Wednesday, 23 July 2014

8K/4K/2K Resolution Comparisons

With 4K becoming more of an understood term in the world of home cinema and arguments appearing here and there tossing around opinions whether it will be of any benefit or not, I thought I'd undertake my own little experiment to see how it might compare with HD resolution.  I am not an expert on the matter and if there are any genuine errors in the following text please feel free to correct me.  The following is intended to take a look solely at factors regarding resolution itself - whether a film on disc (or broadcast/download) actually looks excellent or ugly depends on a large number of factors, whether that be down to the efficiency of the encode, the nature and quality of the source material, how well the source has been scanned and with what kind of equipment, to what extent the outcome has been tampered with digitally and whether that tampering has been applied intelligently or not, through to what is used to view the end result, etc.  No analysis can take all of that into consideration, although a number of excellent screen grab comparison websites have enlightened us over the years as to how drastically different the same film can look on different discs, sometimes even across the same format.  Therefore, as I say, this will focus purely on the resolution aspect.

Note that to view the composite image properly your browser should be set to 100%, and if you wish to view the full res images at the bottom of the page you would probably need to download them as your browser or blogger may only show them up to a certain size, and without looking at them with every pixel visible you can't really make a true comparison.  A quick look by me on blogger showed the 8K and 4K images at the same size and consequently, because the former was substantially scaled down in this respect, there is no apparent difference in detail!  The composite image successfully makes the point as far as I'm concerned, however.

As I understand it, Ultra HD (UHD) exhibits resolutions of 3840 x 2160 (current full HD is 1920 x 1080), hence UHD is four times the resolution of full HD (we'll leave 720p out of the equation as it's not really of concern).  It is also being referred to as 4K - it's not technically 4K as that terminology refers to an industry standard that has, appropriately enough, just over four thousand pixels in width (specifically 4096, with 2160 in height), but I guess UHD is fairly close thus the term 4K is being adopted to mean the same thing.  From here on in, any reference I make to 4K or 8K is in the context of a home cinema environment.

There is debate regarding how much resolution is required to extract all of the detail out of a 35mm negative - until actual demonstrations have taken place this would be difficult to determine.  Personally I suspect that many older films in particular will not significantly benefit from UHD or above on the size of screens that are used in most homes.  I believe the average screen size in the UK is around 42".  Where I think UHD will come into its own is when it's displayed on larger screens (perhaps the average size will continue to go up over coming years) and the source material is of exceptional quality, for example if it's taken from a high resolution digital source or IMAX film.

Personally I watch material on either a 100" (approx) projector screen or a 46" LED TV.  I feel that HD material (mostly delivered via Blu-ray Disc) can look absolutely stunning on either, subjectively speaking of course, although I generally prefer the scale offered by the larger screen from a projector.  If I'm watching DVDs I feel that they look okay on the TV, sometimes surprisingly good (although that's largely down to some incredible technology built into my Sony that improves standard definition over the way it looked on older generation sets), but on any larger scale it just doesn't cut it against HD.  Like many serious home cinema fans and movie collectors nowadays, I prefer to see a film in the best available quality, both in terms of video and audio, and that must come from a Blu-ray rather than a DVD.  I am quite excited to see what UHD or 4K can offer us in the home (it would roughly equate to what most cinemas currently offer from their projectors) but the following experiment was undertaken with as much objectivity as I could muster, at the very least to quell my own curiosity in a realistic manner.

What I've done below is to show a quarter section of an 8K (in home cinema terms - four times the resolution of UHD) 'source' (from a photograph I took myself) - the reason I used a quarter section is because the camera will not take the equivalent of 8K images, hence I've had to take a 10 megapixel image and consider a cropped area of it as 25% of 8K for the purposes of this experiment.  This is followed by a quarter section (to maintain comparative consistency) of a UHD duplicate of that source.  This I feel simulates the resolution of a UHD image when taken from a higher quality original and can be compared accordingly.  I've then also taken a HD duplicate from the source to simulate how you might see the image on a Blu-ray Disc.  Because there is now some debate regarding whether it's better to scan a negative or print in 4K in order to create a film for HD, or just create a HD master from the outset, I've also created a HD image from the '4K master'.  I appreciate that this does not necessarily reflect how a moving film might be scanned in reality but at the moment it's the closest thing that I can use to make an estimated judgement in the comparison of resolutions.  How this would look in the home would also depend greatly on equipment and screen size, as mentioned in the opening paragraph.

