Blu Notes: Gamera vs. Gyaos

This article deals exclusively with the 2009 Kadokawa Blu-ray release of Gamera vs. Gyaos (大怪獣空中戦 ガメラ対ギャオス / Daikaiju Kuchusen: Gamera tai Gyaosu). For coverage of the film itself, and the domestic Shout! Factory DVD, click here. Gamera vs. Gyaos is available both as a standalone and in a four-film Show Gamera boxed set from Amazon.co.jp.

Specifications:
released:
7/24/2009
disc: All Region / single layer BD25
video: 1080i / 2.37:1 / color
Mpeg-4 AVC / 32.3 Mbps
audio: 16-bit LPCM 2.0 mono Japanese
subtitles: none
supplements: theatrical trailer

And slowly but surely, we make our way deeper into Kadokawa’s high-price Gamera Blu-ray boxed sets from 2009. After two of these I already feel a bit like a broken record, so I’ll be keeping this article even shorter than usual. Those who have read our coverage of Gamera and Gamera vs. Barugon know what to expect here – a Blu-ray sourced from the same HD master used by Shout! Factory for their domestic DVDs, with no English-friendly language options and only a trailer as an extra. Gamera vs. Gyaos isn’t just my favorite of the Showa Gamera series, but my favorite of all the Gamera films and one of my favorite giant monster movies, period. This disc won’t be to everyone’s taste, but yeah, I had to have it.

Image-wise the comparison below pretty well covers it all. Color, contrast and detail all tighten up well in comparison to the SD equivalent, though the picture can look a bit thin and over-yellow in places. All of the other Kadokawa Gamera HD masters have been artificially sharpened, including the ’90s films, and Gamera vs. Gyaos is no exception. Grain is course and angular, an issue no doubt exacerbated by the edge enhancement, and lends the image a gritty quality in motion. There is no window-boxing this go around (or for any of the subsequent films, thankfully), and though presented in 1080i the tech specs are certainly robust – the feature is Mpeg-4 AVC-encoded at a high average bitrate of 32.3 Mbps. The film sounds much as it has in the past, though perhaps a touch less muffled by virtue of an uncompressed LPCM encode. The old-school monophonic mix isn’t going to impress anyone, but it remains faithful to the intentions of the original production, and that’s just fine by me. There are no subtitles, English, Japanese, or otherwise.

DVD leftBlu-ray right. DVD shots were captured as lossless .png in VLC from the Shout! Factory DVD, scaled to 1920×1080 for ease of comparison and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% in Gimp. Click each to view full size.

 
 
 
 

What else is there to say, really? Gamera vs. Gyaos looks and plays better on Blu-ray from Kadokawa than it does in its domestic DVD equivalent, but it still has its problems, and with a retail price of  ¥4,935 (more than $60 USD) it’ll be a very tough sell for most. Recommended for crazies like myself whose lives just won’t be complete until they’ve owned the Gamera films on every format imaginable. For the rest, just sit back and enjoy the pretty pictures.

Blu-ray shots were captured as full resolution .png in VLC with yadif taking care of the interlacing, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool. Click to enlarge.

Gamera vs. Gyaos is available on standalone Blu-ray from Kadokawa as well as in Showa Gamera Blu-ray Box I – pictured left – which includes Giant Monster Gamera (1965), Gamera vs. Barugon (1966), and Gamera vs. Viras (1968). Showa Gamera Blu-ray Box II is also available, and includes Gamera vs. Guiron (1969), Gamera vs. Jiger (1970), Gamera vs. Zigra (1971), and Space Monster Gamera (1980).

Blu Notes: Virus – Day of Resurrection

This article deals predominantly with the new Kadokawa Blu-ray edition of Virus - Day of Resurrection (復活の日: Virus). Our rather old coverage of the film and the out of print BCI DVD can be found here. This Blu-ray is available now through Amazon.co.jp.

Specifications:
released:
 9/28/2012
disc: All Region / dual layer BD50
video: 1080i / 1.90:1 / color
Mpeg-4 AVC / 33.2 Mbps
audio: 16-bit LPCM 2.0 and Dolby TrueHD 5.1
subtitles: SDH Japanese
supplements: announcements (2)theatrical trailers (2) 

Media mogul Haruki Kadokawa bet big when he, with an assist from Tokyo Broadcasting System, chose to produce an adaptation of Sakyo Komatsu’s epic 1964 sci-fi novel Day of Resurrection (復活の日) to the tune of ¥2.5 billion – at the time the most ever spent on a Japanese film. Featuring an all-star international cast including Masao Kusakari, Bo Svenson, Sonny Chiba, Glenn Ford, Olivia Hussey, Tsunehiko Watase, among many many others, the film’s production would encompass 200 days of location shoots outside Japan including a whopping 40 in Antarctica alone, and would drag on well beyond its intended release date of winter 1979 (the hastily devised big-budget hit Sengoku Jieitai / G.I. Samurai would take its place in theaters as Kadokawa’s big New Year’s offering). When it finally reached theaters in June of 1980, six months later than originally intended, Kadokawa’s Virus - Day of Resurrection (復活の日: Virus) proved a substantial hit with audiences, grossing a tremendous ¥2.4 billion, but still fell well short of covering its overwhelming production costs and massive ad campaign. Lukewarm interest abroad did nothing to help. Virus‘ abbreviated export version made it to theaters in only a few markets, and in the United States, where it might have made the most financial impact, the film was consigned directly to television and rental video.

It is through thirty years and more of video editions that interest in and appreciation for Virus – Day of Resurrection has been kindled and perpetuated, and whether through grey market copies of the cut export edition or more upstanding releases at the full 156 minutes, the film has always been in-print on video in some form or other. Still, the quality of many of these releases leaves something to be desired, and unfortunately the only legitimate domestic release of the uncut Japanese version (which appeared alongside Golgo 13: Kowloon Assignment and Bullet Train in the ill-named Sonny Chiba Action Pack 3-DVD set) died with its parent company BCI. That set now commands high prices online, even though it retailed for $15 or less upon release.

For those who don’t mind dealing with a bit of a language barrier Kadokawa’s own Blu-ray edition, released just last month, is certainly a viable option for seeing the film as it was intended. The disc is a priced-down release from the company with a modest (by Japanese standards) retail pricetag of just ¥2,940, and at the time of this writing it can be had for considerably less – just ¥1,727 (around $22) from Amazon.co.jp. Those keen to import should know that the release, though all-region compatible (it played perfectly in both my Region A PS3 and secondary Region B Blu-ray deck), is not made to be English friendly. Japanese subtitles are hardcoded to the print for the frequent English and occasional German and Russian, and the only optional subtitles are SDH Japanese.

My old BCI DVD is effectively unplayable after all these years (ah, quality!), and as such I could only manage a couple of grabs from the earliest moments of the film. Still, they’re enough to show the substantial boost offered by the Blu-ray edition. DVD screenshots appear to the left, and are scaled to 1920×1080 for ease of comparison. Blu-ray appear to the right. Frame matches are not exact, but are certainly in the ballpark.

 
 

There’s really not much of a comparison to be made between Kadokawa’s Blu-ray edition and the older SD master, which appeared on DVD both from BCI and in a “Deluxe Edition” Japanese package. Color, contrast, and detail all improve in the expected ways over the overly smooth, yellowish SD, and the windowboxed framing is blessedly done away with. Virus is here presented in 1080i at a ratio of 1.90:1, and while the presentation is imperfect I have few substantial complaints against it. Modest damage remains in the form of light specks and dirt, but at significantly lower levels than was evident on the DVD. Contrast doesn’t have so much black-level pop as some might hope, but appears natural for the most part. Colors are healthily saturated. No efforts appear to have been made to tone down the film texture, which is fine by me (opticals and reprinted library footage have a lovely grit), and while there is undoubtedly some noisiness to its rendering the overall impression, at least, is filmic. Some modest sharpening has been applied, but not to any distracting extent, and I can’t say that it detracted a bit from my enjoyment of the presentation. It’s not the most impressive transfer in the world by any means, and a better scan might have tightened the grain a bit and drawn out a touch more detail, but in motion this still looks damned good. I’ve no complaints with the technical treatment either. The 156 minute film is spread comfortably over a dual layer BD50, and the video receives a strong Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average bitrate of 33.2 Mbps.

