The Mad Magician Returns + The Bat, Chamber of Horrors, and Thoughts on 3D

February 8, 2017 | By

In a January 28th article for the BBC, Dave Lee more or less concludes 3D is officially toast due to the studios once again bungling the multi-dimensional process’s second historic return to film screens by making crap, and worse, re-rendering films to 3D in post-production to squeeze extra dollars from cinemagoers.

I’m sure the bean counters figured that for X dollars spent on post-rendering, costs would be recouped by inflated ticket prices, and perhaps start a trend where audiences could see future films flat and in premium 3D, and later buy the film in a deluxe special edition on Blu-ray carrying both formats.

That may have been the hope – split runs, adding box office and home video value to compete against downloading and Netflix and its brethren – but as recent ‘wide film’ format Barco Escape demonstrated, a format is only worth exploiting when there are filmmakers who understand how it works, and are willing to take creative gambles that make sense. I never experienced Barco’s three panel setup, but immediately balked when it was clear the system consisted of two flat panels flanking a centre panel, and bending towards the audience at the theatre’s edges.





If Cinerama taut us anything, human peripheral vision sees things in a slight curve; Barco’s experiential setup looked like someone pulled the edges of a 3-monitor setup forward by a few inches and exclaimed Eureka!

StarTrekBeyond_Barco_posterColleagues were not impressed by the periodic single shots that popped up on the side panels during Star Trek Beyond (2016), evoking peripheral flash frames instead of visual information that dramatic accentuated the centre screen.

Christopher Nolan’s interchanging of ‘scope and IMAX for The Dark Knight (2008) had its odd moments – single IMAX shots were sometimes used to establish scene changes or locations – but Nolan’s flipping to complete sequences in IMAX pushed dramatic impact farther, and was also visually consistent. Barco’s design sounds like the visual equivalent of a tepid 5.1 mix in which a little rear surround and bass kicked in once in a while to remind audiences the extra price tag was worth it, but there are undoubtedly many who found the format overall pleasing and promising.

I’m slagging Barco not because it sounds inferior, but due to it being ill-planned and oddly implemented, adapting an idea from massive multimedia shows and display systems for cinemas but not understanding how drama within movies works when extended beyond standard single screen visual and aural media.

ItCameFromOuterSpace_posterThe functionality, application, and technical implementation of 3D in film has been known for years. In his autobiography, Andre De Toth, the one-eyed director of one of the Best 3D films ever made, House of Wax (1953), wrote a fairly technical description of how 3D should be used, and his movie proved he was right; and some of the first 3D films produced by Hollywood – House by Warner’s, It Came from Outer Space (1953) by Universal – remain exceptional examples of how a newfangled format / gimmick can be a dramatic enhancement tool when its application is well thought-out.

The studios in the 1950s trusted filmmakers because the suits didn’t understand 3D, and needed a carrot to drag audiences away from free TV. Filmmakers used instinct and organization to strategize where the jumps would happen, but more importantly, how scenes should be constructed so audiences didn’t feel nauseous or get headaches from overstimulation. The idea was to get people into a 3D world, make them comfortable, and at key points, poke ‘em in the eye.

These effects were plotted and executed with probably the same logical thinking required to design a set where objects and depth offered clarity, balance, and enhanced characters yapping away in a scene, which is perhaps why some of the early 3D films that have been exquisitely restored for Blu-ray 3D still look so damn good.

Avatar_3D_posterIn the 1950s, studios quickly gave up on the format, having milked what they thought was available, and switching to glasses-free big screen / big sound instead; in the 1980s, studios and indie producers largely made gimmick-centric schlock to (once again) drag teens away from TV sets, video games, VCRs, and cable TV, and buy cinema tickets; and in the 2000s, 3D creeped back and exploded in 2009 when James Cameron’s Avatar grossed a fortune.

In the minds of studios, 3D was back; it was on firmer ground; and blockbusters presented in premium priced 3D equaled more cash for tent pole pictures.

But as Lee cites in his BBC piece, even Cameron lamented how studios dropped the ball and in Lee’s words ‘blew it,’ and yet from 3D’s third time in North American cinemas, a lot of classics that had been in danger of disappearing were rescued, including Gog (1954) and The Bubble (1966).

Movies I remember seeing on TV as ‘3D presentations’ like The Mad Magician (1954) have been pristinely restored to BR, so perhaps for film fans of classic 3D and film history, the mania to exploit resulted in a symbiotic relationship between studios future-proofing 3D catalogue films for the next (inevitable) resurgence, and home video collectors.

Once touted 3D TVs were soon rebranded Smart TVs when 3D became a negative selling point, and when 4K became the new focal point for manufacturers and studios wanting another stream to exploit catalogue and new blockbusters, 3D as an option virtually vanished from consumer home theatre screens.

To writers of consumer gear for the home theatre, 3D may be dead, but not for filmmakers, video game creators, and artists wanting to have fun and experiment – basically do what the studios reserve for blockbusters when 3D could very well work on smaller scaled dramas that don’t rely on spaceships, aliens, or meat cleavers aimed at youths who wandered too far from base camp.