To summarise, and each of the following is an equivalent resolution only, the first shot simulates 25% of an 8K source, the second 25% of a 4K capture of that source, the third 25% of a 2K capture of that source, and the fourth is 25% of a 2K capture of the 4K version.  I've then rescaled everything but the 8K back to the same overall dimensions in order to facilitate comparative analysis of the detail that remains.  The full grabs are at the bottom of this article but for the sake of ease on the part of the reader I have encompassed a small section of each grab in this 600 x 600 panel to illustrate my points.
My conclusions are as follows: When the source is of adequate quality (in this case a good quality 8K image), the UHD version of it shows a noticeable improvement over a conventional HD iteration.  Regarding the 4K master for the purposes of a HD final output as opposed to a 2K master leading to HD final output, I could see no discernible difference.  The HD version looks rather inadequate next to UHD, although as I say, in general 35mm terms I would imagine that a HD capture gives almost all worthwhile detail on the screens most people use at home.  Whilst still exhibiting a small loss of detail UHD demonstrates notable potential to outclass HD if the material is right, so I will be looking forward to seeing how this one pans out over the next few years.  There are already UHD sets available of course (and a small number of projectors), generally too expensive for the layman to consider, but it's when playable material becomes available that this arena will start to get really interesting.

If anyone has any thoughts (or amendments) you're welcome to forward them to me, but either way I hope you've found this little analysis useful or at least mildly interesting.

Paul W J Martin


25% of '8K' source (compressed to JPEG for the purposes of uploading to the net):
25% of 'UHD or 4K' scan of source:

25% of 'HD or 2K' scan of source:

25% of 'HD or 2K' scan or '4K master':

Sunday, 20 July 2014

City of the Dead

In the secluded village of Whitewood a witch is burned at the stake in an opening similar to Bava’s Mask of Satan - but not before she summons satanic help that will ensure she returns from the dead and cause the village to be forever encompassed by the curse of witchcraft. 300 years after the burning a young college student who is studying the paranormal decides to take her research to a higher level by actually visiting a village that was known for its witchcraft in the darker ages - that of Whitewood. Upon arriving it seems to be a place that has stood still in time, where the denizens are given to acting abnormally and the church is out of bounds. It’s not long before she vanishes prompting concerned friends to retrace her steps to find out what’s happened to her. Something sinister is still going on in Whitewood it would seem…
Apart from the fact that a few elements haven’t dated too well (e.g. the ‘hip’ college teens), this is a tremendous supernatural horror from 1960 with mountains of beautiful atmosphere - the village itself is a joy to behold, with dilapidated buildings and omnipresent mist, populated by strange people who seem to be trapped in time somehow. Oh, and a demented priest. The B&W cinematography is absolutely gorgeous and I think this is one of the best genre films before the more violent and hard-hitting era that was to begin with the 70s.

There are low-grade releases of City of the Dead (AKA Horror Hotel) available both in the UK and US, but the US VCI DVD remains the definitive presentation after all these years, effectively disposing of all others - you owe it to yourself not to view this film on one of those effortless public domain-type releases. For their 2-disc UK release Redemption ported everything here except the commentaries, though downgraded the image with an NTSC to PAL transfer. VCI’s correctly framed picture looks very nice for standard definition, the sound is well represented, and there are essential extras: a commentary with Christopher Lee (who has a smaller role in the film), another commentary with director John Llewellyn Moxey, an indispensable and riveting 45 minute interview with Lee that is pure talk and no unnecessary interruptions with movie clips - he’s lived a truly enviable life. Further to that there are shorter interviews with Moxey himself and Venetia Stevenson, plus more. VCI's is a great disc of a classic film - get it!

