Monday 12 March, 2012 19:30
It’s the one we’ve all been waiting for - the long-delayed German BD release of INFERNO. Dario Argento’s divisive sequel to his masterpiece, SUSPIRIA, has had more BD releases than any other of his films - a UK release by Arrow Video, a Japanese release by King Records, a French release by Wild Side, a US release by Blue Underground, and now a German release by Koch Media, taking over from Camera Obscura, who handled this version in the early stages of development and were responsible for its bonus features. I don’t own either the French or Japanese releases, but we know from the various screen captures posted online that all five versions are derived from the same transfer - a 2007 interpositive scan by 20th Century Fox, who hold the rights to the film. (Though Blue Underground have tried to muddy the waters by erroneously claiming to have sourced a fresh transfer from the original negative.)
Despite all coming from the same source original, the various releases have their own individual quirks and oddities. The Arrow Video release has been blasted with overzealous grain reduction, rendering the image flat and smeary. The Blue Underground release has had its colour palette radically altered, bringing it more in line with the old Anchor Bay DVD originally released in 2000. (In addition, both the Arrow and BU releases are slightly cropped, losing approximately 4% of the image compared with the other releases.)
So how is Koch Media’s new release? Is it an improvement on its predecessors, and if so is it worth douple (or triple, or quadruple) dipping?
Audio first. Like the Arrow BD and unlike its Blue Underground counterpart, Koch have opted for the film’s original English stereo and Italian mono dubs in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio, forgoing the remixes used by Blue Underground and Anchor Bay before them. This is preferable, in my opinion: while some may decry the lack of a multichannel remix, my preference is always for the original, and the fact that Anchor Bay and Blue Underground failed to provide that (their 2.0 surround track being a downmix of the 5.1 remix) always troubled me. Of course Arrow, whose release includes both the original English and Italian mixes AND the 5.1 remix, is still ahead of the pack in this regard. On the other hand, Koch appear to have done some additional work on the English audio, minimising (but not eliminating) some of the background crackle that is apparent during stretches of silence on that track. (Compare the moment immediately after the opening credits where Rose starts to write her letter to Mark.) The English 5.1 remix provided on the Anchor Bay, Arrow and Blue Underground releases remains the best version in terms of overall audio clarity, but it has some caveats of its own, namely a jarring “jolt” in the music in the very first shot and an overall difference in balance as a result of the remixing. Koch, by the way, have provided both English and German subtitles, which holds true across the board - both for the film and the extras.
Speaking of extras, we get a very impressive line-up, of which the best is the commentary by scholars Christian Keßler and Marcus Stiglegger. These two, who previously did a commentary for Camera Obscura’s SO SWEET, SO DEAD release (which turned out to be more interesting than the film itself), have a great rapport and have clearly done their research, backing up their own impressions with a solid historical foundation and references to other films both by Argento and everyone from Mario Bava to Michelangelo Antonioni. The commentary, and brief introductions by both Argento and Albani, are the only extras on the BD, by the way: the rest are contained on a separate standard definition DVD. (This is a 3-disc set, consisting of the film on both BD and DVD, and the aforementioned extras disc.) These consist of “Of Fire and Darkness”, a whopping 98-minute feature interviewing cinematographer Romano Albani, special effects artist Fabio Traversari, make-up artist Pierantonio Mecacci, assistant director Lamberto Bava and Argento collaboration Luigi Cozzi; the 23-minute “L’Inferno delle Tre Madri”, interviewing Dario Argento, producer Claudio Argento and actors Eleonora Giorgi and Leopoldo Mastelloni; the 20-minute “Critics on Fire”, interviewing critics Antonio Tentori and Antonio Bruschini; and a three-minute location tour, showing various locations as they appeared in the film side by side with their present day incarnations. Rounding out the package are the Q&A with Irene Miracle, Keith Emerson and the peerless Tim Lucas that you’ve probably seen before online or on the Arrow BD, and English, Spanish and German theatrical trailers (of which the latter is by far the best quality).
Most important of all, however, is the image quality. This release should hold few surprises since, as previously mentioned, it’s derived from the same master that has been used for every previous BD release. The wild card, however, was Camera Obscura’s announcement that cinematographer Romano Albani would be personally supervising this release. During the introduction that plays at the start of the disc, Albani states that this was an easy process “because Camera Obscura’s master was already very, very good.” In the absence of any information to the contrary (and I know there has been a great deal of debate as to how the colours of this film should look), I think this means that we should assume that what is on this disc is how Albani feels the film should look. And the way it looks is, in terms of colour palette, extremely close to the Arrow, Wild Side and King Records BDs, as well as the 2008 Italian DVD release from 20th Century Fox. In the captures below, you can see that it is minutely darker than the Arrow BD, but it’s almost too close to call. As such, on the face of it it doesn’t look like Albani actually made any changes to the master. Certainly, the Blue Underground version, which was radically recoloured to bring it more in line with the palette of the old Anchor Bay DVD, remains the odd one out in terms of BD releases.
