Thursday, October 27, 2011

Italian Horror Blog-a-thon: Suspiria

Note: Having thoroughly enjoyed reading many of the entries posted for it last year, I figured, for my first ever blog post, I'd take the opportunity to jump on the bandwagon this time around for the Italian Horror Blog-a-thon currently being hosted over at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies by Kevin J. Olson.

Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)
Dario Argento’s baroque ballet of blood, satanic soundscapes and kaleidoscopic coloured gel lights has often been described as the “gateway drug” of the Italian horror film. This seems a highly apt way of describing it for several reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, it is arguably the movie from within this particular subgenre most responsible for initiating new audiences into the weird and wonderful world of Spaghetti Nightmares. Secondly, such a metaphor also pays lip service to the extraordinary, psychedelic, sense-shattering qualities of the film. Basically, if before watching this movie, all you are familiar with horror-wise are American slasher films and/or the Universal and Hammer horror classics, then upon starting to watch Argento’s phantasmagoric fairy tale you would be forgiven for suspecting that some lunatic had slipped some dubious substance into your tea. Finally, and most frustratingly as far as this review is concerned, the film can also be likened to such an initiatory drug experience in the way that it is something better experienced than talked about (case in point – after first viewing it, you may find yourself only able to describe the lure of the film to outsiders by saying something inane like “look at all the purdy colours”).
Due to the fact that the style dial on this particular beast has been turned up to 11, the film’s plot (and for anyone who hasn’t seen it, for heaven’s sake stop reading and go hunt down a copy) seems to transcend its apparent simplicity and takes on an almost archetypical/mythic quality. The story follows doe-eyed ballet student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper, who was apparently cast after Argento saw her in Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974)) as she arrives in Germany to attend a new school and almost instantly passes through the looking glass (signified by some downright sinister automatic sliding doors at the airport) to enter an acid-tinged, rain-soaked (in fact, if it turned out there was acid in the rain then much would be explained) cityscape where - in an arguable example of the dream logic that often renders the film’s characters somewhat helpless - the cab drivers are apparently averse to picking up fares, including, somewhat surprisingly, ones as attractive as Harper.

After finally managing to flag down a taxi (whose driver also appears to have an aversion to rain, physical labour and general chitchat), Suzy is taken on what can only be described as a Trip (with a capital T) to the Tanz Akademie. Inside the cab, the lighting goes into overload, bathing Suzy in a palette of variegated, prismatic colours, giving her an expression that seems to oscillate between the terror-stricken and the awe-struck. Outside, features of the landscape begin to loom with ominous portents (a gushing fountain seems especially unheimlich), no doubt aided immensely by the conjuring power of Goblin’s otherworldly soundtrack.
Upon arriving at the school Suzy crosses paths with a panicked student who, before fleeing the scene in a display of gothic-heroine histrionics, can be heard making barely audible, portentous remarks to an unseen companion. Suzy’s attempts to gain entrance to the school are blocked by said friend of the damsel in distress, who is understandably confused by her pal’s swift exit and now somewhat paranoid as a result. After failing to convince the girl on the intercom that she’s expected, Suzy retreats back to the taxi and onwards to find a hotel for the night.
Whilst en route to find temporary accommodation Suzy glimpses the departing student bolting through the woods like Snow White in full arm-waving, freak-out mode. It is at this point in the narrative that we temporarily leave our protagonist to instead follow the escaping girl, Pat Hingle (Eva Axén).
Pat arrives in town to seek shelter with a friend, who lives in an apartment building with a borderline diabolical art-deco foyer, where every architectural angle seems seconds away from potentially maiming passers-by. Such seeming foreshadowing is most likely intentional as it isn’t long before Pat is brutally murdered by a supernatural assailant in a shockingly audacious set-piece that ends with her hanging from her neck in said lobby (after crashing through a stained-glass skylight) with her friend lying beneath her, head cleaved in two by the falling shards of glass.
This astounding opening sequence proves, unfortunately, a hard act to follow, although other sequences throughout scale very close to the same giddy heights. The remainder of the film follows Suzy and new friend Sara (Stefania Casini) as they uncover a coven of witches that operate in the Tanz Akademie at night, using the school’s respectable facade as a convenient cover for their activities. Various characters that become perceived as potential threats to this cabal are either dispatched in invariably left-field, Grand Guignol ambushes or, in Suzy’s case, hypnotized and then drugged so that they are unable to interfere.

