Friday, June 7

So which is worse, a bad looking VHS or a bad looking DVD?

Ugh. Both experiences aren't preferable, but damn, sometimes you encounter such a horrible presentation that it's a real challenge to even finish watching a movie. Over the weekend I came across this DVD of Paul Bartel's Death Race 2000 (1975) and realized shamefully that I had never seen this revered Corman-produced cult classic. A couple red flags indicating the disc being crap went up immediately. It was sealed, only a buck, and found in a box of other obviously budget titles from "one of those guys" that seem squirreled away in the back corner of every flea market. Plus the distributor, "Digital Multimedia Limited", has the most generic name for a DVD producer imaginable.

Awful picture quality seemed inevitable and yes; it's almost sublime how this DVD features nearly every fault the format can possess. The VHS format can look horrible, make no mistake, but for me a bad disc is far more annoying. The prevailing digital video codec of the medium, MPEG-2, seems to be given to many more potential picture quality problems. Forgoing cheap EP/SLP recordings and mechanical issues (dirty heads/stretched tape/tape damage), the biggest issue with a standard VHS presentation is that picture might be too dark, bright, or the colors might be wonky.

However, this Death Race 2000 disc typifies all that can be terrible with DVD. First, the image is interlaced instead of progressive, so there's an enormous amount of line combing during any motion. VHS is inherently interlaced, but you generally don't see this problem given its low resolution combined with most modern displays including advanced comb filters that can "clean-up" such analog with ease. Interlaced DVD is harder to correct and with this DVD even my Oppo 980 and 971 couldn't entirely resolve the severity of the issue.

"Block" artifacts constantly appear since MPEG-2 is a digital video compression method and obviously this presentation was just shat onto the disc with zero care. Oddly, an old issue with VHS's composite signal, known as dot crawl, shows up like crazy here. This problem creates a dancing pincushion-like effect over the entire image (especially evident in scenes featuring primarily solid colors). Again, any decent filter/deinterlacer can correct this in VHS but here it's embedded permanently in the digital video. So there's constant lines with motion, blocking, and dots littering the picture. A real mess that's also bleached out. Although the lack of color is the least of it and wouldn't be crippling if the other negatives seen here were absent.

The weird thing about all this is that you probably wouldn't see much sign of these problems if watching on a traditional CRT tube television. While a bad VHS tends to look worse on an HDTV. There's a myth about VHS always looking like crap on current display technologies. Some modern sets do slack on analog processing ability ("Who buys an HDTV to watch dead formats?"), but usually if you adjust the picture accordingly a "decent" picture can be acquired from old VHS tapes on your brand new 1080p 3D local dimming LED LCD. Just keep those expectations in check. However, I'm inclined to believe DVD having the sad aspect of looking uglier when the format isn't used to its potential than a substandard VHS. It says something when even powerful processing struggles to fix the possible errors of MPEG encoding. I literally couldn't finish watching this DVD despite enjoying the movie (going to get the Blu-ray eventually). An occurrence that rarely happens when popping in a VHS...

(click to enlarge, ugh.)


Chainsaw Cinema said...

I don't understand how anyone could get themselves to release something in such a terrible state and it's a shame you had to watch it for the first time in such a terrible quality, 'cause it really is a fun movie.

Doug Brunell, author of "Nothing Men" said...

It is actually a really good movie, but this company really needs to be taken to the woodshed and slapped around a bit.

Tommy Ross said...

still watch a lot of VHS and hooked up to my plasma I've fooled lots of people thinking they were watching a DVD. VHS tapes in general last a long long time and really have to take a major beating and literally hundreds of views before they go down. One minor scratch on a DVD bad enough to cause picture damage can ruin the whole movie watching experience. So I guess that's where I stand on that stuff, lol. - Ps, if you liked Deathrace check out a movie called Cannonball also with Carradine. you dare tread upon the staircase?

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