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.


Gurotaku said...

With films as great as this one under his belt, it's kind of sad that Gordon apparently has to resort to Kickstarter to get films into production these days.

Anonymous said...

"Society" looks wonderful. Have you checked out the Japanese blu ray of "Dolls"?

Anonymous said...

In the last paragraph it seems like you're saying there was a limited edition of *Society*, but that the one currently available at Amazon is the non-limited version--can you elaborate on the differences between the two and if the limited version is still available anywhere?

Also, maybe I'm just dense, but what's the difference between the integral and uncut versions re: footage?

Kriztoffer Swank said...

Anon: I believe the integral cut is essentially the unrated cut with the R-rated footage tacked in. There were a lot of scenes done for the R-rated version to make up for lost running time from all the gore and nudity that was removed. It'll be an interesting thing to check out.

That comparison shot is really depressing. It's a shame they couldn't use the OCN as much as possible and just sourced the missing scenes from the IP; I'm used to inconsistent transfers and would prefer the movie look as good as it possibly can for most of the scenes. I don't know how the costs add up, but would it have been more feasible had they scanned the elements in 2K?

Still looking forward to it, just a bummer that this restoration isn't all that I'd hoped it would be. My mediabook should be here by Friday.

Kentai 拳態 said...

Gurotaku: I'm fine with independents like Gordon using whatever means they like to secure funding; what makes me sad is that it's clear this one isn't going to reach its goal. Combs was pretty amazing as Poe in THE BLACK CAT, so the fact that this one is clearly a non-starter really is a sad thought.

(Which reminds me: Holy shit, is anyone else stoked that MIGHTY NO. 9 basically made all the Kickstarter money ever?)

Gordon's matured and evolved a lot over the years as a director, and sure he's made a few clunkers (Space Truckers says "WHY AM I ALIVE?!"), but I'm still hoping he gets to make the genre films he so clearly loves... he's wanted to make THE THING ON THE DOORSTEP for over 30 years, and goddamn it, if anyone's earned the right to make a Lovecraftian passion project, it's this guy (and Del Toro - but that's another story entirely).

Anon(s): Haven't seen the JP release of DOLLS yet, but I like the film enough that I'm considering a purchase. It falls under MGM's ownership these days, so odds are there's a pretty decent looking HD scan kicking around. I just wish I knew for sure it wasn't a $50 upscale when all was said and done...

Huh - yeah, those last few paragraphs were worded poorly. I've re-written them slightly to (hopefully) make more sense, though I think Kriztoffer cleared up the bulk of what I was trying to say.

The Integral Cut is, indeed, essentially a Frankenstein cut using the "Unrated" master and dropping in the extended/deleted scenes found on the R-rated version. I've seen the film enough over the years that I can tell something's "off" about their inclusion in terms of pacing, but it's an interesting experience all the same. Interestingly, the bulk of the footage added back to the film is there to flesh out Dr. Hill and make him a bigger creep than he already was in the Director's Cut!

For those curious, the Easter Egg is accessed by going to the language menu (third down if I remember), scrolling down to the bottom of the submenu, and then hitting "right" twice. You'll appreciate how fine this disc looks once you've seen a 20+ year old analog tape source, I can promise you that!

Kriztoffer Swank: I'm on your side, but hey, if this as good as RE-ANIMATOR is ever going to get, I'll live. At least it mops the floor with that shitty Image disc!

I do wonder what the cost difference between 2K and 4K would be in a real world setting; it's the same exact hardware, and TLE Films have already said that they scanned at 4K but scaled it down to 2K for the actual restoration work. My guess is they did this to try to keep as much of the already blurred, muddy detail as they could keep from the IP elements.

I'd have to double check to be sure, but I'm pretty sure SOCIETY was a straight up 2K scan, yet it doesn't look any worse than RE-ANIMATOR. If anything it might look even better, due to being sourced from the OCN.

Parotaku said...

Here are some personal screenshots from 'Society':

No DNR & high video bitrate, I'm very happy with it... The only downside is that there are no english subtitles... :-/

Kentai 拳態 said...

Thanks for sharing Parotaku - those SOCIETY caps look great!

A shame about the lack of English subs, but as it's a German release I guess I'm not surprised.