Saturday, October 01, 2011

Protethstetic To The Bone, No Doubt About It!

Frank Henenlotter's BASKET CASE is a substantially better film that Blood Feast, though it was lovingly dedicated to the Godfather of Gore himself, H.G. Lewis. Belial has become enough of an underground icon that you can buy him on a licensed goddamn t-shirt, and the film left a truly jaded pal of mine with more hentai under his belt than a dozen normal perverts duct-taped together to say that it contained "the most disturbing monster rape [he] has ever seen", and that's far from faint praise... the missus, however, was thoroughly bored when she watched it with me, and when it was over all she could say was "Didn't we already see this movie? Except it was in Japanese and way better?" Oh, snap... Basket Case just got served by Evil Dead Trap. (And Takashi Miike's Box, come to think of it.)

But really, the film is partially beyond good or bad just as its anti-heroes Dwayne and Belial are beyond good and evil; it's a seriously bizarre concept and a totally warped film, entrenched firmly in the notion of a horror/revenge film with the most unlikely protagonist imaginable, and produced on a budget of essentially nothing in the mean streets of New York some thirty years ago... I think what I'm saying is that I don't hold Basket Case as a near and dear cult film the way I do stuff like The Evil Dead or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but I have plenty of respect for what the director was trying to create, and recommend that anyone who can look past the foam rubber muppet of an anti-hero wallow in the film's seedy, nonsensical madness. It isn't really a bad movie, but it is cheap and a little amateurish, giving us fascinating glimpses of creativity and promise that Henenlotter would only find a way to deliver completely later on in his career. I see why people love it, but Mrs. Kentai is wise in pointing out that the same bizarre concept has been used in an altogether more exciting and gruesome film. Hehenlotter's real potential would be realized a few years later in the unique addiction allegory Brain Damage, and with any luck we can talk about that film on Blu-ray next year...

Online review circles - both cultish and mainstream - have all been buzzing for a week or two now about how incredible this new Blu-ray release is. I absolutely see where they're coming from, and I do generally agree with them. The disc's sole new extra is an introduction in which Frank discusses how they approached the restoration - how no level of digital wizardry was going to make how low budget 16mm film look "beautiful", and so he decided to go on the opposite direction, preserving every flaw the film negative had to offer, and going back to the 16mm answer print they created for the film distribution company they eventually sold it to for reference on the color timing. The result is a transfer that's substantially sharper and even less gritty than any prior DVD or 35mm theatrical release, but one that preserves the lo-fi nature of the production to a fault. It's not at all unfair to call Basket Case a cheap, ugly film and the Blu-ray master goes out of its way to wear this ugliness on its sleeve with pride.

In a world where directors like Sam Raimi, William Friedkin, Francis Ford Coppola and some dick who made like a half-dozen movies about laser swords are known to punch up films they finished decades ago, it's nice - refreshing, even! - to see Henenlotter acknowledge that Basket Case is a product of its time and should be left alone, forced to stand on its own two misshapen hand-feet for whatever it's without any post-modern fiddling. There's something beautiful about that mindset, and the results are pretty much what you see below.

Horizontal emulsion scratch.

Vintage color timing.

Inky, serious black levels.

Hair in the gate.

Excessive grain, likely from dupe elements.


The coarse 16mm grain has been left completely intact, the non-standard 4:3 aspect ratio it was "incorrectly" shot in has been preserved from start to finish, and the only major color timing on display was matched to the photochemically color graded answer print from 1982. Every major scratch and piece of dirt printed to the negative has been left exactly as it was, to the chagrin of at least one reviewer. Often labels take pride in turning a sow's ear into a silken purse, but Something Weird Video and Frank Henenlotter have essentially just added a zipper to a pig's head here - and in this particular instance, I really couldn't be much happier. I've heard it argued many, many times that seeing scratches and other analog problems baked into a film print give it a "warmth" that a fully restored version lacks, and while I don't typically cotton to that view personally, I think the hand-hewn nature of Basket Case makes for a damn fine example of what these guys are talking about. There are some flaws inert to the release, such as shockingly oppressive black levels and a fairly low level of image fidelity from time to time - the image is certainly grainy, and that's good, but it's not always particularly sharp, if you follow. I am, however, willing to chalk much, perhaps even all of this up to the camera negative. Frank may have been a bit over thirty when this was released, but it was still his first feature film, and having worn virtually every production hat there was, it's possible that lighting and focus were simply not up to speed when they made it.

