Suspiria

Suspiria (1977)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Jennifer Harper
Extras: Documentary, Theatrical Trailers, TV Spots, Radio Spots, Music Video, Still Gallery, Talent Bios
Rating:

In the realm of cult horror films, there are some titles, which are revered more than others. Maybe it’s for their groundbreaking special effects, or the unprecedented scares. Or it could be because of the film’s relative obscurity. Dario Argento’s "Suspiria" is such a film. Despite the fact that the film was actually released theatrically in the United States (a rarity for Argento’s films) and did fairly well, it has still been a challenge for modern audiences to view the film. But, this hasn’t stopped scores of horror fans from discussing and praising the film. Over the years, collectors have struggled to get their hands on one of the infamous Japanese lasersdiscs of "Suspiria" (entitled "Deep Red 2") or the now out-of-print American laserdisc from Image or the video release from Magnum Entertainment. Well, now all of the hunting can cease, as Anchor Bay Entertainment is bringing the definitive version of Argento’s classic to DVD. This edition should please long-time fans and those who have always wanted to see the film in its undiluted form.

On paper, the story of "Suspiria" is fairly easy to explain. A young American ballet dancer named Susy Banyon arrive in Freiburg, Germany to study at a world renowned dance academy. On the night that she arrives at the school, one of the students in murdered (In a scene which must be seen to be believed.), and Susy can’t get into the school. The next day, she is properly welcomed into the Academy by the director Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and her teacher Miss Tanner (Alida Valli). During the first class, Susy falls ill and faints. Despite the fact that she’d planned to stay in a nearby apartment, Madame Blanc insists that Susy live at the school until she feels better.

It is then that Susy begins to notice the weird goings-on at the dance academy. The instructors all seem to be in on a big secret and the students aren’t very friendly. Falling an attack by maggots and the death of one the employees, Susy and her newfound friend Sara (Stefania Casini) decide to investigate the activities at the school and learn the truth. What they discover is a dark secret, which was best kept hidden, as the academy is not what it appears to be and the staff may not be human.

While that synopsis seems straight-forward and simple enough, seeing "Suspiria" unfold on-screen is another matter entirely. You see, "Suspiria" isn’t about the story, it’s about visuals. I would say that the narrative takes a back-seat to the visuals, but at times it’s as if they aren’t even in the same car. Argento lets just enough of the story sneak in so that he can create his shots. And, oh, what shots they are. "Suspiria" was one of the last films to be shot using the old Technicolor Three-Strip film process. This is exactly what it sounds like. There are actually three strips of film running through the camera, each photographing a separate color spectrum. During development, the three strips are put together, giving us an image of unsurpassed color. With this process, Argento and director of photography Luciano Tovoli were able to paint a color palette the likes of which have never been seen before (or since) in a horror film. "Suspiria" is dominated by reds, blues, and greens creating an entirely new and eerie world. This color scheme only adds to the nightmarish quality of the film. While some have described "Suspiria" as a dark fairy-tale (indeed Argento calls it this), I prefer to view the film as if you are watching someone else’s bad dream.

This unique color technique is accentuated by Argento’s creative camerawork, which filmmakers such as John Carpenter have acknowledged as being inspirational. The camera here is rarely still, as it roams the halls of the dance academy or of the apartment building at the beginning of the film. When the camera is still, Argento shoots through light-bulbs, glasses, and sheets to give the film a very unique feel. Argento also alternates using extreme close-ups and long-range shots (as in Chapter 15). The camerawork, combined with the colors, make "Suspiria" one of the most visually unique films ever made.

However, it shouldn’t be assumed that the story of "Suspiria", as flimsy as it may be, doesn’t contribute to the film as well. Argento uses the narrative to set up his disturbing images. And while there are gaping plot holes, factual and continuity errors and some of the scenes don’t entirely make sense, visuals such as the maggot attack (Chapter 9), the shadowy figures in the square (Chapter 13), the barbed-wire room (Chapter 17), and the finale (Chapters 22-25) contain some truly unforgettable, grisly images. This goes back to the nightmare motif, which I mentioned earlier. As in a dream, there are parts of "Suspiria" that make no logical sense. But, like our dreams, it’s the bizarre images, not necessarily the story, which really scare us. "Suspiria" is a monumental achievement in horror, as it is both understated (story-wise) and over-the-top (visually) at the same time.

