ray? I hate to say it, but don't fucking bother, people. The following comparison is from the same shot featured at the finale of the first Hellraiser, and as a prologue in Hellbound... yes I know, the sequel would have used a dupe element of lesser quality anyway, but it is sadly representative of pretty much everything that seems to be wrong with the Image Blu-ray of Hellbound, in PNG and gratefully stolen from 'Rathbone' over at the AVS Forum (or HERE and THERE for direct links) - sorry guys, I tried uploading them to the usual filehost, but they seem to be broken. I think it's the gore, hard to say.

Dark, blurry, bluish, cropped... based on every review and screenshot that's appeared so far, there's absolutely nothing good to say for this transfer. I know it sells for about $13, but if you ask me that's still a ripoff. The DVD has a bounty of bonus features, and despite the limitations of DVD as a delivery format, the film is framed properly, has a more neutral color balance and - according to reviewers who have compared both - cleans up a number of emulsion discoloration spots and other issues that crop up "exclusively" on the unrated Blu-ray master.

Having opened my mouth with the word "upscales" an awful lot in the past with varying degrees of accuracy, I'll play this one safe and assume that it is, indeed, from a dated (and quite wretched!) 1080p master. The following comparison between the US and GERMAN release suggests that while that $55 import has slightly better grain retention, it's still from the same extremely soft and ugly master. Word is the Japanese release (only available in a Hellraiser 1-3 box set as of this writing) is from the same source too, and I wouldn't doubt it for a second.

What's especially frustrating is that the HDTV versions of the "R" rated cut are a moderate improvement. You can see a sample of the Image Blu-ray versus the US HDTV broadcasts HERE and THERE. The HDTV version is quite noisy and badly compressed, and I feel that the color balance is too yellow for its own good, but it does show more detail among the thorns. I have little doubt that they were from the same initial film scan, but for whatever reason the "Unrated" master was then blasted with additional DVNR and had its reds crushed into an ugly stew of maroon crap. Even if  the transfer was decent, it's missing the mountain of bonus content from the DVD release and the whole film only takes up about 17 gigs - even with a lossless 5.1 track. There's zero quality control or visible effort put into the presentation, so while it's a little difficult to turn down a Blu-ray release of an old favorite, that's exactly what I'm doing here. I've upgraded to releases that were bare-bones or less than perfect, but at least there was always something "good enough" about the presentation to seem worth justifying the ten or fifteen bucks it'd actually cost... try as I may, I just can't find a reason to upgrade this time.

Word is that the first Hellraiser was given a newer, lower bitrate transfer (28 Mb/s down to 20) as well, though presumably both the Anchor Bay and Image Entertainment BD transfers are based on the same masters. All special features sans trailer have also gone MIA, so with both the US and UK Anchor Bay BD still readily available for peanuts, there's absolutely no reason to buy the Image release, not until supply of those superior editions have been exhausted at the very least. There's yet to be a proper comparison between the two, but if one appears I'll amend this post with details.

What's a real cock slap is that it's not like Image is incapable of producing an okay disc if they're handed the right materials. Seriously, JUST LOOK AT BASKET CASE! How the fuck does that 30 year old 16mm piece of no-budget schlock look like it was shot yesterday, yet an atmospheric wunderkind like Hellbound looks only one step removed from being a fucking DVD!? Nothing against Frank Henenlotter's rubber puppets, but goddamn it, seeing the lesser of two films strictly from a materials standpoint wipe its tumorous ass all over a substantially better looking film just pisses me the fuck off. The $13 that would have gone to Hellbound is probably going to this, just to torment Mrs. Kentai further and show Image that I will give them money only when they don't deliver shit.

Whilst the film has some core issues I can't fully ignore, Hellbound: Hellraiser II is still a mostly worthy follow-up to one of the most fascinating and accomplished horror films of the 1980s. Image's release is marred by a combination of shoddy materials, a probable lack of license clearance on the extras, and a big heaping scoop of They Clearly Don't Give A Fuck. Image has had a pretty spotty reputation ever since they made the switch to Blu-ray, and while this is nowhere near as shocking as their BLATANT UPSCALE of The Hills Have Eyes, it proves that Image is simply going to squat down and push out whatever materials they have without the slightest care into its presentation otherwise. If you love Hellbound maybe you'll be tempted to pick it up just so you can watch the film uncut in (pathetic) HD... I'm not here to judge. I just want you guys to know how much donkey shit this sandwich contains per square inch before you take a big ol' bite.

