Suspiria: the good, the bad and the downright ugly
Tuesday 19 January, 2010 16:17
Monday saw the release of the first English-friendly BD of Dario Argento’s masterpiece, Suspiria. Already released on BD in Italy just under a year ago, that release was pretty much a disappointment all round due to its lack of English audio and, perhaps even more significantly, its thoroughly mangled video, sourced from Technicolor’s “controversial” 2007 digital restoration.
For those not completely up to speed on the issues surrounding this restoration, a little light reading is perhaps in order:
- Wednesday, October 24, 2007: The digital restoration bandits claim another victim
- Friday, March 20, 2009: Suspiria BD (initial) impressions
- Sunday, March 22, 2009: Vandalism
- Thursday, March 26, 2009: Suspiria BD (final) impressions
- Wednesday, May 27, 2009: The colours, man… the colours!
- Monday, June 1, 2009: Suspiria colour query
- Friday, July 17, 2009: The Suspiria colour timing saga continues
The above is obviously a lot to take in, so for the sake of expediency I’ll do my best to summarise it. Essentially, in 2007, Technicolor created a brand new digital master in collaboration with cinematographer Luciano Tovoli. This master was then used as the source for a number of new releases, including Italian and French DVDs and, last year, an Italian BD. These discs bore a colour palette unlike anything to be found in any of the film’s previous releases. Hues that were once neutral were now screamingly saturated, the greyscale in certain scenes was severely clipped, the film’s final shot had for some reason been tinted red, and the brightness was on the whole far too high. My reaction was not exactly delicate, and many people were quick to question my assertions. How did I know this wasn’t what the film was meant to look like? How could I be so sure that it wasn’t simply that all the previous DVD (and VHS, and Laserdisc) releases were wrong? After all, Tovoli was involved, and surely he knew better than anyone - perhaps even Argento himself - how it should look? Had I ever seen an original IB Technicolor print, considered to be the most accurate representation of Argento and Tovoli’s intentions?
In May last year, I did. The Glasgow Film Theatre screened a vintage UK Technicolor print. It suffered from some noticeable damage and had been hacked to bits by the censors, but one thing was clear: it looked nothing like any of the home video releases derived from the 2007 remaster. In fact, its look was so similar to that of the 2001 Anchor Bay DVD that I found myself with a new respect for whoever was responsible for the creation of that master. As far as I was concerned, the case was closed: something had gone badly wrong in the creation of the 2007 remaster, and I had seen the proof with my own eyes.
Shortly afterwards, further evidence arose, suggesting that, while Tovoli had sat in on the actual digital restoration, he was unhappy with the look of the home video releases derived from it. This fuelled speculation that the problems had not crept in during the restoration itself but rather during the conversion of the colour gamut from the Digital Cinema Initiative master to consumer HD. It’s far from conclusive, of course, but for the time being it’s the theory that I consider the most likely.
And now, in January 2010, here we are with yet another Suspiria release, this time a British one. Part of Nouveaux Pictures’ new Cine-Excess line, the film has been released concurrently in both DVD and BD editions, boasting (and I quote) a “new high definition transfer”. New in what way, though? New full stop or just new to the UK? When this release was announced, part of me genuinely hoped that this would indeed be derived from a completely new master - one which was faithful to Argento and Tovoli’s original vision - but deep down I knew I was probably being unrealistic. The main draw for me, therefore, was the roster of extras, which included a new commentary by Alan Jones and Kim Newman (who previously teamed up to great effect on Blue Underground’s release of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage).
I’m going to take each aspect of this release in turn:
The Cine-Express label
Right off the bat, the subtitle “Taking Trash Seriously”, emblazoned on the front cover, rankles me. It may seem like a very minor point, but it creates the wrong impression. I’ve seen plenty of films that can be described as trash; Suspiria is not one of them, and suggesting that it is, even affectionately, strikes me as borderline offensive. I don’t doubt that the “trash” label was applied primarily as a means of shifting copies - presenting the film as some sort of “forbidden fruit” in much the same way that Shameless Screen Entertainment tend to go for the tawdriest possible cover art and taglines in order to make their DVDs stand out on store shelves. However, I fear that this marketing choice will ultimately do more harm than good. Films like Suspiria are subject to enough heckling already, from wise-asses who poke fun at the dubbing, the unrealistic blood and the fact that (gosh!) it looks and sounds like a film made in 1977, not 2010. Call something trash and people will treat it as such. It ties into this infuriating modern day trend of celebrating films like these in an “ironic” way, championing what are considered to be their flaws rather than watching them as products of their time.
