VHS Revival yields to Dario Argento’s masterclass in visceral terror
For some, Dario Argento’s most lauded movie is an exercise in style-over-substance. For one thing, there is no real plot to speak of. The story sometimes seems peripheral, the pace erratic, and the makeshift manner in which the film’s music stops and starts seems loose to the extent where you may find yourself questioning the editing. This is nothing new in the realms of Italian horror cinema. Even the most accomplished of those movies are renown for their cavalier approach to filmmaking and rough-around-the-edges production, but very few benefit from it quite like Suspiria. The movie refuses to adhere to convention. It is designed to disorientate, to make the viewer feel lost and confused, emotions which are the very basis for paranoia and fear. Above all else, it is a film that we experience.
Goblin’s frantic intro ― exploding against an ambiguous black and white screen ― sets the tone for that disorientation, the film’s initial location acting as a gateway to the malevolent wonderland that awaits Susie’s arrival. The scene at the airport is one of only two that are shot using a natural palette, the other being Susie’s visit to the convention centre where she learns about the coven’s leader, Helena Marcos, who was actually played by a ninety-year-old ex-hooker living on the streets of Rome at the time of production. Those naturalistic scenes are the only instances that convey a sense of normality. The first is a brief prelude to a waiting evil, the second providing the only substantial interaction in the entire movie, a traditional scene which dissolves as soon as Susie returns to her lodgings.
Suspiria was something of a departure for Argento, who up until then was renown for his work in the giallo genre, movies such as 1970’s L’uccello Dalle Piume di Cristallo (The Girl With the Crystal Plumage) and 1975’s Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) one day earning him the moniker the “Master of the Thrill”, while also drawing comparisons to the late Alfred Hitchcock thanks to his sublime handling of mystery and suspense. The main influence for the director’s stylistic digression came in the form of a collection of psychological essays entitled Suspiria de Profundis, which explored the concept of ‘Our Ladies of Sorrow’, manifestations that author Thomas De Quincey would use to personify, “the mighty abstractions that incarnate themselves in all individual sufferings of man’s heart.”
Those manifestations would become the focal point of Argento’s ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy, beginning with Suspiria and continuing with 1980’s equally beguiling Inferno and 2007’s The Mother of Tears. Inferno‘s prologue, a passage that deviates from De Quincey’s source material, describes Suspiria‘s Mater Suspiriorum aka The Mother of Sighs as the oldest and wisest of the three, who along with Mater Lachrymarum, the Mother of Tears, and Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness, use their powers to manipulate world events from their bases in Rome (Lachrymarum), New York City (Tenebrarum), and in the case of Mater Suspiriorum, dubbed Helena Marcos by Argento, the Tanz Dance Academy in Freiburg, Germany. In Suspiria, the ancient Marcos’ powers have begun to fade, but they’re still potent enough to draw Susie into an almost kaleidoscopic realm that throbs with insidious beauty.
There is a sense of naivety about Susie that for some is borderline-infuriating. Though the character’s seeming unwillingness to identify danger in an odyssey that begins as soon as she arrives in the country was at least in part accidental, it works beautifully, only adding to the movie’s fairy tale aura. Argento initially planned to use children as young as twelve as the ballet school’s doomed inhabitants, an idea he was forced to renege on after heeding the warnings of producer and father Salvatore, who wisely predicted that having children in such a violent picture would provoke the wrath of censorship and likely lead to an all-out ban. Though turning to adult actresses, Argento neglected to rewrite the screenplay, which explains the often puerile dialogue and general innocence of the film’s characters, who mock and taunt each other with the facile abandon of a group of preschoolers.
Sara – Susie, do you know anything about . . . witches?
In many ways, this sets the tone for the odyssey that transpires. Suspiria‘s every set-piece is a theatrical descent into the unreal. The movie might best be described as a nightmare fairy tale, and is influenced as much by early 20th century expressionist cinema (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari) as it is by the likes of Alice in Wonderland, a tale co-screenwriter Daria Nicolodi had in mind from the beginning. Technically, the director’s opus was inspired by an autobiographical story told to Nicoldi, whose grandmother had fled a similar situation upon discovering that her music school was run by staff who were heavily into black magic and the occult, subjects that go hand-in-hand with such fantastical tales.
