Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Colors of Cundey: HALLOWEEN 35th ANNIVERSAY Blu-Ray

As I've mentioned on this site before, there's been no small level of controversy surrounding the various DVD and Blu-ray releases of John Carpenter's seminal slasher opus, the 1978 All American Slasher Film, HALLOWEEN... let's talk about it, shall we?

At this point, it's almost pointless to talk about the film proper anyway; I personally think it's a bit dry and, outside of the brilliantly staged opening scene and the utterly masterful score, I just think the film is kind of over-rated. Not bad or anything, but as a serious thriller it pales to even the average giallo feature from a decade prior, and as a trashy slasher movie it's simply too bloodless and procedural to be all that exciting. This was absolutely Carpenter at the peak of his visual creativity and it's always been nice that this one was always respected and spoken of in the same breath as masterpieces like Psycho, Jaws, Alien and The Exorcist, but my fascination is one of curiosity and respect for the subtle, polished execution of Carpenter's vision, rather than outright adoration. By contrast, The Burning, My Bloody Valentine and Friday the 13th Part 2 are much less ambitious and unique entries into the slasher cycle kick-started by this modest little thriller, but they're so earnest, so shameless and so dedicated to their amoral, sadistic concept that I find them, on the whole, much more entertaining pictures for it.

Then again, seeing how ultimately disposable and forgettable the first non-Carpenter directed sequel that plays very much the same way - to say nothing of the increasingly embarrassing mulligans that Meyers and Loomis got after the unrelated "Part 3", Season of the Witch, failed to light any notable fires - perhaps I've been more dismissive of the film's methodical, stylistic perfection than it deserves? By all counts, Carpenter has made a brilliantly executed film that cemented the first "Scream Queen" and basically re-wrote the DNA of horror films permanently, becoming the but of an ironic line of jokes 20 years later that you may remember as a shitty franchise called Scream. Yeah Kentai, we know, you don't do 90s guffawing irony very well... but still. Fuck those movies.

At the end of the day I think a big part of my letdown is in Michael Meyers himself - an iconic presence, to be sure, but at the end of the day literally just Carpenter's pal in an off-the-shelf Captain Kirk rubber mask. The film's true scenes of terror are the scenes early on when Michael stalks the streets of Haddonfield unmasked, his heavy, lustful pants as he coldly follows after strange children in broad daylight... Michael was the killer next door, the small town maniac that could be lurking in each and every one of us, ready to snap and start a one-man massacre without any warning. As a concept, the notion that Michael Meyers could be anyone - even you! - is one that was very modern and unique at the time, and the fact that he was, ultimately, just a skinny asshole in a rubber mask worked into his favor as a unique movie monster.

The problem I have with it all is... honestly, I just don't buy any of it. Yes, sociopaths exist and sometimes they go completely undetected by those around them, but Michael snapping and murdering his sister as a young boy, without any previous inclinations of mental illness, just doesn't make sense. It just happens because. The expanded TV cut -ith footage shot by the people behind the okay but not great Halloween II shows just a little more backstory into Loomis and Michael's back and fourth in the early years (an element that would be used to dramatically better effect by Rob Zombie in the oft-unfairly shat upon remake), but even then it falls pretty flat. Michael Meyers isn't particularly compelling, and ultimately that might be his greatest flaw; He's not a tragic antihero lashing out at the world around him like Jason Vorhees or a maniacal super villain like Freddy Kreuger... he's literally just a walking blade dispenser. I guess there's an appeal in stripping a horror film down to its most absolutely basic elements, I'm just not the target in that case.

The score still kicks ass, though. I don't want people to think I hate Halloween... I just don't get it.

In any case, Anchor Bay's new HALLOWEEN: 35th ANNIVERSARY EDITION Blu-ray is an ultimately worth-while, but somewhat frustrating edition for a film that's probably had more home video editions than the The Bible has had printings over the last 20 years. With that mentioned, the first pressing actually comes in a sort of knock-off Digibook, which is... kind of shit, to be honest. I seem to be in the minority that thinks the simplistic, monochrome cover image by graphic minimalist Jay Shaw - the same guy who did those sweet, sweet Goblin posters we discussed last time - is quite striking, and the book's cover is embossed and has a metallic finish on the orange accents. It's a handsome package at a glance, and personally, I liked it when I first saw it. For fans of the iconic one-sheet, it's on the inside cover, and the inside is full of liner notes from Stef Hutchinson, the director behind HALLOWEEN: 25 YEARS OF TERROR, and numerous behind-the-scenes stills. From a design standpoint, this book package is kind of sweet, and having actually bought this off a pal who wanted to trade this in for the sexy in its own right UK STEELBOOK, I was at first confused by his negativity towards it...

The book itself is no thicker than a typical BD case - it feels a bit flimsy to be honest, but whatever, aesthetics trump the notion of it somehow being built to last, unless you're talking about a hartbox or a steelbook. The real trouble comes when you get to the back cover, where the BD itself is stored in the shittiest, flimsiest possible cardboard contraption: It's basically just a cardboard sleeve you'd have gotten an AOL CD-R in 15 years ago glued to the fucking cover. My buddy removed the disc twice, and the wrinkles and creases on the dog-eared flaps were evident when I opened it for the first time... they're only going to get worse, too, and let me tell you the friend of mine who offered it to me and I myself are OCD stereotypes when it comes to limited packaging like this. It's simply a very ugly, poorly designed method that (I'm sure) was substantially cheaper than affixing any sort of "real" hub to the inside cover.

Honestly Anchor Bay, when your BOOK OF THE DEAD DVD from a decade ago had a better disc-holding method, you done fucked up.

STILL the motherfuckin' king of all Digibooks.

