Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Man Slayer Goes Abroad: Rurouni Kenshin on "US" Blu-ray!


It'll be just like this. Only much sexier.


Rurouni Kenshin: Trust and Betrayal/るろうに剣心―明治剣客浪漫譚―追憶編 (aka "Samurai X") is due for a simultaneous Japanese/American Blu-ray release. According to the press release, Aniplex USA will be distributing the title exclusively through RightStuf and the Bandai Entertainment storefront. They're also releasing Rurouni Kenshin: Reflection/るろうに剣心 -明治剣客浪漫譚- 星霜編 and Rurouni Kenshin: The Motion Picture/るろうに剣心―明治剣客浪漫譚―維新志士への鎮魂歌, but... seriously, we're getting Trust and Betrayal, the original uncut OVAs, with an externally confirmed brand new HD telecine and English subtitles. Damn near everything else in this announcement is just white noise to me.

Pre-orders start June 1st, and the Trust and Betrayal disc is set to ship in August, with the "Reflection" and "Motion Picture" titles to follow in September and October respectively.  Keep in mind we're getting the same exact discs on the same exact day they premier in Japan, and word is we'll get them in deluxe digipaks with brand new art commissioned for the occasion. The US release will include a translated booklet as well, so - much like the First Pressing release of Bandai Visual's AKIRA - we're literally getting the exact same thing as Japan.

Unfortunately, deluxe Japanese releases come at deluxe Japanese prices. $65 for Trust and Betrayal, $55 for the other two. Ouch... but I'm not going to lie, Trust and Betrayal is a four part masterpiece worth damn near any price. The other two are substantially less so, and as such I'll probably pass on them. I would love to own the Reflection OVA on Blu-ray in a matching sexy digipak, but there's nothing about it worth quite that much.

Director Kazuhiro FURUHASHI released a two-hour "Director's Cut" version of Trust and Betrayal in 2002, which did add some exclusive new footage, but also dropped music cues and cropped the whole 4:3 shebag into a faux-widescreen 1.85:1. The Blu-ray release is set to be the OVA version, so I'm taking it on good faith that it'll be framed in its original 4:3. I'm not certain what some of those bizarre rotoscoped shots that were obviously shot on SD video will look like on BD, but the animation in this four part OVA represents some of the best, and the last, of what traditionally hand-drawn 35mm animation with an OVA budget can offer, so expectations are very high indeed.


The Sony Japan R2 DVDs had dubtitles, but Aniplex USA has yet to let that happen anew, so we'll just wait for reviews and see what develops...

Friday, May 27, 2011

BEYOND THE DARKNESS - Blu-ray vs DVD Comparison

Alright, that's enough fucking around on internet forums...

BRING IT, SHRIEK SHOW!

BEYOND THE DARKNESS/BUIO OMEGA is a title that should be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in the macabre recesses of Italian genre films. Not only is it perhaps the single gristliest films in the canon of the late legendary sleaze-master Joe D'amato (born Aristide Massaccesi), but it's also by far one of his best. Essentially a more brutal and gristly take on Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller Psycho, D'amato's film - set in a small, picturesque Germanic town - follows a young and handsome but introverted antihero named Frank (Kieran Canter) who becomes incredibly shaken up by the death of his girlfriend, Anna (Cinzia Monreale). Throwing himself headfirst into his usual hobby - taxidermy, of course! - he slowly loses touch with the living completely, and winds up caught with blood on his hands by his manipulative housekeeper Iris (Franca Stoppi). With a newfound thirst for embalming pretty girls, the bodies begin to pile up until Iris loses patience with Frank's obsession with his mummified "toy"...  but will Frank's disposition towards violence and obsession with his dead lover only spell disaster for he and Iris' uncomfortably Oedipal alliance?

With the photography handled by D'amato himself and an exceptional, uncharacteristically moody score provided by Goblin, the film's combination of realistic human embalming and uncomfortable mother-love/dead-girlfriend soap opera reach a uniquely grim rhythm, being just bitter and nihilistic enough to overcome the occasional lapses in iffy dubbing and that all-too-vibrant stage blood. Beyond the Darkness is very much a a psychologically driven horror film that's mean, nasty, and not too far outside the realms of possibility. It's also a product of Europe churning out over the top pictures in the late 70s, which means that absolutely anything can happen, notions of a sequel be damned. Beyond the Darkness delivers by the gut-filled bucket, and is one of the few D'amato films I'd recommend to almost anyone with an iron-clad stomach.





The totally bitchin' German dubbed "SADO" trailer!
(Totally spoiler filled, just like all good grindhouse trailers.)

There have been numerous video releases around the world, including two complete and uncut English language releases on DVD - a PAL release from Shock Entertainment/Japan Shock in 2000, and an NTSC version from Shriek Show/Media Blasters in 2002. For the purpose of this comparison I'm going to ignore the various Italian, Spanish and French dubbed prints kicking around; I've never seen them, and they're far outside the scope of what I'm discussing today anyway. One German print will be used for reference, and you'll see why soon enough.


