Suspiria Review

The Film

"But what does it mean, to be a witch?"

Witches get a raw deal. Witches are forever the ladies in waiting of horror. Any proper list of the greatest horror films will not be populated by films where foul and midnight hags are the centre of the entertainment on offer, instead they will be the trimmings of something regarded as far more important. Witches are the handmaidens of true evil and films as great as Rosemary's Baby and The Devil Rides Out place covens as followers rather than the chief bringer of death. The only truly great horror movie which treats them as the main course is Dario Argento's Suspiria.
For the director, women have regularly been the chief threat in his movies. Women cast spells, figuratively and literally, in Argento's work and whilst violence is often associated with the masculine and the phallic in the actions of the plots, there is no gender barrier when unveiling the guilty suspects who wield it. Women are also regularly the victims of his killers and their deaths and destruction emphasise the contrast of cruelty and beauty, as image is destroyed and recreated as bizarre spectacle via the murder set-piece.

After the feminine monsters of his two previous gialli, the nearly wholly female setting of Suspiria relegates men to the sidelines. The Freiburg academy of dance is ruled over by Madame Blanc and her imposing instructress Miss Tanner, their largely female students back bite and rat each other out but learn never to test the authority they find themselves under. When assertive Suzy Bannion challenges the way things are by refusing to board at the school she is driven to sickness by Tanner and medicated every evening to ensure she poses no threat. Bannion chooses not to believe the stories of disgruntled students disappearing in the night or conveniently meeting nasty ends, and she uncovers the true nature of the strange powers around her.
Like Irene Miracle in Inferno, Jennifer Connelly in Phenomena, and even Asia Argento in Phantom of the Opera, Jessica Harper acts as an Alice-like adventurer whose journey under the surface of appearances reveals terrifying forces. The academy is a labyrinth through which she follows her curiosity and defeats the evil she finds, and this feminine innocent becomes matured by her experiences. In fact, as the film concludes, doors break into two for her and her intuition proves stronger than all the witchcraft around her, and consequently she survives as the most powerful woman of all. A fact that has caused many to wonder if she is a white witch who triumphs over the black magic of Helena Marcos.

Power that comes from being a woman and the different kinds of it are the key themes of Suspiria. Some have claimed that the film's success in exploring these ideas comes not from Argento himself but from his co-writer and then partner Daria Nicolodi. Yet for all that Nicolodi influenced his work, the perspective of Suspiria is most definitely that of its male director rather than anyone else. There is something so auteuristic about the direction of this film that for all of the fine work of Argento's collaborators I think that it is his alchemy in using the skills of Goblin's music, Luciano Tovoli's photography, Franco Fraticelli's editing and Guiseppe Bassan's design that counts rather than their individual merit.
Suspiria is a tremendously rich experience on a number of levels - textually as sexual politics, visually as interplay of light, design and use of film stock, and aurally and rhythmically as a set of visceral, disorienting set pieces and sonic assaults. Bringing these elements together into one coherent film is a real art and that management of talents to achieve an overriding personal impact is Argento's great legacy. Suspiria remains the sole example of a great horror film about witches, a work that some will never quite get or understand, and an experience for a virgin viewer that I still remember very fondly.

If you have never followed Suzy Bannion into this world of witches then I envy you when you do.

Technical specs

Nouveaux have sourced a new HD transfer for this disc and on first glance it looks more appropriately coloured than the existing Italian blu-ray disc. The filesize for the transfer is a relatively small 17.1GB and it has been encoded using the MPEG-4/AVC codec and is presented with the sole option of a master audio soundtrack in English. The quality of the transfer is not uniform and this may be down to source problems with the print, yet what is presented here is far superior to existing standard definition presentations. The detail both in and out of light is very impressive for the most part, edges have not been haloed and the colour timing looks as good as I have seen with this film. The contrast is very strong and my only real quibble is with some of the flesh tones which verge on purple in the case of Alida Valli and render her teeth brilliantine white as well. There are a number of sequences which lack the added definition or confidence of the majority of the film, but now is the time to let your old standard definition treatment take that rest it so richly deserves.
The possibilities afforded to such a sonically challenging film with lossless sound are seized here. For those concerned that the opening mention of "Iris" was too high in the mix on older presentations, I'm afraid you will find the same here. Overall though the 5.1 mix is a very good approximation of three-dimensional sound with even voices mixed to the rears when appropriate, and the added definition is a thing of beauty when witnessing the high pitched scratching effects or the various sickening thuds and impacts of this unforgettable soundtrack. It may have been nice to offer a lossless version in Italian or original sound mixes but this single option will downmix to a very nice 5.1 and is even more impressive than the video treatment here.

The Disc

All of the featurettes offered here are presented in standard definition and feature lots of Xavier Mendik whose 10 minute introduction to the releases of Nouveaux's Cine-Xcess line is the same as it has been on their other releases. Fear at 400 degrees is basically an essay from Mendik considering whether Suspiria fulfilled Argento's desire to raise the intensity and quality of horror movies with the help of the likes of Patricia McCormack, Kim Newman, and Norman J Warren. Dario himself pops up and there is some examination of the role of gender in his films, along with appreciation of Goblin's work on the film(from Claudio Simonetti himself!). It's a very creditable and intelligent piece.

The final featurette edits together longer versions of McCormack, Warren and Simonetti's interviews to appraise the film from their own personal viewpoint. McCormack talks whilst completing an imaginary rubik's cube with her hands and places the film in the history of Italian horror after Bava and Freda, and just before Fulci's dead films. More engaging and less wordy is Warren who talks about his own films and links to other genre cinema, and Simonetti concludes with an overview of his career and collaborations with Argento.

The new commentary included for this film, and only accessible from the extras menu, is a double act with the affable Kim Newman filling the role of interested horror fan whilst Alan Jones provides the details for the Argento obsessed. This relationship actually works rather well with Newman's appreciation of the film complemented by Jones exhaustive knowledge of his subject. They joke about the left wing politics of Daria and Dario - "left wing in only the way truly rich people can be" - and generally don't overtalk or oversell the film. Of the commentaries available on Dario discs I found this to have been one of the most successful.

Sadly the disc is region B coded, we tried it on a region A PS3 and a region A Panasonic with no success.


Well you'll be wanting to keep your Anchor Bay DVD for the better extras but you will need to buy this for a very nice transfer with superb sound.

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