Another minor, but no less frustrating complaint is that the cover itself - a matte black, and a handsome one in many respects - is also quite porous, which means that you're liable to have nasty glue stains on the back cover from the cement keeping the vital-statistics attached to the package. Maybe I'm in the minority, but I find those four off-colored blobs on the back pretty damning to a package that was already on thin ice. I guess all of this will quickly be a moot point anyway;  AB made it clear from the start that the book package was limited only to the first print run, and we're already seeing retailers like Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Fry's stocking a simpler keep-case version, sometimes right next to the LE release. If nothing else, the minimalist, monochrome art works much better as a part of the book than it does on a typical blue keepcase, and if anything I'd recommend the interior photos as a selling point.

Advertising a new 2K scan from the original negatives, there was bound to be all sorts of controversy and teeth-gnashing over the color grading. Before we talk about this release, we'd be doing a disservice by not talking about what came before it...

Just pretend this is the Criterion LD, alright?
That cover is too goddamn cool not to share.

The first notable release of the film for serious collectors was the Criterion Collection LD from 1994, which included a widescreen "digitally mastered" transfer from a newly struck 35mm IP, a commentary track with director John Carpenter, writer Debrah Hill and star Jamie Lee Curtis, an episode of Sneak Previews with Siskel and Ebert praising Halloween (whilst shitting on everything else it inspired), the alternate scenes shot for the TV version, the original theatrical trailer, a Music and Effects track - a rare treat to this day for those curious about how audio mixes are constructed, and a number of "photo essays" and "genre guides", which were a far more important draw in the days before Wikipedia. While I do think Criterion's releases these days are often praised for doing nothing particularly out of the ordinary, 20 years ago that was more than any Halloween die-hard had a prayer of asking for.

Anchor Bay purchased the rights and released the film in 1997... but the initial results were not particularly impressive. Featuring the same non-anamorphic video master as the Criterion LD, it contained no bonus features - unless you count the inclusion of a pan-scan 4:3 version on the B-side of the disc an extra. (And no, we don't.) Anchor Bay had a number of great titles and was largely at the time relying on re-releasing the LD materials they had prepped with Roan Media Group, not factoring in that DVD was capable of component color, progressive scan, and anamorphic widescreen features, which... meant that at the time their DVDs were basically seen as "Laserdiscs with compression artifacts". Particularly for a title that had been given the white glove treatment by the goddamn Criterion Collection, AB had really stepped in it this time...

The company grew, though. It learned from its prior mistakes, and began to embrace DVD as the truly impressive technological beast that it was, offering remastered and bonus-feature packed releases, with one of their first truly worth-while releases being...

Lenticulars are an absolute bitch to scan.

In 1999, Anchor Bay ditched the Bargain Bin Bullshit act hard, and created a new 16:9 anamorphic master. It was in standard definition - perfectly standard for the time, I must add - but they even brought in the film's original DP, Dean Cundey, to supervise the transfer and tweak it to his own specifications, burying the unpleasant memory of literally crapping whatever materials had been handed them and calling it a day. Anchor Bay had something to prove here, and the results were interesting, to say the least; having been shot in sunny California but set in a fictional Illinois town, Cundey used this opportunity to shift the foliage in the early scenes to a healthy, East Coast orange, and shifted the Halloween Night scenes to a colder hue. It was the first all-digital, 16:9 encoded, dual-layered DVD release of the film ever released, and for the time it was rightly considered a reference disc for genre fans and the slowly emerging videophile demographic alike. Anchor Bay was so proud of their work they had the whole thing approved by THX, which... actually kinda' means nothing, but it makes it easy enough to call the '99 transfer the "THX Master" for the discussion going forward.

It was also, for the record, sold as a "Limited Edition" - complete with a hefty $45 price tag! - but seemingly justified it by including the "Extended Cut", not to mention an exclusive 30 minute retrospective. These 12 minutes of extended footage were actually shot during the production of Halloween II in 1981, and while they were shot specifically to beef up the runtime of the TV version - and supposedly by John Carpenter himself -Anchor Bay's DVD release restored all of the violence, nudity and sailor talk trimmed from all actual broadcast prints. Much like the "Integral Version" of Re-Animator, it's an interesting bonus for long time fans, but of little value otherwise, and certainly helped - along with a competitive lineup of limited, remastered editions of their "big" franchise titles including The Evil Dead and Hellraiser - to shift the opinion of those who had slogged through AB's early output. Eventually Anchor Bay would sell out of the LE release with its bitchin' hologram cover, and saw fit to release both the "THX" theatrical DVD and the "Extended" DVD as single, stand-alone discs, because Anchor Bay has never understood what the words "Limited" meant and would consistently re-release a numbered set a year later if they thought there was any more suckers to squeeze a few more bucks out of.

GET IT? Because "H20" was a thing!

Shit got really weird in 2003 - Halloween's 25th Anniversary, no less, when Anchor Bay was in full swing with their "Divimax Collection" initiative. It was basically just a way for them to re-release films they had already put out on DVD using new, and at the time relatively state-of-the-art HD mastering technology. It also gave Anchor Bay an excuse to throw in some new bonus features, the most notable of which included the inclusion of the original Criterion Collection audio commentary, plus an impressive 87 minute long made-for-cable documentary titled Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest. There were other bonus features as well, but nothing particularly noteworthy, and it's worth pointing out that when Anchor Bay moved to Blu-ray in 2007, their release of Halloween was basically just the Divimax DVD in High Definition - same HD master, same bonus features, same iconic cover art too.

Unfortunately, top of the line HD mastering in 2003 included a lot of digital grain removal, contrast boosting and weird digital artifacts abound. It's unfair to call the Divimax line poor quality - it's more fair to say that Anchor Bay was already producing reference quality SD transfers, and were trying to "clean up" the prints for their new HD masters without fully understanding that 'cleaning up' things like film grain and dark lighting are only damaging the film's bottom line. While HALLOWEEN's fancy new "Divimax" master was spared the ghosting of Dawn of the Dead and the heavy-handed smearing of Evil Dead II, there was still some pretty dramatic changes, most notably in the color grading. Y'see, when Cundey was asked to oversee the THX master in 1999 and given total control over his own movie, he chose to tweak the look of the film to better suit the limitations of the actual shoot: the 2003 master was made, likely, from the same 35mm Interpositive elements, but without Cundey's guidance the color grading was, largely, left to be a much more naturalistic affair. The blue cast in the final reels is no longer there, and the area-based orange foliage in the opening scenes are long gone.

