Monday, July 21, 2014

A Scanners Too Darkly: Criterion vs Subkultur

Criterion Collection Digipack (USA)

It was with no small level of hesitation that I picked up the Criterion Collection release of David Cronenberg's 1981 head-exploding icon of legend, SCANNERS. For one thing, I've always personally found the flick kind of... middling. There's nothing about the film that I would classify as bad, mind you. It clings to the hallmarks of Cronenberg's most visible works - body transformation as a metaphor of some grotesque facet of the human condition, explosions of unpredictable violence, an almost uncomfortable understanding of not-yet-existent technology (in this case, firewall hacking with only your goddamn brain), and an uneasy, oddly methodical tone that quietly rejects the notion that it's a "genre movie". Scanners is technically a Science Fiction film, but every effort has been made to avoid the imagery, soundtrack and dialogue you'd associate with any of its contemporaries; the film is closer in tone and even general aesthetic to a slow boil political thriller that just happens to be about dangerous mutants spawned by... well, if for some reason you're reading this and you still haven't seen the film, I'll let some other asshole spoil it for you. Again, there's nothing explicitly wrong with Scanners, it just isn't nearly as good as Cronenberg's similarly themed titles like Videodrome, The Fly and Naked Lunch, which all have a much more consistent agenda and stronger central performance to get us there. If there's one thing I straight up dislike about this film it's the lukewarm performance of the lead, Stephen Lack, but the language of the film itself is so thoroughly dominated by the handful of scenes that feature Michael Ironsides that I can only shrug it off and call it a wash. I don't hate Scanners, I just think it's a swing-and-a-miss from a director who'd go on to do substantially better work, and I'm amused that - somehow - this is the one that pop culture has kept firmly in its collective memory, mostly for its chance to constantly bring up the iconic head explosion gag as a reaction anything that drives them insane.

Fun fact the Criterion booklet talks about: The head explosion scene was originally going to open the film, but they moved it to the start of the second reel once they realized that most audiences had too short of an attention span to pay attention to the somewhat convoluted plot after watching... well, basically after watching this:

With the pacing being what it is and the decidedly limited screentime that Ironsides has in the film, I honestly wonder if placing this scene back where it was originally planned to go - before the opening credits - might alleviate some of the frustrations I have with it? It'd not only start the whole plodding, poorly focused adventure off with a literal bang, but it would make the bookending sequence that ends the film have a sort of perfect symmetry, as opposed to this just randomly cropping up 20 minutes in. I'unno, maybe I'm just overthinking it... or maybe I just have a new excuse to play around with the raw footage in ways that aren't exclusively related to color grading?

There's been no shortage of discussion about what the hell happened to the overall "look" of the film on Criterion's new Director Approved edition. There's a lot going on with this one, so while I will defer to the good folks over at Caps-A-Holic for their EXCELLENT COMPARISON between the two transfers (plus several others DVD and Blu-ray versions to OCD over!) and simply discuss what I've seen and what I know. Dumping screenshots can be  great when there's a specific error that nobody's covered, but in this case I feel like I'd be chucking plastic pails of water into the Pacific. Everyone who's going to judge these transfers by screenshots has more than enough ammo for whichever side they've already come down on, so consider this an opinion piece.

Subkultur Limited Mediabook Edition (GERMANY)

First off, let's talk about the late-2012 German Blu-ray from Subkultur Entertainment - which we've spoken about before to avoid confusion with the horrendously janky 2011 Koch Media SD Upscale. To reiterate one more time, Subkultur's HD transfer is quite good, and Koch Media's is an upscaled trainwreck.

When the Criterion release came out and looked substantially different from their transfer and German fans were understandably confused, the company rep actually ISSUED A STATEMENT on their forums - translated above, for your convenience - explaining that when they licensed the film they picked up what was listed as MGM's "Protection Master". Knowing they had a shitty inferior transfer on the marker to shame as hard as possible, Subkultur actually got their hands on an original 35mm print shown in Germany during the early 1980s, and decided to compare the MGM tape master master to the vintage print. What they found was that the two were very similar indeed, and they even took flat scans of various scenes to use as a reference; having decided the MGM Protection Master was an accurate reflection of how the film was supposed to look, they used MGM's tape seemingly as-is. When, or how, this master was created they didn't say, but having dealt with MGM archival materials first-hand, I'd be surprised if this wasn't a 1080p Telecine created 5 or more years ago, intended primarily for HDTV broadcast.

Before anyone asks, a "Protection Master" is simply a copy of an original master. It's typically a tape being cloned from an original master tape, and is a cheap, simple way to make sure you still have a perfect copy should a tape ever be lost, stolen, damaged or what have you. It also means you can loan the Protection Master out to a third party and keep the Original Master in your vaults, effectively limiting the chances for anything bad happening to the original. A blank HDCAM SR tape should cost about about $150~250 depending on the length, but that's still a fraction of the price of needing to create a new telecine from scratch.