-BEYOND THE TITLES-

John Sirabella, CEO and public spokesperson of Media Blasters (Shriek Show's parent company) has said, via the Blu-ray.com forums, that they found a "different opening sequence" on the negative. Don't take my word for it, just read everything "jsirabella" has to say on the Blu-ray.com forums yourself! While the credits featured on the new Media Blasters Blu-ray are indeed different than those on the prior DVD, they really shouldn't be... see, the old Shriek Show DVD actually used a 'clean' credits sequence, and someone (possibly Media Blasters themselves) re-created the English credits digitally. This is why the DVD credits don't judder, and even have a nice little drop shadow. I'd be willing to wager that most of the Italian films released on DVD in the last decade or so used digitally re-created titles, since using the actual optically printed titles means a lot more grain and damage and possible audio sync oddities than scanning the clean footage and then slapping new, almost-identical titles on digitally.

The opening credits on the Blu-ray sure look vintage, but here's the weird part:  The very first title, "A D.R. Mass Communications production", judders around like a coke addicted jumping bean. (It looks almost identical to the horrendously jittery "The End" on the last shot of the film - there are no closing credits.) The rest of the titles have absolutely no stability issues; they don't budge one pixel, and the title sequence itself has no stability issues to speak of either. My guess is that most of the titles you see are an exact digital replication of the credits found on English dubbed prints from decades gone past, but only the first title and the one on the final shot are "legit" vintage. Maybe they were made using vintage optical elements, I have no idea - I just know that it makes no sense for the first and last title on the film to look like shit and the rest of them look fantastic and brand-spanking-new. Honestly, I doubt anyone would have flipped their shit if the title card had said "Buio Omega", but whatever makes Sirabella happy...

While I applaud the attempt to use the vintage titles (or even an exact replica thereof) in theory, this has come with a hefty cost: The audio is completely fucked up until the end of the title sequence.

What, you don't believe me? Fine, DOWNLOAD A SAMPLE (20MBs worth of MP3s) of the BD audio versus the DVD audio. "Buio Omega Titles - Blu-ray.mp3" and "Buio Omega Titles - DVD.mp3" are exactly what you're thinking they are. Listen to them as you read on if you like, or take your time - I'm here all week. There's also a 'Comparison' clip, but hold your horses on that one. I'll explain what that's all about in just a second...

Sirabella had said back in 2009 that the first materials they got for Beyond the Darkness were "HD PAL", and if these titles are any indicator, I believe him. Converting 25fps to 24fps isn't ideal for a number of reasons (most of them being fancy words for 'human error'), but it's simple enough to do, assuming you know what you're working with. You can actually hear the speed change mid-song at 0:02:22 on the Blu-ray/provided BD-sourced clip - it's pretty goddamn blatant, and incidentally, occurs right as it cuts away from the man walking back up to his house after helping Frank put the box in his car, thus ending the opening title sequence.

The start point on the theme is also screwed up, and not by a few frames: There's roughly 7 seconds of dead space on the audio track when the film starts up, to the point where I thought my headphones were busted or my decoders were on the fritz! But, no, you just have to wait until that Goblin score is damned good and ready to kick in. The dialog towards the end of the titles looks (more or less) on cue, but... something's wrong here. Something's very wrong. It took a while and some crazy tests, I finally figured out what's wrong... it's so mind-bogglingly stupid that I can't even believe MB allowed it to happen, but goddamn it, they did.

Technically "HD PAL" doesn't really exist, but 1080i@50Hz is, essentially, PAL framerate 1080p, so that's what he was likely talking about. I believe it, because the audio for the opening titles is still 25fps. That's right friends, Shriek Show just pasted 25fps audio on top of 24fps footage! The audio is not only pitched wrong, but it's playing at a completely different rate as the video and - as a matter of course - is completely out of sync with the footage. There's 7 seconds of dead silence because they wanted the dialog to match up, and instead of doing the smart thing and slowing the footage down to the same frame-rate as the video, they just nudged it by several seconds, shrugged, and said "eh, close enough".

I don't expect all of you to swallow that without proof, of course. First off, here's a wave-form of the two OP titles made with one of my favorite audio editing tool, Audacity. The form on the top represents the Blu-ray audio while the form on the bottom is the DVD audio - both are in their original mono, so there was no loss by converting them to one track each.



The notes match up perfectly at juust about 15 seconds in, with the left track being slightly early before that. As the two continue to play, the left track (Blu-ray) continues to play faster than the right track (DVD). Remember that "Comparison" MP3 I included in the above download? Go listen to it now. You can hear for yourself how the two tracks slowly drift further and further out of sync, despite the footage in both versions being exactly the same.

There's no two ways about this one: The audio for the opening titles is playing at the wrong speed. This is like standards-conversion 101! It's not like you can't pitch it back properly to 24fps with some goddamn freeware and the computing power needed to run a Commodore 64. Whoever synced 25fps audio to 24fps footage is - and I do feel like I'm being generous in saying only this - someone who must never be allowed near a Blu-ray project. Fuck, I don't really want that kind of person handling VHS... but hey, the professional world's a bitch like that isn't it?