 To be totally fair to Anchor Bay, however, they were essentially just showing the 35mm elements as they already existed; at the end of the day, a colorist's first job is to find where black and white exist in any given shot, and the rest of the color spectrum should, assuming the elements aren't completely fucked, fall into place pretty obviously from there. While the Divimax master was (generally speaking) had pushed contrast and color saturation, it was also true to the unmolested 35mm elements they were sourced from; Cundey dictating that areas of foliage be tinted orange or shadowy figures be cast in a blue gel were revisionist leanings created in 1999, not a part of the original film's color grading scheme as released in 1978. Essentially, the THX master was "as Cundey requested", the Divimax master was "as it always was"... there's also the oddity of John Carpenter having approved the 1994 Criterion LD, which looks closer to the Divimax transfer than the THX transfer, but it seems doubtful that Cundey was involved without him being explicitly mentioned.

This brings us all back to the 35th Anniversary Blu-ray... The short version is that the new Blu-ray looks phenomenal. The new 2K scan is - for the first time - pulled from the original camera negative, which has yielded a sharper, lower contrast image than any previous IP was even capable of. The fact is HALLOWEEN couldn't have looked this good up until now, and while the Anchor Bay BD from 2007 was, by far, the pick of that rather stunted litter, this has eclipsed it in every way, visually speaking. I could do a hundred screenshots, but I feel like CAPS-A-HOLIC has made this point for me very clearly. The new disc looks great!

So why are people still discussing it?

You can use the above comparison and make your own decision, but the short version is that the 1999 THX SD master was "approved" by Director of Photography ("DP") Dean Cundey, the man tasked with filming and very much crafting the look of John Carpenter's Halloween. The entire third act was given a dark blue push on the THX master, which has largely been carried over to the new master. However, the golden leaves - which were green on location when the film was actually shot - were not replicated.

This is all put into question specifically because DP Dean Cundey was directly involved with the 1999 SD master, and - as far as anyone can tell - had no direct input in the 2003 HD master. With that in mind, it seems reasonable to assume that Cundey would have wanted a new, HD master to match the same color grading as the 1999 masters... but, one would be ignoring THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW, in which Dean Cundey's thoughts on the whole thing are pretty much solidified beyond any shadow of a doubt:

"I was approached [by the Blu-ray producers] actually; John [Carpenter] had looked at this new version and thought it looked really good, but suggested that I go in to oversee some final work on it so that fans would finally have the version they deserve. See, a lot of the previous editions were made from a print or a previous digital version and the people working on those versions were just doing what they thought was right. When you have
a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox though, that just doesn’t translate; things get skewed.

So I was very impressed by the fact that, for this release, they used the original camera material because they wanted to make this the definitive version. For me, it’s the most accurate portrayal of how John and I wanted Halloween to be seen. Most fans have never seen Halloween the right way either between all the TV, VHS and DVD versions over the years so this Blu-ray is really something special."

So, there you have it: The guy who originally made those color grading choices almost 15 years ago says the new master is an improvement, and that "improvement" manages to be less processed than it used to be. Considering the main reason everyone flocked to the THX master in the first place was because of Cundey's seal of approval, I think we can finally agree that - while revolutionary, and still one of the best early DVD releases available for one of the most iconic genre films ever made - that we can finally retire the THX master from its pedestal. Times have changed, and at this point we're only reaping the benefits. I think a lot of film makers - not just old school directors, but young bucks cutting their teeth on early projects as well - have been overwhelmed by the tools now at their disposal to make their films look polished and slick with a level of control that, even 15 years ago, would have seemed completely unprecedented. It's hard to blame Cundey for being able to tweak and mend things that may have always bothered him when he finally had the tools to do so... but that doesn't mean he had to, or that when he did we should assume that version supersedes all others. This is one of those times where a film maker has been asked to re-appraise their work, and came to not only a natural, but sensible conclusion. It's heartwarming, really; he didn't re-invent the wheel, he just fixed some consistency issues and called it a day. In short, it's the best kind of presentation because it acknowledges the modern concerns of the creators without erasing the history behind it.

I'm glad to see that the more time passes and the more film makers themselves have a chance to experiment with the color grading process, the less inclined they seem to be to go crazy with it in the first place - at least in regards to their older catalog. After "Director Approved" messes like The French Connection and Suspiria, alongside less dramatically awful (but still obviously flawed) like Bram Stoker's Dracula and Last of the Mohicans, it's refreshing to see the presentation of a film with such a long and bizarre history of digital tweaking resurface in 2013 with such a naturalistic, understated presentation.

Does the 35th Anniversary of Halloween have other issues? Oh, you bet. For one thing the mono track is not the original '78 theatrical mix, but the newest 7.1 remix folded down into a flat track which literally no-one asked for. I can accept an original mix simply being bumped for a surround upgrade - both The Evil Dead and Taxi Driver are otherwise perfect presentations, and knocking points off for not including a mono mix just feels pedantic. Including a mono mix that isn't a vintage track, however, seems even more disingenuous; if you're going to ignore the past in favor of a remix, fine, whatever. But including a purported duplicate of the original track and it not actually being the "original"? Fuck that noise!

For the record, while Jamie Lee Curtis hasn't said much new about the film that put her on the map in the better part of 20 years, I refuse to believe that following her around at a convention for an hour was the best - and only - substantial bonus feature the Akkad family could come up with. True, we already have the Halloween: 25 Years of Terror documentary, but that's now dated by about a decade, and its exclusion this time around feels like a pretty major gap in the presentation.

Ironically, both this and the original mono track can be found on the older Anchor Bay Blu-ray. Those are both notable letdowns to plenty of fans, surely...but not quite big enough to keep me from recommending it to anyone with even a passing fancy for vintage slasher icons, or even just reference level transfers for anything shot for less than a half-million dollars.

