Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Black Shadows and Blood Red Shoes: Synapse' TENEBRAE Blu-ray Transfer

Alright, let's cut the bullshit; there's nothing more to say about Dario Argento's celebrated 1982 post-modern thriller TENEBRAE that hasn't been said a hundred times by people far smarter than myself. Let's skip to why anyone's interested in me talking about this flick.

I could go on for a thousand or two words, trying to explain the subtle difference between the European "Wild Side" master and the new Synapse corrected version... but why not just sum up the difference in a pair of screenshots?


2013 UK BLU-RAY (ARROW VIDEO - REMASTERED)


2016 USA BLU-RAY (SYNAPSE FILMS)

...and now for the thousand or two words. Damn, I never make this easy on myself, do I?

For those unaware of the full sitiation, the following screenshot is the worst instance of automatic digital scratch repair (DSR) artifacts to be found on the various instances of fast-motion through the film, with this particular gaffe - around 00:37:38 on the Synapse disc - being, by far, the absolute worst offender, but as the booklet proudly gives timecodes for, there's plenty of other, less galling instances throughout that have been manually repaired, effectively by using the clone-brush in Photoshop and averaging out the data manually, as opposed to letting Skynet flip its shit at the slightest bit of confusion.

For those who may not be aware, scratch repair filters basically try to calculate drastic, high-contrast shifts in color over a small area of the frame, and when they identify a high contrast "blip" they assume it's either a stain, dirt or similar, and fill it in with an 'average' of the frame before and after. This removes thousands of instances of small nics and stains and scratches, normally without any major, obvious consequence aside from a slight softening of the image... but it also has the potential to fuck shit up when it can't tell the difference between a hand savaging an envelope and a large emulsion stain. These sorts of artifacts are actually not that uncommon in industry-standard HD masters, but most of the worst are "fixed" - either by creating a garbage matte from the unprocessed source, or simply shoopin' dat woop' - before the consumers ever see anything quite that nasty.

Unfortunately, anyone expecting a perfect presentation absolutely free of DSR artifacts might be setting their hopes a bit too high; the problems are baked in, and often very subtle, resulting in small details distorting or smearing straight out of existence. While it's difficult to find a way to do this that doesn't feel like it's shitting all over the label releasing the title, this could well be an educational moment for many of you, so let me direct your attention to some minor details that struck me as fairly standard examples of DSR artifacts:


In this shot, the bobbing, spiral phone cord is getting marked out as a scratch and has a random chunk smudged into oblivion, a little below the countertop to her right. As you can see, the scratch repair filter is actually trying to fill the cord in with the pattern of the drapes behind her, which is pretty normal behavior when an object like a cable is bobbing around in front of a static background.


This shot is substantially less obvious, but pay attention to the glasses; despite Anthony Francoise being shown to wear tortise-shell specs, the frames have basically become transparent jelly in the handful of frames in which they move along in his hand, only to return to their normal color once he stops moving. His hand is a smeared mess, too - and while it's true that motion blur is always a factor, the fact that his fingers have formed a sort of deformed flipper is a pretty common issue when DSR is set way too high, as it clearly was during the original telecine.


And here's another, perhaps more "obvious" example if we pay attention to Dario Nicolodi's fingertips; the averaging has left a ghostlike impression in the background where her hand only lingered for a single frame, but kept the fleshy color from the frames where the overall "average" was consistently the same color. The artifact is subtle, particularly since her arm is moving the whole shot, but if you've been dealing with this shit as long as I have, becomes somewhat unmistakable.