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Bloodsucking Freaks

Having seen this a couple of times years ago on dupe VHS, and never particularly liking it, I thought I'd give it another go on Blu-ray, as it has now surprisingly been released on the format uncut in the UK by 88 Films.  Oddly, despite the fact that the film is entitled Bloodsucking Freaks, 88 have chose to separate the 'Blood' from the 'Sucking' on the cover, but I'm not intending to nitpick.  The film itself is scarcely plotted, vaguely about a theatre owner, Sardu, whose magic shows of torture and murder are actually using real victims and not actors.  Mostly women, they are being abducted from various locations for the purposes of being used in the show, or to be kept in some sort of dungeon downstairs.

Considering that this was made in the mid seventies, it certainly is a nasty, depraved little number.  Yes, the gore is not always up to Tom Savini standards, and it is thoroughly amateurish at times (Joel M Reed could hardly be considered a master of his art) but it refuses to acknowledge any barriers, and even today there are bound to be a few things in here that make any viewer wince.  It does periodically feel like the entire endeavour was to create something to shock and nothing else, which may be true, thus the endless torture and screaming can occasionally become a little wearing.  However, there are elements of sadomasochistic eroticism present, albeit not realised as well as they could be, plus it marks itself as a precursor to what would eventually become known as the 'torture porn' sub-genre of horror that popularised itself from Hostel/Saw onwards (although I think it has justifiably ran out of steam now).  Personally I think the writer/director was influenced by The Sinful Dwarf which was released a couple of years previous to BSF, and with which it shares a number of elements such as the depraved dwarf himself along with the dungeon of captured women and the intensity of some of the lengths gone to in the name of shock.  Whether one considers it to be entertaining or not will of course depend on the viewer.  The nastiness forces you to keep your eyes on the screen, whilst the silliness will infrequently instil a laugh or two.  Mostly though BSF earns its place, rather questionably I guess, in film history for being one of the forefathers of torture porn.
Shot on 16mm it was never going to look amazing on any format - on Blu-ray this presentation looks truly 'Grindhouse' and I suspect it's been transferred from a beat-up print.  Scratches and marks are in abundance, though in some way this is how the film is meant to be seen.  Resolution is not amazing but I think if you did see this at a cinema then it would not look vastly different to what you're seeing on this Blu-ray (I'm guessing the DVD will not look hugely inferior, but given the option I always get the Blu-ray for the most accurate representation of the source).  Audio suffers from its origins too, with hiss/crackle noticeable in places.  88 have included many extras, mostly junk from the Troma archives.  Eli Roth (Hostel, appropriately) also provides an audio commentary, whilst elsewhere there are about 25 minutes of VHS quality Troma trailers, which are good for recreating the Grindhouse experience at home.  A booklet has been included and suitably depraved new artwork created (although you can flip this around from one of two other front covers if you want, including original poster art).  The first thousand copies or so also come with a limited slipcase, which is pictured above.  88 Films have put together a commendable release for BSF, continuing a streak (aside from the odd hiccup) that is gradually rising them towards loftier heights.

Monday, 7 April 2014

The Asphyx

After spotting apparent photographic anomalies that occur at the point of a subject's death, two scientists embark on a journey to capture the mystical being responsible (dubbed the 'asphyx') that theoretically captures the escaping soul.  Their aim is to ultimately prevent death itself - if they can stop the asphyx from taking away an individual's soul then it could be the case that the individual themselves could attain immortality.

