Color, 1977, 98 mins.
Directed by Dario Argento
Starring Jessica Harper, Joan Bennett, Stefania Cassini, Alida Valli, Flavio Bucci, Udo Kier, Miguel Bose
Anchor Bay, Blue Underground (US R1 NTSC) WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD-EX/DTS-ES, Nouveaux (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Wild Eye (Blu-ray & DVD) (France RB/R2 HD/PAL), Umbrella (Blu-ray & DVD) (Australia R0 HD/PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

Whether seen as a glorious celebration of cinematic style as an instrument to terrorize or a shallow exercise in flashy visuals at the expense of content, Suspiria is a difficult experience to forget. Apart from its secured status as one of the most visually ravishing horror films, Suspiria stops at nothing to keep the audience in its grip and marks a radical departure from the rigorous narrative manipulation of Deep Red. Here the story offers few genuine surprises; instead, the pleasure lies in the bizarre little sideroads it takes along the way, offering up a seemingly boundless array of nasty delights at 24 frames per second. Here the random, illogical plotting and mannered acting which would normally cripple a film instead become assets, creating the disorienting air of a nightmare which must simply be accepted in order to enjoy the ride.

As the opening narration helpfully informs us, American ballet student Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) arrives in Frieburg, Germany to continue her studies at the celebrated Tanz Academy. Unfortunately she emerges from the airport several hours late during a violent thunderstorm and is turned away at the school door. Meanwhile another student rushes past her into the darkness and meets a sinister fate, the first sign of many indicating that this seemingly classical school of dance may not be all that it appears. Led by a mysteriously absent directress, the haughty Madame Blanc (Dark Shadows' Joan Bennett), and the perpetually grinning Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), the academy proves to be a challenging experience for Suzy right from the beginning. She's forced to room on the grounds after suffering an embarassing collapse during class, her entire floor must vacate to the gym for a sleepover after a particularly nasty infestation, and anyone who crosses the powers that be seems to meet wind up missing or dead. Along with her only friend, Sara (Stefania Casini), Suzy pieces together the puzzle that leads to a dramatic supernatural finale.

Anchored by Harper's wonderfully sensitive lead performance, Suspiria is in many respects Argento's most female-oriented film. The five minor male characters in the film only have one or two scenes each and serve as nothing more than plot functions, while both sides of the moral coin here are controlled by either innocent or corrupt women. Though the students don't seem to be fully aware of the school's true occult nature, the evil influence nevertheless manifests itself even in the early scenes which become more significant later on. For example, Harper's discovery that witches thrive on the gaining of personal wealth adds a sinister tone to the early comic relief scenes in which the girlish students snip about bilking money from their classmates, and that red wine Harper sips throughout the film doesn't look so harmless at all when she finally pours it into the sink. The intensity of its violence - most notably the vicious, unforgettable opening act - is filmed with the same visual care as the rest of the film. Never gratuitous, the killings instead function as a kind of brutal, ritualized occult practice carried over into modern times. The German setting and subtle allusions to its culture scarred by ritualized violence (note the Naziesque soldiers in the Munich square and the use of razor wire, for starters) add to the air of refined, decadent unease, creating a setting in which every well-appointed door and curtain leads to something dark and unspeakable behind it.

One of Argento's rare U.S. commercial successes, Suspiria was released by 20th Century-Fox (under the International Classics banner) in an R-rated edition which toned down some of its more baroque bloodletting. Fortunately audiences never forget the experience, and for years the film became something of a holy grail for those who couldn't get their hands on the scarce Japanese pan and scan laserdisc or the halfway letterboxed Venezuelan VHS tapes. Relief finally arrived when Magnum Entertainment released a widescreen, uncensored VHS edition which later made it to laserdisc courtesy of Image, with the U.S. and European trailers tacked on for good measure. Supervised by Bill Lustig, the transfer was very good for its time despite the deliberate desaturation of some colors to avoid video noise; even better, the stereo soundtrack was enough to inspire leagues of Euro horror fanatics to dump more money into their home video sound systems. The same transfer was later rehashed for a British DVD, about which the less said the better, and Fox Lorber's briefly released VHS edition was even more unsatisfying thanks to (blasphemy!) its mono soundtrack. Anchor Bay announced its plans to release Suspiria a year in advance, with public details released about the efforts made to create the finest version possible from the original negative. The results certainly do meet expectations, as the splashy colors on display here outrank even those on the already heavily saturated Japanese laserdisc versions. The snoring directress scene in which Harper and Casini are bathed in solid red lighting benefits especially from the added resolution, as Harper's nicely modulated facial reactions can now be appreciated without any ruinous smearing or smudging. The horizontally squished appearance of the earlier widescreen version has now been corrected, and the scope framing looks perfect.

