Sunday, November 24, 2013

Voices Before Dawn: A Review of Code Red's initial Blu-Ray Lineup

After perhaps a year of what seemed like empty threats over releasing titles on anything but DVD, Code Red - a studio known for focusing on obscure cult movies of every genre and decade imaginable - finally announced that Jeff Lieberman's 1981 slasher film JUST BEFORE DAWN, and Lucio Fulci's 1991 supernatural thriller VOICES FROM BEYOND would be their premiere Blu-ray lineup. Both titles went from "Pre-Order" to "Now Shipping" in about a week, and while the latter is reportedly limited to a mere 1,000 copies the former is still being called a "Limited Edition", despite there being no specification of how many copies have actually been made.

What's that you're doing - looking these up on Amazon? Maybe Deep Discount, or Import CDs 'cause you have a coupon? You so silly! These days Code Red isn't bothering with the traditional distribution network game these days, and pretty much everything is being sold directly through their online storefront. There's also a guy on eBay called "codereddvd" or whatever, but why you'd bother buying there when the storefront also operates through PayPal, I have no idea.

Having told the Best Buys' and Amazon.coms' of the world to fuck off is only part of their master plan, however: They're a bit of an oddity in the marketplace for having a firm policy on doing one print run; if they print 1,500 copies and sell out... well, you should have bought that shit when you had the chance, sucker. They aren't, as far as I can tell, going out of their way to limit the number of copies manufactured to inflate their value, but they realize that there's a limit to how many copies of--

Wait. Hold up one goddamn second. What the fuck is Devil's Express, and who is Warhawk Tanzania?!

Seriously, check this shit out... it's basically the
Blacksploitation/Kung-Fu version of Midnight Meat Train.

My point is that unlike other labels who try to keep their titles consistently available for the dying business model of selling copies10 years down the line, Code Red makes as many copies as they think they can actually sell, and then simply move on to the next one. Simple as that. Code Red has always been a little unusual, but as the "studio" is effectively just a one guy - namely Bill Olsen, tracking down materials, organizing special features with creators, and producing titles by the seat of his pants, the slightly wacky and unpredictable nature of Code Red has long been one of the studios inadvertent charms. In a way, Code Red is one of the preservationists of the cult film scene, picking through mountains of films that have never seen a release since the early days of VHS (if that!), and creating new HD masters of whatever 35mm elements still exist. Those DVDs tend to be a bit rougher around the edges than the average Synapse or Arrow Video release, sure, but these films are so under the radar that studios that dedicate those sorts of resources into restoration wouldn't touch them with a 10 foot pole to begin with.

Bill Olsen has shown a level of dedication to legitimately obscure and sometimes almost completely forgotten films that I have nothing but respect for, but in the process has also painted himself into a corner; while sales for even the super popular horror and cult films of yesteryear have been dwindling as consumer ennui and the ease of piracy have made spending $20 on a potential piece of crap no longer necessary, the sales for stuff like Black Klansman, Mardi Gras Massacre and The People who Own the Dark were never going to be huge sellers, not even when people were indiscriminately buying every damn thing that got crapped out on DVD, because a blind-buy was so much easier than Netflix Streaming, or simply watching whole movies on YouTube, or... fuck it, whatever's on TV, which is basically everything.

Code Red has the street cred and the dedication to their titles to make fans of legitimately obscure cult films very happy - but what happens when you finally throw Blu-ray into the mix? Is this pair of launch titles worth the $50 they're hawking them for? Let's dig a bit deeper...


Okay, the point of this write-up is to talk about the Blu-ray release itself, but I need to talk about the films themselves first, don't I? Well that's just to fucking bad; I paid over $20 for a steaming pile of dogshit as a public service announcement, so the least you can do is sit through a paragraph of me bitching about how dreadful this flick is.

It's perhaps unfortunate that this film turned out as poorly as it did, because it ranks as perhaps Fulci's most personal and honest exploration of some very real, human concerns. The central story of a familiar patriarch snuffed out without warning by a brood mostly glad to be rid of him, the recurring nightmares obsessed with decay, and even a geriatric grandfather who spends the whole film looking on, silently suffering with the truth, unable to tell anyone around him what evil he already knows lurks in the heart of his fellow man.

