The following essay first appeared on TCM's Streamline Blog on June 2, 2012:
Tales From the Trenches: Me vs. The Asphyx
by David Kalat
I’m holding in my hands an absolutely marvelous Blu-Ray edition of the terrific British sci-fi chiller The Asphyx, and I can say unequivocally that you need to own this. Among other things it represents one of the residual gifts to movie lovers from the late Don Krim, who set this Blu-Ray in motion before his untimely passing, and if he thought so highly of you to make this movie available in such a delicious form, then you should repay the compliment. But the main reason I’m talking about it this week is because I had nothing whatsoever to do with this Blu-Ray, which gets right everything I screwed up when I produced the 1997 DVD version of The Asphyx. This week’s post is a cautionary tale about what I did wrong, and why.
(I have no conflict of interest here—I no longer hold a stake in The Asphyx in any way. Even if you were to foolishly abstain from Kino’s exemplary release and instead seek out one of the overpriced out of print copies of my DVD on eBay, I wouldn’t get any of that money. My connection to this movie was severed long ago.)
I started my DVD enterprise, All Day Entertainment, in 1997 out a miasma of good intentions and absolute ignorance. I was awash in naivete and wishful thinking, and had gotten it into my head that the video industry was doing a disservice to film buffs. What sort of disservice, you ask? Well, you name it—back in 1997, finding widescreen versions of movies on VHS was a rarity, for one thing. Some movies were only available in incomplete editions. And even though there were many retail opportunities to buy movies—most malls had a Suncoast Video, and bigger markets had things like Tower and Virgin as well—the shelves of these places tended to be stocked with a limited collection of recent titles, leaving vast swaths of film history unavailable. These were the kinds of wrongs I founded All Day to right.
The name “All Day” came from a family in-joke—my father, psychology professor and textbook author Jim Kalat, is a collector of Russian literature. One day, when my sister was very little, he proudly showed off to her his latest acquisition of an original edition of War and Peace. My sister’s eyes widened at the size of the book, and she remarked “That must have taken him all day to write.” Ever since, my family has considered anything that was difficult to do to be worth spending “all day” on.
I started All Day before DVD was available nationwide—I was producing my first discs while DVDs could only be purchased in a handful of test cities. I created the company as a partnership between myself, a company (let’s call it Company X) that had experience in video duplication and retail distribution, and a company (Company Y) that had the technical equipment and expertise to conduct the digital restoration of movies.
The inaugural titles were: The Sadist, The Asphyx, and Ganja & Hess. These were in production in the summer of 1997, for release to stores in early 1998.
I had selected The Asphyx as one of my first projects because it exemplified what I was trying to achieve. The film is the very definition of a forgotten treasure. It is unfathomable to me that Hammer’s 1970s output has generally been pretty easy to obtain, yet fans widely dismiss the films as disappointing, while this Hammer knock-off from the same period is uniformly excellent yet completely obscure. It doesn’t have the Hammer brand name, it doesn’t have Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, it doesn’t have any nude ladies or bloody fangs, but what it does have is a perfectly structured story that’s sort of a science fictional fairy tale. It starts out with a nutty premise, but once you buy that initial whopper, everything else proceeds logically from there, methodically backing the characters (and the audience) into a corner, where everything goes to hell.
It is a testament to the brilliance of the story that I know of at least 6 different remake attempts that have been mooted since I first put out the 1997 DVD. For anyone looking for a remake project, this is low-hanging fruit—here’s a ready-made script that’s been tested on screen but few people know about it. It’s the same logic that fuels the trend of remakes of Asian horror movies—producers don’t have to imagine what the movie will look like when finished because there’s already a finished movie to review as a sample.
But as awesome as The Asphyx is, it hadn’t been well-treated on home video. In 1997, if you wanted to see it, you had to be lucky enough to live in an area with a well-stocked specialist video rental store that happened to have the VHS copy—which was panned-and-scanned within an inch of its life. There’s one scene where the scanner was stationed in the center of the frame, dutifully capturing an empty room while the characters on either side of the frame went completely unseen. The overripe color palette of the film (Freddie Young’s cinematography has the lush velvety reds you associate with rotten tomatoes) came across as muddy.
