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A disorientating, mind-bending descent into total madness. An excursion into the dark side of magic and witchcraft. A fairytale for adults. Dario Argento’s 1977 masterpiece Suspiria has been has been called all of the above over the years, and much more. Anyone reading this will already be familiar with both the story and the film, and have probably read great swathes of critical dissection, so we won’t go treading ground so well-worn, and just give you a few of our personal observations before diving into that which most are eager to learn: how does it look and sound?

Restoration work carried out for UK Suspiria Blu-Ray
The plot of Suspiria—for the precious few who reading that are unfamiliar with it—sees young ballet student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arriving in Germany at 10:40pm local time in the midst of an intense thunderstorm. After a Hellish taxi-ride to a prestigious dance academy, Suzy witnesses a student fleeing the building and two others have been murdered. Their new American pupil is perched on the edge of darkness, as witchcraft fills the air and more girls go missing. More and more macabre events occur and Suzy tries to fathom out the secrets behind the shadowy institution she has entered, but she realises that she could be the next person to die in a mysterious fashion. Can Suzy stay alive long enough to crack the mysterious secret of the Tanz Akademie or will she become another victim of the infamous witch known as the Black Queen?

There has traditionally been the lobby who seek ‘way out’ movies for the purposes of watching them under the influence to blow their minds—you know, like those annoying hippies who meticulously timed it so that the acid they dropped hit them exactly during the ‘stargate’ sequence in 2001. We personally despise such hollow practices, but Suspiria is one of the few mind-expanding films which gives you a bigger headf*ck when watching it sober. With your senses operating at full capacity, they are more exposed for Argento to play with, like Lawrence Olivier poking around an open root canal.

The whole story of Suspiria is that of the very best tale told around the campfire, using staples of the genre in a more visceral light than the gentle aroma of toasted marshmallows will allow. Witches, black magic, eerie woods, bats, maggots and other elements are artfully arranged, with the red walls of the Tanz Akadamie looking like a gingerbread house as its students are lured in, never to return. The script is keen to let the audience in on the campfire tale notion, with one of our favourite scenes echoing this, as Sarah tells Suzie all she knows about the goings-on during lights-out.

Don't say you've figured it out, woman!!
There have been many who have accused Dario Argento of being a director who embodies style over substance. Whilst it is true that Suspiria is a film where the main purpose is to create a disorientating style that strives to capture the surreal quality of a fevered bad dream, the story and dialogue are strong enough to service the visuals and enhance the feeling of dread the viewer experiences as the story gets progressively darker. Argento bathes the screen in bright, saturated colours—blues and reds being the most prominent, but greens and yellows also make prominent appearances. There can be few who dispute that these colour schemes echo the tones of a dark night around the camp fire, and Suspiria works so much better than someone yelling ‘BOO’ at an opportune moment.

With his previous film, Profondo Rosso, Argento put the answer to the mystery right in plain sight of the audience, relying on the more astute to pick up on such an audacious move. Suspiria does the something strikingly similar, with Suzy informing Madam Blanc of the inscrutable words she heard that fateful night, not knowing that the ‘three irises’ she speaks of are right in front of her. Argento brilliantly lays out the shot with Harper on the extreme left, Bennett placed far right and the mysterious irises exactly between the two of them, visually showing that the answer lies just beyond the flowers. A satanic story with a Giallo twist? It rarely gets better than this!

Much has been made of Suspiria being an adult fairytale and there are certainly elements in the story and the style that give this some truth; door-handles are placed at roughly shoulder height, giving the impression that the young women in the academy are either childlike or that they have found themselves in a giant’s castle. The original story came from a tale Suspira co-writer (and Argento paramour) Daria Nicolodi was told by her grandmother, and there can be no better way for a tale of terror to be conceived, terror passed down through generations. It seems so very fitting that we were given a copy of Suspiria as a Christmas present from our grandmother years ago.

