Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Deader By Dawn

Oh, silly Turkey! Fright Night and The Keep
are not proper poster elements of Evil Dead II...

By now, all of you reading this probably own the Lionsgate 25th anniversary edition of Sam Raimi's EVIL DEAD II. A fusion of extreme gore fueled terror and Three Stooges shenanigans, it easily ranks as one of the top five splatstick horror comedies ever made, and single handedly catapulted Bruce Campbell from "that one pussy who survives in the first Evil Dead flick" to the constantly abused one-liner quipping B-movie icon we know and love today... and wish would stop directing. What? We're all thinking it, damn it!

Certainly Sam Raimi's prior The Evil Dead had a streak of black humor, but there's no doubt in my mind that the film was primarily - as the staff themselves snuck into the end credits - a "grueling terror" film with much of the schlockier moments emerging from the ineptitude that's bound to happen when even talented college kids are tackling their first feature film. Perhaps sensing that the film's sillier elements were its strongest, the sequel embraces them fully, going so far that any pretenses it may have had of being a serious fright film are, quite literally, lopped off at the wrist and then hidden under a dust bin and weighted with a copy of A Farewell to Arms. Though hardly the first gruesome horror-comedy of the modern age - Day of the Dead, An American Werewolf in London, and Basket Case all beat Raimi to the punch of making the graphic violence so over the top it became an intentional joke - it's still easily one of the best fusions of graphic violence and vaudevillian yucks, with only awe-inspiring masterpieces like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, Re-Animator, Braindead, Kakugo no Susume or the entire combined Troma catalog even threatening to topple it as reigning champion.

Original Trailer - Now available in Nth-Gen Vision!

It's at times been accused of remaking the first film, but in reality it only summarizes Shelly's demise because Raimi couldn't legally access footage from his own earlier film. It ranks as some of the most ridiculous make-up effects in the KNB EFX Group's history, but that's not a complaint; the whole film's purpose is to use the tropes of the 70s horror film to make the audience laugh, not scream, so Raimi's on set calls of "bring in the muppet!" couldn't have been any more spot on. The film is an absolute success as dragging the original Evil Dead film's legacy of tree rape and brutal dismemberment through the lens of Tom and Jerry (with substantially more viscera).

This entire film franchise has had more fucking video releases than any one man should legally be allowed to keep track of. So ignoring numerous VHS, Laserdisc and import releases, we've been treated to no less than FOUR noteworthy home video editions in the last decade or so:

* Anchor Bay's 2000 DVD (Digitally Mastered by THX)
- This DVD was also available in a limited edition oversize tin. Goddamn, Anchor Bay...

* Anchor Bay's 2005 "Book of the Dead 2" Divimax DVD
- This comes packaged in a rubber replica of The Necronomicon. It screams!

* Anchor Bay's 2007 Divimax Blu-ray
- Same master as the 2005 Book of the Dead 2 DVD. Uh-oh.

* Lionsgate's 2011 25th Anniversary Blu-ray
- The version we'll look at today.

Now let's not mince words on this one: The 2000 "THX DVD" was a phenomenal presentation for a DVD release. Color timing was spot on, there was nothing in the way of offensive digital manipulation, and the correct 1.85:1 framing left the inclusion of the 4:3 open-matte version slightly redundant - but kudos for slapping it on there anyway. Compression wasn't ideal due to bitrates under 5 Mb/s, but it was still a reference release ten years ago.