The trouble is that a number of people swear that the Anchor Bay DVD and Blue Underground BD, with their more saturated blues and increased prominence of pink and red, more accurately represent the film’s original theatrical prints than the comparatively anaemic palette Albani seems to have signed off on here. I’ve posted this before, but it’s worth bearing in mind what Danish Argento expert Thomas Rostock has to say about the matter:
Having plowed through several VHS, Laserdisc and film-print incarnations of this the director’s most accomplished visual achievement (seeing this on the big screen by way of the excellent UK print in circulation around 1995 was truly an astonishing experience for me. Totally blew me away in a way SUSPIRIA couldn’t even begin to match), I must say that look of the Anchor Bay DVD of 2000 actually fares much closer to Romano Albani’s intended look than the new MGM/FOX. Romano Albani along with Argento worked hard to achieve a fuller, more lush look than SUSPIRIA using in particular the two new lighting color gels named Rose and Deep Blue introduced into the market in 1979.
In short, Rose and Deep Blue are the governing colors of INFERNO. However, the MGM/FOX transfer suppresses exactly these two colors to the point oblivion (Rose) and to a dull, faded hue (Deep Blue) […] If one is aware of literally the hours it can take to light with different color-gels on a film-set, it is especially disheartening to witness MGM/FOX’s negligent attitude towards the intended color-specific look of INFERNO. But perhaps even worse is the fact that this is the only transfer making its rounds to all corners of the world commercially through MGM’s cost-efficent licensing and will stand as a misrepresentation of the real beautiful and haunting color-scheme that is at the very heart and soul of INFERNO. One can voice many a fault about William Lustig’s AB/BU releases, but on the visual, color-correctional side of things, he has yet to make mistake.
I’m always a little wary of relying on memory to ascertain colour accuracy (particularly when, in many cases, it will have been over 30 years since those in question saw the film theatrically), and even more wary of claims that VHS release A or LaserDisc release B were more faithful to the theatrical experience (the colour fidelity of both is notoriously awful), but there is a fairly vocal contingent stating that the colours of the Fox master are not right. And as far as Albani giving his seal of approval to those colours is concerned, let’s not forget that SUSPIRIA’s cinematographer, Luciano Tovoli, apparently signed off on both the transfer used for the 2001 Anchor Bay DVD release AND the 2007 master that had its contrast boosted to oblivion and has been the source of every single BD release of the film to date. I’d very much like to know whether Albani also approved the 2000 Anchor Bay DVD of INFERNO (the packaging provides no clues) and whether he has seen Blue Underground’s attempt to rejig the colours of the Fox master for their BD. Personally, I find myself preferring the colours on the Blue Underground BD, regardless of authorial intent or lack thereof.
So, ignoring the matter of the colour palette, how does the image QUALITY of the Koch release measure up? Well, for a start, it lacks the overzealous grain reduction that blighted the Arrow release and often made it look like mushy video, and curiously enough also gains somewhere in the region of 4% additional picture area when compared to Blue Underground and Arrow releases. In a truly baffling state of affairs, both appear to be cropped by exactly the same amount, whereas the Koch release shows the same picture area as the Fox DVD and Wild Side BD. (I haven’t been able to track down any captures of the King Records BD to ascertain how its framing compares.) Grain reproduction is comparable between the Koch and Blue Underground releases, though it does tend to be slightly more prominent on the BU disc, due to two factors: the increased contrast and superior compression. The compression on the Koch disc is fine for the most part, but there are occasions where the coarse grain seems to choke the encoder, Example 6 being a good example of this occasional but nonetheless disagreeable effect.
When it comes down to it, therefore, the Blue Underground release is technically the strongest of the three BDs compared here. Given the confusion that still exists, I think people should make up their own minds as to which colour palette they prefer, which will be the deciding factor in most cases. If you don’t like the increased saturation of the BU release, then it comes down to a choice between the Koch and Arrow releases and, well, the Koch is the clear winner in that regard, given the lack of grain reduction and the slight increase in visible picture. It’s tough to call any of these releases definitive in terms of picture quality, but one thing we can do is state without any hesitancy that the Arrow disc is the weakest.
In addition, it’s worth pointing out that both Arrow and Koch have clearly performed additional dirt and scratch removal for their releases - independently, because there is a lack of consistency between the two versions as to what has been removed and what remains. A number of the screenshots below (e.g. Example 1, Example 8) show additional print damage on the Blue Underground and Arrow discs not visible on the Koch disc; likewise, a certain shots (e.g. Example 5, Example 9) show damage present on both the Blue Underground and Koch discs but not the Arrow). The Blue Underground presentation is the “dirtiest” of the bunch (see Example 24 for an instance of a speck being removed on both the Arrow and Koch releases but present on the BU), but I very much doubt that anyone would notice any of this in motion, so as far as I’m concerned this doesn’t tip the scales either way.
On the whole, therefore, the new Koch release gets a tentative thumbs up from me. The extras are plentiful and give a number of hitherto unheard players the chance to speak about their involvement with the film, the picture quality is decent, and I suspect a lot of people will be happy to take Albani’s approval of the master to be the final word in the colour controversy. Others like myself, though, will see the strengths in both this and the Blue Underground release and will probably want to own both.
Screen captures from various releases are below. I’ve included shots from the Anchor Bay DVD (upscaled to 1080p) for comparative purposes. To compare releases, Ctrl-click (or middle-click) the relevant thumbnails to open them on separate tabs, and then Ctrl+Tab to cycle through them.
Anchor Bay DVD
country: USA; region code: 0; codec: MPEG-2; aspect ratio: 1.85:1 anamorphic
Blue Underground BD
country: USA; region code: ABC; codec: AVC; aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Arrow Video BD
country: UK; region code: ABC; codec: AVC; aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Koch Media BD
country: Germany; region code: ABC (mislabelled B); codec: AVC; aspect ratio: 1.85:1