Ken le Guerrier du Zombi

So, let's go down the list as to why this makes me a happy bastard...

* Fist of the North Star Related
* Living Dead Related
* Lulzy French Theme Song
* Pure Internet Memetic Bullshit

Yep, that's about my quota of all four for the week. Enjoy!

Friday, September 09, 2011

FUNimation's Got Grainy HD Balls

The latest episode of the ANNCast features two people in charge of DVD/Blu-ray production for FUNimation, and talks at length about their SD upscales, how they try to work with fan feedback, and some horrifying anecdotes about scorpions. Yes, fucking scorpions. Seriously, humans aren't meant to live in Texas and scorpions are the only proof we should need of this.

But the real surprise is that FUNimation had some A/B comparison images of their upcoming DRAGON BALL Z: LEVEL 1.1 Blu-ray transfer for dorks like me to scrutinize. I can't say for sure if these are 100% representative of the final quality we can expect or if they're cherry picking the goods to shut opinionated assholes (ie: guys like me) up with the best of the best... but here's what we've gotten, anyway. Keep in mind I've resized the DVD images and cropped the Blu-ray stuff, and since they were heavily compressed to start with I once more JPG'ed their asses. This is SCIENCE!! in only the vaguest and least professional of terms, but it sure is neat, so let's get started.


FUNimation LEVEL 1.1 BLU-RAY

Toei DVD

FUNimation BD

Toei DVD

FUNi Blu-ray

I've gotta say, I'm perfectly happy to eat crow ass-first on this one: if these comparisons are to be trusted, the FUNimation "Level X.Y" HD Remaster is indeed an improvement on the covered Toei Dragon Boxes. Mind you topping an SD transfer from 2003 can't be that fucking hard, but FUNi's come a long way since trying to convince us that removing grain and reformatting a 90s TV show into 16:9 widescreen was a good thing, so I'm trying to stay positive here.

The first thing to punch you in the jaw is how grainy this new transfer is. That's mostly a good thing; Dragon Ball Z was a weekly TV series produced on 16mm, and while FUNimation loves to say they're going from "original Japanese film masters" that doesn't instantly tell us much. They could be fine-grain prints from the OCN, they could be internegatives made from whatever positive prints were actually used for the broadcast telecine back in 1989 - FUNimation has never explicitly said, so we really can't know for sure. In any case they're using prints that are located in a vault in Texas and have been used on both their 4:3 "singles" DVDs as well as their 16:9 "Orange Brick" sets, so we can be certain they're not going from the actual negative. More generations removed means more inevitable layers of grain, and while there's a slightly "blotchy" quality to the grain in these caps, I'll remind you all a second time that these are heavily compressed, and grain structure is the first thing to suffer when you're trying to make a BD cap take up 1/4 the space of a PNG.

The other thing I'm impressed by is the color saturation. Long have fans of Dragon Ball Z lamented that FUNi's transfers have boosted, unnatural colors and contrast compared to Toei's DVD transfers, and up until now they had a damn valid point. Again, FUNi's using the same exact 16mm prints as they always have, so the actual quality of the colors - such as Bulma's hair being closer to blue than Toei's teal as shown in the first cap - do have some consistency with all of FUNimation's prior releases. That said, the Dragon Box looks oversaturated in direct comparison; the clouds in that same first shot have a similarly teal push, and in the second shot Gokuu's gi is a neutral orange reminiscent of most of the merchandise I've bought featuring the character over the years. On the Dragon Box, it's about two steps away from brick red! I can't claim to know for certain which "look" the show's color coordinator actually wanted people to see circa 1989, but as they were mostly watching it on 17" tubes it's arguable that any and all prior version of Dragon Ball Z should be considered only with a grain of salt. (And maybe a fifth of tequila.)

The BD master has notably more frame info on the left and bottom, slightly more at the top, and the right side seems to be negligible. This is a substantial improvement over their ridiculous 16:9 DVD masters, and while experiene has taught me that there are some perfectly valid reasons to crop off the edges of the frame, generally speaking I'd rather have more of the image than less.