The title sequence is also window-boxed to 1.78:1, which is... well, it's just kinda weird. No prior release has window-boxed credits to the best of my knowledge, but whatever. With everything else wrong with this title sequence this is just kind of the Crazy Cherry on top of the What-The-Fuck Sundae.

To clear up any confusion, there IS an alternate English language credit sequence; it's simply a black screen with the opening titles and the theme music. They were included on the Japanese VHS and on one of the Dutch VHS, and to the best of my knowledge have never appeared on any other release of the film. This legitimate alternate credits sequence is not on the Blu-ray, period, so Sirabella should really never have opened that can of worms to start with.


 - BEYOND THE AUDIO -

So, holding the titles aside, the audio appears to run at 24fps. That's a good start. It's also presented in a lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 mix in the film's English mono mix. Hey, so far, so good!

There's some audible high-end clipping, a tiny bit of hiss, occasional dropouts (which have always been there) and the overall fidelity is pretty mediocre, but I'm willing to write all of that off as the result of this being a 30-plus year old exploitation film dubbed on the cheap in Rome. Shit happens, let's move on. The audio fidelity - in and of itself - is a minor step up from DVD, and it's entirely possible that many of these distortions present on the English dub are the result of the original mag tracks just kinda... you know. Sucking.

There are still issues, though. Big, sweaty, hairy ones at that. For starters, while the frame-rate is finally right after the titles (ie: running at 24fps), the audio still sounds like it's been pitched up - like it was sourced from a PAL master and slowed down using audio tools that preserve the source pitch wither it's right or not. I've included two more clips in the audio download so that you can compare: "Buio Omega Pitch - DVD", and "Buio Omega Pitch - Blu-ray", a lengthy pair that include both dialog and music. What more can I even say? The NTSC version matches the Goblin score CD perfectly, while both the Blu-ray sounds almost identical to old PAL versions. It's possible that the pitch oddities are just a bizarre mixing error, but in any event, this is not how Beyond the Darkness was ever meant to sound. Find the soundtrack or even just watch the proper NTSC DVD and decide for yourself.

Pitch aside, there's some just plain weird moments spread through the disc in regard to sync and the soundtrack. Some of the most obvious instances of sound oddities can be found at the following timecodes - and I'm making it a point NOT to list dropouts and audio fluctuations that are, in fact, inherent to the dub, of which there are plenty:

00:06:24 - Pay close attention right as Frank walks from his workshop back into the house... Did you catch that? You can hear the music repeat a couple notes at the cut! The DVD sounds fine here, so it's not the dub's fault.

00:12:10 - Frank's line "I want you to go" comes well after you see his mouth move. This entire scene is poorly synced, but this is the easiest line to spot. The DVD is still poorly dubbed, but at least this exchange matches the lip flaps almost perfectly.

00:34:41 - After Frank touches the scratches on his neck and it cuts to a medium shot - again, the soundtrack "stutters" and repeats a couple notes in a way that doesn't sound natural in the least. The Shriek Show DVD once again sounds just fine.

01:33:28 - The audio just skips and stutters and does all sorts of things as it cuts to the last shot of the film. Interestingly the score only skips once on the DVD at the cut, and then skips a second time a few seconds later here on the Blu-ray.

There are far more niggling issues than I really have the patience to list out, but you get the idea. To be totally fair, some scenes - such as 40 minutes in when Frank talks with his friend about the monkey, or when Frank discusses what to do with Anna at about 62 minutes - are synced perfectly. The audio is just occasionally sloppy, and coupled with the incorrect audio pitch, it makes for some really unpleasant listening.

No alternate language dubs are included. A pity, since I'd love to hear the film in Italian at some point, and with the entire film appearing to take place in Germany or one of its' surrounding Swiss/Austrian/Bulgarian cousins, heck, even a Deutsch tonspur track would seem to fit better than poorly dubbed English. Alas, English is all you get, and the way licensing contracts are I guess that's all we should ever expect in the US.


- BEYOND THE CUT -

At Blu-ray timecode 00:05:14, there's about 25 seconds of footage missing. In every other version of the film to be released on home video - yes, even all of the various edited and censored versions released the world over - it cuts from Frank parking the car to him carrying his box of dead baboon. The Shriek Show Blu-ray has a jump cut, right after the car is parked, and cuts to the shot of Frank hauling the box already inside the workshop.

I'll be honest; I just loved how when Midnight Legacy broke the news a few people tried to brush it off as Dolph Chiarino, a former Shriek Show employee and highly vocal fan of the films he loves, having some kind of "agenda" and was just making it up, or some similar bullshit. It's all true, of course, and MB themselves prove it - put in the Shriek Show DVD and go to timecode 00:05:12. The scene's there on the DVD, just as it should be. You see Frank open the garage door, drive inside, and then remove the box from his van. The music continues to play through the scene, and I'll stress a second time, there is no prior version of this film available on VHS or DVD that doesn't have this footage. The scene is cut, and Media Blasters has no sensible excuse for it not to be there; they can't even argue that it has to do with the "Alternate Credits" because the scene occurs about 3 minutes after the titles have finished.

