As there are now two substantial reviews of Dario Argento's marvellous Suspiria on DVD Times - by John White and Michael Mackenzie - I don't intend to meander around the same ground which has already been admirably covered by my colleagues. I will concentrate on a look at the new Region 2 Cine Excess DVD and add some comments on the film as I go along.
Cine Excess is a new project from Nouveaux Pictures which has as its tagline the phrase "Taking Trash Seriously", words which have managed to outrage admirers of Argento's work - the very people who will be buying this new DVD and the accompanying Blu-Ray. The problem, I think, is that the word "trash" is so perjorative, no matter how much one intends to celebrate the ability of so-called "trash" to be subversive. In the minds of the general public, "trash" means crap and is the most unsuitable label possible for a film which is so rich in artistic integrity and professional skill. There is certainly an argument for taking back the word "trash", along the lines of Pauline Kael's essay "Trash Art and the Movies" in which she argued that good "trash" is far preferable to bad "art" and that we shouldn't try to over-intellectualize what we actually enjoy in popular filmmaking in order to try and make them seem more "artistic" and thus justify our enjoyment. There's a sense in which some of what we enjoy in Suspiria is fundamentally trashy - the excitement of the sudden shocks and gory violence, the campy silliness inherent in the B-movie plotting involving a witches coven. But it's such a beautifully made film that it seems to me that it has an artistry that lifts it above its own trashy elements and make it a genuine work of film art which demands to be taken seriously on a number of levels.
What strikes me time and again about Suspiria, and particularly in this new transfer, is the sheer craftsmanship which has gone into it - of a level which Argento only fully achieved once more, in Inferno. It's a dazzling piece of work both as a horror film - with every single shudder elicited with the skill of a master magician - and as a visual feast in which colour explodes off the screen and makes a basic emotional connection with the viewer. Much has been said about Luciano Tovoli's cinematography but it's worth emphasizing how stunning the use of colour is; heightening the horror and yet cushioning us in a world of richly furbished fairy-tale.
It's important then that a new transfer should represents those colours beautifully well. The film is so shrouded in rich colour that accurate tones are essential. I'm not sure we always get them here, although the results vary - the blues are excellent throughout while the reds too often change to dark pinks. The problem is that the image is often too bright, the flesh tones are sometimes bizarrely off and the colours are sometimes so over-saturated that they distort the image into a fuzzy mess. I know that the saturation is meant to be overpowering but it's not meant to look ugly. In other respects the transfer, framed at 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced, is very good with a high level of detail. However, there is also a persistent over-enhancement which results in haloing during some scenes and, having read Michael Mackenzie's comments on the Blu-Ray release here, the blown-out highlights are just as noticeable on this DVD. Let me be clear, this is still a very striking visual experience but it's not quite the feast I had hoped for. Newcomers to the film, incidentally, may inevitably be less critical than seasoned viewers who have seen several versions.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track strikes me as an unalloyed triumph. The film was originally released with a four channel soundtrack which, for those lucky enough to have a cinema equipped to play it, was apparently unforgettable. What we have here is certainly a remix but an extremely good one with none of the music and effects mistakes which marred the previous Anchor Bay releases. You can play this suitably loud and the quality remains excellent.
The extras are generally very good.There are two documentaries which deal with the film, the first looking at the making of the movie and the second going into more analytical territory. How interesting this will be to the casual viewer is a moot point but I enjoyed hearing from academic Patricia MacCormack and her theories about the film's lesbian subtext, and it's always good to see Norman J. Warren. Dario Argento appears in the first documentary and is his usual cryptic self. Additionally, there is a ten minute promo-reel for the Cine-Excess label featuring Xavier Mendick and containing a variety of clips from interesting films including Pupi Avati's wonderful The House with Laughing Windows. Finally, there is a new audio commentary featuring Kim Newman and Alan Jones, as opposed to Kim's usual friend Stephen Jones. It's a delightful track being funny and informative in equal measures and allowing the splendid Mr Jones to wallow in his encyclopedic knowledge of all things Argento. Consequently, Kim Newman is quieter than usual but he still comes up with some interesting points, although one suspects that he actually prefers Inferno to Suspiria.
Dario Argento's work since the 1970s has been so variable, going from the heights of Inferno and Tenebrae to the dismal depths of Mother of Tears, that it's worth seeing Suspiria again to remind oneself of what made him great in the first place. In terms of the intensity of its horror and the sheer beauty of its visuals, it was just about unique in the genre in 1977 - Carrie being its only obvious competition - and it remains completely unique to this day. Argento's great gift, one he shares with De Palma, is his ability to go too far and to sustain scenes of suspense for so long that they become witty acknowledgements of the mechanics behind them. Suspiria works because it's too much, too rich a meal if you like, and one leaves it feeling fully satiated. It's the work of master craftsmen being given the chance to show off and it has a vitality and freshness which remains captivating. Argento may never top this movie but its very existence means that he doesn't have to.