After eventually deducing how the school’s mistresses have been keeping her comatose, Suzy awakens from her slumber to find herself companionless and therefore left to fend for herself (Sara having been killed off due to apparently getting too close to the truth). Whilst visiting with Sara’s psychologist friend Dr. Frank Mandel (played by genre legend Udo Kier) in order to try and locate her missing friend, Suzy learns about the occult history of the Tanz Akadamie and its queen witch, Helena Markos. Whilst Mandel himself seems skeptical (“Bad luck isn't brought by broken mirrors, but by broken minds.” he states, in one of the film’s most memorable lines), his colleague Professor Milius (Rudolf Schundler) seems decidedly more open minded on the subject. “Magic is everwhere...” he informs us in the assured tones of the initiated occultist that he seems to be.
These conversations seem to have a restorative effect on Suzy’s memory, as soon after this (whilst left alone in the deserted school one night) she remembers the conversation she had (whilst still borderline catatonic) with Sara about counting footsteps in order to ascertain the whereabouts of the school’s disappearing staff. Not long after this revelation the previously gibberish remarks uttered by Pat at the film’s beginning also come into clear focus, thereby granting Suzy access to the witches’ inner sanctum for a final showdown with the leprous Helena Markos.

Argento’s originally wanted the school’s students to be portrayed by adolescent girls (assumingly to further underscore the fairytale ambience of the film) but this was abandoned due to anxiety the film might be banned. However, due to touches such as having door handles placed at head level and dialogue that occasionally seems inane or absurd (when it is not merely providing an expository function), one could argue that the feeling that Argento wanted to conjure by casting such naive innocents is somewhat retained. He would revisit this territory again with the Hansel and Gretel influenced Suspiria follow-up Inferno (1980) and also in the much maligned and wonderfully bonkers Phenomena (1985).

The film’s acclaimed, chimerical cinematography - created by DOP Luciano Tovoli by taking Eastman Colour Kodak stock and printing it through one of the last remaining machines used for the 3-strip Technicolor process – often turns the screen into a kaleidoscopic cacophony of light and colour, further adding to the film’s relentlessly hypnotic, psychedelic feel and transforming the Disney inspired material (Argento had Tovoli watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) to show what kind of aesthetic he was aiming for) into a trippy, fevered dreamscape. And the soundtrack, by jazz-fusion band Goblin (who had previously collaborated with Argento on Profondo Rosso/Deep Red (1975)) is such an unprecedented, genre-blending melange of aural madness that it deserves a separate review by itself.

All of these factors, plus fine performances by Harper and her supporting cast (including a wonderfully arch Joan Bennett as the school’s benefactress and Alida Valli as a continuously grinning, Gestapo-styled dance instructor) and the roaming, sweeping camera work that is a trademark of Argento’s films, contribute towards making Suspiria the justly celebrated cult classic that it is. It goes without saying that it’s not for the faint of heart (or for those overly obsessed with the machinations of plot and narrative), but for those with even the slightest predisposition towards the horror genre, it is essential viewing. In sum, it remains one of the most technically astonishing, visually ravishing and downright diabolic films of the fantastique ever made.


  1. Great first post! Thanks so much for contributing. I really enjoyed this. The film still holds up, too. I showed the opening to a few of my students who asked me what one of my favorite horror movies was. I told them about SUSPIRIA and the opening scene...and then I just decided to show them during their lunch break. Those that chose to stay and watch it loved it. It's still quite an affective experience.

  2. No problem, many thanks for the kind words :)

    Yup, it still does all certainly seem incredibly fresh, modern and visceral, as you imply. Even a little progressive in its gender politics to boot, one could argue. Which is highly amusing considering how often Argento has been labelled as a misogynist in the past.

    Whilst the costumes and hairstyles somewhat date the movie as being from the 70s, the cumulative effect of everything else allows this to be easily transcended, turning the film into something I suspect may eventually become timeless, if it hasn't already.

    Would have loved to have been there for that lunchtime screening you gave to your students. Always enjoy catching people's differing reactions to films they haven't seen before.

    I just hope none of them came up to you afterwards asking if they'd been dosed before you put the film on ;) Actually, if they did, it would certainly be a testament to the film's strange, transporting powers.