Suspiria (1977)

For many fans of cult cinema, Suspiria needs no introduction.  This year, Dario Argento’s incredible Italian horror movie is forty years old.  To celebrate, it’s been lovingly restored and is back in cinemas to enthrall us.

It’s been restored not just once but twice.  The version showing at the London Film Festival, and soon to tour the UK, is a 4k release distributed by UK label CultFilms.  Across the Atlantic, boutique label Synapse has just completed their own painstaking 4-year restoration project.  And elsewhere in Europe an Italian language print is doing the rounds.

For those who don’t know film, Suspiria is the tale of a Suzy Bannion, a young American girl who has just enrolled in a ballet school in Germany.  As soon as she steps off the plane, into the torrential rain and hailing a taxi, the atmosphere is unnerving and intense.  It’s all atmosphere – the strange fascination with the swishing sound of a sliding door, the reflecting colours in the taxi’s windows, the eerily illuminated spooky woods.

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Suzy Bannion arriving at Freiburg airport, desperately hailing a taxi to the Tanzacademie, her new ballet school

A couple of the boarding school pupils have been murdered in a strange and gruesome manner.  The police are investigating and the students are unnerved.   However, there’s something very odd going on at the school, more than just the deaths.  The teachers are frightening and some a little grotesque, and the students are cruel and conspiratorial.  Although Suzy is superficially made to feel welcome, she doesn’t feel entirely comfortable.

Soon things get even worse with infestations, disembodied eyes peering through the darkness and further murders, including a particularly atmospheric death of the blind piano player in a deserted and vast piazza flanked by classical architecture.

The supernatural is to blame, and rumours of witchcraft abound.  Suzy tries to find out exactly what is really going on at the ballet school and this leads her to the terrible truth.

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Suzy (Jessica Harper) and Sara (Stefania Casini) share their suspicions of what the teachers get up to after dark…

Argento’s bold use of coloured lighting is beautiful and entirely non-naturalistic; it was evidently inspired by sixties Italian director Mario Bava.  The exaggerated performances and dialogue, the bizarre soundscape and strange visuals make this into a distorted fairy tale.  It draws you in, it’s fascinating and compelling.

The spectacular set-pieces are stunning, including the gruesome yet beautiful murder scenes.  In fact, there’s barely a single frame that isn’t breathtaking.

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A bird with crystal plumage…

Suspiria’s otherworldly atmosphere owes a lot to the use of colour.  Sadly, the film was printed using a soon-to-be obsolete process and in subsequent prints the colour hues and tones were very wrong, for example deep red became lurid pink in the bluray that I own.  The negatives and early prints became damaged through neglect and generally the film was in a sorry state of repair.

I haven’t seen the Synapse restoration yet – it’s generally anticipated that that will have the most accurate colour rendering and sound.  However, the CultFilms version is the one that will be available in the UK and Europe, and the only one in 4k resolution.  And it is beautiful, the detail is incredible and even if Synapse is the superior edition, the CultFilms colour rendering is much, much better than the versions that I’ve seen previously.  The stills in this article are taken from the CultFilms restoration.

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Deep red

Goblin’s insane soundtrack is unique and with the volume up loud, booming in the cinema the overall effect is heightened and hallucinogenic.  It doesn’t matter that the story is nonsense and the ending is a bit silly, this is all about atmosphere.  This is a film to experience.

Much has been written about this film. For those with a deeper interest, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’s recent book is excellent and I’d strongly recommend it.  But no-matter how well you think you know it, it’s definitely worth seeing this new restoration in the cinema; there’s so much more richness of detail and tone.

For many, myself included, this is the first opportunity to see this treasured film on a big screen with perfect picture and sound.

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All the colours of the dark…

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