By MICHAEL GINGOLD
In the midst of the many new international genre features being screened at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, one of the most significant and anticipated premieres is that of a 40-year-old horror landmark—as it has never been seen before. Synapse Films’ new 4K restoration of Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA screens this Wednesday night, August 2 (details here), and RUE MORGUE got an exclusive chat with the company’s Don May Jr. about the details of this long-in-the-works project.
SUSPIRIA has long been admired as Argento’s most colorfully flamboyant work, and Synapse’s new edition, created with the participation of the film’s cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, achieves a new level of visual and aural splendor. The widescreen image is straight-razor-sharp, the hues are bold and true and the sound is powerful yet perfectly balanced, the intense tones of Goblin’s aggressive score never overwhelming the dialogue. As May points out, “There’s a lot to love about Argento’s films in general, but I think a lot of SUSPIRIA’s popularity has to do with its specific look. Viewing the film logically is impossible: Lights go out and rooms turn green instead of black, the angle switches from one shot to another within the same scene and the lighting goes from red to blue, etc. SUSPIRIA is truly one-of-a-kind; there’s no other film quite like it.”
Therefore, although Synapse has already released remastered Blu-ray editions of Argento’s TENEBRAE and PHENOMENA (full disclosure—this writer did liner notes for the latter), SUSPIRIA was a holy grail for them. Landing the rights to the title “was luck, really,” May recalls. “We were chatting with an overseas film licensor, and the subject of SUSPIRIA came up. At the time, it was still held by Miramax because they were trying to get the remake going, and the licensor said something like, ‘Miramax isn’t going to do the remake, and I think the film comes back to the owners in the next week or two, if you want it. We can certainly check for you.’ There was no discussion with my business partner, Jerry Chandler; at that moment, we just looked at each other across the office, smiled, nodded in unison and went for it. In my 25 years in this crazy business, SUSPIRIA was always on my short list of titles to do before I retired, and it was an exciting and challenging opportunity. Little did I know at the time how challenging it would actually be!”
Those hurdles were born from the Synapse team’s desire to give SUSPIRIA a polish it had never enjoyed in any previous home release. “When we licensed SUSPIRIA,” May explains, “one of my demands was that we be allowed to go back to the original 35mm negative and do the restoration ourselves. I didn’t want to use any existing masters, because they didn’t look good. Contrary to popular belief, the previous 2007 transfer was not approved by Luciano Tovoli, and I wanted to give him the opportunity to get it right. He told me he supervised the transfer back in ’07, but what actually came out on home video was not what he approved. Something went wrong between what he’d approved and what ended up on the disc. He was also not consulted for the Anchor Bay version, so he jumped at the chance to work with us to present the film in his original vision.”
Then the difficulties began. Getting access to the original SUSPIRIA 35mm camera negative took months of negotiations with Technicolor Rome, which would not ship it to the U.S. and insisted on doing the negative scan themselves. That arm of Technicolor was in the process of closing down, and problems with the master data tapes they provided resulted in a wait of another few months to get the material rescanned elsewhere in Italy. Then, May says, “When we saw the condition of the negative, our hearts sank. It was not in the best of shape, and we knew we were going to have to spend tens of thousands in cleanup and color-correction just to get it right.”
Visually repairing every frame of SUSPIRIA took over a year, and once that cleanup was done, the transfer was turned over to Tovoli. “We sent him the entire film as data,” May says, “and he went into a studio in Italy to watch it and take notes to send back to us. As the changes were made, the scenes were uploaded to him for review and he would sign off on them. We went back and forth for a few months to make absolutely sure he approved all aspects of the restoration. It was important to me to have his involvement and blessing, and for the first time ever, we are able to present SUSPIRIA the way he originally designed it to be seen. Tovoli says ours is the most color-accurate version ever presented on home video, and he’s thrilled with the final result.”