A leisurely paced UK production from around 1973, The Asphyx was directed by veteran camera operator Peter Newbrook.  It's not considered a classic but it is surely a carefully crafted and eloquent production that does explore some interesting concepts.  I think what holds this one back from more widespread appeal is the lack of dynamism - Newbrook hardly takes things forward with energetic zeal.  However, it's an exquisitely shot piece of work with some dark moments that can yield rewards for the patient viewer.  The beauty of the film should come as no surprise when you realise that its cinematographer, Freddie Young, won several Oscars for his work.
I'd only ever seen the UK 86 minute 'theatrical' version of this film - it had been widely available on VHS and DVD for years but old reviews dangled a carrot suggesting that the longer 99 minute US version was a better way to view the film.  Odeon Entertainment have in recent years released a two-disc DVD containing the extended version but that has since been bettered: a welcome entry into home video was Redemption's Blu-ray, which contains both versions of the film.  The standard cut is fully mastered (from the negative I believe) in HD and looks stunning.  Fully scoped (as shot in Todd-AO) the detail is amazing for a film of this vintage, and really shows what can be done with older stuff.  The longer cut is featured as an extra (and has to be accessed, as such, from the bonus menu).  This cut is taken from an inferior source mastered in standard definition.  Redemption could have done the lazy thing and just included this as is, but they've retained the HD footage where possible and inserted the extra material where it should be, meaning you're still watching the bulk of the film in HD if you choose to watch the longer version.  I don't mind this, because the periodic quality shift reveals exactly what they decided to remove, presumably in the name of brevity.  There is also a slight ratio shift from 2.39:1 to what must have been the only thing available for the extra material, 1.85:1 approximately, although this is 'window boxed' to prevent too much of a visible jolt for the viewer.  Personally I think the excised material is of some value as there is greater exposition on some of the themes explored, plus additional characterisation.

Other extras include some trailers and a photo gallery, but really this remains an invaluable acquisition because this disc means we can choose whether to watch the shorter or longer cuts completely (in the former case) or mostly (in the latter) in full HD.  If you like the film, or have a fondness for Hammer-era horror, the Redemption Blu will sit comfortably on your shelf.  The gorgeous presentation of the HD transfer enhances one's appreciation without a doubt.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Hellgate

After discovering an ancient crystal that possesses mysterious life-returning qualities via a laser shock, a disgruntled father uses it to bring back to life the daughter that was accidentally killed by a bunch of unruly bikers.  This rather sexy walking corpse periodically picks up 'strangers' who wonder too close to their town (dubbed 'Hellgate') with the intention of knocking them off, until one of them reawakens her affections.  I think that's what it's about anyway!

Tagging onto the tail end of the eighties video revolution Hellgate is a periodically silly horror comedy with a mishmash of ideas that somehow seems recently to have unfairly been labelled as the worst film of all time by newcomers to the genre, who I can only guess don't seem to understand eighties horror sensibilities.  Of course, it's no fantastic piece of work, but as something that entertains on at least an occasional basis, it certainly not a pile of steaming turd either.  It actually, I would argue, has a few things going for it.  Aside from the pretty cruddy crystal laser, the special effects (which include a nifty reanimated turtle and an exploding goldfish) are pretty impressive whilst not necessarily winning any Tom-Savini awards.  It also contains a touch of nudity and gore, and even a few laughs, not too far away from the territory of many other American eighties horror comedies really.  If I would level any criticism at it, it is that the acting can leave a little to be desired, plus the main characters are not as charismatic as, say, the posse of punks in Return of the Living Dead.  And then there is that rather screwy stage host that appears for a couple of minutes before a surreal dance show.  But really, people, it aint that bad.  And I'd rather stick this on than much of the PC dross that drips forth from Hollywood anyway, to be honest.
Arrow's Blu-ray/DVD combo is limited to 1000, probably realistically given the small target audience for something like this.  But grab it quick if you want it.  Transfer-wise it is excellent, looking a million times better than you would ever expect something like this to.  Audio quality is delivered via uncompressed stereo but limited by its 1989 origins - still, it sounds okay.  You also get towards an hour's worth of featurettes (slicing out a good portion of that for unnecessary integrated film clips), something of a surprise for a low-key title such as this.  There is also some nice new art on the cover, and original video art on the reverse if you're not keen on that, and even a booklet containing an essay.  As is often the case these days, Arrow have delivered a fantastic package for a title that you would never have guessed would ever get it.  Definitely one for fans of American eighties horror.

