Blue Underground // 1996 // 119 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // December 1st, 2008
Dario Argento's Masterpiece of Terror -- Completely Uncut and Uncensored!
Watching films like Suspiria or The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, it wouldn't be hard to guess that Dario Argento has a pretty twisted sense of the world, especially art. So, it should come as no surprise to those familiar with his work that he chose to direct a film which features a psychological condition where viewers are overcome in the presence of great art. Some (myself included) would argue that Argento has been trying to have this effect on his audiences all along. Although his film The Stendhal Syndrome probably won't cause too many people to be overcome, it does have its fans. Initially released in lackluster transfer by Troma, Blue Underground brought the film out in 2007 as a double-disc special edition. Now that they've entered the hi-def game, BU has ported over their special edition to the Blu-ray format with decidedly mixed results.
The Stendhal syndrome is a psychological condition where a viewer of great art feels overwhelmed by the work and suffers from hallucinations, nausea, and blackouts in its presence. In the film, detective Anna Manni (Asia Argento, Land of the Dead) is on the trail of a serial rapist/murder when she is overcome in the Uffizi museum. This leads to an encounter with the killer where she is raped. After this experience, she continues to hunt the killer, but her grip on sanity becomes more and more tenuous.
I can't believe I'm writing this, but don't bother upgrading to this Blu-ray from DVD, even if you've got the old Troma release. All the reviews of the latest Blue Underground DVD release of Stendhal Syndrome have commented on how much better it looks than the previous Troma version, with only a little bit of grain here and there. Well, the improved resolution of Blu-ray makes that grain jump out and slap the viewer. It's like watching the film through a screen door, with a third of the frame covered in a haze of white dots. I don't mind grain, but when it obscures objects in the frame it is too much. I popped my old Troma DVD into the player for comparison, and although it looks horrible, I'd rather watch the DVD because the problems with it are less distracting than the layer of white specks over the image on this Blu-ray. Those parts of the image that aren't covered in noise look pretty good, but not outstanding. More like a very excellent DVD transfer than a hi-def picture.
I normally don't mention technical details straight out of the gate, but with a filmmaker as visually impressive as Dario Argento, such aspects become important. Sadly, visuals (and an interesting premise) are about all that buoys Stendhal Syndrome. Dario Argento is not particularly known for his strong, straightforward plots, and this film is no exception. The biggest problem with the film is that it is simply too long. The film can be divided into roughly three acts, and each one could lose about 10 minutes and still be effective. Usually, I enjoy the drawn-out, dreamy quality of Argento's movies, but The Stendhal Syndrome is close in plot to Bird With the Crystal Plumage or The Card Player, and it would benefit more from the shorter running time and tighter pacing of those films.
The Stendhal Syndrome also loses points from me for seeming to drop its premise midway through the film. The whole "Stendhal syndrome" seems to disappear in the film once Anna is "cured." Argento is usually very effective at maintaining a theme or motif throughout a film, and I was disappointed that the climax of The Stendhal Syndrome didn't take place in a massive museum, complete with hallucinogenic paintings. The psychological twists and turns the film makes are interesting, but they aren't matched by Argento's usual flair for spectacle.
Despite its story problems, The Stendhal Syndrome has a few things going for it. Despite the fact that it seems to disappear from the film, using the idea of the Stendhal syndrome as part of a serial killing story is very interesting. It also provides the film with some of its stronger moments, when Anna gets to react to various famous works of art. In those moments Argento is on his game, using computer-aided special effects with more traditional techniques to transport his character inside various paintings. Carefully blending visual and aural clues, Argento makes many famous works of art quite a bit more menacing than they first appear. My favorite was easily a rendition of Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus." I've always considered it a rather bright, cheery painting. After The Stendhal Syndrome, it's very easy to see the potential menace.
Beyond the psychological gimmick of the Stendhal syndrome, Argento's characterization of Anna after her rape is fascinating. Although I doubt its basis in psychology, it is a definite improvement over the frail victim mentality which most serial-killer movies perpetuate.
The final aspect of the film that works in Argento's favor is the violence. This is far from his goriest or most violent film, but several of the sequences show Argento's particular genius for staging squirm-inducing violence. Razor blades already freak me out a bit, and the image of a guy carrying one around in his mouth was pretty impressive. Not all the violence works because of obvious technical limitations, but all the sequences show an inventiveness that's often lacking on other films.
Aside from the questionable video, this disc is a solid effort. The audio does a decent job with the (dubbed) dialogue, although it's far from perfect. All the extras from Blue Underground's previous two-disc DVD have been ported over to this disc in standard definition. These include the excellent interviews with Argento, his psychological consultant Graziella Magherini, special effects guru Sergio Stivaletti, assistant director Luigi Cozzi, and production designer Massimo Antonelle Geleng. These interviews provide ample information about the film and its production. My only complaint is that they didn't get an interview with Asia, but that's only a minor concern. Blue Underground also provides the film's theatrical trailer.
The Stendhal Syndrome might be the highlight of Argento's '90s output, mainly for its wacky premise and odd use of special effects. However, this Blu-ray is probably not the way to see the film. I found the sheet of grain over the image to be terribly distracting, rendering the film difficult to watch, although your mileage may vary. I suggest those with the Blue Underground DVD hold onto it, and those with the Troma DVD looking to upgrade give this Blu-ray a rental before plunking down the cash.
Blue Underground is guilty of releasing a barely watchable print of The Stendhal Syndrome. Because this is the first time they've disappointed the court, I recommend probation. As for the film, Argento is guilty of all his old sins, but they aren't worth prosecuting.
Review content copyright © 2008 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* TrueHD 7.1 Surround (English)
* DTS HD 7.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Italian)
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* "Director: Dario Argento"
* "Inspiration: Psychological Consultant Graziella Magherini"
* "Special Effects: Sergio Stivaletti"
* "Assistant Director: Luigi Cozzi""
* "Production Designer: Massimo Antonello Geleng"
* Theatrical Trailer