What's interesting is the Subkultur release has a notably different look when it's held up against various other HD releases, including UK label Second Sight's 2013 Limited Edition BD. I don't have the disc on-hand, sadly, but as you can SEE FOR YOURSELF, this disc generally has a higher color saturation, and the gamma appears to have been pushed to produce a brighter image, which has also visibly increased the level of noise on display. The Second Sight and Subkultur releases have completely different color timing and framing, which again, you can see in the above comparisons. One shot of particular interest is about an hour into the film, when  Lack is looking down at a computer monitor; in the Subkultur version, the scene's color grading is quite neutral, while on the Second Sight release it's been given a visible green cast, emulating the green text appearing from the vintage tube screen. This shot is my personal smoking gun, suggesting that the Second Sight release was color graded scene-by-scene for both consistency and aesthetics. For the record, both the iTunes version of the film and the Paramount Home Video Japan Blu-ray look more or less identical to the UK Blu-ray, suggesting this was the defacto "Restored" master Paramount and MGM planned to use going forward... until Criterion got involved, of course.

Second Sight Limited Steelbook Edition (UK)

What's very interesting is that it says in the booklet that Criterion's new, 2K resolution transfer was supervised by David Cronenberg. It does not say when said transfer was made, or if it was at the behest of Criterion themselves, as plenty of titles they release are essentially the same masters seen elsewhere around the world. Were I to be a gambling man, my guess would be that what actually happened was that Paramount made the initial 2K scan which served as the basis for the Second Sight master, but that said raw scans were kept on a drive array, and brought back into the colorists' sphere when Criterion convinced Cronenberg to be involved with their release. The shot of Lack looking at the monitor has the same green cast on the "Cronenberg Approved" Criterion BD despite no prior reference materials being used, which either suggests that the Criterion scan had access to the color information used on the previous master as a base, or that Cronenberg happens to have the same boner for green monitor reflections as the last guy who graded the film.

I have little doubt that Cronenberg suggested and approved the new color grading, no more than I would doubt that Michael Mann approved the new color grading on THIEF, or that Peter Jackson approved the new color grading for THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING... you uh, you can tell where this is going, can't you?

David Cronenberg, bless his black Canadian heart, has gone slightly off the deep end with the color grading here. The short version is the entire film has an unnatural blue push, particularly in the high end, which is reminiscent of the sort of hazy optical effects you'd find on oldschool Day For Night scenes. I'm tempted to say it looks garish, but to be fair it's not as "digital" looking as many of the controversial color grading arguments we've had in the last ten years... hell, it's subtle enough that it could have been done purely on film - it wasn't, but it doesn't have any of those weird digital matte edges like the Blu-ray for Bram Stoker's Dracula or the THX Approved DVD of Halloween. Even so, it just looks... off.

Every time this happens, you get two camps that crop up: Those who argue that a screenshot is 100% representative of the transfer in question, and those who argue that an isolated screenshot on a computer monitor in no way reflect what watching the actual transfer on a large display would look like. The funny thing is that both sides are completely right. So long as the decoder wasn't screwed up at some point, any screenshot will look identical to the source image, and as such any issues - say, "the black levels are elevated" or "the grain has been smoothed digitally" or whatever - will appear on the screenshot. That said, the way the human brain works means that watching a smaller windowboxed image with a white border around it will produce a higher perceived contrast, making dark images appear darker. If you were to full-screen the cap being discussed, there you go, that's the original frame - but the second you're doing A/B comparisons in different tabs, those borders, however small, are going to influence how dramatic those color compromises appear even if your computer screen has been properly calibrated - that's the whole reason professionally framed pieces of art use different colored mattes. Particularly if your whole argument  boils down to "this transfer is tinted blue", then yes, white borders in a Firefox browser window are only going to make those colors pop harder than they would on your ISF calibrated 1080p plasma... but that doesn't mean those colors don't exist, they're just less obvious or distracting in their intended context.

A friend of mine has suggested that the Criterion release is actually quite close in color tone to the old R1 MGM DVD, and while there are times where THAT'S VERY TRUE, there are also times where IT'S NOT EVEN CLOSE. Sure the DVD releases going back several years had a dim, grubby look to them, but the Blu-ray's color grading has tipped even that further than I can accept as looking anything but like an idea that came about in the lab, creating a consistently cold, low-contrast aesthetic that - while perhaps acceptable in the context of the transfer as a whole - never looks natural, or like any film released in 1981 would have. Whether or not the color grading looks "bad", of course, is solely a matter of personal opinion. But it's safe to say it's "new", in either case. If this truly was how the film was supposed to look, it wouldn't be so notably different from the German theatrical print Subkultur compared their materials to. Viewing the screenshots in direct comparison with the other releases available makes the Criterion transfer appear like you're going to be watching the whole film through the blue half of a pair of anaglyph 3D glasses... yet somehow the final result is somewhat less dramatic than all of that. Fact is, neutral colors look weird when their underlying contrast has been undercooked, so it's not uncommon for a blue push to be used to mellow the look out. It's reminiscent of the (far heavier) blue bias on Twilight Time's rage inducing Night of the Living Dead 1990 transfer - most people swear the blue push go away after the opening twenty minutes, which simply isn't true, it just stops looking weird because the scenes are now taking place at night. The blue high end does a surprisingly decent job of making the whole film look intentionally underlit, but as a result the fleshtones are always desaturated, the natural reds in their flushed faces being smeared out by the clever color tweak. It's so simple it's brilliant.