P.S. At time of writing it was still available direct from Arrow, so before you go and pay some profiteering nincompoop on Amazon or ebay, check there.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Schoolgirl Hitchhikers

If this title makes you think that this film should be banned then you're probably expecting a bit too much!  The narrative follows a couple of wandering young women ('natch - this is a Jean Rollin film after all) who look a little older than schoolgirls to me, although would still probably pass for university students.  Milling through the beautiful French countryside they discover an apparently abandoned chateau where they decide to spend the night exploring each other's bodies, etc.  They don't realize that a gangster is sitting around downstairs waiting for a couple of colleagues, but when one of the girls does bump into this guy she uses the opportunity to explore his body as well.  However, when the other gangster shows up with some sort of mistress who seems to run the show, they find that their pick-up - some expensive thieved jewels - are missing.  Immediately they suspect the two girls, so they go off to capture them (they left the same morning), bring them back and torture them into talking.  One of them escapes and acquires the 'skills' of a bungling local private detective and before long everybody is mixed up in a mystery of missing jewels, exposed flesh, and misunderstandings.
I wanted to see this one for years, ever since I read about it in a 90s copy of the essential obscurity review magazine Is It Uncut?.  It goes without saying that this film (known in French as Jeunes Filles Impudiques and directed under his porn pseudonym of Michel Gentil) abandons the horror elements of Rollin's better known work but remains undeniably a product of his eccentric imagination.  During the mildly titillating lesbian activities early on it looks like it could get boring - 80 minutes of sex is not of much interest to me in a film.  But fortunately Rollin brings in lots of idiosyncratic plot quirks that keep boredom at arm's length.  There are some mild elements of violence although I was surprised to find one aspect of the torture scenes had me looking away from the screen, and it wasn't even gory!  One of the main girls is Joëlle Coeur, a tarty but attractive young thing who also turned up in Rollin's Demoniacs.  The other actors here are typical props in the Rollin universe - functional without ever straying into award-winning territory (or anywhere near).

I picked up Redemption's US Blu-ray of Schoolgirl Hitchhikers with some hesitation after reading about cine-wobble.  Unfortunately it is present and quite distracting although thankfully not for the entire film, which would have made it completely unwatchable - I'd say it makes up around 40% of the shots at an estimate, and takes the form of a slight frame-to-frame jittering that is noticeable (and probably discounts trying to view this on a very large screen).  It's a terrible shame that this couldn't have been corrected (I suspect it would be either too time consuming and/or expensive for something with minimal target audience) but I am still glad to own this one.  There is occasional print damage, which I've no problem with personally, and the colours are washed-out/pasty, but these factors at least give it that currently in vogue grindhouse feel.  The film is presented in full HD at around 1.66:1 and detail is pleasing.  The French language mono audio is fine and English subtitles are good (I much prefer watching foreign language films on Blu-ray because subtitles actually look like normal text rather than Spectrum graphics!).  Nothing else is really provided as extra material except a few trailers (no booklet like the other Rollin releases) so this is fairly bare-bones all round.

This film has a little bit of a sense of humour (especially once the idiot detective and his strangely young pig-tailed female assistant are introduced), with a couple of fairly attractive lead girls and an intertwined plot about gangster theft and a mistress that seems like she wandered out of Fascination.  It's not a bad little piece but receives a frustratingly inconsistent disc release from what is otherwise one of my favourite companies.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The Incredible Hulk

I'm currently working my way through the Hulk TV series, and am compiling a blog entry for each episode over at a new page here on Blogger; take a look if you get chance.  Happy New Year!

