This review is dedicated to Dave Shipley of Kent, United Kingdom. It was originally promised when the Blu-ray was first released back in January of last year. With the sequel to 'Suspiria' finally hitting this side of the Atlantic (that would be 'Inferno' for those unfamiliar with 'The Three Mothers Trilogy' from Dario Argento), I thought it high time I fulfilled my promise and shared my thoughts with Dave as well as our other readers. Please enjoy and apologies for taking so long.
At the heart of the horror film 'Suspiria' lies a bold venture to change the way in which horror films are watched and experienced. The 1977 giallo classic is an experiment with lighting, mise-en-scène and sound — an attempt to induce fear from overt and transparent sources outside of the story proper. Rightly considered the pièce de résistance of Dario Argento's filmmaking career, the movie is sparse and plain as it follows a young American dancer named Suzy (Jennifer Harper) through the stressful demands of a prestigious ballet academy. At the same time, the highly-stylized Italian film is a loud and flamboyant affair of mystery and suspense, where Suzy uncovers a deep, horrifying secret about the dance institute dating as far back as the school's founding.
From the moment the movie commences, viewers are placed on edge with a thick air of anxious expectancy. While large, white texts announce the credits in the middle of a pitch-black background, the disturbing sounds and incessant drumming of Goblin fill the room, creating an apprehensive atmosphere that borders on the Hitchcockian. The original score by the experimental rock band carries a grotesque and unsettling quality that deliberately interrupts the narrative flow at very odd moments as well as during expected scenes of shocking violence. Intimate conversations between Suzy and Sarah (Stefania Casini) are suddenly overwhelmed by the group's screeching compositions, and Pat's (Eva Axén) death is engulfed by their piercing music, which interestingly matches the falling glass.
And before we're given the chance to quickly dismiss all this as the laughable mistakes of an amateur, we soon realize the freakish music is juxtaposed with the bizarre, seemingly arbitrary display of vivid primary colors. Scenes of imminent terror are awash in deep, blood reds or dramatically penetrating blues. While flashes of greens and yellows suddenly appear throughout the movie, the black darkness of shadows genuinely feel frightening, and bright whites are cleanly and immaculately rendered during quieter sequences. Being clueless to their meaning or purpose only adds to the film's overall distressing nature. The plot is a basic storyline that's easy to figure out and even predict, yet 'Suspiria,' as a whole, is a mystifying horror picture that's beyond our grasp or comprehension.
Ultimately, the imagery creates a nightmarish spectacle of fantasy and terror, a series of phantasmagoric stills pieced together to make a movie. The hypnotic visuals work in conjunction with the setting and production. The baroque architecture of the ballet academy carries a menacing presence, and the strict, rigid design of the interiors parallels Miss Tanner's (Alida Valli) own austere, foreboding personality as dance instructor. Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett in one of her final, great performances) is almost always surrounded by white while she mostly dresses in black. The primary colors shown throughout coincide with a few of the rooms, and make a startling but subtle appearance during a scene that finally leads Suzy to a confrontation with the school's dark secret.
As these calculated elements start to come together, viewers can see there is something also premeditated about a story occupied mostly by women. The men of 'Suspiria' are either unavailable or physically impaired, like Dr. Frank (Udo Kier) or the pianist Daniel (Flavio Bucci). Then there's the creepy-looking child Albert (Jacopo Mariani) and the child-like giant Pavlo (Giuseppe Transocchi). And finally, we have fellow dancer Mark (Miguel Bosé), but he's never seen as the masculine, heroic type. Men, in this film, really don't serve much purpose or fail to achieve any stereotypical feats of gallantry.
Typically, a giallo uses male characters as the unknown killer, from whom we're often given a forced POV shot, or as an individual that protects women from the maniac's sadistic desires. In either case, those movies have men looking and objectifying their female counterparts, whether in a comforting or threatening matter is beside the point. Argento's film turns this assumed perspective on its head with a suggestive female gaze. The women of 'Suspiria' do the looking and objectifying, either through their gossiping, suspicions or actions. The characters represent a large variety of women, and they are not simply viewed as objects of desire. They are complex and vastly different. It's another aspect of the plot which hints at the creative genius behind its making.
