The Best and Worst in Digital Horror Alchemy, Pt. 1

The Best and Worst in Digital Horror Alchemy, Pt. 1

As a follow-up to Being a Horror Videophile is difficult, I figured I’d provide several examples of some of the best and worst horror/exploiter transfers on DVD. I’m concentrating on standard definition transfers since picture quality on the format seems a nebulous concept to most. While quality on Blu-ray is expected and usually seen regardless of the truth. Look up formal reviews for any of the below and you’ll mostly find baseline praise for all–be them excellent or turgid. I’m also avoiding the obviously bad; so no beat up VHS rips from 50-movie packs or dollar store stock. If I sound harsh, I don’t mean to beat up the studios with the unimpressive selections. I own all of the discs below and, believe me, then some from all of those behind these transfers. They should and owe it to their fans to try harder.

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SOME OF THE BEST

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Women in Cellblock 9 (Frauen für Zellenblock 9) (1977, V.I.P Jess Franco Collection Switzerland)

This might sound strange, but for a dirt cheap film stuffed with pubic hair, hamsters tunneling into vaginas, and Howard Vernon–the picture quality on this DVD is the best I’ve ever seen from any genre or studio. That’s one tall order, but the negative is in impeccable shape and to-the-pixel detail is through the roof. There is zero digital tinkering evident here and no compression anomalies. Just a stunningly pure standard definition image; even with Franco’s camera sometimes losing focus mid-shot. If more DVDs looked this good, but the need for Blu-ray wouldn’t be as pressing. The work on this transfer is so good, if Women in Cellblock 9 came to the high definition format with the same care, it would immediately become the best ’70s era picture on Blu-ray. Unfortunately, V.I.P.’s other Franco Collection selections don’t look anywhere as perfect as this title does.

Suspiria (1977, Anchor Bay THX Argento Collection)

Anchor Bay’s finest hour back when they gave a damn…or at least had William Lustig of Blue Underground on deck. Downconverted from an HD telecine of the original Technicolor negative and personally supervised by the feature’s DP Luciano Tovoli, Suspiria has still yet to look better. Grain structure is tight, detail tack sharp, and colors bold yet not to the point of bleeding. As usual, THX had no bearing on the resulting picture quality. There is some artificial edge enhancement (and the sound’s surround remix is screwy), knocking the effort down a peg, but this is one gorgeous image for the most gorgeous of Argento’s cannon. It’s a shame the license slipped from the studio and this edition went out-of-print. After a re-issue from Blue Underground, the rights now reside with the Weinstein Co. under the huge Universal Media Group umbrella who have been planning seemingly impossible to rationally to conceive remake. It’s also a shame Suspiria has recently been subjected to some blinding contrast and color boosting for its Italian and British Blu-ray debuts. Patience is a virtue…

42nd Street Forever, Vol. 1-5 & XXX-Treme Special Edition (Synapse Films)

These six discs might seem like a poor choice considering how many great looking titles Synapse Films have produced. Though unlike all other trailer compilations, these selections of wild and seldom seen trailers are treated with proper respect in progressively-flagged anamorphic widescreen. The picture quality of these do insanely waver, but the series is a great example of care in spite of that. Many studios, both large and small, tend to treat badly damaged material poorly for digital transition. They might at least issue a warning at the beginning of the disc, but too often just throw the footage onto DVD as an afterthought. Synapse has done all trash fans a big service with their treatment of these trailers. Not because quite a few are rare, but more for defeating the urge to rest on that build-in tendency for poor quality to be treated poorly. Although it should be said some of these trailers look fantastic regardless.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935, Universal Studios Signature Collection)

Big studios make it look easy. Despite Bride being an unquestionable genre classic, mighty outfits like Universal have a knack for throwing out niche cult items onto DVD with outstanding transfers with the ease of Sunday morning. It’s like they spend no time to produce what it takes indie studios months to toil away at. Bride of Frankenstein is much more than a relatively unknown flick once regulated to VHS, but no less impressive with Universal’s presentation. To be honest, James Whale’s original Frankenstein is in need of further manual restoration work. The film is plagued by pops, flecks, and a general blurriness. On the other hand, its sequel is one of the finest black and white transfers on DVD. Virtually no damage or rainbowing chroma noise sometimes seen on B/W standard definition transfers. It’s simply beautiful with copious grainy fine detail. Hopefully Universal will retain these positive attributes when Bride arrives to high definition. “You stay! We belong grainy!”

Slime City (1989, Shock-O-Rama, ei Independent Cinema)

Shock-O-Rama’s SE DVD of Greg Lamberson’s Slime City is an example of relatively tiny studio being able to produce an excellent transfer. From an HD telecine supervised by the director, this low budget 16mm film can’t look much better in the standard definition realm. Appropriately grainy yet vibrantly colored; this one blows away the old VHS. This gooey feature makes a great pairing with J. Michael Muro’s Street Trash (1987) and with such a strong transfer; this disc additionally mates well with Synapse Films’s equally strong DVD of that film. This is the one to pull out when you hear the complaint that a studio is too small to present a film well. This transfer does have one issue, which leads into below…

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SOME OF THE WORST

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Cannibal Holocaust (1980, Grindhouse Releasing Deluxe Edition)

