Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Are 3-D movies boon or boondoggle?

This week a remake of the 1981 slasher flick My Bloody Valentine hacks its way into movie theaters. There’s nothing even remotely noteworthy about that—other than questioning the need for a remake of My Bloody Valentine—except that this version comes to us in glorious 3-D. Presumably this is the better to splatter blood on you. Now, I have no problem with that. It seems a perfectly defensible artistic choice given the type of movie this is. But there’s a trick to this—the 3-D version can only be shown in theaters equipped with digital projectors that can handle the new-and-improved 3-D process. As a result, Lionsgate has had to come up with plain old 2-D prints for use in theaters not so equipped. So if you want the full force of arterial spray in your face, you’ll have to be sure your theater of choice offers this cinematic wonder.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. In fact, Bolt 3-D is just now exiting theaters, and it posed exactly the same problem—3-D or not 3-D. This wasn’t the original plan, mind. That became obvious when last year’s Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D got a quick revamp advertising campaign that dropped the extra-dimensional appeal. The problem lies with Hollywood’s eagerness to cash in on this latest “salvation of the movies.” They’re ready to embrace it with open arms. Exhibitors are another matter. It reportedly costs about $100,000 to revamp to digital and 3-D, which is why there’s a shortage of 3-D venues. Don’t get ‘em wrong—exhibitors like the idea of 3-D. It adds appeal and it justifies a surcharge for the new technology. It’s that original cash outlay that cooks the goose.

This will change, since the studios are helping to fund the switch from 35mm to digital. It makes sense for everybody concerned. A 35mm print costs a studio between $3,000 and $4,000. A reusable hard-drive is a negligible expense by comparison—especially when you realize that most of those prints will be destroyed after the run, simply for lack of storage space. The shipping cost on 50 pounds of movie vs. four or five pounds of hard-drive is another factor. And as satellite access increases, the hard-drives and shipping fees are becoming quickly outmoded, too.

While there are a whole separate set of problems with digital, the format offers more pluses than minuses. Yes, files can get corrupted and, yes, equipment can screw up. And when it screws up, it requires a technician—the days of the savvy projectionist bludgeoning a mechanical prohector into submission are over. But digital films don’t scratch (that movie’ll look as good in its tenth week as on opening night), they don’t break, the image doesn’t jitter, the sound is generally better and—eventually—their existence will change the availability of older movies for theatrical venues.

Some of the old guard filmmakers have resisted it. Most famously, Clint Eastwood refused to allow Flags of Our Fathers to be released in the format, claiming he was a filmmaker, not a videomaker. (He seems to have overlooked the fact that films—including his—routinely go through a “digital intermediate” for purposes of tweaking the color and the effects work, meaning that the film was actually transferred back to 35mm for release.) Presumably, he’s been won over, since no fracas took place over Gran Torino being released in digital.

Digital 3-D requires more than just a digital projector, of course, but that’s the first hurdle. The real question is whether 3-D is the saviour of the movie business or just the gimmick du jour. It’s certainly not the first time it’s been tried with the former in mind, but then the movies have always had a tendency to think themselves in need of some kind of salvation or other, owing to a new threat—real or imagined.

In 1925 when box office receipts went down, the studios blamed radio. In 1938, they simply blamed the stars—labelling several of them (including Katharine Hepburn) “box office poison.” (That 1938’s releases weren’t a sterling lot never entered their minds.) The basic response—other than opting not to make movies with the “poisonous” stars—lay in re-issuing old movies, double-features and giving away prizes (ranging from dishes to cash). The biggest uproar came with the advent of television—and the idea that the movies had to give the public something they couldn’t get for free in their living rooms. Enter wide-screen movies—an idea that caught on—and, yep, 3-D movies—an idea that lasted about two years.

Despite the fact that most of the established directors didn’t care for Cinemascope (the biggest of the wide-screen processes), they worked in it, albeit not without complaining. Fritz Lang called it “fine for funerals and snakes,” while Rouben Mamoulian (whose 1957 film Silk Stockings is one of the best early uses of the format) merely deemed it, “the worst shape ever devised.” Working in 3-D was another matter. Only one major filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock, made a 3-D film, Dial M for Murder (1954), and it was released almost exclusively in a 2-D version. This was largely the result of the short-lived “craze” dying out, but Hitchcock’s refusal to subscribe to the basic 3-D “artistic” concept of “throwing things at the audience” may also have been a factor.