With a comparison between what a neutral version of this film looks like in HD, the intentionally dull, dour look on the Criterion master sticks out like a sore thumb. Turn the lights down and view it on its own merits, and you'll no longer be convinced that they've turned Michael Ironsides into a psychic smurf; it'll just look like they shot the whole thing with lower key lighting, with the wonky color grading cautiously shifting the viewer's expectations to match what it promises is the intended "look" of the film. Honestly, had the film been made today and looked this way I'd have thought it was a bit ugly, but at least it's not the expected high-contrast teal that everyone is convinced is the cancer that's destroying cinematography as we know it.

Another niggle we have to discuss is that of "AutoClean" artifacts. As we've discussed many times on this ol' site, film scratches and particles of dust are removed using a combination of digital tools - sometimes automated, sometimes by hand, but more often than not it's a little bit of both. It's not uncommon for the automatic tools to occasionally glitch out, removing a fast moving object that's supposed to be in frame by effectively mistaking it for a scratch; this can lead to things like sparks, flickering flames, or blowing leaves disappearing, though it takes a trained eye or a direct comparison to typically see the artifact itself. It just so happens that the iconic head explosion scene has Digital Scratch Repair artifacts on the Criterion version, but not on any other commercially released HD copy I'm aware of.

That having been said, the Protection Master released by Subkultur is absolutely filthy with hundreds of instances of dirt in any given scene, and I can only assume the Second Sight release still has some issues if Criterion bothered to use scratch repair filters at all. Yes, it is a bit embarrassing for the film's most iconic scene to be afflicted, but having seen the almost grimy alternative I'm willing to cut Criterion as much slack as I can stomach: They really should have keyed the rest of the fucking shout out, but if that's as bad as it gets, I just can't be bothered to get a hernia over it all. DVD BEAVER has a comparison of the Criterion and Second Sight transfers, so you can easily enough click back-and-fourth between them to watch the fragments of juicy skull simply disappear on the former, replaced by irregularly shaped blobs of nothingness. This begs the question: "Would you ever notice the skull bits blinking out in motion?" Well, I may have - but obsessing over minute details is kind of my job. Would the average person? Probably not, unless it's being pointed out to them... good luck not seeing it now, suckers!

Director David Cronenberg, clearly feeling much the same way I do.

What we have here are three distinctly different masters, each representing a different moment in time from when the film was being appraised, and it's a very unique, and rare, position for any film fan to have access to all of them:

Subkultur Entertainment's Protection Master sourced Blu-ray preserves the film exactly as it always was. That means the film is full of flicker, scratches, dirt, color grading inconsistencies. The grain is heavier than the Criterion edition, and there are some minor trailing artifacts suggesting some DVNR was applied for consistency's sake, but overall it's a decent looking presentation of what's likely an older, less coddled master. Basically, it's a time capsule to experience Scanners as it was seen in 1981, and that's a pretty awesome option, even if it's a "warts and all" affair.

Second Sight's 2013 HD master sourced Blu-ray presents a modern, studio approved version of the film, fixing the majority of the film's obvious defects and giving it a fairly neutral, consistent, if slightly over the top color grade. I can't comment further than that, not owning the release myself, but it's safe to say that anyone who thinks the Criterion Collection master is too dark, but isn't thrilled about the idea of constant flicker and speckling has a third option. This particular master is the only version to include a new 5.1 English surround track, too, if you're into that sort of thing.

Criterion Collection's 2014 Director Approved HD master stands as almost a rejection of Paramount's prior attempt, lowering the contrast and gamma across the board to produce a somber, dank version of the same film. Screenshots may look softer at a glance, but in motion the grain looks perfectly organic, suggesting that a combination of lower contrast and a higher quality scan simply exaggerated it less to begin with; actual detail between the Subkultur and Criterion master seems comparable. If the Second Sight release went slightly too far in creating a brighter, bolder version of Scanners, I can't help but think that Cronenberg himself went slightly too far in reverse just to compensate. Boosting the contrast alone wouldn't "fix" the transfer, however, as the color balance has been subtly pushed towards blue and purple, robbing flesh tones of a natural look. Having now seen the transfer myself, I can't call it bad, just... strange. And not in the way I was expecting a David Cronenberg film to look strange.

Whilst I've come in here to talk about the transfer, I will note that it's extremely disappointing that Cronenberg didn't record a commentary for the new Criterion release. Yeah, I know, he's already said that he's "said all he has to say" about his older films and I guess there's something to respect in him not forever living on his glories of yesteryear, but this is such a fundamentally unusual film that I'd genuinely love to hear whatever Cronenberg might have had to say about it's inception, the difficulties he faced producing the to this day unique special effects - heck, I still want an excuse for why he picked such a dull leading man. Despite having overseen the new transfer, Cronenberg himself didn't contribute to any new bonus content, which is... frustrating, to say the least.