Wish I had more time to share with the Kentai Blog, friends, but I'm happy to say I'm entertaining friends over the holidays. Happy Halloween, which we all know is the most fun of the holidays for anyone who's not a glutton or a sentimentalist.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Kraut Funding

I know I've been... quiet, the last couple of weeks. It's not you, lovelies, it's me and my ridiculous, insomnia fueled, getting-ready-for-friends-to-stay-with-us rush that I've been locked in for a few weeks now. It's depressing how much I've actually written for the Kentai Blog in the last week and then not had a chance to publish because it requires more focus and time than I have to put the finishing touches on it.

That said, let's talk about BEYOND FEST '13 while it still feels relevant.
(There's some animoo at the bottom, too - trust me, it's tangentially relevant!)

I couldn't have gone to every show even if I'd tried, but I got to see Joe Dante present his own 35mm print of THE HOWLING, which was a charmingly similar experience to the recent Shout Factory Blu-ray release (a highly recommended pick-up, by the way). Joe Dante was his usual smart, charming self, ready to acknowledge his own short comings and talk about the less than stellar parts of the shoot, along with the triumphs of Rob Bottin's practical effects and John Carradine just being John Goddamn Carradine. He teased us with the news that he was working on a new project he wants to start shooting next month - but his producers were in the audience, and he was told couldn't share any details just yet.

Tuesday was an incredible experience, which started with me buying this beautiful piece of ass, created by minimalist poster artist extraordinaire Jay Shaw specifically for the event:

For the record, it's exactly 1cm larger than an 18" x 24" frame.
I know this because I wasted $30 on a frame slightly too small.
Get your prints framed professionally, ladies and gentlemen.

This marks the first North American tour for the recently (mostly) re-united GOBLIN, the Italian prog-rock band best known for having created the iconic soundtracks to Dario Argento's Deep Red, Suspiria and Tenebrae - which, incendentally, are the three titles they played on 35mm after each concert. I was a dedicated little bastard and got in for the first show which, according to the organizers, sold out in 64 minutes - which included a showing of "The Hatchet Murders" - or Profondo Rosso, as it's better known. Or "Deep Red", if you hate Italians and their not-quite-French, not-quite-Spanish language, but ironically still love their glorious fetishized murder-mystery films from decades past. It was for the best, as I've seen the American 35mm print of Suspiria before, and never having bothered to sit through the "Export Version" included on the Blue Underground BD release as a bonus feature*, it was a far more educational experience than a 35mm print of Tenebrae would have been.

* Well, I probably have, but odds are I was fiddling with a Nintendo handheld at the time and gave precisely zero fucks. After several years of having only seen the uncut DVD, it's a little disorienting to see how little screen time the protagonist of the film actually gets to spend developing relationships with anyone.

As you can imagine, seeing Goblin live - featuring three original members in the form of Claudio Simonetti, Maurizio Guarini and Massimo Morante - was an absolute treat, particularly for a Yank like yours truly who never thought he'd get a chance to see the band behind some of the most iconic music in horror film history on stage. I've developed a profound new level of respect for the Tenebrae score, which features Simonetti's vocals being voxed beyond recognition. You heard it here, friends; Claudio Simonetti is the original T-Payne!

For the record, as much as I wish I could justify the limited vinyl LP, offering four tracks for $25 is some ol' bullshit - new recordings or not. I'm not quite enough of an audiophile to own a turn table anyway, though I might be enough of an OCD collector

The set was a nice surprise as it features a handful of tracks from the 2005 album BackToTheGoblin (which was a Massimo Morante/Fabio Pignatelli project without Claudio Simonetti's involvement) and a number of ridiculous tracks from the band's LP releases through the 70s, particularly Roller. The second half was almost entirely taken up by the most famous tracks from their multiple collaborations with Dario Argento, and included Zombi, Suspiria, Tenebrae and Phenomena alongside their 2000 reunion score for Sleepless. I won't lie, I was a little bummed that they completely ignored the incredible stuff that either Goblin as a whole, or merely front man Claudio Simonetti composed for Buio Omega, Conquest, Hands of Steel and a dozen other incredible scores, but let's face it, 90% of the people who know who Goblin is know them as "The Argento Band", and as no other man has seemingly been able to patch over the divide that kept them from reuniting for more than a single score's recording from 1981 onward, I suppose that's fair.

There was another show on the agenda, however; a double feature of 35mm prints from director Jörg Buttgereit, most infamous for having unleashed NEKROMANTIK on the world in 1987. Shot on Super8 and featuring some of the most unpleasant sex acts in film history, it basically set a new standard by which no-budget independent splatter-punk film making would forever be held to. That's not to say the film is perfect - director Buttgereit himself seems to think it's all a mess, and he mioght be right... but the film is so grotesque, so dedicated to its own selfish vision of romance, and so honest about how disgusting the inevitably lifeless flesh we all inhabit becomes that it's impossible not to respect it on some level. Besides, one of the single most offensive scenes shot in the 21st century so far - the masculine climax featured in Lars von Trier's infamous Antichrist - owes its very existance to the quite literally explosively, sexually violent finale of Nekromantik. If Lars von Trier ripping your grand finale off with Willem DaFoe's stuntcock isn't praise for a a serious minded exploitation film later described by its creators as "Corpse Fucking Art", I can't imagine what is.

I'd seen Nekromantik 2: Return of the Loving Dead on DVD, but seeing the filthy, grainy as hell 35mm blow-up of the original was a special treat I can't rightly put into words. Buttgereit mentioned that - if it's in the budget - he wants this old girl scanned and included on the Blu-ray alongside a fresh HD scan of the original negative, and if they do, I won't see a need to go back to the "Remastered" print under the circumstances. Buttgereit also laughed at the fact that, despite three separate American distributors having bought the rights over the last two and a half decades, not one of them have ever requested an English dub. "It wouldn't be very hard, I think there's only about three lines in the whole movie!" Say what you will about Buttgereit's films, but he's a charming, intelligent, and incredibly witty man who can't help but revel in all the awe, offense and critical discussion his masterpiece of the disgusting have caused, considering he literally shot it without a script or a clue with his friends over the weekends for two years. He meant what he said, to be sure... but the process was such a clusterfuck he still thinks it's all one, brilliant joke, with Germany's repressed culture of violence being the ultimate recipient of his epic, state endorsed raised middle finger to their weird obsession with burying violence.