Superficially the soundtrack appears to be a dynamic, thunderous presentation of the film, with the spectacular Goblin score beautifully separated between each channel and dialogue still creatively spread out between the front and center channels. However, it's worth noting that this is not a tweaked DD/DTS presentation of the familiar stereo surround version we've all grown to know and love. On this DVD, many of the sound effects are completely different, and several odd vagaries pop up compared to earlier English language versions. Among the most notable differences (with some spoilers, so beware): Pat's shouted statement at the front door during the rainstorm is now partially silent, making it impossible to make out her words even when one knows what she is saying; after Pat says "I'd like to dry off" at the beginning, the door slam behind her is now a soft thud instead of the earlier split-channel slam; the eyes glaring at Pat through the window are accompanied by a shorter, more muted sound effect stinger; the cries of "Help me" during the first murder have been reduced and are much softer; Pat is now heard screaming "No! No!" as she begins to collapse through the stained glass ceiling; the growling heard inside the school hallway when Albert is attacked by the seeing eye dog is different and much more subdued; the whispering voices emanating during the beginning of Sarah's nocturnal pursuit through the building are not the same, and the sounds heard during the close up of the razor being removed are edited differently. Most blatantly, when Suzy observes Madame Blanc and company undergoing their witch ritual, Miss Tanner now has a line of dialogue when she leans forward: "She wouldn't eat or drink anything this evening." The thunder effects which occur in the same scene to coincide with the red flashes of light (as Blanc utters "Sickness! Sickness!") are now missing, too. Also oddly enough, the screaming voices heard over the end credits music are gone, leaving instead Goblin's frenzied middle movement of the main title theme. This release also marks the first availability of Suspiria with captions, and while this addition helps clarify a few lines of dialogue, it also contains quite a few errors and makes for hilarious reading when the captioner tries (and fails) to translate the Goblin music ("La la la la la la la -- Wait!").

Available in both a single disc and three-disc special edition, Suspiria has been brought to DVD with the full red carpet treatment. The movie disc includes the two aforementioned theatrical trailers, a brief TV spot (condensed from the U.S. trailer), radio spots, a gallery of international stills and poster art, talent bios, a very odd Daemonia music video (directed by Simonetti) for the main theme, and a funny Easter Egg involving Udo Kier. The second disc contains a 52 minute documentary, Suspiria 25th Anniversary, in which the main surviving participants offer their thoughts on the film's production and influence. Argento, Nicolodi, the members of Goblin, and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli offer elaborated versions of the familiar stories about the film's lensing on discontinued Technicolor stock, Nicolodi's inspiration from a relative's occult school experience, and the unorthodox process of the music composition. Argento offers a few nice new tidbits of information, such as his explanation behind the placement of all the school's doorknobs. Harper, Casini, and Kier all make very welcome appearances to offer an actor's perspective, and all of them seem to recall the production with great affection and seem even prouder of the film now. Harper and Casini's recollections of Bennett are a particular highlight, and Casini scores the biggest laughs with her vivacious impersonations of everyone involved on the set. Finally, Tovoli's anecdote about Single White Female is nearly worth the price of admission by itself.

Disc three offers the Suspiria soundtrack but isn't quite a direct carryover of the official Cinevox CD release. It contains the full album tracks and some of the bonus cues from the earlier expanded CD edition, along with the new Daemonia contributions to round out the CD on a more modern, rock-style note. Those who already have the CD probably won't notice much of a difference, so the expanded (and much heavier) three-disc version is mainly recommended for the excellent documentary and its hefty printed materials: nine color lobby card and poster reproductions, and an extensive, color booklet with well written, informative liner notes by Travis Crawford and a printed interview with Harper which expands a bit on her comments in the documentary.

When news came that Suspiria would be restored under Luciano Tovoli's supervision and ramped out onto Blu-ray, expectations were high but then swiftly dashed when the transfer used for every release turned out to be an almost complete disaster. Contrast is pumped way too high with whites blown out throughout, starting out at a mildly annoying level and then growing completely unwatchable for the last 20 minutes. The color timing also goes haywire in the second half of the film, with the climax turned into a mess complete with a red haze over the closing shots outside the school for no apparent reason. The British release sounds the best of the bunch (about the same as the great American VHS/laserdisc mix), while the French one is the worst with only a mono(!) option for the English track. Synapse has announced its acquisition of the rights to the film and will be issuing their own Blu-ray in the near future, so save your cash and wait for that one.


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