Michael Mackenzie has reviewed the 3-disc limited edition US release of Suspiria, the masterful and disturbing gothic fairytale that is often proclaimed to be Italian director Dario Argento’s greatest work.
A lot of criticism can be leveled against the films of Dario Argento. Superficially, his characters are underdeveloped, actors wooden, plots inane and dialogue unbelievable. Yet for some reason all that is thrown to one side when watching one of his films. His near-perfect combination of audio and visual elements works so well that it can transport you to a world completely detached from reality, if you let it.
Suspiria tells the story of a young American girl, Suzy Banyon, who arrives in Germany one stormy night to enroll at the famous Dance Academy in Freiburg. Upon arriving at the gates, she witnesses a distraught young woman fleeing the academy. The young woman and her roommate are later murdered in an incredibly graphic and brutal manner. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that all is not right at the academy, and that Suzy has in fact stumbled upon a coven of witches who indulge in the black arts by night and have no qualms about disposing of anyone who might get in their way. As Suzy discovers more and more about the secret goings-on at the academy, she is drawn further and further into a terrifying nightmare.
Suspiria was always conceived as a fairytale. From its brief opening narration, which is of the “once upon a time” storybook variety, it tells a story of brutal violence and supernatural horror from an extremely childlike perspective. It is a little-known fact that Argento originally planned to use children as his lead actors, but for one reason or another this didn’t pan out. However, remnants of this remain, especially in the demeanour of many of the girls, whose constant bickering and games seem very much like those of young children. Jessica Harper brings a wonderfully childlike quality to her portrayal of Suzy, with a wide-eyed, innocent expression continually on her face. The seemingly infantile characters make the subsequent brutalities all the more shocking.
It’s only fair to discuss the film’s supposed flaws up-front, and in reality, the majority of problems its detractors mention are probably completely accurate. The plot is minimalist, with many things happening with no supposed motivation or explanation. The acting is often wooden, not helped by the fact that the dialogue was entirely recorded in post-production (a typical practice in Italian films well into the mid-80s, and one that Argento still uses today). These criticisms can be leveled against almost any Argento film, and all of them suffer to various degrees; yet somehow, none of this seems to matter in Suspiria.
The best-known element of Suspiria is probably its colour. Working with cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, Argento uses a bold palette of lush reds, blues and greens, creating a highly unrealistic yet stunning appearance. Utilising the outdated three-strip Technicolor process (at a time when most filmmakers were opting for cheaper Eastmancolor stock), he has created a film that looks unlike any other. The price Argento paid, however, was that virtually all the remaining film stock was used up on Suspiria. The results show that this was not a wasted endeavour. The use of intricate composition, bizarre camera moves and sudden changes of viewpoint contribute a great deal to making the experience as unique and visually exciting as it is. Often Argento suddenly switches from an extreme close up to a long shot, and vice versa, resulting in the audience constantly feeling as if they are being moved about by some unknown force. The film is literally stunning in its horrific beauty.
It would be impossible to discuss Suspiria without making reference to the bombastic soundtrack composed by Italian alternative rock group Goblin, who had previously worked with Argento on Profondo Rosso. The deceptively simple theme tune which is repeated throughout the film bears more than a passing resemblance to John Carpenter’s theme for Halloween. (In fact, it is no secret that Suspiria was a huge influence on that film.) The hypnotic soundtrack is filled with barely-decipherable screams and chants, and definitely adds a huge amount of atmosphere to the film. In this, more than any other film by Argento, the marriage of visuals and audio is spot-on, and more than makes up for any deficiencies in the script and acting.
It is perhaps surprising that Suspiria works so well, considering that Argento has always vehemently denied claims that he is a “horror director”. He continues to separate his giallo thrillers from his supernatural horror efforts, which include Suspiria and its semi-sequel Inferno, and to a lesser extent the hybrid Phenomena. But here Argento proves that he is just as adept at creating nightmarish dreams as he is with murder mysteries.