Now direct your attention to THIS COMPARISON between the 2000 "THX DVD" and the 2005 "Book of the Dead 2" DVD. Notice anything wrong? Like the textures in the background missing in the first shot, or Bruce's face becoming a faded waxy mask in the third? These are the unfortunate side effects of digital noise and grain removal tools. Mrs. Kentai, being the awesome lady that she is, bought me the overpriced squishy BOTD2 edition, only for me to usurp her thoughtful gift months later with the THX DVD, once I found it for peanuts in a bargain bin. Yes, it was that disappointing... worse yet, it was one of Anchor Bay's "Divimax" titles, the name they gave to their HD restoration process, so when they announced a Blu-ray in 2007, I think everyone within ear shot expected the worst... and man, we got it. The initial Anchor Bay Blu-ray was such a smeared, washed out, and thoroughly rotten affair that the THX DVD is - in many ways - a less awful way to experience the film. Yes, I realize what I've just said: the 480i THX DVD was preferable to the 1080p Blu-ray, for the mere fact that at least the DVD's shortcomings weren't enhancements added by an overzealous attempt to "fix" a mid '80s splatter film by removing the grain and pumping up the gamma to 'brighten up' the intentionally dark film.

So here we are in 2011. Once again, Evil Dead II has a new home video release. I'm glad to say that I am never, ever going to feel compelled to buy it again. And I fucking mean it this time.

Let's start with the new 2K transfer and see the results compared with the Divimax Blu-ray, courtesy of those cool cats at Caps-A-Holic: HOLY SHIT, THAT'S AN IMPROVEMENT!! Honestly, there's perhaps never been a more literal example of a Blu-ray wiping its digital ass with the prior HD release. The difference between this and the Anchor Bay BD - forget any DVDs you're hoarding! - is simply night and day. Just look at the pretty pictures, take your time and enjoy the view. Thankfully, there isn't much dour to say: Levels look natural and film-like, without any major clipping or black crush. Bitrates are through the roof and compression artifacts or banding are a total non-issue. There's very minor specs through the print, but none of it's especially distracting or even noteworthy - you'll know you're looking at 35mm, and it suggests that they've done very little to scrub the print clean. In the scheme of things it looks damn good, and in my eyes, Evil Dead 2: The 25th Anniversary Edition deserved no less.

That said, I do suspect that there's been a thin layer of noise reduction applied here - or maybe a similar temporal process (stabilization? deflicker?) that's slightly dulled the grain structure, giving the texture of the film itself a slightly hazy look in motion - not so much in stills, which isn't a bad thing. We also have the following quote from Michael Felsher, the Blu-ray's executive producer on the matter, which doesn't do much dissuade my opinions:

"I'll admit its hard for me to be objective in some ways, but having just viewed the new transfer of EVIL DEAD II for the first time, I have to say this lays to waste any version of the film you've ever seen before. Lionsgate really stepped up to the plate for this one. Deep rich colors, natural healthy film grain, sparing use of noise reduction, and practically blemish free. This is the first time the original negative was used to create a home video transfer for this title, and it shows!"

It does indeed, sir. Having seen a number of recent Lionsgate BD titles (The Crow and Pulp Fiction spring to mind) I'm starting to think this minor level of filtering is just standard practice for their encoder? What with every effort made to ensure that the new HD master is as high quality as possible, it'd be odd to apply even a minor pass of noise reduction - unless that minor temporal smoothing is just what their AVC encoder tends to do? The film's reliance on dim lighting, soft focus and optical effects meant it was never going to look razor sharp to start with, so this is less me complaining about the disc looking bad, and more me scratching my head and wondering why it looks that way. It doesn't have obvious static grain or temporal smearing,  so perhaps this is all in my head? At the very least, the Audio Video Science forum is full of other people who are seeing the exact same thing, so if I am crazy it's one of those weird mass-hysterias where dozens of unrelated people are going crazy at the exact same time.

If you're on the fence here, don't read too much into this technical niggling I'm doing. Just like the Rurouni Kenshin Blu-rays I spoke of earlier this year, I don't think the disc looks "poor" - far from it! If I made it a habit of doling out numbers for discs this'd probably be in the High 8s, while that earlier Anchor Bay atrocity would rot somewhere in the 4s. It ain't bad, that's for sure. It's just a little odd looking, and I wish I could put my finger on why.