It’s a shame because, in his introduction to the Cine-Excess label (a 10-minute clip reel that appears on the disc, interspersed with commentary), Xavier Mendik primarily uses the term “cult” to describe the films that comprise the series, which strikes me as a far more appropriate, not to mention respectful, way of labelling a film such as Suspiria. It suggests obscurity and the notion of the allure of the forbidden without unnecessarily demeaning it.
In addition to the aforementioned introduction to the Cine-Excess label, there are three bonus features on the disc. The first, the 35-minute Fear at 400 Degrees, is a general retrospective look at the film, featuring comments from Argento, composer Claudio Simonetti, journalist Kim Newman, horror director Norman J. Warren, and academic Patricia MacCormack, and held together by comments from Mendik. More theoretical and analytical in nature than the documentary to be found on the 2001 Anchor Bay DVD, this featurette traces the films roots as an outgrowth from Argento’s earlier gialli and explores these films’ cultural significance. As such, it’s as much about 70s Italian genre cinema as a whole as it is about Suspiria, but at least half the running time is dedicated to the landmark film itself, its legacy, and of course the dreaded remake that we’ve been threatened with for almost a decade now.
Next, the 41-minute Suspiria Perspectives interviews MacCormack, Warren and Simonetti sequentially, allowing each of them more time to talk about the subjects that interest them rather than making them conform to a documentary-style featurette with a specific narrative. Some material is repeated from the previous feature, but in general this is actually a plus rather than a negative because it allows the various speakers time to really delve into their subject matter. Warren does have a tendency to waffle about his own films at times, and both he and MacCormack devote rather a lot of time to the supposed lesbian subtext of the film (which Argento now admittedly subscribes to himself), but in general these personal reactions to Suspiria are interesting and at times enlightening. The fact that all three participants are coming at the film from completely different perspectives (the academic, the fellow filmmaker/fan, someone who was actually involved in the film’s production) makes this a varied and broad-reaching piece on the whole.
Best of all, however, is the Alan Jones/Kim Newman commentary. While die-hard Argentophiles will most likely already have heard the majority of anecdotes they impart, it’s first and foremost the pair’s enthusiasm that makes the track work, as was the case with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Their love for the film shines through at all times, but at the same time the tone is decidedly unsanctimonous, and the pair are not above sending up the slightly dodgier moments, such as the cut-out eyes that appear in the window before Pat (Eva Axén)’s murder, and Miguel Bosé’s attempts at ballet. Permit me to spoil my favourite moment:
Jessica Harper (as Suzy): “But what does it mean to be a witch?”
Alan Jones: “Jessica, it doesn’t mean anything! If you hadn’t realised this by now…”
Holy Moly! Now this is not something I was expecting. I was fully prepared to find either the notoriously bungled Anchor Bay 5.1 remix on the disc, or something derived from the more faithful but horribly distorted 2.0 Surround mix from the earlier Italian DVD. What I absolutely did not expect is a brand new 5.1 mix that completely obliterates what came before it. By that, I don’t mean that it’s simply louder, punchier and more immersive than the AB remix (although it is all of these things): as far as original intent is concerned, this is a vastly more faithful presentation of the film’s soundtrack than anything I’ve heard outside of the 2.0 downmix found on the Image Entertainment Laserdisc. On the AB disc, the music was mixed too quietly in relation to the dialogue and sound effects, and a number of audio cues were either altered, misplaced or absent entirely. While it certainly sounded impressive to those unfamiliar with the film (as I was myself when I first watched the AB disc), long-term Suspiria aficionados immediately knew something was wrong, and were rightly aggrieved that AB had made such significant alterations to the sound while failing to provide the original mix to go alongside it.
