The Films of Dario Argento: Suspiria (1977)

This piece contains spoilers, although to be fair, I wouldn’t recommend reading anything about Suspiria before watching it for the first time. It’s best just to dive in…

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A Little Prelude…

If you ask a horror fan what their all time favourite example of the genre is, there’s a very, very good chance it’ll be something they first watched in their childhood or adolescence, or at the very least, from a time when the horror film was more than just another genre. When it was something more primal, more instinctual. All of my favourite horrors are the ones I watched when I was sixteen years old or younger. None of them were films that I were legally allowed to watch at the time. I think this is important. I’m talking as someone from the UK, where films are given stricter age classifications than, say in the US, where the R-rating essentially legitimises a child watching something like Saw so long as they have an adult with them. For me, one of the core attractions/repulsions of a horror film is knowing you’re not supposed to watch it. It’s the forbidden fruit.

I had an early period in my life of being absolutely terrified of horror films – the mere thought of watching one was a no-no, and yet curiosity or circumstance sometimes got the better of me. I happened to stumble on to a Channel 4 screening of The Company of Wolves one Thursday night back in 1987 when I was six, and its impact on me was akin to experiencing a living nightmare. I lasted five minutes and ran upstairs. A few years later I, in an attempt to not seem too cowardly, braved a the terrestrial premiere of The Lost Boys with my family, watching as much of it as my nerves could handle before fleeing in terror two-thirds in. After being burned like that, I continued to avoid horror; the best I could muster was little acts of bravery like sneaking a peek at the covers of horror VHS tapes in my local rental shop, before quickly putting them back in their place as they scared me too much. The back covers of the first two Demons films were so scary that the thought of watching the actual films seemed unthinkable. The turning point was when I braved myself to revisit that earlier trauma of The Lost Boys, only to discover that not only did I make it through the whole film without fleeing but a part of me got a kick out of the scares. And that’s when it began.

Suddenly horror had an appeal.

And yes, I was too young to watch these films, but that didn’t really stop me. I suppose it helped if your local video shop is particularly lax on rules regarding age classification. The period of my life from around twelve to sixteen years was probably the purest for me in regards to watching horror films – no preconceptions, no cynicism or weariness towards the genre… just pure visceral cinema. Hellraiser, The Shining, The Omen, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween…good times. However, good times never last, and the older I got, the more aware I became of horror’s history, its acknowledged peaks and depths. I started getting picky, became more demanding. And then I started being able to watch horror films at the cinema because I was the right age, and while some of them were pretty effective, already I was becoming immune to the genre’s impact. It didn’t help that mainstream horror in the late nineties was pretty rubbish, with even the best ones so drenched in irony that it was difficult to truly lose yourself in them.

Looking for the ultimate horror rush is like looking for the lost chord or the lost ark, and even though many a great horror film can turn up and unnerve you, freak you out, make you jump or even linger long in the memory after you’ve left the cinema…. it just isn’t the same. I’m still longing for that special new film that will terrify me the way the horror films used to as a child, but is such a thing possible? I truly envy those who are still terrified of horrors, or those who have watched a million already and can still get a primal kick out of them. I suppose I can still replicate the buzz I got when I was younger today– for example, when watching horrors from the 70s and 80s that I never actually saw in my youth but nevertheless could have. I imagine myself having watched it in some alternate history, and here I just happen to be rewatching it. The similarities and tropes of horror films means that even if you haven’t seen a particular example literally, you kind of already have by the fact that it shares so much of its contemporaries’ DNA. For example, last year I endured all of the ‘classic’ era Friday the 13th films. Some of them were being watched for the first time, ones like Part 2 and The Final Chapter. And yet, even though they were newbies for me, they settled in very comfortably amongst the first film and Part 3 because to be honest, they’re all so bloody similar anyway. And it was a weird feeling, watching Part 2. I was getting nostalgic pleasure of watching something I had never seen before. Yet as much as I try and relive that old feeling, it’s still not the same as that earlier, purer time when I would approach these films with genuine trepidation.

Anyway, I digress…

The Greatest Horror of All Time?

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Luckily, I managed to catch what I regard as the greatest horror of all time just as my ‘pure’ era of horror films was nearing its end, and that film was Suspiria. It was probably the last horror film that I remember being truly enraptured by. After this, the bar had been raised so high that nothing else could match it. Today, Suspiria is getting truly lavished upon – currently there are two different 4K remasterings doing the cinematic rounds, with debates online as to what is the purer distillation of the film. The film has been dissected, analysed, pored over and I’m addicted to all discussion of it. And yet, with each further analysis (and I’m contributing one more to the pile right here), we continue to move further and further away from that first viewing, arguably the most important one of the lot. But who can blame us for wanting to pore over Dario Argento (and co-writer Daria Nicolodi)’s masterpiece and want to try and understand this most beguiling of nightmares?