Pictured: Jörg Buttgereit.

They also played a 35mm print of his final feature, SCHRAMM, which I have all sorts of conflicted feelings towards. It's certainly not a bad film by the standard of low-budget European art-splatter fare, but its core question - "How does a serial killer live with the things he's done?" - has been explored numerous times, with some of the best examples I can think of being Michael Rooker in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Anthony Wong in The Untold Story, and Thomas Kretschmann in Grimm Love. The lead performance by Florian Koerner von Gustorf is pretty damned impressive though, with a level of humility and intensity that makes the acts of brutal violence (some of it self-inflicted) alongside the scenes of abject self-loathing seem natural, but at the end of the day, the so-called "Lipstick Killer" just isn't as interesting as the dramas woven from the true stories of the films I've outlined above. It's certainly a unique and somewhat nuanced take on the question of what drives a man who's already been consumed by psychopathy, but - unlike his previous films about corpse fucking - it just doesn't go deep enough beneath the surface to find anything particularly original or shocking to say about the atrocities is revels in.

It's also worth pointing out that, while Nekromantik is a rough 'round the edges exploitation milestone, its follow-up Nekromantik 2 is easily Buttgereit's masterpiece. It takes the amoral atmosphere of the first film and applies a feminine prism to the proceedings, crafting a genuine arthouse forbidden romance... where the third wheel happens to be a rotten corpse.

But one of the reasons he's touring again with his battered prints of Corpse Fucking Art is because he's MAKING A NEW MOVIE... or, he's hoping to, at the very least. Having seen the teaser for GERMAN ANGST, a three part anthology film from which Buttgereit has crafted a short subject called "Final Girl" seemingly about a survivor visiting the same misery back on her tormenter she's been forced to suffer. He's joined by a pair of directors I'm not familiar with, Andreas Marschall and Michal Kosakowski, and they're giving away some pretty bitchin' Kickstarter Rewards for anyone who wants to throw in. To surely misquote Buttgereit: "If you want to support the film, buy the original Nekromantik painting for $10,000. Or you could be cheap and buy some books and DVDs instead." I want to see this project succeed and see Buttgereit's first original film project in over 20 years, but with only two weeks to go the Kickstarter's looking a bit aenemic at this point at less than $3,000 of the $100,000 they're asking for.

And now for something completely different...

For better or worse, at the other end of the spectrum AnimEigo's seemingly unprecedented - but long in the making - BUBBLEGUM CRISIS BLU-RAY kickstarter has secured nearly 50 G's less than a day! Goddamn, I forget how enthusiastic old-school anime fans are... too bad micro-budget gorehounds are a different animal altogether, or we might see some new titles instead of a 10th release of a show that was good, but was only ever as perfect as our nostalgia tells us it must have been.

Don't get me wrong, I'm throwing in for both of these, no questions asked. But it's still a frustrating sight, isn't it?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Have You Killed Your Kill Today?

So what are you doing right now, friends? Doing the dishes? Waiting for the pizza guy to deliver a hot box of cheesy shame? Jackin' it? You're probably jackin' it. Not that I care, or anything, I'm just saying...


Seriously though, stop right now. Stop so you can go watch the first episode of KILL LA KILL\キルラキル, the single greatest thing that's going to happen to your face over the next three months, and you can do that RIGHT HERE. Yes, I'm actively giving Crunchy Roll hits because I want you to see it that badly.

You need a premise? Fine; a mysterious girl weilding a sword that's half a giant scissor shows up at a high school that's about one step worse to its students than the death-prison in Story of Ricky, and challenges the Student Countil's Queen Bee to a fight to the death right there in the school yard on the grounds that she might be the person who murdered her father. Our heroine gets the shit beaten out of her, makes a hasty retreat to her depressing Fortress of Loneliness, and gets chosen by a magical school uniform that gives her super powers in exchange for her blood. She goes back and pommels the living shit out of the Green Lantern Boxing Club President and narrowly avoids letting her new, airheaded friend get literally turned into delicious fried shrimp.

Confused? So is everyone. And that's why it's so fucking amazing.

Also, our devil-may-care ass kicking heroine looks like this.

Hyperbole aside, the show is the absolutely insanity-fueled brainchild of  writer Kazuki NAKASHIMA (Oh! Edo Rocket, re: Cutie Honey and Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann) and director Hiroyuki IMASHI (Dead Leaves, Panty and Stocking, and also Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann) and was conceived as a glorious throw-back to the unpredictable gag humor of Project A-Ko and Sexy Commando Gaiden! Sugoi-yo Masaru-san, the brutal school rumble antics of Sakigake!! Ototojuku and Ultimate Teacher, and a fetish for super powered clothing that sits somewhere between Saint Seiya and Iczelion.

Yes, at this point I'm probably just showing off stupid shit I've watched over the last decade anf a half, but I don't care how it looks because that's the beauty of Kill la Kill: It's everything that only anime can be. It's everything wild, nonsensical, stupid and glorious about Japanese animation boiled down to its core element and then jammed down your synapses while it's still piping hot, not giving two shits if it even begins to make sense or if it can keep the pace up for a full 13 episodes. In short, it's the best fucking thing that people who were ever legitimately attracted to the stylish, unpredictable and unique nature of Japanese animation as a medium, and is so garish and gloriously absurd in its delivery that it might well create new fans who couldn't give a rats ass about shows that are exclusively about cute girls being cute, or giant robots being giant robots. It's alive in a way that animation - from any country - so rarely is, and I'm thrilled that once I'm done writing this I could be watching the second episode instead of literally doing anything else.