If none of the slightly more technical aspects wrong with this release raise any red flags, the fact that it's fucking cut really ought to show people that there's almost zero quality control going on at Shriek Show these days. You can't release films you don't know a thing about - that's just asking to make mistakes. I'm not saying Sirabella had to fly to Rome personally and perform the color grading with his own hands, but it is absolutely his responsibility to at least hire someone who can do it properly.

Who the hell checked these materials before they were signed off on, anyway? It wouldn't be Edwin Samuelson who's 'specially thanked' in the production credits, would it? With all due respect, Media Blasters fired him in, like, 2003 - what the hell is he doing contributing to this masterpiece of a release if he wasn't good enough then?


- BEYOND THE TRANSFER -

Being shot on Super-16, a format that has more vertical resolution than normal 16mm film but less than 35mm, anyone expecting Beyond the Darkness to rival a modern big-budget picture should probably be slapped repeatedly with a dead monkey's ass. There are somewhat comparable pictures now available on Blu-ray though, including The Evil Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Last House on the Left and Maniac! Some of these titles look better than others on BD, I'll admit, and with each of them having been taken from very different source materials it's been fascinating to see not only how good 16mm can look in HD as a film format, but also how much influence using a 35mm blow-up print versus the original 16mm negative can have.

TECHNICAL ASIDE: If you know what "IP" and "Color Timing" and "Glass Bottom Boat" all mean, you can safely skip the blue text below. If not, read on and consume my delicious knowledge.

Media Blasters' CEO John Sirabella insisted that they "went from the negative" initially, but has since mentioned that they 'spent time and money' using a newly made Interpositive. The way film works (usually) is you shoot on the original camera negative, which has the colors inverted, and then you use an optical printer to make a positive print. When the positive print is made from the OCN (or "Original Camera Negative") it's called an Interpositive - or just "IP". The IP is, or at least should be, color-graded - that is, have colors modified on a scene-by-scene basis, based on whatever notes the director of photography and the film director made during editing. They make more IPs and then make a negative from those - known as Internegatives - which are finally printed one last time to make the grimy, scuffed up, blown out prints you watch at the Multiplex. Obviously digital printing today means that they can go right from the Digital Intermediate and make an untold number of Internegs without the possibility of damaging the OCN... but let's go back to 1979 and explain how they used to keep track of how a film was 'supposed' to look on the silver screen.

When the IP itself has been approved by the director, it's archived and labeled as an "Answer Print" - so whenever they make a new print, either to give to licensors abroad or nowadays just for DVD/Blu-ray, they're supposed to drag the AP out and use it as a guide for how the new IP is supposed to look. Sometimes, especially for cheap Italian horror films like this, they didn't bother keeping the notes or an AP, so your best bet is actually to watch an old video release taken from either an Interneg or even a theatrical print and make note of any "special" color timing or optical printing. Odds are the camera negative won't have any day-for-night shots timed yet, and may not have all of the dissolves and fade-outs in place if it's a "Hard Cut" negative. This is why the Arrow Blu-ray of The Beyond didn't have the proper sepia-toned opening, and why Mya's release of 4 Flies on Gray Velvet and Shriek Show's edition of The Man from the Deep River have day-for-night scenes that are supposed to take place at night, but now don't.

Perhaps mercifully, Beyond the Darkness doesn't have much in the way of optical tinkering, so the new IP is essentially a first-generation copy of the camera negative, with English end-title spliced in from a notably jankier-looking source. I'm willing to believe that the print used for this Blu-ray was indeed a new IP made from the OCN. I'm also willing to believe that it was printed to a new 16mm print rather than a 35mm blow-up, since the grain structure isn't anything like the ugly, noisy layers of funky looking blow-up material you'll find in titles like Last House on the Left or Maniac.

Unfortunately, I don't for a second believe that this is as good as the film could look, and I'll point out a few reasons why. For one thing, the fact that they scanned the IP and not the OCN is a factor. Printing one generation of film to another invariably shifts color, boosts contrasts and adds extra layers of film grain. As stated, almost no-one in the world of Italian horror is actually scanning the film negatives - instead they create an IP and scan that. The results aren't always bad, exactly, but the essentially flawless presentation of Alien 2: On Earth proves they could still be a hell of a lot better... and before anyone accuses me of riding Midnight Legacy like a rodeo show, I'll point out that, so far, absolutely no other release in the Euro-Horror scene was taken from a Digital Intermediate, and without a DI, there's no way they're actually scanning the OCN. Read my lips now: NO OTHER RELEASE IS ACTUALLY FROM THE NEGATIVE. Not one title from Arrow Video, none from Blue Underground, and certainly not this from fucking Shriek Show. When any of them actually do go from the negative, I'll be sure to let you know.

There's a number of nuisances on the technical end, unfortunately. For one thing, there's a hair in the gate that starts at 00:10:44  and ends about 00:10:59. That little fucker is distracting, and from the looks of it they TRIED to get rid of it via automatic scratch repair... all it really did was make the damn thing look even more bizarre. There's some discoloration on the DVD master during this sequence, but not one fucking hair. Even the shitty German dubbed DVD I'm going to bring up later on doesn't have this, so this white damage certainly isn't on the negative. That means it almost has to be something that occurred when they made the new IP - something they could have avoided totally if they had actually scanned the film negative.



