Dueling Blus: Argento and Fulci's Wax Mask

Yay!  I can finally cross another of the few remaining non-anamorphic titles in my collection off the list.  One 7 Movies has just released Sergio Stivaletti's Wax Mask on blu-ray!  This is my first One 7 Movies disc, and to be honest, I wasn't sure how much faith I had in this outfit.  I wouldn't have been at all surprised to find out this disc was an upconvert of the old Image DVD.  I still would've taken it, though, just because it would at least fix the anamorphic issue - that's how desperate I was.  But I might as well tell you now, since the following screenshot's about to give it away anyway: this is actually a brand new, attractive HD transfer!

Update 3/9/17 - 9/25/19: And now Wax Mask has been reissued as a brand new special edition from Severin!  And it's, well, certainly an improvement in some aspects...
So 1997's Wax Mask was a pretty well-hyped late-era Italian horror title.  After a bit of a rivalry, even if it was mostly made up by/ for the press, maestros Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci were finally going to collaborate on a film together!  But tragically, Fulci didn't live to see it through.  So instead long time special effects artist Sergio Stivaletti stepped in to make his director's debut.  Fulci still gets a writing credit, though, Argento still produced, and the production values are surprisingly high for a '97 Italian horror title that wound up going essentially direct-to-video in most markets.  It's not a masterpiece; it gets pretty silly at points and it has a very bad and very 90s case of the Unfortunate CGIs.  But if you can get past its weaknesses, its strengths are pretty compelling.
Wax Mask has kind of a dual spirit to it, which is probably an intentional result of the combined styles of Argento and Fulci.  On the one hand, it's a lush, romantic throw-back to classic horror: a veritable remake of early Hollywood wax museum terrors The Mystery Of the Wax Museum, House of Wax, with similar ambitions to Argento's Phantom of the Opera and Dracula (although a league above those two movies!).  It's a period piece with fantastic locations, impressive costumes and a complex mystery plot.  But it's also happy to go to extremes with very modern, gruesome kills and effects heavy thrills.  It's sad that this film really dives headfirst into the early CGI movement with some very obvious, tacky sequences, because apart from those, the practical special effects are plentiful and look great.  This film looks and sounds beautiful, and you can tell they really threw in to not just make a respectable horror flick but a truly great movie.  This makes the boner missteps even bigger tragedies, but if you can come at this with even a portion of an open mind, there's still so much showmanship on display here that viewers should have a blast.
So, for years and years, we pretty much just had Image's 2000 Euroshock Collection DVD of this title to work with.  It was widescreen, but barebones, non-anamorphic and looking pretty grubby by modern standards.  There were similar DVDs in other markets, but none were anamorphic, some were fullscreen, and all were barebones.  That's why this movie has sat on my short list of titles I've been desperate to replace (Marat/ Sade, The Wife and Happiness, sadly, are still on it).  So I jumped on the pre-order as soon as I heard One 7's blu-ray was coming, and it was absolutely worth it... despite some imperfections.  Then, this summer, Severin announced their own special edition, and I once again jumped the pre-order, ready to wave goodbye to those remaining imperfections.  And it was absolutely worth it this time, too... despite some imperfections.
1) 2000 Image DVD; 2) 2017 One 7 BD; 3) 2019 Severin BD.
Look at that!  You can't help but notice what a huge upgrade the One 7's are to the crummy old DVD right off the bat.  It's a whole different viewing experience: apparently a 4k scan from the original camera negative, supervised by Stivaletti himself.  Their 1.78:1 framing seems to recover a sliver of extra picture compared to the DVD's 1.74:1 picture, too.  But, some of those details look a little too sharp.  And look at the crazy autopsy tunnel shot a little further up the page, what are those edge halos all around the pipes and stuff?  It looks like Unsharpen Mask, or a similar filter, has been used heavily on the picture, giving the film an unnatural edge to its details... not in every shot, but a lot.  It's not that offensive; I've certainly seen worse, but you notice it, and you feel all the more disappointed because it would've looked better if they just didn't deliberately mess with it.  Grain is also pretty sparse for a 4k... did they need to tinker with the picture because they DNR'd it first?  That's my best guess, but of course there's no way to know for sure exactly what the story behind this transfer is.  But we can all see the final result.

But now Severin fixes that, right?  Well, no.  Let's get to the disappointing aspect of their new release now, and then we'll get to all the good news.  But this part's not good news; they seem to be stuck with the same master as the 2017 blu.  That's not particularly surprising; I think we all assumed they'd be licensing the same Italian restoration for their root master, but I was hoping they'd have gotten access to a pre-tinkered with master, so it at least wouldn't have that effect applied to it.  But no, it's the same. Oh well.  Mt fingers were crossed for a save, but knew that might not happen.  What I'm more blind-sided by, though, is the lower contrast, higher black levels.  It gives the colors a more faded look, which hey, might actually be more like what was shot in-camera (I could easily believe the 2017 blu is boosting those colors a bit).  But it turns the blacks grey, which looks really off.  Like, check out what it does to a one of the film's (many!) dark scenes:
And it's not lifting any black crush or anything.  The shadows are still solid in the same places; just solid grey instead of solid black.  Otherwise the color timing and everything looks just like the last blu.  It's just a duller, flatter version, and I hate to say it, but I prefer the 2017's PQ.