Realism can go fuck itself.

So far, there are two major arguments I've seen levied against the show from detractors; the first is from people who simply can't get over how unusual Imashi's intentionally goofy visual style is. I'm at a loss as to how to counter this because Imashi's animation is consistently a jaw-dropping splendor that sacrifices smooth frame rates for an utterly incredible sense of dramatic effect and staging that make literally every moment a scribbled, over the top attention grabber. That said, if you don't like the first 3 minutes of the show, it isn't going to get any more appealing; Imashi's work is what it is, and either you're going to get it or you're not. Anyone who thought Gurren Lagann's hyper-stylized action was just "too much" isn't going to find this any easier to swallow.

The other issue I'm fascinated to see is an undercurrent of disappointment from people who thought Studio Trigger was somehow "better" than this. For better or worse, Trigger's introductory work was Little Witch Academia, a charming government-funded OVA in which cute girls - who are in no way sexualized or fetishized - basically learn things and show off the idealization of female characters from a Western media perspective. In short, Little Witch Academia set the stage for Trigger to be something "new" and "different", pulling away from the overt pandering and fetishization that most anime caters to and ushering in a new age where female characters weren't pulled from a checklist of which fetishes sell easy wash body-pillows and PVC statuettes in bikinis the best.

"Dear Diary... JACKPOT."

Let's be clear here, Ryuuko's outfit is ridiculous, and probably covers less than the average burlesque floor show. She herself isn't thrilled with that fact, and the fact that she's been "molested" by a kink outfit is one of the jokes in the show proper. There's also this lovely little sequence, which is actually a lot less risque than I expect it to be. That said, feminist and white knights ready to snarl at anything that shows off a lot of camel toe are advised to watch the episode in full; no less than two men are stripped down to their bare cock and balls as a means of public humiliation, and the second episode is as full of Manservice as anything we're likely to see this year now that FREE! has ended its run. That's not to say the booty du jour isn't going to be female more often than not, just that - if nothing else - the show is shaping up to be an equal opportunity piece of exploitation.

With the super powers themselves being granted by traditional Japanese school uniforms, the presence of the both fetishized and anthropomorphized Clothing God Senketsu is itself undercutting the rigid norms and crushing uniformity of the Japanese school system, which remember, is one of the core ideas of the show. Yes, of course it's also there to be a gag and sell sexy PVC figures, but at least there's something thematically nuanced underneath the bared abdomens and panty flashes. Ryuuko is being exploited for the camera, but she's far too strong and interesting a character for the sexuality thrust upon her in combat to be her defining trait. Exploitation is not the same as objectification, and while I can sort of understand people being wary of the latter, I honestly don't get what the big deal.

If you still want to talk about the exploitation of 2D women for a male audience, by all means, Wanna be the Strongest in the World/世界でいちばん強くなりたい! is right over there...

It's basically THE WRESTLER, if Darren Aronofsky were replaced by Russ Meyer.

...yeah, I'll be watching that at some point, too. Oh come on, don't look at me like that! At least I'm not watching Heroes of Cosplay or anything else that's actually dedicated to exploiting and humiliating real people. Seriously, I don't think anyone who looked at the Busty Wrestling Anime thought it would be anything but grunting leg-stretching softporn, and I'm only disappointed to hear that the actual wresling part of this show is, by far, its weakest link. But hey, if you want something in this miniscule sub-genre and want it a bit less crotch-shot focused, go watch the oddly similarly-titled Wrestling Ladies vs Mutant Monsters OVA Wanna Be's... someone else should watch that damned thing, right?

Now that I've shown you unrelated tits, do yourself a favor and go watch Kill la Kill. We need more shows like this - hell, the whole fucking world needs them, because the world needs driven, talented visual artists to craft the next stage in 2D entertainment. Japan is the only country left with a thriving traditional animation market, and while I won't bemoan the fact that the majority of the stuff Japan is focusing on doesn't personally meet my expectations and desires for pop-cultural brain melting greatness, we need to support it when it does hit. Aku no Hana certainly wasn't for all tastes, but it was by far the most innovative and unusual piece of 2D animation in the last year; this is more an established niche director exerting control over a medium he's already mastered, and the results are nothing short of brilliant.

Oh yeah, while I wouldn't rate it as highly as this, people looking for bat-shit crazy animation should seriously be watching GATCHAMAN CROWDS, too. Just give it 3 episodes before you throw in the towel - it takes your brain that long to adjust when you see that vintage TV space opera about guys who dressed up like birds and punched evildoers in the stones turned into, well...

SCIENCE NINJA TEAM, GATC-- wait, are you serious?

Friday, October 04, 2013

An Inter-Positive Review: RE-ANIMATOR German Limited Edition

A peek inside the German Mediabook courtesy of

Let's not mince words, here; the new Capelight Limited Edition BD set for Stuart Gordon's legendary film adaptation of Stuart Gordon's RE-ANIMATOR is a dramatic improvement over the Image Entertainment Blu-ray released last year. You know, the one I said looks kinda' like a goddamn SD upscale... BECAUSE MORE OFTEN THAN NOT, IT DOES. It's just that damned soft, and has what appear to be blatant vertical filtering artifacts - something I thankfully haven't seen much of on HD masters, not even in two years working with several different studios and getting unmolested, beautiful HDCAM sources to play with.

Now sure, I feel bad for any ill will or headaches my dismissive and slightly knee-jerky comments may have made, but I stand by my disappointment and frustration by how minute the improvement was between a DVD master initially released in 2000, and a Blu-ray released in 2012. People can be angry that I used the word "upscale" when it was, honestly, just a truly crap HD master; the fact is, I shouldn't have to worry that I'm looking at a Digibeta pumped up to 1080p. And believe you me, I have seen a handful of HDCAM tapes that had nothing "HD" about them passed off as the real deal - though, thankfully, that largely falls on smaller, independent studios rather than the Big Boys who can afford to do a new 2K scan whenever the hell they feel like it.