That said, I'm not nearly as impressed by the audio. Don't misunderstand, I have little doubt that the all new 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is a reasonably accurate recreation of the theatrical experience, but with added clarity and some largely warranted directionality. Despite being released in 1987 and Dolby Stereo having more or less become the worldwide standard in theaters, the original mix for Evil Dead II seems to have been a vanilla mono track, and it's low-budget origins show through to a fault with this slightly dull, unimpressive sounding track. There's substantially less background hiss on the new Blu-ray than there was of the 2005 DVD, but I think Anchor Bay's earlier surround mix pumped everything - music, dialog and sound effects - to the point of booming homogeneity, and as such things like the switch in levels from on set dialog to post-dubbing ("Workshed!" springs to mind.) became all the more noticeable on Blu-ray. There's nothing wrong with the remix that I could spot, it just shows off the seams in the original sound design in a way no previous digital release has. As is so often the case with vintage independent horror films it doesn't sound very good, objectively speaking... it just kind of sounds like Evil Dead II, and that's how it'll always sound. There's no original mono track for comparison, but there wasn't for any of the prior DVD/BD releases of the film either, so whatever.

The star attraction in the Bonus Features department is the all new Swallowed Souls: The Making of Evil Dead II, a 98 minute making-of feature produced by Red Shirt Pictures that runs 14 minutes longer than the actual film(!), with talking heads from virtually everyone involved in the making of the movie - well you know, except for Sam goddamn Raimi, which seems just a little weird. Despite having literally gone right back into splatstick territory after having finished his Spider-Man trilogy and having both overseen the new HD transfers and recorded a new commentary for The Evil Dead, his presence is sorely lacking on these new bonus features and he has yet to have been mentioned once in reference to the transfer work. It's a little strange that he'd show so much affection for The Evil Dead and then wash his hands of the sequel a year later,

Now don't get me wrong, I love me some Evil Dead II and it's nice to see it get a polished and focused behind-the-scenes documentary after years of random on-set photos with some lacking-in-narration context. But somehow this all seems just a little... excessive. Maybe with Sam on tap, it wouldn't seem that way? I'll watch the damn thing, make no mistake, it just strikes me as a little over the top. There's also 30 minutes of KNB behind-the-scenes camcorder footage including deleted scenes once only available on shoddy gray-area bootleg tapes, which is pretty goddamn awesome. Also, 8 minutes of location scouting. Not to be a ponce to Red Shirt for their dedication or anything, but do people actually like these things? I always try to watch them, being an OCD crazy person and all that, but I can't remember not being bored out of my skull with any of these clips that are always "Here's a building. 25 years ago, it looked like this. Now it's... basically the same except, except it's got nicer green roof tiles and there's a Taco Bell next to it instead of a gas station." I'm sure this one's as good as any other, but is there really a demand for them?

The extras train hasn't pulled into the station quite yet: We also get Anchor Bay's old "Behind the Screams" and "The Gore The Merrier" DVD featurettes,  and of course the LD Sam Raimi/Bruce Campbell commentary track, the original theatrical trailer and a host of still galleries. Seriously, the only reason you might have to hang on to your THX DVD is the 4:3 open-matte version, but unlike the original Evil Dead, nobody has ever really questioned ED2's 1.85:1 aspect ratio as being the ideal way to see the film. The old 4:3 print certainly has more vertical information, but that doesn't by default mean any of that information is vital to the framing.

If there was one real purists complaint to be leveled at this release, it'd likely be the lack of a pair of wires, scrubbed back to the beyond through digital magic - one of them yanking Bruce Campbell out of a shattering windshield, and another rocketing a rubber eye out of Ted Raimi's skull into someone's screaming mouth. These minor alterations were actually on the BOTD2 'Divimax' master as well, so we can only assume they're something Raimi himself has requested. He's had a hand in fussing around with the Evil Dead trilogy on multiple occasions in the last ten years - removing a crew member here, or a spotlight there - but they've always been fairly inoffensive, technical gaffes. Don't worry, Ted Raimi's stop-motion transformation into a skeletal ghoul hasn't been replaced with CGI or anything! If you want to see the wire sticking out of the bottom of the flying eyeball you'll have to hang onto your THX DVD, but I really can't say I'm all that irked about it personally.