An all-Japanese dub apparently exists for Virus – Day of Resurrection and has been used in television broadcasts of the film, but it is not presented here (much to the chagrin of at least one Amazon JP reviewer). What you do get are two flavors of the original multi-lingual recording, which is predominantly English and Japanese, with brief instances of German and Russian. The primary track remains true to the original recording and sounds quite robust in 16-bit LPCM 2.0. The 5.1 remix in Dolby TrueHD sounds even better, particularly with regards to the increased clarity and depth of Kentaro Haneda’s score, but also supplements the more modest original mix with new foley effects at times (most notably during the various action sequences). I didn’t find any of the alterations problematic within the context of the picture and they successfully heighten the impact of some key scenes (like the film’s second, nuclear, apocalypse), but those wishing to remain true to the theatrical intentions will want to stick with the 2.0 track. As already noted, Japanese subtitles are hardcoded to the transfer for the English/German/Russian dialogue, and a supplemental set of optional Japanese SDH subtitles are included as well. Supplements are limited to two special announcement trailers and two full theatrical trailers, all presented in SD, and like the rest of the Kadokawa Blu-rays I’ve seen the disc comes packaged in a glossy, opaque black Blu-ray case. The only paper extra is a listing of other available Kadokawa HD titles (those Yusaku Matsuda re-issues sure are tempting!).

Virus – Day of Resurrection isn’t a great film, but it’s flirtations with greatness keep it a compelling experience more than 30 years on. Director and co-writer Kinji Fukasaku’s mark is all over the tense Japanese sequences and the downright beautiful final act, and the elegant, furious montages detailing the world-ending disease’s spread are second to none. The rest is… passable, but there’s enough scenery chewing on the part of the recognizable American cast to at least keep their scenes entertaining – Bo Svenson and Henry Silva each look like they’re having a blast, and Chuck Connor’s half-assed British affectations are certainly something. I’ve no quarrel with Kadokawa’s Blu-ray, which despite its imperfections offers a very good presentation of the film, and certainly the best seen anywhere outside of its theatrical run. The price is as right as one’s ever likely to find for a Japanese release, and for those keen on the film this is an easy recommendation.

And as a side note, Sakyo Komatsu’s original novel – unseen on these shores since it was first published in 1964 – is due out in English from VIZ Media in December. Pre-order here.

Blu-ray screenshots were taken as full resolution .png in VLC Media Player with yadif handling the interlacing, and were compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the Image Magic command line tool. Click to enlarge.

Blu Notes: Night of the Living Dead ’90

It’s been 22 years since Tom Savini’s official remake (scripted by Romero himself) of the landmark 1968 horror Night of the Living Dead first reached theater screens, more than long enough for a certain nostalgia to build up around it. I must admit to having not much liked the film upon first seeing it, but in the years since I’ve developed a respect and even an affinity for it. As such I was eager to revisit Savini’s Night as film, but such a kerfuffle has erupted with regards to its Blu-ray presentation from Twilight Time that it’s utterly distracted from that process. So in lieu of a film review (one will follow later, I promise) here are my observations on the release itself.

To state the obvious, this presentation of Night of the Living Dead is significantly different, aesthetically, from any that has been made available before. There is typically no shortage of praise to be found in these pages for Sony’s archive restoration department, but their approach here certainly raises questions. Given Sony’s usual approach (either to work directly with someone involved with the production to develop the film’s aesthetic on video, or to go by past knowledge – release prints, etc.) it’s difficult to imagine the changes here passing muster without the approval of someone involved in the original production, though just who that might have been remains unknown (edit to add: The source is evidently a 2010 HD master minted with the involvement of DP Frank Prinzi. Thanks, internet!). What is known is that Tom Savini has now given his approval to the Blu-ray’s new look, making the answers to what’s “right” or “wrong” with Night of the Living Dead‘s appearance rather more ambiguous.

Now for the changes. The first major alteration to how the film has appeared begins almost as soon as the film does. The first twenty minutes of the film, straight daytime sequences in all past editions, now shift from daylight to day-for-night (or twilight, more specifically) over the course of Barbara’s opening flight from the cemetery and the early events at the farmhouse. Colors cool, contrast flattens, and darkness pervades. It’s a dramatic difference in comparison to past editions, and one I can’t say that I’m really enamored with. The problem here is that the shift just doesn’t work within the previously existing language of the film, which is veritably screaming daytime (the ambient soundtrack, full of chirping birds, is a good example) even as the new timing tells us otherwise. Minor details unnoticed before, like Ben arriving with his truck lights off, now pose problems for the new continuity, and what of the film’s montage noting the changeover from day to night? It’s still here, of course, calling into question the whole rationale of artificially clarifying a point the film already makes.

While those first 20 minutes mark the most significant diversion from the past, the rest of the film has been treated as well. The whole appearance has been flattened, from the contrast to the color, leaving the majority of the picture with a darkened and dulled, almost antique appearance. While I don’t find the overall effect objectionable within the context of the film I do find the dimness of the white levels a bit of a distraction. Areas of the image that should be hot (flood lights, a basement lamp, muzzle flashes, even the film’s one big explosion) are unnaturally cold and grey, as though the image were being projected with a defective bulb. The same (or at least a similar) effect has been applied to the daylight sequence that closes the film, lending it a similar quality to “flashed” pictures like Deliverance and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Aside from the alterations Sony’s transfer appears sound, presenting with a very healthy level of detail and a consistent, refined layer of film grain that only rarely descends into noisiness. The image appears free of the usual brand of digital tampering, with no evidence of edge enhancement or adverse noise reduction, though the new color filtering has resulted in some unpalatable posterization effects at times (see the zombie’s face and surrounding sky in the sample below). Twilight Time have given Sony’s contentious HD master a healthy technical backing – the video is encoded Mpeg-4 AVC at a reasonable average bitrate of 26.8 Mbps, and compression artifacts are never an issue.

The audio will prove another sticking point for many. Sony, typically quite astute in their mastering of surround remixes, obviously weren’t paying quite as much attention here, and at least one key sound effect – the shutter click heard over the closing credits montage – is absent from the mix entirely (I can’t vouch for any other missing bits as I’m just not that familiar with the film). Otherwise the DTS-HD MA 5.1 track sounds quite good, with Paul McCollough’s electronic score (also available as an isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 track) given substantially more room to breath than in more compressed past editions. Per the usual for Twilight Time’s Sony-licensed titles, optional English SDH subtitles are included. The release arrives with a Tom Savini audio commentary (ported over from the older DVD) as well as the original theatrical trailer in HD, and Julie Kirgo contributes another fine booklet of liner notes.

Twilight Time went out of their comfort zone in responding to fan requests and releasing Night of the Living Dead ’90 on Blu-ray, and while it’s a shame that the release hasn’t matched expectations the outrage that’s developed against it has been a little… well… outrageous. The label is doing their part in accepting returns from the unsatisfied customers, and otherwise there’s always the bloated resell market (this limited edition was out of print before it was even released, and is already fetching lofty prices from third party scalpers). I consider it fortunate that Night‘s sellout status has alleviated some of the pressure on me for a yea or nay recommendation. Personally speaking, I can live with the disc even as much as I don’t care for some of the changes – I’ve been relying on a decades-old VHS up until now and my pack-rat home media sensibilities mean it’s always there if I need it. Those looking to purchase are encouraged to know what they’re getting into1, particularly at the current going rates. Director Tom Savini has approved of it and I may be fine with it as well, but it’s ultimately up to your personal preferences, and mileage will vary.