Even more of an aesthetic influence is Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Snow White, a lonely young princess ensnared by the magic of a wicked queen, was certainly the template for Susie. In terms of colour, composition and general aesthetics, there are so many direct comparisons to be made. The Black Forest that a fellow student theatrically stumbles through draws immediate comparisons, and the way Susie is shot, be it sleeping softly on a pillow, gazing tentatively through a window or sitting drenched in a taxi, are all physical reenactments of Snow White. In the film, Susie is slowly poisoned in what is a direct nod to Disney’s poison apple. There are even visual comparisons to be made between the dance Academy’s coven and the wicked queen. In order lend Suspiria the authentic look of an old-fashioned fairy tale, Argento used imbibition Technicolor prints, the same process used to create the unique aesthetics of 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, an inspired decision that makes the film such a divine experience.
All you have to do is look at the characters on show to see Suspiria‘s fairy tale influence. The cast are a circus grotesquery, from the militant Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) to the academy’s surreptitious mouthpiece, Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) ― genial and helpful on the surface but prone to fits of rage and intently murderous when Susie stumbles upon their secret hiding place. You also have a bearded entourage of witches keeping guard, a queerly docile butler reminiscent of Dr Frankenstein’s Igor, and a young boy who wouldn’t look out of place in The Omen. Even Susie’s fellow dancers are sinister in their intentions, particularly the distinctly witch-like Olga (Barbara Magnolfi), who gleams with youthful malevolence from the very outset. Then you have the elegant Susie (Jessica Harper), the archetypal Disney princess with the rose petal skin, doe-eyed as she flutters like a fleet-footed Bambi caught in the headlights.
Of course, the movie’s characters are but a side dish in the director’s surreal banquet. Aesthetically, Argento uses primary colours to present a truly supernatural experience in the Bava mode, manipulating light and shadows to project the beating heart of pure evil. At night, unnatural shades of red, blue and yellow saturate proceedings as shifting colours alert the viewer to the coven’s swelling presence. These are non-diagetic events which are unseen by Susie and the movie’s cast. The rest of the time, those colours appear as part of the unreal set decoration, which looks more like a Gothic stage than a traditional movie set, with painted walls of forestry and oddly positioned doors that only add to the labyrinthine experience. Such palettes had long-been the tradition of Italian cinema, but rarely had they been utilised so effectively. Every frame is alive with death, but it’s such a divine experience that you’re left completely at its mercy. It pollutes your senses and possesses your soul.
So intrinsic is the movie’s sense of malice that the influence of the coven is not confined to the academy. As soon as Susie leaves the airport to the sounds of swooshing doors she is tumbling down the rabbit hole, and we’re hanging onto her lapels, peering over her shoulder as we fall ever more uselessly along with her. Having followed a mysterious figure in a red coat who is strangely reminiscent of Little Red Riding Hood, she is immediately bathed in unnatural colours, eventually spying a girl running helplessly through a wild forest, a violent storm drowning her senses in a scene that is ready-made for a theatre production. That same girl will ultimately reveal the academy’s insidious secret, alerting Susie to a trio of blue, red and yellow iris flowers which solve the visual puzzle and guide our heroine toward the realms of the witches’ evil sanctuary, though salvation doesn’t come easy.
Suspiria‘s stark use of violence is presented with a similar unreality. There are three set-pieces which astonish both visually and technically, resulting in the kind of theatrical dread that belongs on stage or in a particularly twisted Renaissance painting. The first ― resulting in a girl’s hanging and another’s near decapitation ― is imbued with an almost religious iconography. The second, which features the demise of Susie’s closest friend, Sara (Stefania Casini), is a masterclass in surreal tension, one which sees her become entangled in a ‘forest’ of strangely positioned barbwire as the movie’s relentless soundtrack batters our senses. It is during these moments that you feel overcome with dread. For the viewer, it is foggy, delirious viewing, with a sense of claustrophobia that leaves you weak with submission.
