Yesterday, the Chicago Cinema Society sent out a press release detailing their plans on an recent and amazing discovery of finding an Italian print of Dario Argento’s phantasmagorical assault on the senses, Suspiria. I’m sure you have heard the news by now and are hyped up but I wanted to chime in and let you know that, while this is pretty great, this is probably not the best presentation for the film.
I am a lover of 35mm. I program and created a midnight theatrical film program called Late Nite Grindhouse back in 2010 here in St. Louis. I’ve had the opportunity to show plenty of 35mm film prints as well as digital. Some prints were in great shape, some…not so much. As a film programmer and a celluloid junkie, I typically would fight for presenting a film on 35mm vs. DCP (Digital Cinema Package) or a Blu-Ray. Above all things, the film is the most important thing to be considered about programming. If I’m showing a film that relies on a certain color palette like Suspiria, Halloween or any Mario Bava film, if the elements available to me do not retain what I feel is a proper presentation of those color schemes, I see what other options there are. If there are no other options, I don’t book the film. I tend to program based on my tastes but also films that I think everyone should see as I feel there is importance in the film being presented and where it stands in genre cinema, if not cinema as a whole. One common obstacle is programming a film that will bring people in the door and balancing the payment of theatrical rights and cost of assets. Things have changed drastically just in the 7 years of doing Late Nite Grindhouse regarding the availability of assets. Restorations done for upcoming Blu-Ray releases afford the opportunity to screen something that would be financially irresponsible or it gives me an opportunity for a film that I feel deserves more respect. In the early days, we were lucky enough to be at a theater that didn’t sell off their 35mm equipment for digital. When they got a digital projector, they had 3 projectors in the the projection booth. Granted, the digital projector got the most use for day to day operation but the 35mm projectors would at least be used two times a month if it was a Late Nite Grindhouse show. If we are talking about pristine image, a pristine 35mm film print will win over any digital projection. However, as a ex-projectionist, I also know that since 35mm prints are susceptible to damage. Also, films that were printed on film stock before the early to mid-80’s were printed on a “cheaper” film stock. “Eastman Film Prints” were pretty common and if you have ever done any research on 35mm film prints, you know that those prints go “red” or “magenta” if they are not stored properly and/or pass through a xenon bulb (the light from a projector) multiple times. Hell, even if they are stored properly and untouched, they still fade. With these types of prints, the more the print is shown, the image degrades and has growing opportunities to be damaged. This is why it is important for theaters to have projectionists with experience.
Let’s rewind back a bit and let me tell you about when Late Nite Grindhouse showed Suspiria five years ago. We contacted Fox for the theatrical rights – as they are the rightsholders in the United States and agreed to their financial terms. However, they didn’t have anything to provide us to actually show the film. They didn’t have a print in their vault nor could they recommend anyone to contact (because it is not their job to recommend a third-party) to get a print from. After I did my research, most prints that were in private collections were of the heavily-truncated U.S. cut and I knew I didn’t want to show that. With no DCP available, I knew that our next best bet would be to try and acquire a Blu-Ray. Once I acquired the best Blu-Ray available, we began planning for the show. In the Summer of 2012, we projected it and turned up the volume to a higher than normal volume (as previously said, the film is an assault on the senses and should be played loud). People were so happy to see it on the big screen and realized just how theatrical the film was and how it was best suited for a theater and not at home. While not the ideal way to show the film, it worked. Some people thought it was a film print and I let them know it wasn’t when asked. Again, while I prefer 35mm, for a film like Suspiria which was 35 years old at the time of showing it and knowing the condition of the US cut prints, the way we showed it was the best possible. I think it was best for us to show it than to not show it as probably half of the audience had never seen the film before. Most of us have seen the film via Anchor Bay’s DVD or maybe even VHS. Imagine seeing Suspiria in 2012 for the first time on the big screen. Yeah, pretty mindblowing.
2017 is the 40th anniversary of Suspiria. To celebrate, a company called Videa in Italy teamed up with a German lab, TLEFilms, to restore the film for the anniversary. The restoration has already screen theatrically back in January and has since been released on Blu-Ray outside of the United States. However, based on the images I have seen, the screenshots seem muted and the color timing is not satisfactory – which is probably why you are not hearing more about it. This brings me to a common misconception that people think 35mm is better than digital. As said previously, if given a pristine 35mm film print on a first run vs. a digital print, I would agree that 35mm would be the best presentation. What the Chicago Cinema Society found was NOT a pristine 35mm film print. They found what is probably the best 35mm print known in existence with the “uncut”/Italian cut of the film. Having said that, being a film fan, I’d love to see this presentation. However, I also know that this is not the best you will see Suspiria.