There's a germ of something genuinely tragic and potentially fascinating in here, and it's certainly not the worst thing Fulci's name has been attached to from a technical level, but the fact that the film is so appallingly stupid muffles what should have been a bitter, angst ridden-strike against this mortal coil into a confusing, unfocused mess of a film that plays like grotesque set-pieces involving terribly orchestrated autopsies, brutal child murder, and clawing vengeful zombies was spliced into an otherwise lifeless Hitchcock inspired whodunnit, with rampant bouts of pointless narration by a corpse whom nobody in the film can actually hear, as far as I can gather at least. It plays like a listless TV movie, with none of the polished atmosphere or nihilistic sadism that made even his less than perfect films have a uniquely mean flavor that made even overly simplistic (Murder Rock) or even nonsensical (City of the Living Dead) Fulci films strangely lovable.

Had this been directed by anyone but the Godfather of Gore, I doubt anyone would have remembered it outside of circles going out of their way to find entrancingly dumb films: The mystery is ultimately too shallow to prove interesting, the (infrequent) violence uninspired, the score is - to be frank - just god-awful... I hate to say it, but it's exactly what anyone with a passing familiarity with Lucio Fulci's latter day career should have known to expect. It sucks! Not to cut off my own nose here, but Brain Eater's Will Laughlin wrote up a brilliantly comprehensive review many years ago that largely mirrors how I feel about the film; it's filled with too many slightly pretentious parallels to the late director's life not to mean something somewhat profound in its proper context, but as a piece of entertainment, it might as well be a black hole with only a few inappropriate chuckles here and there for the most dedicated and masochistic Fulciphiles out there.

Hell, I'd argue that Cat in the Brain is a far worse film, but at least it's so shockingly terrible that there's a campy level of self-inflicted masochistic joy to be had... how the hell that mess is getting a Blu-ray before Zombi 3, I'll never know...

To be fair to Code Red, I'm not saying you shouldn't buy Voices From Beyond - I'm saying you should know exactly what you're getting into before you buy it, is all. Limited to 1 copy per customer this isn't even something we can guarantee you'll be able to scalp a few months down the line; I hate to say it, but if a thousand people out there actually even want this movie on Blu-ray, odds are they're stuck with it for good.

With nothing but a 91 minute film on the disc, the feature keeps a healthy bitrate of  27,707 kbps and fills up roughly 21.5 gigs of the disc. Video is presented as a 1080p AVC transfer, and the only audio track is an English Dolby True HD 2.0 track in what can charitably be called the "original" English language track. (We'll explain that in a minute.)

The transfer isn't perfect, but it is better in many ways than expected. Likely a new HD scan of an old master positive, it's fair to say that Voices From Beyond has never looked better: Despite Fulci's favor for a soft, gauzy focus for much of the film there's a fairly coarse layer of grain visible at all times, but it's never so thick or unnatural as to obscure a decent level of detail on close-ups. Debris including specs, scratches and occasional massive blobs are infrequent enough to never detract from the experience, though you'll surely notice a handful of analog scuffs, even if you aren't looking for them. Flesh tones look just a too bit warm to be called natural, but it's never particularly distracting, and whites rarely look anything but accurate. What's less pleasing is the super-high contrast, which has left many location shots blown-out and looking overly bright, while the poorly lit interiors - more often than not - become little more than dark, dingy pools of black nothing.

Not having a DVD copy on hand to compare it to, I can only offer the following SD comparison on Caps-A-Holic, which suggests that while prior home video iterations had some dreadfully dark and undersaturated midtones, the new disc has "fixed" this largely by cranking the whites through the roof, and have crushed the blacks to match. I'm pleased to say that - despite most of Fulci's latter day train-wrecks having been shot open-matte for TV friendly broadcast - the widescreen presentation on this Blu-ray looks authentically framed, matted or not. In short, the "look" of the video transfer has some oddly specific problems I'm surprised to see, but overall the strengths far outweigh the color grading/exposure related weaknesses, and compared to the drab, ugly SD options we've had in the past this is still an obvious improvement.