1 I realize this wasn’t an option for most, as the title sold out before reviews were even possible. This is the assumed risk of limited edition collecting – either buy early, with the possibility of being disappointed by the eventual result, or wait for coverage and risk paying out the nose.

Blu-ray screenshots were taken as full resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Night of the Living Dead was reviewed from a screener graciously provided to this site by Twilight Time.

Blu Notes: Gamera vs. Barugon

This article deals exclusively with the 2009 Kadokawa Blu-ray release of Gamera vs. Barugon (大怪獣決闘 ガメラ対バルゴン / Daikaiju Ketto: Gamera tai Barugon). For coverage of the film itself, and the domestic Shout! Factory DVD, click here. Gamera vs. Barugon is available both as a standalone and in a four-film Show Gamera boxed set from Amazon.co.jp.

Specifications:
released:
7/24/2009
disc: All Region / single layer BD25
video: 1080i / 2.29:1 / color
Mpeg-4 AVC / 27.4 Mbps
audio: 16-bit LPCM 2.0 mono Japanese
subtitles: none
supplements: announcementtheatrical trailer

Another day, another classic Daiei effects fantasy on Blu-ray from Kadokawa Entertainment. Released in Japan in August of 2009 (the film is as yet unavailable on Blu-ray outside its home territory) Gamera vs. Barugon is another high-price Blu-ray that will have limited appeal elsewhere. Audio is Japanese only, no subtitles are included, and supplements are limited to an original theatrical trailer and a “special announcement” trailer both Barugon and its original co-feature Daimajin. With an asking price of ¥4,935 (roughly $64.00 USD) this is going to be a tough sell for most, but one indisputable fact remains – for those looking to own Gamera vs. Barugon on Blu-ray this disc is currently the only option.

Like Giant Monster Gamera this Blu-ray is sourced from the same HD master previously used for both the Japanese 40th anniversary Gamera Z-Plan DVD boxed set (issued in 2006) and Shout! Factory’s more recent DVD, and the improvements across formats, while notable, remain pretty modest. Before my thoughts, a brief comparison:

DVD leftBlu-ray right. DVD shots were captured as lossless .png in VLC from the Shout! Factory DVD, scaled to 1920×1080 for ease of comparison and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% in Gimp. Click to view full size.

 
 
 
 
 

Kadokawa’s slightly windowboxed 1080i Blu-ray presentation improves in the expected areas, with detail, contrast, and color each tightening up appreciably in most areas, with the more modest effects photography seeing the least improvement. Still, this is an old HD master (six years at the youngest, and possibly older) and it looks it. The film texture is rendered in a noisy fashion that’s really anything but film – I was actually reminded of the look of some of the laserdiscs I used to own, though the effect is much more subtle here by virtue of the resolution. Detail is reasonably crisp, but a level of artificial sharpening has been applied and some edges display with modest aliasing artifacts (see the rim of Onodera’s glasses in the final shots above). I didn’t find any of the issues here overly distracting in motion, but anyone anticipating anything beyond a reasonable home presentation from this Blu-ray will be sorely disappointed. In the end it’s just the latest link in the chain of improvement for a series that I’ve owned in practically every format imaginable, with plenty of room left for improvement.

Technical specs are less robust than on the other Kadokawa Gamera Blu-rays by virtue of the length of the film (like the rest this is only a single layer BD25), but still substantial enough to support the modest transfer. Gamera vs. Barugon receives an Mpeg-4 AVC video encode at a healthy average bitrate of 27.4 Mbps, and compression artifacts are never an issue. The Japanese audio is presented in 16-bit LPCM 2.0 monophonic, and despite some flatness inherent to the original mix it sounds quite good. As previously stated there are no subtitles (English, Japanese, or otherwise) and the only supplements are an original theatrical trailer and a “special announcement” trailer for Gamera vs. Barugon and its original co-feature Daimajin. Each is presented in 1080i HD from native HD transfers. The disc appears to be all-region compatible, and played just fine both in my PS3 (Region A) and in my Region B secondary deck.

This is another disc without much of an audience beyond the more ardent Gamera devotees out there, and whether or not it will be worth it to you depends entirely on your expectations and how well you can justify the exorbitant expense. I had the disposable income available and wanted Gamera in HD, so it works for me. Your mileage will definitely vary.

Blu-ray shots were captured as full resolution .png in VLC with yadif taking care of the interlacing, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool. Click to enlarge.

Gamera vs. Barugon is available on standalone Blu-ray from Kadokawa as well as in Showa Gamera Blu-ray Box I – pictured left – which includes Giant Monster Gamera (1965), Gamera vs. Gyaos (1967), and Gamera vs. Space Monster Viras (1968). Showa Gamera Blu-ray Box II is also available, and includes Gamera vs. Great Evil Beast Guiron (1969), Gamera vs. Great Demon Beast Jiger (1970), Gamera vs. Deep Sea Monster Zigra (1971), and Space Monster Gamera (1980).

Return of Daimajin (Daimajin Ikaru)

For our review of Daimajin on Blu-ray, click here. The Daimajin Triple Feature Blu-ray is available now from Amazon.com.

When Daimajin premiered in April of 1966 it did so to big returns, earning ¥100 million or more in its initial distribution. Producer Daiei Co. was naturally anxious to take advantage of their successful property, but the speed and efficacy with which they did so is mind-bending by the standards of modern productions. Daimajin Ikaru (大魔神怒る, previously released to domestic video as Wrath of Daimajin and here known as Return of Daimajin) debuted on a double feature with Kazuo Ikehiro’s Zatoichi Umi o Wataru (Zatoichi Across the Sea) on August 14th, 1966 – just shy of four months from the premiere of its predecessor.

Serving once more as screenwriter is Tetsuro Yoshida (who would script all three of the Daimajin films), and those familiar with the first film will find themselves in familiar territory so far as story is concerned. The kind, prosperous communities of Chigusa and Nagoshi find themselves under the envious eye of the greedy warlord Danjo, who promptly conquers each for himself. Danjo takes to his newfound affluence in the usual way, with plenty of geisha girls and alcohol, but violent encounters between his forces and the surviving royalty of Chigusa and Nagoshi prove a constant distraction. The remaining royalty are eventually captured of course, and swiftly primed for public execution. Unfortunately for Danjo local superstitions he was so quick to discredit prove to be more fact than fantasy, and dreadful divine vengeance is visited upon him in the form of one very angry giant Majin.

Though the tropes may be familiar Daimajin Ikaru benefits handily from a more vigorous approach to the material, courtesy of ace director Kenji Misumi – master of all things chanbara and one of the biggest names among Daiei’s creative staff at the time. Where Daimajin was a more sullen venture, low on action and high on stiff period dramatics, Misumi’s entry in the series is a pure action picture, with plenty of intrigue, chases and swordplay to keep viewers hooked until the fantasy comes to the fore. Misumi lends a potent vitality to the material and just plain keeps things moving. Even the requisite drama has a spring in its step, and is bolstered by Misumi’s wholesale embrace of the stereotypes of the genre. The good guys here are of such saccharine purity that it can make one’s teeth ache, and the villains are delightfully pulp – Danjo can’t so much as spit without erupting into maniacal guffaws over how clever he is. It’s tremendous stuff, and played with an unflinching earnestness that prevents it from ever falling into glib parody.

More than just an accomplished genre craftsman Misumi was also Daiei’s preeminent peddler of DeMille-ian excess, having previously thrilled audiences with 1961′s Shaka - a massive 70mm undertaking and Japan’s most direct answer to the big-name religious epics of the ’50s. That film climaxed with the epic destruction of a temple by an earthquake, a sequence that reminds heavily of the showstopping finale of DeMille’s 1949 smash Samson and Delilah, but the similarities there pale in comparison to the transparent reinterpretation of DeMille spectacle that awaits in Daimajin Ikaru. The influence of Paramount’s blockbuster The Ten Commandments on the Daimajin films, as noted in my first article, comes full circle here in one of the Japanese film industry’s most dramatic (if derivative) special effects accomplishments.