The Chicago Cinema Society and the other theaters that will be exhibiting this print will have a lot to deal with. First, this is a “frankensteined” presentation. Since the cut is the Italian print of the film, that means that the film language is in Italian. If you know anything about the film, or even Italian cinema, you know that most of the dialogue by the non-English speaking actors was spoken phonetically to give the illusion that they are speaking English. After the filming, in post-production English speaking actors would come in and dub their voices. Since this is the Italian cut, you will see people “speaking English” but hear only Italian. Also, the print itself doesn’t have subtitles. What CCS is doing is projecting subtitles over the image via a digital projector in a process known as “soft-subbing”. I’ve seen a film presented like this once and I’ll just say that the subtitles were more of a nuisance than a blessing. Once you address that, let’s talk about the image. Assuming you have seen the film before, you know that color is a big deal in the film. It is what makes the film bleed into fantastical territory. The CCS has stated that their film print has “minimal fading”. They have even filmed their projection of the print to show you the quality via 5 clips loaded on YouTube.
My observation of these clips is that it is pretty clean (especially given it’s age) and that CCS is definitely true in their assumption that the print has only played a few times. With that said, the 40 years of being printed on what is probably Eastman Film Stock, have faded the blacks into a reddish-brown. The colors are pretty in tact from what I can see from these videos but they are not as potent as they should be. This is also apparent via their picture of the main title.
This year, Synapse Films will be releasing their restoration of Suspiria. They have worked on this release for years and have always done great restoration work. In addition, they are working with Luciano Tovoli, the cinematographer of Suspiria to bring us the best and most accurate presentation of the film. Don May Jr. has released images in comparison to the Italian/Videa restoration as well. I have taken one image from his comparison shots that I think should definitely be considered. Also, since I’ve seen some confusion and/or misconception via Facebook, let’s straighten something out. This print is the same cut that Synapse Films is releasing. CCS didn’t discover a print with new footage. This is the uncut print – which is hard to see on 35mm in the United States – which is the same version we will see when Synapse Films releases their Blu-Ray. In addition, while it is rare to see the “uncut”/Italian cut of the film in the States, it isn’t impossible. In fact, I was reminded about it showing back in October of 2013 (Thanks, Shade)!
Where did the blue go in Videa’s restoration? This image alone tells me that Synapse’s restoration is superior to Videa’s restoration.
To illustrate a point on why I think everyone should wait until Synapse announces their plans for the release, let me show you what Synapse’s presentation would look like versus a mock-up of the low-fade 35mm print that CCS will be touring.
Here’s an image from Synapse’s restoration:
The mock-up is exactly that, a mock-up, so don’t take this as gospel but it should give you a good idea for a quick comparison. Quite honestly, it is still pretty sharp (probably sharper than if you scanned this exact frame from CCS’ print). Blacks become a reddish-brown and colors fade in their luminosity. The image is just to give you an idea of how something that even has a low-fade will damage image integrity. You can see from the YouTube clips that the blacks are a reddish-brown just from the camera shot quality.
Here’s the thing, this news is still exciting. I encourage you to support your local movie theater if they decide to show this print because they will be putting some work into it. However, you might notice that there are only a few dates announced. Could this be because programmers around the States are looking towards Synapse’s restoration? Do they know something the general public doesn’t know yet? Very possible. Again, Synapse’s restoration is nearing the end of completion and who knows what their plans are after they send it off to their duplicator to print up Blu-Rays. I know that if I worked on something for years, I’d want to show it to the widest audience available.
All I can say is give it a couple months. Be patient. Who knows what might be announced within the next few months. If you live near any of the screenings already planned by the Chicago Cinema Society, check it out. If you are hours away, please consider everything that has been said in this article. Here are the dates that have been announced so far. Please check out Chicago Cinema Society’s page for more dates as they are added.
7/28: The Metrograph, New York City, NY
9/16: The Belcourt Theatre, Nashville, TN
Early Fall: Venue confirmed and TBA, Los Angeles, CA
10/14: Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brookline, MA
10/26+27: Northwest Film Forum, Seattle, WA
Late Fall: Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL
11/18: Alamo Drafthouse, Littleton, CO