The Digital Blessing and Its Curse 

Two DVD transfers -- one disappointment and two improvements

Just when you think you've made your peace with the whole digital revolution thing, along comes some bit of business to remind you that, sometimes, old ways are still best.One of my favorite films of recent years is a movie called The Fast Runner (also known as Atanarjuat), a film of austere but enormous beauty that is also, in effect, the world's first Inuit production. Inuit -- known in less PC times as Eskimos -- made up the vast majority of the cast and crew of this movie, which was shot in its entirety on a remote arctic island. To maximize mobility under daunting, subzero conditions, The Fast Runner was shot on relatively easy to handle digital video, and then later meticulously transferred to widescreen 35mm film.

The end result was stunning. I vividly remember the pleasure of sitting in a movie theater being seduced by the film, of how its award-winning cinematography (a Camera d'Or recipient at Cannes) contributed to its hypnotic vision of 11 century Inuit life. Filled with haunting imagery and an endless variety of blinding white light, The Fast Runner is an elemental movie if ever there was one, dominated by breathtaking shots of earth, water, wind, the occasional fire and a whole lot of ice.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I slipped in the new DVD of The Fast Runner only to discover something that bore little resemblance to the film that knocked me out in the theater last year.

In a word or two, the new Columbia TriStar DVD of The Fast Runner is too much of a good thing.

On DVD, the film is too sharp, too clear. Too lacking in mystery.

What seems to have happened is that some ostensibly well-meaning souls made the decision to bypass using the film negative for the transfer of The Fast Runner to DVD, and went directly to what they perceived as the source: the digital video master.

This would have been fine had the makers of the film been after a "digital video" look. But they weren't. What they were after (according to numerous statements from the director and cinematographer) was the more richly textured, painterly qualities associated with actual film. Those qualities have been mostly lost in the version of The Fast Runner that is now immortalized on this DVD edition.

Compared to film, video is a harsher, less forgiving medium, and the picture quality on the DVD is simply too bright and piercing. Those elegant white landscapes now just look overexposed, and the cinematography in general now seems more pedestrian than poetic, as if we're watching a camcorder-shot student documentary on the making-of this epic film, rather than the film itself. A final, unfortunate byproduct of all of this is a stilted, rushed quality to the film's performances, resulting in actors who suddenly look like they're, well, acting.

There's a happy ending to the story, though.

Curious about rumors I'd heard of an "inferior" DVD edition of this film manufactured in Canada, I broke down and ordered a copy from a Canadian website. When it arrived, the two-DVD edition of The Fast Runner produced by Alliance Atlantis did indeed turn out to feature a picture that was significantly less sharp than the crystal clear image on the American disc. On the other hand, the "softer" picture on the Canadian set was also infinitely more true to the way the movie was supposed to look. It looked like film.

Besides the more satisfying transfer taken from the film master (as opposed to the digital video master), the Alliance Atlantis DVD includes quite a few extra features, none of which appear on the bare bones American edition. You get a production diary, a wealth of text-based information (including a running "commentary" of facts about Iglooik society) and, strangest of all, an additional six minutes of material within the film itself. I couldn't begin to tell you what the six minutes consist of, but I'm glad they're there.

The digital news is not all bad, though, and some of it is downright great. Mondo Macabro, an English outfit that has produced some of the most bizarre and best DVDs ever to come out of the U.K., has now opened shop in America. The news gets even better: Mondo Macabro's debut disc in the states is a Special Edition of their previously released and highly acclaimed Alucarda, digitally tweaked and revamped into a stunning new DVD that easily outshines the original U.K. effort.

Alternately dreamlike and intense, Alucarda is a horror movie of sorts about a pair of teenage girls who fall in love, and then use black magic to wreak havoc on everyone who's rubbed them wrong. The 1975 movie is filled with over-the-top elements -- satanism, nudity, batty priests, flagellating nuns, ritualistic orgies, exorcisms, and more blood and screaming than you'll find in most 10 movies -- but there's a perversely elegant intelligence behind it all, as well as a bold aesthetic vision.

Besides being genuinely scary, Alucarda (known stateside as Sisters of Satan) is a richly atmospheric work of art, filled with haunting, baroque imagery that makes exquisite use of the broken-down monastery that serves as its principal setting. The movie was directed by legendary Mexican filmmaker Juan Lopez Moctezuma, who looks back to Ken Russell's 1971 The Devils, as well as forward to the body horrors of David Cronenberg.

The movie looked great on the original U.K. DVD, and it's even better here. The picture has been sharpened up to really show off the film's colorful and often outlandish sets and costumes, and the image is much more smoothly textured and grain-free in general. Flesh tones are accurate, blacks are extremely deep and solid, and even the sound has been cleaned up to make the dialogue easier to hear. Best of all, the new U.S. edition features a slew of cool extras, including two unavailable on the U.K. DVD. There's an intimate interview with director Guillermo del Toro (The Devil's Backbone) as well as a fascinating mini-doc on Moctezuma, including rare clips of his films and info on his association with the Panic Movement, Jodorowsky and El Topo.

All in all, a great package from a major new player on the cult DVD scene. Remember the name: Mondo Macabro. You'll be hearing a lot more from them.

The Fast Runner (American DVD) 1/2
The Fast Runner (Canadian DVD)
Alucarda

Film Critic Lance Goldenberg can be reached at lgoldenb@tampabay.rr.com or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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