Suspiria is a remarkable film because even though it wasn’t the first horror film ever made (obviously), it often feels like the purest. I remember watching it for the first time and feeling as though this, at last, was the horror I had been waiting for, the one I had always dreaded and yet wanted. Time Out magazine absolutely nailed its appeal when they said that ‘it seemed like what horror films were like when you were too young to get into them’. Argento gave us the ultimate horror, the final word on the genre, and yet it is also not universally adored. His extreme approach by definition was always going to divide audiences, but then the best horror is in one way or another extreme. Make your horror film too polite, too mainstream, too mannered and you get The Sixth Sense, which I’m sure most people would agree is a fine film, but the fact that everybody seems to like it is a sign that it’s too safe, you know?

The first time I watched Suspiria was when it was re-released on video in the UK in widescreen and in a distinctly below-average transfer in the late nineties. I’m sure existing fans would have been happy enough with the fact that it was in its original ratio and was uncut, but the picture quality was distinctly blurry and unrefined. Yet I didn’t really notice at the time. So legendary in my mind was the reputation of Suspiria that its muddy picture seemed to be the point, as though I had discovered an ancient tome or crackly old 78 from olden times. If the picture had been too perfect I don’t think it would have got to me as much. What I do know for sure is that Suspiria is a classic of sound and vision. There is rarely anything mundane in its approach. Only some of the supporting performances and dialogue approach anything resembling banality. For the most part, it transcends the genre, in fact transcends 99 per cent of cinema, to become something truly spellbinding. It has been charged with accusations of incoherence and plotlessness. In regards to the latter, I honestly think a plot more complex than the one we get on screen would be too distracting. As for incoherence, the only thing I don’t understand about the film is why people would call it incoherent. Yes, there are moments of outright bizarreness (the piano wire room, for instance), but they totally work within the film’s logic. I don’t feel cheated or played about. Accusations of incoherence could arguably be levelled at Suspiria’s follow-up, Inferno, but I’ll delve into that another time. The plot of Suspiria is breathtakingly simple – any loose ends that one might notice aren’t really that important. There is only as much plot here as we need. Enough to fill up the space of a nightmare…

The First 15 Minutes…

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Suzy Bannion (a wide-eyed, innocent but resourceful hero, perfectly portrayed by Jessica Harper) arrives in Freiberg, Germany in the middle of a vicious thunderstorm to stay at the dance academy where she’s due to study, but it turns out that her teachers have wicked, malevolent intentions… that’s all you really need to know really, and a re-telling of the plot’s minutiae here obviously does the film no real favours. This is something you need to experience first hand. You need to dive in, and few horrors do as magnificent a job as getting you right from the very beginning as Suspiria. The first fifteen or so minutes are pretty much legendary in horror circles for representing the essential apex of the genre. The thunderous percussion of Goblin’s music score gives us no quarter, building and building to a deafening peak before crashing into silence and then into the soundtrack’s most famous motif, the gentle but sinister music-box melody that rivals the immortal repetition of John Carpenter’s Halloween theme for sheer iconic creepiness.

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As if not wanting to bother with boring things like plot exposition, a voice-over quickly tells us what we need to know and then we’re into the action – the elements are in full force, the colour-scheme is growing wild, the sense of dread and unease (beautifully evoked in seemingly innocuous things like the gears of an automatic door or a storm drain) and the quick ‘what was that??’ reflection of a deranged looking Argento in the cab’s inside window (see above), something I didn’t even notice during those early, blurry VHS viewings. The music meanwhile is building and building to an unbearable crescendo of madness, with hisses and taunts of ‘WITCH!!!’ from various Goblin members acting as a clear spoiler for those who don’t know what’s to come. In fact, despite far-out, more-or-less fantastical elements being present in earlier Argento films, Suspiria is his first out-and-out supernatural work, and as such there’s a chance that existing fans of his might not have been prepared for the new twist in his style. Indeed, it represents as much a staggering leap in Argento’s style from Deep Red as that had made from his relatively modest ‘Animal Trilogy’. I’d go as far to say that no director has managed to deliver what Argento did with this film.