I figured, here’s a glorious motion picture that has a small built-in fan base, it’s an easily marketable genre, and I can really improve how it’s presented. It was a no-brainer, or so I thought.
I licensed the rights from the U.S. distributor, who provided me what they said were the only surviving film elements—two badly decomposed 35mm prints. The prints were scratchy and faded, but the worst part was that the color distortion caused by the ageing film stock wasn’t even across the frame. My partner, Company Y, had the technology to correct for this, but it was designed to deal with a uniform problem. The color distortion fluttered across the right hand side of the screen, fluctuating and rippling in different ways based on the diameter of the reel of film. In other words, as the film unspooled, the diameter decreased—and as it decreased the film spun faster and faster, and the color fade undulated more and more rapidly.
Company Y found this an intriguing challenge, and agreed to write custom software to deal with it. The cost of the software development far exceeded the total budget of the entire project—indeed, it exceeded the cost of the budget of the first three DVDs put together.
But Company Y offered me a deal—I could get the software for a deferred partial payment if they could use it as a sales demo to show off their technical prowess. That was a fantastic arrangement—and I enjoyed the demos I hosted with them where we showed before and after clips and explained how the software worked.
You may be wondering why Company Y was working out a deal to sell me software at a reduced price at all, if they were my partner? Ah, well, that’s the thing—by this point, the partnership had dissolved. Company X, the folks who had agreed to handle the sales and distribution part of the business, backed out at the last second, and when they did that, Company Y got cold feet too. I had already spent all of my money on licensing the three films and initiating the production process. I risked losing everything I’d put into the company if I gave up, so I decided to plough ahead alone, without the partners.
This meant I now owned 100% of the company, instead of a third, and there was nobody I had to talk into anything or compromise with—I could do whatever I wanted. But this freedom came at a price—I was now exceedingly cost-conscious and cash-strapped.
The budget woes started to distort my priorities. I was approached by William Lustig, who suggested that he could use his resources at the BFI to obtain superior picture elements from the UK. I told him, “no.” That’s right—I told Bill Lustig no. What was I thinking?
Well, to be honest, this is what I was thinking:
a) The UK release was censored and runs several minutes shorter than the US version, so to compile a complete edition we couldn’t just use the BFI elements, we’d need to take that into an edit room with the US material and work through the film scene by scene to reassemble it, using the UK material where possible and the US where necessary. And that was going to cost money, whereas I already had a finished workable master from the US material alone.
b) Once Bill was involved, I would be diluting my control, and who knows how costs would escalate as the scope was allowed to expand—and then when all was said and done, Lustig would need to be paid. So the costs would go up and my profits would go down.
So, for purely selfish short-sighted reasons, I told Bill Lustig to take a hike—which was among the many terrible decisions I made during my mismanagement of this DVD business.
Nevertheless, I figured that I’d stared down the technical problems with The Asphyx on my own. We’d worked out a solution to the image problems with the 35mm source materials and had managed to get decent enough quality—certainly an improvement over the VHS—but it wasn’t what anyone had in mind when they thought of the superior technical quality allegedly afforded by DVD.
Actually, this is as good a time as any to discuss some of the aesthetics of video production in the late 1990s. First off, this was the heyday of DVNR, or Digital Video Noise Reduction. Video engineers in the 1990s had a hatred of film grain, dirt, and dust—and deployed DVNR to extricate those pests from their images. This tended to result in glossy, somewhat over-sanitized images, but that was the style of the time. So I followed suit, and let my engineers pour on the DVNR to a degree that now looks weird. There’s one scene where the camera pans swiftly across a wooded plain, and for a few frames the trees actually disappear, because the DVNR system believed those trees were video noise. Ugh.