As for the sound, “Finding the original 4.0 LCRS magnetic audio, to present the film the way it was originally mixed in English, was exciting and unreal. We’re presenting SUSPIRIA for the first time ever on home video with this original discrete 4.0 mix. It’s unbelievable; there’s so much in the mix that you’ve never heard before.”
May has a couple of other issues regarding Synapse’s release of SUSPIRIA that he wants to address. First, “A lot of armchair critics on-line have criticized us for ‘taking too long’ with it. Most of these folks, of course, have no concept of this business, or what goes on behind the scenes while getting these types of things to market; they have no clue how much time it can take to do something like this right. When we announced SUSPIRIA, we had no idea of the problems and condition of the negative, or how long it would take to do the restoration, search for the original LCRS 4.0 audio and coordinate the disc extras. I don’t release something quickly if I know it’ll take a little longer to do it correctly. Sure, we could’ve put SUSPIRIA out fast with a subpar cleanup, the wrong colors and the rather dull existing audio offered to us by the licensor. Anyone who bought the most recent foreign release of SUSPIRIA already know how that looks and sounds. That’s not acceptable to me—and, in regards to the visuals, it wasn’t acceptable to Tovoli either. I wasn’t going to compromise with SUSPIRIA just because some people were impatient and ‘wanted it now.’ I take my time on these projects, do what I need to do the best possible way I can and release them when I feel they’re ready.”
Then there’s the question of content: “There are three variations of SUSPIRIA that are the most well-known. First, there’s the completely uncut, uncensored 98-minute version, which is what we are releasing. This is the same version, in regards to footage and content, as the Italian print that was recently found and exhibited, except that particular print is a multiple-generation dupe off the original negative and, based on clips I’ve seen, has faded horribly, with inconsistent black levels and color shift. Contrary to what some people are saying, that print has no additional footage when compared to ours, or to the already released Image laserdisc, the Anchor Bay DVD and VHS and the Blue Underground DVD. The other versions of SUSPIRIA are the 92-minute U.S. R-rated release and a UK print that is a little longer than the American cut, but contains some BBFC censoring. Rest assured, however, that ours is the most complete, unedited, uncensored edition—and, for the first time, color-accurate to Tovoli’s specifications—released anywhere on home video.
“Ours even has a few more frames than the recently released Italian version,” May adds, “because they removed a couple of black frames from the film at a shot cut that they mistakenly thought was damage. It was an intentional effect when the maggots are on the ceiling, and it cuts to the face of a screaming girl. A similar technique/effect was used during a car chase in BULLITT, and it was meant to ease the eyes at a jarring edit. These two frames have been in all previous versions of SUSPIRIA, even original prints from 1977, and we left them in ours, too.
“When we accessed the materials,” he continues, “I asked if there were any trims or additional film elements vaulted that might give us a peek at other aspects of the production, and perhaps some censored footage or alternate takes, but received no response. Sometimes we get lucky, like with the extra material we found for PROM NIGHT or THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, for example, but not with SUSPIRIA. I guess in regards to the audio, we uncovered something unique to home video that no other version has. When the film was first released, there were a number of English-language prints created that contained a discrete four-channel surround track for theaters that could play it properly. Instead of a standard optical track, these prints contained four channels of magnetically striped audio. We spent a lot of time looking for this particular mix, and we finally found the original magnetic 4.0 LCRS tracks! Our release will present this four-channel audio for the first time ever on home video, and it’s a doozy! It contains some interesting things you may never have heard before. We were shocked at how good it sounds.”
As for when you can experience the remastered SUSPIRIA for yourself, there will be a number of theatrical bookings following the Fantasia premiere, and the producers of the Blu-ray supplements are currently wrapping up their contributions. “We’re hoping for an October release,” May says, “but until all the pieces are arranged, we won’t have a specific date. All I do know is that I definitely want it out in 2017, for the film’s official 40th anniversary.” Keep your eyes on this site for updates!