Horror Squad's own Alison Nastasi alerted eager horror fans to the impending release of a Blu-ray edition of Suspiria first announced way back in November. The new disc was released about a month ago and is currently available in the UK courtesy of Cine-Excess, a new arm of Nouveaux Pictures. I ordered a copy the day it came out and have been looking forward to really digging into it to see what it has to offer. I should mention up front that this Blu-ray disc is region B locked, meaning that it will NOT play in a US PS3 or other standalone Blu-ray players. It will ONLY play in region B machines, which are used in Europe, and in region-free players.
I'm not going to summarize Suspiria, or really talk about the film itself much at all. If you're reading Horror Squad, I would hope you've heard of it even if you may not have seen it. If by some chance you've been living under a rock for the last 30 or so years, though, Suspiria is an Italian horror film set in Germany and filmed in English directed by Dario Argento, a member of the holy trinity of Italian horror masters alongside Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci. Suspiria is easily one of Argento's best, and if you haven't seen it, you really should take the time to check it out.
What follows is a fairly in-depth look at the Blu-ray, feel free to skip to the end for a more succinct summary with less technical jargon.
Obviously, the big question here is what does the picture look like? Even the most ardent detractors of Argento and specifically Suspiria would have to admit that the film is visually stunning. Filmed in expansive 2.35:1, the film showcases a vibrant color palette that would rival even the richest child's Crayon box. Having only seen the film once on home video, I decided to rent both the original limited edition Anchor Bay release from way back in 2001 as well as the more recent 2007 Blue Underground edition to see how previous DVD transfers compared to this new high def version.
To my surprise, I found that the main feature disc of both the 3-disc Anchor Bay and 2-disc Blue Underground releases was exactly the same, right down to the menus. I watched the film in its entirety on the Blu-ray version and then popped in the US DVD to compare certain scenes. The results were mixed.
The DVD transfer appears a bit muddier and drab when compared to the Blu-ray transfer. Some will say that the Blu-ray's colors are so bold because they're oversaturated, but flesh tones look solid on the Blu-ray and bright though they are, colors don't bleed into other colors. They absolutely pop off the screen on the Blu, while a quick jump back to the DVD version shows drab, lifeless colors and skin tones with a slight greenish hue to them.
Sadly, it's not all roses for the Blu-ray. While the colors are amazing, the contrast is way overblown. What this means is that details are lost that should be visible. Instead of seeing a gradation, you get solid blocks of color. This means that details are being clipped in the image. The problem is noticeable throughout the film in different ways. For example, the lightning flashes at the beginning of the film during the taxi ride are so bright they're garish and almost assault your eyes. Just before the pivotal first murder, as the young victim enters her apartment, there's a red triangle above the elevator that shows the floor numbers, 1, 2 and 3. On the DVD these numbers are clearly visible, though the red is more of clay color.
On the Blu-ray, the triangle is fire engine red, but it's so bright that the numbers are completely obscured; you can hardly see any trace of them. And for one last example, the scene in Olga's apartment, which has a vivid black and white wallpaper with intricate designs, those designs are clearly visible on the DVD as is a lamp on a side table, though the whites look a bit dull. On the Blu-ray, the whites are almost burning through the screen, so much so that they obscure parts of the designs and transform the lamp into a solid rectangle of white mass.
That said, the Blu-ray is a definite step up in clarity and fine detail. For example, in that same scene in Olga's apartment, the DVD has problems dealing with the intricate designs on the wallpaper, and certain areas deteriorate into mosquito noise and artifacts. The Blu-ray has no such troubles and the designs have clean, crisp edges. The Blu-ray has also clearly been cleaned up a bit; many of the scratches and dirt that show up on the DVD transfer are absent here. (Note: it's quite possible, even likely, that different prints were used for the different transfers. For instance, the opening credits are in English on the DVD, while they're in Italian on the Blu-ray, though some reviewers have postulated that the credits on the Blu were new and computer generated. In any event, this disc has a cleaner image, and it probably didn't start that way, no matter what print they used to strike this new HD master.)
Grain is still apparent, as it should be for a 35mm film from 1977, but it's not quite as pronounced as it is on the DVD. This doesn't appear to be the result of any digital grain reduction. The grain is smooth and never freezes as it can when digital software is used to try to eliminate grain entirely. The Blu-ray transfer is thankfully free of such tampering, and the difference in grain could be attributed to the different prints and scanning techniques employed, as well as any of the restoration work that was done.
Picture quality aside, the soundtrack, provided on the Blu-ray in a lossless 5.1 channel DTS-HD Master Audio mix, is full and robust. Often the ears can trick you by thinking that louder is better, and many of lossless tracks tend to default to a louder volume setting, but even at a normal volume there's a clarity and range of sounds that very clearly trumps the DVD. Unfortunately, the dialogue is much softer than the soundtrack and sound effects. As a result, I found it necessary to keep my remote handy, to boost the volume during sections of dialogue as well as turn the volume back down when the soundtrack swelled up.
As Alison mentioned in her article, there a few extras on the disc, an audio commentary, a short video outlining Cine Excess and it's goals, Fear at 400 Degrees, a 38 minute documentary on Suspiria, which is decent enough, with a few clips of the master himself talking about some of his best work, as well as another 40 minute video featuring some of the same critics from the 400 degrees doc relaying their thoughts on the film. The videos are fairly standard, nothing outstanding. I confess, I haven't checked out the audio commentary so I can't speak to that, but all in all a fairly weak supplement package for such a high-profile release.
The bottom line is that the disc is just a hint above mediocre. The picture quality is a definite step up from the DVD, but with problems of its own, it's nowhere near the awesome transfer that fans were hoping for. The audio sounds great, if only someone had spent some time to do a bit of dialogue prioritization. And the supplements could certainly use some beefing up. Coupled with the fact that you'd need to find region B or region free hardware to even play the disc, this one is for hardcore US Suspiria fans ONLY. UK fans and others in region B areas may want to go ahead and pick this one up. Even with it's faults, the colors seem to me to be closer to what Argento and his DP, Luciano Tovoli were going for, at least in my humble estimation. The next time I want to watch Suspiria, I'll be reaching for this Blu-ray despite its flaws.
But wait, there's still hope! Speaking of Tovoli, our own Mike Bracken wrote a piece about Tovoli's comments in a recent interview for American Cinematographer magazine, in which he described supervising a new transfer at Technicolor in Rome which would be used for a new Blu-ray release sometime in the Spring. US fans rejoice and keep your fingers crossed that the people currently hard at work on that new master look to this release and fix or avoid some of the same pitfalls. And, with the current economic situation, it wouldn't hurt to cross...ummm...your toes, that someone releases it here in the states at all. We'll let you know right here on Horror Squad as soon as there is a solid release date for the new Suspiria Blu-ray.