Sunday, April 7, 2013

Blu-ray Review: SUSPIRIA (1977)

SUSPIRIA (1977) 

Label: Umbrella Entertainment 
Rating: R
Region Code: B
Subtitles: None
Duration: 98 Minutes
Video: 1080p Widescreen (2.35:1)
Audio: English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD
Actors: Flavio Bucci, Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Joan Bennet, Eva Axen, Alida Valli
Directors: Dario Argento

Synopsis: Jessica Harper (Phantom of the Paradise) stars as Suzy Banyon, a young American ballet dancer who arrives at a prestigious European dance academy run by the mysterious Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett, TV's Dark shadows) and Miss Tanner (Alida Valli, Killer Nun). But when a series of bizarre incidents and horrific crimes (including what Entertainment Weekly calls "the most vicious murder scene ever filmed") turn the school into a waking nightmare of the damned, Suzy must escape the academy's unspeakable secret of supernatural evil. 

It would honestly be quite difficult for me to say anything about Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977) that hasn't been said before and more eloquently, too. It's a surreal masterpiece of 70's Italian horror, the penultimate achievement by Dario Argento and his gift to horror cinema, it has weathered the past 35 years with a supernatural grace rarely afforded genre cinema, from the first frame to the last each image is captured with a painterly vision, it's a film you could snatch any scene from and it would be a work of art unto itself, on top of that it's drenched in some gut-churning, skin-crawling atmosphere, it's the kind of horror that eaves a lasting impression and is not easily forgotten. So, just from this small paragraph you should know I am about to gush all over this film, embarrassingly so.

The story is the stuff of dark fairytales, an American ballet student (Jessica Harper, Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise) arrives late one night in Frieburg, Germany to attend a prestigious dance academy run by Madame Blanc (Joan Bennet, Dark Shadows). Upon arriving she witnesses Pat (Eva Axen), a young woman fleeing the academy, she bursts out the front door and utters some near incomprehensible words to a person unseen, then frantically escapes down a path through a wooded area, it's pouring rain outside. Suzy herself is unable to gain entrance to the academy and takes a taxi back into town. We then follow Pat into town where she winds up at the apartment of a friend. While drying her hair she stares out the second floor window and is startled by two burning eyes staring back at her, just as a hairy armed breaks through window pane and stabs her repeatedly, it's a tense and gripping moment, the Goblin score is overpowering and my heart is beating off the scale, this happens every time I watch it. She screams for her friends help and when she cannot gain entrance to the room she flees downstairs, as she runs across the lobby to the front door she is horrified when Pat's corpse crashes though a stained-glass ceiling, a noose around her neck stops her short of the floor and a large shard of glass lacerates her friends face and she is impaled to death by falling debris. Not to overstate it, but it's one of the greatest amped-up horror openings ever, just barely a few moments into the film it's already built up to an nerve-shattering crescendo and we are just getting started.

Just with these opening scenes we are overwhelmed as viewers with lush, vibrant primary colors, the lighting of the film is unnatural and fantastical, immediately we are aware of it's nightmarish quality, we are about to experience something extraordinary. The architecture and set design are just as striking, when Suzy arrives outside the academy during the torrential downpour we are struck by how vibrantly red the gold-trimmed exterior walls are, the set designs are outstanding, there's a weird and wonderful symmetry to everything, it's peculiar and baroque stuff and purely cinematic, when it comes to locations early era Argento was a the master, I love the crushed blue velvet walls at the academy, it's great stuff.

The next day Suzy, unaware of the bizarre events from the night before, returns to the academy and is introduced to Madame Blanc (Bennet) and instructor Miss Tanner (Alida Valli, Eyes Without a Face) and quickly meets Sarah (Stefani Casini) a student who was previously friends with the rather unfortunate Pat. At first Suzy insists on living off campus but before she can leave she becomes dizzy and disoriented by an encounter with the school's lunch lady. Under the weather she remains at the school where a doctor prescribes to her a daily glass of wine, she winds up sharing a room with Suzy who in turn tells her strange stories about her former roommate Pat and the weird things she spoke of before she mysteriously disappeared into the night.

