Friday, January 13, 2006

AIP in the Lions Den

For many habitués of this blog, Lions Gate Home Entertainment's impending release of the first DVD double features in their "Samuel Z. Arkoff Collection - Cult Classics" series has been a source of great suspense and speculation. The films paired in the first two sets -- the Herman Cohen productions HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER/BLOOD OF DRACULA, and the Bert I. Gordon productions EARTH VS. THE SPIDER/WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST -- have all been released on DVD previously in England (by Direct Video Distribution Ltd.) as single feature discs (see example). These have all been disappointments, as they stemmed not from 35mm positive or negative elements but from aged one- or half-inch videotape TV syndication masters from a company called Teleworld.

Most of the news about the Lions Gate releases is, alas, bad news. There is no question that they are also sourced from the same old, stale-looking Teleworld masters. Lions Gate had the class (or sneakiness) to omit the Teleworld logo from the end of the films, but you can hear the first note or two of the Teleworld fanfare at the end of HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER, before it crash-fades to black. Furthermore, perhaps owing to the cheap source materials, Lions Gate has not flagged these discs for progressive scan viewing, resulting in blurry still-framing and occasional serrated edges on straight lines during camera pans. Yes, these discs offer two features for a price tag of less than $10 in some outlets, but most fans would have paid more for a job more adequately done.

Since Lions Gate has announced three early Roger Corman widescreen epics among their next offerings -- MACHINE GUN KELLY, DAY THE WORLD ENDED, and VIKING WOMEN AND THE SEA SERPENT -- these first two releases effectively dash all our hopes for proper anamorphic issues of these important titles, as they are almost assuredly bound to be the same pan&scanned Teleworld copies released on DVD in the UK. This is a tragedy because better source materials were certainly available, had Lions Gate taken the trouble to look beyond what was handed to them. All of the films in this initial batch are shown regularly in widescreen high definition on Dish Network's Monsters HD, which has also shown absolutely beautiful, properly scoped versions of DAY THE WORLD ENDED and VIKING WOMEN AND THE SEA SERPENT.

I've recorded all the Monsters HD broadcasts for my own use, and I decided to do some side-by-side comparisons with the Lions Gate transfers. The results were interesting and surprising enough that I felt I should share them here.

Let's start with BLOOD OF DRACULA, starring Sandra Harrison (pictured above). Below is a frame grab featuring Jerry Blaine and friends during his spontaneous performance of "Puppy Love." The top standard ratio grab is from the Lions Gate disc, and the squeezed grab below it is from my Monsters HD copy (recorded when I had VOOM and the signal was received by by DVD Recorder as anamorphically squeezed):

Mind you, I can't present the Monsters HD grab here in high definition, but I think you can see that the squeezed image is smoother, even though the HD resolution is still considerably sharper than it appears here. I think it's also obvious that the two presentations were imported from different elements; the Lions Gate disc is unmatted and exposes more top-and-bottom information, while the Monsters HD version reveals more information on the sides. One could argue that the lamp in the background distracts the eye from the action in the foreground, making the HD framing preferable if less all-encompassing.

The really startling differences come with a comparison of the Lions Gate and Monsters HD versions of HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER, particularly its color ending. Check out these two versions of the climactic moment when "Old Pete" (Robert H. Harris) prepares to dispose of the body of his faithless assistant (Paul Brinegar) -- this time Monsters HD first, followed by the Lions Gate version:

You've probably heard about digital recoloring -- now you've seen it in action! What was once billiard table green is now baby blue! Yes, the Monsters HD version looks cheesier, more yellowy, but that's the way the color in this sequence always was... until now. Brightening the picture is one thing, but tampering with actual colors is something else again. There's another instance of this elsewhere in the sequence, as the color of Gary Conway's shirt completely changes color! Check this out (Gary's the guy in the middle):

As this comparison illustrates, the framing of the two HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER differs as well, with approximately the same amount of information at the bottom of the screen and on the sides, but far less at the top.

You're probably muttering to yourself, "I dunno what Tim's talking about, those Lions Gate grabs are actually prettier..." -- and I'd have to agree, based on these grabs. But you need to take into account that the colors have been changed, and these scenes are supposed to take place in dimly lit rooms, adding to their atmosphere of menace. What you also can't judge properly here is that, of these two presentations, the Lions Gate transfer loses more of its definition on a large, calibrated monitor, while it's in this more demanding arena that the Monsters HD picture really begins to sing.

I haven't yet received my review copy of Retromedia's new ROGER CORMAN PUERTO RICO TRILOGY, but DVD Savant Glenn Erickson had some similar points to make in his review about dodgy preservation/presentation. The legacy of AIP is very important, not only for what it was but for what it lead to... a fact underscored by Roger Corman's THE HOUSE OF USHER being added this year to the Library of Congress's National Film Registry, not to mention the exploitation bent of practically every big movie coming out of Hollywood today. It's saddening to see the works of Roger Corman, Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson suffering signs of neglect in a medium designed to make the movies we love look better than ever.

If Lions Gate plans to release more titles in this Arkoff Collection series, they really need to get in touch with David Sehring of Monsters HD and work out a deal. He's got the gold, and Lions Gate's customers shouldn't be paying... even $10... for anything less.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.