Thursday, 2 February 2012

Suspiria (1977)

Are there any hardcore horror fans who do not know of Italian auteur Dario Argento? I doubt it. The staunchest follower of the genre who might not be keen on this style of filmmaking from Italy including the work of this visual director and the like i.e. Lucio Fulci and maybe have not even seen one of Argento’s movies would have for damn sure glanced over articles about the bodies of work of him and his contemporaries. You cannot pick up any of the various magazines like Fangoria, Horror Hound and Rue Morgue without at least a mention of this horror icon. Even the most casual audiences of scary films might have heard the name of this revered filmmaker from time to time.

From the age of 11 to 24 most of my intake of horror consisted of early, Golden Age and modern American fare with a dollop of British Hammer. I was a diehard fan who although still had not seen any Italian offerings contributing to my beloved genre had read extensive features in Fangoria about these gore movies from the boot shaped country. Having always wanted to check out Dario Argento’s highly influential works that helped shape modern horror and the American slasher sub-genre but forays into other genres got in the way I finally had the chance during my second year at college in 2002. I was studying for an Access certificate to get into university and there was no offer of film studies for mature students but being the cinephile that I am I really wanted to test my knowledge so I enrolled on an A level course for the subject. In that second year, one of the modules covered was shocking cinema and luck would have it that one of the movies shown as an example was Argento’s greatest and most famous work ‘Suspiria’ (1977).

To sum it all up perfectly I will describe the start of the film. The opening title credits subject us to a repetitive nauseating non-diegetic soundtrack, which will remain present during the course of the movie. Fearfully chilling and shock inducing it incorporates a vocal cocktail of screams, whispers, whines and hisses fused with progressive rock composed by Italian band Goblin. They are pivotal in the role of several other musical scores for Dario Argento’s filmography. Their performance contributes significantly to a constant atmosphere of dread. After the title card, we hear a narration telling us of the film’s protagonist young American ballet dancer Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper). She has decided to perfect her studies at the world-renowned dance academy of Freiburg, Germany. This establishes here the nightmarish Brother’s Grimm fairy-tale like approach.

From the outset when the lone Suzy is leaving the arrival lounge of Munich airport we see the first example of the primary vivid colours Argento employs throughout with the production design and cinematography supplemented by weird shapes and uneven symmetry reflecting the distortion of reality. We can see in the background the room luminously highlighted in red a colour in which the director uses to emphasize upon in crucial scenes to illustrate blood and death signifying here that Suzy has arrived in mortal danger of her life. Other colours used at specific moments in the movie are blue (isolation and the coldness of death) and green (witchcraft).

This was Dario Argento’s first foray into supernatural horror after six giallo features. The last of which right before this ‘Deep Red’ (1975) being one of the best of its kind. ‘Suspiria’ carries over many of the elements that make up these violent mystery thrillers. Suzy is the stranger in a foreign land who finds herself caught up in a murderous rampage including some of Argento’s best ever murder set-pieces that are sublimely executed and perfectly paced. There is also a mystery for our heroine to solve. It involves the secret lair where the old hag villainess and her followers dwell. It is just that here we do not have antagonists made up of realistic characters of blackmailers, jealous husbands and wives, sociopaths etc. We have a witch who is the director of the dance academy and her coven of evil old bitches.

As Suzy approaches the exit of the airport, the Goblin score teasingly kicks back in briefly, as the camera goes to a point of view shot as she makes her way closer to the exit. Going back to a close-up of Suzy the music abruptly disappears and then returns as the camera resorts back to a POV one last time as she is just about there. Going to a mid-shot of her just before she makes her way out shown by way of a long-shot behind her we then get an extreme close-up of the intricate workings of the electric doors as they open and Goblin’s dreaded score returns predominately throughout most of this set-up as Suzy finds herself in a thunderous rainstorm. The director magnifies every little detail as Suzy steps out into the unknown. Getting into a taxi she has just embarked on her nightmare adventure.

As Suzy’s taxi pulls up outside the academy, we see a young woman opening the doors shouting and fleeing in fright but to us the audience the storm drowns out the sound of her voice completely. However, later we learn that Suzy could make out some of what she was saying which comes back to her in parts. When she fully realizes what significance it all has it turns out to be the key to the whole mystery that surrounds the place. This is a big stamp of the giallo’s influence on the movie’s narrative structure. After Suzy presses the buzzer, the woman on the other end of the speaker turns her away so she gets back into the taxi and presumably finds a room to stay for the night. This is where the rest of the set-up’s focus shifts to the woman running away and leads us to the film’s first kill. Not only is it the best of the lot here ahead of two other highly memorable murder set-pieces it is probably Dario Argento’s best ever of his career. For those of you who have yet to see ‘Suspiria’ I will not spoil for you the absolute brilliance of its graphic violence. 

Using anamorphic lenses the director also plays with the camera movements and distances over the course of the movie with long shots, tracking shots and high angles to illustrate the vulnerability and helplessness of the victims and to enhance the atmosphere of the fear of the unknown. Argento also uses a gothic setting for the dance academy harking back to early horror and applies this era’s codes and conventions with long dark corridors, curtains blowing in the wind, duality of light and dark etc.

My only gripe with the film is that the English dubbing is horrendous and is aided by Dario Argento’s initial intension for the ballet school to be for 12-year old girls. His father the movie’s producer vetoed this idea as this much violence involving such young children would result in an outright ban. Therefore, the director rose the ages to 20-year old women but he did not change the script so the characters act naively and speak with childlike dialogue. This grates but to be fair it adds to the fairy-tale influence. The film is largely flawless in its composition.

This is the first of Argento’s ‘The Three Mothers’ trilogy. It has a running theme of merciless evil forces breaking through into our world. The other two movies are ‘Inferno’ (1980) and ‘The Mother of Tears’ (2007). This first of the three is a work of sheer energetic artistry that thrusts us into a stylish, haunting and nightmarish fairy-tale that even looks and feels just like a real nightmare. It is as if we are actually dreaming one but cannot wake up from it. It lacks any moral or political sub-text whatsoever with plot and character playing a secondary role to the visual and sound techniques enhancement to provoke our fears. The director’s intension is for us just to feel the completely frightening experience of it all. 'Suspiria' is a landmark masterpiece in surrealistic fantasy terror.

**** out of ****

Dave J. Wilson

©2012 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.

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