Another hair pops up in the bottom-left corner around 00:40:45 and stays for over 3 minutes! It's substantially smaller and less irritating, at least, but wasn't MB's whole reason to use a new print because the old one was "too dirty"? Geez...



There's also this lovely little number at 01:04:56. Looks like a dropout on the HD master tape to me, either that or some bizarre pressing error. Arrow had a similar problem with Deep Red, and even Disney gets (minor) dropout errors on Blu-ray releases from time to time... Seriously, can anyone else with this disc go frame-by-frame and make sure this isn't just some wild defect on my copy and mine alone?

UPDATE: While I can replicate the above dropout using the decrypted file I riped for making screenshots, the original disc appears to play this shot perfectly in both PowerDVD9 and through a 160 GB "Fat" PS3. I'm not sure how or even why I managed to get a read-error that looks identical to a tape dropout, but rest assured you'll likely never see it yourself. Thanks, Kevin, for convincing me to double-check it!

If I remember properly, "color grading" is done to the actual film print while "color timing" is done at the telecine end. It is, or should be, a two-step process to make sure everything has been followed to the blueprint that was set down in the film's past. Unfortunately poor color grading can really make proper color timing impossible, if done wrong, so when I use the phrase "color timing" I'm, in effect, talking about both. I'd love to discuss each individually, but without seeing a non-timed version of the transfer, it's all but impossible to pick out wither the grading or the timing is actually responsible for whatever I'm pointing out - and as such, I have to half-heartedly blame everything on the post-production colorist.

You've won this round, LVR Digital Post Production!!

As we've already established this is from an IP, not the OCN, so there's already an additional layer of grain and some loss in high-contrast areas. Another issue that looks off is that of color timing/color grading; walls that looked relatively white on the older DVD releases have a bit of an icky yellow cast, and several areas that look like they should drop off to IRE 0 absolute black look too bright, giving certain scenes a washed-out appearance, and areas that clearly should be completely black are sort of a very dark brown. Things like reference black and white are much easier to keep track of using a Digital Intermediate and the OCN, and what we have on this disc looks more like someone eyeballing it on the fly.

To be fair, the notion of reference points in the digital realm is a modern invention, and people have been performing color timing for decades without it. Does not having spot-on reference black and white points have a visible effect on the overall color presentation? Keep in mind that without absolute reference points, any finished master is only as good as the color of the print minted, divided the colorist overseeing it...


DVD

Blu-ray

The reds appear to have been pushed beyond recognition, leaving Frank with a case of Rosacea that only appears on the Blu-ray... poor creep can't catch a break. Notice that the flowers are red in both prints, but the BD has made everything else rather post-nuclear.


DVD

Blu-ray

Boosted black-levels are a regular issue on the Blu-ray. Not only does the transfer very rarely drop off to absolute black - even when it's obvious the scene should be a cinematic black hole - but the boosted gamma has left a lot of these brightened shadows looking awfully noisy, too.


DVD

Blu-ray

I... wow. Seriously, Robert Luttrell/New York's Heavy Light Digital? You got paid to make this happen, huh? Now don't get me wrong, I know the actual telecine work was done in by LVR in Rome, and it's very possible that much of the fuckupery we're dealing with, color-wise, was baked into the HD materials before Heavy Light Digital ever got to them... but still, goddamn. This BD's pallet fluctuates somewhat, but is consistently too bright too and red for its own good.

Do keep in mind that at least some of this is me being funny. I'm not saying the DVD was perfect. It isn't, not by a long shot. Unfortunately, it was color timed with better results. Whoever's to blame, that shit's just not acceptable in this day and age, particularly if you (and by "you" I mean "Media Blasters") expect me (by which I mean... okay, me) to spend $25 when I've already bought the DVD.

Otherwise, though, I'll give the devil his due and say that the transfer isn't totally terrible. Detail is stronger than I expected for an IP shot on Super-16, and while the grain is less sharp than I expect it should be, there's no obvious smearing from DVNR or halos from edge-sharpening. The print is absolutely caked in print damage that runs the gambit from minor specs to massive scratches, but overall the print probably looks no worse than any prior release. Compared to a number of nasty, over-enhanced Italian horror films available in High Definition, Beyond the Darkness hovers somewhere between the best and the worst... it's nowhere near as bad as the HD transfers of Stendhal Syndrome or Salo, but it also isn't anywhere close to as good as Blue Underground's respective releases of The New York Ripper or The Bird With Crystal Plumage, either. I'm strictly talking about the technical aspects - color grading, compression and all that. Comparing a Super-16 source to a Techniscope 2-perf source is asking for trouble, since the two shouldn't look "alike", though at least they do both share similar properties in being quite grainy and common for low-budget Italian genre films.

In the end, a delightfully ugly film gets a disappointingly ugly transfer on Blu-ray. Certainly the grain structure, compression and detail are dramatically improved on the Blu-ray over any of the available DVDs, and it mercifully lacks that odd "noisy" look of most of Blue Underground's output despite both MB and BU using LVR Digital Post Production for all their Italian Horror transfer needs. Unfortunately, it's one big step forward and two moderate steps back, with improved clarity being hindered by sloppy color timing and weak black levels. The DVD certainly isn't better, but it does suggest how much better the HD master could have looked in the right hands.


