Dario Argento’s Suspiria, which plays at the Alamo Mainstreet this Saturday at 10 PM in a rare 35mm exhibition, is a masterwork of kaleidoscopic excess, and it fits nicely in the Italian tradition of taking things too far. Schlock has never been so sublime—garishness never so glorious. By pulling out all the stops, never pausing to consider the boundaries of good taste, Argento unleashed something primal into theaters across the world in 1977. In terms of pure visual spectacle, Suspiria remains unmatched. Argento’s spectral camera glides through impossible spaces like a ghost, guiding visitors through his Grand Guignol funhouse like a mad magician. And its look—somewhere between a James Turrell fever dream and abstract Technicolor nightmare—is the stuff movies are made of.
Sort of. Back in reality, movies are made of something else entirely: cellulose triacetate, an extremely fragile substance. Every time a print is projected, it’s spliced, scratched, and subjected to unearthly temperatures. And even if that print is exhibited with the utmost care, film stock itself is wildly unstable; unless stored under NASA-like scrutiny, a print will invariably deteriorate and contract a condition known as “vinegar syndrome,” named for the smell of decomposing celluloid.
As a print degrades, its entire color scheme shifts significantly—blues and greens begin to diminish and reds are oversaturated—and it turns into what’s referred to as a “red print.” That degradation process is one reason over ninety-seven percent of American movie screens have converted to digital exhibition. And even though digital-projection technology is growing every day, the survival of a movie made before the advent of digital filmmaking relies almost solely on the existence of a healthy print: when a rare, deteriorating print is transferred to a digital format, its look and feel are irrevocably altered—it becomes, in a sense, something entirely different. And that’s exactly what’s happened with Suspiria: a whole generation has grown up with the wrong movie.
“That film is all about its colors,” Ryan Davis, Creative Director at the Alamo Mainstreet, told me. “How those bright neons make you feel.” An infected print, though, blunts the very thing that makes Suspiria work: “If it has that red overtone that a lot of vinegar-syndrome prints get, then it kind of takes away from the vibrant purples and reds that the director intended you to see.”
According to Davis, only three 35mm prints of Suspiria are known to exist. Two of them—the ones scanned for previous DVD and Blu-ray releases—are beyond rescue. “You’ll even see on some of the DVDs that a ‘red print’ was used for the digital scan,” Davis said. But a third copy, which Davis describes as “perfect as a 35mm print of Suspiria could be,” resides in the library of a private collector. And after “a lot of begging and pleading” from Davis, that’s the print audiences will see this Saturday.
In a way, it’s fitting that a movie as ineffable as Suspiria exists in its purest form on something so ethereal. The whole thing has an off-kilter dream logic—it’s a movie more experience than watched— and like a dream, it’ll eventually slip away. But thanks to Davis and one careful collector, this dream has never been closer to the real thing.
Suspiria plays at 10 PM on Saturday, March 19 at the Alamo Mainstreet.