Review Date: November 28, 2008
Released by: Anchor Bay
Release date: 11/18/2008
Region A, NTSC
Widescreen 1.66:1 | 16x9: Yes
With moneymaker The Final Countdown
out of the way, now Blue Underground can really focus on upgrading their catalogue to high definition. Their first horror title is a big one, Dario Argento's nineties classic, The Stendhal Syndrome
. Probably the last mature film the maestro ever made before descending into written for hire boobs and blood odysseys, Stendhal
is backed by a brutal and effective mediation on femininity to give all the sex and gore substance. It's a great film, and a fine way for Argento to make his fist splash on Blu-ray. The question now, though, is whether or not it's worth the upgrade for all those that sprung for Blue Underground's quality two disc DVD last year. Full HD 1080, 7.1 DTS-HD, 7.1 Dolby True HD...it's got all the buzzwords, but does it deliver?
Anna Manni (Asia Argento
) walks through a crowded art museum, where beautiful sculptures and paintings from Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Caravaggio fill the scenery. So beautiful, and so powerful in their message, they overwhelm Anna. She sees into them, their vision more lucid than even reality. She gets dizzy. It’s overpowering. She faints. That’s the Stendhal Syndrome, a case of a viewer of art so overwhelmed by the imagery that s/he is unable to retain consciousness. Anna has a lot more going on in her mind too, though. She’s a policewoman working for a rape squad, and she’s been tipped that Rome’s most notorious rapist and serial killer is inside the museum as well. Sure enough, he is, and shortly after she comes to, she’s viciously raped by the man she was stalking.
Alfredo (Thomas Kretschmann
) looks like a good person, indeed he was confused for one when he returned Anna’s purse to her after she fainted. Lurking behind that slick blonde hair and confident smile is a misogynist bent on dominating women to contribute to his own narcissism. He often talks nice to his victims, courts them, and then rapes them, tying them up and then after he is finished, putting a bullet through each side of their cheeks. He demeans his victims, sucking the life out of them much like the paintings do to Anna. She’s a confident woman, but the rape scars her, leaving her wanting vengeance, and worse, to fill the dead spots he left inside her.
Anna cuts off all her hair, to which her brother remarks she looks like a boy, and sets out to trap Alfredo once and for all. In the pursuit though, she slowly starts to morph into what she is hunting. She sees a psychiatrist and tries to use painting as catharsis for the issues she is dealing with, but she ends up only painting the pain that Alfredo inflicts. She never wants to be dominated like that again, but killing him won’t be enough. If she can be him, no man will ever violate her like that again, right?
“Physical pain doesn’t bother me…it makes me feel alive.”
Anna says this in the film, but it may as well bare Dario’s name beside it. The Stendhal Syndrome
is a fascinating catharsis for a man who has reveled in violence in his art for his entire career. Argento has never used violence for mere entertainment, he’s always played with it like a child a dead bird, flipping it over to see the death that we all subconsciously fear. He stylizes it, slows it down and examines every facet of pain, hoping that in his images he can find art, something that will lessen our collective fears of death. The fatal car crash slowed down and played five times over in Four Flies on Grey Velvet
was a start, and Opera
’s slow motion head wound (where the bullet ricochets later through a telephone in the room) shows Argento forever holding violence under a microscope to truly discover its power. Here he takes violence to its stylized limits, literally making it microscopic with CG shots of bullets going through the flesh or pills dropping down a throat. Physical pain doesn’t bother Argento, no, it is the psychology that drives him mad.
With The Stendhal Syndrome
, Argento shows that art can exhibit great power both for its maker and its audience. These are themes he’s touched on before, like with Tenebre
, questioning the role of the artist and his responsibilities when showing violence to the public. Here though, he internalizes it. This is about what art can do to the individual, not the society as a whole. He gets into the psychology of Anna, with her bouts with the shrink and even moreso with her artistic hallucinations. When in one dream she is raped by a portrait with a huge phallus, we as a viewer are reminded what true psychological horror is, and it is not the childish moral games of the Saw
franchise. To her art is overwhelming, but her painting, both on the paper and at one point even her body, help her deal with the demons that haunt her mind. They don’t help her much, mind you, but still, it’s progress.
