Wednesday, September 11, 2013

7 reasons you should own HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS

HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS is out on DVD and Blu-ray. In fact, it's been available since last October, but I've been at a loss to explain how great the film's presentation really is. I was one of those who saw it on television and VHS, so I was accustomed to seeing it in less-than-perfect presentation. It was so familiar that I just assumed the original just film just looked kinda crummy ... which turned out not to be the case.

I've also been stymied by language. Besides my usual, "OMG, guys! HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS looks amazing!" I was left with few ways to express myself. I'm not a home video expert and, most likely, neither are you. So talking about color depth, compression and all that other technical bullshit would have been no use to anybody.

Then, through a stream of connections on Tumblr, I came across screencaps from an early home video release of the film on Sara Monster's WILLIE LOOMIS SAVES COLLINSPORT. Suddenly, words were no longer necessary. Taking seven screencaps from the digital version of HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, I combined them with Sara's stills from the matted home video version of the film. The difference in presentation is quite startling.

Still here? Despite my predictions to the contrary, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS was not a video release designed to fill the $5 bin at Wal Mart. In fact, both HOUSE and it's not-quite-a-sequel NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS appear to be holding onto their retail value. It's been almost a year, and neither the DVD nor the Blu-ray editions have been given close-out prices. Read into that whatever you will.

UPDATE: This post prompted a discussion last night on Facebook about the faithfulness of the new digital transfers. FRANK JAY GRUBER voiced concerns that the new home video releases were cropped to create an artificial widescreen presentation. WILL McKINLEY was of the mind that the VHS editions we're familiar with were "open matte" 4:3 TV transfers, while the new versions of the films are properly matted.

While it's a odious practice, forced widescreen happens occasionally. Thanks to variations in earlier home video releases, it was difficult for us to say what was or wasn't intended by director DAN CURTIS. So, rather than let speculation rule the day, I asked film archivist DARREN GROSS to address the new transfers for both HOUSE and NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS.

"Both films were shot and composed for 1.85," Gross said. "Any of the additional top and bottom image that shows up on old TV broadcasts and certain VHS releases was never meant to be shown. The laserdiscs were presented at 1.33, but kind of half-way between a full open-matte presentation and a proper 1.33 crop of the 1.85 image, so it's neither fish nor fowl."

Curtis intended both films to be presented in a 1.85 film frame, and did not "protect" the outlying areas of the photography.

"So, if you were to present it fully open matte, there would be non-stop boom mics, floor mics, camera tracks and tape marks," he said. "ON THE WATERFRONT was protected for the full frame, so presentable in that way. To present HODS or NODS in full aperture 1.33 would do the films and the filmmakers a disservice, as it would only serve to present the film as a sloppy, blooper-ridden, mess to a mainstream audience that would not understand that most of the goofs aren't goofs at all. Now the camera crew reflections, THOSE are goofs!"
Gross also discussed the unusually sharp opening credits on HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS. It's a topic McKinley introduced during our very first podcast back in December.  

"For this film, what are called 'textless' main and end titles do exist - they do for most features, typically, for use in creating foreign title sequences from the original release, but they don't appear recreated to me," Gross said. "It's just a case of using a transfer element with better color, smaller grain and all the more tools available in color timing in the HD/digital realm."

Brightness and color were often boosted to make them within 'legal' parameters for broadcast back in the '80s, he said, and those standards have since changed.

"HODS also is a very, very dark film in parts, somewhat underexposed in others," he said. "Warners also have done a grain removal pass or two on both films, which would affect most of the optical dissolves and things like main titles. It can create problems as well, but on the HODS front, it's done pretty well. The pores on faces seem a little absent and soft to me, but it's really really fine."

(NOTE: The photos at the top of the page might be a little misleading. The images showing the early presentation of HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS have gone through a few generations as it was passed from the original media (either VHS or laserdisc) to whatever format was used to "capture" the images. Saving them as JPEG files further degraded them. But the images showing the new digital transfers are also of a lesser quality, and suffer similar degradation as JPEG files. These images are meant only as loose examples of the evolution in picture quality for HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS.)

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