The audio track on the new BD is not the original mix. That was four-channel; this is 5.1. Most of us have never even heard the 4-channel mix, as it has never been released on home video, and to the best of my knowledge all the recent theatrical screenings have been in mono (another perfectly valid, albeit less awe-inspiring, way to experience to the film). The closest match has, until now, been the 2-channel downmix on the Image Entertainment Laserdisc, a truly thunderous affair that, while suffering from some noticeable distortion of the high frequencies, is very satisfying to listen to and, when upmixed to surround sound, is said to represent a close approximation of the original 4-channel mix.
As such, I don’t feel that I can state with any great authority that the new 5.1 mix on the BD is faithful to the 4-channel mix. However, in terms of its overall levels, not to mention the sound effects and their placement, this sounds remarkably like a surround sound version of the Laserdisc audio combined with the clarity of the AB remix. In other words, the best of both worlds. When Jessica Harper stepped out of the airport into the thunderstorm and Goblin’s score kicked in at an almost deafening level, I knew things were going to be all right. As I continued to watch the movie, time after time my fears were allayed. Stefania Casini now correctly reacts to the dinner bell ringing rather than to silence. The thunderclaps as Joan Bennett drinks from the chalice have been reinstated. The “Whispers and Sighs” track, completely absent from the AB DVD (and, it should be noted, the mono audio track accompanying the IB Technicolor print I saw), now appears in its two rightful places. The end credit scroll is accompanied by manic screams and wails rather than just music. And so on and so forth. If a problem was documented with the AB mix, it is corrected here. As such, I’m extremely grateful to Nouveaux Pictures for delivering what I believe is Suspiria’s first truly satisfying English language audio track on home video. Would I like to have seen the true blue 4-channel mix presented on the disc? Of course, but in its absence, this is the next best thing.
Unfortunately, here’s where things begin to go off the rails. As predicted, the encode on this BD is derived from the notorious 2007 restoration.
First, however, the good news.
The 2009 Italian BD suffered from several invasive instances of DVNR gone wrong, and many of these problems are absent here. I previously assumed that all of the DVNR artefacts crept in during the clean-up process carried out when the master itself was created. The absence of a number of them here, however, points to the Italian BD having had another automated spot removal pass added to it, one which created some major problems. For instance, compare these two instances of the exact same frame:
Left: Italian; right: UK (click to enlarge)
The frame on the Italian release has to be someone’s idea of a joke. The software has identified parts of Jessica Harper’s hair and eyes as damage and filled them in with brown which it picked up from God knows where. This is a textbook example of what can go wrong when you let automatic clean-up software go unchecked. Thankfully, for their release Nouveaux have either not applied any additional NR, or if they have they’ve done it considerably more carefully.
Further good news: remember the problem I described on the Italian BD whereby, at the start of each new shot, Frame 1 would look fine, Frame 2 would be severely smudged, and then Frame 3 onwards would be fine? Well, guess what - this appears once again to have been the result of DVNR being applied to the Italian BD and allowed to go unchecked. Compare Frame 2 of this shot in both releases:
Left: Italian; right: UK (click to enlarge)
However, don’t for a moment think that all of the DVNR issues are gone. Some clearly did enter the chain at the restoration stage, and as such are present here as well. These include instance of parts of the background freezing and moving around, as well as, on at least one occasion, part of a frame somehow ending up being pasted into the lower letterbox bar:
Such issues only last for a frame or so at a time, which might not sound like a big deal, but they certainly add up and create the impression of an image that feels somewhat… unstable, for want of a better word.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, one of the major issues with the Italian BD, the fact that it was simply too bright, has been corrected here to some extent. It’s still brighter than the Anchor Bay transfer, giving scenes such as the one where Sara tries to wake up a drugged Suzy after discovering that her notes have disappeared, in the middle of the night, an unnatural overlit quality, but on the whole the blacks are inkier now, and this goes some way towards restoring the sense of balance that was previously lost. In particular, one moment where a killer hidden in the shadows was clearly visible on the Italian BD, destroying much of the surprise when he struck, now plays somewhat better since he is harder to see, as seems to have been Argento’s intention:
Left: Italian; right: UK (click to enlarge)