It would probably be fair to say that this is Argento’s best-known film — certainly it is one of the only ones to ever achieve success outside the circles of genre fans. With the majority of his other films known only to a small selection of zealous fans, Suspiria is a name that a surprising number of people have heard of, although most tend to view it simply as a tacky 70s horror movie with an unusual atmosphere. Fans will continue to argue over which of Argento films is his greatest, but I am in no doubt that my personal favourite is Suspiria. I would almost certainly class it is my favourite horror movie, and even in terms of my favourite films ever, it would come pretty high on the list. In this more than any of his other films, the combination of the various elements is close to perfect, and the end result is a rich and extremely rewarding experience unlike any other.
The image quality of the DVD releases of Suspiria around the world has tended to range from acceptable to poor, with the early UK release by Nouveaux being the prime offender. Suspiria is such a visually compelling film that only the highest possible standard of transfers can come anywhere near to doing it justice. Thankfully, for this release, Anchor Bay have pulled out all the stops to deliver the best-looking home release of Suspiria as of writing.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is fabulous in almost every sense of the word. The colours are unbelievable, and probably come closer to properly representing the original Technicolor process than any other release of the film. This transfer was taken from the original negative, but because all the coloured lighting was done on the set, it did not have to be re-graded (something New Line were forced to do when they created a new transfer of Se7en from the negative).
The image is a little grainy, but it is never obtrusive. It looks natural and film-like, and it is clear that no unneccessary filtering or noise reduction was performed. The result is a razor-sharp image — surprisingly so at times. It is still hard to believe that this is a 25-year-old movie, as this transfer is superior to those of a surprising number of recent high-budget films.
The only real complaint I can level at this transfer is that the bit rate is not high enough on a couple of occasions. Some compression artifacts do show up, the most noticeable being some blocking during the slow zoom in on the Dance Academy at the start of chapter 11. Given the intense level of detail present, this is perhaps not surprising, but it would have been nice if a higher bit rate could have been afforded, considering that the DVD still has a reasonable amount of space to spare (only 5.16 GB is used on this 9 GB dual-layer disc).
Those minor complaints aside, though, this really is a stunning transfer and definitely one of the best I have ever seen.
The audio mixes presented on this DVD have sparked fierce debate amongst the film’s many fans. There seems to be a general consensus that the audio levels are noticeably wrong in places, with a couple of moments where sound elements are missing entirely, and other instances when they play at the wrong times or at the wrong volume. Bill Lustig, who supervised the DVD mastering and audio remixing, has vehemently defended the mix, claiming that it is how it is intended to sound, but it is undeniable that there are moments where something is clearly wrong. The most famous examples are the sound effect of a bell which rings after characters have visually reacted to it, and missing thunder sound effects during the witches’ communion. Lamentably, this could all have been avoided if the film’s original four-channel audio mix had been included, and since this disc is not exactly pressed for space, it would not have been too difficult to include. As it is, only remixes are presented (Dolby Digital EX 5.1, DTS-ES 6.1 and Dolby Surround 2.0).
This probably sounds like the audio is of a poor standard, when in reality this is not the case at all, and I suspect that 95% of viewers will be unable to notice the aforementioned problems. The 5.1 and 6.1 mixes are extremely engaging, with the hypnotic soundtrack pounding out of the speakers and creating a very enveloping experience. This is superb demo material, and if not for the remix discrepancies, I would have awarded the audio full marks.
Now this is how menus should be done! They are elegantly designed, user-friendly and boast a small amount of unobtrusive animation and music. For transitions, a simple animation sequence of thick, stylised blood pouring down the screen is used. After some poor designs on their earlier efforts, Anchor Bay seem to have mastered the art of creating functional and attractive menus that complement the nature of the films themselves.
The limited edition of Suspiria uses a triple alpha hub, which is basically an unusually thick keep case with room for three discs. As a result, it actually looks more like a VHS case in terms of proportions, but it is very nicely designed. Some people have criticised the choice of artwork (and I certainly would agree that packaging design is an area in which Anchor Bay often slip up), but I think the look of the set is great.
Also included are a 32-page booklet featuring an essay on the film by Travis Crawford, an interview with Jessica Harper, and various high quality stills, as well as nine lobby card reproductions. All in all, this is a very nicely-designed set, and someone clearly put a lot of effort into it.