I was honestly expecting a nasty, funky looking master on par with Blue Underground's City of the Living Dead or House by the Cemetery, and instead got a pleasantly filmic - if decidedly gritty! - transfer out of the deal. Don't get too excited by my saying this, but as the only decent looking Fulci BD so far to not be pulled from a ridiculously noisy CRT based film scanner was Arrow Video's gorgeous 2K remaster of Zombi 2, this makes Code Red's presentation of Voices From Beyond the second-best looking Fulci Blu-ray available by default!

For those unfamiliar, Italian films were typically shot in whatever language their cast members were comfortable speaking in, so it wouldn't be unusual for an American actor to read his lines in his native tongue, while the European actors spoke Italian - or Spanish, or German, or whatever - so that the dubs in their homelands would "match" the most interesting cast member from the local perspective. So while the majority of the actors in Voices From Beyond were (seemingly) speaking English, it's still a dub, and comes with it the basic sonic limitations of a cheap post-looped production made nearly 25 years ago. With all of this in mind I don't think the Italian dub would have added much to the package, though I do wonder if maybe it had less of that dumb-ass ghost narration that seems to have been slapped on at the last second in editing...

I'm a little shocked to report that the functionality of this disc is effectively non-existant: You put it in the player, you get the piracy warning, an upscaled Code Red logo, and the flick starts. Hit "Pop-Up Menu" and you... restart the film, because there is no menu. Want to pause it? Maybe fast-forward to your favorite scene? Not gonna happen; even hitting "Display" won't show you how far in to this flick you are because there's no proper timecode! To be fair, you can skip back and fourth between chapter stops, but they're placed every 10 minutes with no correlation to the film, and if you just have to take a leak or something it's not going to cut you any slack. In effect, the film is the only thing on the disc - so let's hope you liked it better than I did.

UPDATE: Apparently, the Timecode Lockout preventing anything but chapter-skipping is actually a bug that crops up by hitting "Pop-up Menu" - which, as discussed, simply re-starts the film. When you start the disc normally, functions like PAUSE and FF are perfectly accessible. Whether or not the controls are locked out after a re-start completely may vary from player to player - I can confirm that's how a recently updated US PS3 handled it, in any case.

Thanks to Nicholous for clarifying that the disc isn't totally broken!

Despite a perfectly decent transfer and suitable audio, the film is the pits and the disc itself is such a broken mess it's honestly less convenient to play than a VHS tape. This one is strictly for Fulci completionists, and I can only wish Code Red luck in moving even the modest 1,000 copies they're offering for sale.

Jeff Lieberman's JUST BEFORE DAWN

While director Jeff Lieberman has made a niche for himself among fans of cult films for his increasingly outlandish efforts: His first feature, the 1976 cult sensation Squirm, is essentially Jaws with the threat of a great white swapped for an army man eating worms.Two years later he followed up with Blue Sunshine, a fairly unique film in which, ten years after ingesting an experimental batch of LSD, a jaded pack of former flower children find themselves unable to prevent becoming mindless maniacs. He's if nothing else a very interesting writer-director of low-budget genre films, and it's a shame that his filmography never grew much further. It's equally frustrating to think that - according to Lieberman, at least - he's never been paid by the producers for this particular film, and has literally only ever seen a paycheck for it courtesy of Media Blasters.

I think that his 1981 slasher film under the microscope here, JUST BEFORE DAWN, has mostly slipped through the cracks. That's not to say it's a bad film, just that after Halloween and Friday the 13th established that low-budget movies about dead teenagers were worth their weight in gold, everyone and their goddamn uncle realized they could talk a half-dozen people into pretending to die on camera; this film came out in 1981, which is the same year we saw the American premieres of Friday the 13th Part 2, Halloween II, The Funhouse, The Prowler, My Bloody Valentine, and The Burning - not to mention another two or three dozen lesser known films. It's not that there's anything wrong with Just Before Dawn, it's just that there's so many anonymous killer movies from the early 1980s that it's easy for the titles that haven't been re-released a hundred times to be lost to the ages.

