31 Days of Halloween, Alida Valli, auteur theory, ballet, Barbara Magnolfi, cinema, classic films, co-writers, cult classic, dance academy, Daria Nicolodi, Dario Argento, dog attacks, favorite films, Film auteurs, film reviews, films, Flavio Bucci, foreign films, Goblin, Helena Markos, horror films, iconic film scores, Italian cinema, Italian horror films, Jacopo Mariani, Jessica Harper, Joan Bennett, Luciano Tovoli, Movies, opening narrator, Renato Scarpa, Stefania Casini, stylish films, supernatural, Suspiria, Suzy Bannion, Udo Kier, violent films, witches, writer-director
There’s absolutely nothing subtle about Italian giallo-maestro Dario Argento’s classic supernatural shocker Suspiria (1977)…and there’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever, thank you very much. From the opening drum crash that cues Goblin’s iconic prog-rock score to the over-the-top murder setpieces to the near constant use of dramatic colored lighting to heighten mood, Suspiria is one of the all-time great cinematic mood pieces, a ferocious nightmare that has all of the narrative continuity of a fever-dream and is so unabashedly beautiful as to be almost hypnotic. In a 40+ year career filled with more ups and downs than a bakers’ dozen of filmmakers, Suspiria will always stand as not only Argento’s magnum opus but also one of the single most original, visually stunning films in the history of the cinema.
As befits Argento’s supernatural films (of which this was the first), Suspiria only makes as much narrative sense as it absolutely has to. If anything, the film is much more concerned with establishing and maintaining a haunted, skewed fairy-tale atmosphere than it is with ticking off plot points on a sheet of paper. Suffice to say that the plot can be boiled down rather succinctly to the following: Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), a naive, young American ballet student, has just arrived at a mysterious dance academy in Germany that may or may not actually be the front for an ancient coven of witches. As Suzy witnesses one strange incident after the other, beginning with the dark and stormy night when she first arrives, it becomes more and more difficult to figure out what’s real and what she might be imagining due to a good, old-fashioned case of the heebie-jeebies. As she continues her investigation, Suzy will gradually come to learn the truth about Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and the sinister, unseen Helena Markos, who may (or may not) be the ancient, Satanic evil known as The Black Queen.
While Suspiria isn’t necessarily concerned with connecting the dots from Point A to Point Z, it is absolutely, thoroughly dedicated to immersing the viewer into a completely surreal, eye-popping, nightmarish environment. Argento accomplishes this suffocating sense of atmosphere in many ways, although some of the most notable are the extensive use of colored lighting, tricky camera angles and the near constant, moody score. As mentioned earlier, Suspiria is a gorgeous film, thanks in no small part to the evocative cinematography of veteran DP Luciano Tovoli: there’s one scene in the film, lit with a green light and shot through a light-bulb that is absolutely stunning…it’s doubtful that even Peter Greenaway has been responsible for an image this lovely, which gives some (small) idea how massively impressive Suspiria’s visuals truly are.
As with almost all of Argento’s films, Suspiria is built around a series of escalating, over-the-top set-pieces, sort of like individual rides in one, large amusement park: the opening murder involving multiple stabbings and a stained-glass window…the maggot rain…blind Daniel (Flavio Bucci) and his terrible death at the jaws of his own dog…the extraordinary, red-lit scene where the practice hall is turned into a dormitory and Helena Markos makes her first “appearance”…the stylishly weird scene where the housekeeper and ultra-creepy Albert (Jacopo Mariani) appear to hypnotize Suzy…Sara’s (Stefania Casini) horrible demise via a room full of razor-wire…rather than feeling disjointed or episodic, Suspiria ends up feeling genuinely odd and unsettling. It’s almost as if we’ve been invited to peel back someone’s skull and peer right into the deepest, darkest corners of their fevered imagination.
Those new to the world of ’70s-’80s Italian horror will, undoubtedly, find some of Suspiria’s quirks to be a little off-putting, although they’re nothing if not endemic to that particular style of filmmaking. Some of the performances can come off on the wrong-side of stagey (the excruciating “fight” between Sara and Olga (Barbara Magnolfi) that consists of them sticking out their tongues and hissing at each seems to last for at least a month, if not longer) and some of the dubbing is a little suspect. In one of the most head-scratching moments, the evil Helena Markos is voiced by someone who appears to be channeling a stereotypical street thug by way of Cloris Leachman: it’s a strange, silly choice and has the unfortunate effect of taking you out of the movie, if only for a moment. Again, these aren’t issues that should be new to anyone who’s seen their fair share of Italian horror films but neophytes would be advised to exercise patience with some of the film’s “sillier” contrivances.
Make no bones about it, however: Suspiria is a vicious, hard-hitting film that’s managed to lose none of its power in the 37 years since its release. If I’ve seen the film once, I’ve probably seen it at least a dozen times, but it never fails to pull me in from the very first frame: hell, I get a practically Pavlovian response whenever I hear the score, similar to my extreme love for John Carpenter’s oeuvre. This time around, I tried to view the film as critically as possible, with an eye towards determining whether the film was actually “scary,” at least by modern terms. I may be a little biased here, since I’ve always been in love with the film, but I think that it still possesses all of its feral power, even for a generation that’s become jaded on every sort of cinematic atrocity imaginable. Make no bones about it: the violence in Suspiria is sudden, shocking and extreme, made even more disturbing by the fact that Argento frames everything in such lovely, stunning visuals. Even though the copious blood never manages to look like anything less than thick, red paint, the suspension of disbelief in the film is absolute: Argento, at the height of his power, was (arguably) the greatest European horror writer/director ever (which, of course, makes his fall from grace of the past couple decades even more depressing).
Horror fans tend to be a fairly fickle bunch but there are a few films that appear to be universally respected: Suspiria is certainly one of those. Although Argento would go on to make several exceptional films after Suspiria (very few filmmakers have had a string of quality films like Argento experienced with Profondo Rosso (1975), Suspiria, Inferno (1980), Tenebre (1982), Phenomena (1985) and Opera (1987)), this will always stand as the unholy height of considerable abilities. One of the greatest compliments that I can give the film is to say how completely and utterly jealous I am of anyone who gets to experience this for the first time: believe me when I say that, in all likelihood, it will open your eyes. October just wouldn’t be the same without Argento’s infamous “witch academy” and I wouldn’t have it any other way.