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Now, even if Suzy had arrived at the ‘Tanzakademie’ and been let inside for a much-need night’s rest with no drama, this still have made for a mightily impressive introduction, but Argento’s not done with us, even if he is temporarily done with Suzy. No, instead we switch to Pat, the doomed student whom we later find out knows far too much about her teachers for her to be able to make it through the night. For many, this is where Suspiria really gets going. She seeks sanctuary in her flat, which is located in a remarkable tenement that boasts a wild glass ceiling, outrageously ornate lifts and utterly bizarre internal geography. It’s like that bit in that Shining documentary where it’s revealed that the manager’s office has a window to the outside world that couldn’t possibly exist, given the layout of the building. Pat and her room mate are then murdered in an astonishingly protracted and brutal act of directorial malevolence that is as horrifying as it is spectacular.

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The build up is unbearable: Goblin’s soundtrack descends on Pat as she fruitlessly tries to peek through her window to see what’s outside with the aid of a lamp, only to be faced with her own reflection, as well as those weird eyes staring back at her… and then… quiet. Oh God, what’s going to happen?

This.

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An arm, which could belong to an ogre, or something Neanderthal, smashes through the window and pushes Pat’s face hard up against the pane in front of her, not stopping until her head smashes through it. The music has come back with a vengeance, the percussion pummelling us into submission. Then we start to lose our sense of perspective as Pat appears to be now in an attic (?) – a jump in location which, yes, you could regard as incoherent, but I love it for its bad-dream logic.

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Then we get a dozen or so stabbings when one or two might have done the trick, including a shot of her punctured heart, which is still beating and still getting stabbed. Then, seemingly for no other reason than for the killer (and Argento) to show off, Pat has a noose tied around her neck, then she’s placed on top of the glass ceiling and she smashes through it, falling until the noose hangs her. We then cut to what is essentially a grand summation of all the chaos that has just transpired – we slowly pan down Pat’s bloodied body, we see that the shattered, fallen ceiling glass has killed her room mate. The music, made up of a creepy, sepulchral synthesiser, surveys the damage, and then we cut to the next morning.

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Wow.

The Rest of the Film

That opening act reaches heights that most horrors in their final act couldn’t hope to rival, and it’s terrifying to realise that the film has only just begun! We return to Suzy and her eventual misadventures at the dance academy, which as we all know (and love), involve maggots, cut throat razors, scary snoring, wild wallpaper, very white teeth, possessed doggies, blue irises, and even (in a nice nod to an earlier Argento film) a crystal plumage, all presented in glorious, vivid colours and backed by the most gloriously wild music. We all have our favourite moments from this film, and I’d like to delve into a few of them. Three in particular, although to be honest, the last example lasts well over ten minutes.

1. “We’ll all sleep together…”

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It’s been revealed that Suspiria was originally meant to feature children in the lead roles, but upon realising this would be a tricky road to carry on down given the story’s vicious content, the ages of the characters were bumped up to what I presume are early twenties, although the film sneakily still manages to exude a childlike feel by doing this like making the doorknobs higher than normal so that the adult actors would have to reach up to use them, by casting Harper with her afore-mentioned innocent visage, by avoiding any sexual overtones, and simply by emphasising the boarding school atmosphere of the academy. This is most evident in a deeply strange sequence where, after the upper floors of the Tanzakademie are revealed to have been infested with maggots, the students are made to sleep together ina  big hall with hastily arranged makeshift beds. I slept in a set-up just like this when I was a boy spending a week away on a trip with my local Cubs group, and it’s a weird atmosphere, like camping but indoors. Thankfully I didn’t have a demonic directress snoring the snores of the damned next to me, but it was still an unusual feeling, everybody together like that, sharing sleeping space with all these other people. Plus there was the size of the hall which, when crammed with all these other children, made for an intimate yet at the same time cavernous setting.

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Watching Suspiria, especially this scene, evokes these feelings of childhood, but an evil, twisted version. The students bicker, tease and pout just like kids, and Harper and Stefania Casini (as Suzy’s new friend Sara) in particular do very well in acting as though they were adolescent best friends, with their hushed whispers as they try not to be overheard, their fear of adults, in particular the ghastly, monstrous one just behind them. Okay, you could quibble at the totally unrealistic red hue the scene has been bathed in, or why the directress is sleeping in such close proximity to the students, but I didn’t care then and I don’t care now. What Suspiria does so well is present its absurdities in such a persuasive manner that I never feel like questioning them.

2. “Suzy, wake up!”