To help put this in perspective: The late David Hess, who's sole claim to fame was playing a mean spirited rapist every chance he got, directed a slasher movie called To All a Good Night in 1980. It's never gotten a DVD release, and I didn't even know it existed until this week. And that's a film coming from the guy who was the star of House on the Edge of the Park! Here, GO WATCH IT - somebody has to, and I'll be damned if I'm gonna do it after this double feature.

In the end, this film has probably been forgotten by all but the most dedicated Lieberman fans because it was largely cut not from the same cloth as John Carpenter's Halloween, but skews far closer to John Boorman's legendary Deliverance. The film is less obsessed with the violent destruction of the human body than it is in worshiping the beautiful, lush experience of wandering through God's back yard, with the mountain itself posing as much of a threat as the supposed "demons" running lose through it. The soundtrack is quiet, brooding, and despite a pair of eye-opening violent set pieces that open and close the film, it's largely just not that... exciting. (Seriously though, the last 5 minutes are kind of amazing - they feel like they were cut out of a much more exciting film I'd rather have seen Lieberman actually make!)

It is, however, a well shot and smartly written film that pits a number of friends in a shitty situation and leaves the survivors to fall apart in ways that make more sense than they typically do in films of this nature; that one of them grimly accepts that they're being targeted by forces they can't control while the other, who got them into this mess in the first place, quietly sinks back to denial makes the final half hour of the film more tense and unpleasant than it ought to be. In the end Just Before Dawn's biggest sin is that it's not as outlandish as its contemporaries, and where the main draw of "Golden Age" slasher films of the early 80s is in the ridiculous bloodshed, the fact that this one has a more adult polish does little to make the whole that much more fun. Fans will be delighted to revisit the film in the best quality possible, but if you're expecting another film on par with Squirm of Blue Sunshine, you'll likely walk away slightly disappointed.

The specs are similar at a glance to Voices from Beyond - 1080p, Dolby True HD 2.0, and an original trailers as supplemental material. This time not only can you pause, rewind and fast-forward the title at your leisure, but hitting "Pop-up Menu" actually takes you to a top menu! (Ironically, "Top Menu" does nothing.) What can I say; you don't stop to appreciate the little things until they're stripped from you without warning.

The history of this title on home video is only slightly insane, but the short version is that the original, uncut US print was released on VHS by Paragon Video in the early 80s, which ran about 91 minutes and featured a particularly mean-spirited bit of violence in the first reel of the film. There were various other releases internationally, but with the American tape being uncut and perfectly watchable, that was the end of it until DVD crept up into the mix.

The 2005 Media Blasters DVD loses a few moments here and there to print damage, and - most damningly - is missing one of the film's few scenes of graphic violence. This suggests that it was actually made based on a 35mm print from the UK, which ordered the cuts due to it being a form of "sexual violence" - I feel like ordering the scene removed for the good of the public is a bit much, but you know how those knee-jerking fun killers at the BBFC were back in the day.

Just to make matters even more confusing, in 2006 a UK DVD from distributor Odeon made the rounds with a 94 minute runtime (sourced from an NTSC speed master). All in all it was actually missing several scenes present on the more familiar American prints, but it made up for it with nearly nine minutes of never before seen footage! Exactly where this version was sourced I'm not entirely sure, but it quickly lead to bootleg DVD releases that clipped both the Odeon DVD and the original, uncut Paragon tape together to create the first ever "Complete" version. Video quality may not have been pretty, but this composite was - supposedly! - Lieberman's original cut before the producers decided to shore up the runtime to their liking.

Still with me? Good, because this Blu-ray includes both the "Original" American version of the film - complete with the bloody machete murder early on, plus all the short bits missing from the Shriek Show print - as well as the first official release of the "International Version", which includes all of that newly discovered footage shown on the 2006 UK DVD. Neat, right?