Argento shows great progress himself with The Stendhal Syndrome
too, expanding his theories on violence in the movies to much grander statements about art and psychology as a whole. It’s not the pain of the flesh that’s the problem, it’s the demons it can instill in the mind thereafter. He offers a compassionate, sad and often brutal character portrait, severing most ties to the conventional giallo format he made and preached, this time truly devoted to character rather than plot. When the main killer stops being a plot device an hour in, Argento proves that he’s not just about making gialli, but instead about exploring the impact violence can have on its victims.
Anna’s harrowing change from being the victim to the victimizer is done with amazing skill, illustrated by Argento through various skillful pieces of mise en scene. Paintings are rife with thousands of motifs and symbols, and so too is The Stendhal Syndrome
, his most academic film. Her name hints at her transformation, Anna Man
ni, and so too does her later courting of a Frenchman with the very feminine designation of Marie. The obvious signs are there too, she first cuts her hair to a boy’s length, and then later wears a blonde wig to match the hair color of her culprit’s.
Since this is a film about art though, how threatening, powerful and cathartic it can be, the metaphor that resonates most is a snow globe of Michelangelo’s David. The camera lingers longer than usual on it at seemingly random points in the movie, and slowly Anna begins to fixate her gaze on it as well. There it is, the ultimate figure of man in full exposure, both proud and nakedly vulnerable, and in it Anna can see herself what she wants to be and also the fragile specimen she currently is. The flakes that cover his body when the globe is shook, symbolize the chaos in her own life, but also speak broadly about art in general. That image returns Argento to his roots, with David becoming a literal abstraction, just like the elusive grainy photo in Antonioni’s Blowup
that inspired Argento for his very first film. The abstraction of art shows to us the power of the mind, how we fill in gaps and make associations to better help us understand our existence. Anna wants clarity in life and in art, but everywhere is abstraction. That is the film’s greatest tragedy.
|Blue Underground DVD||Blu-ray|
Okay, the reason you're all here. The Stendhal Syndrome
lived a crowded life on DVD, with a number of releases from all over the globe. Hell, even Troma released it at one point. The Blue Underground upgrade had the best colors, and while it may not have looked the most organic, it was also a tad sharper than the previous Medusa R2 benchmark. Well, those colors are back in this VC1 1080p transfer, and they look even more vibrant with the added color space of HD. Argento really piles on the red in this film, whether it be CGI shots of bullets flying through blood cells or temptresses in red dresses, and there's no doubt more detail within those previously hard to capture colors. The aspect ratio is 1.66:1, but like the DVD this has thankfully been anamorphically enhanced. The main video file gets a comfy 36 GB of space devoted to it, so compression shouldn't be a problem...but something isn't quite right.
|Blue Underground DVD||Blu-ray|
I noted in my previous review of the DVD that the sharpness at times looked artificial, and that's confirmed here with the added resolution. Like the problematic Black Christmas
Blu-ray, this disc is ridden with ultra fine digital noise. The lesser resolution of DVD was able to soften it, but here it really sticks out. There are dancing dots everywhere. It doesn't at all resemble film grain, so it looks like someone went correction heavy in the intermediate process. It is a shame, because it's that one flaw that really hampers this disc, removing the usual depth these HD transfers often contain, and overshadowing what's otherwise a crisp, colorful and visually striking film. Considering what a visual stylist Argento is, I had high hopes for this transfer, but the noise here is a real damper. I guess we'll have to wait for his earlier classics to really bask in imagery.
Well, if the video was a disappointment, at least the audio here is spot on. In either 7.1 DTS-HD or Dolby True HD, this track sounds excellent. Even more than the solid DVD track, this really gives a sense of envelopment and executes some really effective surround moments. The most notable is when Anna is popping back pills and Argento cuts to CGI shots of them going down into her stomach. The inner rumblings resonate from all speakers and I felt for a second that I was hallucinating Innerspace
. While other scenes don't utilize the surrounds as well as they should, like the painting where old quakers mumble before she covers it up, it's always a rich and deep track. There is plenty of left to right movement and a full sounding LFE channel. It's too bad the Italian track (also included here in Dolby Digital 5.1 EX) wasn't given all the bells and whistles, but even still it sounds great as an alternative. Overall though, ths mixes here are seriously solid and probably the first I've heard where the upgrade over DVD sound is fully noticeable.
This Blu-ray ports everything from the two disc DVD release, right down to the theatrical trailer. Before I delve into just what's on the disc, I'll quickly comment on the menu system. While not as thematic and effective as the pop-up menu from The Final Countdown
, the razor blade navigation box is certainly a nice touch. It's pretty straightforward, though, and a bit awkward to control at times, since sometimes getting back to the razor is done with an "up" while others it is with a "left". The menu is a little generic, and nowhere is the title to be found. the other gripe is that there is no pop-up menu for the supplements. That's a bit of a pain. But enough with that, let's get to the quality extras.