Man was this one ever ultra anticipated. Definitely one of thee DVD releases of 2008, Grindhouse Releasing seemed to take forever and a day on Cannibal Holocaust‘s stateside digital arrival. This Deluxe Edition certainly has an impressive slate of supplements spread over two discs. You could even amazingly find it resting on the shelf space for a time at Best Buys nationwide. It’s just a shame Grindhouse saddled what could have been definitive with such poor image quality. The main culprit here is the non-progressive interlaced transfer, like Slime City. In layman terms, interlace scanning is a method of forming a video picture with alternating odd and even rows of lines. The resulting image is composed of these rows and is usually transparent while viewing–especially on old CRT tube sets which are natively interlaced. You can see these line rows in the capture above around the moving hands of the actors. Progressive scan is a superior scanning method as it displays the entire frame with each pass without these line artifacts. Progressively encoded video also yields about 30% increased resolution over interlaced material. Most digital and high definition displays utilize progressive scanning–hence 720″p” or 1080″p”.

HD displays, DVD players, Blu-ray players, and even set-top cable boxes have de-interlacing circuitry that can re-build a progressive signal from interlaced video. This is how one can watch VHS and LaserDisc on high-def sets without the picture being a blur of lines. Most HD feeds from cable providers are also in 1080″i” with a display handling the progressive conversion. Carefully engineered de-interlacing algorithms, like those in Denon and Oppo players, can even lock onto the original progressive signal buried in the murky interlaced soup. The problem arises in the wildly varying quality of de-interlacing. It’s a hard process with many DVD/Blu-ray players bumbling along at dealing with the issue. It’s also simply lazy, cheaper, and uncaring to release an interlaced disc in either standard or high def in ’08.

So it’s inexcusable for Grindhouse Releasing to have done this, especially with such a highly desired title. Not to mention the compression artifacts and a sort of ugly video black level that flattens the picture. This is definitely not the last word on Deodato’s classic in regards to picture quality and is a far cry from Grindhouse’s stellar DVD treatment of I Drink Your Blood (1970).

Dawn of the Dead (1978, Anchor Bay Divimax Edition)

This isn’t a necessarily “bad” transfer considering prior versions. Anchor Bay have cleaned up George A. Romero’s classic to near perfect condition and this presentation is the best the film has looked in regards to the elimination of age damage. Yet the devil is in this uniform sheen. The transfer has obviously been digitally noise reduced, but in a very sly fashion. Usually, DNR is fairly easy to spot, but the application here seems quite “DVD-minded“. The amount of tampering isn’t overzealous; yet it’s just enough to erase any fine detail resulting in a pleasing standard definition image. The proof arrives in Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray from the same master. The 1080p resolution reveals zero natural grain, no fine detail such as facial blemishes, and nearly no picture quality advantage over this Divimax DVD. The Blu-ray is essentially the DVD upscaled to HD without the picture artifacts introduced in blowing up 480 lines to 1080 lines. Awesome, just what the greatest living dead film deserves! As stated, this disc is the best the film has looked, but that doesn’t make this presentation much good regardless. Worst of all, this bland appearance has spread like a virus as Arrow Films have utilized Anchor Bay’s master for their British Blu-ray.

Evil Dead II (1987, Anchor Bay Book of the Dead)

Anchor Bay essentially ruined Evil Dead II with this release and it’s the most irksome on this list. After initially releasing a bareboned, non-anamorphic DVD in 1998, the studio issued a remastered SE with the THX moniker in 2000. This THX disc shifted the film’s color cast from red to a more neutral blue, but found lingering complaints about the film’s graininess and dark appearance. So for this 2005 Necronomicon-cased SE, Anchor Bay took these issues to heart and applied so much DNR, so much contrast boosting, and so much color alternation as to make Evil Dead II look as plastic as a Frisbee. There is no fine detail on this transfer. Ash’s perpetual flop sweat is grounded away and his scars look applied with a bottle of Smucker’s Squeezable Strawberry Jam. Contrast is so elevated that shadows are literally gone leaving blacks looking a sickly gray. Everyone looks powdered with a heavy peach foundation.

Naturally, DVD review sites fawned over this god awful transfer as mana from the heavens. They should be as equally ashamed for their false assessments as Anchor Bay for fucking up the look of this film for years to come. Like Dawn of the Dead, this abhorrent master has spread overseas on DVD and Blu-ray with Anchor Bay not helping the situation with their domestic Blu-ray being from the BotD source. Thanks for all you’ve done Anchor Bay, but learn not to listen to the fanbase in every regard, this fake abomination being a testament. At least the old THX DVD, seen on the right side of the capture above, is still in-print.

City of the Living Dead (Paura nella città dei morti viventi) (1980, No Shame Films Italy)

Simply put, this transfer is assailed with so much noise reduction that any movement on-screen or from the camera results in an avalanche of smearing. Pop in the old Paragon tape, you’ll enjoy it more.

Invitation to Hell (1984, Sarcophilous Films)

I hate to bust on a real grassroots effort, but I expected more after reading through the disc’s website. What does this transfer in is the interlacing and omnipresent compression artifacts. The film is going to look rough, but it just doesn’t make sense to go through all the trouble and fumble the ball on these particulars. It only went to negate all of the effort to bring the film to DVD to begin with. The feature Invitation to Hell is paired with on the same disc, The Last Night, is from a VHS source forced into an anamorphic widescreen transfer. So yeah, it looks even worse. Not a bad deal for $10, but that initial $25 price tag was a rip-off.


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