In Daimajin Ikaru the Majin (referred to simply as kami – god – in this film) resides on a holy island on a placid lake between the kingdoms of Nagoshi and Chigusa, a location that becomes a rally point for the kingdoms’ surviving royalty, and thus a target of the evil Danjo’s violent advances. As in the first film the Majin’s statue becomes a target in its own right, though Danjo’s forces do a more complete job in desecrating it – whereas the first Majin survived intact, with only a chisel embedded in its forehead to show for its troubles, the statue in this case is obliterated outright with explosives. Its destruction is only temporary of course, and when its patience is finally at its end the Majin rises, whole once more, from the depths of the lake. What follows is awesome in the original sense of the word. The island splits in twain and crumbles into the lakebed as the waters part, creating a miraculous path for the wrathful god to tread. The ode to The Ten Commandments is obvious, making the Majin’s passage through the parted “sea” as much pop art as effects extravaganza. Effects director Yoshiyuki Kuroda (assistant SFX director at the time of Shaka) and series photographer Fuji(r)o Morita pull off the concept, perhaps the most ambitious of the entire series, with nary a hitch, setting the bar still higher for what should be expected of contemporary Japanese special effects.

The rest of the giant Majin’s righteous rampage, here limited strictly to the baddies (a contrast to the violent ambivalence of Daimajin), is handled with the same flair, with Kuroda and company taking heed of their missteps in the production of the first film (particularly in the implementation of the full-scale Majin mock-up) and crafting a near seamless sequence in the process. Series composer Akira Ifukube also improves upon his efforts for the first film, providing a superior score that lends a palpable weight and added purposefulness to the Majin’s advance. Ifukube was short of resources more often than not in his film work, leaving some of his scores sounding quite ragged for want not of ability or effort, but of time. While Daimajin is a quintessential example of just that Daimajin Ikaru proves a lovely exception, and obviously benefits from whatever additional resources were thrown Ifukube’s way. The themes here are undeniably heavy, dominated by low brass and even lower woodwinds, but balanced by an almost indefinable elegance, and taken in context with the work of Misumi, Kuroda, Morita et al the effect is appropriately divine.

Even more so than with the first film, Mill Creek’s new Blu-ray presentation of Daimajin Ikaru puts past editions to shame. The initial releases on VHS and DVD from ADVision were sourced from laserdisc masters that were already out of date by the time they were licensed, but at least presented the film in its original ‘Scope ratio. The company’s second run of DVDs (those in the white cases for those seeking to avoid) needlessly complicated things for Daimajin Ikaru on that front in presenting it panned-and-scanned at a compromised ratio of just 1.78:1. With the advent of this new Blu-ray edition that past transgression can be blessedly forgotten.

Mill Creek present Daimajin Ikaru progressive at its original theatrical ratio of 2.35:1 courtesy of a fine 1080p master from Kadokawa. Like Daimajin, this is not a perfect filmic presentation, but its improvements over the SD editions of the past are such that I can live happily with its minor limitations. The worst that can be said of the transfer here is that it can look a touch processed, and by virtue of that a shade more video-like than some my prefer, but detail and texture still prevail and in motion it can look quite striking. Colors and contrast are each at natural levels, and the dust-soaked conclusion is thankfully free of the unnatural saturation of the last DVD. Detail isn’t so crisp as it perhaps should be, but makes strong advances over SD just the same, and the various composite work retains the thicker, grittier quality inherent to its production. This made for a fine home presentation for me – I dig it!

 

Technical specifications are comparable to those for the first film (which shares the same dual layer BD50). The 79-minute show receives a nice Mpeg-4 AVC video encode at a healthy average bitrate of 28.1 Mbps, and artifacts are kept sufficiently at bay. The primary audio, DTS-HD MA 2.0 Japanese, is again a touch flat – a product of its original recording – but sounds quite good even without an excess of range. Ifukube’s cues certainly sound better here than they have in the past, making it easier to appreciate their instrumentation, and this may be worth the upgrade alone. The Titra-produced English dub that graced the AIP television version of the film (Return of the Giant Majin) is included, also in DTS-HD MA 2.0, but sounds quite compressed in its range compared to the Japanese – I suspect fans, forced to rely previously on bootleg tapes or Retromedia’s unimpressive double bill DVD, will be happy that it’s here at all.  Well translated optional English subtitles accompany the Japanese version, and the film is flanked by the original theatrical trailer (HD) and another substantial interview / effects discussion with cinematographer Fuji(r)o Morita (HD), both of which can be found on disc 2 of the set. Though marked for Region A only I suspect these discs to be all-region compatible – each of them booted up just fine in my secondary Region B deck.

There’s really not much else to say – this is another strong showing for Mill Creek, and another must-own for Blu-ray capable kaiju fans. The film itself makes a strong argument for being the best of the series, a fine actioner with a strong fantasy bent and an effects production that’s second to none for its time. Recommendations don’t come any easier – see it!

Blu-ray screenshots were made using our usual method – taken as full resolution .png in Totem Movie Player and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool. Click to see full size.

Daimajin Ikaru is available now at Amazon.com

Blu Notes: Giant Monster Gamera

This article deals exclusively with the 2009 Kadokawa Blu-ray release of Giant Monster Gamera (大怪獣ガメラ / Daikaiju Gamera). For coverage of the film itself, and the domestic Shout! Factory DVD, click here. Giant Monster Gamera is available now, both as a standalone and in a four-film Show Gamera boxed set, from Amazon.co.jp.

Specifications:
released:
7/24/2009
disc: All Region / single layer BD25
video: 1080i / 2.28:1 / b&w
Mpeg-4 AVC / 37.5 Mbps
audio: 16-bit LPCM 2.0 mono Japanese
subtitles: none
supplements: theatrical trailer (1080i HD)

What can I say – I love Gamera in all of his various incarnations, but thanks to their staple status in the television syndication packages of my youth my heart will forever belong to the original Showa-era films. I grew up thrilling to every moment as that most unlikely of heroes fought Barugon and Gyaos, Guiron and Zigra, and while it is those imaginative color spectacles that remain my favorites the humble, black-and-white Giant Monster Gamera is where it really all began. Produced on a B-budget by Daiei Co. in 1965, Giant Monster Gamera is beset by all the usual problems associated with first-of-their-kind productions (it was Daiei’s first true giant monster film) and quite a few others besides, but it’s an interesting effort despite its many limitations, and still a heap of fun provided you’re in the right frame of mind.

Given the absolute dearth of critical coverage (in Japanese or otherwise) of Kadokawa’s high definition releases of the classic Gamera films it was with some small reluctance that I invested (and investment is the word!) in the company’s pair of Showa-era Blu-ray boxes – two collectible packages that together comprise all 8 of the original Gamera films. I knew I was bound to be happy either way. Having lived through the days of Sandy Frank and Just 4 Kids’ ep VHS travesties I was excited at the very opportunity to own the original series in HD, but with an asking price of over $40 per film I couldn’t help but wonder just what I had gotten myself into.

It seems important to note that neither Giant Monster Gamera nor its co-features are English friendly in any but the most taunting of ways (the titles are listed on the packaging in both Japanese and English, and exclusively the latter on the disc art). Indeed, even hard-of-hearing Japanese audiences are out of luck here, as no subtitles have been included in any language. The feature audio is pure and simple 16-bit LPCM 2.0 monophonic Japanese only.

Additionally, those expecting some order of supplemental heft will find Giant Monster Gamera and its Blu-ray cohorts sorely lacking in that department. All that’s included with these discs – and I mean all – are the original theatrical trailers for each film. Similarly the two boxed sets offer little of note beyond their significantly reduced per-film prices. The Showa Gamera Blu-ray Boxes (I and II) arrive with attractive outer boxes and include a protective plastic sleeve and obi. First pressings – which mine evidently are – also include a limited lenticular 3D cover art, but no additional paper extras.