The back of the DVD box advertised that this as the first time the film has been completely uncut and uncensored, and while I don’t have all the other versions to corroborate, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. So that makes this Blu-ray, then, the second time this has been completely uncut! What they are probably talking about, though, are the two short, subtitled dialogue scenes that are included (like Deep Red
-lite). One is pretty disposable, but the other is a pretty harrowing scene of a man crying about his daughter’s death, asking if Anna could tell her what his daughter was feeling before she died. A big emotional scene isn’t really what horror fans clamor for when the word “uncut” is written, but truth be told, this is one of the better lost additions to a film I’ve seen in a long while. Before that point, there’s that hint of possible Argento misogyny, especially after a woman tries to lure a man into a junk yard to have sex “where the whores do”, but this little scene demonstrates the compassion Argento holds for his characters and situations.
As for extras, there are five featurettes done by the dependable David Gregory. The first and best is with Argento, and it runs 22-minutes. He talks about how his stint in America was a waste of time, and how Stendhal was a breath of fresh air. He researched it plenty, and talks about the syndrome and how it has effected him personally (at the Parthenon, no less!). He then concludes saying it is a favorite of his films. Next up is an interview with Graziella Magherini, whose writing on the titular syndrome was what drove Argento to make the film. She also served as a creative consultant as well, but spends her time in this 22-minute featurette talking about her studies on the syndrome, stating various cases and the effects it has had on people. It’s a little dry, and bordering on Amityville-unbelievable, but still a good watch.
The last three featurettes, all running between 16-22 minutes, are with other members of the production team. Special Effects man Sergio Stivaletti talks about making the jump to digital effects after serving as Argento’s traditional effects guy ever since Phenomena. He details the process of the bullet shot quite well, with some nice supporting footage, and surprises when he says that it was actually an influence to the effects team behind The Matrix. Production Designer Massimo Antonello Geleng, who worked on several pictures for Fellini, describes the art of scenery, and shares some nice observations on Argento, cinematographer Guiseppe Rotunno and on his interpretations of the looks of several scenes. He’s a smart guy, and this is a lot more involving and entertaining than it would first seem. The last is with Assistant Director Luigi Cozzi, and is surprisingly the best of the bunch.
Cozzi talks about how he started as a journalist and was the first to interview Argento as a director. This led to him writing Four Flies on Grey Velvet
and to collaborating with Dario on several other fronts, like special effects and assistant directing. He even had a distinguished stint as a giallo director, too. The real goods though, are Cozzi detailing Argento’s involvement with The Five Days of Milan and more importantly the ever pertinent rights issue over Four Flies. He finally comes clean about the problem, and it is a must see for any Argento fan. He talks about a horror emporium he and Dario made that still exists to this day in Italy. There are so many other fascinating tidbits to come from Cozzi, he needs to write a book. The Blu-ray is rounded off with the trailer.
The Stendhal Syndrome
delivers the controversial carnage we expect from Argento, but the surprising maturity of the subject matter and the depth of character may win the film more fans than usual for Argento's works. High brow or low brow, Argento will shoot your brow right off with this effective work. There's no question it deserves to be seen, but whether that's on Blu-ray or DVD is a bit less obvious. The Blu-ray exhibits a beautiful soundtrack that's even fuller than the DVD and no doubt the best I've heard on the format thus far. The image, though, is a disappointment, since it is ridden with noise from what looks like digital sharpening. The Blu-ray is no doubt sharper and more colorful, but the softness of DVD makes for a more flattering representation of the film. The extras are the same across both releases, and are well worth checking out regardless. If you can get the Blu-ray cheap, go for it, but otherwise the DVD will stand up just fine. Now please, Mr. Lustig, tell us when Suspiria
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
Movie - A
Image Quality - B*
Sound - A
Supplements - B+
- Running time - 1 hour 59 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- English DTS-HD 7.1
- English Dolby True HD 7.1
- English Dolby Digital Surround EX 5.1
- Italian 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX 5.1
- English subtitles
- Theatrical trailer
- Interviews with Dario Argento, Psychologist Graziella Magherini, Special Effects man Sergio Stivaletti, AD Luigi Cozzi, and Production Designer Massimo Antonello Geleng