January 25, 2012

Classic 3-D horror films... not for sale in 3-D, mostly

3-D movies wish-list, or, I've got a 3-D TV and I want to use it

(Updated November, 2013)

3-D movies are back in the cinemas, having appeared in various incarnations for over a hundred years. But for the first time, a high quality 3-D experience is available at home. Until this new wave of 3-D televisions were available, we've only been able to use cardboard red/blue or red/green glasses to watch DVDs and videotapes for a fairly poor 3-D experience. Watching a blurry VHS of Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare in 'Freddy Vision' wasn't an immersive experience. But now that there are new 3-D systems, in high definition, I think 3-D is here to stay, especially with its use in video games...

I've always enjoyed 3-D cinema, and was especially excited to discover that some classic horror movies had been made that way. I've hunted down various special screenings over the years and have seen all my favourites in 3-D (the BFI ran several 3-D seasons in London, for instance).

The new incarnation of 3-D movies has been the biggest ever, though I've mostly enjoyed animation, like Ice Age 3. The process has been used and abused in many action films where it's at odds with fast editing and juddery camera movement. Even more variable are the 'faked' 3-D movies that post-produce dimensional effects from 2-D image recording. Post-produced 3-D has been effectively revitalising older animated feature films. The first 'unflattened' Disney films I saw in the cinema was The Nightmare Before Christmas (now 3-D on Blu-ray) in 2008 (though it was first released in 2007), and it gave us false hope that all 'fake' 3-D was going to look as good.

Of the recent live-action films, 3-D works best for me with a slow-moving or static camera looking at deep sets. Joe Dante's The Hole (2009) is a lightweight horror for youngsters with some effective Japanese ghostly apparitions, but the constant and inventive 3-D visuals are wonderfully designed.

For the first years of this new 3-D wave, Hollywood studios seemed to reach an across-the-board agreement not to remind present audiences that, visually, this isn't much different from the previous 3-D crazes (that all rapidly faded away). They've released very few of the old 3-D movies using this new technology, no matter how good the 3-D effects were. Obviously, with two prints or negatives involved, twice as much costly restoration work is needed.

But here's a rundown of the classic, older, 3-D movies that could and should be on 3-D blu-ray, including the few that already are.

In the 1950's, the movie business was terrified by the erosion of audiences by that new gadget, TV. People could stay at home and watch movies, so why go to the cinema? So studios had to offer what TV couldn't. Wider screens, bigger screens, stereo sound and 3-D - all innovations that appeared at great expense to keep the industry thriving.

3-D movies were shot with two cameras, presented on their first run in cinemas on two synchronised projectors, and viewed with polaroid spectacles. It's a myth that the first big audiences for 3-D wore red-and-green glasses in the 1950s - they were seeing sharp 3-D images using a very similar process as we get now.

Only on re-release would the single-strip red-and-green prints be distributed. Small cinemas and even colleges could then show the slightly inferior 'anaglyph' version of 3-D. I don't think I've ever seen a polaroid presentation of a classic film - it's always been with two-coloured glasses. All the more reason that I'd like to see these films in HD and 3-D.

Like now, not all 3-D movies are good, but Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954) is still great fun, even when viewed 'flat'. In 3-D, it uses some great 'grabs' at the audience with its huge razor claws, and some fantastic dimensional scenes underwater. It's also a classic monster movie with a fantastically well-designed creature suit. The underwater version of the suit didn't have an air supply - diver Ricou Browning had to hold his breath for each take.

This is now available in the newly remastered HD Universal Horror range, both in the boxset and on an individual blu-ray release. The disc contains both a 2-D and 3-D version of the entire film in high-definition.

Creature From The Black Lagoon was a roaring success, so the first sequel Revenge Of The Creature (1955) was also shot in 3-D. The second sequel, The Creature Walks Among Us, was made after the 1950s' 3-D boom went bust, and was shot 'flat'.

An early close encounter, based on a Ray Bradbury story, is the frankly scary It Came From Outer Space (1953), which even hurls flaming meteors at the 3-D camera to make audiences duck and cover. All three of the above films were directed by Jack Arnold. It has an eerie 'body snatchers' plot with aliens victimising a remote town in the desert.

I must also mention The Maze (1953), even though it's yet to surface even on DVD. It stars Richard Carlson who's also in all three of the Jack Arnold 3-D movies! This is a mystery that takes place in a Scottish castle. The 3-D is effectively planned by legendary production designer-turned-director, William Cameron Menzies, who also made Invaders From Mars the same year. The 3-D effects are especially good when wandering around the maze itself. I first enjoyed this in one of the BBC's Saturday night horror double-bills in the 1970s and have been waiting for it to be rediscovered ever since. More about The Maze here.

So far, the movies I've mentioned are all black-and-white, but an expensive colour film launched the 3-D format in America. The original House of Wax (1953) starred Vincent Price at the start of his horror career. Charles Bronson also makes an early appearance as his mute assistant. The 3-D highlights of the film include the hooded killer stalking the foggy streets, the camera prowling through the wax museum, and, ahem, the guy with the paddle ball...