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Another remarkable scene is the stalking and eventual murder of Sara a cruelly drawn out set-piece that you know it going to end particularly horribly. It’s just a matter of how horrible. It’s unusual for a lead character to be so passive, but Suzy does spend a fair amount of the film drugged and/or out of the picture, and it’s when Sara needs her the most, when she realises that the witches are on to her, that Suzy ultimately fails her, drifting off to sleep, blissfully unaware of the killer’s presence when he/she walks past her sleeping in bed. Sara runs off on her own, deeper into the labyrinth of the academy, up to the attic where the maggots were previously taking up residence. There’s a terrific, understated scare when a door behind her opens out of the blue (talking of blue, the lighting in this sequence is beautifully vivid), an the wait for inevitable attack becomes unbearable. There’s even a return of those spooky eyes from the first scene lurking in the background, something I never even noticed in the blurry-VHS days. When the killer does attack (we never see their face, but given we see him with Sara’s lighter later on, it’s most likely the mute, ugly servant Pavlo, a revelation all the more disturbing given the film treated him as a figure of fun earlier), it’s a swift, brutal act that is dragged out even more than Pat’s demise, as Sara actually manages to temporarily evade death, having locked herself in a room. Much is made of the film’s remarkable score, but there’s a moment when it stops and all we hear is the ghastly scraping of the killer’s razor as he attempts to lift up the latch of the door with it, and this is where the adrenaline of the scene, emphasises by the music, is drained away and a very real dread seeps in, a horror of knowing that this character is definitely not going to make it.

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This scene plays out like a very bad dream, with a ridiculously inaccessible, small window the only means of escape. Sara does make it out, but if there ever was a textbook horror film definition of ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’, then this is it. We all know what happens next, and it is a reveal so outrageous that I am genuinely amazed that I didn’t think it utterly preposterous at the time. Instead it was so shocking, and the suspense leading up to it so effective that, frankly, there could have been anything in that room and I would have bought it.

3. “She must die…”

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The curious, albeit immortal, marketing for Suspiria declared that the only thing more frightening than the last twelve minutes of this film were the first ninety, a memorable tagline for sure, but clearly one that suggested the ending of the film was going to be a let-down! For some, the ending is a bit anticlimactic, but each to their own. For me, the ending is a brilliant culmination of a gradual, increasingly unbearable escalation of terror. Suzy is all alone in the academy, with all the other students and staff having apparently ‘gone to the theatre’, which is the kind of way a bad dream would start – the sense of being left out, the sudden, inexplicable disappearance of friends, being alone in what is essentially a haunted house. Alone in her room, illuminated in the kind of blue darkness that doesn’t exist in real life but looks utterly, spookily beautiful nonetheless, Suzy is attacked by a bat, its incongruous presence actually kind of understandable in a film like this. After that she decides to do a little investigating, cannily working out the secret route to the witches’ lair by correctly recalling the half-heard clue that was said to her by Pat at the start of the film. Suspiria continues Argento’s tradition of a detective struggling with their memory to try and solve the big mystery, although in the case of this film, we actually get as close to a happy ending as is possible in the director’s canon, a rare instance of the mystery being unravelled but the character managing not to be unravelled themselves, though admittedly it’s an ordeal to get to that ending.

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When Suzy turns the ‘secret, blue iris’, a little door opens and one of my favourite moments in any horror film begins. I’m talking about the golden corridor that Suzy walks down – in any other scenario, this would actually be quite a beautiful scene. It looks tranquil, regal and yet… we know where we are. This is the calm before the storm, and I find this corridor utterly creepy as a result. It doesn’t belong here, much like a lot of things in this film. There’s a bit just before the room with the iris when Suzy sneaks past a kitchen where two maids (who are in on the witches’ scheme and are not to be trusted) are laughing happily and going about their business, and it’s such a jolt to see these people who are privy to murder and evil being so jolly. Also, at the very start of the film, as Suzy tries to hail a cab, we see a McDonalds in the background. The thought of people cheerfully enjoying their Big Mac, so near yet so far to this demonic story sends shivers down me. You’d think that the sight of the golden arches would snap you out of Suspiria’s spell, but I think it enhances it. There’s so many classic instances of weird, unusual touches in this film – the bat, the out-of-nowhere lighting, that where-are-we?-attic from the opening murder… I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but Suspiria takes dream logic and applies it so seamlessly to the art of film that it’s no wonder that Argento went even further in Inferno, but there I find it too distracting and showy, and I can’t lose myself in it, despite the film’s many, many virtues.