"Right, I've got it now: developer, stop, fix".
As much an integral part of Suspiria as the visual aspect is the music score, provided by Goblin (or The Goblins, depending on where you look)—Goblin had previously co-scored the music to Argento’s Profondo Rosso; they provided the more avant-garde rock tracks, where Georgio Gasslini composed more jazzy/traditional music. The music that Goblin realised for Suspiria was a progression from what had gone before and allowed them to really cut loose and propel themselves into the dark waters of the completely bizarre; the disorientating visuals are perfectly complimented by a music score that throws in virtually everything into (appropriately enough) a cauldron and the results accentuate and enhance the madness seen on screen.

In his review of the time, critic Alexander Walker described Suspiria’s music score as sounding as if ‘five hundred cats are having their tails tramped on in unison’—this is opinion is simultaneously appropriate and dismissive, as though it is a surreal way of summing up the unconventional musical nature of Goblin’s work in the film, it also seems to imply that their efforts were slapdash and unmusical. The composition that plays during at the start of the movie is entitled ‘Opening to Sighs’ and interestingly mirrors the first fifteen minutes of the film, by starting off pianissimo and steadily getting louder and louder until it reaches an almost deafening climax, then settles down into a calming stretch that allows the viewer to relax before the cinematic and musical tension is ratcheted up once again.

The cast, made up of an eclectic international mix, are variable, but the best performances come from the more seasoned actors. Jessica Harper turns in a fabulous performance, perfectly embodying the innocent abroad; Harper has big wide dark eyes that almost seem to radiate youthful innocence and that allows the audience to identify with her in a manner that was rarely seen in many Italian horror/exploitation movies of the period. Argento’s casting of protagonists in his previous movies had been something of a hit-and-miss affair (with Tony Musante in Bird with the Crystal Plumage and James Franciscus in Cat O’ Nine Tails being, respectively, the strongest and the weakest), but Harper stands alongside the best of the leads in all of Argento’s movies.

Please sleep in pyjamas.  I saw "Inserts", you know...
Alida Valli is great as the fearsome dance instructor, Miss Tanner; during her youth, Valli was heralded as the next Greta Garbo, but such high expectation were never realised, even though she turned in excellent performances in many roles in movies from a wide variety of directors. The sense of frustration that Valli must have had seems to be channelled into the performance in Suspiria, as Miss Tanner comes across as seething henchwoman full of broken dreams as annulled aspirations. Tanner is quick to act upon anyone or anything that threatens the coven and ensures that such a threat is eliminated in a very terminal manner.

Joan Bennett brings all of her decades of acting experience to bear in the role of Madame Blanc, the second-in-command of the coven. Bennett came from an acting family and radiates an almost regal screen presence each time she appears on the screen, silently screaming ‘grande dame’ at the audience.

As fearsome and authoritarian as Miss Tanner and Madame Blanc are, they are—to quote George Sanders in Psychomania—‘merely servants of a higher power’, and their mistress would be the mysterious Helena Marcos, who is mentioned throughout the film and we are teased when her silhouette is shown midway through, leading to the big reveal during the film’s climax.

Sit!  Stay!  Rip throat!!!
As most of you will know, Suspiria eventually became the first part of Argento’s ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy, with Inferno and The Third Mother (a.k.a. The Mother of Tears) being the subsequent instalments. Though the latter two had took place in New York and Rome, neither of them managed to match the fairytale-like quality that the Black Forest setting had in Suspiria. With Inferno being the sequel to Argento’s international hit, certain elements of the two become intertwined, one affecting your perception of the other in a bubbling cauldron of evil.

To illustrate what we mean, how about this: when blind pianist Daniel is ripped apart by his faithful guide-woofer, the dog makes a break for it when two figures chase him off, one stopping to examine the body, the other setting off after the carnivorous canine. Most see this scene as is, but with Inferno imprinted on our brains, we have to wonder if Daniel might have been clinging on to life, only to have one of his Samaritans give him the coup-de-graze, as happened to the poor schmuck in New York who crossed the Three Mothers. It’s probably apropos of nothing, but wouldn’t it be cool if the witches all had their equivalent of ‘cleaners’ to make sure the job is done?

