In light of its release on Blu-ray, Film Critic Matt Taylor assesses the 4K restoration of iconic Italian horror Suspiria
In his introduction to Cult Films’ 4K restoration of his 1977 classic Suspiria, director Dario Argento tells us that he hopes we are ready for what follows. We are not.
In truth, nothing can prepare you for Suspiria. What we have here is a gorgeous, disturbing, awe-inspiring horror film that is so beautifully made as to feel almost balletic in its brutality.
We follow the character of Suzy Bannion (played by Jessica Harper), an American dancer who has moved to Germany to enrol in a prestigious dance academy. Once there, she feels as though something is very off; everyone behaves rather strangely. Then the bodies start to pile up …
Suspiria is undoubtedly a unique film, something that can be attributed equally to the film’s incredible colour palette, to its striking cinematography, and to its haunting score. The colour palette is particularly extraordinary thanks to TLEFilms’ 4K UHD restoration of the film, released on Blu-ray in 2017. The disc restores the film’s distinct visuals in accordance with Argento’s original Technicolor Dye Transfer specifications (a process which possesses a larger tonal scale than any other photochemical print process, and allows for the highest degree of photographic control in comparison to any other). As such, this version of the film is the best ever seen on home media. With a 4K UHD setup, the regular Blu-ray disc is registered as 4K, and even looks and sounds better than other films of its time that have actually been remastered onto a 4K disc (for example, it is distinctly better than my 4K copy of Close Encounters of the Third Kind). The meticulous restoration process has paid off beautifully – but picture quality is irrelevant if what you are looking at is not appealing. Fortunately, that is not at all an issue here – Suspiria is gorgeously shot.
Part of that is indeed down to the restored colour palette. There is a big focus on bright, even garish colours in the background that seem to want to override our senses, invading our minds to give us the impression that something is very wrong. They also act as a fantastic juxtaposition for the extreme violence we see on-screen; seeing characters having their heads smashed through glass ceilings, being hanged, having their throats cut, and crawling through barbed wire all seem so wrong against the magnificently bright set colours. Framing is also key: a good deal of wide shots seem to have a Wes Anderson-esque style of symmetry (I say that as one who has seen more Anderson films than Argento ones), but every single one is ever so slightly off-centre. Only by a tiny fraction, but off-centre nonetheless. This only adds to the creepiness of the proceedings, but what really nails that feeling home is the film’s eerie and terrifying score, courtesy of prog-rock band Goblin, working here in tandem with Argento and Claudio Simonetti. The prevailing musical theme pops up time and time again throughout the film, but it never feels old or tired. It is a theme that chills the very bones; even listening to it in isolation from the rest of the film is enough to give you goosebumps. It starts out in an almost dreamlike fashion, but quickly turns very sinister when a rasping voice starts to sing along to the tune. It is perfectly edited in conjunction with the film too. We open on Suzy leaving the airport having just arrived in Germany, and the theme kicks in almost immediately. The camera then cuts to Suzy’s point of view and the theme disappears: all we hear are the accentuated sound effects of the airport. Cut away again, and the theme returns. It is a simple trick that is here used to great effect, conveying the tone of the entire film with absolute precision. The theme reappears again in the film’s more intense scenes, and becomes increasingly disturbing with each use. Not that the theme changes as the film goes on; it is rather the film itself that disturbs us, and the theme is merely an instrument through which it further does this.
Part of the disturbing nature of the film is down to the performances, and perhaps the standout is Alida Valli as Miss Tanner, an instructor of the academy. Valli has a fantastic way of acting with her eyes. Her smile is a particularly good example of this, as her mouth seems welcoming, but her cold eyes make us wary. Jessica Harper puts in a fine turn as Suzy, even if most of what she gets to do consists of running and/or hiding. The rest of the cast are adequate enough, but, at the end of the day, the performances are not what we are here for. We are here to be scared, and Suspiria succeeds at that with ease – but it is not without its problems.
The film’s main issue is its runtime: it is 98 minutes long. While that may not seem problematic at all (indeed, other films have done more with less – look at You Were Never Really Here for a superb example of a complex, moving film with a 90-minute runtime), Suspiria feels a little lacking. Quite simply, it is too short. When the truth of it all is revealed, it feels almost like Argento has taken the easy way out. What could have been a much longer, slower, more psychological horror is almost undercut by the speed at which things are wrapped up; we are left wishing for just a little bit more.
Having said all that, this does not really matter all that much. The rest of Suspiria is so damn good, and a massive influence on modern horror to boot, that we can forgive these small discrepancies. Because what we are left with is a beautiful, masterful, horrifying assault on the senses that stands among the biggest cult films ever made, and one of the great horrors of the twentieth century.
VERDICT: While its final act may feel a tad underdeveloped, Suspiria is nevertheless a masterpiece of horror cinema. For decades, it has set the bar for production values on horror films, and, even forty years later, these do not lose their impact. Equal parts gorgeous and terrifying, it remains crucial to the horror canon, and a must for anyone who likes a good scare.