The first 3-D film, Bwana Devil (1952), was a cheesy picture from 3-D enthusiast Arch Oboler (whose cult status in some quarters mystifies me). Having natives throw spears and the audience didn’t do much to improve it. The ad campaign’s rather optimistic claims of “A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!” was hardly borne out by the onscreen results (maybe it would have been better if the lover had been in your lap).

By far the most famous of the 3-D films was—and is—Andre De Toth’s House of Wax (1953), a very sanitized remake of Michael Curtiz’s Mystery of the Wax Museum that featured a campy Vincent Price in the role that guaranteed his status as a horror star. Ironically, its 3-D was lost of De Toth, who only had one eye, a concern he dismissed by saying, “So? Beethoven couldn’t hear, could he?” Even while readily admitting that De Toth was no Beethoven, he had a point, since it was hardly necessary to be able to perceive depth in order to throw things at the camera. And you can certainly see all the intended 3-D effects even if you see these movies in 2-D.

House of Wax is the only of the “golden” era 3-D movies I’ve seen in their proper format, thanks to a 1981 re-issue, which I caught at one of those ghastly shoebox multiplexes with the aisle running down the center of the theater. That unfortunate theater design may actually have helped one of the effects, because it really did seem as if Charles Bronson was running down the aisle of the theater and leaping into the screen at one point. At least, that was mildly disconcerting—and also the most creative use of 3-D in the film. The thing that made the biggest impression on audiences, however, was the wholly extraneous inclusion of a street barker with flyback paddles aiming the balls at the lens. This not only pulls the viewer right out of the movie, but it’s pretty shabby as the big shock effect in a horror picture. Since the re-issue was done as cheaply as possible, the film was put out in the ghastly anaglyphic process—the one that requires the the red and blue glasses—which not only played hell with the color, but made the dark film just that much murkier.

There were also some black-and-white 3-D offerings—notably three of sci-cult director Jack Arnold’s films, It Came from Outer Space (1953), The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), The Revenge of the Creature (1955). It’s been a while since I’ve seen any of these—I’m not a huge Arnold admirer, and while the Creature is undeniably the greatest of all rubber-suit monsters, I find his antics boring—but my memory is that the films rely somewhat less on throwing things than on depth and, in the case of the Creature, having the monster reach out toward the viewer.

As soon as the 3-D craze passed, the process became nothing more than a novelty item that would crop up now and again without any attempt to push it into general use. Oddly, this resulted in what is still perhaps the best and most apt use of the process in 1973 with Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein—generally known in the U.S. as Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, despite Warhol’s almost complete lack of involvement (hey, it was a brand name). Morrissey’s X-rated horror picture—which had the benefit of being released in polarized 3-D rather than anaglyphic—was a perfect fit for 3-D. Morrissey embraced the form, revelling in throwing bats, a severed hand, entrails (courtesy of a disemboweled maid) and the rightly famous dangling Udo Kier liver on a spear at the viewer. The overstated camp silliness of the film and the 3-D gimmick needed each other like the axe needs the turkey. Even in its 2-D incarnation, the effects remain deliberately cheesy fun.

The early 1980s saw the release of the artistically specious and obviously titled Comin’ at Ya! (1981). Negligible as that movie is, its existence was probably the impetus for three series movies in search of a gimmick to bolster sagging returns. As a result, we were treated to Friday the 13th 3-D (1982), Amityville 3-D (1983) and, most infamously perhaps, Jaws 3-D. One could hardly call any of these high-water marks in the history of films—or even their own series. Granted Friday the 13th 3-D afforded us not only Jason at last getting his trademark hockey-mask, but the amazing 3-D flying eyeball effect. Still, it also boasted popcorn popping at the lens—and you thought the House of Wax flyback paddles were lame.

