Suspiria: Definitive Edition Review

The Film

I first reviewed Suspiria as part of DVD Times' Halloween coverage in 2002. This initial review was a completely inadequate attempt by an inexperienced writer to explain the power of this exceptional film, and, while I'm still not convinced that this second effort comes even close to fully accomplishing this aim, it is at least a step in the right direction.

This review contains spoilers. I apologise in advance for its length.

"Suzy Banyon decided to perfect her ballet studies at the most famous school of dance in Europe. She chose the celebrated academy of Freiburg. One day, at nine in the morning, she left Kennedy Airport, New York, and arrived in Germany at 10:40 PM local time..."

With these simplistic, fairytale-like words, Dario Argento opens his celebrated 1977 horror film Suspiria, his only true box office success in English-speaking territories and what many consider his magnum opus. A masterpiece of spectacle over logic, it represents one of a small number of times in which all the elements seemed to come together and work in his favour, with the result being a bona fide horror classic that even the notoriously conservative Leonard Maltin described as "terrifying, brilliant and chilling".

By 1977, the giallo, the murder mystery format in which Argento made his name during the earlier part of the decade, had effectively run its course. Argento had made four highly successful and critically acclaimed (at least in his native Italy) thrillers in the form, with 1975's Deep Red, considered by many to be the greatest giallo ever created, constituting what might be described as the final word on the genre. A brief dalliance in the world of the political comedy with 1973's Le Cinque Giornate notwithstanding, the giallo had come to define Argento as much as he had come to define it, so it is hardly surprising that, for his fifth film, he decided to go in a radically different direction.

As a result, Suspiria eschews the rational deduction framework around which his four 70s gialli were based. The heroine, Suzy (Jessica Harper), certainly falls into the role of amateur sleuth, but her journey of discovery is a trip into fantasy and nightmares. The Tanzakademie, set in the midst of the Black Forest and comprised of ornate, labyrinthine corridors with decaying art nouveau architecture, is about as far from the contemporary urban metropoleis of his gialli as you can get, and, while madness is never far away, the demons Suzy faces are supernatural rather than psychological.

Suspiria is a purer horror film than anything Argento had made at the time of its release, and there is something of an irony in the fact that today he is regarded primarily as a horror director, despite them only accounting for a small portion of his filmography. The reason for this should be clear to anyone who has seen the film, however: Suspiria is mind-blowing. As a fully-fledged assault on the senses, it feels difficult to imagine anything else as aggressive as the brilliant combination of Luciano Tovoli's sumptuous colour photography, Giuseppe Bassan's grandiose M.C. Escher-inspired sets and Goblin's incessant, hypnotic score. The sheer force of this film is enough to obliterate his gialli, brilliant though many of them are, from the minds of viewers. It would be no small stretch to describe the experience of viewing Suspiria as something completely unique and unmatched elsewhere in cinema.

What parallels there between other films and works of art, however, are not the expected ones. Ask most horror filmmakers what influenced them and they will usually respond with a stock list of other horror filmmakers (increasingly, for today's generation, including Argento, whether or not they explicitly acknowledge this). Suspiria, however, takes its ideas and atmosphere primarily from the fairytale world. Suzy is a heroine in the Snow White mould, a frail, white-gowned innocent flung into a world of darkness and extreme colour and inhabited by the very monsters that, as a child, you feared were hiding under your bed. The various "monsters" Suzy meets on her journey are all stock characters from the world of fairytale literature: the grinning, brutish Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), the frosty "ice queen" Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett in her final theatrical screen role), the mute, wooden-toothed handyman Pavlos (Giuseppe Transocchi), the ogre-like Slavic cooks who scowl at her as she passes them in the hallway... These are not realistic or complex characters; nor are they meant to be. Criticising Suspiria for its two-dimensional rogues gallery of villains is like criticising Snow White for not making the evil Queen sympathetic enough, or Hansel and Gretel for having a house made of bread.

Controversy surrounds the film's deliberately minimalist and frequently nonsensical script, with the infighting that has gone on between Argento and his co-writer and girlfriend at the time, Daria Nicolodi, becoming a lasting and defining part of their legacy. Nicolodi, who supplied the premise of a young dancer finding the academy she attends to be a front for a witches' coven based on the supposedly true experiences of her own grandmother, has always maintained that Argento stole much of the credit for her ideas, and indeed claims that, until she saw the opening titles at the film's premiere, she wasn't sure whether she would actually receive credit at all (she did, but her contributions to the script of the sequel, Inferno, went completely without credit).