Monday, 18 November 2013

The Seventh Victim

Val Lewton’s 40s genre productions have become much more renowned thanks to Warner putting together their fabulous DVD collection of his work quite a few years ago now. But long before that his pictures for RKO studios were considered quite special, formulating as they did quite chilling little tales of the morbid without resorting to overt manifestations of the supernatural. This was always a pleasing contrast to the output of Universal and helped to push forward the idea that the genre didn’t really need inhuman monsters to succeed critically and commercially. In fact their conception was partly the result of the failure of the mighty Orson Welles productions so we could say we have Citizen Kane to thank, as if its legacy hasn’t snowballed enough. The Seventh Victim begins with young college student Mary being called up to be informed that her Manhattan-based sister, Jacqueline, is no longer paying her tuition fees. In fact nobody can seem to get in touch with Jacqueline so Mary packs up and heads off to the great city of NY to find out what’s happened to her older sibling. First stopping off at the restaurant once owned by Jacqueline, Mary finds out she was seen at a local boarding house and goes off to enquire. There it seems the missing woman has hired a room - seemingly not to stay in, rather it’s there as some sort of haven for a potential suicide that forces Mary to realise her sister‘s situation is much more sinister than the innocent youngster‘s mind would like to have contemplated. She comes into contact with the man who loves Jacqueline and with the help of a private investigator (who is soon murdered for his curiosity) they delve deeper into a plot that leads to a satanic cult that has drawn Jacqueline into their macabre world.
A very noir-esque atmosphere is established once Mary arrives at the city: shadowy streets, darkly lit corridors, harsh contrasts (cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca was clearly an expert technician and artist) - it’s an ideal world to conceal the goings-on of a group of devil-worshipping people. In fact the cult reminds me of the sinister neighbours that later turned up in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, and are quite a creepy bunch considering this was the forties. Mary (Kim Hunter’s feature debut, amazingly the same woman who went on to play Zira in the first three Ape movies) is lovely and innocent, making her treacherous journey a tad more engaging as she stumbles into a threatening city that could almost consume her, though it seems as though something is watching over her shoulder as more harm comes to those around her than to Mary herself. An interesting moral seems to have been wound into the narrative that makes itself apparent by the end, and one which possibly reflected the way Val Lewton pondered upon his own existence (a cardiac illness was making itself known at the time, this eventually leading to a premature demise): humans may at some point, or with eventual inevitability, come to question whether they wish to continue living and both angles are represented by two characters. Jacqueline herself (resembling Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction) evidently possesses a fixation with her own death, perhaps fantasizing about suicide itself until it becomes an on-going obsession, whilst crossing her path is a woman who is terminally ill but would prefer to avoid death - one person is living but wants to die, the other is dying but wants to live. Indeed the opening statement of the film (about running to death but death meeting one just as fast) suggests to me that the story is ultimately an exploration of man’s relationship with death, something which underpins all of horror in some ways. This gives what once began as B movie material (in fact, just a title really) a certain degree of greater depth than what might have been anticipated by the funding studio (the last thing they wanted was conceptual depth after Orson Welles had drained them of cash). Along the way we come across a number of smartly thought-out sequences; Mary and the PI standing at the end of a dark corridor, both afraid to advance before she persuades him to effectively walk to his doom, Mary’s subway ride where three ‘drunks’ stumble on to the train only for the hat to fall from the one being carried revealing him to be the very PI that was murdered earlier - his body obviously in the process of being disposed of, and not least the shower scene that surely must have influenced Hitchcock years later, such is its similarity to Psycho's most famous murder sequence. The Seventh Victim is a movie than can be appreciated by both fans of the macabre and noir alike.