Given the visual reputation of "Suspiria" one would hope that the DVD would be impressive, and those prayers are answered with the new DVD from Anchor Bay, which features a new transfer which was supervised by Argento and Tovoli. The film is presented in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and has been <$PS,letterboxed> at 2.35:1. This <$THX,THX>-certified transfer looks fantastic and beats any previous transfer hands down. The image is razor-sharp and very clear, showing only the slights amount of grain during the outdoor scenes. There are no noticeable defects from the source print. The framing appears to be accurate, and there is no artifacting effects present. Of course, the colors are outstanding, showing none of the halos which appeared on the lasersdisc edition. The reds, blues, and greens simply leap off of the screen, while at the same time adding a great deal of depth to every shot. Even if you’ve seen "Suspiria" several times, you’ve never seen it like this.

Another part of "Suspiria" reputation is its soundtrack by Goblin, which is known for being quite loud. The volume of this score practically makes it another character in the film, and the two main tracks on this DVD certainly do it justice. The "Suspiria" DVD offers the choice of a <$DD,Dolby Digital> Surround EX track or a <$DTS,DTS>-ES track. No matter which you choose, you’ll be impressed. Both offer clear and audible dialogue, with no discernible hissing. The surround sound on both tracks is quite impressive, as great care was clearly given to the on-screen-action to speaker-placement for each sound effect. The DTS track does have a slightly better dynamic range and sounds a bit clearer, but otherwise, both tracks are superb. The Goblin score has never sounded better and truly becomes part of the viewing experience. From the opening notes, you know that the sound on this DVD is quite good and only helps to make "Suspiria" even more unsettling.

Anchor Bay has also done a great job with the extras. The DVD includes two theatrical trailers. The international trailer is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1, and has to be one of the weirdest previews ever, as it only features tinted still frames from "Suspiria". The U.S. trailer is also <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1, and is a great example of cheesy horror film promotions from the 1970s. (You’ve got to love the breathing letters!) There is also a full-frame TV spot, which was culled from the U.S. trailer. We next have three 30-second radio spots, which are all quite entertaining. There is a still-gallery, which features 97 images. Most are production stills from the film, but there are also many posters and other ad art for "Suspiria" from all over the world. The cast and crew section contains detailed biographies for Argento, co-writer Daria Nicolodi, and star Jessica Harper. Finally, we have a music video by the band Daemonia, who do their own version of the "Suspiria" title song. This video is just plain weird. (Am I going to hell for watching that?)

Those of you who are fortunate enough to get the Limited Edition "Suspiria" DVD, will be treated to a second disc which features a 52-minute documentary. "Suspiria: 25th Anniversary" contains all-new interviews with many cast and crew members, including Argento, Nicolodi, Tovoli, Harper, Casini, and the members of Goblin. This documentary is incredibly informative, as the interviews trace the origins of the story (it’s interesting that both Argento and Nicolodi take credit for the initial idea) and the production of the film. The documentary is broken down into sections, as the cast, crew, music, story, and making of the film are discussed. Everyone is very open and honest, but unlike the documentary on "Opera", the participants here only have positive things to say about one another. (Although, someone should have commented on Casini’s histrionic behavior during her interview.) One of the best parts of the feature is that it takes the time to explain technical details, especially the Three-Strip Technicolor process. Many fans of "Suspiria" have read interviews and essays on the film before, but this documentary will shed new light on this much-loved film. The Limited Edition also contains a "Suspiria" soundtrack CD.

Fans of "Suspiria" have been waiting a quarter-century for the definitive version of the film and it’s finally here. This DVD should satisfy any Argento’s fan quest for a perfect transfer and for knowledge about the film. The audio and video presentation here is exquisite and does justice to the film’s reputation for providing unique sights and sounds. "Suspiria" may still be confusing to some, but there’s no question that this DVD is superb.


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