I'm not going to get my panties wadded up over this yet, but it is odd that there's very little grain on the left, dark side of Bulma's chair in the first cap. Again, these are lossy JPG caps, so it's entirely possible that we're just seeing the result of bandwidth-saving compression. Less easy to blame on compression what appears to be mild ringing in the third cap around virtually any horizontal line on Napa's face: It looks like pretty mild sharpening to me, and having heard the FUNimation tech on the podcast say they were against sharpening filters it might well have been something done at the telecine stage before they got to it. Sharpening could help explain why the 16mm grain has an extremely "coarse" look to it too, but I shouldn't read too much into isolated promotional images. If there is some edge enhancement here it's clearly very minor, and I doubt it'd be especially distracting.

One other piece of info that was oddly lacking from FUNi's DBZ pimping were the words "new telecine". Was the initial HD transfer done in 4:3 and without horribly boosted contrast and scratch repair artifacts, only to be brutalized with bad decisions somewhere further down the chain? And if so, is FUNimation using the HD telecine made at least four years ago for their DVD box sets? It's entirely possible, and without them specifying that it's a new telecine we have no other major reason to assume it is. Still, as these caps suggest there wasn't much wrong with the actual telecine work; I'm sure a 2k scan circa 2011 would turn out better than a 1080p scan circa 2006, but the difference would be minor. And with 291 episodes to scan, I'm sure they sunk a fortune into that initial transfer, and we know FUNi has bought several shiny new workstations to remove the grit baked into the prints that makes what I can do with scripts look like a joke. If the corner they cut is not paying for 100+ hours of new telecine work, I think it might be the best compromise we could ask for.

Again, this shouldn't be taken as an exhaustive comparison or even a review, but after having feared the worst it's a damned interesting little surprise. FUNimation fucked up hard several years ago when they "remastered" Dragon Ball Z in the single most ass way possible, but this is the company finding a way to make amends for their sin against commercial art, and they've turned me around completely from assuming this was going to be a pathetic cash-in of left over materials into seeing it as a totally respectful approach to a show that has so rarely been given much respect in the first place. No word yet on wither or not the Japanese credits and episode previews will be restored. It's common knowledge that FUNimation's film masters simply don't have them included, so I'm not getting my hopes up. Still, if that's all that's missing this release could well be an impressive and ambitious upgrade to fans of Toriyama's masterpiece... ambitions enough to convince me to buy 17 separate SKUs? Well, we'll just have to wait and see on that one.

The original link also has comparisons with the "Orange Brick" sets I talked about a while back. I refuse to waste my bandwidth on those fucking things, but at least it proves that the blown-out contrast on the faux-widescreen sets was not the results of the prints themselves.

Every Blu-ray: A Limited Edition?

Thanks for this, Mark Welser!

Warning: The following piece was written in a pretty nasty funk. I can't make heads or tails of it anymore, but fuck it all. What's in here needs to be said just so I can dump it out of my subconscious and move on.

So, here's the short version: FRIGHT NIGHT, the 1985 horror/comedy classic recently (and, I hear, quite brutally) raped on a bed of hot holy water by a fusion of 3D bullshit and gratuitous Collin Farrell, was announced as getting an exclusive Blu-ray release through Screen Archives' own Twilight Time label. There will be 3,000 copies pressed, and no more. The price will be $29.95 plus postage, or roughly $35 shipped. There will be no new extras, though whatever was included on the prior DVD may well make an appearance here. Apparently, Twilight Time has to check with the film's masters over at Sony Pictures to be sure.

When the title was announced but no price had been set, there was a pretty mass assumption that it would be the same price as the limited-to-3,000 units The Egyptian (a 20th Century Fox license that sells for $40), and immediately the internet itself quickly broke down into Mad Max territory - and I'm talking Road Warrior, none of that pussy Thunderdome crap: Accusations of the title being limited to create an "artificial demand" were thrown about like water balloons, comparisons to a number of other nostalgia soaked 80s fright comedies were dredged up ("What about Monster Squad, didn't that do well?" "Didn't Sony release Night of the Creeps?" "Return of the Living Dead came out just last year!" etc), and a shockingly vocal number of customers who were at first excited by the prospect of owning a beloved 26 year old fan-favorite creature feature basically told the entire world to fuck off. "I don't WANT your fancy limited edition" they cried, with varying degrees of transparency and bitterness. "Why can't Sony just release the film themselves and sell it everywhere, giving us all a chance to get a copy at a fair price like any other Sony film?"