The semi-annual Barnes and Noble sale is still going on as I post this, which allowed me to pick up Scanners for about $20. The disc includes a new interview with Michael Ironsides, Cronenberg's first feature film Stereo, the Stephen Lack interview that Subkultur made for their 2012 BD, an interview with Cronenberg from the film's release on a Canadian talkshow, a booklet with an interesting essay going over the film's original production, and original ad spots. I'd argue a lot of that content alone was worth the $20 I paid. With that in mind it's safe to say that while the "look" given to Scanners is neither the way the film was created nor strikes me as the ideal presentation, it looks somewhat better than you'd expect, while the Subkultur release looks marginally worse in motion than a single frame of any given shot likely will. With all of that in mind, I'd suggest purists who likely don't mind some flicker, gate weave and a whole lot of dust speckling import the German release, and that anyone who isn't upset on principle by the dull, cold image of the Criterion version pick it up for the unique bonus features.

At the very least, I can't spot any obvious color grading problems for Stereo. I have little doubt that being in black and white helps.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sailor Fools

Resized by Blogger to 900p because

First off, dear friends, an apology is in order; while I may not be the biggest Sailor Moon fan on the planet personally, it's still a title that fascinates me on a lot of levels, and as such it was one I always planed to watch in its entirety, eventually. It's also something Mrs. Kentai adores, and as such it was something I should have been keeping an eye on.

Unfortunately, I've been... busy. Very, very, very busy. The Merry Month of May was mostly spent rolling up my sleeves and restoring a series for a particular licensor, a job that basically precluded sleep, sanity and - most recently - was on a hard drive that decided to take a full on swan-dive into a swimming pool full of chainsaws and landmines. I've managed to recover upwards of 80% of my work materials, thank Christ for that, but several hours of work has already been re-done, and several hours more still has to be pulled out of the deepest part of my ass. In short, if the guys I worked with hadn't been like "Hey, Gus Van Sant is supposed to direct Death Note for some reason!", I never would have known. Which seems kind of irrelevant, since ABC's Hannibal is already a remake of Death Note... but that's another post entirely.

And it's with that twitchy state of mind that, nearly two months ago, I shrugged off the notion that Viz Media, the new American overlords of Toei's 1990's version of PRETTY SOLDIER SAILOR MOON/美少女戦士セーラームーン, were going to release a standard definition master upscaled to 1080p as their new "High Definition" master as little more than paranoia over some ugly YouTube trailers. Viz had already started released Ranma 1/2 using a proper HD telecine, Toei Animation themselves have done plenty of honest-to-god HD masters including Dragon Ball Kai and Fist of the North Star. With the massive presence that this show holds in North America, I had assumed that some sort of deal had been struck whereby Viz was going to get their hands on some by that point never-before-seen HD master, at worst... Stranger things have happened, after all; Discotek's Blu-ray of Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland remains the only home video release of the HD master for that I'm aware of.

Oh, but how naive insanity can make a person.

This was straight from the horse's mouth, and from a time when I was spending every waking hour fixing up each and every shot of a film that I was forgetting to do things like sleep and eat, much less double check Anime News Network for what I, evidently wrongly assumed, would be pure fluff pieces:

So this show's coming out on Bluray and it's an old show from the 90s, just like Ranma. What kind of restoration are we talking about here?

Charlene: In 2009, there was a restoration done. Those are the very best materials available for Sailor Moon, and it is a 90s shojo anime, so there are challenges there. But we've been working with some companies that are really great at what they do and they've developed a way to not just do the inverse telecine but to really remaster that video. It looks significantly better than any other DVD that's come out, lots of care was put into it. You don't have to worry about any fake-widescreen, it's in a fully uncropped pillarbox, all the original colors are preserved, and a lot of care was taken to go along with our official style guides and official materials to make sure all of the colors are the way they were intended to be. Everything looks nice and crisp and clear, but you still have to understand that season 1 is a 1992 TV Anime. 

There has been no word to refute the notion that this was an upscale since, and with Anime Expo having come and gone, they would have defended that notion if there was anything to defend. 

So yeah. All that comforting talk I gave about how there's no way Viz would be dumb enough to upscale an SD master in a release that already includes as an SD DVD? I'm taking every word of that back, because they are that stupid. For all the shit I've (deservedly) given FUNimation's god-awful "Season" sets of Dragon Ball Z, at least those were an actual HD Telecine from 16mm film - not a good HD Telecine, not by a long shot, but an HD Telecine none the less.

Let's be perfectly clear, without potentially outing any constituents who don't fully approve of the things I do in my spare time: I work with a handful of film licensors from time to time here, and long term friends of the Kentai Blog probably know I've worked on one particular franchise for Toei. There was a time when said licensor asked if we could get an HD master for this title, and we were informed that Toei didn't have an HD tape*, but we were allowed to upscale the Digibeta we were sent if we so chose to. We then asked them if a new HD master could be created; we were told they had no interest in creating one, but would sell us a 35mm print roughly for cost and we could do the scan ourselves. By this point, the licensor I work for had lost all interest; they've never done an in-house telecine, and the costs to do it properly would far outweigh whatever money they'd make on actual sales. Thankfully, he shot down the idea of an upscale, because who the hell wants that? It's not like this was a digital show rendered at SD resolution; there's a 35mm negative for that title just sitting in Toei's vaults, waiting for someone to give just enough of a shit to make a new print for it. Unfortunately, Toei is all out of shits to give, likely based on how their HD masters of titles like Toward the Terra, Mazinger Z and Galaxy Express sold in Japan on Blu-ray.

