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.


Kriztoffer Swank said...

Man, that's disappointing. Mostly the aspect ratios. Not that it probably makes a whole hell of a lot of difference, but I'm used to seeing these films open matte.

Transfers look pretty good otherwise, except for the black levels as you mentioned. Not fond of all three flicks being slapped onto one disc; maybe a two-disc set with two films on one, the third film and the extras on the other would have been good.

I dunno... I was hoping for some rich transfers in their proper ratio, but this is pretty much a drag and I think I'll stick to my DVD box. Which is kind of sad to think about: the DVD set had three discs...

Speaking of H.G. Lewis and Henenlotter, I just ordered the latter's documentary on the former (along with the Basket Case BD). Should be great.

Then there's Synapse's BD for Frankenhooker coming out, which had on pre-order for $14.99 (it's $15.99 now). Really hoping for that to be an amazing transfer, 'cos it's easily my favorite Henenlotter film.

Kriztoffer Swank said...

Oh, and...

According to that, Lewis had nothing to do with these transfers, and probably wouldn't approve of the films being cropped. Or he just doesn't care.

Kriztoffer Swank said...

FFFFF, I'll make it a link.

Kentai 拳態 said...

It's somehow nice to see that Lewis seems just as dumbfounded over these films coming to Blu-ray as I was... too bad they didn't address the OAR issue directly, but I know how I feel on the matter, and even if Lewis had said "That's how I always wanted them to look!" I'd still think it wasn't too great an idea. And with all due respect, I suppose cropping BLOOD FEAST isn't nearly as damning to the experience as it was for, say, THE BIRD WITH CRYSTAL PLUMAGE...

$16 is still a pretty damned good price for a Synapse disc, honestly. They rarely drop to below $20 on Amazon, where it's not uncommon to pick up Media Blasters and Blue Underground titles for nearly half off.

Anthony1138 said...

I'm glad you pointed out the aspect ratio issue, because I was all set to sell my DVDs. Now I guess I'll hang on to them and probably won't get the Blu-Ray. I mean it looks like a pretty big jump in picture quality, but I don't like the matting. If I ever see the disc for under $10 I may pick it up.

Kentai 拳態 said...

The disc's MSRP is only $18, and you can already get it for $12 through Amazon... you might well be able to find it for under ten bucks in a month or two.

I'm actually wishing I had the DVD for COLOR ME BLOOD RED, and not just for the framing. There's a big ol' jump cut on the Blu-ray that has me a bit nervous, but I don't have an SD copy to compare it to at the moment... any chance you could give me the DVD runtime, Anthony?

Anonymous said...

"The Blood Trilogy" blu ray is decent, but it could have been so much more. In addition to the aspect ratio and black levels, which frankly is inexcusable, fitting all 3 movies and mega extras on one disc is epic fail 101. Regarding "2000 Maniacs", it does not look as vibrant as either "Blood Feast" and "Color Me Blood Red". I understand the source material wasn't great to begin with. I just wish they could have done some color correction on it. On the other hand, SWV's blu ray of "Basket Case" is utterly gorgeous. Great colors and wonderful grain. I was completely impressed with it.

Kentai 拳態 said...

I've not had the chance to watch them in full, but I agree that TWO THOUSAND MANIACS appears to be the weakest of the films present quality-wise. There's just so much damage that it's got to be from a duplicate print of some kind...

I'm honestly happy with BASKET CASE too, but it does present a curious dilemma... I'll be back to discuss that one once I've had the time to watch the disc from start to finish.

Anthony1138 said...

Kentai, I just popped in the Color Me Blood Red DVD and the run time of the main feature is 1:19:03. How does that compare to the Blu-Ray run time?

Kentai 拳態 said...

The Blu-ray actually runs... 1:19:08! Now that is a surprise.

Guess I'll just have to chalk this one up to the materials being what they are. Thanks for checking, Anthony!

James Lee said...

Lewis is actually on record as saying these are 1.85:1 films. Either all video transfers are zoomed in or he can't frame for toffee. I suspect the latter.

The DVD transfers are mostly decent but sadly Two Thousand Maniacs was PAL-NTSC.