- BEYOND THE RATIO -

Come on now, Media Blasters couldn't have fucked that-- no, you know what? Forget the shtick. They've managed to bone pretty much everything else I've mentioned, so let's just get this fucking write-up over with.

D'amato served as both director and cinematographer here, something he did quite a bit, having been a DP years before he was talked into the director's chair, originally as a way to get some use out of a bunch of WWII documentary footage... but I'm getting ahead of myself again. Beyond the Darkness was shot on Super-16 film, always with the intent of being blown-up to 35mm for screenings. Super-16 is basically just 16mm without the audio strip, and has a native aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The new Blu-ray transfer is 1.78:1, which means that roughly 16% of the frame has been cropped from the top and bottom of the transfer.

Before anyone asks, oh yes, D'amato shot films in 1.66:1 all the fucking time. Anthropophagous? Yep. Caligula 2? Naturally.  Images in a Convent? Bingo. Absurd? You bet your ass. Orgasmo Nero? Ditto. The Alcove? Don't trust Severin on this - all prior letterboxed versions were 1.66:1! It's safe to say that D'amato was very, very familiar with the 1.66:1 ratio, likely because his producers were cheap as hell, and using Super-16 stock would inevitably save on film costs. It also gave him the freedom to pick up the lightweight cameras and do some of those great stalking POV shots. Well, that and slow-motion money shots. But that came later in his career... (Heh-heh, "came".)


CMV Laservision
(German dubbed "SADO" DVD)

Shriek Show Blu-ray

CMV Laservision

Shriek Show

CMV Laservision

Shriek Show

Frustratingly, there is no properly framed 1.66:1 DVD for this film. Japan Shock and a few other German labels released the film at roughly 1.66:1, but in all instances those prints were zoomed in more than the one version I've pulled up for this comparison. The CMV transfer is the closest thing we have, cropped to roughly 1.58:1 at what should be about the full vertical stretch of the negative - but as you can plainly see it's still missing quite a bit of information on the sides of the frame. Keep in mind the CMV transfer is for illustrative purposes only; it was made before the advent of DVD, so it's in no way a reference transfer.

What's even more hilarious, if you look at the above color-correction samples, is that the Blu-ray is zoomed in even further than the Shriek Show DVD! Keep in mind the DVD was framed at 1.85:1, so if anything the BD should have opened the mattes and featured more info on the top and bottom... but alas, the framing in the two vertically is about the same while both sides are cropped on the BD. The framing might not be quite as ruinous as, say, Vitorio Storaro's blatant butchery of his own work, but it's certainly not an improvement either.

Here's the million dollar question, I suppose: Would the film have been shown matted to 1.85:1 in many countries, Italy included? Probably, yes - but it was also cut to pieces in many other countries, and I don't want my Blu-ray missing any footage just so I can replicate how the film was shown by foreign distributors. 1.85:1 became the standard for many countries that followed in Hollywood's footsteps, I know, but that's not how this film was shot, and looking over the tighter framing in any of the shots above, I honestly can't imagine that's how the late D'amato envisioned his own photography appearing, much less when Blu-ray doesn't require overscan.

There are numerous titles that were shot at the 1.66:1 ratio preserved that way on 16:9 DVD and Blu-ray via pillarboxing, and it's a damned shame that Beyond the Darkness isn't one of them. Maybe someday it'll get the framing it so deserves, but in the meantime it's difficult to suggest a particularly attractive alternative...


- Beyond Expectations...?-

For those of you of the TL;DR persuation, here's about all you need to take from this:

THE GOOD:
* The film has never looked sharper on home video
* Bitrates are high and compression is never a major issue
* Lossless original mono audio, no goofy 5.1 mixes or 192kb Dolby B.S.
* The menu design is pretty goddamn cool. The cover, eh...
* Still galleries are presented at 720p.

THE BAD:
* Audio is in the wrong pitch from start to finish, and is full of strange sync anomalies
* Color timing is very bright and warm, and not the film's benefit
* Framing is too tight on all sides and not in the negative's original ratio
* No new extras or footage if you already own the DVD
* The new film print isn't much cleaner than the old one

THE FUCKED BEYOND BELIEF:
* 25 seconds of footage is CUT from the first reel
* PAL speed audio used on 24fps footage through the opening titles


Though this release mops the floor with many of the other painfully awful Media Blasters Blu-ray releases (Ichi the Killer, Machine Girl, Moribito: Guardian of the Sacred Spirit... oh, where to even begin?), I can't recommend this to all but the absolute hardcore D'amato fans, who are willing to overlook numerous problems, and are such geeks they probably still have that worthless "Buried Alive" Thriller Video tape stuffed up in their attic. Yeah, you know who you are - don't be ashamed, I get it. If you're relatively sane, and already own the Shriek show DVD, I'm tempted to say keep it that way; the overall visual upgrade is appreciated, but with the host of presentation problems that the DVD got right, the transfer really doesn't do nearly enough to justify the price of the double-dip.

