Friday, March 29, 2013
New Beverly Report: DEMONS & THE EVIL DEAD
The 35mm Ascot Films print of DEMONS on display at the New Beverly (provided by the Alamo Draft House) was a thoroughly pleasant surprise; framed at the 1.66 OAR, uncut, and featuring a surprisingly decent sounding mono track, the film included English opening and closing titles, plus Italian credits just before the epilogue starts playing. The print's garish, nightmare inspired pallet looked as vivid as anyone could have asked for with nary a trace of fading, and while minor damage was common, major analog tears were non-existent. It was (according to management) provided by the Alamo Draft House, and overall was in fine shape.
But how did the film "look", in an aesthetic sense? For one thing, the absolutely electric blue hues and deep blood red of the theater interiors were gloriously vibrant, bordering on the surreal and recalling equally glorious moments of Dario Argento's post-giallo centric career before he went all... well, y'know. And while the very nature of a 35mm release print leads to expanded contrast I was a little surprised to see just how bright and under-exposed the shadow details of the dimly lit theater really were, with the scenes "behind the screen" in particular having a visible red tinge over everything, even when you'd expect it to fade all the way to black. By and large, the 1986 US print looked like a more vivid and filthy presentation of Arrow Video's HD master; the one day-for-night shot panning down the Metropol exterior was not chemically tinted on the US prints (or at least not obviously so), and while I maintain that the Arrow Video transfer has boosted gamma and weak black levels from a purely calibration minded standpoint... well, at least I can't say that it's inconsistent with an actual 35mm print.
I will say, however, that the Ascot Films release didn't have that slightly green push of the Arrow Video release on the relatively neutral scenes; the shadows in the opening shot of the subway pulling into the tunnel were pitch black, not midnight blue with a slightly brown twist. Keep in mind the US version has a completely different title sequence, so comparisons might not be totally fair, but it stuck out none the less. Also, keep in mind that the very concept of a 35mm print includes shining light through an opaque medium, which kind of prevents "black" from existing in any real sense; even the best of prints have elevated black levels compared to a properly mastered Blu-ray, which can go just as dark as you like it in the RGB 16-235/IRE 0-100 scales. Apples and Oranges.
THE EVIL DEAD, however, was a mess of a different color entirely. Whilst I've had little but high praise for the 2011 Blu-ray, which in turn was created from a 2K restoration of the original 16mm camera negative, the 35mm print I saw last night was actually based on that very same director approved digital master. Don't get me wrong, I totally understand the conceptual appeal of seeing a restored 35mm presentation of any film that's justifiably called a classic - and Sam Raimi's 30 year old drive-in splatter shtick is certainly that, even if he thinks we're all idiots for saying it - it's not what I expected when I was going to a "Grindhouse Double Feature" (though, ironically enough, the restored print was provided by the folks at Grindhouse Releasing).
Have you ever seen DVNR on a 16mm movie shot in the late 70s underneath actual 35mm film grain? Now I have. There's only a handful of shots that looked really, truly bizarre, but they were there, just as they were on the Blu-ray. Also surprising was the general lack of grain on... shit, pretty much everything. The Evil Dead on Blu-ray was so grainy and finely textured you'd be forgiven for thinking Sam Raimi developed a way to shoot on sand paper instead of celluloid, but the 35mm presentation looked "soft", and never especially heavy on the grain, not even on the optically printed shots (such as the split-screen stop motion effects during the final reel). What the hell's going on here? Did printing the 2K master to 35mm include a blurring pass to produce a less garishly grainy print? Or is the Blu-ray just swimming in digitally generated video noise? I honestly don't have a firm theory. It's even possible that the 35mm print was intentionally defocused to downplay the grain, but not having ever seen a proper 16mm blow-up print - and not really knowing the protocol for playing them to begin with - I don't really know.
What we know for sure is that the 2011 2K restoration for The Evil Dead was approved of by Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi, and that the vast majority of it was pulled from the original 16mm camera negative. Occasional dupe prints were used to fill in gaps, and while opticals were subtly improved - removing matte lines on the moon, color correcting lighting oddities, digitally removing producer Rob Tapert from the background of one shot, and reversing one of the film's most infamous gore shots so as to not break obvious visual continuity - the 2K remaster is, in the broadest of strokes at least, very much respectful to the film's low-budget roots. The audio mix was a little jacked in my eyes, clipping in spots and having a level of dead silence you'll never hear on a theatrical print's optical mono track, but the restored audio comes part and parcel with the restored visuals, and I don't know if the exaggerations I was hearing were the result of the New Beverly's sound system or the print itself. Much like the visuals, the "newness" of it all didn't appeal to me, though from a technical standpoint
Seeing Grindhouse's 35mm print actually revealed even more image compared to the 1.33:1 BD transfer, regularly showing a bit of gunk stuck at the top of the camera gate or the rounded corners of the aperture plate, though the framing is similar enough that unless you're really, really into wiping your ass with the concept of "Image Safe" framing, you'd never really notice to begin with.
DEMONS was a hell of an experience, and a fascinating point of reference for any home release. EVIL DEAD was... fun to see in a theater full of people who love it. And if I had any reason to celebrate, the surprise presence of 35mm trailers for THE GRUESOME TWOSOME, TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE (Bay of Blood) and CORRUPTION probably made up for it.
...have I mentioned that I'm stoked that the Fede Alvarez remake of Sam Raimi's first featyre is coming out next week? I'm sure I have. But seriously. Stoked.