Profundo Argento: ‘Suspira,’ ‘Cat O’ Nine Tails,’ ‘Deep Red,’ ‘Opera,’ and ‘The Church’ in new Blu-ray editions

Jessica Harper in Dario Argento's landmark giallo

Suspiria (Synapse, Blu-ray)
The Cat O’ Nine Tails (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)
Deep Red (Arrow, Blu-ray)
Opera (Scorpion, Blu-ray)
The Church (Scorpion, Blu-ray)

Dario Argento was the master choreographer of the distinctly Italian art of horror known as giallo, was a baroque, often sadistic kind of slasher movie that favors intricately-designed murder sequences and aesthetic beauty over logic. Call him the pop-art fabulist of the slasher movie set. Combining Hitchcockian camerawork, lush, over-saturated colors, rollercoaster-like thrills, and at times surreal situations, Argento could overcome the sadism and misogyny in his gallery of sliced and diced beauties with the sheer cinematic bravura and beauty of the sequences. In his best films Argento delivered murder as spectacle with razor-sharp execution and turned horror cinema into a dream-like spectacle with a dash of sexual perversity. Which may be why his films have a cult following but little popular interest in the U.S., where audiences are more interested in literal explanations.

Synapse Films

Suspiria (Italy, 1977) was his only American hit, a stylish, surreal, downright puzzling piece of seventies Grand Guignol weirdness. Jessica Harper is an American ballet student in a creepy European dance academy run by Joan Bennett and Alida Valli, who seem to preside over a series of bizarre murders as well. The story has something to do with witchcraft and a coven that has made its home in the sinister school, but then plot was never Argento’s strength. Suspiria’s fame comes from operatic set pieces of lovingly choreographed violence—one young woman dropped through a stained glass ceiling until a rope around her neck breaks her fall (among other things), another swimming through a room filled (for no explicable reason) with razor wire (the first Saw borrowed this idea)—and Argento’s dreamy cinematography and vivid, full blooded imagery. He never really made sense, but in an era filled with masked brutes hacking up kids and co-eds, Argento brought a grace to the vicious business of murder and a dream logic to terror. Watch for Udo Kier in a supporting role.

Synapse released the film in a steelbook limited edition Blu-ray in 2017 with a collector’s booklet and a bonus CD soundtrack. This new edition features repackages the two Blu-rays in a consumer version that comes in at a fraction of the price, sans booklet, CD, and steelbook case.

This edition has been mastered for Blu-ray from a new 4K restoration of the original, uncut Italian 35mm negative with color correction supervised by DP Luciano Tovali. This restoration played theaters last year and it looks amazing—the colors are alive, deeper and more unreal than ever, and the image looks flawless. It is presented on disc with two soundtrack options: original 1977 English 4.0 Surround mix (my preference, if only to hear the voices of Harper and Bennett) and Italian 5.1 Surround mix, both present in dts. It has never looked this vivid before and it only enhances the dreamy experience. This is the definite home video release.

There have been numerous supplements created for various disc releases over the years. Synapse created its own slate of supplements. There are two commentary tracks, one by Argento scholar Troy Howarth, the other a double-team effort by Argento scholar Derek Botelho and horror film expert David Del Valle. The retrospective documentary “A Sigh From the Depths: 40 Years of Suspiria” (27:07) is fairly comprehensive but doesn’t feature any interviews with Argento or the stars, which is disappointing. The visual essay “Do You Know Anything About Witches?” (30 mins) by Michael Mackenzie is a more interesting tour through the film, even if his narration can get a little thick with colorful phrasing. The featurette “Suzy in Nazi Germany” (8 mins) explores the Nazi legacies of many of the film’s German locations and “Olga’s Story with Barbara Magnolfi” (17:14) is as interview with supporting actress. The original International Classics “breathing letters” opening credits for American release is brief (the actual titles are just a couple of seconds cut into credits by the distributor) but cool. Also features reversible artwork.
Suspiria [Blu-ray]

Arrow Films

Rewinding back a few years, The Cat O’ Nine Tails (Italy, 1971), Argento’s second feature, is the beginning of his play with the conventions and tropes of the genre he helped relaunch with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. James Franciscus (under a blonde dye job) is a reporter chasing down a mysterious break-in at a genetics lab, where nothing was apparently stolen, and Karl Malden is a blind man who overhears a conversation that appears to tie in to the mystery. Think of Malden as the cheerfully amateur detective of British cozies, smiling as he checks off the clues and bounces ideas off of Franciscus, himself a fairly animated and buoyant presence.