Dario Argento's 'Suspiria' is a macabre horror thriller that pushes the boundaries of convention while also saying nothing at all about the genre. It's essentially an exercise of those devices, and it's all the more ingenious for it because it makes use of them in a very unique fashion that submerses audiences with a consciously-theatrical film experience. 'Suspiria' is bold, brash and a terrifyingly entertaining movie that has amassed an enormous, worldwide cult following. The rumored remake from David Gordon Green ('Pineapple Express') and starring Natalie Portman is not likely to be welcomed with open arms, as this is yet another horror masterpiece that should be left untouched by uninspired, meddling hands. 'Suspiria (1977)' is perfect just the way it is.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Suspiria' hits Blu-ray in the United Kingdom courtesy of Cine Excess and Nouveaux Pictures. The BD25 disc is Region B locked, which means a multi-region player is necessary for enjoying the movie in the U.S., and housed in the standard blue keepcase. At startup, the disc goes straight to the main menu selection with a still of the cover art filling the screen and the music of Goblin playing in the background.
Dario Argento's 'Suspiria' has always been a rather problematic release for home viewers, never fully satisfying expectations due mostly to over-zealous tampering. While this new Blu-ray edition of the 1977 horror classic is without a doubt the best the film has ever looked on any format, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.35:1) from Cine Excess continues to show some serious issues that will sorely disappoint fans and purists everywhere.
The biggest offender in this high-def transfer is a boosted contrast level that runs distractingly hot in several sequences. On the surface, the effect gives the film an impressive pop and offers strong clarity, but the picture is far brighter than need be. Viewers must not only contend with many instances of whites looking somewhat digital and blown out, they must also suffer severe whitewashing in the highlights and harsh clipping on clothing and faces, ruining some of the movie's enjoyment. When this occurs, there is a bit of noise that suddenly appears around the edges of random items, which suggests that contrast was messed about obviously at the digital intermediate phase. Also worth noting is some slight aliasing, primarily and most noticeably in Pavlo's lined vest.
However, in spite of these artifacts, the video displays more positives than negatives, and I admit to enjoying this presentation far more than I really should. What really stands out is the photography's intended color palette. While the softer hues are bright and bold, giving flesh tones a natural warmth, primaries are richly saturated and vividly dramatic. Blacks are lush and intensely penetrating, providing the image with a great deal of depth throughout. Shadow delineation is undeterred by the altered contrast, remaining strong and revealing. Fine object and textural details are marvelous for a film of this age with clear, distinct definition in facial complexions, clothing and the ornate architecture of the dance academy. All things considered, 'Suspiria' on Blu-ray comes with more positives than negatives, but the presentation remains far from perfect.
Best of all, Cine Express provides an excellent DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that stays true to the original intentions of filmmakers. This is a marked improvement from previous editions, one that is meant to be played loud as part of the movie's overall impact and experiment.
From the onset, Goblin's unsettling music and drumming blares into the entire sound system with a clean and detailed dynamic range, creating a tense and nerve-wracking atmosphere. Bass isn't very potent or notably powerful, but it's responsive and strikingly effective during these moments of suspense. Surrounds are generally silent aside from the overwhelmingly loud score. The front soundstage is where most of the action is located, and exhibits good balance with strong dialogue reproduction. On the other hand, the ADR work is made more apparent by the higher resolution, movement between channels feels forced in a couple of scenes, and noise creeps its way into the mix during Suzy's first practice session when she faints. All in all, 'Suspiria' has an awesome and disturbing sound design that does precisely what it's supposed to do on Blu-ray.
For this Blu-ray edition hailing from the UK, Cine Excess and Nouveaux Pictures offer a more academic look at 'Suspiria' in their assortment of special features. Those who enjoy an analytical approach to films are more likely to find the collection worthwhile than those preferring the standard set of making-of material.
Dario Argento's 'Suspiria' is a cult horror masterpiece from one of the best known names in the genre. The highly-stylized Italian film is ultimately an experiment with sound, lighting, and setting, where the suspense and fear arise more from working these three elements together than the story itself. The Blu-ray edition from Cine Excess and Nouveaux Pictures of the UK features the best video transfers of the movie, but it also displays some distractingly noticeable drawbacks. The audio presentation is also one of the finest, offering fans the level of entertainment value originally planned by filmmakers. The package also includes a strong collection of bonus material that devoted enthusiasts can enjoy, making this an attractive purchase. But I for one hope to see a U.S. release with a much better picture presentation sometime in the future.