There's a odd air about the academy, it feels weird and Pat's not the only student to go missing abruptly either. Suzy quickly begins to suspect that something not quite right is happening, it's with these fears that she meets with Sarah's friend Dr. Mandel (Udo Kier, My Own Private Idaho) who informs her of the schools dark history, it having been founded by the mysterious Helen Markos, a suspected witch known as the Mater Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sighs. With this information she returns to the academy, continuing the great Argento tradition of protagonist recalling something overheard or seen earlier but not-quite-comprehended till later, she investigates further leading to a wonderfully fantastic and fiery crescendo to an altogether stunning supernatural thriller.

More so than any other film I've seen Suspiria benefits quite heavily from the intense atmosphere and dread created by the conjoining of Argento's poetic lensing and Goblin's haunting pulse pounder of a score, without the nightmarish fairytale themes from Goblin there can be little doubt this would be a lesser entry, the two are conjoined seamlessly. At some points the score drowns out dialogue, as a purely cinematic experience separate from narrative it's completely successful, Suspiria is a film that does not rely on a linear narrative to accomplish what Argento set out to do, make one Hell of a spooky, arthouse fairytale for the ages, it's starting now it must have been a revelation back in '77!

Blu-ray: Australia's Umbrella Entertainment do some fantastic work with OZploitation and b-movie cult classics releases with a usual array of excellent bonus content. They bring Dario Argento's crowning achievement Suspira (1977) to Region "B" locked Blu-ray with an AVC MPEG-4 encode in 1080p widescreen (2.35:1). No information is provided about the transfer but I believe this is the same 2007 Technicolor restoration master used on Blue Underground's 2-Disc Special Edition (2007). It would stand to reason that if you took issue with what you saw then you might have issues with it now, criticisms would be the overblown contrast, pinkish tones and the yellow color boosting. While I do not think it's as abhorrent as some might say the brightness and contrast boosting are problematic. I think this could go back to Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli and Dario Argento's decision to shoot the film with the Technicolor 3-strip camera that has a more saturated effect, the camera system which was antiquated even in '77 was used to shoot both the Wizard of Oz (1939) and Gone with the Wind (1939). I rather like the over-saturated look of the Blu-ray, it lends itself well to the surreal fairytale aspect of the story. I've seen the previous Anchor Bay's DVD edition and the colors seemed muted in comparison to what we have here but it's hard to say that the 2007 Restoration is any truer to the original color palate, would love to hear Argento or Tovoli's input on this. Regardless of what you think of the transfer and tweaking here the 1080p upgrade definitely boasts superior PQ over the previous standard definition DVD's with improved clarity and depth, fine detail gets a nice boost even if it wax and wanes from scene to scene. Overall it's a very nice 1080p presentation albeit with the inherent flaws found with the 2007 Restoration, which itself was supervised by Tovoli.  It's caused quite a bit of fuss over the years from critics and fans and reminds me a bit of Vittorio Storaro's controversial Univisium reframing of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) on Arrow Video's 2011 Blu-ray edition, I don't this is as egregious an affront as that but it's worth noting.

The English language 5.1 Dolby TrueHD is quite impressive, a definitive upgrade on all fronts, more depth, more oomph and Goblin's wicked score sounds superb, we are immersed in it like never before, it's a fantastic aural experience. There are no subtitle options and it's worth noting that no there is no Italian audio option either.

Umbrella Entertainment have stuffed this disc with great extras beginning with 'Fear at 400 Degrees: the Cine-Excess of Suspiria' Documentary (34:55) hosted by Director of Cine-Excess, Xavier Mendik. It's a thorough examination of the film with contributions from Kim Newman, Dario Argento and Claudio Simonetti that's peppered with clips and stills from the film and films inspired by Argento's work, many notable in their own right, including Sergio Martino's Torso (1973), Andrea Bianchi's Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975), Pupi Avati's The House with the Laughing Windows (1976) and Aldo Lado's Who Saw Her Die? (1972). It puts the film into context of the 70's era, it international success having a great effect on both Italian and French cinema at the time.