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Suzy then sees the staff, who are definitely not at the theatre (so where are the other students?) and are in fact preparing to cast a spell to bring sickness and death upon Suzy. This marks the first time we have actually seen characters who we have suspected to be evil committing acts of evil. Everything so far has been acted out by anonymous characters whose identity is only possible to gauge in retrospect. Deep down we knew these characters were bad, but here is the proof. Even worse than that is the moment where we see Sara’s corpse, laid out as a grisly tableaux in a room that Suzy backs off into. Her once alive friend, now a grotesque with pins in her eyes and nails in her wrists. This room is the room, the most terrible room in a terrible house, the sleeping quarters of the directress, one Helena Markos, the Black Queen and, as we discover in Inferno, one of the legendary Three Mothers who wish to bring darkness, tears and sorrow upon the world. Suzy accidentally disturbs Markos (there’s a wonderful shot as the ornamental balls Suzy has knocked over head inevitably, unstoppably towards her bed) and the unthinkable happens – she awakens. When I first watched this, the tension was horrible.

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Now it’s true, the long-awaited confrontation between Suzy and Markos is short, but boy, is it deliciously sickly. The voice of Markos in the dubbed version might sound to some as very hammy, but she scared the fuck out of me when I was younger, and her promise to Suzy that she’s ‘going to meet death…the living dead!’ is one of the genre’s most chilling moments, as is the earlier line ‘Hell is behind that door!’ What happens next is a moment scarier than anything in the film’s more celebrated opening 15 minutes, as an undead Sara walks in, brandishing a knife, bleeding from the mouth and laughing maniacally. I’ve written before about the ultimate horror of a kind, good or heroic character turning bad, and the terror of when that person wants to hurt or even kill their former friend, loved one or relative, and while Sara’s return from the dead only lasts a few moments, it’s enough for it to leave a lasting, chilling impact. Yep, in swift time, Suzy dispatches Markos and successfully escapes from the now self-destructing academy, after which the film ends with her relieved, laughing and walking away from the burning building, from which we can hear the screams of the doomed staff. Roll credits.

You have been watching Suspiria

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And that’s that. Suspiria. Is it the greatest horror film ever, like I boldly claimed earlier? It’s all personal, isn’t it? What I find scary, others won’t. What other people find scary, I won’t. I mean horror, of all things, is so difficult to calmly, analytically rate. What I’m confident of is my opinion that Suspiria, more than any other film, captures the essence of what makes a horror great. So even if it isn’t officially the greatest horror film, it is the film that encapsulates best of all what it is that makes a horror film a horror film. Did that make sense?

Okay, it has dated in some respects. If you were feeling picky, you could point out the obvious use of a model dog’s head when the doomed, blind pianist Daniel’s erstwhile beloved mutt has his snack. Yeah, I guess Sara’s slit neck looks a bit, well… rubbery, I suppose? The clearly exaggerated red of the blood, although obviously an aesthetic choice to match the outrageous splendour of the surroundings, might turn off those who like their grue more realistic. Some of the dubbing is undeniably distracting, most obviously in the case of Pat and her room mate, and bitchy fellow student Olga too.

Ah yes, the dubbing. Normally, I avoid dubbed versions of films like the plague, but for a long time Suspiria was only ever available here in the UK in its English language incarnation, and with it came the natural awkwardness of not-quite right lip-sync, weird dialogue and not quite natural ambience. Oddly, like many Argento films, some of the actors on set were actually speaking in English, and others in Italian, and then everything was re-dubbed afterwards, so even performers like Harper, Alida Valli and Joan Bennett sound slightly strange. We all had to make do with the English version for a long time, but to be honest, such is the all-encompassing visual and aural assault of the film that I genuinely feel subtitles would be a distraction from all those sights and sounds.

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So to conclude, even though Argento would go on to make a very good film later on called Opera, Suspiria is genuinely operatic, a visceral assault of crescendos and high-impact spectacle that can arguably be regarded as the most musical of all horrors. In the same way that the precise impact of a piece of music can be difficult to define, so too is Suspiria’s power tricky to convey. Of course, its technical virtues are easy to applaud, but the other stuff, the stuff that crawls under your skin, gets into your head and invades your dreams… well, that’s magic. That’s Suspiria.

PS: If you would like to listen to an audio commentary for Suspiria recorded by me and my good friend Mark, then click on the commentaries link to the right of the page and download the free Suspiria track. Enjoy!