Sensing Suspiria: Feeling Film from VHS to Blu-ray

illustration by Tony Stella

In 2015, I published a book on Dario Argento’s 1977 Eurohorror classic Suspiria as part of Auteur Publishing’s Devil’s Advocates series. But here’s a confession: the first time I saw it, I could not understand what all the fuss was about. Deep Red I adored, but it was Tenebrae that comfortably ranked for many years as my favorite Argento film. Shot by Luciano Tovoli, the same cinematographer as Suspiria and Argento’s unfortunate 2012 3D adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the stark visual sharpness of Tenebrae (inspired by Argento’s affection for Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 cult masterpiece Possession) stands in dramatic contrast to the baroque Technicolor aggression of Suspiria. While both films share Argento’s signature dark flourishes, intense soundtracks, love of macabre yet extremely beautiful horror set pieces, and above all a driving fascination with the relationship between art and truth, on a broadly visual level Suspiria and Tenebrae are arguably more stylistically opposed than any two other of his films.

So what happened? Technology happened. I was—and still am—an avid VHS collector, and some of my most precious tapes remain my many Argento videos. But as much as there’s a degree of cultural capital to be attained through self-defining as a “video person,” it is not wholly true to say that video is an always flawless archival medium. In her 2017 monograph on Deep Red, Alexia Kannas writes about the first time she saw that film, discovering it after “flipping through my metal-guitarist housemate’s collection of horror movies,” she “had come across a stolen rental video copy, the front cover emblazoned with an illustration of a nasty-looking doll with raised eyebrows and a crack in its head.” She continues:

I would like to be able to say that, confronted for the first time with Argento’s distinctive style and great technical skill, I was instantly swept off my feet—but love doesn’t always work that way. The version of Deep Red that I saw that day was not uncut, nor was it the truncated export cut that had been approved by the director. Its sloppily executed “pan & scan” transfer had lopped so much off the sides of every frame, that I probably only saw half the film; interfering with whatever remained were the ghosts of one thousand viewers before me, pulling at the edges of the already severely compromised image.

My first experience with Suspiria was a little different to hers with Deep Red, but similarly, the particular format meant it lacked the fireworks one would expect from a movie that would go onto become so personally and professionally significant. Like so many of my generation, the video store was my film school, the horror section my homeroom.

It was through a video store in inner-city Melbourne, on a tape I paid $1 to rent for seven days, that I first saw Suspiria. Like Kannas, I desperately wish the story of my introduction to this film was different from the actual reality. The tape I first saw Suspiria on was in its death throes; it had been hired a lot, watched a lot, and loved a lot, but by the time I got to it all that remained on this stretched and battered analog version was a warbled, close to inaudible soundtrack, and a visual image whose colors had bled and faded so significantly that my first impression of Suspiria were dominated by murky browns and mossy grey-greens.

With some films, this kind of deterioration can sometimes add to the experience. I have a copy of Adrian Lyne’s exquisite Jacob’s Ladder (1990) where a similar kind of desaturation creates what almost feels like a watercolor painting effect. This adds, rather than detracts, from my experience of that particular film as it falls deeper and deeper into the gloomy psychological abyss that lies at its heart. So much of my experience of and passion for Jacob’s Ladder is tied to its materiality, each revisit feeling somehow more “alive” as the tape fades, decays, and contorts over time, moving inevitably towards an ultimate obliteration that mirrors the protagonist’s journey in the movie itself.

With Suspiria, however, the opposite happened. Suspiria’s impact relies less on knowing what is going on than having the experience of perceiving it. Looking only at the film’s infamous opening sequence, for example, in terms of plot, what “happens” is straightforward enough: An American ballet dancer Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) travels from the United States to attend the prestigious Tanz Dance Academy in Freiburg, Germany. She arrives in Europe on a rainy night and travels via taxi to the school, where she finds her arrival is not expected and she turns away after she sees another girl (Pat Hingle, played by Eva Axén) leave the school upset. The film then follows Pat, who stays with a friend in her apartment—but before she can explain her emotional state, both girls are murdered.

Of course, for those familiar with the film, this nuts-and-bolts narrative does nothing to communicate the intensity of what Suspiria reveals through sound, light, and color; from the moment she arrives, Suzy is hurled into a virtual aesthetic maelstrom as dizzying visuals and an aggressive soundtrack carry her towards her destination. The gruesome deaths of Pat and her friend are equalled in intensity to other aspects of the famous vignette’s mise-en- scène, such as the lurid art deco lines and curves of their environment and Goblin’s iconic score. The shapes and sounds of Suspiria are far more vital to comprehending what it has to offer than simply following character and narrative.