* I have my doubts that they straight up don't have an HD tape for this particular title... but, that's what we were told.

I can only imagine that Viz had a similar conversation with Toei, realized that Sailor Moon was going to make a small fortune no matter what it looked like on Blu-ray, and took those 2009 Digibetas with little more than a sigh and a shake of the head. Personally, I couldn't be more disgusted that Toei is treating it's number-two money maker like this... but, this is the world we live in. I don't even think it's worth being angry about it, because neither side is willing to take the risk to give the show the quality release it deserves. Why should I be arsed to feel much of anything at that point? The most obvious angry retort is to point out that FUNimation has 16mm prints of Dragon Ball Z... but that's ignoring that they started getting 16mm prints in the mid 1990s, and Toei may not own their own lab anymore, making costs for that sort of work higher or the turn-around slower. Who knows?

Just to make it clear how incredibly awful this shit is going to get, here are SCREENSHOTS FROM THE iTUNES 1080p VERSION. This isn't just a bad upscale, it's the worst sort of upscale complete with edge-warping processing and clumpy, gross DVNR. I could accept this as a 480p DVD if the only masters remaining were analogue tapes, but Toei still owns all the 16mm negatives for this series. The only excuse for this atrocity is greed... and with Slam Dunk, Saint Seiya and Galaxy Express 999 having been given equally god-awful upscaled Blu-ray boxes in Japan this year, it appears this is what we have to look forward to for classic 80s and 90s animation from one of Japan's biggest production studios. Fuck. My. Life.

Caveat Emptor, kiddos: I was out of the loop on this one just a little too hard, and must thank a friendly Anon for pointing out that I had no clue what I was talking about. This is why I've gotten into the habit of talking about discs after I buy them... but, in this case, I wanted to make sure everyone knew NOT to buy them, unless they're fine with pretending it's a DVD set with pre-made upscales as a bonus feature. The sad part is I'm not even shocked at the news... just, incredibly disappointed. If Sailor Moon isn't "big enough" to get a proper Blu-ray release in North America without a proper HD master already existing on the Japanese end, not much else will be.

For those who aren't ready to fist-fuck this set into obscurity on principle, at least the packaging looks nice and purty; an 88 page booklet is evidently included, and the above artwork will have a shiny, foil finish. The price is a fairly hefty $79.99 MSRP for only 23 episodes, which I must remind everyone is 23 out of 200, meaning this shit will be substantially more expensive than the Dragon Boxes. Jesus Fucking Christ. Viz is planning to take Usagi all the way to the bank, and I have little doubt that the numbers of this set - upscaled or not - are going to be astronomical. It's sad, really... they've produced a new, unedited dub, they're doing a DVD/BD combo pack, and they're going for broke on the packaging. I couldn't care less about the new dub personally, but that just further shows that Viz has made this their baby, and that makes the confirmation that this is going to look like butt all the more infuriating. If it weren't for the fact that the HD master is a lying, filthy upscale this'd... basically be perfect. Hell, it reminds me of the Revolutionary Girl Utena sets, but at least those being a DVD didn't necessarily nullify the chance of a proper Blu-ray release coming out down the line! Then again, here I am three years later, and not so much as the movie has been announced... how sad.

$80 for 1/10th of a series from an upscaled SD master. Christ, why do I still buy anime!?

It ships in November, but I'm tempted to say anyone who wanted this should politely tell Viz that they're skipping the set, and will watch the show on Hulu instead. Viz and Toei still make money that way, and the quality difference will be absolutely negligible. If, on the other hand, you really want to see some Magical Girl Goodness in HD Stateside, my recommendation would be to purchase NIS America's Cardcaptor Sakura Blu-ray set. The Japanese remaster had some funky issues involving color-based sharpening and some light grain removal, but the results are dramatically better than any SD master. It ships in early August, and while Mrs. Kentai hates the package design ("Why are there stars everywhere?! STARS ARE NOT THE MOTIF OF THIS SHOW!"), I'm still tempted to buy it for her anyway, if not just to jab the spite-dagger into Toei's side a little harder for this bullshit.

What's sad is that I'm not going to tell you not to buy this show. If you've wanted the complete, unedited Sailor Moon on DVD odds are you've waited for a long goddamn time for this day, and you probably would have bought this with or without the Blu-ray. Hell, if this were a DVD only box set, I'd at least have considered it to sit next to my Dragon Boxes, Fist of the North Star Complete Collection and Revolutionary Girl Utena sets - and I'm sure plenty of people who are no less upset by this fact will come to the same conclusion. I just want everyone to be on the same page and not have to have the aneurism-courting ragedump I felt after they've already paid for it. The Kentai Blog is, at this point in particular, more of a Public Service Announcement than anything, so... The More You Know, I guess.