Warner’s 1.33:1 black & white transfer was exemplary given the movie’s 1943 period of creation, and it came accompanied with a highly informative 53 minute documentary on producer Val Lewton. Perhaps some of the interviewees (the likes of William Friedkin, Joe Dante, etc.) go a little overboard in their praise, as is often the case with back-slapping Americans, but appreciation for Lewton will certainly flourish as a result of viewing this comprehensive piece. There’s also a feature commentary from historian Steve Haberman that is sometimes a little quickly spoken, though this also means that there’s a large amount of information and considered opinions divulged. He discusses an omitted subplot concerning Tom Conway’s character as well as the critical and commercial response to the film following initial release, among many other things. One thing Haberman drew my eye to during listening to the commentary was the point when Mary is offered the bad news by the school’s headmistress - watch her silent assistant who is staring at Mary throughout the dialogue, it’s a pretty creepy image as she continuously looks Mary up and down in far too suggestive a manner. The region 1 disc could be picked up as part of the superb boxed set that came with Lewton’s other RKO genre productions - note, a later release of this also includes a Martin Scorsese documentary as an additional bonus.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Voices From Beyond

One of Lucio Fulci's very last efforts, this one reflects an undeniable decline that had occurred in his directorial work from around the mid eighties onwards.  Shot in 1990/1 for Executive Cine TV from one of Fulci's own stories, Voices From Beyond (or Voci dal Profondo / Voices From The Deep to take its original title) is a mystery horror tale about a rich man whose premature death leaves his spirit lingering around while his body rots.  Due to supernatural laws unknown his daughter has the same amount of time it will take his corpse to completely decompose in order to discover who was responsible for his death, and there are a number of suitable suspects, from a mistress to an estranged wife, all of whom were treated badly by the old man.  Feeling quite padded at just over ninety minutes there are nevertheless a number of points that will interest fans of the macabre and Lucio Fulci in particular.  Having acquainted himself with heavy gore towards the end of the seventies, Fulci appeared to feel obliged to wander down the same path in virtually every venture since, and Voices... is no exception - there's a gruesome autopsy scene, plenty of shots of the rotting body beneath the ground (covered in maggots, 'natch), and even the stabbing of a young boy!  There is also a fair bit of nudity for the body-conscious amongst you.  The dream sequences are adeptly executed, generally providing the film with most of its horror content (in fact, without them it would be significantly less interesting I think).  No doubt the best of these is where one character wanders through a claustrophobic morgue consisting of increasingly closed-in walls, before the tombs break open at the hands of the living dead.  Stelvio Cipriani's music is very good in places (Fulci had a knack for embellishing his films with excellent scores), while the hazy cinematography elicits a dreamy feel.  My personal favourite sequence is the funeral of the old man, where his enemies drop wreaths on the coffin one by one as they re-live some of the terrible memories they have of him, all backed by grooving beat.
I did have this on video cassette a long time ago and it was difficult to appreciate the film's strengths on such a medium - needless to say it eventually ended up in a car-boot sale.  Not well touched on DVD anywhere, Code Red announced a while back a US release of a newly scanned transfer on both DVD and Blu-ray!  This has finally come to fruition after what seems like quite a long wait.  The (very) old EC DVD was severely limited in terms of translating the soft-focus image to standard definition (albeit in widescreen), with an equally limited mono audio track (English language).  I haven't seen Code Red's DVD, and don't intend to, but their Blu-ray is an attractive option.  Similarly presented in widescreen - full HD at 24 frames per second - the colours are very strong, grain is present, and detail enhanced.  The relaxed focus of much of the source (surely an artistic choice, given the ghostly nature of the story?) is evident of course, but the film here looks possibly as vivid as we will ever see it - especially some of the harder-focussed exterior shots.  The Dolby TrueHD-encoded audio (still in English, and as atrociously dubbed as ever - I know of nothing that provides an Italian audio option unfortunately and am unsure if such a track even exists) is stronger than before, with the music finally given chance to be assessed with some clarity.  Oddly, there is no menu on the disc - the film starts immediately upon entry, and ceases after the credits on your player's own menu.  There are, however, ten chapter stops, but nothing in way of chapter naming.  Neither are there any extras, but really, who is going to track down ageing participants for a lower-key movie such as this?  Limited to 1000 at the time of writing, and available only direct through Code Red (see my links/escape routes above) this Blu-ray is, despite the film's shortcomings and the discs lack of bonus material, the best way to experience the film and a desirable collector's item for fans of Lucio Fulci.