The 91 minute "Original Version" has been sourced from the archival 35mm Internegative, and the master itself looks surprisingly good for a 32 year old low-budget slasher movie without a surviving OCN. The color grading is much more neutral and pleasant than Voices From Beyond with strong flesh tones and dark, inky blacks that don't look artificially crushed. The soft, hazy nature of the original photography means the transfer rarely looks razor sharp, but the fact that an intentionally fuzzy IN print looks this good is still something to celebrate. Grain is natural but oddly light... we'll talk about that in just a minute. While headroom does get just a bit cramped from time to time, I'm willing to chalk that up to the film makers' time limitations more than any matting gone awry. In short, the original HD master itself is admirable and worthy of praise, if not utterly show-stopping.
Minor film damage is constant, and more prevalent in certain scenes than others, but it's far less distracting than it is on any number of highly praised releases of cult films - it's more on par with the first batch of Something Weird Video BDs than any of the Kino Lorber/Redemption titles, for example. It isn't quite perfect - minor, fixable scratches are present throughout, as is some very minor flicker - but it looks a lot better than any long-term fan of this film likely ever expected, or has any sane right to ask for.

Sound is similarly clean, considering the optical source; while you'll notice occasional pop or crackle there's nothing major to complain over, and while I have little doubt that some minor digital noise reduction has been applied, I have little doubt that what we're hearing is about as good as it's ever going to get.

The 103 minute "International Version" (or "Longer Version" if you trust the menu) is quite a sight to behold; unlike the American theatrical cut which was made from archival elements, this appears to have been sourced from the scummiest source available, and embodies the concept of a "Grindhouse" print more than anything else on Blu-ray I can think of! Dirt and, scratches, flicker and fading, hiss and crackle, wobble and splices - every single defect one would associate with an old and ragged film print is spread eagle for the world to ogle, and I for one couldn't be more thrilled. This print is butt ugly, but in the absolute best way possible... it's impossible to explain until you really see it in motion, but simply put, it's one of the most honest, raw presentations I've ever seen in High Definition of a 30 year old low-budget exploitation film. It's brilliant, and I hope Code Red - or literally any other studio in earshot - will present more "Alternate" cuts with every scar intact. This shit is like catnip to me, I swear...

That probably sounds crazy, considering how OCD I am about "accurate" presentations. So let me clarify this: I'm a firm believer that films should be restored and presented using the best materials possible, but if you're including two completely separate versions anyway, why not present the archival oddity with warts and all? Imagine if Blue Underground had included the original, uncut version of Torso as the main restored feature, and then threw on the vomit-inducingly beat-to-fuck-and-back Grindhouse version of the entire film as a bonus, instead of merely slapping the US opening on and then wasting 15 gigs or so on that fucking useless "Export Version" nobody wanted. Despite the HD master for that flick having been shit, I'd have held that turd up as release of the year, solely for at least trying to show both sides of the coin: How it actually was, and how it was meant to be. With that in mind I'm thrilled to have the International Version of Just Before Dawn included, even if it looks like print has been stored in a tumble dryer for the last 30 years.

The Media Blasters DVD from 2005 may not have been sourced from ideal elements, but it did include a several worth-while bonus features including a feature commentary with director Jeff Lieberman, a feature-length documentary about the history and production of the film, and a host of marketing materials. The only extra (excluding, of course, the feature length Export Cut) on the new Code Red Blu-ray is the original spoiler-laden trailer, which clocks in at just under 5 minutes. Despite the general lack of extras, we're still talking over three hours of content on one disc... and, here's where the problems crop up. Code Red is dipping its toe into the Blu-ray market fir the first time with these releases, and they've decided to squeeze all 196 minutes onto a single-layered BD-25. The cleaner "Original Cut" clocks in at a meager 14,000 kbps, while the thrashed up "Longer Cut" squeaks in at an even lower 13,000 kbps. This is actually a lower bitrate than the Arrow Video release of Demons, and y'all know how unenthused by that blotchy turd I was...

