ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Suspiria (1977) 4K restored Blu Ray & DVD (CultFilms)
Arriving in Germany in a thunderstorm
Jessica Harper plays Suzy Bannion, an American girl who arrives in Freiburg, Germany to take dancing lessons at the prestigious Tanz Academy. It’s a dark night with a strong thunderstorm drenching the streets as she takes her taxi ride from the airport to the school. When she reaches the place she sees another girl exiting through the front door. This girl mentions something on the door’s intercom before frantically darting into the night.
Suzy, finding the door locked, tries the intercom. However, the voice at the other end tells her to go away. She tries to explain that she is expected to arrive at the Academy but still the other person tells her to leave. Bemused, she takes the taxi back to town to find a room for the night. On the way out of the institution’s grounds, however, she spots the girls who she just saw leaving the place rushing through the trees.
This other girl finally arrives at the apartment block where her friend lives. When she is let in she explains to her that she has been kicked out of Tanz. She also mentions that she has to get away without divulging any further details because she feels that they would be too unbelievable for her to understand. While she is in her friend ’s bathroom she is spooked by a mysterious presence. Sure enough, she is attacked and killed in an extremely brutal fashion which also results in her friend accidentally suffering an equally grisly fate.
Suzy manages to successfully enter the Academy the next day, whereupon she is greeted by the vice-directress Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and a stern dancing instructor named Miss Tanner (Alida Valli). As she gets acquainted with the girls and starts to take lessons, however, a number of increasingly bizarre and unsettling incidents occur which culminate in further gruesome deaths. What is the mystery behind this seemingly respectable institution?
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Dario Argento’s masterpiece
Suspiria is the otherworldly apex of Dario Argento’s lengthy career and is widely considered to be one of the finest horror films ever made. It fully embraced the stylistic direction which he dabbled in with his previous film, Deep Red (1975): a lullaby-influenced prog rock soundtrack by Goblin, the turning of Baroque architecture into a fantastically nightmarish space, blood-heavy murders and the blending of giallo with supernatural elements.
However, whereas its predecessor placed some emphasis on story construction over style, this one pretty much makes the style the story. In many ways, it’s a throwback to the gothic horrors of Mario Bava (even cribbing his penchant for primary-coloured lighting) but on a more grandiose, bombastic and even operatic scale. The plot isn’t really any more substantial than an episode of Scooby-Doo and serves little purpose other than mechanically contriving one terrifying sequence after another. However, the film’s modus operandi is exactly that: to be “terrifying”.
The film’s wordless opening entrance by our main protagonist Suzy Bannion is truly memorable for the way in which it throws both her and the viewer into its nightmarish, fairytale reality. We initially see her walking through a relatively banal airport arrivals hall towards the exit doors. However, when the camera cuts to said doors, Goblin’s lullaby theme starts up, only to stop again when we cut back to Suzy. When she exits into the dramatic thunderstorm there’s a jolting cut to the sliding doors opening to let her pass. It’s ominous stuff that really lets us know what’s in store.
Operatically striking sequences
Argento’s handling of the brutal murders is startling stuff. He makes use of lengthy, mostly wordless build-ups accompanied by Goblin’s soaring operatic score and a succession of minor shocks - a window bursting open in a gust of wind, a pair of glowing catlike eyes seen shrouded in pitch-darkness. He builds up the anticipation of something truly horrific to a sheer crescendo, only to let us off the hook by cutting off the music and allowing both character and audience breathe a sigh of relief. Only then does he hit us with lovingly-detailed graphic brutality as various body parts of unfortunate victims get punctured and torn in extreme close-up. It’s incredibly sadistic but in the most audio-visually beautiful way imaginable.
There are four of these striking extended sequences. However, while the rest of the film never quite reaches the same fever pitch, the calmer interludes (including some bizarre comic relief involving the various bitchy and immature pupils of the academy) only serve to highlight their intensity. Besides which, there are quite a few smaller chills along the way including an icky maggot infestation and some ominous breathing coming from a red-lit silhouette behind a curtain.
A notable cast
Chicago-born actress Jessica Harper is fine in the lead; she brings an engaging mixture of childlike innocence and plucky curiosity as an adolescent woman who is thrust into adulthood by the violence of the world which she, as of the start of this film, now inhabits.