I want to stress that this isn't meant to rain all over Synapse's parade. The artifacts were baked in at the source level, and while I'd rather have a certain level of scuffs and stains over digital artifacts, the fact is most highly-praised and celebrated HD transfers have some level of minor digital wonkiness due to automated processing that most people - myself included, depending on how severe it is - simply shrug off as normal motion blur or peculiarities of the original camera and film stock.While I admit, a fresh scan from an archival 35mm element would have been preferable to patching over the digital problems that already exist, the presentation is still much improved over the prior version, which was already a HUMONGOUS STEP UP from the virtually unwatchable 2011 Arrow release, which - once and for all - proved that my bitching and moaning about all those weird, noisy transfers coming out of Rome weren't just me expecting too much from limited film elements. Depressingly enough, the far superior French release is actually older than that awful initial Arrow Video master, but since Wild Side was mostly re-releasing Argento movies to DVD at the time I didn't know about it until several months later. Still, having long insisted that something was seriously wrong with the HD masters coming out of Rome, it was nice to finally be validated... even if it took Arrow and LVR shitting out that wet-sandpaper textured 1080p abortion to convince the world that, y'know, maybe I had at least half a clue what I was talking about.

Ah, memories...

Going between that initial gnarly LVR master and the imperfect-but-pretty-damn-good Wild Side transfer, you can likely understand how easy it was to forgive the fairly minor sharpening artifacts that appear as edge-ringing on the 2010 HD master; yes it's there, and it's a shame, but it's such a minor point of contention compared to the initial Arrow HD master I honestly couldn't be arsed to give a fuck then, and several years later I feel as apathetic towards its presence now as I did the first time I laid eyes on it. The only way to downplay the sharpening is to try to blur edges away using spatial interpolation, and while you can get away with that on a crumby looking LD transfer of relatively simple content - say, 16mm sourced animation? - it would likely be a disaster on a source like this. Like the scratch repair gaffes they're just in it for the long haul, and similarly their presence is a minor point or two off of the whole, rather than anything to be especially grouchy over.

I briefly considered doing a full A/B comparison between the 2010 Wild Side Video release from France - which was, after all, the original presentation of the HD master all 3 versions are based on - but knowing that the Arrow Remastered transfer is essentially the exact same thing with a lower (and I assume, correct) gamma... there's not much sense in taking the time. The CAPS-A-HOLIC COMPARISON between the two tells you everything you need to know, namely that the Synapse transfer has warmer mid-tones resulting in brighter, more realistic skin tones, but the highs lean more towards a cool blue that leaves what were once white, clipped highlights looking slightly minty fresh. Generally daylit scenes look totally natural on the Synapse grade, though as you can see, interiors are a bit of a gamble, depending on how dramatic the original lighting was.

It's clear that effort and consideration has been put into adjusting the overall tone of the Synapse release, but the fact is it looks better in some ways and worse in others. Both seem more or less consistent with the vast majority of restored home video presentations and with Argento's demand for an over-exposed film in which the titular "Shadows" are an ironic absentee, and with each having its ups' and downs' I'm not confident to say the grading is conclusively "better" than the other. If I had a gun to my head I'd say I prefer the fuller reds of the US release, but it's literally a case of personal aesthetic preference, not mathematical or even historical accuracy.


How the fuck have I never seen this one-sheet before?

Perhaps the most interesting part of this disc is that, despite being based on the Wild Side transfer, it does also include the alternate "English Inserts" - and it does this via Seamless Branching, which is a feature we rarely see on Blu-ray discs. See, while the film was shot almost entirely in English to start with, various close-ups of the Tenebrae novel itself, the notes the killer leaves for Peter, and even the meticulous book-keeping the killer does of his victims were shot in close-ups in both English and Italian. It's similar to the alternate takes Kubrick did for the "All Work And No Play..." pages in The Shining, I suppose, but with Tenebrae taking place primarily in Rome, it does raise some questions as to why the killer would have English language newspapers in the first place...

The French and UK transfers only present the Italian credits, presumably since the transfer was pulled entirely from the Italian OCN. The Synapse release actually used an archival 35mm print to transfer the English titles and text inserts from, and the quality - perhaps largely due to 35mm opticals always looking a bit ropey anyway - match the rest of the film pretty much seamlessly. Perhaps the most interesting example is at 00:51:55, when Laura Wendel starts reading the newspaper clippings about the murders; the image is only slightly soft and with a bit more debris than the main feature.