Monday, 22 April 2013

The Wolfman

Responding to the unexpected disappearance of his brother, stage actor Lawrence Talbot returns from America to (Victorian) England to pay familial respects and find out what happened. At the old family estate Lawrence is reunited with his apathetic father, both of them still haunted by the horrible suicide of their mother/wife when Lawrence was a toddler. After Lawrence befriends his brother’s fiancée in the woe of their mutual concern, he heads out one night (against his father’s ominous advice) to a passing gypsy camp to investigate an amulet that may have some relevance to his brother’s case. His enquiries are suddenly cut short when the camp is attacked by a swift and indiscriminate beast - panicking victims are torn apart amidst spiralling chaos prompting Talbot to pull out his rifle to take pot shots at the creature. Getting a little too ambitious for his own good he’s attacked himself, saved from a near fatal wound by another armed man, and a subsequent amateur operation to seal the torn flesh. Recovering at the estate from the attack, Lawrence attracts the somewhat hostile attention of the local police inspector, but this is the least of his problems when it becomes apparent at the next full moon that he has become infected by a werewolf, himself now a carrier of the curse.

Taking many elements of the screenplay of Universal’s classic 1941 monster movie The Wolf Man and mirroring them fairly respectfully, this remake injects a dose of contemporary violence and shock cutting to bring it in line with the expectations common in today’s audiences. However, to suggest those are the only elements that make this worth watching is something of an injustice. The film doesn’t exactly appeal to the most commercial of sensibilities: firstly, it is largely a slow moving exploration of the denizens of an almost fairy tale world, with sombre pacing periodically punctuated by brutal and quite exciting action. And secondly, the design of the titular creature is something of a throwback to an era I had long considered dead - quite brave and at odds with the genre’s cinematic context of today. In fact, the creature isn’t too far removed from that of the original film, aside from the much needed enhancements to special effects, make-up, and its ability to stride at a much greater speed (thereby multiplying its threat tenfold). Taking up the reins of the consistently forlorn Lawrence Talbot is Benicio Del Toro: apart from possessing a melancholy appearance surprisingly akin to that of Lon Chaney Jnr. (the star of the 1941 movie), the actor brings a distinctive quality to the role, maintaining an air of solemn believability throughout and contributing quite skilfully to the tragic nature of the character - he demonstrates an amazing look and presence. One cannot help but feel a twinge of disturbed sorrow during his utterly miserable incarceration and torture at the asylum following his arrest (don’t fret too much - this act concludes with a beautiful payoff!). Strong acting remains a staple of the production for its duration, a particular favourite performance of mine arriving in the form of persistently odd Hugo Weaving as the sharp minded inspector. All of this brings verisimilitude to the more complex (than the original) characterisations and relationships established throughout the story, and whilst it is overall quite faithful to its source there are one or two twists along the way to keep things interesting for fans such as myself who know the original movie reasonably well. And enormous appreciation must go to werewolf aficionado Rick Baker and the special effects team (CGI or otherwise) for creating what must be amongst the most effective transformation sequences either side of the perennially stunning experience that is An American Werewolf in London.

The strong gothic backdrop to the scenario is embellished by delightfully crafted compositions of near achromatic cinematography, something I wouldn’t have anticipated from a director as seemingly nondescript as Johnston. The cinema screening I originally attended was unforgivably marred by a slight but perceivable out-of-focus projection, a factor that thankfully does not afflict the Blu-ray, which (containing both the theatrical and extended cuts) presents the film in full HD at 1.85:1 with a lovely artistic image and noticeable (on a very large screen) grain retention.  The DTS-HD MA audio track particularly shines with the deep and emphatic orchestral arrangements, giving you an appropriately cinematic experience if you have surround kit.  The steelbook, which I acquired soon after its release, is very attractive, albeit plain on the inside.  The Wolfman was unfortunately plagued by a troubled production so it’s pleasing to find a gloomy, morbid, violent, and bewilderingly traditional horror story that may not please those accustomed to more conventional modern cinema but will tap some of the right nerves for a few.