Suspiria (1977) Blu-ray Review: Dario Argento at His Non-Giallo Peak

Best described as a surrealistic fairytale nightmare come to life, Dario Argento’s Suspiria has been leaving its mark on audiences and filmmakers alike since its debut in 1977. Truly, it’s hard not to become immersed in its breathtaking (sometimes literally) visuals, stunning cinematography, or that wild and pounding soundtrack by Goblin. And now, thanks to a drop-dead gorgeous new 4K transfer by Synapse Films, Argento’s amazing masterpiece almost feels like an entirely new feature.

Equal parts horror, giallo, and fantasy, Suspiria finds cult favorite star Jessica Harper (Phantom of the Paradise, Shock Treatment) as an American ballet student named Suzy Bannon, who has arrived in Freiburg, Germany to attend a famous dance academy. But from the moment Suzy steps foot off the tarmac in the opening frames, there is already a sense of dream-like dread in the air. The sensation that only heightens as we meet the story’s strange childlike characters and the film’s shocking narrative begins to play out, to wit poor Suzy starts to suspect something wholly unholy is afoot in the shadows.

And indeed, there are plenty of goings-on here, as the Tanz Academy ‒ under the command of Italian great Alida Valli and Dark Shadows alumna Joan Bennett ‒ is more than just a world-renowned school of ballet: it’s also the secret home of a coven of witches, led by the legendary Mother of Sighs herself, Mater Suspiriorum. But before Suzy can get to the bottom of things, she and her fellow students (the latter of whom reduce in quantity as the story progresses) must endure such bizarre happenings as maggots dripping from the ceiling amid a series of gory and inexplicable murders ‒ all of which bare Argento’s distinctive stylish flair.

Naturally, one cannot bring up Suspiria without mentioning the haunting, pulsating score by Italy’s groundbreaking prog-rock group, Goblin. After a memorable film debut two years before on Argento’s best giallo, Deep Red, Goblin created a sensational new world of music for Suspiria, using a mixture of contemporary electronic instruments with such old-world oddities as the bouzouki and a variety of whispered words. And good ol’ Dario lovingly cranks the audio up to 11 throughout, leading to an aural experience guaranteed to leave you with the best headache you’ve ever had.

Written by Argento and then partner Daria Nicolodi and produced by Dario’s father Claudio, Suspiria also features Stefania Cassini as Ms. Harper’s doomed roomie, Flavio Bucci as the (also doomed) blind piano player, Latin music legend Miguel Bosé as some young male eye candy (and nothing more), Barbara Magnolfi, and brief cameos by Rudolf Schündler and the legendary Udo Kier.

The first chapter of Argento’s Three Mothers Trilogy, Suspiria was originally released to American theaters by a sub-label of 20th Century Fox. Three years later, Fox would directly release Argento’s Inferno, the first (official) follow-up film. It did not fare well, nor did Dario’s “official” conclusion, 2007’s Mother of Tears ‒ a film most fans tend to ignore. (As a side note, Contamination creator Luigi Cozzi made an unofficial finale of his own in 1989, which saw limited releases under various titles, including the frequently-used moniker of The Black Cat. Few people have actually seen it, but it’s still a better-loved film than Mother of Tears!)

From the old Magnum VHS right down to the Anchor Bay DVD, previous domestic home video incarnations of Suspiria have always been dark and with a constant greenish hue throughout. This has not only led to many (mostly incorrect) theories as to how the film’s unique look was achieved, but has also always kept the fairytale nightmare in a world of its own. But now, thanks to a grueling three-year-long 4K restoration of the original uncut (and uncensored) 35mm camera negative as performed by Synapse Films’ boss-man Don May Jr., the horrors of Suspiria have finally been brought over to our own world. And what a difference it makes!

Meticulously cleaned of any debris and color corrected with personally supervision by Director of Photography Luciano Tovoli, Suspiria has never looked better than it does here. As a matter of fact, it has never looked like this. Period. Sporting immaculate detail and minus the green hue (don’t fret, fans, the heightened color schematics still stand out; more so now than before), this is also the brightest Suspiria has ever looked. So much so, that long time admirers will undoubtedly notice many nuances previously unseen in earlier digital and analog prints, such as a ghostly Dario cameo and a now-visible man in a black bodysuit.

In addition to new on-screen surprises, this 2-Disc Synapse Films release also includes a positively dynamic 4.0 DTS-HD MA English soundtrack, presenting us with the original 1977 theatrical soundtrack for the first time (an archaic 2-Channel Laserdisc variation notwithstanding). Just as the film has never looked as well as it does here, it has never sounded better, as this new 4-Channel mix includes an innumerable amount of subtle background sounds, which led me to pause the film at various instances because I thought it was my upstairs neighbors or something! An Italian 5.1 DTS-HD MA score it also included, with English (SDH) subtitles for both soundtracks.

Disc One of Synapse’s Suspiria brings us the Feature Film along with its aforementioned A/V specs and a limited number of extras, the remaining of which are included on the second disc so as to give the main movie the highest bitrate possible. First up are alternate English and Italian-language credits, which are available via seamless branching. Next are two audio commentaries: the first is provided Derek Botelho and David Del Valle, the second comes to us from my good buddy Troy Howarth. Between those three historians, there’s very little left uncovered about the making-of Suspiria and the legacy it has since left behind.

The rest of this Special Edition’s bonus materials are found on Disc Two, beginning with a 30-minute visual essay by Michael Mackenzie, entitled “Do You Know Anything About Witches?”. Another half-hour examination can be found in the retrospective making-of documentary “A Sigh from the Depths: 40 Years of Suspiria,” and the eight-minute featurette “Suzy in Nazi Germany” explores many of the (controversial) German filming locations used. Next up is “Olga’s Story” ‒ an interview with actress Barbara Magnolfi ‒ and an assortment of original trailers, and TV & radio spots (the movie was also released in the U.S. on a double-bill with director Umberto Lenzi’s wacky giallo, Eyeball).

Wrapping up this, perhaps the most significant contribution to the world of Italian horror movies on home video ever, are the original US opening credits from the International Classics release (which are the weird “Breathing Letters” you may have seen in the admittedly dumb American trailer) and a reversible sleeve with classic poster art and a newly created cover by artist Joel Robinson. An earlier, exclusive Steelbook release from Synapse Films (which was a special order item) also included a collectible CD of Goblin’s phenomenal soundtrack (with some previously-unreleased tracks), but nobody is likely to complain over the lack of said disc for this version.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is because the only thing more beautiful than the last 12 minutes of this Synapse Films restoration are the first 86.

Highly Recommended. In fact, this one makes the Mandatory Purchase list as well as the time-honored tradition of being on the Required Viewing roster.

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Luigi Bastardo

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