Looking at Dario Argento’s efforts of the past ten years — “The Mother of Tears,” “Giallo” and “Dracula 3D,” each more execrable than the last — one might be led to believe the Italian maestro is doing his utmost to destroy his legacy. And yet, none of these bargain-basement genre flicks are able to tarnish the legacy of his greatest thrillers, their flamboyant style and uncompromising violence no less startling than it was in the ’70s and ‘80s. As visceral and invigorating as classics like “Deep Red” or “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” might be, they aren’t a patch on 1977’s “Suspiria,” the psychedelic story of a private dance school that conceals a coven of witches. Synapse Films’ 4K restoration of Argento’s most enduring work — making its World Premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal — is an archival effort four years in the making, just in time for the film’s 40th anniversary.
For those who haven’t yet gone through the looking glass that is “Suspiria,” the film follows American dancer Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) as she takes up residence at the Tanz Dance Academy in Germany. Her arrival coincides with the baroque murder of another student running away from the school in one of the most stunning opening set-pieces in any film, period. Each shot in this terrifying intro completely reorients the space of the hotel the woman has sought refuge in via extreme camera positions and walls in a spectrum of colors, as the ominous drums of Goblin’s primal score pound. As Suzy integrates herself into the school — the teachers are played by vets of world cinema, Joan Bennett (“The Woman in the Window”) and Alida Valli (“The Third Man,” “Senso”) — she discovers the sinister history behind the school’s founding and the true identity of the absent headmistress. Creepy crawlies, hexes and throat slashings abound.
“Suspiria” is receiving a revival this year on two fronts: first, there was the discovery of a mint-condition uncut 35mm Italian print that played to sell-out audiences at New York’s trendy Metrograph cinema, and has started traveling to various arthouses. Synapse Films’ restoration is less of a surprise, with work beginning on the project four years ago. Label head Don May, Jr. couldn’t be present at the premiere due to health issues, but Fantasia programmer Mitch Davis relayed some key stages in the restoration, which included the less-than-ideal state of the original camera negative and director of photography Luciano Tovoli’s contribution to getting the look of the new 4K master just right.
The biggest moment in the restoration process was the late discovery of the original four-track soundtrack that was designed exclusively for the exhibition of “Suspiria” at marquee picture houses in Europe during its first run in the ’70s. And while the newly-minted digital projection looks as good as one could hope for — the lush, velvet reds and blues wallpapering each room of the ballet school are a hex all their own — it’s the restored sound design that really makes for a brand-new experience. The classic score by Goblin (who are still popular enough that two versions of the band tour under the name) is now enveloping in its multilayered tracking, conveying to the audience the same sense of claustrophobia and entrapment the seizes Suzy Bannion.
Some of the dialogue and performances come off a little clunky, which is par for course in this genre and Argento’s oeuvre on the whole. Harper is appropriately cast, even iconic in her role as a young woman in way over her head, but it’s clear why her career never quite took off. Seen with an audience, these moments — such as a young Udo Kier’s expository cameo conveniently explaining the psychology of witches — play well as charming counterpoints to grisly close-ups of tempera paint gore. One later moment that provokes audience laughter is, oddly enough, also the most sadistic scene in “Suspiria,” in which student Sara (Stefania Casini), running from an unseen figure wearing black leather gloves (a giallo staple) falls into a pit of razor wire. The framing is odd; Sara is on the right edge of the long-shot frame, ready to blindly leap into the center out of desperation. Fans of the genre classic know what is ahead of the character, and the sight of Sara writhing hopelessly as the metal coils lacerate her body is wince-inducing. The humorous response and recoil to her ineptitude is the perfect expression of the tight-wire act of cruelty and levity that has cemented the position of Argento’s film in the horror canon.
“Suspiria” has had its fair share of imitators: varying from something like “The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears,” Argento’s own lesser sequels “Inferno” and “The Mother of Tears,” and even Luca Guadagnino’s forthcoming remake starring Tilda Swinton, Chloë Grace Moretz and Dakota Johnson, due in cinemas sometime next year. Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli’s masterful use of omnipresent optical lighting via stained-glass windows is also arguably a progenitor to the neon cinema trend, with ballsy successors including “Enter the Void,” “Only God Forgives” and the literal acid trip in the fun fair sequence of this summer’s “Good Time.” It’s still worth seeking out the antecedent, however; there is no firm date yet for Synapse Films’ home video release of the restored “Suspiria,” or a theatrical run, but both will be can’t-miss events for Blu-ray and rep cinema fans. [A]