Prior to going any further, a brief preamble as regards existing versions of the film on DVD would probably be advisable.
The 2000 Anchor Bay edition
The most widely-viewed of these is probably the 2000 North American release from Anchor Bay, supervised by Bill Lustig (instantly recognisable by its hideous cover art). It featured an anamorphic 2.35:1 presentation of the full-length 126-minute Italian cut of the film, with the choice of watching the entire film in Italian (subtitled in English), or primarily in English but with scenes for which English dubbing either never existed or was untraceable presented in subtitled Italian. Back in the day, this release was generally fairly well received, although Lustig drew no small amount of flack for his frankly baffling decision to freeze-frame the original "moving image" of David Hemmings at the end of the film so he could overlay English- rather than Italian-language credits, due to not being able to source a copy of the film with the original English text intact. Why he didn't simply leave the credits in Italian remains a mystery to this day, as the clumsy freeze-frame is jarring and unfaithful to Argento's intentions.
Barring the issue of the credits, there are also several other issues with the Anchor Bay disc which cast it in a somewhat negative light in 2008. Chiefly, these stem from limitations in the master itself. In creating the master, Lustig scanned and colour corrected the film's intermediate positive in standard definition NTSC (720x480) at 29.976 frames per second, rather than going down the high definition 24p route that has since become (more or less) the standard. The transfer derived from this really doesn't hold up particularly well on modern equipment, suffering from edge enhancement, an overall lack of detail and some invasive grain reduction, causing noticeable smearing. It also has a moderate amount of visible print damage which I consider to be a fairly minor concern in comparison with the other problems on display.
In addition, Lustig's standard practice at the time as regards audio mixes ensured that the film's original mono soundtrack never saw the light of day. Instead, he created, with Chase Digital, a 5.1 remix, and then downmixed that to stereo in order to provide a 2.0 track for those not equipped with surround sound setups. As an audio purist who refuses to listen to remixes if at all possible, I find this situation incredibly frustrating.
The Anchor Bay disc was later replicated in its entirety in 2007 by Lustig's Blue Underground company, when Anchor Bay's rights to the film lapsed.
The bastard spawn of Anchor Bay
The majority of subsequent DVD releases of the film have been derived from Lustig's NTSC master. These include, as per Thomas:
- German Dragon/Raptor 1-disc and 2-disc releases
- French Wild Side 2-disc release
- Dutch Film Works 1-disc release
- Australian Madman Entertainment 1-disc release
I probably don't need to tell you that all of these are video-based NTSC to PAL standards conversions, and as such suffer from all the flaws that you can expect from such a process, namely ghosted motion, stuttering and a loss of overall detail. They can be recognised by their use of Lustig's fatal "freeze-frame" end credits.
Sticking plaster on a gaping wound
In 2004, Italian distributor Medusa, who owns the home video rights to most of Argento's films in that part of the world, released their own version of Profondo rosso, again derived from Lustig's NTSC master and again an NTSC to PAL standards conversion. However, they did what none of the other distributors could be bothered to do and actually reinserted the original Italian opening and closing credits, complete with the "moving image" of David Hemmings. This is actually incredibly frustrating, because the credits themselves, in native (and progressive) PAL, look very nice indeed, contrasting horribly with the mushy standards conversion that is the rest of the film. Presumably, therefore, Medusa had access to an Italian print that was in reasonably good condition, so the fact that they opted to transfer only the credits instead of the whole film is incredibly frustrating.
At around the same time or shortly afterwards, Medusa also released a 2-disc edition of the film, the first disc being the same as that of their single-disc release. The second, however, contained a 24 fps high definition Windows Media Video 9 version of the film for PCs, purporting to have been scanned from the original camera negative. This version is discussed in greater detail towards the end of this article.
Now, in late 2008, yet another new release of the film is added to the fray, this one released by Danish company Another World Entertainment. This version is a 2-disc set containing both cuts of the film: the original 126-minute Italian "director's cut" and the shorter 105-minute English-language export cut - a fan favourite for some, although personally I feel that the cuts rob the film of much of the complexity that makes it so special in the giallo canon. Still, for completion's sake, it's very nice to see it here. The AWE release also includes a handful of bonus materials: the by now ubiquitous Dario Argento: An Eye for Horror documentary narrated by Mark Kermode, and a brand new English-language audio commentary provided by Thomas Rostock, who spearheaded this DVD release.
