“Suspiria” is a very special film. For most Fantasy and/or Horror fans — and cineastes who enjoy or revel in the act of viewer-ship itself — Dario Argento’s 1977 occult masterpiece is the apotheosis of ‘pure cinema’: a film to be experienced almost entirely in terms of the immediate overwhelming impact it has on the senses, and which gains its subsequent meaning therefrom. Us fans of this incredible film (and “Suspiria” is one of those films which really, truly has dedicated ‘fans’ the way a great band or a show-stopping Musical has fans; people who define something of themselves by it, and who will return to bask in its ineffable glory again and again), have something of the character of members of an esoteric cult or secret society; but, although to most contemporary audiences it’s not a film that will immediately ring many bells, it is sobering to remember that, in 1977, after 20th Century Fox picked it up for US distribution (hiding behind their “International Classics” moniker) it was the seventh biggest grossing film of that yearm and was seen by more people than have seen any other Dario Argento film before or since. “Suspiria” was a huge hit! It reached a lot of people and, without getting too pompous about it, must have changed the way an awful lot of people understood their relationship with the act of viewing a film. It’s that rare thing: an art-house flick that went big. And ever since, many spectators in the audiences who saw it at the time (envy those lucky few who got to see it on a big screen!) or have found it subsequently through various home viewing formats have become as converts, always hoping to recover something of the feeling they got when they watched it — unsuspecting, innocent, unknowing — for that very first time, when their senses were overpowered with the delirium of a purely cinematic experience. For once one has been bombarded with its sumptuous images and been subjected to the full (originally) quadraphonic onslaught of the mighty Goblin’s otherworldly score, the film burns its way into your cortex like no other. The fact is, it’s a blast. It’s like film as a drug. And, lets face it, it’s so damn cool! And when you raise your head at last, as though waking from some febrile dream, the only disappointment is that you will never be able to experience it for the first time again.
The attention-grabbing wire-guided gliding movements of the camera (unusual-looking in those pre-Steadycam days), the over-saturated painterly compositions and the clash of Art Deco and German Expressionism in ultra-showy production design and set dressings; and that amazing, scary music — pounding and relentless! These elements were all placed upfront to be noticed and appreciated above and beyond any narrative concerns. The film seems almost insistent that we scrutinize its every detail and frame. There’s not a whole lot going on in terms of plot. The script is simple, almost inane in its naivety. Of what does the narrative consist, after all? An American Ballet student, Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) travels to darkest Frieburg in Germany to take up residence at the baroque Tanzakademie, a dance school situated on the edge of the Black Forest. An expelled student is murdered on the night of her arrival. The teachers, ostensibly headed by vice-directress Madam Blanc (Joan Bennett) and head instructor, the Mannish Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), seem authoritarian and regimented, and there is a suspicion of hidden secrets about the place because they and all of the staff seem to disappear at night without leaving the school. Several murders later and Suzy discovers that they're all witches headed by the Black Queen Helena Markos, whereupon they all die after the directress is killed with a crystal spike of plumage from a broken ornament; and Suzy leaves the burning school no wiser as to what has just transpired than she was beforehand. The only mystery element here — Suzy’s discovery that her teachers are all witches — is undercut well before the climactic revelations behind the iris-painted door by Goblin’s score, which repeatedly has disembodied voices screeching “Witch” over the soundtrack — just in case there were any viewers who hadn't already cottoned-on to the obvious!
Over thirty years later and we fans continue to pour over the details of the creation of this unique movie. Looking for the clues as to how viewing it can feel so very different from any other film. More and more it almost seems that Argento and his collaborators were engaged in some kind of cinematic equivalent of alchemy or witchcraft themselves: Argento, the dark maestro — wielding a magical palette of colour and light, put at his disposal by the secondary work of his production designer Giuseppe Bassan, his editor Franco Fraticelli and his musical collaborators Goblin (or “The Goblins” as they’re credited in the English language credits for the film) — but most of all, by the unfathomable rites of his cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, without whom, the fevered imaginings of that wiry, hyperactive thirty-six-year-old auteur could never have been made a reality. Argento chronicler Alan Jones tells how members of the film’s cast and crew would wait around for Tovoli to light a scene, bemused by his arcane arrangements of onset mirrors: carefully placed for bouncing, refracting, sculpting, sharpening, focusing the beams of massive antiquated arc-lights through a matrix of tissue and velour to create that exotic, captivating and unrepeatable visual splendour. The last of the film’s rare, old-style Eastman film stock was tracked down to a lab in Texas, and was so scarce that Argento was severely restricted in the amount of takes he could shoot. It was the last film to be printed using the Technicolor three-strip film technique, utilising an unusually high contrast, primary colour-boosting development process — all this obscure technical detail is the kind of stuff that means no other film will ever again look quite like this one does.
