Tuesday Morning Foreign Region Blu-ray Disc Report: "Suspiria" (Dario Argento, 1976)

Glenn Kenny

"Life is disappointing." So goes the most common English translation of a famous line of dialogue in Ozu's Tokyo Story. As if to underscore that point, here is a British-released Region 2 Blu-ray disc of Dario Argento's 1977 Suspiria, quite probably the horror director's greatest work, a unique and uniquely deranged visual trip in which every shot seems charged with a near-kitschily elaborate jolt of shock horror. A picture I first saw in a once-majestic theater in Paterson, New Jersey, then in its final throes of fleabag-grindhousedom, some time in the late 70s. The projectionist omitted a whole reel from the thing and it didn't matter a bit. The story of an artless ballet student who discovers that the Austrian academy wherein she seeks advanced studies is in fact run by a coven of witches, or something, Suspiria is the greatest of Argento's films for several reasons, the most germane of which is that it really does make an active virtue of its incoherence. (Of all his other pictures, only Tenebre comes within striking distance of this distinction.)

The cinematography of Luciano Tovoli (who also shot Antonioni's The Passenger) and the production design of Giuseppe Bassan provide a one-two punch in the way of near-candy-like primary colors and completely irrational lighting. Every shot is nuts, in its own way. Hence, one is inclined, at first, to cut the new Blu-ray, from a concern called Cine Excess, some slack (its motto is "Taking Trash Seriously," a commendable sentiment despite its inherent contradictions, one supposes). In a nutshell, the very hot picture of Suspiria gets a too-hot transfer here. It's a little hard to tell at first. Take a gander at that multi-paned ceiling stained-glass window framed by velour or velvet above, and tell me whether or not it's supposed to look like that. Since nothing else in nature or art does look like that, it's a little difficult to make the determination.

Similarly, the shots of the film's first murder victim, Pat Hingle (yeah, yeah, I know; she's played by Eva Axen), prior to her demise; well, bathed in blue light as she is, she looks...bathed in blue light. Nothing much to complain about. And the level of detail is fabulous!

We had seen hints of it before, in even the earliest scenes, such as Suzy's cab ride to the academy. But we did not want it to be so. We had read the Facebook updates of a DVD entrepreneur and transfer expert, and we did not want to believe. But soon enough, specific images put paid to our denial. Look above at the blown-out whiteness of actress Jessica Harper's face. One is reminded of the bit at the beginning of Shine A Light wherein Martin Scorsese reflects that he can't allow his lights to incinerate Mick Jagger. Note also the orangey skin tones on the non-blown-out portions of Jacopo Mariani's face. Oy. These shots are photographs taken off of my Hitachi plasma set, and have their flaws. But they do reflect the flaws of the transfer itself, which greatest sin is that of too-high contrast.

It is a problem that manifests itself no matter how much you adjust the picture settings. Here's a shot of the exotic Olga (Barbara Magnolfi) with the set on its default picture setting, "Day (Dynamic)." (All of the setting, incidentally, are of my own invention; the names are just what the set itself calls them.)

Things are a little better at a softer setting. With the liability being the picture loses some of the vividness that's supposed to be there.

And in this even softer setting the screen-left side of her face almost acheives a "normal" skin tone...with a corresponding loss of pictorial dynamism, if you will.

Sigh. What we have here, alas, is a Suspiria that largely looks like a badly printed comic book. (On the plus side, the insistent quasi-prog rock soundtrack by Goblin—"the loudest you'll ever hear," said The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film back in the 80s, and it was right then and it's right now—sounds fabulous.)  Had this been done right, it would have been a very auspicious out-of-the-box sort-of debut for the Cine Excess label. Instead, one wishes for a recall (not gonna happen, I reckon) or for some American label with the rights (and access to the European cut) to give it another shot.

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