Some sources also imply that Nicolodi was originally intended to play the part of Suzy, but there seems to be no proof of this. (Others claim that she was supposed to play the role of Sara, which eventually went to Stefania Casini.) In any event, this was the first film that Argento made with a female protagonist, and the only surprise about this is that it took him five films to get there. The women of Argento's worlds are always his most interesting and psychologically complex characters, whether they are villains or victims (and they are often both), with his male leads often coming across as rather petty if not downright unlikeable. Male impotence has been a recurring theme since the start of his career as a director, beginning with Tony Musante's helplessness when forced to watch Eva Renzi bleeding to death in front of him in the opening scenes of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and this reaches its apex in Suspiria, where all of the men are either ineffectual servants or passive relayers of information. Of the three men who work at the Tanzakademie, one is blind, the other mute, and the third is implied by one character to be a eunuch. This is a film in which the heroes and villains are all women, and in Suzy Banyon he finds perhaps his pluckiest heroine to date: the little girl lost who enters the labyrinth, defeats the monster and comes out smiling (literally).

Much of Suzy's appeal as a protagonist comes from Jessica Harper's presence. Argento cast her on the basis of her appearance in Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise, and she is nothing if not perfect for the role of the wide-eyed and innocent but resourceful and determined dance student. Looking at the end result, it's difficult not to feel thankful that the role didn't go to another actress, not least Nicolodi, who would have been completely wrong for the part. In fact, looking at her performance as the intrepid, feminist and decidedly adult reporter Gianna Brezzi in Deep Red, it's difficult to imagine Argento ever seriously having considered her to play Suzy. Early drafts of the script called for the girls at the Tanzakademie to be played by children, and, while the idea was eventually rejected by investors, the characters retain many childlike qualities, while the sets intentionally dwarf the actresses (many of whom are diminutive and flat-chested), with high doorknobs requiring them to reach up to touch them, subtly linking them with children in the mind of the viewer.

Although Argento succeeds in maintaining a believably fairytale-like atmosphere throughout, barring a brief and jarring return to the real world and a meeting between Suzy and a psychiatrist, Dr. Frank Mandel (Udo Kier), Suspiria has rightly become known for a series of outstanding set-pieces, most of them death scenes. The opening double murder of expelled student Pat Hingle (Eva Axén) and her friend Sonia (Susanna Javicoli) is a tour de force that Argento has arguably yet to better and deserves to go down in history as one of the most ostentatious stunts in horror cinema. So spectacular is it that many feel that everything which follows is a let-down - a claim which I would assuredly refute, with the subsequent savaging of Daniel (Flavio Bucci) by his own guide dog on the Munich Königsplatz and the brutal death by barbed wire of Sara standing out particularly, while Suzy's final descent into the labyrinth, confrontation with the demonic force that lurks at the heart of the coven, and eventual dash towards freedom as the academy self-destructs around her (an incredibly ambitious series of stunts that left Jessica Harper, who did the scene for real, completely terrified) serving as a wonderful way to end a film that is, at its heart, all about the spectacle.

Much of the aforementioned spectacle stems from Argento and Tovoli's decision to print the film using the antiquated three-strip Technicolor method, the same process used for both the filming and printing of many Hollywood prestige pictures during the industry's golden age, including The Wizard of Oz and Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the visual and thematic influence of which are apparent in virtually every frame of Suspiria. (It is often incorrectly stated that Suspiria was also shot using the three-strip method, when in fact it was actually filmed on cheaper Eastmancolor stock.) More than anything, it is this that gives Suspiria its otherworldly texture, and the fact that this look has not been replicated since probably owes a lot to the fact that the final dye-transfer printer in Rome was dismantled shortly after the film's release. Argento and Tovoli make full use of the process' colour separation by bathing entire segments of the screen in rich primarily colours, which have a decidedly non-diagetic appearance to them but seem completely plausible in the make-believe world that the film inhabits. This, combined with the pounding, eardrum-piercing score by prog rock group Goblin, ensures that the film cannot fail to make a lasting impression.

Is Suspiria a classic? Many will argue to the contrary, citing simplistic characters, wooden dialogue and a nonsensical narrative, but its supporters love the film for many of the same reasons that others hate it. What it most certainly is is a complete sensory overload, and a film that refuses to accept indifference as a response. A brutal, bloody and brilliant piece of filmmaking, it completely changed this filmgoer's understanding and appreciation of cinema. It is a key horror film and, beyond that, a key film, regardless of genre, that deserves to be seen by everyone. Cast aside any traditional concepts of logic, erase from your mind any preconceptions of what you think a horror movie should be, turn off the lights, crank up the volume and prepare to be transported into another reality, one in which witches are anything but a fairytale...