Now, what of the film? Giant Monster Gamera premieres in HD digital at the appropriate (if oddball) theatrical ratio of 2.28:1 by way of a slightly windowboxed transfer in 1080i (the rest of the Gamera Blu-rays are interlaced as well). I suspect this to be the same HD master that was originally prepared by Kadokawa for the 11-film 13-disc megabucks Gamera Z-Plan DVD Box from 2006, and it is the same HD master sourced by Shout! Factory for their domestic DVD edition. Seen in its native resolution the HD master offers an appreciable improvement in clarity and detail over the latter (comparison below), though whether or not that’s worth the investment will be up to your individual preferences. Otherwise this is a rather modest show, with an overall aesthetic that reminds of some of Fox’s older black and white HD masters. Contrast is the real weakness here, but the dull original photography appears more to blame than Kadokawa - Giant Monster Gamera has always looked pretty flat, and too much of a bump to the black levels and contrast risks rendering some of its shots downright unintelligible. There’s a certain analogue noisiness to the grain that renders it both more noticeable and less refined than it perhaps should be, but in motion I was undeterred. Otherwise the image retains a reasonable level of detail throughout, and while I suspect some sharpening has been applied it was not of sufficient stuff to distract from my viewing.

Image comparison – DVD left, Blu-ray right. DVD shots were captured as lossless .png in VLC from the Shout! Factory DVD, scaled to 1920×1080 for ease of comparison and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% in Gimp. Click to view full size.

 
 
 

Though only single layer Kadokawa have not skimped on the technical front - Giant Monster Gamera‘s modest charms receive a robust Mpeg-4 AVC video encode at a high average bitrate of 37.4 Mbps. The lossless LPCM audio complements the image nicely, and while personal tastes will vary I found this a pleasing-enough presentation overall.

The more I see Giant Monster Gamera the more I appreciate it. That it’s derivative of Toho’s own Godzilla is undeniable, from its concept right down to many of its narrative tropes, but there’s an offbeat quality to the film that attracts me more and more. There are those who will doubtless expect more for their money from Kadokawa’s Blu-ray (which appears to be all region compatible, and played fine in my region B secondary deck), but them’s the breaks – those who want to play the Japanese import game have to learn to live with top tier pricing, the virtues of value be damned. As for the disc, I wanted Gamera in HD and I got it. It’s not perfect, and it’s certainly not up to the standards the format is capable of, but it’ll do. Recommended for the HD-hungry Gamera devotees out there. As for the rest, enjoy the pretty pictures.

More Blu-ray shots. These were captured as full size uncompressed .png in VLC with yadif taking care of the interlacing, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Giant Monster Gamera is available on standalone Blu-ray from Kadokawa as well as in Showa Gamera Blu-ray Box I – pictured left – which includes Giant Monster Duel: Gamera vs. Barugon (1966), Giant Monster Dogfight: Gamera vs. Gyaos (1967), and Gamera vs. Space Monster Viras (1968). Showa Gamera Blu-ray Box II is also available, and includes Gamera vs. Great Evil Beast Guiron (1969), Gamera vs. Great Demon Beast Jiger (1970), Gamera vs. Deep Sea Monster Zigra (1971), and Space Monster Gamera (1980).

Daimajin

The 1960s were a time of flux for the Japanese film industry, with the postwar cinema boom finding itself at odds with both lavish import epics and that old Hollywood nemesis – television. Of the prosperous studios of the time it was Daiei who made the biggest gamble towards competing with the West abroad and the tube at home, going so far as to invest in and implement large-format film equipment as a means of differentiating themselves from their domestic competition. It was a bold move that elevated the expense of practically every picture Daiei produced, but one that failed to pay off. By the middle-60s a financial disaster was already brewing at Daiei and in 1971 the company collapsed outright. While the Daiei story doesn’t end there – the studio would see resurrection under Tokuma Shoten in 1974 and survive until 2003, when it was absorbed entirely under the Kadokawa banner – it was certainly the end of an era.

In this context Daiei’s Daimajin films, a series of three high profile special effects vehicles produced back-to-back in 1966, takes on renewed significance, not just as one of the more interesting diversions of the decade’s kaiju boom, but as one of the last gasps of the grandeur that had marked the studio’s postwar career. “Great Films are Daiei Films” the ads said in a pun on the company name, and for a time at least they spoke truth. The production of the first Daimajin (titled simply enough Daimajin [大魔神]) proved particularly ambitious, with Daiei’s Kyoto studio undertaking the project simultaneously with Daiei Tokyo’s production of the A-list Gamera sequel Daikaiju Ketto: Gamera tai Barugon (Monster Duel: Gamera vs. Barugon) – the two films would premiere as a much-publicized double bill on the April 17, 1966.

Penned by Tetsuro Yoshida, a regular contributor to Daiei’s jidaigeki fantasies and chanbara actioners, and directed by studio veteran Kimiyoshi Yasuda, Daimajin plays for the most part as a straight period drama, albeit with an important fantasy twist. The vile Samanosuke, a drifter taken in and made chamberlain by the kind Lord Hanabusa, rises up against his master and takes the feudal lands of Yamanaka Castle as his own. The elder Hanabusa and the majority of his confidants are murdered, but household samurai Kogenta escapes with the lord’s two young children – daughter Kozasa and son Tadafumi – and takes shelter with his aunt, a priestess of the local mountain god. With Samanosuke ever vigilant the priestess leads the usurped to the only safe haven around, the forbidden holy mountain of her god, where the surviving Hanabusa’s rest uneasily, praying for a day when they might reclaim their kingdom.

In the meanwhile Samanosuke consolidates his power, striking bargains with surrounding warlords and raising an army with which he hopes to conquer Edo. His citizens are forced into slave labor building a monstrous fortress and taxed to the point of starvation and homelessness. Gatherings are forbidden, and much to the priestess’ horror the local faith falls by the wayside. In ancient times it is said that the mountain god did battle with the evil spirit Arakatsuma, whom he defeated and imprisoned in a giant statue of his own likeness – a great stone warrior. With gatherings banned the rituals to appease the mountain god and keep Arakatsuma, the dreaded giant Majin, at bay go undone, and as the years pass the god grows very, very angry.

Things come to a head in the tenth year of Samanosuke’s reign, when Kogenta and young lord Tadafumi are captured in their attempt to infiltrate Castle Yamanaka and slated for crucifixion. As though that weren’t bad enough, Samonosuke also murders the mountain god’s priestess and orders the guardian statue – now known as a Hanabusa safe haven and a rallying point for local rebellion – destroyed. But there are consequences for inviting the wrath of a god. Just as any hope for peace in the territory seems abolished the angered deity takes action, loosing the devilish, unstoppable Arakatsuma against Samanosuke’s fortress…

There was a decidedly DeMille-ian influence upon Daiei’s upper echelon productions in the ’60s, courtesy of that director’s recent VistaVision smash The Ten Commandments, and nowhere (except Kenji Misumi’s monstrous 1961 production Shaka, Daiei’s most direct answer to Western epics and Japan’s first 70mm film) is that influence more obvious than in the Daimajin trilogy. Indeed, strip away its distinctly Japanese sensibilities and the first Daimajin feels a lot like a thematic retread of DeMille’s swan song, complete with peasant-oppressing iron-fisted overlord, ill-advised heresy, and a climactic third act loaded for bear with Old Testament-style divine intervention (and for anyone doubting the DeMille influence, just wait for Daimajin part two!). In terms of dollars the end result was much what Daiei had hoped – a whopping success home, even if the international impact left something to be desired. Stateside Daimajin went unseen theatrically, and was instead integrated into American International Pictures’ television syndication packages as Majin, Monster of Terror.