It is the sensory experience of this film that not only transcends, but actively subverts conventional spectatorial regimes. When J. Hoberman said that Suspiria is “a movie that makes sense only to the eye,” he gestured towards how crucial sensory excess is to what makes the film so comprehensible, in a way well beyond logic and reason; feeling, rather than thinking, our way through it is the only way to truly understand the film. In retrospect, this was the problem I had on that ill-fated first viewing: I literally couldn’t see (and could barely hear) the film, so the sensory experience so intrinsic to its impact was simply not there.

Laura U. Marks’ writing on video art and haptics provides a fascinating technological overview of how video materially achieves its unique aesthetic quality. Video images are the result of a dialogue between a source (the tape in the player) and a screen that shows the image, and within this process of communication is a whole spectrum of potential anomalies and deviations that can even slightly alter the tone, color or the quality of the final perceived image. Crucially, if what we see on a tape is “insufficiently visual,” Marks argues that we become more aware of simultaneous but often ignored other sensory responses—she privileges the perceived sensation of touch—in lieu of having that dominant visual information available.

While this leads Marks specifically to champion video art, for Angela Ndalianis it’s especially important in horror, too, because “this bodily relationship is all the more marked in that the cinematic body—the audio-visual fictional world presented to us—reflects and amplifies the experience of the horrified, suffering, and volatile bodies within the narrative space.”

Suspiria is a frenzied sensory vortex, not just with its emphasis on sound and vision, but because of how it impacts the entire sensorium. Every now and then someone will casually tell me that they don’t “get” Suspiria because the characterizations lack depth or the story is predictable; while taste is obviously a deeply personal and subjective affair, this particular argument always leaves me bewildered—because the film so actively mocks our habit of relying on these aspects in the first place.

One of my favorite quotes about the movie comes from film theorist Patricia MacCormack, in an interview on the DVD extras of the film’s 2010 Cine-Excess home entertainment release: “Suspiria is one of the most radical horror films that has ever been made, and the precise reason for this is that it is unapologetic in the way it expresses horror and the way it demands the opening up of the viewer to take pleasure in things that they cannot describe.”

In retrospect, then, what I lacked that first time around with Suspiria was something—anything—for my senses to latch onto; it didn’t feel like watching a cinematic masterpiece as much as it did spending 90 minutes looking at a finger painting pummeled into a solid brown smudge by an overzealous child. Because of the material decomposition of the copy I first watched, I was denied the very sensory overload upon which the experience of Suspiria depends.

When I saw it on DVD a few years later, it was, of course a whole different story—as anyone who has seen and loved the film will tell you, Suspiria produces a dizzying sensation almost wholly liberated from logic and the intellect, demanding a surrender instead to pure feeling. From its complex gender politics to its reworking of witch mythology, its intriguing production history and myriad other aspects, there are, of course, lots of ways to think about and critically engage with Suspiria.

But our interest in these elements are all built upon a hook that stems from that fundamental one-two punch of sound and vision, whose excesses trigger a domino effect of sensation across our entire body.

In the last two decades, boutique home entertainment companies have increasingly turned their attention towards films by Argento and his peers. In this context, Raiford Guins examined how “Italian horror films [are] reconceived through the restoration process promised by DVD (e.g., digitally remastered and uncut prints).” Across the different media upon which films like Suspiria can be viewed, he notes, “each period…produced distinct ways of knowing Italian horror” and thus renders it “not a stable category.” When his chapter was published in 2005, Guins was talking about the wider distribution of Italian horror on DVD as it increasingly moved from the margins to become more accessible. Since then we’ve seen Argento’s films in particular and Italian horror more broadly become regular features in art galleries, museums, and other highbrow cultural institutions.

With Suspiria celebrating its 40th anniversary last year, there has been much excitement about Synapse’s 4K restoration made from the original, uncut 35mm negative with cinematographer Tovoli’s assistance. With each new media format, Suspiria finds new life and new audiences. It will continue to invite those of us who know it back for another look, but the way each media format changes the film will continue to alter that experience.

On the back of Luca Guadagnino’s soon-to-be released remake of the film, an entirely new audience is no doubt sure to discover Argento’s original movie for the first time, but for them the viewing experience will almost definitely be on Blu-ray or streaming video. As much as I love videotape and its living, evolving aesthetics of decay, this is an experience I envy: There is almost nothing I wouldn’t give to see Suspiria for the first time again, clearly, loudly, and brightly.