Thanks to a friendly Anon for not letting me forger this entirely! I owe you a shitty upscale for my prior tomfoolery.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Night Breeders

I'm actually knee-deep in a fun, kaiju-related Blu-ray write-up... but there's a bit of news that needs covering before it's relevance has passed. We'll get this over with as quickly and painlessly as possible.

"Who's that adorable gay man? And what's he got to do with Hellraiser?"
- Mrs. Kentai, upon seeing Clive Barker for the first time

After his incredibly successful directorial debut with Hellraiser, Clive Barker's goal was to create "The Star Wars of horror films". Clive Barker's 1990 phantasmagorical NIGHTBREED, an $11 million dollar project pushing the limits of creature features, was to be the first half in this singular epic. An adaptation of his 1988 novella, Cabal, Nightbreed was - for better or worse - a one of a kind film that never quite lived up to its potential; a sweet natured horror-fantasy about a clan of sentient monsters who inhabit the dark underbelly of an abandoned cemetery, which - despite their otherworldly or animalistic natures - are ultimately innocent castaways of a cruel world, and are persecuted by "normal" society solely for existing.

Basically, it's Dances with Wolves by way of Barlowe's Guide to Extra Terrestrials, with the most impressive thing about it being not the effects work of the endlessly creative Mark Coulier, but the utterly terrifying human monster played by infamous (then) body-horror director David Cronenberg.

Anyone even remotely familiar with Clive Barker's personal life shouldn't have a lot of trouble putting the allegory back together, but that sense of sympathy and personal connection with the monsters of Midian produced an oddly touching, almost operatic experience... one which producers at Morgan Creek Productions didn't know what the hell to make of. In the end, over 40 minutes of footage was cut before the MPAA even had their say, new scenes to increase the presence Cronenberg's Midian hating psychopath were added to "ground" the film - a decision that actually didn't hurt one bit, and the whole thing was stitched together with some oddly inappropriate noodling by Danny Elfman. The finished film is a Frankenstein's Monster of big ideas that go nowhere, of musical theater intercut with gross-out gore gags, of so many of Barker's sincere affections thrown up on the screen in a menagerie of glorious sound and empty fury... I can't say Nightbreed in any cut is a boring film, but I'm tempted to say that the version that the world ultimately saw in early 1990, after months of delays, is a fundamentally broken experience.

One devoid of color as much as common sense. Apparently.

Not dark and gory enough to be a raucous creature feature in the vein of Hellraiser, and not allowed to be as nuanced and genre-inverting as it was intended, the finished 102-minute film was an almost inevitable commercial time bomb with a cult audience that would only emerge from morbid video rental curiosity. The film isn't awful, exactly, it's just... broken. Malformed beyond expectation that works as a fascinating failure rather than as a sincere work of art. The experience of watching what's clearly a very personal story get contorted into something comparatively trite was a painful process for the author-director, who would go on to direct only one more film (1995's The Lord of Illusions - a film he'd be allowed to release in his preferred version to video a year later, no less!) to focus on the comparatively unlimited world of writing and painting, where he's continued to thrive and grow as a creator, often leaving other talented film makers to try and put his own personal nightmares on-screen as unique adaptations. As I remember it Clive Barker voiced his frustrations around the time of the film's release post-release in horror rags of the period, but had kept more or less silent since about what are clearly old wounds that refuse to heal properly for nearly 20 years. It's a shame that Barker's most unusual and ambitious film project ended up being such a hot, near-glorious mess.

In 2009, Mark Miller, co-head of Seraphim Films (Barker's production company) located a 145 minute workprint, representing the initial rough cut of the film as Barker had once presented it to Morgan Creek producers. They went digging through Barker's things and continued to find longer bits and pieces as they went, eventually compiling every scrap of footage into the 159 minute version with senior film and video production lecturer Russell Cherrington, containing every frame of known footage. Realizing that some of the re-shoots made certain scenes redundant, this was later trimmed down to 155 minutes, and then shown at a handful of special venues, including at the New Beverly theater in Los Angeles - A SHOW I PERSONALLY WROTE ABOUT TWO YEARS AGO. When the show ended, Miller and Cherrington had just gotten word that they'd recieved approval to release the Cabal Cut themselves separate from the 1990 version, but they still needed a distributor. In July of 2013, Shout! Factory made the announcement that they would be releasing the "Cabal Cut" of Nightbreed on DVD and Blu-ray, though the when was still up in the air...

The "For Curious Peasants" Edition.

As of July first, 2014, Shout Factory announced the very tentative details for their Blu-ray edition. Shipping in late October, NIGHTBREED: THE DIRECTOR'S CUT - a refined and re-edited version of the Cabal Cut I myself got a chance to see with Barker and company - will be getting two distinct editions. The standard release will be a Blu-ray / DVD combo set, containing only the Director's Cut. The exact length has not been announced, but as the marketing materials insist "over 40 minutes" of never before seen footage, it's safe to say the length will likely be closer to the initial 1989 workprint Miller unearthed in 2009 than anything. (How much, if any, of the Cronenberg reshoots will be included is anyone's guess.)