Just before the explosion of digital 3-D Robert Rodriguez played around with the process in Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (2003) and The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl 3-D (2005). The films were not among Rodriguez’s best work, which was particularly disheartening in the case of the Spy Kids film, since the first two entries has been so good. The 3-D didn’t help much—at least in the versions I saw. I understand that the films existed in the polarized process, but I only saw them in anaglyphic copies. Apart from the eyestrain/headache factor, the red and blue lenses reduced Rodriguez’s appealing pop art colors to the usual muddy purple haze. The fact that you removed the glasses for some scenes only made this that much more obvious.

And now we have the new Real D 3-D process. This landed here with Disney’s Meet the Robinsons in 2007—a pretty lackluster movie with the 3-D novelty being its major claim to interest. By comparison with the anaglyphic process, it looked pretty good, though I’ve yet to be convinced that it looks all that much better than polarized 3-D, which it’s a variant of. It also has the inherent problem of simply not working well in moments of fast action. My guess is that your eyes can’t process the movement fast enough for that to come across, but whatever the reason, it just doesn’t work.

Since then we’ve had a run of 3-D that threatens to be pretty unstoppable. The quality has been variable to say the least. The low-light has probably been Fly Me to the Moon (2008) with its already shaky premise of making maggots cute. But, hey, wasn’t the world suffering from a long-felt need of seeing an animated Amelia Earhart’s snot fly at the viewer in 3-D? I know I feel much more fulfilled for having seen this. The highlight was almost certainly the U2 concert film, clevery titled U2 3D (2008)—which really used the process to great effect. Even that gives rise to the question of whether or not one feels particularly inclined to experience the illusion that Bono is about to drip sweat right on you. Myself, I’m good without that.

The middle line lay in movies like Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D, which wasn’t actually awful, but wasn’t very good either. It also suffered from effects that clearly hadn’t been thought out terribly well by those responsible. Much of it was badly lit for 3-D and some of the CGI effects—especially the luminiscent bird—just plain didn’t work to the point of sometimes registering as, “What the hell is that supposed to be?”

One of the more interesting applications of 3-D was the retrofitting of the process onto Tim Burton’s the Nightmare Before Christmas (1994). This worked pretty well and it played to sufficiently strong box office that Disney opted to turn it into a yearly Halloween event. That it played to far smaller crowds the second year makes the prospect of this annual event continuing seem unlikely. I think this has less to do with the limitations of remokeying a film to be in 3-D—you can add depth, but you can’t make things “come out” of the screen—than it has to do with the basic fact that 3-D is a gimmick, a novelty. I was glad to be able to see the film on a movie screen in 2007, but didn’t bother doing so in 2008—entirely because I wasn’t interested in seeing it in 3-D again. Had it simply been the film, chances are I’d have watched it, but the prospect of the glasses and the eyestrain made me perfectly content with the DVD as an alternative. The 3-D-ification of it did not enhance the movie.

That, for me, is the bottom line on all this 3-D mania. It may look all kinds of spiffier than it did in the old days, but does it really help the movies? My feeling is that it doesn’t—except in cases where the movies and the gimmick are on equal footing. The studios are using a few dubious measurements to bolster their belief in the draw of 3-D. That the 3-D versions make more money than their 2-D counterparts is true, but when you consider the two to three dollar surcharge, the actual figures aren’t on even footing. That the 3-D Hannah Montana “documentary”/concert film was a raging success—at grotesquely inflated prices—probably had less to do with 3-D than with the core demographic. (Of course, the 3-D justified the price.)

Of course, the studio logic is that they’re battling ever-more-sophisticated home theater set-ups by offering something you can’t get at home. (Where have I heard that before?) As noted, studios have a history of this. Besides the cases I cited before, we’ve had the fear of cable TV in the 1960s, which the studios painted as “pay TV” and were quick to set up petitions against in theater lobbies. When home video came about it was widely perceived as a threat without the concept of home theaters. Now, it’s a large part of the profits. The real irony here is that the Real D 3-D folks are working on perfecting the process for—you guessed it—home theaters.