Argento had flirted with the idea of the supernatural in his previous film, “Deep Red”, using it to embellish the film with a sense of unease that seems to transcend the ordinary whodunit structure of the traditional Giallo, subtly undermining the rational investigative process that underpins the genre so that, at the end, there is still a lingering sense of bewilderment and confusion (at least for the male protagonist) despite the apparent resolution of the mystery. “Suspiria” abandons all sense and logic to a magical world of impossible geometries and suggestive dark ambivalence. With the normal narrative and character development concerns of a traditional movie rendered so wafer thin and negligible, all we have to latch onto and find meaning in, are the sculpted arrangement of images and sounds Argento places before us. The film seems to have more in common with a piece of music or a concept album than it does with other films, Horror or otherwise; the trail of set-pieces like the individual tracks. The opening twenty-minute assault on the viewer is like the centrepiece of this classic record: casual fans will often feel like the film never really tops this opening salvo (the equivalent of the radio-friendly single on an otherwise ‘difficult’ concept album), while the obsessive “true” fan sees it as an extremely accomplished lead-in to a whole other world of equally arresting, but slightly more subtle, sights and sounds. Everything you can see on screen is significant and entrancing, from the occult symbolism of the multicoloured glass-panelled windows to the gaudy décor in the Tanzakademie’s unparalleled selection of outlandish wallpaper designs; the almost vulgar architecture of the place, with its deep salmon-red brickwork and the gold-painted ornamentation on its pediments and drainpipes, and even the very dust that floats in the corridors, briefly illuminated by the light flashing on a sharpened piece of silverware. And then, the hyper-stylised murder scenes — the victims doll-like gamine creatures, doused in paint-bright blood and arranged in scenes of cruel carnage as though they were shop store mannequins.
It’s really not surprising then that a film this revered by its fans and so dependant on the textures and interactions of sight and sound, should be the subject of so much attention and fevered speculation all over again whenever it gets re-released in various home viewing formats. “Suspiria” was the film that made me want to buy a DVD player in the first place. Like a drug addict needs ever-more intense hits, DVD’s vast improvement in audio/visual presentation over VHS seemed to offer another chance of recapturing that first viewing experience, or something approximating it. The Anchor Bay DVD certainly gave us a visual presentation the like of which many of us would not have seen before in relation to this film. But I suppose, because of the sheer importance of the images and the music to the experience of “Suspiria”, even minor flaws would be annoying and distracting to the true acolyte. And as it happened, the Anchor Bay disc certainly had its fair share of flaws in the audio department, with missing sound effects, misplaced cues, and Goblin’s score mixed far too low in the mix during Suzy’s iconic scene-setting taxi ride through a storm-lashed Frieburg.
Since then, a number of other DVD versions have appeared, but all have been plagued by various combinations of image and/or audio problems. Even the Luciano Tovoli approved transfer on the Italian special edition and recent Blu-ray was lambasted for an overly-boosted image contrast that resulted in burned-out image detail appearing in many instances. The advent of the film on Blu-ray was always going to be a major event, but the desperate need to have these issues addressed only makes it all the more a source of excitement and trepidation. Without further suspense let me say that, for UK fans at least (this Blu-ray disc from Nouveaux Pictures is region locked, so US fans beware!) the wait is over, but, I'm afraid, it does appear to me that this “brand new” high definition transfer, although almost mind-blowing in its detail, depth and clarity when compared to all previous standard definition versions (including the lovely Anchor Bay one) does appear to be sourced from that previously maligned Luciano Tovoli-approved transfer, the contrast levels boosted so high that sometimes, particularly at the end of the film when the interior of the Tanzakademie starts to explode, they max out and the detail of the image burns away completely for seconds at a time.
This is most noticable during the lightning effects in the closing scenes, which are so bright yellow they almost look like the psychedelic effects from a 1970s edition of “Top of the Pops”! Elsewhere, skin tones are sometimes adversely affected by this same artificial contrast boost, either looking bleached and white (the scene in Olga’s apartment) or far too red (Alida Valli, most of the time!). There is an odd vivid red glaze present over the final shots of Suzy leaving the burning building which I‘ve previously only read about in relation to the Italian transfer and there is one brief scene (when Madame Blanc talks to Suzy in bed after her sudden illness) when the video quality drops precipitiously, which lasts for about five seconds.
The use of Italian opening and closing credits rather than English (with “Goblin” credited for the score, rather than “The Goblins” as was the case with the Anchor Bay DVD release), seems to clinch the suspicion that this is indeed that Tovoli transfer. It has to be said though, that this is a fan’s griping. Until I compared this with the Anchor Bay disc, and looked at what has previously been said about the Italian transfer, I noticed none of these issues, so blown away was I initially by the amazing increased resolution of the film on Blu-ray. The film undoubtedly looks better in general than you will have seen it look before: richer colours, a completely stable image with not a hint of shimmer in the details of the shots of the daylight exteriors of the Tanzakademie for instance, and just a beautiful overall sense of depth. It is just a shame then that there continue to be these problems with the contrast, meaning the search for the ultimate manifestation of the magic of “Suspiria” goes on.