Ported over from the Blue Underground set is the 25th Anniversary Suspiria Documentary (51:00) a entertaining feature with interviews with Co-Writer/Director Dario Argento, Co-Writer Daria Nicolodi, Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, Composers Goblin (Claudio Simonetti, Massimo Morante, Fabio Pignatelli & Agostino Marangolo), and Stars Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini and Udo Kier. This one really pulls you right into the making of the film. Daria Nicolodi talks about Argento's boredom with the crime genre and wanting to do something different, something supernatural, and basing the story on her own grandmother's experience at an elite school where it was aid that black magic was taught. Star Jessica Harper discusses having watched Argento's Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) and her excitement to work with the director, also the oddness of working on an Italian set where sound was not recorded on set, at the time it was standard practice to record all dialogue in post-production,  plus the uncomfortable experience of having maggots thrown in her hair. I particularly fond cinematographer Luciano Tovoli's interview as he spoke at length about experimenting with extreme color (inspired by Disney's Snow White), the unnatural tone of the film, strange lighting techniques, using the Technicolor 3-strip camera and a fun anecdote about working with Jennifer Jason Leigh on the set of Single White Female (1992), turns out she's quite a fan of the film. On a sad note it was heartbreaking to hear co-screenwriter Daria Nicolodi express her wishes to write the then as of yet unfilmed third film, Mother of Tears,  knowing now what we ended up with, it was heartbreaking as someone who enjoys this film and it's sequel Inferno (1980)

As if the two documentaries were not enough Umbrella Entertainment also offer up Leon Ferguson's 2000 film 'Dario Argento: An Eye For Horror' Documentary' (57:58). Add it up, that's over 107 minutes of Argento/Suspiria documentaries on this disc! The near feature-length doc features interviews and commentary with Director John Carpenter, shock rocker Alice Cooper, effects master Tom Savini, George A. Romero, William Lustig, Jessica Harper, Asia Argento, Claudio Simonetti and TV Guide's Maitland McDonagh whom all offer praise for Argento's body of work. We get a brief history of Argento's early career beginning with co-writing Sergio Leonne's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) with Bernardo Bertolucci (Dreamers) right up through his then still-in-production film Sleepless (2001) which if you haven't seen I would say was Argento's last decent entry, a nice Giallo throwback featuring Max Van Sydow (The Exorcist).

The extras are rounded out with an interview with Dario Argento conducted in Italian with English subtitles, a Photo Gallery, Trailers and TV Spots plus an Argento Trailer Reel of six films including a very striking Italian one for Cat O' Nine Tails (1971). What more could I have wanted? It's a short list but let's begins with the audio commentary from Argento experts Alan Jones and Kim Newman that appeared on the UK Blu-ray, Italian Audio, and English subtitles, that said this is a very fine edition indeed and one I think you need in your collection.

Special Features: 
- 'Fear at 400 Degrees: the Cine-Excess of Suspiria' Documentary (34:55) HD
- 25th Anniversary Suspiria Documentary (1:49) HD
- Exclusive Interview with Dario Argento (21:00) 
- 'An Eye For Horror' Documentary (57:58) SD
- Photo Gallery 
- International Trailer (1:56)
- U.S. Trailer (1:10) 

- TV Spot(:28)
- Argento Trailer Reel (15:06): Deep Red (1975), Phenomena (1985), Sleepless (2001), Phantom of the Opera (1998), The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Cat O' Nine Tails (1971)

Verdict: Suspiria (1977) is a surreal, avant-garde masterpiece of arthouse cinema drenched in technicolor swatches of primary color and bloodsplatter. It stands as Argento's supreme cinematic achievement and Umbrella Entertainment's superb Blu-ray is as near definitive a document as we are likely to get, an classic supernatural assault on the senses. 5 Outta 5 

Note: Images used for the purpose of this review were not sourced from the Blu-ray. 

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