You guys know I hate poor compression - largely because I don't see a proper excuse for it in this day and age - but I'm in the interest of being fair and giving the disc an honest, fair appraisal. In the end I feel torn on how to feel about this whole thing, because while the 91 minute print never looks awful, it does suffer from some obvious compression issues - macroblocking, banding and even temporal smoothing - but honestly, once we get away from the flickering camp fires the disc looks... I guess it looks okay - not too bad, but not too good either.  Pan shots occasionally suffer from mosquito noise and grain fidelity has a bit of a murky, indistinct quality to it that's more reminiscent of old DVDs where the texture and level of grain would 'pulse' as the encoders struggled to render it in a way that appeared consistent, but these are the sort of issues only OCD people who have had to look under the hood for this sort of thing are likely to notice. My guess is whoever did the encoding went out of their way to try and smooth grain during compression rather than keep it; the result is a soft, but not overly processed transfer that looks less distracting than when you have a gritty transfer and try to compress it like you have all the bitrate in the world; that's a sure way to lead to nothing but chunky blocks of artifacted chowdah, and trust me, you don't want that shit dribbling down your gullet.

In short, it looks no worse than average when it looks good, and even at its worst all I could do was sigh and think, "well, that's a shame, isn't it". I'd take this unimpressive, but largely competent encode over the severe banding in Arrow's release of Demons, or the weird blotchy compression artifacts on Shout Factory's The Video Dead release any day. And that infuriates me in ways I don't know how to rightly express. I think, on the whole, this is about on par with that Gamera Double Feature that Echo Bridge crapped straight into the $5 bin a few years back (or the The Last Gun/Four Dollars For Revenge, if we're talking about the extended cut): It isn't all that when you get down to the nuts and bolts of it, but it looks a hell of a lot better than you'd expect two feature length flicks squeezed onto a single layer to look. I don't like the decision that they made, but I can at least acknowledge that they tried to pull it off and clearly put a lot of effort into it.

I'd rather every film ever get a healthy bitrate to avoid these issues, I'm not a monster - when the discs costs five bucks and you get two separate films out of it, whatever, I can deal with some minor compression issues. But this thing will set you back thirty bones after shipping! At first I thought maybe presenting the 91 minute version on Blu-ray and then including the extended print on DVD might have been the ideal solution, but the thrashed-up HD Grindhouse version is the most interesting thing about the disc, so it'd be hypocritical of me to ask for that. No, at the end of this a release that's compromised because Code Red wouldn't foot the bill for a BD-50, and while I understand why Code Red opted not to, I don't think the customers should have to put up with issues that could have easily been fixed by using the same dual-layer discs that Twilight Time doesn't seem to have any trouble affording on releases that actually need them. It's a shitty spot to be in - you can't release a crumby Blu-ray and expect praise and sales to follow, but you have to spend so much creating a good Blu-ray that the same number of sales may result in you not earning a dime!

At a certain point, a Blu-ray is like an anus: No level of astroglide is going to make stuffing too much up there end in anything but disappointment. Unfortunately, not only do BD-50s cost more than twice what a BD-25 costs to replicate, but the Blu-ray Disc Association actually charges $7,500 per layer during authoring for licensing dues. This has left me sympathetic towards the plight of a label like Code Red who's struggling just to come up with the means to release a single-layer disc and then sell a meager thousand copies.  It's hard to be mad at these guys... but it's hard to justify paying $30 for something with a bitrate comparable to a goddamn Netflix stream, too. $30 isn't a lot in the scheme of things, I realize this, but it's the same price as any Criterion Collection BD, and it's a safe bet that those assholes would cram 3 hours on a dual-layer disc.

Just Before Dawn isn't quite an unfairly buried classic, but there's far worse ways to kill 90 minutes of your life... just go back and check Exhibit A again, if you need proof. The chewed-up 35mm International Version presentation is a fascinating treat, but its inclusion has limited the video quality on the original cut, which is unfortunate. I've heard forum rumblings that this title is limited to 2,000 copies, but have yet to see that number released in any official capacity. It was originally a limit of 2 copies per customer, but this has dropped down to 1? Not sure why... maybe it was a typo, who knows. The disc is well worth the HD upgrade for anyone who likes the film enough to justify the purchase price, but there's nothing about this transfer quite worth the $27 plus shipping they're asking for it.