Inspiration for the giant Majin himself, identified here for the only time in the series as Arakatsuma, came from Julian Duvivier’s 1936 film Golem (another retelling of that oft-filmed folktale), memories of which Hisashi Okuda carried with him until he became production director for Daiei Kyoto. In stark contrast to his simplified portrayal in successive films the giant Majin here is quite morally ambiguous, unleashing his monstrous vengeance not just against Samanosuke, but the oppressed villagers as well. Even his one demonstrably heroic act, the saving of lord Tadafumi from crucifixion, has a malign undercurrent, giving the impression that the Majin would just as soon have killed him, too. It’s a poetic device, not any personal sense of “mission accomplished”, that eventually ends Majin’s rampage and sends him on his way. Moved by the tearful pleas of young Kozasa, whose prayers raised the devil in the first place, the Majin’s spirit speeds off in a ball of light, leaving its physical form to crumble back into the earth.

Though well produced in terms of its drama the human element here is pretty formulaic, and ultimately just a narrative means-to-an-end to draw audiences in to the real star of the show – its ace special effects production (advertising proudly proclaimed Daimajin as “Japan’s first full-scale special effects samurai spectacular!”). So important was the effects production deemed that director Yasuda is billed alongside special effects director Yoshiyuki Kuroda in the opening credits. Even today the effects for Daimajin are captivating, not only in their superior execution but in their considerable style as well. The Majin’s arrival is heralded by grim clouds and blood-red skies, and his reduced stature (around 20 feet) in comparison to the usual kaiju combines with a sense of vengeful purpose (and some tremendous large-scale model work) to lend his attack a potent immediacy. Contemporary critics took note, and the film’s standard-setting effects photography earned cinematographer Fujiro* Morita the Miura Prize from the J.S.C. in 1966.

*The supplemental subtitles for this release say “Fujio”, and I’ve no idea which is accurate. Online translators are unhelpful, though amusingly so, translating the name as “Shiro Moritani wealth”.

Daimajin has been available in America before, but never like this. Original television airings were predictably pan-and-scanned from the original ‘Scope ratio, and dubbed into English besides. ADV (now defunct) went a long way towards remedying both problems with VHS and later DVD releases of the film, sourced initially from the Japanese laserdisc masters and later from those prepared for remastered DVD editions. Though better, these releases were still imperfect, with unreliable translations and image quality that just doesn’t hold up to contemporary standards. Since the folding of ADV bargain-bin proprietor Mill Creek have taken up their stead, and contrary to what some might have expected they’ve done a hell of a job bringing Daimajin to Blu-ray.

Daimajin arrives in great form, sourced from the latest HD masters and progressive at the original theatrical ratio of 2.35:1. Rather than just ordinary 35mm anamorphic ‘Scope Daimajin was photographed using the same large-format VistaVision equipment that had earlier been put to use for Daiei’s epic Shaka, and the resulting image is of terrific quality. Detail is very strong where the photography allows, as in the close-up that follows this paragraph, and the filmic quality of the original elements is blessedly retained courtesy of a fine, unobtrusive layer of unbastardized film grain. Unlike rival Toho’s recent HD restorations of their tokusatsu properties, which can look quite pale and over-bright (more on that in our upcoming review of Destroy All Monsters), Daimajin presents with contrast and color that are each at lovely, natural levels. I’m unsure of what degree of restorative work was undertaken here but I noted no damage beyond a few wayward specks and scratches and the usual grit associated with the film’s practical effects techniques – in motion this makes for a wonderful presentation.

Where Mill Creek have been found lacking in the technical department on earlier releases (like their single-layered double features from a couple of years back) they leave nothing to complain about here. Daimajin is paired with its sequel Daimajin Ikaru (The Giant Majin Grows Angry, under the title Return of Daimajin) on a dual layer BD50, and while the encode is only single layer (the same is true of the Japanese Blu-ray releases) the support is more than substantial enough. Daimajin receives an average video encode in Mpeg-4 AVC at an average bitrate of 20.6 Mbps, but artifacts are kept well at bay and the fine grain is well maintained throughout. Audio is provided in two flavors of DTS-HD MA 2.0, one being the original Japanese and the other being the same English dub that graced the Majin, Monster of Terror TV version. The original Japanese sounds precisely as it should, notably flat in comparison to modern mixes but significantly more robust than in past iterations – the lows of Akira Ifukube’s score (very similar to, if less bombastic than, his work on War of the Gargantuas the same year) have punch hitherto unheard. The big news, however, may be the quality of the English dub which, despite some additional flatness, sounds practically pristine. Optional English subtitles are included and, with the exception of some unintended humorous moments (“Gasp!”), are very well translated. Aside from its two co-features Daimajin Ikaru and Daimajin GyakushuDaimajin arrives on domestic Blu-ray accompanied by an interview / SFX discussion with cinematographer Fuji(r?)o Morita (28 minutes) and the original Japanese theatrical trailer, both in HD. The two-disc release (2x BD50) comes housed in standard side-lock Blu-ray case and fancy slipcover, and retails for $24.98.

I came into this Daimajin triple feature Blu-ray fully expecting to find the plethora of minor faults that have plagued many of Mill Creek’s past Blu-ray editions, and to have to defend those faults with a low price tag. Instead I find one of the best genre releases of the year hiding in plain sight, offering domestic fans the same kind of quality the Japanese are charged six times more for. This isn’t just a recommended release, it’s unskippable stuff, and the best deal to arrive on the Blu-ray shelf in ages. I literally cannot recommend it highly enough.

Daimajin is available now at Amazon.com

Daimajin is available now at Amazon.com

Blu Notes: Four from Twilight Time

As much as it may seem that I relish the opportunity to review shoddy home video releases, gloating in picking out the various troubling minutiae that others might gloss over, I really don’t. Covering such dismal treatments as The Deadly Spawn on Blu-ray (times two!) is a tedious, draining, unpleasant process that I wish could be avoided entirely, regardless of its necessity. No, when it comes to home video I vastly prefer watching and reporting on the jobs well done, and for the last year boutique label Twilight Time have proven themselves to be dependable providers of just that. I’ve somehow become unjustifiably backlogged with the label’s releases over the last couple of months, but after such a disappointing start to this week I’m happy to have them to fall back on.

What follows are four brief disc-only reviews of the latest Twilight Time offerings, as well as substantial image samplings from each. Consider it a blessing that the label has left me with so little to discuss here. While not always perfect, these discs are all quite good, and I’d not hesitate to recommend any among them to fans.

High Time
(Blake Edwards, 1960)

In terms of its presentation this Bing Crosby / Blake Edwards comedy is easily the weakest of this latest wave of Twilight Time Blu-rays, but even here my complaints are limited. High Time arrives, for what appears to be its premiere on digital home video, in a modest 1080p transfer at its intended theatrical aspect ratio (2.35:1 CinemaScope). Contrast isn’t so punchy as it perhaps should be, and the DeLuxe color appears a bit dull in return, but the most noteworthy issue here is to do with the lack of any notable restoration. The source elements, while far from being in the worst of shape, are marked with all manner of minor damage and debris, and dirt, specks, and light scratches are readily evident throughout the transfer. Otherwise the film grain is relatively well rendered, if a touch noisy in places, and the modest detail allowed by the CinemaScope process is reasonably preserved. All in all it’s an acceptable presentation complemented by a similarly acceptable single layer encode (Mpeg-4 AVC with an average bitrate in the low to mid 20s), and given the film’s lack of representation in the video market otherwise I’m hard pressed to make too much of its deficiencies – all my quibbles aside, this looks fine.

Purists will be pleased to find High Time‘s original 4-track recording alive and well, and soundly presented in DTS-HD MA. The best part of the film may well be Henry Mancini’s terrific score, which sounds lovely in 4-track and is made available as an isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 track besides. There are no subtitles, and an original theatrical trailer (in SD) and a typically nice set of liner notes from Julie Kirgo round out the package. High Time is available now from ScreenArchives.com and their Amazon storefront.