DVD Presentation

With the release of Mother of Tears and the completion of the Three Mothers trilogy, there has been a ressurgence of interest in the first two instalments. Inferno was recently released on DVD in both Italy and Japan (marking something of a milestone as, until then, the American Anchor Bay DVD and its subsequent re-release under the Blue Underground label had been the only official version of the film available on DVD), and, earlier this year, an extensive restoration of Suspiria was undertaken in France and Italy, under the supervision of cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, from which a new high definition master was derived. This new master is the source of this new 2-disc set from CDE, the third release of the film on DVD in Italy. Labelled as the "Definitive Edition", this release has a lot to live up to.

Unfortunately, it turns out to be very much a let-down. This new version of Suspiria looks very different from any previous DVD edition, and not in a good way.

The sad thing is that it is, technically speaking, a rather nice presentation. Presented anamorphically in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, it looks noticeably softer than the Anchor Bay DVD, but detail levels are still quite good by the standard of the average DVD release, and the compression is handled nicely throughout. This is also the first time I have ever seen a DVD of the film which features its Italian language opening and closing credits (including the correct crediting of the music to Goblin rather than "the Goblins"), all previous releases that have come my way, regardless of the country of release, having had English credits. Noise reduction, which was my only major bone of contention about the Anchor Bay transfer, is also less of an issue here.

This is where the positives end, though. Right from the start, it is clear that the brightness of the image has been boosted considerably. The opening scene in the airport has a strangely washed-out quality, with crushed shadows and murky grey standing in for true black. Once Suzy enters the taxi, things get even worse, as the first bolt of lightning to illuminate the cab blows out the image completely, creating an eye-searing effect that destroys the balance of the image. Similar problems are apparent as the film progresses, with the lighting being so blown out in places that actors' faces are rendered as flat white washes, the scene in Olga's apartment and Suzy's conversation with Madame Blanc following Daniel's death being particularly noteworthy offenders. The eerie sequence in which Suzy and Sara go swimming late at night, meanwhile, loses all of its atmosphere because it now appears as if the pool is being lit by floodlights. It's a shame, because there are moments when the colour and brightness balance actually looks quite eye-pleasing: for example, there is a nice panning shot at 00:38:01 where a really nice contrast is created between blue and red (although this is followed at 00:41:23 by an absolutely foul exterior shot of the Tanzakedemie, where its red walls are rendered an eye-searing pink).

None of this, however, compares to what happens once Suzy defeats Helena Markos and the Tanzakademie begins to self-destruct. At this point, the colours, brightness and contrast go absolutely insane, the entire screen is drenched in yellow and red, and there are moments, particularly when lightning strikes, when an effect is produced similar to what happens when you load an image in Photoshop and jack the contrast all the way up to full. The madness continues in the final shots as Suzy exits the building, with the entire screen taking on a red tint that I have not seen on any other release, while the mangled contrast makes the scene take on the air of a badly processed music video.

Until we have access to another transfer derived from the new HD master (the French 3-disc release due out in November should suffice), it's difficult to say whether these problems stem from the master itself or the standard definition downconversion. Given that the master itself bears Tovoli's seal of approval, it's perhaps difficult to imagine it being the source of these problems, but if the mangled contrasts and brightness are endemic to the master, then the only possible reaction I can have is to say that Tovoli must have lost his mind. I'm wary of attributing too much weight to the Anchor Bay transfer and claiming it to be a completely accurate representation of the film's intended look, but I do feel that I can state with some confidence that the transfer of this Definite Edition is not how Suspiria is supposed to look. Simply put, it looks ugly and is downright unwatchable in places, which, for a title that has built up a justly deserved reputation for being one of the most visually spellbinding films ever created, is truly tragic. As such, my gut reaction is to urge customers not to buy this release.

I have included several screenshots below, comparing the new DVD to the 2001 US Anchor Bay transfer, and to the old (also 2001) Italian DVD from Eagle Pictures.