The movie’s soundtrack is just as vital in achieving such a feverish state. Goblin have produced some outstanding musical accompaniments during their career — particularity those produced for other Argento collaborations such as Profondo Rosso and Tenebrae — but Suspiria is a truly prodigious work that allows the movie an almost ceaseless sense of unease. The huge sounds and malevolent voice overs chip away at your senses like calculated bursts from a pneumatic drill, and its colossal arrangement, which is as close to pure evil as you are ever likely to hear, is a systematic form of possession that delights in the capturing of your soul.
This is never more evident than during a scene in which a blind pianist, banished from the academy by an incensed Miss Tanner, is savaged by his own guide dog, an exercise in terror that works almost entirely on an audio level. Argento helped Goblin compose what is now one of the most iconic themes in all of horror cinema, and it comes as no surprise that he played it full blast during filming in order to give his actors the kind of disorientating experience ultimately shared by the film’s audience. In order to fully appreciate the movie’s soundscape you should crank the volume to ear-splitting levels. Rarely have I been consumed by sound with such intensity.
According to those involved, sound wasn’t the only part of production that proved torturous for cast members. As attested to by then screen veteran Joan Bennett ― who only agreed to play Madame Blanc on her husband’s encouragement (he was a fan of Argento), despite her distaste for violence in modern cinema ― shooting was a nightmare of disorganisation, with lots of waiting around and the kind of production that had workmen noisily constructing sets while scenes were shot (the sound being added after the fact), and for a director of Argento’s disposition, you have to believe that on some level he encouraged such chaos, knowing it would add to the overall effect. It certainly worked for Tobe Hooper when shooting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The cast of that particular movie grew to resent the borderline-sadistic manner of the production to such an extent that they would stay well clear of the director between shooting, and that kind of tension translates to the finished product. The fact that actress Stefania Casini endured the unforgiving entanglements dished-out by Suspiria‘s imitation barbed wire only adds to that feeling, as does the decision to drop grains of rice on the casts’ heads to simulate the sensation of falling maggots.
Helena Markos – Now death is coming for you! You wanted to kill Helena Markos! Hell is behind that door! You’re going to meet death now… the LIVING DEAD!
Suspiria‘s final set-piece is perhaps the most terrifying of all, and certainly the most visually disturbing. From the very beginning, Susie is disorientated as we are, fed on a diet of what appears to be blood and placed under a light-reflecting spell which leaves her bedridden as those who prove a disturbance to the coven’s financial aspirations succumb to the wraithlike omnipotence of the occult. By the time Susie finds her way through yet another symbolic forest and comes face-to-face with the infamous Helena Markos, she has become their latest target, and is forced to end the life of the coven’s leader, who is immediately stirred by the girl’s presence. The guttural malevolence of the expectant witch and the murderous vision of her undead accomplice are genuinely unsettling, the latter’s emergence from a secret door one of the most disturbing reveals of the genre ― a startling climax to a painfully overwrought, yet purely magical experience.
For all of its grandiose spectacle, Suspiria is a movie which works on a purely visceral level, which grips your senses and drowns convention, leaving you squirming in a heap of primal fear. For a movie in which very little happens, it engrosses from start to finish, unleashing a deluge of sound and colour that saturates you in unforgiving waves, even during those seemingly innocuous moments where colours shift and Goblin’s unrelenting score suddenly leaps into action or quickly drains away.
Some may question Suspiria‘s lack of traditional narrative, but there are plenty of movies that indulge in that kind of convention. The fact that the plot is of little consequence often leaves you feeling like a child who, distracted by something strange and unfamiliar, has wandered off from their parents on a busy high street for the first time in their lives. Suddenly you switch back on and everything seems uncertain and overwhelming. You don’t know where you are or what is happening and your mind frantically wanders as you grasp for some kind of perspective among the giant figures flashing by in a panic. As tenuous and illusive as childhood memories are, you never forget that moment, and after Susie flees the coven’s crumbling inferno following a hellfire climax of staggering accomplishment, you know that you will never in your life forget the time you first saw Suspiria.