Monday, November 20, 2006

By The Gods!

What stars Steve Reeves, Gordon Scott and Peter Lupus, was filmed all over Europe, runs over four thousand minutes, covers thirteen discs, but can be had for less than thirty dollars? (And, in some places, for less than twenty?) It's a tempting but worrisome box set called WARRIORS from Mill Creek Entertainment -- 50 different sword-and-sandal pictures from the '50s and '60s, presented four to a disc (two to the thirteenth disc) at an almost irresistable price.

The natural reaction to such an item is, "Yes, I might be interested... but how's the quality?" With that question in mind, I plunked down my money and awaited its arrival.

WARRIORS is interestingly packaged. The discs come in individual sleeves, couched inside a deep cardboard box with a velcro-fastened door-hinge cover. Each sleeve contains a paragraph of plot description about each movie on that particular disc. Each movie is limited to only four chapter marks, and a Mill Creek Entertainment bug appears in the lower right corner of each feature, though for no more than once or twice (briefly) per picture. A minor point of annoyance is that most of the discs revert to Menu mode before the music heralding the end of each picture completely fades out. (What's the hurry?)

I am not about to review 50 films for free, even sketchily, so here are my notes on the first 24 titles in the set (click on the titles for IMDb links and further information):

Disc 1: HERCULES AND THE MASKED RIDER (83m 25s)
Soft-looking, with okay color. Cropped to standard ratio from the Totalscope (2.35:1) original. The greens and reds are intact, but the blues have largely faded. Some infrequent video artifacting -- adding up to a probable tape source of a 16mm element.

SPARTACUS AND THE TEN GLADIATORS (98m 16s)
Softish, but boasts decent, warm color and strong blacks. The cropping of this Techniscope (2.35:1) original looks a bit zoomed-into, resulting in some headroom cropping.

THE CONQUEROR OF THE ORIENT (74m 8s)
Horizontal cropping of this Dyaliscope (2.35:1) original is again a problem, with upper and lower credits getting lopped off my screen -- depending on your overscan (or mine), your mileage may differ. Good color, but soft - denoting another 16mm source, but the close-ups have a surprising amount of detail.

LAST OF THE VIKINGS (103m 22s)
Opens with Medallion Pictures logo. Initially, this transfer appears cropped to 1.66 from the 2.35 Dyaliscope original, but the black bars quickly disappear, leaving us with a standard 1.33 pan&scan (with no actual panning). The menu shows the title frame with more room on all four sides, indicating that Mill Creek could have done better. The blue has mostly disappeared from the color palate, and the remaining color is somewhat greenish and orangey, though pleasingly sharp. Enjoyable, but the element is faded enough to make it hard to appreciate all that Mario Bava brought (unofficially) to the mise en scène. Faint hum on the soundtrack.

Disc 2: URSUS IN THE LAND OF FIRE (87m 29s)
Another formerly Dyaliscope pan&scan print with no panning; there are several occasions when the actor speaking is not onscreen, as the framing stares down the wall between two actors. Grainy, muted color. This movie is nevertheless delightful as a catalogue of classic Italian Golden Age locations -- the Cascate de Montegelato waterfall from HERCULES, the lake from MEDUSA AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES, etc.

THE TWO GLADIATORS (93m 4s)
A rarely seen Mario Caiano title in which Richard Harrison and Mimmo Palmara, who look nothing like one another, play twin brothers. Harrison looks incredibly like Ben Affleck here. This Techniscope picture is slightly letterboxed throughout, to about 1.66, which is better than nothing but remains noticeably cropped. The color is faded; it's practically black-and-white... and red. The English dialogue is credited to former actress Tamara Lees.

CLEOPATRA'S DAUGHTER (89m 14s)
Shot in "Ultrascope," the opening main titles scroll is squeezed, tempting widescreen set owners to decompress the picture... but the regular cropped dimensions soon return. Soft picture, decent color, from a 16mm source.

THE LION OF THEBES (87m 47s)
Again, this widescreen original -- lensed in "Euroscope" -- is presented here with squeezed main titles, which look correctly proportioned when uncompressed to 1.78; the rest of the movie is cropped with panless pan&scanning that cuts from one side of the screen to the other, imposing an unwanted editorial rhythm on the picture. Watchable, but hardly ideal.

Disc 3: HERCULES AGAINST THE MOON MEN (86m 52s)
Grainy, badly cropped 16mm TV print source, with flecking and some overly dark scenes. Something Weird Video has released a perfect, widescreen, brightly colorful version of this Cromoscope title, so there's no need ever to consult this version.

THE GIANTS OF THESSALY (87m 52s)
This Totalscope release is letterboxed here at a compromised 1.66 framing, as was VCI's release (taken from a standard ratio 16mm print), but the color looks bumped up a bit -- a bit too much, actually. An official release would doubtless look superior, but until that unlikely event comes to pass, this is acceptable.

ALI BABA AND THE SEVEN SARACENS (80m 5s)
American International Television logo, hence a 16mm source. Like many AIP TV exclusives, this movie appears to have the first reel lopped off, and there are next to no credits onscreen (only those of presenters James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, star Gordon Mitchell, and director Emmimo Salvi). The print has some white flecks and is pan&scanned from the 2.35:1 original Totalscope framing. The color appears to have been given a digital boost and looks fairly strong.

THE GIANT OF MARATHON (84m 18s)
Supposedly lensed in two different gauges -- Dyaliscope with underwater scenes filmed in Totalscope -- this film opens with windowboxed widescreen credits that segue into the barest of letterboxing, with thin bars at top and bottom that may not be visible on some monitors. The cropping of Mario Bava's ravishing cinematography is damaging -- and unnecessary, as fully or partially letterboxed versions of this PD title are in circulation. There is some image ghosting as well during action scenes, and the robust color is compromised by a yellowish bias. A waste.