Besides, it's not like Image has never pulled an upscale out of their ass...

Shortly after the Image release, it was announced that Capelight Films of Germany had hired TLE Films to create a new HD master from scratch, starting with a brand new 4K scan of the original 35mm film materials (scaled down to 2K for the restoration work - the same workflow that most Sony catalog titles are given, I should point out). I've kept you all in the loop on that release at it developed... and now it's out in the wild, preying on inferior transfers like a disc-themed boss. The $35 or so I paid for the 3 disc set shipped wasn't a bad price by any stretch, and I'm only a little sad I didn't ask for rush shipping in retrospect.

For those curious, the "Limited Edition" comes packaged in a Mediabook - basically a "Digibook", similar to the packaging Warner Bros. uses for all their collector's editions these days, except it's roughly DVD case sized instead of the smaller BD scale books being used by most US distributors. There's a removable piece of paper over the front with all the bullet-points about a new transfer and bonus features, which means once it's removed you basically have "clean" artwork underneath with only the smallest possible DVD and Blu-ray logos in each bottom corner - this is one classy movie chassis, and I only with the packages for Hollywood classics like Blade Runner, The Exorcist and Deliverance had this much reverence for the original key art!

Typically I like my packages small and shelf-space saving, but I'll admit the interior art packs a bit more punch at a larger scale, and while I can't read German, I can fuss around enough to know that the first half of the 32 page booklet are notes about the film itself - and perhaps moreso the broader scope of everyone's favorite New England born white supremacist, H.P. Lovecraft - by Stefan Schimek, while the latter half is an extensive piece about the digital restoration carried out by TLE Films written by Torsten Kaiser, with both pieces punctuated by high resolution, gore soaked stills from the film. It's a handsome package and I'm not sad I paid just over $35 for it, though to be frank, I'm sure I'd like it a lot more if I could actually read Deutsch bücher. Thankfully, a number of questions on the English language forum - many of them keen on importing the region free set for themselves - has left Mr. Kaiser to defend the restoration process in English, and he's been nothing if not willing to discuss both the challenges and the positive discoveries that the work has inevitably created for him and his company. Anyone interested in this project should read through everything he has to say, as it's been very enlightening and

But how does it look? Well... the answer is "better". A lot better than the 2012 Image Blu-ray, at that. Unfortunately the answer is not "perfect", and having seen the release myself I think I now have a clear understanding as to why. See, RE-ANIMATOR was shot for roughly $900,000 in 1985, and yes, that does afford it the fair, honest distinction of being a "low budget 80s movie". Some people suggested that this meant it would never look substantially better than the previous Image release, and I'm glad all of my teeth-gnashing and feet stamping, eventually, proved this wasn't at all the case.

Those curious to see the broad strokes of how pleasantly different the two look can take a peek at this CAPS-A-HOLIC COMPARISON between them. The fact is, Caps-A-Holic is one of the few consistently accurate places for this sort of thing means that my doing a comprehensive A/B on most titles has largely become irrelevant - but c'mon, you know what an anal-retentive crazy person I am, and as such a big, steamy wad of commentary follows. Enjoy it.

Focus is indeed a bit soft down to the original photography, but resolution - things like signs in the background, texture on clothing, individual strands of hair and so on - are visibly more defined. The entire frame has been opened up notably on all four sides, and larger instances of print damage have been largely eliminated, while vertical scratches have been minimized (but not, it should be noted, "removed"). The transfer no longer has elevated gamma and features more saturated color, meaning that the film looks more natural and a bit darker without sacrificing the intentionally garish glowing "pop" of the green re-animation serum or charmingly over the top stage blood. Scenes set in intentionally darkened rooms have been color graded to be notably colder and darker than previous releases, but I personally have no complaints about this. The grading seems consistent with the mood and aesthetic of the film itself, and while it's "different" than previous releases and sure to ruffle at least a few feathers, I'd argue it's an improvement and presents these scenes - many of them lit carefully with a single spotlight to avoid showing the seams of the make-up appliances! - the way that Stuart Gordon would want them to be seen on the big screen. Neither Stuart Gordon nor Brian Yuzna were directly involved in the new scan, but the latter has evidently seen the new masters for both RE-ANIMATOR and his own SOCIETY (another German import I'm keen to get my hands on soon), and has reportedly been extremely pleased with the results.

Perhaps the most pressing questions I had for Mr. Kaiser was "Why was the original camera negative not used for this restoration?" - and I'm glad to see that he answered my question. The short version is that after the film as completed in 1985, a Master Positive was created of the "Unrated" version (ie: Stuart Gordon's original Director's Cut) and then the financers behind the film re-edited the negative to make the "R-Rated" cut, which was briefly released on home video in the mid-80s and more or less lost to the sands of time as every re-release contained the original, unrated cut. Having viewed the OCN, TLE Films quickly discovered that just under 11 minutes of nudity and violence would have to be sourced from the IP anyway, and even then, certain scenes that appear in both cuts were still replaced with optical dupes for one reason or another, likely because it was removed and then restored later on during the edited of the less-graphic version. They eventually decided that re-editing the OCN to match the desired Unrated cut was simply more time and money than this project could justify, and as such they only used it to source the 19 minutes of "Deleted Scenes", which appear in the Integral Version. (But, more on that later.) The deleted scenes were treated the same was the IP elements, and restored to the very same standard as the rest of the film.

I look at the decision to ignore the OCN for the bulk of the unrated cut as frustrating, but understandable. No project has an unlimited budget, and with this being funded by a German label who likely only expects to sell a few thousand copies in total, the fact that we're getting a new scan of anything is a pleasant surprise. I can wish for perfection all I want, but in the end if what I have still mops the floor with the crumby Image BD release, I feel fully satisfied with my purchase.