The limited edition release of Suspiria contains three discs: the standard DVD featuring the film and some minor extras; a DVD featuring the 25th anniversary documentary; and a CD featuring the film’s soundtrack. If you don’t want to shell out on the full-on limited edition, there is a standard edition available which includes only the first disc.
International trailer – Presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, this atmospheric and colorful trailer is pretty unconventional. Backed up by Goblin’s moody score, we are treated to a series of stills from the movie, accompanied by goopy red blood which occasionally runs down the screen. It attempts to sell the movie based on atmosphere alone, and is also a lot more gory than most movie trailers. There is also no narration.
US trailer – Presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio, this trailer is ever more weird than the international one. It begins with a melodic voice singing a nursery rhyme, before we are presented with a grinning skull. We also get some footage from the movie, but again, nothing about the story itself. It includes the tagline: “The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of Suspiria are the first 92”. The tagline has resulted in a massive amount of confusion, since it suggests that the movie is actually 104 minutes long. It isn’t: it’s 98 minutes. Therefore, any claims of a super-gory 104 minute director’s cut are in fact wrong.
TV spot – Anamorphic 1.33:1 (windowboxed), with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio, this TV spot is a shortened version of the US trailer.
Radio spots – There are three radio spots, each one 30 seconds. We get a few audio clips from the movie, backed up by the movie score, and a creepy voice tells us that we’ll never again feel safe in the dark. Anchor Bay also included radio spots with Halloween, and I think it’s a pretty nice feature.
Daemonia music video – This extremely bizarre music video features co-composer Claudio Simonetti’s band Daemonia performing the Suspiria title music. It looks extremely amateur and is shot on VHS. Presented in anamorphic 1.78:1, I suspect that the original ratio was 1.33:1, due to its video nature and the fact that it looks somewhat cropped at the top and bottom. This is more weird than funny, and I’m not quite sure why it was included. It actually runs for about 6 minutes, including credits.
Poster and still gallery – This is a massive gallery, with nearly a hundred images in total. We get a collection of posters, still frames, press kits, and other miscellaneous images, from various different countries. They’ve even scanned in a cinema ticket from the UK premiere of the movie. This is really good stuff, and well worth going through.
25th anniversary documentary – This documentary runs for 52 minutes and is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. There is input here from many of the main people involved in making the movie, including director Dario Argento, cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, co-writer Daria Nicolodi, members of the band Goblin, and a few of the stars. The majority of the documentary is subtitled, since most of the participants are Italian. However, Jessica Harper (Suzy) and some of the Goblin team speak in English. I should point out that you have to enable subtitles from the menu… unless you speak Italian, that is. This is a very good commentary, discussing various aspects of the film’s production in considerable detail. It has an extremely interesting section on the outdated Technicolor process that was used, even going to the extent of exactly how the prints were created. Unfortunately, many of the people interviewed have a rather fawning attitude towards Argento, which isn’t too bad at first but quickly becomes irritating and patronizing. Still, this is an excellent documentary, and since Argento has declined to record any more commentaries for his films (he was involved with commentaries for Phenomena and Tenebre), this is probably the best possible alternative.
This is perhaps not the greatest array of special features ever compiled for DVD, but the quality of the documentary makes up for this somewhat. I would have liked to see some footage of the actual production of the film, although it is admittedly possible that none exists. It would also have been nice if Argento had agreed to record an audio commentary, as it could have been most insightful, especially if he had been allowed to speak in his native Italian (his English-language commentaries for Phenomena and Tenebre are somewhat clumsy due to his rather weak grasp of the language). That said, this collection of extras does not disappoint in any major way.
Suspiria will undoubtedly not appeal to everyone. A large number of criticisms have been leveled against it, and most of them are perfectly valid, but if you can see past its oddities it can be appreciated for what it is: one of the most atmospheric, imaginative and downright disturbing films of all time. The video is close to reference quality and the DTS-ES audio track makes for great demonstration material if you can see past the inaccuracies in the remix. If I was told I could only keep three DVDs from my collection, this would without question be one of them. So, if you like bizarre, colourful supernatural horror movies, you should buy this set without further hesitation, as it really is a superb representation of what the DVD format is capable of. This, in my mind, is as close as you can get to an essential purchase.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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