The Sound and the Fury
(Martin Ritt, 1959)

This Faulkner adaptation (or bastardization, depending on your perspective) from the underrated Martin Ritt is another Fox classic making its home video debut, and the quality of its presentation was a real surprise to this viewer. The Egyptian, with its pristine CinemaScope visuals and lush DeLuxe color, still ranks as the best of that studio’s collaborations with Twilight Time, but The Sound and the Fury isn’t far behind – someone at Fox clearly cares about this one.

Whatever the reality may be, The Sound and the Fury‘s presentation here makes it impossible to think the source elements were in anything but pristine condition. What blemishes do appear are so infrequent and of such minor stature to hardly warrant mentioning, and after the unexpected grittiness of High Time the cleaner, more refined nature of the image here is very much appreciated. Detail in the CinemaScope image is again modest, though with some subtle appeal, but contrast is at proper levels and the DeLuxe color appears quite natural. The Sound and the Fury is another single layer transfer, but the Mpeg-4 AVC encode (average bitrate again in the low 20s) does no wrong by the film grain, which remains well-rendered throughout. Both Fox and Twilight Time have done very well here, and I’m left with nothing to complain about with regards to the visuals.

Though a 4-track show upon release The Sound and the Fury gets a more typical DTS-HD MA 2.0 track here – it sounded quite good to these ears, with the score (this time from Alex North) again taking top honors. There are no subtitles. North’s music, available as an isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 track, is the only on-disc supplement, and Julie Kirgo contributes another excellent booklet of notes to round out the package. The Sound and the Fury is available now through ScreenArchives.com (Amazon lists it as “currently unavailable”, but I imagine it’ll be there soon enough).

Steel Magnolias
(Herbert Ross, 1989)

Like As Good as it Gets before it, Herbert Ross’ Steel Magnolias raises the question of just what hope there is left for the big studio libraries on home video when well-received all-star dramas less than 25 years old are on the licensing chopping block, but I digress. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray of this Tristar production from 1989 offers exactly what should be expected of high definition editions of such recent titles – a trouble-free presentation that even I can’t find a fault with.

Steel Magnolias makes the jump to 1080p at the appropriate theatrical ratio of 1.85:1, and the transfer leaves nothing to complain about. The overall appearance is warm, with well saturated color and an attractive level of detail that’s well within expectations for a flat-photographed 35mm production of its time. Film grain is light and unobtrusive, but consistent and well-rendered to boot. Steel Magnolias gets the superior technical treatment of the discs covered thus far. The two hour feature is spread comfortably over a dual layer BD50, and the Mpeg-4 AVC-encoded transfer clocks in at the typical Twilight Time bitrate of 33.2 Mbps on average. Audio is as faultless as the video here, DTS-HD MA 5.1 with Georges Delerue’s score accompanying in an isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 track – optional English SDH subtitles are included. Twilight Time offer a substantial supplement by way of a feature commentary with director Herbert Ross (in standard DTS), and a book of liner notes from Julie Kirgo rounds out the package. Steel Magnolias is available now through ScreenArchives.com (there is no Amazon listing at the moment).

Bye Bye Birdie
(George Sidney, 1963) 

Every once and a while a Blu-ray presentation really gets me, and while I’m no great admirer of the film (another Broadway adaptation from George Pal Joey Sidney) Twilight Time’s Blu-ray of Bye Bye Birdie got me good.

Presented in 1080p from another exceptional Sony restoration, Bye Bye Birdie offers fans of the production all that they might have hoped for – a film-accurate video presentation that really pops. The biggest story here may be the color, which is as sumptuously rendered as anything I’ve seen on the format thus far. In recent years Sony’s restoration team have done more to preserve the visual potency of their Technicolor library than any others around, and their work here is beautiful indeed. Pitch-perfect saturation is backed with airtight contrast, and the resulting image has irresistible zing – I couldn’t take my eyes away. The image impresses in other aspects as well. Damage is so minimal as to be a non-issue, detail is strong, and the film grain is deliciously rendered. The 112 minute feature creeps into dual layer territory, and a strong Mpeg-4 AVC video encode (average bitrate 33.2 Mbps) lends spotless support. You’ll hear no complaints from me.

In the audio department Bye Bye Birdie is the beneficiary of a typically strong Sony 5.1 restoration / upmix, and while I’m not overly fond of the music here it certainly sounded good to me – optional English SDH subtitles are included. Supplements boast an isolated score track in DTS-HD MA 2.0 as well as an original trailer and teaser for the film, both presented in beautiful HD. Another fine set of liner notes from Julie Kirgo round out the package.

Bye Bye Birdie is perhaps the best Twilight Time release of the year, and even though I don’t even like the film I can’t help but recommend it. Work like this deserves to be supported, and if there’s any justice in the world this will be the label’s next sellout title. Bye Bye Birdie is available now from ScreenArchives.com and their Amazon storefront.

The following Blu-ray screenshots were produced by our usual method – captured as full resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

High Time

The Sound and the Fury

Steel Magnolias

Bye Bye Birdie

Same as it ever was – The Deadly Spawn: Millennium Edition. Again.

Alright kids, I’m really not wasting any more time than I have to on this. The first The Deadly Spawn: Millennium Edition Blu-ray was, to put it bluntly, a heaping pile of shit. Producer Ted Bohus and Elite Entertainment merely upscaled the decade-old Synapse DVD of the film, and badly at that, encrusting the image with so much DVNR that any hint of higher definition was lost in a puddle of soupy pixels.

In reaction to justifiable fan uproar over that dismal failure Ted and Elite have returned to the property, promising a new Blu-ray mastered from a new transfer sourced from the original negative. Thanks to advance shipping by distributor MVD Entertainment this new disc is already available, well ahead of its October 23 release date, and my pre-order has already arrived. So what do I think of it? Let me be as clear as I possibly can be about the quality of this new, remastered, from-the-original-negative Blu-ray of The Deadly Spawn:

IT’S ANOTHER FUCKING UPSCALE OF THE DECADE-OLD SYNAPSE DVD.

This brief comparison really says all there is to say. The REVISED BLU-RAY IMAGE (uncompressed .png even!) appears first, followed by the ORIGINAL BLU-RAY and lastly by a capture from the SYNAPSE DVD, scaled to 1920×1080 resolution in Gimp.

The DVNR that plagued the first disc is indeed gone, and the bitrate has been improved (26.3 Mbps on average versus the original disc’s 13.7 Mbps), but those are the only positives to be found – the new disc copies the DVD to the letter, right down to its windowboxed framing, and despite being technically progressive scan there are even hard-interlaced frames in evidence! Much as I and others may have hoped for better this new disc was never within earshot of a negative, original camera or otherwise. It’s just another fucking upscale and, amusingly, one that still manages to look worse than a proper scale-job on the Synapse DVD should.

Now my only question is where did this image posted by Ted, supposedly sourced from new transfer tests and obviously NOT taken from either this Blu-ray or the Synapse DVD, come from? That image looked pretty good, even though it was compressed all to hell and scaled to a fraction of what should have been its original size. And guess what? It STILL looks better than the Millennium Edition Blu-rays, be they old or new. Ted’s image is included here at both its original size and upscaled to 1920×1080 resolution, followed by the REVISED BLU-RAY IMAGE (again, uncompressed .png).

I tried not to get my hopes up for this new Blu-ray, and managed that pretty well. But even with my expectations checked this is a whopping disappointment, and one that I can’t help but take personally. Ted and Elite have my money, and all I have to show for it is ANOTHER The Deadly Spawn Blu-ray that looks worse than a DVD produced nearly a decade ago. So here are my final words on the subject:

Fuck you Elite Entertainment, and fuck you Ted Bohus.

Enjoy that $20, because it’s the last of my money either of you are ever going to see.

And for those who are still curious, here are a few more grabs from the new Blu-ray. Our standard process applies – captured as full res .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Buy The Deadly Spawn  from a label that cares – Synapse’s edition is still available.

The Haunted Palace

The Haunted Palace is out now on Region B-locked Blu-ray from Spirit Media, a division of Koch Media, and can be purchased through Amazon.de.

