It’s shaping up to be a busy year for Chicago Cinema Society, the local programming organization that’s committed to screening rare and exotic genre films. Tonight and tomorrow at the Davis Theater at 11:55 PM, the group presents the local premiere of Kuso, the first film directed by noted musician Flying Lotus. CCS also has plans to screen work at the Nightingale Cinema and the soon-to-reopen Chicago Filmmakers in the near future. But the big news is that CCS is going to distribute pristine 35-millimeter prints of two beloved cult classics, Dario Argento’s Italian horror feature Suspiria (1977) and the new-wave sci-fi film Liquid Sky (1982). The first of those titles, which will screen at the Music Box sometime in the fall, begins its tour of U.S. art-house theaters at the end of this month.
The Suspiria print is noteworthy for being completely uncut (the film had been edited repeatedly over the years) and for having been projected only a few times during the last four decades. “When I ran [the print] on my rewind system, I was floored by it. It’s barely been screened at all,” says Neil Calderone, who formed the Chicago Cinema Society with Jason Coffman in 2011. Calderone decided to make good on his discovery, reaching out to Synapse Films, which is currently working on a restoration of Suspiria. “They said that they had everything that they needed and they had no need for the print. So we decided then that we would really love to have people see it.”
Calderone and Coffman reached out to theaters around the country they’d worked with in the past, thinking they could arrange a handful of screenings. “We had no idea there’d be such a huge demand,” Calderone says. “So far, about 15 theaters have booked it, and there are still theaters contacting us.” At present the print is booked through the end of February, and Calderone predicts he’ll be able to arrange screenings for another six months after that. “This is easily the most extensive tour we’ve ever booked for a print,” he asserts, noting that a few screenings sold out within days or even hours of when they were announced.
Calderone adds that he’s run into some challenges in arranging some of the screenings, due to the fact the print isn’t subtitled. “We had made a subtitled digital file that theaters can use. Some theaters are comfortable with subtitling on their own. They do sing-alongs for classic musicals, so they already have a subtitling system in place. Other theaters were not sure how to do it. They were interested in screening Suspiria and didn’t care that they’d have to subtitle it on their own; they figured they’d just work it out when they got the print. So for those theaters, we gave them a lot of information on how to subtitle, explaining that it can be a very tedious process that needs rehearsal. We weren’t comfortable loaning the print to those theaters unless they knew how to do it.”
The Society’s print of Liquid Sky has presented fewer problems. In fact the group has been supported in their efforts to distribute it by the film’s director, Slava Tsukerman. “Tsukerman and I have a mutual friend, and this friend had mentioned to him that we acquired this print and that it’s near perfect. So the friend put us in touch with him, who had this renewed enthusiasm to get Liquid Sky out there and screened again. Tsukerman’s print had become faded and so badly worn that he recently retired it. There’s another print of it in an archive in California, but three of the reels are on Eastman Kodak film stock, which has a tendency to fade. The print that we acquired is entirely low-fade film stock, so the color is perfect throughout.” When Tsukerman heard about what Calderone and Coffman had recovered, he suggested that they work together to arrange screenings.
“Theaters had wanted to show Liquid Sky in the past, but they weren’t sure about how to obtain rights to it,” Calderone explains. “Now that the rights are absolutely cleared—it’s Tsukerman who has the rights—a lot of theaters are coming to us about arranging screenings.” The Society has yet to confirm any screenings of the print in Chicago, but they’ve arranged presentations in several other cities.
Calderone has been collecting prints for a little more than five years, amassing a collection of more than 100 films. This project grew out of his interest in programming. “The very first program that we screened was a double feature of Santa Sangre and The Last Circus. The print of Santa Sangre that we showed was very, very rare. At the time, no one knew who had a print, so I was reaching out to archives and collectors, asking if they knew anything about a print being available in the U.S. Eventually I was led to some private collectors, and we found one who had a print of Santa Sangre. As we continued programming, we got in touch with other collectors, and we learned how they developed their collections. At some point, collectors would tell us, ‘I’ve got a duplicate of this print, maybe you would like it.’ Since one of our goals is to preserve and screen 35-millimeter film, it seemed like a great idea.”
Calderone and Coffman have learned about film storage and preservation in the process of building up their collection. They currently rent a storage facility that’s kept below 65 degrees to keep their films safe. Before this, however, maintaining the collection was a more hardscrabble process. “For a long time, I kept the films in my apartment,” Calderone admits. “But my girlfriend was upset that the apartment was always at 65 degrees or lower, and then I ended up having too many prints at home. I was eating breakfast on odd reels of films that had faded, that was how little room I had. Thankfully the amount that we make on loan fees has been enough to pay for the storage unit.”