When, in the 1950s, television became widespread and began to take a serious chunk of the audience away from cinemas, the movies fought back in a number of ways. Gimmicks were rife (hello, William Castle). Colour became standard. Widescreen arrived. But other than colour and widescreen, every other innovation turned out to be a brief novelty, never to be seen again. There was once exception, a gimmick that was more popular than most, never became a standard, but refuses to die, resurfacing again and again after periods of dormancy, and that’s 3-D.
Over fifty years after Arch Obler (ironically, the king of radio suspense) unleashed Bwana Devil, there are signs that 3-D might finally be achieving a somewhat more stable position in theatres. It’s a long way from being a mainstream standard, but it has found a niche. Saunter down to your local IMAX and check out the offerings. Most of them will be in 3-D, and that includes blockbuster films (though in their case, the extra dimension turns up only in selected scenes). In IMAX, 3-D has finally lived up to its potential. Gone are the awkward red-and-blue-lensed cardboard glasses. In their place are gigantic plastic units not unlike goggles, that fit very comfortably over the viewer’s own glasses. Gone, too, is the headache-inducing effect of old-school 3-D. The current release Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure deploys 3-D as we always imagined it might be. The effect absolutely convincing, and absolutely immersive.
So where does this leave the home scene? Still playing catch-up, and by some measure. I remember, back in the early 80s when 3-D had its first theatrical revival, there were some stereoscopic television broadcasts (Revenge of the Creature was one), and the results were only occasionally successful, to put it mildly. The VHS release of The Mask, a decade later, was much better, and one of the first instances I can remember that actually worked. More or less. But today, we’re not much further on. We’re still in the blue-and-red days, and we’re still getting headaches. Loyal readers of this site might recall my review of Wildcat Women from a couple of years ago, and how the effect was so muddy that it was easier to watch the film without glasses, double-vision and all.
The new Night of the Living Dead 3D is better, at least as far as the effects are concerned. (The movie itself is rubbish, but that’s beside the point.) For the first time, in my experience, I had a real and consistent sense of depth on the screen, and objects occasionally emerged. But the colours are still wretched, and good luck to anyone who watches the film at a single sitting without contracting a migraine.
So where do we go from here? Word is devices like the new Headplay personal system are designed to produce 3-D effects much more successfully. We’ll see if they live up to the promise. And there’s no denying that many delightful B-pictures are in an older form, and that’s that. But even those older films could work quite well on the big screen. NOTLD 3D in home video form is still inferior to 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon in the theatres. So I’m not going to hold my breath. Things may yet improve, but I get the feeling that the likes of Sea Monsters will comfortably escape the home experience for some time to come.