There’s nothing unique or daring here and little of the bravura flights of style that made his name, not like his later, more flamboyant exercises in color and camera movement and the fine art of murder. But he has a flair for juicing up characters with personality quirk (not subtly or even all that convincingly, but with a certain sense of fun) and he keeps the film moving ahead or bouncing around characters as they dole out the exposition. And you can see the beginnings of his trademark style in the POV sequences of the killer at work, begun with a close-up of the eyes so tight all you see is iris and whites and continuing through the stalking and dispatching of characters intercut with the fragments of murder mosaics, the most obvious evidence of his debt to Hitchcock and especially the shower scene from Psycho, where murder is fragmented into discreet shots pieced together in a mosaic.

For all of Argento’s virtuosity, he’s no master of suspense or even tension. He’s a showman and a stylist and his set pieces are art pieces, with a camera that shifts between subjective killer POV (picked up as a staple of the American slasher explosion of the late seventies and eighties) and the technician’s eye for killer detail. He sweeps us into the process as spectators to the art of murder and he pushes his art further in his next films.

Arrow offers a new special edition mastered from a new 4K restoration of the film from the original camera negative with original mono Italian and English soundtracks on both Blu-ray and DVD, with newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack. New this release is a commentary track by films critics and horror film historians Alan Jones and Kim Newman and interviews with co-writer/director Dario Argento (15:37), co-writer Dardano Sacchetti (34:46), actress Cinzia De Carolis (11:00), and production manager Angelo Iacono (15:12), all in Italian with English subtitles. There are also script pages for the lost original ending translated into English for the first time, plus reversible artwork and bonus mini-poster, lobby card reproductions, and limited edition booklet.
The Cat O’ Nine Tails (2-Disc Limited Edition) [Blu-ray + DVD]

Arrow Films

Deep Red (Italy, 1975), Argento’s fifth film, stars David Hemmings as an American jazz pianist in Italy who witnesses a bloody murder and investigates, driven by an elusive detail that haunts his memory. Daria Nicolodi (Argento’s wife and co-writer on Suspiria) joins him as comic relief as a kooky Italian journalist, driving him around in her rickety car.

If the narrative logic (the whole thing begins with a conference of telepaths and psychics and moves into the realm of folklore and local legends) makes little sense, the mood and atmosphere show more attention than ever, from the nighttime street scenes of monolithic buildings and looming statues over streets bereft of crowds to an abandoned house haunted by blood red colors of past horrors. His camera and his eye for unsettling imagery is more sure than ever and his construction of murder set pieces from isolated fragments of extreme close-ups even more effective, communicating the helplessness of victims under attack by an unidentified killer seen only as gloves, hat, and anonymous coat wrapped tight. The score, by Giorgio Gaslini and Goblin, is synthesizer-driven prog rock that, kitschiness aside, sets a mood of gothic flamboyance with a modern sensibility while driving the film forward.

Arrow presents two versions of Deep Red, both previously released in separated Blu-ray editions by Blue Underground but newly remastered from 4K scans of the original negatives of each version for this new two-disc special edition. The extended Italian Deep Red: The Director’s Cut runs over two hours (2:07, in fact) and is full of unnecessary exposition (plot was never Argento’s strong suit). Deep Red: Export Theatrical Cut is twenty-minutes shorter than the Italian director’s cut but more satisfying: less padding, fewer diversions (including less of Nicolodi’s fumbling comic relief, which is made more awkward in the English dubbing) and more forward momentum. Both editions features choice of Italian and English language soundtracks, though there are some sections of the Director’s Cut that resort to Italian soundtrack with subtitles.

New to this edition is a brief introduction by composer Claudio Simonetti (under 30 seconds), commentary by Thomas Rostock and the visual essay “Profundo Giallo” by Michael Mackenzie, a fine production that explores Argento’s themes and imagery and runs about 33 minutes. There are also four archival supplements carried over from previous disc releases: the interview featurettes “Rosso Recollections” (12:26) with Dario Argento, “The Lady in Red” (18:47) with actress Daria Nicolodi, and “Music to Murder For!” (14:07) with composer Claudio Simonetti, and “Profondo Rosso: From Celluloid to Shop” (14:30), a guided tour through the Profondo Rosso shop in Rome conducted by filmmaker Luigi Cozzi. These are all on Disc One with The Director’s Cut along with a trailer for the Italian release. The second disc includes the Export Theatrical Cut and accompanying trailer. There are also a mini-poster, lobby card reproductions, and limited edition booklet, plus reversible artwork.
Deep Red (Limited Edition) [Blu-ray]

Scorpion Releasing

There’s an element of Phantom of the Opera to Dario Argento’s Opera (Italy, 1987), a baroque thriller about an understudy who takes the leading role in a production of Verdi’s opera “Macbeth,” but the inspiration ends there. A mysterious killer abducts young soprano Betty (Cristina Marsillach) to make her watch as he murders everyone who is close to her (he tapes needles under her eyes to prevent her from blinking, the film’s most indelible image) and opera director Marco (Ian Charleson of Chariots of Fire) concocts a plan to flush out the black-gloved murderer.

