Thursday 22 November, 2012 22:53
I apologise for the length of time it has taken for this comparison to see the light of day, and I apologise in advance for the length of the comparison. It’s by far the largest I’ve ever done, but SUSPIRIA remains one of my favourite films, and its history on BD has been a tortuous one to say the least, so I felt it was worth the effort to get it right. I’ve never taken this many captures for a single BD Impressions piece, let alone a comparison with four different releases placed under the microscope. Thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster for ImageShack!
Anyway, all BD releases of SUSPIRIA that I know of are derived from a 2007 high definition scan of the original camera negative, transferred at Technicolor in Rome as a joint Italian/French venture. Neither of the two releases I already owned - the Italian release by CDE and the UK release by Nouveaux Pictures - particularly impressed me. However, with the addition of another release to the roster - a French disc by Wild Side, who did excellent work on TENEBRAE a couple of years back, I’ve decided to start with a blank slate and reappraise all three of these releases. As a point of comparison, I’ve also included captures from the highly praised 2001 US DVD release by Anchor Bay, upscaled to 1920x1080.
Take a look at the captures below and then scroll down (and down, and down) for the commentary.
Suspiria (Italian BD)
label: CDE; disc country: Italy; region code: B;
codec: AVC; aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Suspiria (UK BD)
label: Nouveaux Pictures; disc country: UK; region code: B;
codec: AVC; aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Suspiria (French BD)
label: Wild Side; disc country: France; region code: ABC;
codec: AVC; aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Suspiria (US DVD)
label: Anchor Bay; disc country: USA; region code: 0;
codec: MPEG-2; aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Overall, my original points about the Italian and UK releases hold firm. Both are extremely problematic in places, suffering from severely clipped highlights in a number of key scenes, in particular the pyrotechnic extravaganza that is the climax. In addition, there is something seriously off about the flesh tones in a number of scenes, with the actors looking like overcooked lobsters. These problems are both exacerbated in the UK release, which has the contrast dialled up even higher than the Italian disc, making some shots look downright ridiculous. In addition, DVNR artefacts are present throughout the Italian disc, an anomaly not repeated for the UK release. Clearly, therefore, it was not simply a case of both being given the same master and slapping it on a disc: both chose to do some additional work on the film, with the Italians performing an extra DVNR pass and the UK team inexplicably deciding that the highlights weren’t already cooked enough!
Enter Wild Side with their French release, filled with its own quirks and oddities. Right from the first frame, the colour balance is slightly different and the image shows a sliver more head room (with a corresponding slight loss in… er, foot room). It’s not until the scene immediately following the opening double murder, however, that the differences start to become significant. In the shot where Suzy (Jessica Harper) approaches the Tanz Akademie, highlight details blown out in the Italian and UK versions are visible - check Suzy’s shoulder (in Example 12). Subtle stuff, but an improvement nonetheless. The differences continue to be minor until the scene in the girls’ changing room, where flesh tones that looked slightly too pink in the Italian and UK versions now seem more true to life (see Examples 15 and 16). What follows is the scene in Olga (Barbara Magnolfi)’s apartment, and suddenly the differences are too noticeable to be called subtle any more. The contrast still leans a little towards the “hot” side, but the improvement in the way the highlights are handled is massive; Example 20, showing Olga in close-up, is a particularly good example.
As we continue to work our way through the film, a clear pattern emerges: where flesh tones appear lobster-like in the Italian and UK releases, they seem naturalistic in the French release, and where highlights are clipped in the Italian and UK releases, they appear to be kept more in check on the French disc. Things are far from perfect on the French side - that shot of Daniel (Flavio Bucci) approaching the Tanz Akademie shortly before his guide dog bites little Albert is still an eyesore, even if the walls of the buiding now look closer to red than pink - but in general this is a far less abrasive-looking presentation of the film. Particularly improved is the conversation between Suzy and Madam Blanc (Joan Bennett) just after Daniel’s death (see Examples 43 and 44): just look at the difference in flesh tones. On the Italian and UK discs, this scene looks like it was colour timed by someone who had never encounted a caucasian human before; on the French disc, it looks as close to spot on as I’ve ever seen this scene on home video (based on my recollection of the UK X-rated print I was lucky enough to see at the Glasgow Film Theatre a few years back).
Unfortunately, the aforementioned scene proves to be more or less the last hurrah of the French disc. After this scene, it continues to diverge from the look of its Italian and UK counterparts, though no longer in a good way. Where previously the French disc tended towards a less overly contrasty look, now the opposite is true, with a number of scenes on the French disc looking unnaturally bright and, on occasions, downright cooked in terms of the highlights. The swimming pool scene seems unnaturally bright from beginning to end, and the scenes after Suzy returns from her meeting with Frank Mandel (Udo Keir) suffer from the same problems. None of this, however, compares to what happens after Suzy enters the room with the three irises and secret door. This final stretch of the film was always one of the most problematic on the Italian and UK discs; here, the excessive brightness and contrast are taken to new extremes, continuing all the way to the final shot of Suzy walking away from the burning Academy - which, on all three releases, features a revisionist red filter which was most assuredly not on the print I saw at the GFT.
It’s ultimately a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde situation. Had the French release continued in the same vein as its first half, I would have no hesitation in proclaiming it the best BD presentation of SUSPIRIA I’ve seen. As it is, the botching of the second half in many respects negates the good work done in the first half, which, coupled with the presence of forced French subtitles when anything other than French audio is selected, makes it a bit of a tough sell.
Obviously it’s hard, in this day and age, to wholeheartedly recommend the venerable Anchor Bay DVD either. Its remixed soundtrack has severe shortcomings, it can’t hope to compete with the BDs in terms of resolution, and a case can probably be made that, where the BDs are in places far too bright, the DVD is too dark. Unfortunately, it’s hard to compare this shot with this one (or this with this) and not feel just a little short-changed. The unfortunate truth is that the DVD remains an immeasurably more accurate visual representation of the film’s theatrical look than any of the BDs. It’s worth pointing out, by the way, that the DVD, Italian and French BDs all claim to have been supervised and approved by cinematographer Luciano Tovoli. Assuming this is true, it doesn’t convey much sense of him having a clear idea as to how the film should look.
Of course, the most interesting question the French release throws up is why, despite clearly being derived from the same scan as the Italian and UK BDs, does it look so different? Any theories I give are going to be pure conjecture, but my suspicion is that, after the initial HD transfer was created, the Italian and French partners went their separate ways and each treated the scan to their own individual digital clean-up and colour correction (with the UK master derived from the Italian “strand” rather than the French). If this is the case, then it’s a mystery to me why they didn’t simply pool their resources and create a single cinematographer-approved master. Still, it gives us something to ponder until the next version is released.