Why not indeed, Sony? For one thing, the remake tanked: As of this writing it has made less than $17 million worldwide, despite having been made with an estimated budget of $30 mil. But who cares, right? Anyone in the demographic of nostalgic-30-somethings who'd actually give a flying shit about the original film would avoid the remake like AIDS infused cancer anyway, so why not just dump the classic out on BD and be done with it? Sony owns the rights, the negative, all of the materials they could ever need and already own a film lab with salaried employees, and heck, Sony may as well be the goddamn BDA who gets all the eye-roll inducing fees paid every time a Blu-ray gets released. All they'd have to do is slap a new transfer on a disc and that sweet, sweet nostalgia money would just come rolling in! It's a no brainer, right? So why would they sell it off to Twilight Time and let them pocket both the profits and the glory? For that matter, why are they limiting a title with such obvious cult appeal to a meager 3,000 units?

I may not know anybody at Sony Pictures or Twilight Time, but I do know the answer friends, and it's not one any label wants to broadcast very loudly. I recently had a chat with an old boss, and still a good friend, and before y'all start assuming it's "this guy" or "that guy", I can tell you right now that it's not who a lot of you probably think it was. God help me, it's someone I worked with regularly long before I started this blog, and he recently got in touch because he had a production emergency he needed to have fixed, and I'm never too busy (or too broke) to do a little grunt work... anyway, we got to talking. This old friend still runs an independent label, and they released their first Blu-ray last year. You have to understand that this was a title that sold over 50,000 copies on DVD, and the Blu-ray was on sale as a pre-order for as little as $12 from usual suspects like Best Buy and - it's also a great little fucking movie, and one I myself bought a copy of because I like it that much. In short this was born to be a success story, a briskly selling Blu-ray title built on a legacy of DVD sales... but they decided to play it safe and went with a small initial batch, knowing they could always produce more to meet demand. That's what they did for the DVD, and they were new to the whole BD process enough that they figured having too few up front was better than having too many. You want to know how many units they pressed? A bit less than 3,000, and in the end nearly 500 unsold copies were returned. I won't give away what the title was, but suffice to say it's a unique and damned enjoyable cult film with a decent presentation that outshines the DVD in every way. At face value they pretty much everything right, offered a fine product at a fair price, and it couldn't even move 2,500 copies.

But back to Fright Night. No bullshit, no soft numbers or tin-foil hat theories, let's just use a little common sense: The ONLY reason Sony would ever give this flick to Twilight Time is because there is no worth-while market for these types of films on Blu-ray. Would Sony sell more copies if they released it through Amazon and Best Buy for $15? Sure. Would they sell 6,000? Fuck, maybe? Even if they did, to Sony that's a drop of piss in an ocean of liquid cash. They'd rather give the rights to another company entirely and let them waste their time and split the reward with absolutely no effort on their part. It's actually brilliant... except for that niggling little fact that Hollywood has already destroyed the perceived value of its own product. When you pre-order titles from Amazon or pick it up on release day at Target, it's typically 45% to 66% off, and I can't even REMEMBER the last time I paid list price for a title that wasn't already out of print. Lowering the price on catalog titles helps move unsold units and bolsters sales numbers if you want to brag about it, but it also breeds a customer that perceive the value of the product at next to nothing. Seriously, have any of you ever paid list price of a Blu-ray? Do you ever even pay 75% of list price? Of course not! Because you know goddamn well that if you really need it you'll find it for substantially less, shipping included.

For all the justified bitching I usually do against companies like Media Blasters, Arrow Video, Blue Underground and whoever else happens to release a disc crumby enough that I want to talk about here in a negative light, I honestly feel just a little bad for them. On the one hand, yeah, they're selling discs for about $15 a piece and probably doing sales in the painfully low thousands - maybe even less than that. They must be splitting a measly profit of a few thousand dollars with the licensor at this point, and that may or may not even be enough to cover the new transfer the film probably needs, and heaven help them if they release a disc shitty enough that nobody will actually buy it but the few masochistic bastards who just want to review it for Internet Geek Points (TM). Of course the licensor could say "fuck it all" and release the film on DVD only, come on... do you buy DVDs anymore? I know I don't, unless it's specifically picking up a Special Edition release to compliment a bare-bones Blu-ray. I regularly make exceptions for cheap 90s TV shows that only have composite sources left, but that's neither here nor there.