But things turn cheerier in the other department, including the somewhat curious case of the audio.  On the first BD, we're given two strong 5.1 mixes - both the English and Italian tracks, plus lossy versions of the stereo and 5.1 mixes in each language (yes, that's six audio tracks total).  But at a couple small points in the English audio tracks (and yes, all three; I checked) the audio reverts to Italian.  Just for a couple lines and it doesn't prevent you from following the story, but it's distracting and weird.  Especially weird because the Image DVD has the English dub for those moments (their only option is the English stereo mix with no subtitles), so it's not like those bits were never dubbed with the rest of the picture or anything.

And to add to the frustration, there are no subtitle options!  Therefore, the Italian audio options are useless for non-Italian speakers.  Now admittedly, both dubs are equally mediocre.  They both feature a lot of flat readings, and even for the opening scenes set in 19th century Paris, nobody bothers to attempt French accents for any of the characters.  So if you're disappointed by the English dub, I can at least assure you're not missing much better on the Italian side.  But it's pretty stupid - or more accurately cheap - not to have subtitles here.
But now Severin fixes that, right?  This time, yes!  Instead of the pointless six tracks, Severin gives us the full four, 5.1 remixes and the original stereo tracks of both the English and Italian audio.  And this time they're all in DTS-HD, no lossy stuff.  And happily, their English tracks, don't randomly revert to Italian in those brief moments.  And now we finally have subtitle options, so the Italian track isn't useless!  We have two sets of subtitles, even, One for the English and one for the Italian, a.k.a. the subtitles and the dubtitles.  So Severin took a hit with their black levels, but they win back a lot of points here.
And they come in for mote points here.  Starting with One 7, though, they did come through to some degree in the extras department.  Nothing massive, but a little good stuff at least.  Image's old DVD had nothing but a stills gallery.  That's gone and I don't miss it.  In its stead, One 7 gives us two collections of edited behind-the-scenes video footage.  The first runs a solid 23 minutes, and gives us a glimpse of filming nearly every sequence in the movie.  Then there's a second, 13 minute one that focuses more specifically on the creation of the special effects.  We learn that Dario Argento was often on-set and hands on, and that Tom Savini contributed his head to this film(!).  We see some pretty impressive set pieces and clearly expensive camerawork, and the featurettes are judiciously edited, moving from one scene to the next at a rapid pace, so it's never boring.  Subtitles for some of the incidental conversations would've been nice, but still, these are cool to have.
But Severin, oh boy!  First of all, they have the behind-the-scenes stuff from the 2017 blu, this time with subtitles for the incidental conversations - woot!  And they have an additional, briefer third one that gives us another couple minutes peek backstage.  But that's just the beginning, because Severin has collaborated with Freak-O-Rama (who've been doing the extras for Scorpion's Italian releases like The Church and The Sect) to really bust this out into a classic special edition, just like this film's been calling out for since the 90s.  Dario Argento, Sergio Stivaletti, producer Guiseppe Columbo, production designer Massimo Geleng, actress Gabriella Giorgelli, Claudio Fragasso and composer Maurizo Abeni are all interviewed for a series of featurettes that combined run nearly two hours.  Then critic Alan Jones is briefly interviewed to add some context, including how it adheres to, and veers far away from, the writings of Gaston Leroux, etc.  Still want more?  How about a director's commentary by Stivaletti, accompanied by his son, who had a cameo in Wax Mask, and moderated by David Gregory.  I was a little worried they might struggle with the English, like those old Anchor Bay Argento commentaries, since they speak Italian in their interviews, but these guys do just fine.

Then, if you opt for the limited (to 4,000 copies) edition 2-disc set, you'd also get a soundtrack CD featuring Abeni's score.  That comes with an insert with the track-listing and a stylish slipcover.  And I believe both versions include reversible artwork.  So yeah, many more points for Severin.
So yeah, neither of these are five star, perfect little blu-rays.  One 7's overly processed and light on care (like subtitles).  Severin definitely added that care, and it pays off nicely, but they're stuck with the over processing and seem to have inadvertently made it worse.  Wax Mask is a super fun flick, though; and just like the movie itself, the blu-ray doesn't need to be impeccable to be thoroughly enjoyed.  So I thoroughly recommend getting this on blu.  Which blu?  Well, it depends if you're the kind of person who watches extras or not, I suppose.  If you only 100% care about PQ and nothing else, yeah, One 7 still wins.  But Severin is an incredible package, including subtitles that finally open up all the language options, too.  A die-hard will want both editions, I suppose.  But for me, I'm happy with just the Severin and bringing down the black levels a couple notches on my TV before viewing.

4 comments:

  1. Was holding off on buying this until on of the more respectable sites gave it a thorough run through. Thank you!

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  2. Would be interested to see comps on how this compares with the German Blu.

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  3. The Severin's black level problem is excessive but correctable, even if a bother. The 2 subtitle tracks are more than welcome, and the extras are fantastic. Audio-wise I prefer the Italian dubs, but somewhere after the 1 hour mark they are ever so slightly out of sync throughout the rest of the movie. I have the One 7 disc also and the Italian track I sampled did not have the same sync issue.

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    1. True! There's at least a button (or a succession of buttons) you can push on your remote to correct Severin's picture. There's nothing you can push to add all those great features to One 7's.

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