Unfortunately, in spite of these improvements, by far the biggest problem - the blown out highlights - has not been solved. In fact, if you looked closely at the picture above, you’ll probably have noticed that they are in fact worse than ever on the UK release. It’s important to stress that many scenes look very nice indeed, with contrast never being an immediate concern. However, it almost goes without saying at this stage that, when this transfer looks bad, it really looks bad:
Left: Italian; right: UK (click to enlarge)
For reference, here are how these frames looked in Anchor Bay’s beautiful, faithful transfer:
In general, I feel that the following scenes are the worst affected:
- Suzy’s conversation with Olga (Barbara Magnolfi) at Olga’s apartment
- Daniel (Flavio Bucci) approaching the Tanzakademie after the students have spent the night in the practice hall, and his subsequent dismissal by Miss Tanner (Alida Valli)
- Suzy’s conversation with Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) following Daniel’s death
- The end of Suzy’s journey down the “golden corridor” (said to be Tovoli’s proudest achievement as a cinematographer, as per Alan Jones on the audio commentary)
- The entire climax, from the moment Suzy stabs Elena Markos
Many other scenes look stunning, and on balance I’d say more of the transfer looks good than not. However, it’s worth pointing out that the overblown contrast can affect even the most seemingly innocuous shot. Enlarge the image below and you’ll see that, while the overall balance looks more or less fine (the slightly too pink flesh tones aside), the lamp on the desk behind Joan Bennett looks as if it has been cut out and pasted on to the frame:
It’s also worth pointing out that the drop to a seemingly lower resolution that occurs on the Italian disc at the end of Suzy’s conversation with Madame Blanc (about the “secret iris”) is carried over here:
Left: Italian; right: UK (click to enlarge)
One final difference that I noticed is that the opening credits at the start of the film have been replaced on the UK release with what look like computer generated versions. The typeface is the same, but the gate weave and print damage that was to be found on the Italian version is now gone, resulting in the UK disc’s credits looking a bit artifical and lifeless - think 2010 rather than 1977. The closing credits are identical on both discs.
I gave the Italian disc a 4/10 for video quality. On balance, I’m giving the UK version a 5/10, given that it corrects some of the more severe DVNR artefacts and also dials down the brightness, preventing the shadows from looking so washed out. However, it’s important to stress that the blown out contrasts are worse now than ever, and I feel confident in stating that this is not how the film is supposed to look. I’ve said that so many times now, though, that to repeat myself again would be to sound like a broken record, so I’ll stop now and sum up.
Distasteful brand name aside, there’s a lot to commend in this release of Suspiria. The extras are intelligent and pleasingly in-depth in nature, and are not to be found anywhere else. Many dedicated fans will want to pick up a copy of this release for that reason alone. To add further accolades to this release, we have a truly great-sounding English language audio track for the first time since the Image Entertainment Laserdisc - and it even succeeds in blowing that out of the water. Watch the film on this BD and then try going back to the remix on the Anchor Bay DVD: if you can stomach the downgrade, then you have far greater stamina than me.
With a better transfer, this would have been the definitive release of Suspiria. Unfortunately, while some minor improvements have been made upon that of the Italian BD, this is sadly still the same bungled presentation that has been doing the rounds since 2007. I don’t hold Nouveaux Pictures to blame in this regard. This is clearly the master they were handed by the licensor, and few independent labels are in a position to turn down what they’re given. I doubt that they deliberately set out to mislead customers, although the promise of a “new high definition transfer” does leave something of a sour taste given that it has already appeared in at least three previous releases - two standard definition downconverts, one HD.
If you truly love Suspiria, my advice is to buy this disc. The extras are great, and it sounds better than it ever has done before on home video. Given how much of Suspiria’s success is due to its soundtrack, the benefits of having a corrected audio mix should not be ignored, and I imagine that many people will feel that the improvements to the sound help compensate for the sometimes awful video. And it should be stressed that, a lot of the time, the image is not awful. As stated earlier, there are moments where you’ll consider the transfer to be a thing of beauty. (Look at this shot and tell me it’s not gorgeous.) Unfortunately, it’s the moments of genuine splendour that lead to the poorer moments seeming like such a letdown, and the fact that many of what were once the most visually splendorous moments are the worst affected simply adds insult to injury.
If you think you can live with the image quality, by all means pick up this disc. Indeed, even if you just want the extras and are going to stick with your Anchor Bay DVD for the film itself, it’s still worth the price. If, however, you’re determined to hold out for a proper video presentation… well, I suspect you’ll be in for a long wait.