Guillermo del Toro will have a busy fall promoting his new movie “The Shape of Water,” but he’s squeezing in time to plug another project that’s not his own: Dario Argento’s expressionistic horror classic “Suspiria.” As a guest curator at the upcoming 50th edition of the Sitges Film Festival in Spain, Del Toro will curate a series of Italian gothic and giallo films, but he’s particularly keen on returning Argento’s work to the big screen.
“Dario especially needs this now that we have a little historical perspective to position ‘Suspiria’ as the work of pure madness and cinematic joy it is,” said del Toro. “I think it’s very important to celebrate his place in history.”
Argento’s ominous, tonally complex work follows an American ballet student (Jessica Harper) who enters a German dance school that turns out to be a haven for witchcraft. For many genre aficionados, it was a bigger movie event in 1977 than “Star Wars;” Del Toro’s among them. “It takes hold of the giallo and adds something new formally that makes it a powerful, innovative work of art,” he said.
Del Toro’s not alone in his mission. With Amazon Studios’ “Suspiria” remake — directed by Luca Guadagnino — set to come out in 2018, fans of the original have been especially adamant about reminding audiences of its power, and years of efforts to restore the proper version are finally coming to fruition.
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When the movie was released in the U.S. with an R rating (and later on VHS), it ran 92 minutes, while Argento’s original version was 98 minutes. That cut has been available on home video since the ’90s, but started touring the country this summer as a dubbed 35mm print discovered by the Chicago Cinema Society. Aside from the Italian dubbing of the film’s English-language dialogue, the cut is otherwise identical to the version widely circulated on laserdisc and DVD — but it nevertheless provided an excuse to bring “Suspiria” back to theaters.
However, that tour pales in comparison to a four-year effort by Synapse Films — a distributor that specializes in horror-film restorations — to complete a 4K restoration of “Suspiria.” It premiered to a sold-out crowd on the closing night of Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival in July. The restoration included polishing the film’s bright color palette, consultation by cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, and the original audio specifications of its four-track stereo mix with split mono surround sound, allowing the now-iconic Goblin score and bloodcurdling screams to stand out as Argento originally intended.
“Watching ‘Suspiria’ with 700 people was in and of itself a dream come true, but to see it restored to all its overwhelming visual and sonic splendor was an experience that can barely be described with words,” said Fantasia’s programming director, Mitch Davis. “It sounded absolutely incredible, with unbelievable body and all sorts of elements and tones I’ve never heard before. It was such a beautiful night. The audience was transfixed.” Davis added that when the film ended, the audience’s applause lasted through the credits — and returned when Synapse’s logo came up at the very end.
Synapse founder Don May, Jr. became involved with efforts to restore “Suspiria” just as an effort to remake the movie (with David Gordon Green attached to direct) fell apart. “It was a case of being at the right place at the right time,” May said. “We were chatting with a foreign distributor on the phone and they mentioned that the original remake plans were dead and the rights were reverting back to the owners in a few weeks. We, of course, mentioned we’d like to get the rights and we were able to work out a deal before anyone else caught wind of the rights change. It’s a fantastic film and it’s always been on my bucket list, ever since I started in this business. It’s one I’ve always wanted to do, and I finally got my chance.”
But he couldn’t have known the challenges that lay ahead. Working from the original 35mm master required months of negotiations with Technicolor Rome, which would not ship it to the U.S. and insisted on doing the negative scan in-house.
That arm of Technicolor was in the process of closing down, and problems with the master data tapes provided by the company resulted in a wait of another few months to get the material rescanned elsewhere in Italy. According to May, the negative came to Synapse in rough shape, and his team knew they would have to have to spend thousands of dollars on cleanup and color correction.
“In my 25 years in this business, our 4K restoration of ‘Suspiria’ was certainly the most extensive, and stressful, or my career,” May said. “And, for me, it’s also turned into the most accomplished of any of my work on restoring a classic film.” The company recently completed a deal with 20th Century Fox to distribute the remastered version in theaters, and plans to release a Blu-ray timed to the 40th anniversary later this year.
It’s too early to say whether Guadagnino’s version — which is said to run close to three hours and feature a score by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke — will satisfy fans of the original. But del Toro said that’s irrelevant to his current efforts.
“The golden rule on any remake should be the rerelease, in some format, of the original — at least from a cinephile point of view,” said del Toro. “In the ’90s and the 2000s, when remakes were being made, the secret good news for collectors was that a VHS or a DVD of the original was going to come out. But now, we have the opportunity to revisit ‘Suspiria’ on the big screen, not only at Sitges but at other festivals. I think that’s very important.”
He noted that Guadagnino, whose gay romance “Call Me By Your Name” is generating Oscar buzz in advance of its fall release, shouldn’t be penalized for taking on the project. “It’s not a detriment to the remake,” del Toro said. “I think this filmmaker is extremely interesting, but it’s important to remind people why the original ‘Suspiria’ is a milestone.” In particular, he added, “it contains an element of irrational horror that tells you this isn’t a gory exercise or a whodunit.”
He also singled out the contemporary setting. “It was not a traditionally gothic horror piece that happened in a castle,” he said. “It was happening in a modern-day European city to a girl that anyone in the cinema could identity with.” It also melded shockingly graphic death scenes with the haunting atmosphere of a supernatural thriller. “There are two types of genre movies,” del Toro said. “The ones that take you on a ride but you know it’s never going to go off the rails, and other horror films where you feel that the driver is a madman, and this bus could go off the clip at any second. That’s what ‘Suspiria’ has going for it. That makes it entirely unique. In many ways, it’s unrepeatable.”
Argento himself isn’t exactly pleased with Guadagnino’s remake; he wasn’t consulted on it. “I have never, ever been asked about it,” he said in an interview with IndieWire last year. “I might be able to provide useful advice about that. But, honestly, I do think it would be better if it wasn’t remade.”
Still, others involved in championing the original point out that the situation could be a lot worse. Historically, studios have been known to making the original films unavailable when they release remakes. (Dimension Films removed Ole Bornedal’s 1994 original “Nightwatch,” from circulation when the remake came out in 1997.)
“At least the release of the [‘Suspiria’] remake is not diminishing the fact that the original is still out there,” May said. “With ‘Suspiria,’ we’re keeping the original version alive for those who want to see it. The remake will certainly bring attention to the original, which will benefit us. The remake will be out there, but the original version will not be going away any time soon.”