Code Red's first wave is a mixed bag, but I hope - I honestly, sincerely hope - that they'll take everything I've had to say under review for their next wave and improve from here. There's potential here for high quality releases, they just have to be realistic about how hard you can abuse a single-layered disc, and making sure that the pause button is NOT an optional feature. Code Red has a lot of potential with their catalog, but they need to embrace the technology's potential to get there.

One last curio: Voices From Beyond has a large "02" on the spine, while Just Before Dawn has a "04". Presumably "Number One" was their long-threatened but (so far) unrealized Blu-ray of The Electric Chair, and while I honestly don't have any inside info, I'd be pleased as hell if number three turned out to be The Arizona Nailgun Massacre. Part of me feels like numbering a collection that's as unfocused as this is doomed to piss off more OCD fans than it'll satisfy, but whatever - Drafthouse Films have numbers on their spine, despite being just as quick to re-release vintage gems like The Miami Connection and Ms. 45 as they are more contemporary titles like The FP and Pieta.

And there we go, friends, my first "real" review in... Christ, probably forever. Don't expect to hear back from me 'till after Turkey Day, at the soonest, but I hope this review has convinced some of you - one way or another - if Code Red's initial BD line-up is worth your support.

UPDATE: Added a correction to the technical portion - and expanded the review of the content - on VOICES FROM BEYOND.

An open note to Bill Olsen of Code Red DVD:

Bill, if you're reading this, try not to take any of this personally. These discs could be better, that's a fact, but they're far better than nothing and there's clearly potential for Code Red to do some really incredible stuff. We're in a weird place with this market: You can't release middle-of-the-road BDs and expect people to spend a lot of money on them, because the market is divided into people who ask "How good is it?" and "How cheap is it?", with so little in between it's mind-boggling. You can't drop your prices going forward, I totally get that... but you can raise the bar in presenting them, and raise how valuable they'll look to your current consumers.

If you can't do basic things like pausing the goddamn movie, fix that before you press copies - I could care less about menus for a bare-bones release, but c'mon, I shouldn't have to be the only asshole who realizes that you can't pause the disc. Similarly, if you wouldn't put 3 hours on a single layer DVD, don't do it for a Blu-ray: I don't care what they tell you about "diminishing returns", because none of the screenshots above look as good as the HDCAM master they were inevitably pulled from, and none of them have come close to that point from a compression standpoint, which is unfortunate.

Yes, I'm an asshole: Just ask John Sirabella, Cliff MacMillan, and pretty much anyone else who ever had the audacity to release bullshit and call it foie gras. But I'm also writing reviews in my free time, and spending my own money to do it; I literally have nothing to gain by doing them these days, no label this is secretly supporting, no "agenda" to fragment the competition or whatever craziness people like to attribute to my naturally bitter persona.

Don't take my criticisms as anything but the frustrations of a collector who honestly wants these discs to be great so I can write about how goddamn perfect they are!

There's problems here as I've outlined in the above pages, but they aren't fatal to your future BD titles. I want to see you succeed, Bill, and there's potential here... I'm asking you, as a fan of cult films who gave you $50 without batting an eye out of little more than morbid curiosity, just to learn from all the frustrating points I've outlined above. At least consider them.

This'll probably sound crazy, but at the end of the day, both of us want you to succeed and release more Blu-ray titles. Step up your standards just a bit, and the rest will follow.

That is all. Good luck.


Nicholous said...

I have the Voices disc and, on my LG bluray player, am able to pause/have full functionality- EXCEPT if I hit the Menu button, which then restarts the film with pause/etc disabled.

Anonymous said...

Great, great write-up. It goes without saying that I hope you'll do a lot more of this in the future--I love reading your site (and having access to your expertise ... course I also realize "real life" often doesn't provide the time to dig into stuff like this.)