House of Wax is now on 3-D blu-ray in the US. The disc also includes a 2-D version and the 1933 movie Mystery of the Wax Museum, on which it was based. There's also a thorough appreciation of the film, including interviews with Joe Dante and Martin Scorsese about the use of 3-D in this innovative production.

Even Alfred Hitchcock made a 3-D movie during this period, Dial M For Murder (1954). Surprisingly, his use of the third dimension was quite restrained and the story suffers from obviously being based on the confined shenanigans of a stage play. Still, Grace Kelly in 3-D...

This was released in late 2012 on 3-D blu-ray by Warner Home Video.

The 1950s' 3-D bubble burst after only a few years, making 3-D a rare oddity until the 1980s. An exception was The Mask (1961). Most of the story is filmed flat, in more ways than one, but the 'dream sequences' are exceptionally well-filmed in 3-D, with trippy scary scenes revolving around a sacrificial netherworld. There was an anaglyph (red/blue) release recently on DVD. The film is black and white and cited as Canada's first horror film! More about The Mask here.

I've had a few arguments online about the use of 3-D in I, Monster (1971) the Amicus Films adaption of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. This began filming using a very different method of 3-D that only works with specific left-right camera movement. There's a debate about how much of the film was shot correctly but, to me, it works in almost every scene. The director was at odds with the producer over the 3-D effect and the film wasn't given a 3-D release. But...

Any version of the film will still work in 3-D, on VHS, DVD or whatever, but a different kind of glasses are needed, where the right lens is darker than the left. I bought some proper 'Pulfrich effect' glasses online, but knocking the left lens out of a pair of sunglasses is a cheaper option. More about I, Monster here...

Ahead of the next 3-D wave is one of the greatest 3-D horror movies. Andy Warhol's Flesh For Frankenstein (1973) was filmed in 3-D, presumably to add extra kitsch value. This benefited from a new film format that made it possible to halve the cost of shooting in 3-D, with both images shot on the same strip of film. Besides saving money by only needing one camera, this meant that older issues of alignment (two cameras having to be perfectly positioned) and synchronisation (film damage on one print might make it slightly out of synch with the other) were now also solved. This is also why the best 3-D that followed was all 2.35 widescreen - both widescreen images were stacked in the space of where one 35mm image normally was.  

Director Paul Morrissey gave us the first in excessive 3-D gore, which pre-empts and exceeds much of the blood-letting in the 3-D Friday the 13th movie that followed. Bad taste, bad acting, great 3-D. This outrageousness tops my wishlist for a proper 3-D release. There was a single, blurry 3-D transmission of this on Channel 4.

The 1980s brought the next 3-D boom, using the over/under 2.35 process to great effect for Jaws 3-D and Friday the 13th Part 3 3D. While they're not the greatest movies, the 3-D is very sharply presented. This Friday really deserves a great 3-D release to show how good they could make it back then. It's also the best way to understand why everyone is firing stuff at the camera.

While I was preparing this article, the good news was that Friday the 13th Part 3 3D is getting a 3-D release on Blu-ray. The bad news is... it won't be using the new 3-D technology, but the old red/blue 'anaglyph' process. Therefore you won't need a 3-D television to enjoy it. It's also available on DVD, again in anaglyph 3-D.

Jaws 3-D has also been announced for a Blu-ray release later in 2012 and again won't be using the new 3-D technology, the same as the Friday the 13th Part 3 3D release. Glasses will be provided with the Blu-ray. No artwork is available yet.

Finally, Freddy's Dead - The Final Nightmare cheated (in many ways) by only having a 3-D finale, by the time my eyes had adjusted, the scene was over! It looked even worse in 3-D on VHS (above). I'm mentioning this for Freddy fans, I don't actually want to see this again...


3-D Movies by R. M. Hayes.
Chunky textbook attempting to document every single movie or short film released in the first 100 years of 3-D cinema.

Fantastic 3-D - A Starlog Photo Guidebook.
An easy reference guide, lots of colour photos, but published before the end of the 1980s 3-D boom.

A concise history of cinema 3-D - on the Wide Screen Movies site.

3-D Online Magazine horror special...


  1. Watching that Freddy movie in theaters was a genuine thrill when I first saw it. Freddy was going to die (same as he'd die in all previous five films) but there was supposed to be some sort of finality to this 6th film.

    The 3-D added to the excitement, I remember putting them all excited and all. I thought it was a fun 3-D movie, and a fun NOES film as well. But by this point, Freddy had evolved into a joke spewing clown, which I came to enjoy. Fun times!

  2. EXCELLENT write-up. I'm glad to hear that the Jaws 3-D Blu will be in 3-D. I saw Jaws 3-D in the theater at the perfect age (5 years old) and it forever shaped my moviegoing tastes (for better or worse) forever. I also saw Spacehunter 3-D, The Man Who Wasn't There 3-D, and Amityville 3-D in the theater and remember watching parts of the 3-D Hondo on TV around the same time. I'd pay good money to watch them in 3-D again.

    --Mitch, The Video Vacuum

  3. Jaws 3d actually coming to bluray 3d this june 2016. This will be digital 3d, not anaglyph.