It’s the classic conundrum of rather than pooling resources to fund quality dramas by filmmakers wanting to enhance small suspense, horror, and psychological dramas, it’s mega-budget productions like Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015), which isn’t fine, because if too many blockbusters bomb, then 3D will be cited as a contributing factor, hence the perpetuation that 3D and films are crap.

This is admittedly a long preamble to a simple graph spotlighting several new reviews today, but the point I’m making is that although media writers versed in trends and popular technology may write-off a format, and the industry makes a few glaring fumbles with shitty movies either shot or post-rendered in 3D, the format isn’t dead, which makes Lee’s piece presumptuous in not taking into account the format’s cyclical return(s). The stance is that it shouldn’t come back again because wearers of 3D glasses look inherently silly.

He’s 100% correct in citing the asinine ploy of an admission including the cost of new glasses which one can return, but without getting a partial refund; you can hold to the glasses and let them pile up (I’ve 3) or bring one to the next screening even though the ticket price will once again include a new set of glasses.

But does that make 3D as a process  silly? Of course not.

I review classic and contemporary films and avidly look forward to good movies whose filmmakers made fun and intelligent visual choices for their 3D films, and am delighted those aforementioned near-death films from past 3D waves and its waning years are being rescued by the likes of the 3-D Film Archive. Without their participation, Canada’s first 3D feature and horror feature, The Mask (1961), would’ve remained out of circulation.


Stateside, the challenge in restoring non-studio titles is undoubtedly more challenging, mandating Kickstarter campaigns for funding (see September Storm), and figuring out who exactly owns the film and the surviving elements (which may have been kept in a garage in less than ideal packing).

With forgotten 3D films from prior decades being remastered for Blu and new blockbusters still slated for 3D exhibition, it’s premature to write-off 3D as a terminal dud. I’d regard as a technology struggling to find its deserved niche and respect among widescreen, big screen, assorted surround sound variants, ultra res digital projection, 35mm and 70mm film formats, and esoteric formats. All it takes is directorial, scriptorial, and production ineptitude to burnish 3D’s stigma, but the perpetually deflated process is used to that, as are fans, because good 3D films leave a positive impression that keeps the process alive.

As for those restorations, the latest to hit Blu is The Mad Magician, which Twilight Time recently released in a special edition that to my delight includes the Three Stooges shorts that accompanied the fairly short feature film when it aired way back in the 1980s as a ‘3D TV’ event. Other titles screened that time included Gorilla at Large (1954), and John Wayne’s Hondo (1953), which was restored quite a while ago, but remains unavailable in 3D on disc.

DVD Savant also reports, via a comment from 3-D Archives’ Bob Furmanek, that Fox’s excellent noir thriller Inferno (1953) was restored around 2008. Britain’s Panamint released a 2D / 3D Blu-ray, and film noir historians Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode produced a featurette and recorded a commentary for a still unreleased Region A release.

Also reviewed is The Bat (1959), which, like Magician and House of Wax starred Vincent Price. The screenwriter of both films was Crane Wilbur, who also directed Bat. There is a Blu of Bat out there, but I covered the older Anchor Bay DVD, and I’ve also reviewed Chamber of Horrors (1966), Warner Bros.’ aborted attempt to launch a House of Wax TV series which was reworked into a genuinely gimmicky feature film that is exceptionally well-written, directed, filmed, and peppered with a solid cast. It’s a forgotten gem that Warner Home Video released as part of a double-bill disc some time ago.

Like Magician, The Mask was also broadcast in a 3D TV edition in the 80s and was released on tape in 3D, but Kino’s DVD (NOT Blu!) includes the TV airing’s intro / outro bumpers that were shot in 3D using studio cameras.


I don’t know if 3D cameras existed or were fleetingly manufactured for studio use at the time, given 3D TV had two short waves: the 1980s, and a tiny blip when Fox TV aired Revenge of the Nerds IV: Nerds in Love in 1994 (I think) in 3D in a time slot that included one or two TV shows either shot in 3D or featuring 3D segments. (I taped them back then and never watched them, so I’ve no idea of the 3D’s quality, but a Wiki refers to the Pulfrich effect that formed the basis of the broadcast’s 3D.)

I mention The Mask’s intro / outro segments because the 3D effects aren’t bad; they’re subtle but not ineffective, which made me wonder if they used actual 3D cameras, or found a workaround, perhaps genlocking two studio cameras with red / blue filters to film 3D, and mixing the footage live to tape.

I’m testing a theory whether it’s possible to shoot 3D using a single camera with no digital manipulation or fakery beyond colour and brightness adjustments for a planned music video. I posted Vimeo and YouTube links to the first test which did mandate digital slight adjustments to line up the red-blue layers, but the two colour ‘strips’ were shot using an old 3-tube broadcast camera. It’s not precise 3D, but it’s not flat 2D, either. You just need a pair of classic red-blue anaglyph glasses to watch the footage (and maybe Advil to temper a slight headache).

See my post at Big Head Amusements for more info.

Coming next: a pair of Hedy Lamarr docs that played Hot Docs and TIFF a few years ago but have yet to make an appearance on DVD in North America.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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