For those curious, they're actually distancing themselves from the "Cabal Cut" moniker specifically because the once long-thought lost 35mm camera negatives have finally been located, meaning the dodgy VHS quality prints I myself watched through a haze of analogue hell will finally be rectified and looking no less beautiful than any print of the film seen before. This is an exciting surprise I can't stress enough, as while I can understand the thought process behind including every scrap of footage... let's face it. Putting a letterboxed VHS workprint on Blu-ray was going to be akin to stuffing a filet mignon with cheese whiz... sure  you could do it, but why?!

The standard-edition combo set will have an MSRP of $29.99, and knowing Shout! Factory it'll be available from most third-party retails for about thirty percent less on release, or - if you're the impatient type - can already be had for $23.96, as a pre-order from Shout! Factory proper. It promises new bonus features, but exactly what those features will be has yet to be confirmed. Both editions are due for a wide release October 28th, but pre-ordering from Shout! Factory direct gets you the release two weeks early. Ain't that some shit!

The "Fuck You. You'll Still Pay It And We Know It" Edition.

The no-less shocking surprise of the Limited Edition, however, is the real juicy part of this whole announcement... and it's not for the feint of heart. Available at the Shout! Factory website for the low, ass-reaming price of $79.97, this three disc Blu-ray set - strictly limited to 5,000 copies - will include new, Clive Barker approved artwork, a collector's book featuring exclusive content, the 1990 Theatrical Cut in high definition on disc 2, and a third bonus disc "packed with extras"... and once again, exactly what those extras will be, Shout! Factory isn't letting on. Considering the over the top presentation comparatively less expensive titles have been given on the Scream Factory label I have little doubt this'll be some sort of obscene feature-length documentary, but for now, all we can do is wonder what grotesque surprises this insanely pricey set is going to offer.

Before anyone who hasn't seen the Cabal Cut flips their desk in a fit of joy pre-orders this, remember, the Director's Cut can be had for $26 in the combo pack - the main extra in this limited edition is, so far at any rate, the Theatrical version we've all seen before. We'll get tons of other stuff, too, apparently... but Shout! Factory isn't willing to say what we're getting. Even though this release is supposed to ship in about 10 weeks. Am I the only one who thinks that's... weird? Not skeevy, not nessicarily, but why keep your lip buttoned tight when they're clearly getting ready to replicate these fuckers?

Before anyone lubes up their favorite toy at the thought of 40+ extra minutes of Nightbreed forever changing their lives... well, keep your expectations in check. I've seen the Cabal Cut, and walked away with very mixed feelings. In short, if you liked Nightbreed and thought it never explored its themes of love and responsibility properly, you'll probably love it. If you're expecting to become a fan, or assuming this'll be fourty minutes of grotesque monster bloodpath action, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. This is very much a Clive Barker film, but it's the Clive Barker who would create Lord of Illusions and then retire from the director's chair, not the Clive Barker who blew everyone's mind with Hellraiser. That's not to insult either end of that spectrum, mind - I don't dislike Lord of Illusions. But it's very closer in tone and scope to the latter rather than the former.

There's little doubt in my mind that the Cabal Cut was closer to Clive Barker's mad vision, but the final result is on par with the never-ending Alan Smythee version of Dune, or that five and a half hour workprint of Apocalypse Now: Some of the new footage improves the film dramatically, make no mistake, but big chunks of it was honestly cut for a damn good reason. The exceedingly rough nature of what we've seen certainly didn't help matters either, and it's possible that some clever new editing and ADR could take what looked like ugly, unpolished footage and turn it back into the finished, unique feature that Clive Barker had always intended. The romantic and personal soul may be back where it belongs, but it came with a lot of fat in its arteries. Maybe Barker's all-new and thus far never before seen edit will fix these issues and turn Nightbreed into the Star Wars of Horror Films, but what I saw just wasn't quite there... in the end, all we can do now is wait and see what we get.

Should you, dear friends, purchase the Limited Edition? Probably not, to be perfectly honest. I mean I ordered the fucking thing, and being a Californian these days I had to eat another eight bucks in taxes, but the appeal of the Theatrical Cut - even if it'll likely include some footage missing from the Director's Cut entirely - is kind of in how quaint and bizarre the whole thing is. The TC is a mess that this new DC is seeking to correct, and while I absolutely applaud its inclusion, it ain't worth an extra fitty bones. The bonus features might be worth something, but with Shout! Factory being mum about what the hell we're actually getting, it gets harder and harder to justify the price tag. I mean for fuck's sake, the least Cliff could have done was toss us a fuck'n steelbook...

