Neil Calderone uncovered the holy grail of film prints. Just don't ask him how or where.
For decades, the 35 mm original cut of baffling, proto-slasher arthouse flick Suspiria was perhaps the most sought-after print in the world. When Dario Argento's film was released in 1977, it was a sensation around the world—with a haunting music-box score and unprecedented gore heightened by lurid Technicolor red. But that version went missing just a few years after the film's release.
The version that Calderone found had gone untouched since the film's initial release in the late '70s. Officially, Calderone rescued the print from an abandoned Italian cinema. But when asked for any other details—when he actually found it, what he was doing in Italy—Calderone is tightlipped.
"No comment," is all the Chicago high school teacher offers.
The print is now on tour and will screen at NW Film Center in December.
Until now, the only available version of the film has been a shorter, poorer-quality print dubbed the American Cut, which hasn't been screened in Portland since 2004. When the first of NWFC's three screenings of the original cut was announced midsummer, tickets sold out in under two hours.
Suspiria is a strange film. It follows an American ballet student who enrolls in a prestigious dance academy in Germany, only to find that the inhabitants, some of whom are supernatural, aren't who or what they seem.
Its groundbreaking violence helped birth the slasher genre, and director Argento's twisted imagination imbues the film with a macabre sense of dread. It's a gorgeous movie, full of oneiric images drenched in blood red. "His use of color in Suspiria and the cinematography are just stunning," Calderone says.
Calderone has been collecting film prints for five years in his spare time, and loaning them to theaters for free. His collection now includes more than 100 35 mm prints, and in 2011, he co-founded the Chicago Cinema Society, a programming organization focused on rare films. Suspiria is its crown jewel.
"There's one set of film collectors…who never loan their prints to theaters," he says. "No one's able to see them. It's sad." But collectors regularly trade with one another, and Calderone says he's been able to get prints into circulation by exchanging films with other collectors.
"You could have a person that mainly collects 35 mm horror films but might have…a rare Charlie Chaplin print that just happened to show up on their doorstep through some deal," says Calderone. The obsessive culture of print collectors—and their occasionally possessive tendencies—is part of why Calderone is keeping Suspiria's origin a secret.
After he found the print, Calderone spent a week trying to confirm its authenticity.
"I got a little paranoid, so just to make sure, I ran every single reel on my 35 mm rewind bench," he says. "I just needed to make sure everything was there. No footage cut out or anything." It took several hours spread over multiple days. Remarkably, outside of adding subtitles, the Suspiria print needed no edits or repairs.
Despite all the secrecy surrounding the print, Calderone is just hoping for the most part that Suspiria's magnificent visual palette comes through on a physical format.
"The best way to see a film that was shot on film is to see it projected on film," he says. "Some people [will] love it just for that."
SEE IT: Suspiria will screen at NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium, 1515 SW Park Ave., nwfilm.org. 9:15 pm Friday-Saturday, 7 pm Sunday, Dec. 1-3. $9. Saturday show sold out.