I pulled the trigger on both discs, in the hopes that crotchety ol' Mr. Red will keep releasing stuff (and get better at it). Plus I really wanted to see the different versions of *Just Before Dawn*. Also I'm still kicking myself that I missed out on some of their previous discs, like Scavolini's *Nightmares in a Damaged Brain* and would rather make sure I get these now. Cheers!

Ignatius said...

Code Red has said they've done yet another transfer of Scavolini's 'Nightmare' for an upcoming Blu-Ray release, so you'll have another chance for that one.

He's also talking about releasing a bunch of Milligan films on Blu-Ray as well, which would be very appreciated round my neck of the woods.

The licensing charges for the format are absurd. I was in a TV show in New Zealand recently, shot on a RED at 4k, finished at 2k. Looks absolutely gorgeous but it's totally economically unfeasible to release them on anything other than DVD.

It's a real pity that good companies like Second Run in the UK can't afford to go Blu, and that great labels like Vinegar Syndrome have to carefully pick and choose which of their releases make it to the format.

Anonymous said...

Another question, OT: Does anybody know if Arrow's re-release of Inferno this December is a different transfer from their past one (like they're doing with their Tenebrae re-release)?

Ignatius said...

As far as I know there's only one HD transfer of Inferno currently making the rounds. Though there's always a chance they might create a better encode than the grain-reduced one they originally put out.

As it stands, it looks like the Blue Underground is probably the best due to the additional colour correction they performed, the details of which are covered in depth in this image comparison by Michael Mackenzie. There won't be much change until someone shells out the cash to do a new scan, preferably from the original neg.

Benjamin said...

Have you offered your services to Bill?

Kentai 拳態 said...

Nicholous: Thanks for clearing up how the glitch happens. What can I say; after 91 minutes of VOICES BEFORE DAWN without the option for a piss break, the last thing I wanted to do was put the damned thing back in.

Anon: Thanks for the kind words, stranger! I don't get to do this as often as I'd like these days, but it's nice to know my OCD has occasionally practical applications.

As far as I know, only TENEBRAE is a new transfer/encode - every other Arrow Video steelbook should be a 1:1 copy of their previous release.

If it helps, I'm perfectly happy with Blue Underground's release of INFERNO, but - as Ignatius has said - Land of Whimsy has already said about everything there is to say on the matter. Every release has its perks, and with the color grading itself a subjective matter it's hard to definitively state which way to go; the DP himself says the Koch Media version is fine, but every previous release looked like the Blue Underground transfer. Pick your poison.

Benjamin: I could certainly point him in the direction of people who know more about proper authoring and real-world H264 encoding application than I do - but I'm hesitant to offer much beyond that. Blu-ray authoring is an infuriating process, and one that requires such a big enough up-front investment that it really isn't worth getting into unless you think you've got a regular employer in the mix.

What's frustrating is that if JUST BEFORE DAWN had been a BD-50, I'd have nothing major to complain about. That's up to Bill and how far he can open those purse strings, nothing more and nothing less.

X-human said...

Although Bill bitches a lot about bitchers he also takes constructive criticism into consideration. Code Red is not a label that makes the same mistakes again and again and again. Sure the next two Electric Chair and Nailgun Massacre may have issues because it's too late to fix (without added expense) but I'm confident Bill will have better compression for the next round (if there is a next round). His DVDs started out with excessive compression but have since leveled out after all.

As it stands now I look at Code Red's Blu-rays the same way I looked at Something Weird's first Blu-rays; could use some technical improvements but could be a LOT worse. I will gladly buy these and more if they come down the line.

Unfortunately much like SWV we just may end up with only four such releases (all of which I own) and that may be it.

I hope too that Scorpion is doing well financially with their output, as I hear he went back and redid the entire scan of Day of the Animals at great expense after being unhappy with the "final results" of the original work.

Anonymous said...

Apparently no Code Red title will never sell out. If they do, Bill will print more quietly and they'll keep going from "sold out" to "available" on his site just like they all have since they came out.
If you were to go by the CR site, you'd think all offerings had sold out long ago.

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