So, how's the finished product - based, as we now know, on a 28 year old 35mm IP - actually look? Well, interestingly enough the new 4K scan  has brought some brand new niggles to the table - most notably, very small specs of dirt stuck to the print itself, black and white alike. The comparatively out of focus Image HD transfer simply wasn't sharp enough to show off just how dirty this master positive print was! An estimated 45,000 frames were cleaned up by hand - no automated scratch repair here, no sir! - but that means that while the larger and more obtrusive stains and scars present on the old release are now banished to Ry'leh, that means a large number of very small flecs remain, and in some scenes - such as the first shot in which we meet Herbert West - they're fucking everywhere. The old transfer was literally so out of focus that you wouldn't spot these miniscule bits of baked-in dust if you even tried, but now every wart and scar related to the film's somewhat humble origins are in full view.

I have very mixed feelings about the transfer when all is said and done; certainly this is the best that RE-ANIMATOR has ever looked by a wide margin, but part of me can't help but feel that this could have been minimized substantially had TLE Films been willing to use automated digital scratch repair. After all, they hand-fixed an estimated 45,000 frames - this wasn't through a lack of trying on their part! Rather, I think TLE approached this from a particular philosophical angle; they were going back to the best elements and trying to create a restoration similar to a pristine 35mm theatrical print,  and minor specs - no matter how frequent - would have been inevitable in those circumstances. To that end, despite the massive level of effort that went into this transfer, the nature of the beast leaves it looking more on par with the somewhat grubby, but wholly filmic "look" one would expect from any of the Redemption titles released by Kino Lorber, particularly the works of Jean Rollin and Jess Franco, which never looked all that good to begin with. Fans of Stuart Gordon's splatter masterpiece will know how bad it's looked in previous releases and walk away satisfied; newcomers might be a bit confused as to why everyone else is so happy with what, in terms of grain fidelity, dirt, density flicker and stability, still looks like a slightly rough and tumble presentation. This isn't anywhere near the OCN-sourced perfection you'll find on Shout Factory's release of From Beyond, but with a proper understanding of what the material are, I think the results are laudable in their own right.

Would I, personally, have requested a scratch-removal pass with a second run of QC to fix artifacts? You bet! But much like the HD presentations of Blood Feast or Mother's Day, I think getting a raw, unmolested scan of a naturally problematic film is still preferable to seeing them go in the opposite direction and "Restore" all the nuance and texture right out of the transfer.

That said, the fact that the 19 minutes of deleted footage have been sourced from the (compromised) OCN have given a frustrating peek into what *MIGHT* have been, if only the negative hadn't been sacrificed in the goals of creating an R-Rated version nobody wanted...

UNRATED FOOTAGE (Sourced from 35mm Master Positive)

INTEGRAL FOOTAGE (Sourced from Original 35mm Camera Negative)

Notice increased resolution in the ashtray, the finer grain structure, and the somewhat less contrasty highlights - all the expected gains one gets from doing a scan of the original negative versus an optically printed duplicate print, as was the case here. It's difficult to compare without a 1:1 frame to compare, I know, but as only the extended footage has been pulled from the OCN, that would be an impossible to make comparison anyhow. I do wish the OCN could have been used for the bulk of the transfer, but can partially understand that just wasn't in the cards for this project, particularly when it means that the 'worse' looking footage would be the film's biggest selling point anyway. This also explains some of the "smudged" looking details, to some degree; what we're seeing in two different layers of photochemical grain reacting in strange ways, and the result is actually somewhat reminiscent to the Synapse release of Intruder in motion, another title which was sourced from a Master Positive due to the OCN having been butchered by producers hoping an R-Rated version would make more money than the director's gleefully grotesque vision.

There's been some chatter about the darker scenes being "softer" than the Image BD - which can be viewed Caps-A-Holic comparisons above. Having spent some more time with the disc, I think I understand what we're seeing: The short answer is the exaggerated, sharpened coring artifacts of the Image disc "stand out" more than the more naturalistic imagery of the Capelight remaster, which make some details slightly less visible in the long run. It's similar to some experiments I did on DVD encodes years ago; subtle sharpening made it easier to "see" film grain once the bitrate lowered and some temporal smoothing inevitably occurred, but in reality what I saw was an exaggerated impression of film grain, not exactly the real deal. That's basically what's going on here; the Image BD sharpened what little detail it had, and Capelight - in keeping the natural, filmic texture of the actual 35mm source - looks slightly blurred in comparison.

Now, is there less grain on the darker scenes? Absolutely, and that is slightly troubling - if anything, underexposed (ie: "darker") scenes should be more grainy than the properly lit stuff, not less. But maybe this is the result of the AVC encoder deciding that darker footage is "safe" to smooth from a compression standpoint, rather than any overt grain removal having been applied at the mastering level? Or maybe there's some oddity occurring due to color correction that's causing these scenes in particular to have less grain than they should? I honestly can't put my finger on it, and as Torsten Kaiser has said, in no uncertain terms, that no grain removal processing was done on their end, about all I can do is give the benefit of the doubt here. Too much money and effort has been spent for this to be especially screwed up, so about all I can do is shrug on this one. The dark scenes certainly don't look bad, they just don't look as nice as the rest of it.

Torsten Kaiser has already let it be known that officially has the final shipment of the 3-disc Limited Edition set discussed here; once that's gone, it'll be replaced with a BD + DVD set in much less interesting packaging containing the original "Unrated" cuts. The Integral version [which also includes the R-rated version in SD as an easter egg] is exclusive to the initial print run.

For fans of Gordon's RE-ANIMATOR, this release is a no-header: Jump on that immediately if you want to see the ever-elusive Integral version - though if you're a cheapskate and you just want the Unrated cut, a slightly cheaper standard version will likely be available soon. Despite some flaws baked into the film's history, it's absolutely a worthy upgrade from any previous video release.

For fans of Brian Yuzna's slightly schlockier body-horror entries, it's worth noting that the Capelight remaster of SOCIETY is already available on Blu-ray for a mere 15 euros, and BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR is due early next year - both, if I'm not mistaken, sourced from the original camera negative and restored by the fine people at TLE Films. Never seen these entries personally, but I can't think of a better way, or time, time to do so.