VHS Revival yields to Dario Argento’s masterclass in visceral terror
For some, Dario Argento’s first venture into the realms of the supernatural is an exercise in style-over-substance.
For one thing, there is no real plot to speak of, and the action seems peripheral at times, while 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. There is also the rich colour palette to consider, the kind that often drowns the movie’s more conventional elements. But that is precisely the point. Suspiria‘s aim is not to provide us with some kind of familiar narrative. It is designed to disorientate, to make the viewer feel lost and confused, emotions which are the very basis for paranoia and fear.
Goblin’s frantic intro ― exploding against an ambiguous black and white screen ― sets the tone for that disorientation, the movie’s initial location acting as a gateway to the ethereal Neverland 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 finds out about the coven’s leader, Helena Marcos, who was actually played by a ninety-year-old ex-hooker living on the streets of Rome. 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 at the Machiavellian dance academy.
For an academy shrouded in macabre mystery, there is a sense of naivety about Susie that for some is borderline infuriating. Not me. 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 macabre fairy tale. In true fairy tale fashion, 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 Argento, 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 characters. Intentional or not, for me it works a treat.
Sara – Susie, do you know anything about . . . witches?
Suspiria‘s every set-piece is a theatrical descent into the unreal. The movie might best be described as a ‘nightmare fairytale’, 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, while Argento was known to have something of an obsession with Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ― particularly for its use of colour. Technically, the director’s opus was inspired by an autobiographical story told to screenwriter Daria 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.
All you have to do is look at the characters on show to see this fairytale 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 malevolence from the very outset. Then you have the elegant and soporific Susie (Jessica Harper), the archetypal Disney princess with the rose petal skin, gleaming with a doe-eyed fragility as she flutters like a fleet-footed Bambi caught in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle.
Of course, the movie’s characters are but a side dish in the director’s surreal banquet. Aesthetically, Argento uses primary colours in order to present a truly supernatural experience, 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 primary 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.
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. Having followed a mysterious figure in a red coat strangely reminiscent of Little Red Riding Hood, she is immediately bathed in unnatural colours, eventually spying a girl running helplessly through a wild forest as a violent storm drowns her senses. 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.
The movie’s stark 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 painting. The first ― resulting in a girl’s hanging and another’s near decapitation ― is imbued with an almost religious iconography, while 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 into submission.
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, and is just as essential in creating the movie’s ceaseless sense of unease. The huge sounds and malevolent voice overs leave your head spiralling and your nerves shattered, and its colossal arrangement, which is as close to pure evil as you are ever likely to hear captured in a studio, affects you like a systematic form of possession that takes delight in capturing your soul. This is never more evident than during the 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 not one of the most iconic themes in all of horror in ‘Suspiria’, 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, you have to crank the volume to ear-splitting levels. There’s really no other way to experience it.
Sound wasn’t the only part of production that proved torturous for the movie’s cast members. As attested to by the 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 that it would add to the overall effect. It certainly worked for Tobe Hooper when shooting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The cast of that movie grew to resent the borderline-sadistic manner of Hooper’s direction to such an extent that they would stay well clear of him 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 the production’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 voice of the expectant witch and the murderous vision of her undead accomplice are genuinely unsettling.
For all of its grandiose spectacle, Suspiria is a movie which works as a purely visceral experience, 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, projecting a deluge of sound and colour that leaves you feeling saturated, 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 other movies that are willing to 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 engrossing and unfamiliar, has just 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 wanders frantically as you try to gain some kind of perspective amongst the giant, leering figures flashing by in a panic. As tenuous and illusive as childhood memories are, you never forget that moment, and after Susie flees the crumbling inferno following a quite startling climax, you know that you will never in your life forget the time you first watched Suspiria.