Though his name is plastered practically everywhere distributor American International Pictures could find to put it, both within the film itself and on its advertising, this moody slice of early 60s horror is a Poe adaptation only in the minds of those who marketed it. 1963′s The Haunted Palace, filmed by Roger Corman at the height of his directorial career, instead holds a more precious honor, and stands (at least according to whole minutes of research) as the first credited film adaptation of the work of H. P. Lovecraft. Though infused with touches from other tales (including The Dunwich Horror and The Shadow over Innsmouth) and altered substantially besides, The Haunted Palace is in its foundation a loose version of Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, with none other than Vincent Price (of late a regular with both AIP and Corman) in the title role.

The tale begins in the coastal village of Arkham at some point in an intangible, diffused past. The locals are on edge, and justifiably so. Young woman in the community have been disappearing into the night with disturbing regularity, only to reappear some time later, their minds traumatized by some unremembered thing. Blame for the trouble is heaped solely (and correctly) at the feet of resident warlock Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price again), who’s been putting on a fiendish twist on the Dating Game in his basement courtesy of a conveniently located pit-to-beyond. When yet another fertile young lass wanders off to the foreboding confines of Curwen’s mansion the local men decide they’ve had enough, and divvy out the stocks of torches and pitchforks for a good old-fashioned witch burning. While his complicit mistress Hester is spared Curwen is not so lucky, though he gets the last word in the usual way – by promising to beset Arkham once more from beyond the grave.

An oddly specific 110 years later Arkham still dwells under the Curwen curse, and its shadowed alleys crawl with the half-human great-grandchildren of the warlock’s bizarre experiments. The men of the town, an unintentionally hilarious set of familiar faces (amusingly also all the same age as their long-dead ancestors) still grumble, but their grumblings take on a newfound seriousness when Charles Dexter Ward and his young bride (Debra Paget) roll into town. The Wards are there to take on their inherited estate, the Curwen mansion, ignorant of the dark history of the place (Mrs. Ward muses at the quaintness of the name of the town tavern – The Burning Man!). As anxieties stew in town the Wards settle into their new home, finding the mansion unexpectedly livable thanks to the similarly unexpected presence of housekeeper Simon (Lon Chaney Jr!). Charles settles in especially well, even as his wife finds his behavior increasingly peculiar. Particularly strange is his fixation on a portrait that hangs over the fireplace, a painting of a man long dead, yet all too familiar…

It must be said that, as an adaptation of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Haunted Palace is pretty lousy. A standard ancestor-possession angle (Price on Price!) takes over for the story’s more corporeally sinister model and indeed, too many alterations otherwise have been made to list. Though it may fail strictly as a Lovecraft film it does maintain interest as a Lovecraftian one, and while undeniably quaint by the standards of the writings themselves it remains notable as cinema’s first real stab at the mountainous legacy of weird the author left behind. Odd as it seems to say of such a traditional Gothic horror picture, this was pioneering stuff, with the inescapable usual-ness of Charles Beaumont’s screenplay (completed, it’s said, with an assist from one Francis Ford Coppola) balanced by the incursion of Lovecraft keyphrases – “Necronomicon” and “Cthulhu”, “Yog-Sothoth” and “Elder Gods”. It’s an uneasy mix to be sure, but it paved the way, and when Die Monster Die! arrived from AIP two years later Lovecraft and his tale The Colour out of Space were duly noted as the inspiration.

The Lovecraft connection aside The Haunted Palace presents precisely what one came to expect from its generation of Corman productions. Though made for what was doubtless an insubstantial sum Corman does his damnedest to give every penny its due, and deceptively spacious set design coupled with the keen art direction of Daniel Haller (soon to direct two of AIP’s Lovecraft productions himself) keep the film from ever feeling so compact as it really is. The style here is squarely in line with that of Corman’s earlier Poe films (complete with a seaside castle, cobweb-draped interiors, and endless dark and stormy nights), and that’s just fine with me – in terms of the genuine artistry displayed this generation of features remain his best work as a director. Also of note is the cast, another fine mix of aging big-name talent and B-movie regulars. Price and Chaney Jr need no introductions here, but the supporting cast is full of familiar faces as well, including house favorites Elisha Cook Jr. (The Maltese Falcon, House on Haunted Hill), John Dierkes (The Naked Jungle, The Hanging Tree) and television regular Frank Maxwell.

This isn’t exceptional cinema, not by a long shot, but those looking for an atmospheric bit of classic horror could certainly do worse than The Haunted Palace. Beaumont’s writing may be suspect (what should really be expected of he who gave us Queen of Outer Space?) and the tropes all too familiar, but Corman’s direction is certainly on the mark, at least until the limp and perfunctory “we’ve gotta have a monster!” finale. Still, I’m a forgiving sort (at least where this kind of cinema is concerned), and The Haunted Palace pushes more than enough of the right buttons to earn my recommendation. See it, and keep the hell out of the cellar!

I suppose we had to start somewhere with bringing Roger Corman’s cycle of Poe films to Blu-ray, and even if The Haunted Palace just barely fits that bill (there is a Poe quote at the end…) it’ll do in a pinch. Working from a fine high definition master minted by MGM (who appear to have transferred practically everything AIP, including the lamentable/lovable In the Year 2889, to HD) German outfit Spirit Media have produced a similarly fine disc here, and with Premature Burial already out from the same label the future of Corman’s best films on Blu suddenly looks bright indeed.

The Haunted Palace is presented in full 1080p at the original Panavision aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (actual AR 2.36:1), and despite giving the impression of being largely unrestored the image here is quite strong for the most part. There are smatterings of minor damage (dust, specks, scratches and so on) throughout the video presentation, most notably during the many optical shots (there are a lot of fades here, as well as a few special effects outright), but nothing really untoward for a film of its age and production standard. Cinematographer Floyd Crosby’s ace photography ranges from crisp interiors and close-ups to soft-diffused exterior takes, and all is properly preserved here with a reasonable level of definition. The Pathe Color shows some intentional restraint, but appears natural throughout, and contrast is rich in the frequently dark image. It’s not a perfect presentation – several of the frequent opticals are overwhelmed with grit, due perhaps to limitations in the source elements for these segments, and there are shots, especially early on, that have the appearance more of video than of film. Still, the benefits of this HD offering substantially outweigh its few limitations, and for the most part this looks very good.


One of the opticals mentioned above, which looks substantially rougher than others of its ilk seen throughout the film (compare to the castle shot below).

Spirit Media’s single layer approach leaves the technical specifications modest for The Haunted Palace, not that the film appears to suffer for it. The video receives a middle-of-the-road Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average bitrate of 19.6 Mbps, evidently more than enough for the production’s modest visual charms – I noted no egregious encoding faults, and have no complaints. Audio arrives in two flavors – original English and German dub, both presented in DTS-HD MA 2.0 monophonic – and sounds very strong across both. Ronald Stein’s tremendous score, a waltzy and atmospheric affair that becomes a star of the show in its own right, benefits particularly from the lossless bump. There are no subtitles to be found (not even German), and an original trailer in English (SD, and in very rough shape besides) is the only extra. The Haunted Palace is coded for Region B, and those itching to import will require multi-region capable hardware to play it.

Given its regional coding, price (around $22 to import for me), and dearth of supplemental content Spirit Media’s Blu-ray of The Haunted Palace isn’t going to be for everyone, but for fans of Corman in general and his Poe films specifically this is tough to resist. If there’s a proper indicator of my personal feelings it’s that upon viewing the disc I wasted no time in ordering the same label’s Premature Burial as well (for those keen, the two arrive as a Blu-ray double feature in late October), and provided that disc turns out as well as this one I’ll be a happy man. Fans unencumbered by region-locking may wish to indulge, and for the rest of you there’s always the old MGM DVD.

Blu-ray screenshots were captured as native resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool. Click each image below to view at full resolution.

The Haunted Palace is available now through Amazon.de