When it comes to the audio though, it is a much less equivocal story. The previous English language audio issues have been resolved with this release, and the soundtrack is now both loud, powerful and mixed in what feels to be a much more sensible way, Goblin’s score ringing true and loud during that opening sequence, only dipping when Suzy has her brief exchanges with the taxi driver, then rising again as the journey continues. Elsewhere, those who have only heard the AB audio will be surprised to learn that, after the window blows open in the apartment scene with Pat and Sonia, the room is invaded by a host of rasping cries and whispers which were simply not present at all on the AB version at all (this is also the case during Sarah‘s flight through the school)! The sound of the rope snapping off of the wall is now present in the hanging scene, and the problem of the misplaced dinner bell sound effect which, in the AB mix, made it look as though Stefania Casini reacts to the sound before it is even heard by the viewer, has now been rectified. All the other audio problems I am aware of with the AB disc have been rectified as well. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio is generally more resonant and robust with greater contrast between the bass end and the more trebly sounds in the spectrum, and there is pleasing use of the surrounds and rears.
This UK Region B Blu-ray disc has been released on Nouveaux Pictures’ new label, Cine-Excess, in collaboration with the Cult Film Archive at Brunel University, a body which labours under the tag-line ‘Taking Trash Seriously’ — probably an inappropriate and somewhat offensive term in the case of this particular film, but the laudable aim of the label is to treat movies more usually dismissed as being trashy or unimportant genre fare to a more scholarly approach than is normally considered worthwhile by mainstream media. To that end, the newly commissioned extras included here eschew the prosaic ‘making of’ documentary, or the anecdotal recollections of cast and crew — this approach had already been fruitfully applied by Anchor Bay; most people will already have their excellent 25th anniversary documentary, so there would have been very little point in replicating it here — instead Cine-Excess favour a more academic treatment in their supplementary material, commissioning film critic and novelist Kim Newman and Argento expert Alan Jones to provide an engrossing commentary-analysis, and providing a 35 minute documentary: “Fear At 400 Degrees”. This starts with Cine-Excess main-man Xavier Mendik giving a brief overview of Argento’s career up to the point he came to make "Suspiria", and placing it in historical context before contributors such as Kim Newman, (again) talk about their first experiences of seeing the film (for Newman, it was as part of a general release double bill with “Zoltan: Hound of Dracula”).
The documentary also features British cult filmmaker Norman J. Warren discussing the influence “Suspiria” had on his own approach to film-making, particularly in his charmingly insane low budget flick “Terror”. There is also very interesting food for though to be found in the in-depth academic musings of tattooed Argento enthusiast Dr. Patricia McCormack. A grizzled Claudio Simonetti pops up to discuss the conception of the incredible score and its role in the movie’s success, and there is even input from Dario Argento himself. We learn, for instance that the great man now favours the ’Allegorical Lesbian Fairy Tale’ interpretation of the film! A further 40 minute feature, "Perspectives on Suspiria", consists of extended versions of three of the interview sessions used in the preceding documentary, those of McCormack, Warren and Simonetti. McCormack has interesting things to say about the socio-political context of the giallo and how “Suspiria” differs from it, among other related subjects, while Warren tends to drift off the subject completely, eventually meandering into a discussion of one of his own films, the very odd micro-budget lesbian Horror-sci-fi flick “Prey” (although it’s one of my favourites, so I wasn't too unhappy about that!). There is also a ten minute filmed essay by Mendik which is really just an extended advert for the Cine-Excess label and its forthcoming titles, and which features many clips from the label’s catalogue as well as its ‘mission statement’. All these extras are in standard definition.
The real showpiece of the new extras is probably the commentary track though: a consistently enthralling mixture of information and anecdote from Alan Jones, and thoughtful and sometimes funny musings from Kim Newman. If you've heard the pair’s approach to the commentary for Blue Underground’s “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” then you will have some idea of what to expect. “Suspira” fans will doubtless already be aware of much of the information imparted here, but there are a few new anecdotal titbits from Jones to entice the listener, such as his relating how Asia Argento once told him that she has many vivid memories from her childhood of catching Dario and her mother Daria Nicoladi literally screaming at each-other over who actually wrote the Suspiria screenplay; and Jones insisting that the ‘Woman in Red’ from the opening scene, whom many fans still claim is actually Nicoladi appearing in a cameo (the notes to Anchor Bay’s three-disc special edition state this as fact) is definitely not the co-writer and then-girlfriend of the director. Nicoladi was apparently nowhere near the location at the time!
Despite some clear problems, this disc will almost certainly be an essential purchase for those fans able to cope with the region locking. But there will inevitably be disappointment that it doesn't quite reach the level of extreme perfection one would have hoped for because of that odd over-boosting of contrast which now looks like it might well be inherent to Lucio Tovoli’s more recent approved transfer. There is much to treasure in the greatly improved image quality though, for the overall audio/visual effect of the movie is greatly enhanced over all previous home format releases.The legend of "Suspiria" will continue to grow as many new fans get to experience the film for the first time in a format which is generally a great deal richer than all previous releases. But the search for perfection is on hold, I suspect, until a new viewing format is invented ("Suspiria" in "Avatar"-like 3D anyone?) and someone creates yet another re-mastesterd transfer to take advantage of it.