REVIEW BASED UPON THE ANCHOR BAY DVD RELEASE
Verdict: 10 out of 10
“Suspiria” is widely regarded as Dario Argento’s best film, and a masterpiece of horror genre cinema. The movie was released in 1977 to huge critical acclaim, with film journalists who’d previously attacked the director’s work being forced to acknowledge the technical mastery on offer here. Even British critic Alexander Walker was forced to admit that the film was “a deliberately overblown piece of gothic ghoulishness that makes other tales of terror look anaemic”. It was also the first time that the auteur managed to gain recognition for his work outside of his native Italy, propelling Argento into the front ranks of horror filmmaking.
The director has always acknowledged that one of his great influences is the literary work of Edgar Allen Poe. The mysticism present in Poe’s writing was never really able to find an expression in the director’s work until “Suspiria”, as Poe’s tales like “The Black Cat” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” were completely unrelated to the giallo style of filmmaking for which Argento made his name. However, the director always wanted to ultimately make a film that was thematically linked to Poe, embracing both the supernatural and realms of witchcraft within the narrative. When considering his next project after “Deep Red”, Argento remembered a tale told by his partner Daria Nicolodi about her grandmother’s experiences with witchcraft at her finishing school. It was this, combined with his obsession with Poe, that formulated the basis for “Suspiria”.
The film opens as American ballet student Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) arrives in Munich to enrol at the Freiberg Dance Academy. However, almost immediately after she starts her studies the Academy is struck by a spate of bizarre murders, with someone killing both students and teachers alike. Suzy begins to research the Academy’s past, only to discover that it was founded by the notorious witch Elena Markos, one of the legendary ‘Three Mothers’. Seeking help from her friend Sara (Stefania Casini), she begins to uncover the mystery with deadly consequences. Is Markos still alive and responsible for the murders? What horrors lie in wait for the two pupils of the Freiberg Academy?
At its heart, “Suspiria” is an adult fairytale. This is first indicated by the voiceover during the credits, intoning a ‘once upon a time’ style of opening most associated with writers like the Brothers Grimm. But while in most fairy tales this is supposed to comfort the audience and prepare them for the journey to follow, in Argento’s film this merely serves to plunge the viewer into the literal heart of a storm, with Suzy leaving the safety of the airport to be thrust into an ethereal world where the weather’s almost as harsh as the violence that follows.
From these opening moments it’s obvious that this film isn’t only a complete and radical departure from the director’s usual work, but also from the vast majority of horror flicks in the 1970’s. In a decade obsessed with making horror both gritty and realistic in movies like the “The Exorcist”, and the original “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, Argento’s “Suspiria” is the antithesis of this narrative and visual style. The film is unrealistic, dream-like and operatic in many respects, also being totally excessive in terms of visuals and sound.
The visual style of “Suspiria” is truly unique, and has only been matched perhaps by its counterpart “Inferno”. Luciano Tavoli’s photography continues the fairytale quality of the piece due to the entire emphasis being placed on primary colours. This is achieved through the use of out of date Kodak film stock, which combined with a mixture of filters and gels really gives the whole movie an amazing sense of spectacle and unease. This is matched by Giuseppe Basson’s production design, with vast sets emphasising the baroque décor whilst continuing the extreme use of colour. An obvious example of all these elements is the early murder of Pat Hingle (Eva Axen), which is widely celebrated as the most spectacular and inventive of Argento’s set pieces. The whole sequence takes place in an apartment bock of nightmarish and Freudian design – crimson red walls, a primary-coloured glass ceiling, and complex geometric layout. This moment serves to demonstrate the true power of “Suspiria” to entertain, shock and thrill all at once. It also proves conclusively that the flick is totally devoid of any sense of reality, due to the operatic visual excess and exaggeration demonstrated.
