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Ruminations on Dario Argento, Part I: Argento & del Toro at the Lightbox

on July 4, 2011 | 3 Comments

On Saturday July 2nd, director Guillermo del Toro introduced Frederico Fellini’s segment from Spirits of the Dead (1968), “Toby Dammit,” and Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. In addition to sitting with the audience during the 2.5 hour screening, he went back up on stage, and with TIFF programmer / “Father of Midnight Madness” Noah Cowan, discussed the films, the nature of the giallo genre, academic and instinctive filmmaking, and having balls as big as potatoes. Oh yes, and there was a Q&A with the audience. The entire del Toro fix last 60 minutes – a major bonus to an already value-added double-bill screening.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves (or potatoes).

The double-bill was part of the TBL’s Fellini Dreams series, with this set hand-picked by Ice Storm (1997) screenwriter James Schamus who felt the two works share strong stylistic elements, and reflected both Fellini and Argento’s instinctive style of filmmaking.

“Toby Dammit” was probably the same 35mm extract I saw decades ago in film class, and contained the original English dub track where Terence Stamp voiced his own lines, while the rest of the characters spoke a mélange of English, French, and Italian. The TBL’s Cinema 2 was maybe 2/3 full, although about 10-odd people left during the brief one minute break preceding the screening of Suspiria.

Naturally the first question on everyone’s mind was would this be the uncut and restored print that played at Cannes in 2007.  Of course, given the Weinsteins brothers are magnificent hoarders, the answer was NO.

According to the Weinstein’s 2007 press release, the restored version of Suspiria which premiered at Cannes was bought by the duo to launch their Dimension Extreme label, alongside two other acquisitions: the fine sequel to the American remake, Pulse 2 (aka Pulse Duh), and Rogue. While those two films were released 3 years ago on DVD, the Cannes version of Suspiria sits in stasis, perhaps a weird victim of circumstances, and stupidity.

In 2007, both Suspiria and Argento’s newest film, Mother of Tears, screened at Cannes, and the two films may have been part of a package deal with the Weinsteins: they would buy the North American distribution rights, alongside Argento’s next project, which evolved into Giallo.

Perhaps sensing the innate wretchedness of Mother of Tears, the Weinsteins skirted a full theatrical release, and dumped the film onto DVD in 2008 under the Dimension Extreme banner, and plans to handle Giallo fell through, resulting in a bit of a scramble for Argento to get financing for a production already plagued by a rash of high profile cast changes.

Someone may have tapped the brothers on their shoulders, and suggested remaking Suspiria, since it has a cult following, it’s got a simple tale easily workable into an updated version, and being part of a trilogy, it could be spun off into a franchise, like Pulse, which begat (shat?) Pulse Duh, and Pulse Duh-Duh (aka Pulse 3).

There could be further adventures of the witches in a Suspiria series, with many maters suspirium around the globe wreaking havoc on dancers in Hamburg, London, Bratislava, Siberia, Beirut, Peoria, Sao Paolo, McMurdo, Greenland, and maybe Stouffville, Ontario. It could even be more successful than Lionsgate’s valiant attempt to globalize American Psycho in foreign lands, which sadly remained stunted after American Psycho II: All American Girl (aka AM: DUH) went straight to DVD.

Sadly, the label’s Paris-based sequel remains an elusive dream…

In September of 2010, Slash Film reported David Gordon Green’s (!) remake would begin shooting in 2010. In March of 2011, the site reported a new draft and preliminary upper crew selections were beginning, and the remake is slated for a 2012 release / completion date, featuring Goblin’s themes reworked by Steve Jablonsky (Amityville Horror, The Island, the Transformers franchise).

The delay in commencing filming, let alone finalizing a screenplay, means every delay pushes any North American release of the Cannes restoration print further back + any chance of seeing this film uncut on the big screen or home video in Region 1 / A land.

Hollywood hoarders (like the Weinsteins) who own both the remake and original distribution rights tend to do three predictable things:

1) Release the original on home video in tandem or a few weeks after the remake’s video premiere.

2) Suppress the original version and leave just the shit remake in circulation, as happened when Miramax (then a Weinstein company) grabbed Ole Bornedal’s Nightwatch / Nattewagten (1994) and have sat on its distribution for ages.

3) Do nothing when the planned remake falls through, as apparently happened to Jan Kounen’s Dobermann. The Weinsteins bought the rights in 1997, had plans to either release and / or remake it, but then moved on to other projects they could further hoard. Why? Because  they were under the same delusion to which Daffy Duck succumbed in 1957, screaming “Mine! Mine! Mine!” in the Bugs Bunny cartoon Ali Baba Bunny, where Daffy refuses to share the treasures of the cave guarded by sword bearer ‘Hasan Chop’ (no relation), thereby angering the Genie of the Lamp. Unfortunately, since the Weinsteins have been doing this for at least 15 years, it’s unlikely they’ll suffer any consequences or schmonsequences, because their contracts are iron-clad.

That is perhaps the nutshell as to why the TBL were only able to secure a cut print of Suspiria; the physical film splices were obvious, the music edits jarring, and the sound was in mono.

Now before you start frowning and banging a fist on the desk in anger, just wait.