I wish to single this commentary out for special praise, as I'm of the opinion that it is the best of its kind that I have ever heard for an Argento film. To date, only five of the maestro's movies have received audio commentaries. The Anchor Bay releases of Tenebre and Phenomena feature Argento himself, but are unfortunately are hampered by the director's faltering English and his apparent reticence to revisit his old projects. Anchor Bay's Trauma and The Card Player, meanwhile, feature commentaries by Argento expert Alan Jones, while Blue Underground's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage teams Jones up with journalist Kim Newman. The greatest strength of the Jones (and Newman) commentaries is their engaging and chatty nature, but this is also their downfall: largely unprepared, they entertain and, where relevant, provide some interesting trivia about the films' actual shooting (Jones visited the sets for both Trauma and The Card Player when they were in production), but they lack the depth of a good critical commentary. Rostock addresses this with Profondo rosso, delivering a thoroughly researched and meticulously prepared track that has a lot in common with the "scholarly" tracks that tend to be found on Criterion's DVDs. I'm full of admiration for the amount of research he clearly carried out prior to recording the track, including digging up a fair amount of information that was completely new to me - for example, his observations about the original script, as well as David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi rehearsing the arm wrestling scene up to 70 times, and Argento almost drowning Giuliana Calandra for real. He also provides an excellent explanation of the Jewish motif that is present in the film, and for making sense of Marcia Landy's vague and baffling assertions about Helga's Jewishness inviting viewers to remember the Holocaust - which I admit I dismissed in my own fan commentary. My only (slight) criticism would be that he does spend quite a lot of time describing what is happening on the screen - indicative, perhaps, of the speaker's lack of experience with this type of material (this is his first audio commentary). Overall, though, this is an excellent track that undoubtedly puts my own fan track firmly in the shade, and that alone is enough to make me happy to have this DVD in my collection. Would I class it as superior to the Jones commentaries? Possibly, but at the same time it's worth bearing in mind that they both serve different agendas.
Unfortunately, what really lets this release down is that the transfer (for both versions) is derived from the Italian 2004 master - in other words, a standards conversion of Lustig's aged NTSC master. As such, all my complaints about the Medusa disc hold true here: the image lacks definition, suffers from ghosting and strobing, and is overall underwhelming. In fact, it actually appears to be an identical encode, as a close examination of several frames, enlarged considerably in Photoshop, revealed absolutely no differences whatsoever in terms of compression. Thomas has told me that he did pursue the option of licensing Lustig's original NTSC master and doing a "proper" NTSC to PAL conversion (such as was done with Mondo Vision's excellent DVD of La Femme Publique, taken from a PAL master and converted to NTSC without going down the video-based standards conversion route), but that the amount of money demanded in order to use this transfer was so high that it would have been impossible to recuperate in sales to the Scandinavian market at which this release is aimed. As such, AWE's choice was simple: either go with the poor-quality standards converted transfer or don't release it at all.
Personally, I'm glad they went ahead with it, if only for the commentary, which, as I mentioned already, is excellent. Add to that the fact that this disc is reasonably priced (£8.99 at CDWOW), and it shouldn't make too big a dent in your wallet if you want to check out an informative and scholarly examination of perhaps the greatest giallo of all time. Add to that the fact that, although still a standards conversion, its presentation of the 105-minute export cut is the best so far (and comes complete with the original English closing credits that Lustig was apparently unable to track down), and you have at least two reasons to pick up a copy. However, those who simply want to watch the full-length "director's cut" in its best possible quality are going to want to hold on to our Anchor Bay/Blue Underground discs, for two reasons. First of all, barring the closing credits fiasco, they still constitute the best visual presentation of the film. Secondly, due to rights issues, there are no English subtitles on the AWE disc. This means that those of us who don't speak Italian fluently will be unable to watch the 126-minute version fully.
Overall, though, I am not about to say "Don't buy this release," but rather "Weigh up the facts and buy with caution." I hope that this overview of the situation gives people all the information they need to make their own decision about whether to pick up a copy or not. Myself, I hope that someone some day comes along and does this masterpiece the justice it deserves. Until then, however, we shall simply have to make do with the variety of discs available on the market, each with their own individual strengths and weaknesses.
Road to the future
The final version I wish to talk about is the high definition Windows Media Video 9 edition released in Italy in 2004. The title of this section aludes to the fact that, while the disc itself is far from perfect, it does hint at what might be possible for this film in the future. Ideally, for me, "the future" would consist of a Blu-ray Disc release containing both the original English and Italian mono recordings, with a full array of English subtitles. The WMV9 release has a resolution of 1440x816, which falls short of the 1920x1080 resolution that is more or less the standard for BD releases. Audio, meanwhile, is limited to a restored 24-bit Italian 5.1 remix, which features a very powerful-sounding mix of Giorgio Gaslini and Goblin's score, but is not how the film originally sounded and is therefore less than ideal. (It also lacks subtitles of any kind.)
Video-wise, the most significant limitation of the WMV9 release is in fact not the resolution but the bit rate. The result of cramming an HD presentation of a film with a running time of over two hours on to a DVD-9 is a plethora of compression artefacts, which vary in terms of intensity depending on how complex any given shot is. Regardless, the obvious quality of the master shines through, and instances such as Example 14 reveal an image alive with fine and unmolested grain, indicating that, with an adequate bit rate, the same master could eventually be used to make a very nice-looking BD. There is a somewhat distracting yellow/orange push, particularly evident in the conference scenes towards the start of the film, but I suspect this could be corrected without too much work - assuming, that is, that the Anchor Bay/AWE/Medusa discs show the correct colour values.
- Michael Mackenzie