The truth is that all movies benefit from being seen on a movie screen in a theater. I don’t care how good your home theater is, this simply hasn’t changed and it isn’t likely to change. And that has nothing to do with 3-D. That’s not to say that 3-D can’t be fun. Having seen My Bloody Valentine 3-D in between starting this article and finishing it, I’d say that it is fun—of a certain kind. It’s bloody, it’s nasty, it’s graphic and, boy, is it ever dumb. But it’s also the best actual use of 3-D in a narrative film I’ve seen in this latest outburst of the process. That part of the reason this is so involves the first instance on record of a jaw being torn off someone’s head and flying at the audience is perhaps all you need to know about its actual artistic merits.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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13 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Are 3-D movies boon or boondoggle?

  1. Ken Hanke

    I thought 3-D movies were called plays.

    A not unreasonable assertion, but most plays (I’m sure there are some) don’t throw things at the audience. More often, it’s the other way around.

  2. shadmarsh

    but most plays (I’m sure there are some) don’t throw things at the audience.

    I was once at a play in Buffalo when, just as the play ended, one of the actors jumped off stage and went after a guy in the audience who had, apparently, been listening to a football game via headphones during the production. Now that was entertainment!

  3. Ken Hanke

    I was once at a play in Buffalo when, just as the play ended, one of the actors jumped off stage and went after a guy in the audience who had, apparently, been listening to a football game via headphones during the production. Now that was entertainment!

    I like it. You know, there’s a story about John Barrymore being in a play during a winter season where colds were epidemic. He got so tired of working around the coughing audiences that he armed himself with a fish, and when the hacking started up, he threw the thing into the audience saying, “Chew on that, you goddamn walruses!” Apocryphal? Very likely, but I choose to believe it.

  4. Ken Hanke

    I think some of those 3-D stewardess movies are coming out next month.

    I’ll take that as a kind of friendly warning.

  5. But what of FUN?

    I will admit right off the bat that I got a bit bored reading your essay Mr. Hanke – No Offence intented – it’s just that your points were giving me a bit of a headache through these glasses I had to buy to read it.

    So maybe you touched on this after I just scrolled down here to the “comments” but what about the “fact” that 3D films are just fun?!

    I will see a film in 3D no matter how awful I know it is going to be and I know it is always going to be awful.

    Even the “good” ones.

    With the amount of shit coming out of Hollywood the more gimmick the better.

    If Fox had promised a puppy to anyone who had left “Marley And Me” without crying I would have been there.

    If they had stationed “Cry Monitors” in every theater (elderly matrons in Cry Monitor Uniforms who would slap a “Cry Baby” bracelet on your wrist the minute the first tear fell so you couldn’t leave the theater with a Golden Retriever)imagine the fun!

  6. Ken Hanke

    So maybe you touched on this after I just scrolled down here to the “comments” but what about the “fact” that 3D films are just fun?!

    It’s mentioned a few times in fact, though perhaps only directly toward the end. I don’t really think discussing flying eyeballs and a liver on a spear qualifies as being of terribly weighty concern.

    I will see a film in 3D no matter how awful I know it is going to be and I know it is always going to be awful.

    Does that include the Hannah Montana film? While I end up seeing every 3-D opus that comes along, that one I only saw because I had no real choice.

    With the amount of shit coming out of Hollywood the more gimmick the better.

    Seems a little strong to me.

    If Fox had promised a puppy to anyone who had left “Marley And Me” without crying I would have been there.

    Now, that idea amuses me, if only because I would now be enjoying the spectacle of Justin Souther paper training a puppy. All in all, I think a free jellyfish with Seven Pounds would be a better bet. The worrisome thing in all this is that some studio might take it seriously.

  7. jake

    I have seen My Bloody Valentine and i was somewhat happy with it. It was the first 3-D Movie i have seen that is full on 3-D. I was very impressed with the 3-D if you don’t go see it because you think the movie is going to suck, go see it to experience a 3D movie at it best.

  8. Ken Hanke

    go see it to experience a 3D movie at it best.

    Oh, yes, whatever else you may think of the movie, it scores high marks in the 3-D department.

  9. Ken Hanke

    And 3-D apparently pays off, since 80% of the movie’s $24.1 million take for the weekend came from the 3-D theaters, which accounted for far less than half of its screens.

  10. Baffled

    Ken, how could you possibly neglect mentioning Arthur Hilton’s 1953 masterpiece “Cat Women of the Moon” in any respectable discussion of 3D movies?

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