That said... well, there's seemingly not a whole lot in the way of "film restoration" going on here. Much of the major spots and specs have been cleaned up (which is more than I can say for Beyond the Darkness or even Blood Feast), but the film is still quite rife with relatively minor damage. Clearly that's what Frank asked for, and as the director that's certainly his right to request it. I'd much rather see a film scanned with little in the way of fussing than get an overly scrubbed product that no longer looks like the camera negative - that's the whole point isn't it, restoration, not revisionism.

But just how little is too little? Everyone on the planet has sung the praises of Taxi Driver on Blu-ray, specifically because it managed to clean up the flaws inherent to the negative - flicker, judder, print damage and the like - without sacrificing "the look" of a gritty, low budget 1970s production. That release certainly had some fidelity flaws, particularly with the optically desaturated finale, but each and every one of them was inherent to the negative and could in no way be fixed without causing new problems. Certainly there are plenty of contenders for this title, but Taxi Driver might just be the single highest quality and most "film-like" restoration available on home video today. Of course it also cost Sony a small fortune to create... and that's where this divide between "Preservation" and "Restoration" is going to appear, probably on a number of releases in the future.

I don't mean to second guess Frank's earnest defense of leaving well enough alone, but in the case of those emulsion scratches that run through the film from time to time, those are an easy fix. I know because I've actually done it before, and knowing that any yahoo with a bootlegged copy of Photoshop and the good sense to realize how to clone away damage between frames could as well, it makes me think that the historically accurate "Preservation" of the elements as they were is as much a matter of principle as it is a way to squeak by with minimal lab costs - that is to say, the actual "Restoration" part. The HD telecine alone must have cost several thousand dollars matching both the camera negative and that 16mm answer print to re-create the original, uncut version of the film - that 11th cap has got to be from dupe elements, and there's really nothing Frank could say to convince me otherwise. Even all that color correction - simple as it may be - likely wasn't free. Let's face it, the release is selling for $18 retail and poor Frank probably had to pay for at least part of the damn scan out of his own pocket. The presentation wipes the floor with every prior version of Basket Case, I get that, but it's rough around the edges when it really doesn't need to be, not technically speaking. I'm not a deformed stumpy monster, and I certainly forgive Frank for going the route that not only sounds like the best option in this world of Star Wars available in HD only with blinking Ewoks and the further pussification of Darth Vader, but also let the poor bastard walk away with a satisfying - if not perfect - transfer that didn't cost more than the film did to make 30 years ago.

The audio, much like the video, is exactly what it is. Hiss comes and goes, levels are rarely uniform, certain lines sound as if the mic was in someone's coat pocket, and if you've ever seen the film prior, you can basically expect much of that same harsh, booming mono in 16-bit PCM. I'm honestly a bit less fussed about audio quality than video for films like this because I expect absolutely nothing to start with. Basket Case sounds roughly as good as it looks, and while I have little doubt that the levels could have been fixed and that slightly high, shrill sound might well be a side-effect of noise reduction, it's decent enough. That's all I'm going to ask for under the circumstances.

Now, as I said about the other SWV release I reviewed early this week, it's fucking Basket Case. We should all be overjoyed that it's on Blu-ray with a brand new HD scan, warts and all... but the question quickly becomes less about Basket Case itself, and more about wither or not should we hold this up as the gold standard for all low-budget cult films, as so many reviewers are doing. The transfer certainly isn't bad - there's nothing really "wrong" with it, though I will be a ponce and point out that the middling 20 Mb/s transfer has left the single-layer disc with about 7 spare gigs of virgin territory begging for a bitrate boost to keep the grain as defined as possible. But holding all of that aside, by what metric is this an amazing transfer? It'd obviously be unfair to compare it to a recent 35mm Hollywood affair, or even a modern 16mm title like The Devil's Rejects which was sourced from a digital intermediate... but how does it stack up against vintage 16mm sourced exploitation films?