But the bigger problem was the aspect ratio. I mentioned before that the video industry as a whole was reluctant to embrace letterboxing of widescreen movies on VHS. In mid 1997, when the DVD format was being test marketed, I attended several trade shows where representatives from Philips and Sony came along to explain that DVDs could be dual sided, offering the “regular” version of the movie on one side and a widescreen version on Side B for specialists to enjoy. The default understanding was that people wanted to see movies that filled their screens, and resented the way that letterboxing “stole” away their picture and replaced it with empty nothingness.
I had several customers write to me to complain about the fact I letterboxed widescreen movies. They hadn’t gone out and bought a giant 32” TV just to have most of the screen left blank! I tried to explain that if I didn’t letterbox, then I would have been depriving them of picture… but when you’re explaining you’re losing.
The thing of it is—in 1997, a 32” TV was a big TV. And it was pretty much square. Nobody had widescreen monitors—a standard for widescreen TV hadn’t even been finally agreed to yet. 16:9 was the front-runner and many systems were being devised to adopt it, but there was the possibility it would be superseded by a different standard, and so manufacturers were waiting to see what format got adopted before they committed to making widescreen sets in bulk. As of the moment that The Asphyx DVD hit stores in 1998, only the DVDs produced by Warner Brothers were even using 16:9 formatting for widescreen movies. Everybody else—including major studio releases—were putting letterboxed images in 4:3 shapes, expecting them to be shown on sets not much larger than 32”. When I put out Ganja & Hess in 16:9 later that year, it was the first non-studio release ever to have used 16:9 formatting.
Which is the long way ‘round of saying, I put out The Asphyx as a letterboxed, but non-anamorphic, release. It’s got an aspect ratio of 2.3:1, which is insanely wide, but you do that as a letterboxed image and you don’t have many pixels assigned to drawing the image itself. Do that with a movie whose source material is already decrepit, and then use DVNR to further remove data from it in an overly aggressive attempt to boost signal to noise ratios, and the end result is a picture that doesn’t contain enough data to look good on today’s more demanding viewing equipment.
The Asphyx didn’t sell very well. In hindsight, this is no great surprise—I was selling an obscure movie on DVD at a time when few Americans had DVD players. 1998 wasn’t the best year to try to do that. And to the extent I could’ve made sales in that environment, the loss of Company X deprived me of any institutional contacts. I was making sales calls all on my own, to buyers at Tower and Suncoast and so on.
Fast forward to the early 2000s—let’s say 2005. That was my best year in business, bar none. I was no longer making sales calls myself—I had partnered with Image Entertainment, and relied on their professional sales staff and vast nationwide distribution network. DVD was a booming business—and stores like Best Buy couldn’t get enough product, especially of obscure horror movies. Bill Lustig’s work at Anchor Bay was building up a solid audience base for Hammer films that I could leech off. This was the year to try The Asphyx—if it weren’t for the fact that my license expired in 2003.
A few years ago, Don Krim called to ask about the masters I’d created for The Asphyx—he was putting together a plan for this new DVD/Blu-Ray edition and wanted to harvest what he could of source materials. I told him this story and explained that my masters weren’t going to be of much value, and I no longer had them anyway—they’d gone back to the rights holders in 2003. I don’t know what Don ended up doing, but whatever route he took, he fixed what I’d gotten wrong.
On internet forums such as Mobius, the Criterion Forum, Silent Comedy Mafia, and others, I often hear collectors vent their frustrations at the bad decisions by video labels. Why is Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell still missing the atery-bite scene? Why is Freebie and the Bean on Warner Archive instead of a proper platform release? How come they screwed up the aspect ratio on Colossus: The Forbin Project? Why are the films in the Chaplin Keyston box set played at the wrong frame rate? How come the wrong cut of Modern Times was used on the Blu-Ray? Why is the pre-credit distributor’s card wrong on the U.S. cut of Godzilla King of the Monsters? And on and on, each petty gripe rooted in the implication that the distributors putting these discs out just want to screw fans over, don’t care about the movies, and are only interested in money.
But since 1997, I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of meeting producers at nearly every label and studio there is—and all I’ve ever met are people who love movies and do their best with difficult situations. I was faced with some awkward problems, and made what seemed like the best compromises at the time, but which turned out to be bad calls. I’ve learned not to assume the worst about others.