Example 1:

Above: Anchor Bay (2001)

Above: CDE (2001)

Above: CDE (2007)

Example 2:

Above: Anchor Bay (2001)

Above: CDE (2001)

Above: CDE (2007)

Example 3:

Above: Anchor Bay (2001)

Above: CDE (2001)

Above: CDE (2007)

Example 4:

Above: Anchor Bay (2001)

Above: CDE (2001)

Above: CDE (2007)

Example 5:

Above: Anchor Bay (2001)

Above: CDE (2001)

Above: CDE (2007)

Example 6:

Above: Anchor Bay (2001)

Above: CDE (2001)

Above: CDE (2007)

Even the audio isn't really up to snuff. As many readers will know by now, the Anchor Bay release came under a lot of flack for featuring a remix which diverged from the original audio recording in several respects, particularly in terms of music, with at least two missing cues and the wrong volume levels being used throughout. To date, the original 4-channel discrete mix has never appeared on DVD, with the closest match in terms of the English language version being the 2-channel PCM mix on the Image Entertainment LaserDisc, which, when upmixed with a Pro-Logic receiver, apparently recreates a very faithful representation of the film's intended sound.

For the new Definitive Edition release, the back cover lists an Italian Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track, an Italian Dolby Digital 5.1 track and an English Dolby Digital 1.0 track. These specifications are wrong: in actual fact, the included mixes are an Italian Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track, and Italian and English Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks, both of which sound like 2-channel mono to my ears. The former and latter appear to be the same tracks that appeared on the 2001 Italian DVD from CDE, and, while the Italian 5.1 EX mix is considerably more faithful to its roots than the English remix on the Anchor Bay DVD, the fact that the Italian dub lacks Jessica Harper and Joan Bennett's speaking voices makes it a less than ideal viewing option. The English 2.0 track, meanwhile, while lacking the mangled levels of the Anchor Bay remix, is of very poor quality, with the high frequencies suffering from severe distortion and the dialogue rough and indistinct.

English and Italian subtitles are included for the film. The extras are subtitled in Italian only.


Suspiria has been released twice before on DVD in Italy. The first release, in 2001, was light on bonus content, offering only a 21-minute interview with Dario Argento. Meanwhile, the second release, the 2-disc Special Edition of 2005, reproduced this interview in addition to porting over many of the extras from the Anchor Bay 3-disc Limited Edition, including the 52-minute 25th anniversary documentary.

For this Definitive Edition, the line-up of extras is different again, but the fact that considerably more have been dropped than have been added again makes the "Definitive" moniker seem somewhat suspect. The 21-minute Argento interview returns once again - a rather interesting concept, with Argento sitting in an empty cinema and discussing the film as clips from it play on the screen behind him (actually superimposed in post production - the film is not actually being projected for real). Unfortunately, my Italian is not up to delivering a blow by blow account of everything he says (there are no English subtitles for this or any of the other extras), but those who speak the language should find this interesting as it is, to the best of my knowledge, the most extended discussion Argento has ever given regarding Suspiria.

New to this release is a 5-minute featurette entitled Dario Argento racconta. It appears to be an extract from a longer piece on Argento and his films, and includes contributions from Argento and former Goblin member Claudio Simonetti. Argento repeats some of the same information conveyed in the earlier interview, while Simonetti discusses the score in the context of Goblin's library, describing it as the purest Goblin sound. For non-Italian speakers, the most interesting material will probably be some brief behind the scenes clips showing the filming of the Königsplatz sequence, which was also used in Michele Soavi's Dario Argento's World of Horror documentary and includes many of the same comments by Luciano Tovoli, interviewed on location (albeit this time without English dubbing).

The rest of the extras are all carried over from the previous 2-disc Italian DVD (and, prior to that, the Anchor Bay release): the international and American theatrical trailers, an American TV spot and three radio spots, a fairly lengthy gallery of posters, locandine and video covers from around the world, and a lengthy (scrolling) biography and selected filmography for Argento, which, as far as I can tell, is a translation of the text that appeared on the Anchor Bay DVD.

All of these materials are on the second disc, and, when you add it all together, you really don't get very much on the disc itself, although a 16-page booklet is also included which contains a selection of Italian reviews published at the time of the film's release, as well as some brief liner notes and comments from various horror big-shots, including George A. Romero and Sam Raimi. It's hard not to feel somewhat cheated, though, particularly given that this release is being presented as the be-all and end-all of Suspiria DVDs.


The so-called Definitive Edition of Suspiria proves to be anything but: a thoroughly disappointing release whose only claim to fame, beyond buggering up the look of the film something rotten, is its nifty tin case. And thus the quest for the definitive DVD release of Dario Argento's masterpiece continues...

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