Honestly, it's somewhere in the middle. It's nowhere nearly as detailed or vibrant as The Evil Dead, still perhaps the finest looking representation of a 16mm negative restored on a 2k DI, but it also doesn't pull out DVNR when it has to use a non-negative source or introduce CG fixes nobody but the director gives a shit about, so perhaps at the end it's a wash. The print also hasn't been restored nearly as well as Last House on the Left in terms of print stabilization and dirt cleanup, and that was a transfer created from what appears to be a 35mm blow-up negative! As much as I cringe these days to give Media Blasters and LVR any credit, the actual HD telecine work for Beyond the Darkness likely remains something a benchmark for a detailed, nuanced, film-like transfer taken from a 16mm IP without the use of a full blown DI... too bad they had to fuck that one up in every other way they could seemingly think of.

Hesitance to call it THE BEST THING EVER aside, I honestly can't stress enough that I'm very happy with the release, and think anyone with an appreciation for Henenlotter's sadistically silly exploitation vibe will be excited by how gritty and seedy the film looks. I just want people to remember how good those other films looked on Blu-ray, and realize that Basket Case - while fine, in and of itself - just isn't quite the BD Holy Grail that all 16mm releases should aspire to be. But please don't think I'm trying to trash the release, either. It utterly wipes its tumorous ass on that Maniac! release from last year, a film with almost eerily similar origins. And don't get me started on the 16mm sourced bits for Cannibal Holocaust, if the images I'm seeing of that Shameless disc are even remotely true... truth be told, I think that Basket Case looks better than Don May Jr's restoration of the much-bandied The Texas Chaisnsaw Massacre Blu-ray from three years ago, and that's hardly faint praise.

For fuck's sake, I've sat through my share of grungy, nasty cult releases in the last year or two, and I'll be watching even more this week. Seeing a Blu-ray release that actually looks like 16mm film - not a modern, highly digitized presentation thereof - is a breath of fresh air after a string of disappointing Blu-ray releases from cult labels who's output is totally hit or miss. Compared to Burial Ground, The Beyond, Hellraiser II or (God forbid!) the original The Hills Have Eyes, this release is a fucking Titan among mewling babies - perhaps it's not quite the best of the best, but it's a return to competency and understanding the medium in which the film was made in a sea of ever growing mediocrity. Something Weird Video have, overall, done a fine job bringing Basket Case to Blu-ray, but let's not break out those "Disc of the Year, 5 Stars!!" trophies just yet, is all I'm trying to say.

In the end, it's everything I could have asked for, and both SWV and Frank Henenlotter deserve not only their due credit, but also your 18 bucks for doing the right thing and presenting Basket Case as it was, not how it could be in 2011. It's just a bit of a shame they couldn't afford to (or perhaps bring themselves to?) fix pretty basic flaws on the negative, like those goddamn emulsion scratches. Let's just hope this release is so well received by the horror fans out there that they can justify going one step further the next time, and really do set the cult film presentation bar higher than it's ever been before.


Anonymous said...

It's not quite on the level of "The Evil Dead" and there is room for improvement as far as scratches and other film artifacts are concerned, but I was satisfied overall. It has beautiful grain, nice colors, and details which thankfully were not scrubbed away. Hopefully, SWV will be even better as far as future transfers on blu ray. By the way, one blu ray that I fear to look at once I get it is the US blu ray of "Interstella 5555". From what I have read, the European blu ray versions are all pal sourced.

Kentai 拳態 said...

Honestly, if you already own a PAL DVD of INTERSTELLA 5555 there's probably no reason to upgrade.

The master that Virgin Records gone back to for the Blu-ray is the 24fps NTSC > 25fps PAL standards conversion that all of the DVDs were sourced from, and it's unlikely that either they or Toei Animation have bothered to keep the original 24fps output master.