While the inclusion of the English inserts are certainly a cool little bonus - and one I don't think have seen a home video release since the Israeli VHS release some 30 years ago, at that! - I'm not gonna' lie. I'd have been way more into seeing the "English" version as its own transfer, warts and all. As far as I know the English "UNSANE" prints still had Italian credits and were mostly complete, sans a few trims to the overt violence to satisfy the MPAA. Oddly, the American prints were cut by another 10 minutes - not by the film distributors, but by Fox Hills Video, who decided that trimming the film would let them get away with releasing a T-30 tape in "EP" mode.

That said, Synapse loses a point for not including the Kim Wilde song Take Me Tonight as the default end theme on the English version. Yes, I've listened to the Argento commentary - yes, I know he hated it. But if you can look me in the eye and tell me that Kim Wilde doing the theme song wouldn't have made this film so amazingly 1982 it hurts... I just don't know that we can get along at that point.

With that in mind, sure, I can forgive Synapse for skipping on the American VHS edition entirely, but... to have an archival 35mm print, do telecine work, and then not transfer the entire print? Synapse could have called this "The Grindhouse Presentation", done literally no work at all, and idiots like me would have been thrilled. Shockingly enough, we are getting the Americanized version of "Creepers" in their next hefty-priced Argento themed steelbook, so I wonder what the deciding factor here was? Cost for a new telecine rather than just having select reels scanned? Bandwidth concerns? What's the deal with not giving fans who have been wallowing in thrilling resotrations the chance to now let them wallow in the scratchy, poorly-graded reality of yester-year? Especially with a film with an intentional a look as Tenebrae, I'd love to know how a "real" vintage 35mm print holds up to the 20 years or so of creator-approved restored prints held up back in the day.



Speaking of bonus "Grindhouse Experiences",
I haven't forgotten about you, old friend...

I find myself torn on how to feel about this one. On the one hand I won't deny that the Synapse BD is hands down the best visual representation of the film, with the most interesting special features, a newly remastered CD soundtrack, and a shiny limited edition Steelbook. The presentation is absolutely top-notch, and as sicj the $50 or so asking price isn't outrageous - certainly not compared to some of the more insanely expensive giallo BDs out there... but is it worth the hefty asking price when the Arrow Remastered edition - "Region B" lock aside - can be had for about a third what this'll set you back? Money is no object, and blah-blah-blah... but fuck me, even I can tell when I'm making a bad decision. And that's where I find myself hitting a brick wall on actually recommending this release to all but the absolute die-hard fans.

While I certainly cringed at the price tag attached to the one-two assault that was Demons and (especially for) Demons 2, I felt they were absolutely worth every penny. The UK transfers for those two films were abysmal, and with the Japanese release being nearly as expensive as Synapse's offering - and with only a slight improvement to Arrow's grubby presentation - the Synapse release was an absolute no-brainer. For fans of that glorious thrill ride and its lesser sequel, the upgrade was effectively mandatory. And I have no doubt that once Phenomena is up for grabs, the Synapse presentation will again be like night and day between the current HD offerings on the market.

Here, however, the differences - however appreciated they are - are all fairly minor, even on a side-by-side comparison. That one shot of Peter's hand is a hell of a lot better... but I can't in good conscience say that fix is worth the price of two typical Synapse BDs, much less three from many of their competitors. Pity this'll be by far the low-point with the definitive edition of Phenomena and their 4K remaster of Suspiria being next in the line-up, but they can't all be worth the premium, I guess...

If the Yellow Fever documentary interest you, if you don't already own the Simonetti soundtrack, the price tag is absolutely worth it. If not, I'm tempted to say stick with the prior Arrow Remastered release - or, if you just want the best looking presentation and can't swallow the cost, just wait 6 months for Synapse to inevitably change their tune from there being "no plans" for a non-limited edition to there being an Amazon pre-order for less than $15.