The 25th Anniversary Blu-ray is literally selling for less than twelve bucks everywhere. Amazon, Wal-Mart, Deep Discount, your mom's house and so on. It's "Region A" locked for those that need to know that sort of thing, and comes in a typical blue keepcase. Don't bother waiting for the 30th Anniversary, Evil Dead II isn't going to get any better or cheaper than this. If you like the flick - heck, even if you hate it - there's little reason to hold back or wait for anything better to come along. Lionsgate has done the film proud, and I can safely retire every single prior release forever. Groovy.


Anonymous said...

I thought the new blu ray of "Evil Dead 2" was pretty damn nice. Yes, it was definitely filtered a little, but it still looks beautiful. The funny thing is "The Evil Dead", despite having a drastically lower budget and being shot in 16mm, looks better on blu than its sequel. Speaking of low budget, did you know that "Manos: The Hands Of Fate", the practically no budget cult film is undergoing restoration from an original 16mm work print and will be eventually released on blu ray. You can read about it here( I'm psyched as it is one of my all time favorite guilty pleasures!)-

Kentai 拳態 said...

Someone on AVS said something close to "It looks very good. No more, no less." I think that sums it up nicely - but hey, if we're all going to spend yet another $10 on this damned movie, the least I can do is squeeze a quick post out of it... :)

Wow, MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE on Blu-ray? Really? That's just wild! But I guess we got TROLL 2 last Halloween, so there's probably some market for kitschy terrible movies over qualtively better (but less infamous) B-movies.

I've never seen Manos myself, but this loving restoration seems as good a reason as any to give it a look. Thanks for the site, too! Seeing actual, untouched 16mm scans is like sweet, sweet catip.

Anonymous said...

You're welcome! The guy doing the restoration for "Manos: The Hands of Fate" definitely knows what he is doing so I'm sure the blu ray will turn out great. It's awesome to see any older film, good or bad, get decent treatment.

Kriztoffer Swank said...

You know, speaking of Sam Raimi alterations, I'm surprised the "fixes" he did for the Elite DVD weren't done on the Blu-ray: like the zooming on evil Cheryl's face, or the removal of the hand-painted lightning bolt just before. I have to say I kinda prefer the zoom on her face, since it coincides with what he'd do with the camera in the later films. So they restore those two bits the way they originally were, but then take out Rob Tapert bumbling around. Uh...

Kentai 拳態 said...

Raimi's hard to read all right, but I'd much rather he focus on actual gaffes he didn't catch during production (erasing wires and crew members) than re-doing any of the special effects or reframing the film seemingly at random. All of the changes made for the The Evil Dead Blu-ray transfers have been to erase honest technical gaffes they either didn't spot or couldn't avoid, and while I'm sure some people will mourn the loss of the filament holding up the projectile-eyeball more than I do, I don't think it really loses its low-tech charm. Raimi's fussing over certain aspects is a bit perplexing, but I mostly feel he's got his head on straight, and that's more than I can say for far too many talented film makers out there...

With a little luck, maybe Raimi will put together a new edition of Army of Darkness in time for the remake... speaking of which, how the fuck did Diablo Cody get involved in that?!

Kriztoffer Swank said...

Jeez, Diablo Cody... I hurt inside over that decision.

The eyeball wire removal doesn't bug me one bit, personally. I kinda prefer it without, I think.

I got my MGM AOD DVD and it's great. Glad to finally own a copy of the film that film. Some nice little new bits that aren't in the Anchor Bay director's cut, like Sheila getting her dressed ripped off.

The R3 DVD's better than the R1 one in just about every way; only thing I like more about the R1 is the deleted scenes are anamorphic, and I loooove those scenes. The creepy intro, the long windmill scene......well, the other scenes suck, but those two are great.

Kentai 拳態 said...

Hipster bullshit aside, have you watched Ataque de Pánico!, the short that essentially got Fede Álvarez the spot as director? It's pretty damn cool.

MotorcycleBoyReigns said...

The poster rips off the Fright Night poster at the top.