So why am I doing it? In part because I've bought dumber things. (Like Demons 2 for $45, and R.O.D ~ Read or Die, upscaled, for $120.) But it's really two ultimate factors that are driving me to this madness, one external and one internal. The external factor is that despite this costing as much as three or four other Shout! Factory titles, this thing is selling - and fast! Shout initially said they were selling 1,000 copies themselves at their store front, but those thousand copies sold in about 24 hours. They then bumped the total up to 2,500 for now, but they've already offered a handful to independent distributor Diabolik DVD - a particularly noteworthy addition, as they'll be one of the few retailers sending copies outside of the US. Diabolik's humble store front actually crashed all goddamn day due to the massive volume of traffic they were getting from fans trying to order the set, which is the sort of nonsense you only expect from a Twilight Time release - some of which have sold out of similar numbers in less than two hours. The fans of Nightbreed - indeed, fans of Clive Barker in general - are not balking too hard at the price. Diabolik DVD was offering the set for notably less than Shout Factory, but at least the higher price tag at Shout's own store front offers an exclusive, limited edition print of the new cover art. Not sure if that's worth the $10+ difference, but it's certainly a factor to consider. At worst, this will sell out long before October rolls around, and if I decide I've wasted my money I'm sure I can sell the damnable thing on eBay for at least what I paid for it... probably more, if I were the type to plan ahead.

The internal factor is a much simpler one. Just so we're clear, I neither trust nor respect Shout! Factory, as a general rule; they have a general lack of quality control that consistently produces sub-par transfers, and they've released some really poor product from time to time. Shout! Factory has a lot of great titles and they're not the worst label out there, but they're far from the best, and the love they continue to get - largely for nifty new cover art and interviews I could, personally, care less about - frustrates me on a regular basis. They're no Criterion Collection, and even those assholes are capable of an ugly or an incomplete disc*, so... yeah. Shout! Factory, for all the money I've given them in the last several years, are kinda' on my shit list. Not to the same degree as Media Blasters, god forbid, but they're too close in many ways for me to expect this release to go off without a hitch or two.

* Not sure if it'll get a full post or not, but... short version is Criterion's new SCANNERS BD looks like dingy blue ass on the new Criterion BD. Do yourself a favor and buy the GERMAN IMPORT for the same price.

And yet, Shout! Factory or not... someone fucking did it. After five years of the guys behind Barker's cinematic ends being convinced that the film no longer existed, Shout! Factory were the guys who teamed up to find the footage. They were the guys who had the connections to let Clive Barker finally deliver his magnum opus - warts and all, I'm sure - to the people as he had always intended. Shout! Factory may generally suck, but what they've done here is such an incredible, unexpected, once-in-a-decade thing that I think they should be compensated for it. Hell yes, this is a bullshit cash-grab... and so what? They transferred 140-plus minutes of raw 35mm camera negatives. They're editing the negative from scratch, to say nothing of the musings Barker has made about the possibility of Doug Bradley and Danny Elfman finishing their tasks on the audio end. This is as close to the realization of the version of the film that Clive Barker and his legion of fans have always wanted as humanly possible, and while I may have a laundry list of shitty things Shout! Factory has done... this is one of the things they're doing absolutely right. Clive Barker should be rewarded for this, as should every fucking person who'd profit from this project having come to fruition. I'm buying this set not because the extras or that important, or because the Theatrical Cut is important - because this release IN GENERAL is the kind of thing I want to see more of. So much more. I have little doubt that these sets will disappear before July is through, so arguably my personal contribution means little in the end... but it means something to me. Dumb as that sentiment may be.

That having been said: I'm no fool. Last time Shout! Factory got me excited for some insanely expensive box set, it was that Bruce Lee: Legacy Collection that ultimately had so many layers of problems that the Three Stooges would have been proud - even the corrected had to be traded in! I also have zero doubt that "someone" created a sock-puppet account on the forums to defend its sorry state, too, though with no official word I suppose that's all irrelevant. With that cluster of a fuck in mind I'm keeping my pre-order... but I'm not actually opening it until I see some reviews I can trust. If the release stacks up to be what it promises, fantastic! Money well spent, far as I'm concerned. If it's a steaming pile, fuck it, to eBay it goes where I'll probably make twice what I put into it.

As ever, Cliff MacMillan, it's your move. Don't forget, Arrow Video managed to go from one of the worst cult labels on the planet to one of the absolute best. Tides can change, for good or for ill, and while the titles you purchase are often great, your presentation of the films themselves is all over the map. Stick to Apple ProRes 422, minimum (lossless is better, but a pain on MAC workflows). Use a proper x264 encoder, and for fuck's sake hire someone who knows how to actually use it. Send screeners to A/V junkies who actually care about this movie before you replicate it - hell, I'd happily QC the product for free, if you're willing to take any advice I can offer. If not myself, give it to someone who's criticized you in the past; those are the guys you actually have to convince, not the people who bought Phantasm II and went "Looks great, I dunno' what you assholes expected".

You have every opportunity to forever raise the bar, and finally erase from my mind being that one company that crapped out an upscale of It's Good To See You Again, Alice Cooper. You've bought the golden goose, and you're about to parade it around town. Don't. Fuck. This. Up. Because if you do, at prices like this I'm not the only one who will be there to point and do my best Nelson Muntz cackle... because the only thing people love more than a ridiculously expensive Limited Edition is the schadenfreude that comes from watching one of those very same ridiculously expensive Limited Editions fail.