Fans of the film reported on the IMDB message boards as early as 2010 that the copy available for streaming on Netflix is the cut version released by 20th Century-Fox. That version is missing specific moments of trauma, a scene where dance teacher Alida Valli chastises the blind pianist for letting his dog scar her ‘fancy lad’ son, and the title logo consists of the pulsating organs seen in the famous poster.

The version screened at the TBL wasn’t the Fox version, but apparently an uncut print that may have been conformed to the Fox print, since it lacked the Fox logo and sported the original main title design. The blind man’s berating is intact, but gone were the same details of the opening killing (consisting of more chest stabbing and throat lashing before the head is smashed through the glass prior to the body’s tumble); the blind man’s dog repeated tearing away at his throat; and Stefania Cassini getting her throat cut after tirelessly scrambling through the barbed wire room.

'Why didn't I just put the crates in front of the door, break the killer's razor blade, and look down before climbing into the pit of razor wire? What the Hell was I thinking?!?!?

Intact was the slow tracking shot of blood on the floor which leads up to the first victim lying dead with glass bisecting her face, and Cassini’s eyes pierced with needles in the witches’ coven.

One could postulate the TBL print was originally an uncut print that fell victim to the razor blade edits, as demanded by evil Mary Brown,  head of the Ontario Censor Board during the eighties. As for the mono mix, that could be an issue tied to the possibility of there never being a fully satisfying mix on home video, or in theatres once the film went into tertiary exhibition.

Even when the film began to appear on DVD, there were reports about edits to the keystone gore moments, and some releases sporting mono mixes. The theatrical multi-track version has apparently never been mastered for home video, or at least properly. I still claim the old Dolby Pro Logic mix on the ancient Image laserdisc betters the ‘safe’ 5.1 remix on the old Anchor Bay and subsequent Blue Underground DVDs.

The TBL screening was still a success – the print was in much better shape than expected, and the sound, while heavily pinched in the highs, did the job – but I can’t help wondering if all that’s required is for someone to rent a vintage uncut print; since the Weinsteins own rights to the restored version that premiered in Cannes, TBL nor Netflix wouldn’t have been able to screen the damned thing theatrically or digitally in the first place.

If that’s a possible loophole cinematheques and festival programmers could use in North America, go for it, because who knows when the Weinsteins will let go of the restored version. If memory serves correct, in Ontario, film festivals like TIFF can screen unrated / uncut films; it’s like a special waiver that doesn’t apply to formal theatrical and home video distribution.

The absurdity is even more profound: what the censors found revolting in 1978 is today tame, and there’s no reason for Suspiria to be available theatrically (or digitally) in a butchered form. As someone quipped in the IMDB message board, Lars von Trier’s Antchrist (2009) is uncut, and the Netflix print contains penile bashing and reckless clitoral manicuring.

Most likely the big hurdles for programmers include finding an unmanicured Suspiria print, shipping & insurance costs, and the rental fees, all of which could make a single screening dicey, if not a financial disaster.

The TBL audience maybe filled 2/3 or 3/5 of the seats, but I think better publicity could’ve sold more seats. Much as I love what the TBL and their programmers are doing, the organization isn’t doing enough to create a buzz, alert the media, tease fans groups, or just plain proclaim outside of their byzantine website what’s going on.

Blogs at Rue Morgue, Torontoist and BlogTO may have helped publicize the screening, but the TBL needs a dedicated fulltime researcher(s) who works in conjunction with the site editors and social media team to launch strategic media alerts, each bearing new info – updating an upcoming screening alert with additional details, multimedia material, and / or production minutia culled from literary and critical sources.

That, and getting more levels of the media (major, minor, blog & social) to attend screenings and report. I’ve yet to have a bad experience at the TBL. More often my reaction is ‘Why aren’t there more people here?’

‘Nuff said.

The appearance of Guillermo del Toro wasn’t initially in the cards, but by mid-week it seemed to move from an idea to a possibility, and then a secured appearance which turned into a mini-lecture for genre fans. At least 3 avid fans videotaped the Q&A, and I’ll post some audio extracts from del Toro’s intro & discussion with Cowan on Wednesday, and will have additional thoughts on the TBL’s other Argento screening that evening, Opera (1987).

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- – – Mark R. Hasan (Mondomark.com)

Tags: Dario Argento, Frederico Fellini, goblin, tiff bell lightbox

Responses to Ruminations on Dario Argento, Part I: Argento & del Toro at the Lightbox

  1. Andrew says:

    Suspiria is my #1 horror film. It was the first Italian horror film I saw. I was fourteen at the time and was amazed at the elegance of the film. I really liked horror films and was a big fan of them since I was four years old, but I didn’t “fall in love” with horror films until I saw Suspiria. I have the two disc special edition from Blue Underground, and as great of a copy it is, I would like to get my hands on a restored and uncut version. It’s these god damned politics being played by these companies that is hurting their customers by not releasing these films in their true “uncut” forms.

  2. Pingback: Rue Morgue : Horror in Culture and Entertainment

  3. Pingback: The Greek Experience, Dario Argento alerts, and Mondomark joins Twitter | mondomark.com

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