The sound is also visionary, with an incredibly powerful score created by Argento’s collaborators on “Deep Red”, the Italian rock group Goblin. The music uses a variety of methods in order to disconcert the audience and add to the nightmarish quality of the film. It contains a combination of vocal chanting, medieval instrumentation, filtered chords, resonant synthesizer tones, harsh rhythms and musical box chimes to create an aural assault that never allows the viewer any time to relax. The score for “Suspiria” perhaps also serves to demonstrate Argento’s directorial style more than any other movie he has created since, as the vast majority of the music was created before the cameras started to roll. Many of the cast members (including Jessica Harper) remember quite clearly that Argento shot key scenes with the Goblin score blaring out of a stereo system in order to accentuate their hysterical performances.
But this movie has much more to offer than just excess in terms of imagery and sound. When considering the use of locations, it becomes clear that Argento is also making a profound comment on transition between places, and how in a world full of witchcraft this relocation can be terrifying and dangerous. The opening five minutes serves to demonstrate this conceit perfectly; Suzy moving from the relative tranquillity of the airport to the violent storm outside and then finally into the hostile cab ride. Movement from one location to the other is deeply unsettling in this sequence, suggesting that the greatest fear is moving into the unknown where all factors are out of our control. In order to subvert this genre staple, Argento heightens the impact by implying through use of colour (note the use of darkness as Suzy shifts from one place to another) that each location is potentially a portal into another world, linking perfectly to the ideas of Edgar Allen Poe and witchcraft on which the story of “Suspiria” is so reliant.
The screenplay contains a variety of impressive and disturbing set pieces, which cemented the director’s reputation for making incredibly visceral movies. The most infamous of these may be the double murder sequence mentioned earlier, but there’re other equally affecting moments throughout this film. One such example is Sara’s attempt to spy on the witches and evade capture; it’s incredibly taut and well executed, using pace and editing to maximum effect. It also contains a massively shocking pay-off, as just when the audience is fooled into thinking that Sara has managed to evade capture, Argento springs one final twisted surprise. The attack on the pianist Daniel (Flavio Bucci) is also superb, with the director displaying yet another innovative visual trick where the camera swoops down on the unfortunate figure.
Despite all this, one of the biggest criticisms constantly levelled at “Suspiria” is the fact that it contains very little in the way of narrative, supposedly choosing instead to hang visual moments and motifs on a very thin plotline. Sure, it may not have the philosophical depth of other genre entries such as “The Wicker Man” or even “The Exorcist”, but this is an entirely different kind of picture altogether. It doesn’t theorise or attempt to explain why evil exists, it simply shows the audience that darkness is all around us and that it’s perhaps more prevalent in some cultures more than others. Maitland McDonagh perhaps sums it up best in her Argento study “Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds”, where she writes “it doesn’t precisely make sense in any conventional way, but then neither does the story of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’; what kind of stupid little girl can’t tell her Grandmother from a great hairy wolf? Does the situation call for complicated solutions involving associative mental disorders? No. That isn’t the POINT”.
The cast all acquit themselves very well. Jessica Harper is perfect as Suzy, demonstrating femininity combined with the strength of character which eventually leads her to a confrontation with the witches coven and Elena Markos herself. The peripheral figures around Suzy are rather less defined, and here perhaps lies the biggest problem with “Suspiria”. The film is technically dazzling but it does tend to lack the interplay and characterisation that so benefited Argento’s earlier “Deep Red”.
Despite this criticism, Argento’s text is a violent ballet of sound and imagery. Full of sumptuous visual and aural material which both pleases and assaults the senses in equal measure, it’ll undoubtedly continue to be regarded as the cornerstone of the auteur’s career, and also as a movie which pushed the boundaries of horror in countless ways, and still seems to some 30 years later. Subversive and revolutionary in equal measure; “Suspiria” is a masterpiece of modern cinema and is only matched by the second part of the ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy – “Inferno”. The third and final entry in this series “La Terza Madre [The Mother of Tears]” might not be as sophisticated as the others, but at least genre audiences will always have “Suspiria”, which is perhaps why it’s regarded as one of the best horror films of all time. I’ll always think so.
The Last Word:
One of Argento’s best… and without question one of the greatest horror films of all time