The international cast is also interesting for a trio of screen veterans:
- Udo Kier is a German actor who appeared in a wide variety of cult horror and exploitation films during the 1970s including Mark of the Devil, the Andy Warhol-produced Blood for Dracula and Flesh for Frankenstein, The Story of O and Exposé. However, he has landed a large variety of roles in both European and American films since then and his career is still going even nowadays.
- Croatian-Italian actress Alida Valli worked from the mid-1930s to the early-2000s and was a star name during her earlier years thanks to roles in such classics as The Third Man and Les yeux sans visage.
- American actress Joan Bennett had been working as a child actress in the silent era and also became a major star. She is perhaps most fondly-remembered for starring in several of Fritz Lang’s films during the 1940s. During the 1950s, however, her career took a dark turn as her then-husband Walter Wanger suspected her of having an affair with her agent Jennings Lang and, in a fit of rage, decided to shoot him in the groin. Her image was tarnished and her big screen roles became far rarer as a result. However, she did work frequently on TV until the early 1980s. The grim pallor that has surrounded her career seems entirely fit for the sad, embittered role that she plays here.
Suspiria fully deserves its reputation as one of the all-time-great horror films. It’s one of those rare entries in the genre which can still cause experienced fans to jump on occasion. From a stylistic standpoint, it is timeless; it seems to exist in its own hermetically-sealed world, hardly ever pinpointing itself as having been made in the 1970s.
Runtime: 101 mins
Dir: Dario Argento
Script: Dario Argento, Daria Nicolodi
Starring: Jessica Harper, Udo Kier, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Barbara Magnolfi, Miguel Bosé
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Blu Ray Audio-Visual
This is one of the finest 4K restorations that I’ve seen. While Suspiria has always been a great-looking and sounding film in any format, the richness and depth of colours here is almost devastatingly beautiful. The sound is suitably intense and full-sounding, with every individual layer of Goblin’s soundtrack feeling absolutely perfect.
The restoration process
A representative of the German company TLE films takes us through the stages of restoration for a selection of scenes from the film. For each scene, he firstly takes a look at the of altering colour timings from the Eastmancolor process (with which all versions after the original release have been rendered) to Dario Argento’s original Technicolor process. Secondly, he looks at the restoration of print damage, the most notable of which, in this case, were a number of blue fingerprints caused by so-called “film cement” during previous restoration work. It’s fascinating up to a point but 57 minutes’ worth of it does seem excessive.
Argento presents his Suspiria
Nick Vivarelli interviews director Dario Argento about the film. The director reveals that he was inspired by Thomas de Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis as well as old and expressionist movies. For research, he travelled around Europe to find out about urban witchcraft, finding a Steiner school in Switzerland for inspiration. Despite the rather dry interview format his discussions on the film’s various plot and stylistic elements are fascinating.
Fear at 400 Degrees
An archive documentary which originally appeared on the Nouveaux Pictures release of the film. Die-hard Suspiria fans will probably own that release already but for newcomers it’s a great, well-rounded look at the film. It is presented by director Xavier Mendik with contributions from the likes of horror movie scholars Kim Newman and Dr. Patricia MacCormack, British cult horror director Norman J. Warren, Claudio Simonetti from the band Goblin and, naturally, Mr. Argento himself. They talk about the film, its score and the accusations of misogyny surround its focus on murders of women. They also discuss the socio-political turmoil of the 1970s (in particular in Italy) which inspired the brutally violent giallo genre.
Another extra recycled from the Nouveaux release featuring extended versions of the interviews with Dr. Patricia MacCormack, Norman J. Warren and Claudio Simonetti from Fear at 400 Degrees.
Genre film scholar Kim Newman and Dario Argento: The Man, the Myths & the Magic author Alan Jones take part in a lively and impassioned commentary on the film. Their fascinating discussion includes the contradicting claims over where the inspirations behind the film came from; Dario Argento claims it largely came from himself while Daria Nicolodi claims it was based on stories which her grandfather told her. However, many people are more inclined to believe Daria due to the tendency for her erstwhile partner to take the credit for himself coupled with the fact that she is a self-proclaimed “white witch”. Their daughter Asia has also mentioned that she has heard the couple argue furiously over the matter.
Amongst the other things they discuss are Argento’s love of rock music and a rumoured scene that was excised from the released cut involving Miguel Bosé being chopped in half. It’s a great commentary and lots of fun for fans of the film.
The other extra here is a brief introduction by Dario Argento himself. A decent collection of extras even if some of them aren’t new.
This could be my pick for Blu Ray of the year. One of the best ever horror films presented in a version that looks and sounds absolutely majestic.