The identity and motivation of the killer is the ostensible mystery at the center of the story but Argento is less concerned with plot logic and character consistency than in creating lush images and elaborate set pieces and creating an atmosphere of unease. It belongs to the distinctly Italian horror genre known as giallo and features many of the hallmarks: voyeurism, sadistic violence, shooting scenes from the killer’s point of view, and stylized set pieces that turn murder into performance art. Argento’s camera is more mobile than ever, from the elaborate POV shots from a stormy opera diva storming out of rehearsal to the rush of a raven’s point of view circling and swooping over the audience of the opera house. The musical score mixes extensive selections from the opera (performed by Maria Callas) with electronic music from Brian Eno and Claudio Simonetto and hard rock songs. Dario Argento claims this 1987 production as his personal favorite of his films. I call it the last film in Argento’s run of memorable baroque horrors.

The English language production is restored for Blu-ray and DVD and features new interviews with Argento (21:41) and co-star William McNamara (16:44) plus trailers.
Dario Argento’s Opera [Blu-ray]

Scorpion Releasing

The Church (Italy, 1982) is not directed by Dario Argento but he produced and co-wrote the film, which he originally planned as another sequel in the Demons series. When Lamberto Bava passed on the project and Argento protégé Michele Soavi signed on to direct, Argento gave Soavi is blessing to give the story its own identity. Thus the prologue, set in the 12 century, as crusading Knights Templar massacre a village under demonic possession and the church builds a cathedral over the mass grave to trap the demons. You can probably see where it’s going as a young woman (Barbara Cupisti) restoring the Bosch-like frescoes of the medieval church discovers a parchment hidden in the crumbling wall of the catacombs below and hands it over to the new cathedral librarian (Tomas Arana), who decides to decipher the coded message before taking it to the Bishop and ends up unleashing the evil. The church doors slam shut and the folks trapped inside—parishioners, churchmen, and a crew shooting a bridal wear fashion spread—are systematically possessed and driven to violence. The original Demons premise is still so prominent that the film was releases as Demons III in some countries.

This is Soavi’s second film and his style is developing nicely. There are some stunning images—a crucifix-shaped tomb carved into the floor of the catacombs suddenly drops away to reveal a vast nothingness below that glows blue through the cross in the floor, a living statuary of writhing bodies dripping with black oil rise from up into the church altar like some unholy shrine. It takes an hour to unleash the mayhem and the film tends to drag through the exposition: the dour Bishop glowering at these young folk intruding on his domain, a young priest (Hugh Quarshie) trying to figure out all the strange rumblings around him, the schoolgirl daughter (Asia Argento) of the Sacristan (the cathedral caretaker) sneaking into the catacombs and through passageways hidden within the church walls. But once the evil is unleashed the film really starts to move.

Soavi found his Gothic cathedral in Budapest and was permitted to shoot some scenes inside as well as using the exteriors. It’s a magnificent piece of architecture and, along with recreations and additional spaces recreated on sets back in Rome, it gives the film a truly magnificent sense of space and history. The score is by both Keith Emerson and Goblin (credited as The Goblins) and it features one sequence set to Philip Glass (you can’t miss his trademark musical cycling). It’s neither as thrilling nor as gripping as Bava’s Demons movies but Soavi has a grace and grandeur far beyond Bava’s vision and while the human drama is not exactly scintillating, he fleshes out characters and suggests lives outside of the slaughterhouse. You can see the promise of better pictures to come here, a promise that Soavi kept with Dellamorte Dellamore (aka Cemetery Man), his final work in horror and the fantastic before leaving the genre for good.

Scorpion gives the film its Blu-ray debut in the English language version only from a new 2K scan of the original negative and features new video interviews with director Michele Soavi (19:48) and actress Asia Argento (8:26), both in Italian with English subtitles.
The Church [Blu-ray]

Discs provided by Synapse, Arrow, and Scorpion for review purposes.

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears in Vulture, Turner Classic Movies online, Keyframe, and Parallax View.

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