What if you've never bought the flick before? It looks decent, but not exceptional. The sound is a mess and gets worse before it gets better, and the opening titles are a joke. Perhaps most worthy of note, the release is cut - that scene is simply gone without a trace, and there's no excuse I'm willing to accept for its' omission. That footage still exists in one form or another, and if they had to source that 25 seconds from the same goddamn Digibeta they made their DVD from, I'd take it.

Shriek Show has already said that they'll be releasing a number of their titles on Blu-ray - Zombi Holocaust, The Nights of Terror, Zombi 3 and Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals among them. My advice to anyone who already owns a DVD copy is to wait; Shriek Show has absolutely got to step up their game and get someone who KNOWS these films inside and out on board before they slap a few sources together with duct tape and assume that nobody will spot the seams. This is a mediocre release from a long-standing mediocre label, and if they want the fans to open their wallets and buy it anew, they'd better be damn sure they don't release another title with this many blatant mistakes.


So, there you have it. Shriek Show's BEYOND THE DARKNESS Blu-ray is a bloody mess of a bloody good film, and recommended over the 2002 DVD only for those willing to overlook a host of audio problems and missing footage for a sharper transfer.

TECH NOTES: All timecodes were taken using Media Player Classic Home Theater, and may vary between other players. All screenshots were made using AVC Source/MPEG Source in AVISynth in VirtualDubMod with a resize filter and compressed via lossless PNG with no additional filtering - they are used illustrate flaws in the transfer, but are obviously not a 1:1 presentation of the 1080p Blu-ray quality. All audio clips are being used as examples and were recompressed to 128kb MP3. Kentai Films recommends the use of FFDShow/MPC-HT and DVDFab Passkey HD for all of your video and audio playback needs.


...except when MPC-HT/DVDFab create read errors. Seriously, of all the times to get my first fuck-up with that setup...

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

R.I.P - Dan ONIROKU 団 鬼六

16 April 1931 - 6 May 2011
50 years of binding hearts in rope comes to a close.

The notion that post-WWII Japan is a country populated exclusively by barbaric and deviant misogynists is a stereotype we can almost single handedly attribute to this late writer of pulp erotica, ironically, a man said to be of great emotional sensitivity with a painfully vanilla sex life. He was first published under a different pen-name in 1961, and spent the next 50 years sharing his debauched imagination with the Japanese public, getting international celebrity primarily through the cinematic adaptations of his works starting in the 1970s.

His most famous title, the amorphous concept of Shizuko the molested housewife in the many FLOWER AND SNAKE/Hana to Hebi stories, more or less defined the Roman Porno movement of the 1970s. The character was even revived this century by none other than Takashi Ishii - with Naomi Tani and Aya Sugimoto filling in Shizuko's inevitable rope-bras, respectively. I remain deeply disappointed that Takashi Miike never went ahead with his adaptation of Bishounen (Pretty Boy), and still feel that the most satisfying films from Onrioku's canon were Doreizuma (Slave Wife, 1976) and Fascination: Portrait of a Lady (Gensou Fujin Ezu, 1977), and would recommend anyone with a legitimate interest in the erotic deconstruction of humanity brave shoddy VHS prints to see why.

Oniroku's influence on the intelligently darker side of pop-culture will be sorely missed. At least this sad news has brought one good thing to my attention: Seasons of Infidelity, translated into English. Perhaps not the title I would have most preferred to see brought over, but any and all Oniroku available in my native tongue is something to mourn properly with, and I only hope we'll see more in time.

Dance Away Your Censored Sorrow

Nina to no longer be Shafted.

So, here's the good news; after a whole lot of awkward finger-pointing and humble pie guzzling, FUNimation has agreed to release Akiyuki SHINBOU's controversial vampire politics/lolita complex horror anime Dance in the Vampire Bund completely unedited and uncensored. As with Ga-Rei Zero, the series will be available in a rather ridiculous DVD + Blu-ray collection, with a sturdy chip-board box for the first pressing (for a fairly reasonable $5 mark-up).

Extras include the awesomely misleading original promo video, TV spots, textless opening and closing animation and "Intermissions 1-12". I'm not actually clear on wither that's the SD broadcast episode previews or those funky animated manga panels from the JP Blu-ray. Notably missing are the various staff and cast interviews available on the Japanese release, and it would have been fun to have the broadcast-only Episode 7.5 "Holy shit, we need an extra week to finish this episode!" stalling-tactic recap with some exclusive book-end footage, but hey, this is the hand we're dealt.

The bad news is that, while the home video version might help, the show is still something of an epic clusterfuck spurred on by creator Nozomu TAMAKI, who wanted the TV series to be "something different" while Shinbou and his alumni at studio SHAFT seemingly just wanted to adapt the manga as it was. A lack of firm structure combined with obvious budgetary and/or scheduling conflicts led to one of the most stilted and incomprehensible titles from a director who, let's face it, is actually known for being kinda stilted and incomprehensible. It's unfortunate that when he's awesome he produced Dario Argento influenced scat porn and dialog-driven monster mashing oddities, because without a firm history of mind-blowing insanity behind him I'd have given up on this title half way through without hesitation.