She's going to regret using the coil method.
Kindly indulge us in such fanciful fluff once again, but another - almost subliminal—carry over into another Argento movie comes with Phenomena. Both films feature a howling, eerie wind which brings with it madness, as the German kind foreshadows acts of murderous witchery, while the Swiss variety induces insanity to those it encompasses. To know Argento’s work is to love his pulsating brain, and it was Suspiria which really entrenched him in our black little hearts.

We have all heard about the problems the Italian Blu-ray copy of Suspiria had, but has Blighty managed to pull something special out of the bag? This is what you came here to read, so let’s make like a towel and press on…

Video


Suspiria was originally released on Blu-ray in Italy last year amidst much grumbling from some of the more hardcore fans of the film. There were issues with colour-timing and general issues with the colour palette during the remastering process, along with other issues. We were recently informed (confidentially, of course—we aren’t going to reveal the identity of our informant) that the same 2007 hi-def remaster of Suspiria (supposedly approved by director of photography Luciano Tovoli) that formed the basis for the Italian Blu-ray has been used for the UK Blu, but we have heard that some of the issues with the Italian one have been fixed. The result is a copy of Suspiria that in terms of image information is head and shoulders above any home format release of the movie; there are moments when faces appear slightly bleached out when strong light colours are the primary pallet in a scene, but generally this is a pleasing transfer.

Take a look at the comparison image below: note how the brown digital blobs over Harper’s face have been removed, being just one of many corrections to the Cine-Excess edition. Oh, don’t judge the image from this picture, as we had to scale it down using…gulp…Paint…

Restoration in action.

Audio


The DTS-HD Master Audio is pretty damn impressive. When originally released theatrically, Suspiria was mixed into 6-track for discrete surround, and those who were lucky to see it in the few screens equipped to play in that way were all bowled over by the aural experience. The LaserDisc carried a very nice Dolby Surround approximation of the discrete mix, and was a really entertaining track. Most reading this will know that the Anchor Bay digital mixes were fudge-jobs, with a number of unforgivable errors made during the processing stage. We can happily report that most of these obnoxious glitches have been corrected for the CineExcess release, coming at you in 5.1 for your viewing pleasure.

The crucial ‘Three Irises’ line is as it should be, giving the astute viewers the tantalising clue early on in the movie. The thunderclaps which were utterly wimpy before are now encompassing, and finally follow the casting of a spell on our hapless heroine. The breathing sounds of evil are restored to a sequence where they had previously been left out entirely. Best of all, the music of Goblin practically kicks its way out of your speakers, and it’s doubtful that the guys will experience their work in higher definition. Doubters can breathe easier with this excellent example of restoration.

Talk about, pop music.

Extras


Cine-Excess has gone out of its way to produce some exclusive special features for this release of Suspiria of Blu-ray.

Audio commentary: Film journalists Alan Jones and Kim Newman were on the audio commentary for Blue Underground’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage and their pairing worked so well that they have been brought back to give their thoughts on Suspiria. Jones has been involved with the director since the early 80s and his intimate knowledge on all things Argento is invaluable. There is a raft of information about the production, with the two sharing the same infectious sense of fun they did on the Bird track. It is certainly worth your time, in contrast to commentaries which come with new movies, churned out just to add perceived value to the disc. Having said all this, it would have been nice if Jones had corrected Newman on the correct pronunciation of the word ‘giallo’, as the bearded-one keeps embarrassingly mispronouncing the bloody thing every time.