Disc 4: COLOSSUS AND THE AMAZON QUEEN (83m 32s)
As with ALI BABA AND THE SEVEN SARACENS, greatly abbreviated credits and the opening reel of the original Italian version seems to be missing as the film essentially begins "in progress." AIP-TV (whose presentational card is missing) seems to have had some fun at director Vitttorio Sala's expense, rescoring the film with jazzy '50s style rock 'n' roll and giving it some gratingly bad "comic" dubbing. Color overly strong with yellowish skin tones and bluish foliage. Cropped from original Dyaliscope framing.

DUEL OF CHAMPIONS (89m 9s)
This may be a "Terence Young Picture" starring Alan Ladd, but it's "directed by Fernando Baldi" and conspicuously a peplum, having been shot in Rome, written by the usual suspects (Ennio De Concini, et al), and featuring a number of recognizable Italian supporting players. A tape crinkle or three is visible during the overly red main titles. The image is badly cropped from the Totalscope original, color has been beefed-up a bit too much, and the soundtrack is unpleasantly prone to distortion and break-up due to fluctuating tracking of the tape master. A mess.

HERO OF ROME (86m 32s)
This is a weird one: the film begins in progress, with reconstructed video titles superimposed over the first dialogue scene. The superimpositions are obviously modelled on the original screen credits, and include credits for the "Version Française." Soft, darkish, cropped from 2.35:1 Spesvision, and with unpredictable color -- sometimes it's good, othertimes greenish and pale, so probably reconstructed from more than a single print. Despite the opening problem, an acceptable way to see this film.

THOR AND THE AMAZON WOMEN (85m 36s)
Opening titles are squeezed, with an L-shaped windowbox and a bad splice or two... but the rest of the film looks good for a pan&scanned item, with sharp picture, good color, and an overall clean look. Cropped from Totalscope. Likely taken from the Panther Entertainment VHS tape release from the 1980s.

Disc 5: DAMON AND PYTHIAS (98m 39s)
Green skies prevail in this badly faded 16mm source, replete with original Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer "Leo the Lion" logo, which sports very moderate windowboxing throughout. Not a scope picture, it was shot open aperture for adjustable soft-matte framing. Turner Classic Movies and other Turner channels have shown this with exquisite color in recent years.

THE FURY OF HERCULES (96m 20s)
Filmed in Totalscope, this is a very soft pan&scan transfer with squeezed main titles. The color isn't perfect, but it's acceptable; unfortunately, the picture is almost too soft to watch with any pleasure and, on some occasions, the image seems contorted, as when the vertical lines of palace windows seem to curve ever so slightly to the left. Notable for the presence in the cast of Serge Gainsbourg.

CAESAR THE CONQUEROR (98m 5s)
Green and red, scratches. Main titles are squeezed, the remainder an unfortunate pan&scan presentation of a film that must have been impressive in its original 2.35:1 Totalscope splendor.

SON OF SAMSON (87m 28s)
This is a completely letterboxed transfer that, despite a slight squeeze, still can't fit every letter of every name in the main titles. It looks to be a 1.66:1 transfer of a Totalscope original, and viewers with widescreen sets can easily decompress the image to restore the original framing, making this one of the most worthwhile titles in the set. The color has a yellowish cast that makes the muscular Mark Forest look like a living, breathing Academy Award in some shots. The print gets very ragged at the end, and the end title card appears to have been imported from another movie, something in the Arabian Nights milieu.

Disc 6: GLADIATORS SEVEN (87m 56s)
This excellent Richard Harrison film has been released by a number of different labels, on its own (Westlake Entertainment) and as parts of multi-disc sets (Brentwood's 2-disc GLADIATORS and St. Clair Entertainment's group same-named 3-disc set), usually with its original Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer card present. There's no MGM logo here, and the 2.1 letterboxing is slightly squeezed from the film's original Techniscope dimensions. This version looks somewhat softer than other versions I've seen and the ragged print ends abruptly, with score mid-note.

GLADIATORS OF ROME (99m 28s)
Very faded -- black-and-green rather than black-and-white, with faintly blooming brights, motion blurring/ghosting, and with ugly coarse reds. The standard ratio presentation is cropped from a Euroscope original. There must be better copies available than this.

GOLIATH AND THE DRAGON (86m 20s)
Like HERCULES AGAINST THE MOON MEN, this "Colorscope" (actually Totalscope) movie has been released in a splendid widescreen version by Something Weird Video, reducing this sub-standard presentation to mere filler. Letterboxed, with sometimes badly turned color, blooming greenish brights, and intermittent banjo-string scratches.

MACISTE IN KING SOLOMON'S MINES (92m 47s)
A fairly clean print, but cropped from Techniscope and again subject to greenish hue, action blurring, and blossoming brights. The flesh tones are decent however, and the picture is crisper than most in this set.

Already, with these 24 titles alone, I think the WARRIORS set has accounted for its purchase price -- and we're less than halfway through its contents. The source materials may be faulty but the discs themselves are well mastered and easy to navigate. (Each movie is limited to only four chapter marks.) When one considers that we once readily paid $30 for VHS copies of two or three of these films from Sinister Cinema, taken from similar sources in many cases, the bargain of this set comes into even greater focus.

If authorized releases of any of these titles should surface in years to come, it's quite possible -- as the some recent Toho DVDs have shown us -- that the AIP and AIP TV dubbing tracks may remain exclusive to these worn sources, replaced by new English tracks if given English tracks at all. In short, I consider WARRIORS a worthwhile purchase. These cropped and faded presentations may not capture the films themselves at their best, but they do capture moments in time -- the way these films looked on television, the way they once sounded in this country -- and, for those of us who love them, these are things worth preserving.

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