Still, for the $42 it's selling for on RightStuf for the next 24 hours or so, it might be worth reveling in a fascinating experiment... even if it didn't ultimately meet with total success.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Beyond the Bullshit



Well... the good news is that evidently the new Blu-ray release of BEYOND THE DARKNESS/BUIO OMEGA is, indeed, a new High Definition transfer and not yet another SD upscale. So, congrats to Media Blasters on actually getting this title out to the market in 1080p... even, uh, if it's a year after they said they would.

Now, the bad news is that it's fucking cut. Midnight Legacy reports that at least 25 seconds are missing following the opening credits - footage that's actually on the fucking Media Blasters DVD included with the Blu-ray! I'll be sure to put up a comparison between the two as soon as I can get my hands on them, though work will have to take precedence for the next week or two.

Still, even if there's only one single cut, this is goddamn embarrassing for a title that's taken MB this long to actually make happen, much less one that's been available uncut for so many years from Media Blasters themselves!

This isn't Beyond the Darkness; it's Beyond Retarded.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Wait... What.

I'm not sure which of these posters I'm more terrified of:

Alexandre Aja's COBRA

Ruggero Deodato's HOUSE OF THE PARK ON THE EDGE 2
(Watch the trailer, that's seriously the title for this franchise!)

That said, I'll be the first asshole in line to actually see either one should they ever hit a Multiplex near me... which, of course, they won't. If a bloody fun masterpiece like Hobo with a Shotgun only gets to premier On-Demand, the odds of either one getting a wide North American release (assuming, of course, they ever actually happen) is pretty much diddly over squat.

And before anyone gets too worried about the potentially fatal B-movie pipe-bombings these posters suggest, let's not forget that Miike already pulled out of Buichi Terawasa's TAKERU and that Ruggero Deodato's proposed CANNIBALS never actually happened. In effect, these posters are professional grade rumor mongering until proven otherwise.

The Beast Is Dead

While I wished I'd had about two weeks to check the scratch repair on my latest secret project - one I'm going to call "The Beast" for the time being - I think I did a pretty damned good job in half that time. The final pass of color correction is being encoded to a lossless file as I type, and a DVD encode will follow thereafter.

The Beast was far less nightmarish a source than Mystery Project X, being a telecine made specifically for DVD about a decade ago, and as such were anamorphic and had (mostly) clean 3:2 interlacing patterns... and that's about where the positive qualities end. They were pulled from a print with cue-marks, likely a combination of a vaulted IPs, and being from a decade ago I wouldn't be surprised if these were "Master Positives" (aka Answer Prints) made roughly thirty years ago. (There is actually another print of The Beast kicking around on video, but man, that thing has problems all of its own...)

The prints were kept in fairly decent shape - this isn't an old grindhouse quality print or anything - but the color accuracy was weak, contrast was blown out, and they tried to mellow out the harsh grain with some Flintstones era DVNR. What's weird is that the DVNR zeroed out only certain frequencies; reds had zero grain of any kind, greens had a crawling quality and a lot of low-frequency noise, and yellows were absolutely alive with buzzing analog texture. More of this grain than I'd have liked wound up getting smoothed away due to a number of factors, but as these are vintage IPs they're not what a "proper" restoration of the negative would look like anyway.


Every effort was made via framing and color correction to preserve the original, intended "look" of the work - and no, I'm pretty sure that emulsion scratches and dirt embedded into the print was never a part of the director's original intent. I mean, yes he's crazy, but there's yet to be anything to suggest that he's so crazy he'd demand that the nics and scuffs on the 35mm prints be preserved for generations.

I've spent the last week mostly applying varying levels of scratch repair to different sections of the film, finding shots where the results I was getting back was doing more harm than good, and adjusting the processing as needed. The second half of the project especially was covered from head to tail in negative damage, and considering how pretty a film The Beast can be, that's a real shame. The first half has some flickering, which has changed into more of an odd banding pattern thanks to the natural properties of DSR, but as this was mostly an issue on optically printed special effects already caked in layers of dirt, I think it was the right way to go.

...Jesus Fucking Franco on a pogostick, I wrote that status blurb a week ago and I've been up to my arshole in related uber-OCD production work ever since!




Yeah, fuck Facebook.
THIS is my "current mood".

It's official: Subtitles are done, too. Short of the files simply not working, or a reel having gone accidentally out of sync, or, fuck all else, The Beast can finally be lain to rest. I'll spend a day or two to let my shattered psyche heal and then jump right back into an epic DVD related mine field... what can I say, I love my work. And eating. I goddamn love that feeling of knowing I don't have to not-eat as a means of saving money.

And speaking of being a fatass...




Just to ease my aching skull, here's a picture of something awesome Mrs. Kentai bought me. Don't worry, beings who still have souls to be raped and consumed like so much delicious party liquor, he's actually far more squishy and less derpy in person. You'll WANT to go crazy over the Squishables Cthulhu, guaranteed! I've got the 7", and love it--

...ah, shit. I hope I never have to type that sentence again.