So where does that leave independent labels who want to release obscure or unknown titles? Where's the money gone? Can they? This is the future, people. Full movies are just a few keystrokes away on YouTube and BitTorrent, or Hulu and Netflix if you'd rather go the "legit" route about it - and yeah, they make a few bucks on those venues, but not nearly as much as you're probably thinking. People bought DVDs because they were cheap, readily available and there wasn't any other particularly appealing way to see a movie - nowadays, you could  burn a half-dozen of them to a single layer DVD that'll cost you a quarter. The hardcore collectors still exist, but they're very few and much more tepid towards the notion of replacing their entire collections; the industry itself has long joked that crack is probably cheaper than anime, and back in 2003 when I was actually spending $200 on a 26 episode series, they might have been right. Now, my crack is readily available and cheaper than free... if you want me to show up with some jangly hand-job earned dollars in tow, you'd better deliver the fucking goods, man. That's the fucking world we live in, fair or not, and it was perhaps inevitable as technology both improved and became more accessible. We live in a world where most teenagers have never bought an album or a film or even a fucking ringtone; it's not necessary. There's simply no incentive to "buy" entertainment now. It's just something you consume and move on from to them, and having bought my share of dumb shit I probably shouldn't have, I almost envy that mindset... but those films still exist, and they're still trickling out at lower prices and with less effort for it. The result isn't going to be pretty, and it explains in a nutshell why Image Entertainment would release a shitty upscaled disc like The Hills Have Eyes and why Media Blasters isn't bothering to hire anyone to do the slightest bit of QC on Beyond the Darkness; they're probably just hoping to break even on these fucking films and could really give a fuck about all else after that point. Why do they bother, I wonder? Are they turning a profit on releases like Urotsukidoji, The 10th Victim and Vamp? What about stuff like BMX Bandits and In a Glass Cage, or all of those titles Blue Underground wound up releasing about a month or two after Arrow Video? Maybe these particular labels are doing better than the few I know personally, but I can't imagine they're doing better by enough... something just doesn't add up, and friends, it troubles me deeply.

Fright Night is an isolated incident where we know for a fact that there's only 3,000 copies... who's to say that every independent genre label didn't only make 5,000 copies of every film they've licensed? How long are they even going to be there? When it's gone, who will really care? Will you pay $60 on eBay for that copy of The New York Ripper or Shigurui or what-the-fuck-ever that you never bought before it went out of print, or will you just shrug and go download a 720p rip? Be honest, now - not with me, but yourself. If you want to see more releases, all you can do is support them. Yes, I've bought some crumby releases because there was just enough good inside, and some titles I've avoided on principle that maybe I shouldn't have. It's all relative, and nobody's perfect. But unfortunately that's all we can do: Buy the goddamn thing, hope we're not alone, and pray that whoever holds the purse-strings sees that as a sign to do more like it. If the cult film market won't even bear 3,000 copies at MSRP, perhaps we don't deserve nice things to begin with. Pearls before swine, all that crap. It's been a good long time since I've felt the urge to walk out into the streets and just shout "Come ON, internet... geez!!" It's a fairly priced release of a title with a dedicated fanbase, and unless it's a fucking SD upscale I don't see how it's not worth $35 - if you like the film and all that, of course. Yes I know, this statement is coming from the crazy man who spent $70 on Rurouni Kenshin Tsuioku-Hen - but fuck it all, what should a limited Blu-ray be worth? Do films not have a tangible value anymore outside of the crazy people like me? And fuck, before you think I regularly burn money like a maniac I flatly refused to re-buy Robocop on BD until I found a copy for $10. I'll probably spend fourty bucks and change before shipping on that Goddamn Figma, but the second you don't include the DVD features I'll take my sweet fucking time about upgrading. We all have our thresholds and hang-ups, but to be fair, that's MGM/20th Century Fox and a film they've released on DVD more times than I can even count. At that point I'm almost being a cheap cunt subconsciously - the way my own biased brain works, they don't need all of my money. Not as much as Something Weird Video, Cult Epics or Aniplex USA does, that's for damn sure.

But, I do tend to ramble... this angst really isn't about Fright Night. I'll buy a copy and I'll enjoy it, end of the story. No, this dread is about the very future of "marginal" catalog titles and releases from niche cult-film labels, the films that I tend to love the most. For them to survive we're probably going to have to see smaller print runs, higher prices, and fewer venues offering them - it may well be the Special Edition Laserdisc days all over again, except any sane person who doesn't care about owning everything could watch the movie for free on TV at any time. We're already seeing corners get cut left and right by Image Entertainment, Echo Bridge and others, and studios like Blue Underground and Severin Films have all but fallen silent about what they have up their sleeve for 2012. It fills me with a sense of dread and fear that my own little favorite corner of the market is slowly being marched towards extinction by a combination of technology advancing and the apathy of seeing "entertainment" as worth celebrating, and none of the conversations I've had in the last week have made me feel any better about it. Perhaps I'm merely reading too much into numbers I can't compare to much else and trends that feel "experimental" at this point, but still, they say nothing last forever...