Fear at 400 Degrees: This documentary, subtitled ’The Cine-Excess of Suspiria’, clocks in at thirty-four minutes and is hosted by genre writer Xavier Mendik. It also features contributions from director Dario Argento, Goblin head-honcho Claudio Simonetti, journalist Kim Newman, director Norman J Warren and film graduate Patricia McCormack. This lightly covers the origins and production of Suspiria, along with addressing the issues of misogyny (which Argento amusingly dismisses by saying that he is an egalitarian and kills an equal number of men and women in his films, but he loves women and therefore pays special attention when it comes to despatching them cinematically). The socio-political times in Italy are examined and provide an interesting background into how these shaped the young Argento’s moviemaking efforts. The director himself is as candid as usual, Simonetti is great fun, Newman is informative, Warren expresses his love for the film without ploughing headlong into teeth-clenching pretentiousness, whereas McCormack does.

Jessica Harper's easiest day of filming.
Suspiria Perspectives[i]: This featurette consists of footage of the participants from the same interviews that was used for [i]Fear at 400 Degrees. Director Norman J Warren, musician Claudio Simonetti and film historian Patricia McCormack all speak at greater length about how Suspiria affected them all. It begins with ten minutes of McCormack waxing pretentiously on the subtexts of the film, whilst simultaneously kneading and shaping an invisible ball of dough; things look up when genial Norman J Warren speaks for fifteen minutes on how Suspiria influenced him and finally, Simonetti speaks candidly on his musical origins, how he came to work with Argento and finally his thoughts on what he describes as the best soundtrack he ever produced. These three interviews should really have been broken up into individual featurettes, but they work well enough here. Warren and Simonetti's segments really enhance the viewing experience, whereas McCormack's is basically all of what appears in Fear at 400 Degrees, but with a few extra bits and pieces.

This is Cine-Excess: This ten minute item comes across as a mission statement from the folks at Cine-Excess, as they inform the viewer as to what requirements are necessary for a film to feature on their label. Xavier Mendik is your uncomfortable-looking host as he explains what Cine-Excess is all about. He openly calls all the movies on his label ‘trash’ and that is what we take issue with— Suspiria is far from ‘trash’ and it is insulting that it is associated with such a damning description. Anyhoo, there are clips from what are almost certainly forthcoming titles, including Jack Hill's The Big Bird Cage, Dick Maas' Amsterdamned, Pupi Avati's The House with Laughing Windows, Ron Howard's Grand Theft Auto and Steve Carver's Big Bad Mama.

It‘s weird, but we first ran into Mr Mendik about sixteen years ago at the University of Kent, which hosted the Dario Argento Film Conference, where he was part of the panel along with Alan Jones. Granted we got to see Four Flies on Grey Velvet on the big screen, along with Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Inferno and Tenebrae, but with an audience of miserable, whinging, hung-over arsehole students attending only because they had to, it tempered the experience somewhat. Just for the record, there was no truth to the rumour that the final part of the course was the correct way to ask if customers wanted fries with their purchase...

Oh, and if Mr Mendik is reading this, allow us to put forward our opinion on the ‘taking trash seriously’ slogan that Cine-Excess has emblazoned upon the cover of Suspiria: though the purpose of this slogan is to encourage debate about what does or does not constitute something being ‘trash’, it still effectively brands anything that appears on this label as trash. Rant over.

Finally, it should be noted to overseas readers that Cine-Excess’ Blu-ray of Suspiria is most certainly region-B locked.

Blind pianist Danel's dog is about to turn into man's worst nightmare

Overall


Suspiria is most certainly deserving of its place in the upper echelons of the horror hierarchy. There are still many who dismiss the film as style over substance from a director who cares little for dramatic coherency, but Suspiria is film that seeks to drive the audience to the brink of madness by being an assault upon the senses and succeeds brilliantly. Cine-Excess’ Blu-ray corrects many of the flaws that dogged the Italian transfer and the audio improves upon the mistakes of the US Anchor Bay/Blue Underground DVD releases.  Put simply, this is the best the movie is going to look for the foreseeable future, so you can plunk down your dough knowing that you are buying the best copy of out there. Buy Suspiria and enjoy.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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