Blu-ray finally gave the world a chance to smile, nod, and say 'I don't need to ever buy this film again. It looks and sounds substantially better than it ever did in theaters, and this is good enough for watching at home, forever.' How many more less recognizable catalog films from yesteryear will we be able to say that about next year? And how many of those will end up being "Limited" releases like Fright Night, which means you either get it today or you don't get it ever? I look forward to finding out, but advise you to not get your hopes as high as they may have been a year or two ago.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Sawa, Sharks, and a Mothafuckin' Plane

What's this now? Umetsu related news...?

According to Variety a one David R. Ellis, director of cinematic masterstrokes including Snakes on a Plane, Shark Night 3D and yes, the second unit director of goddamn Waterworld, has just been announced as the newest director to the Hollywood remake of Yasuomi UMETSU's wholly unparalleled action/hentai anime A-KITE/カイト.

Long time friends of the Kentai Blog will know that this is one of those sacred features for me, and that ever since they announced that Rob Cohen, the guy who's closest work was the first braindead (but competent) Fast and Furious flick, was behind it I was appalled at the very notion. Perhaps best described as a fusion of La Femme Nikita and Thriller: A Cruel Picture, with all of the explicit child abuse and hard-boiled girls with guns action that premise would suggest. It's a title very near and dear to me personally, and remains one of the few legitimate masterpieces to incorporate pornography-as-violence. Umetsu himself followed it up with the substantially sillier but no less impressive Mezzo Forte, and has since drifted away in a sea of his own mediocrity that began when he blew the budger for the Mezzo TV series on the first episode, and then produced a horrifyingly awkward "satire" of fuck-if-I-know in the form of the ill advised Kite Liberator sequel. He also directed what's likely the best sequence out of Robot Carnival, and directed the final chapter in the infuriatingly uneven Dante's Inferno: An Animated Epic... in other words, A-Kite is Umetsu's uncompromising masterpiece of soul snapping visceral entertainment, and most everything that's followed has been either unimpressive or outright bad.

The "official" storyline for the upcoming Hollywood feature film:

Yasuomi Umetsu's original film was released in 1998. The live action "Kite" is being developed as a character-driven actioner centered on a young woman living in a failed state, post-financial collapse, where the corrupt security force profits on the trafficking of young women. When her father, a cop, is slain by someone dirty inside the force, she vows to track the murderer down with the help of her father's ex-partner -- never realizing he is, in fact, the man who had her father killed.

...and Kentai's 'official' reaction to the whole goddamn thing.

Yeah, yeah, I know. The graphic pedophilia and hardcore rape angle was added essentially as a way to guarantee the return-on-investment that producing 50 minutes of animation, but wither Umetsu "planned it" from the start or not, they're part and parcel with the finished film. Literally just removing Sawa's rape in front of Oburi changes the character dynamic between them and their "handlers" completely, and while Umetsu probably could have gotten the point across in less bold terms in some way, he did not. The R-15 cut and all of its varying iterations are incomplete and problematic on a number of levels. Yeah, I say fuck the so-called "Director's Edit" and all the controversy surrounding it; A-Kite was an animated work equally heavy on manipulative emotion and explosive spectacle, but light on dialog, and in the confines of a hard-boiled minimalist tragedy, every single image matters. Two dimensional facial expressions set to disorienting music and brief flashes of subconscious abuse carried as much narrative importance as any exploding head, and simply removing them only makes the film less impactful and, ironically, even sleazier since it makes Sawa look like a bit of a jaded slut instead of an actual victim!

Maybe this film will be a decent popcorn revenge flick, I dunno. I'm not even totally against crappy girls-with-guns movies as a whole, and I'm surprisingly ambivalent to Sam Raimi remaking Noir as a live action TV series. All the same, if this ever gets past past pre-production - something it's failed to do twice in a row now, for better or worse - I'll probably be too busy sucking on the loaded end of a .44 to notice if the film is any good.

Oh yeah. This happened too, didn't it?

Yeah... Kurono isn't a total douchebag in this adaptation, so wither or not it's entertaining it's already kind of a failure.