Suspiria (1977)

Director: Dario Argento

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By Roderick Heath

Dario Argento’s terror masterpiece is a strange work even for that stylistic champion. Like Brian De Palma, his contemporary (and probable acolyte), Argento’s cinematic gamesmanship and love of macabre subjects is, above all, a meditation on the movie screen as tectonic space—a canvas, yes, but also a silk screen, a puzzle box, a set of sliding doors that can be used to reveal anything. Also like De Palma, he drew on the disparate legacies of Hitchcock and Mario Bava in inventing a new kind of thriller where the act of watching is taken advantage of and the importance of narrative is spurned in favour of looking, both soothing and shocking the eye at once.

In Argento’s brilliant debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L’Uccello dalle Piume di Cristallo, 1970), the killer’s identity is steadily revealed by a constant series of reference to a vital earlier scene in which an assault within an art gallery itself becomes a work of art. Its great glass windows become, in effect, both a painting frame and a movie screen whose meaning constantly taunt and alter. Suspiria also involves art as it central motif, except here it’s two disparate arts—dance, the art of pure motion, and architecture, the art of stark immobility. These opposites dovetail in the Freiburg Dance Academy, where the film is set, an art nouveau hellhole.

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Suspiria is also, might I add, a thunderous horror film. The plot can be written on a matchbook. Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives in Germany’s Black Forest to attend the academy and perfect her style. She discovers it’s the home of a witch’s coven, and anyone who discovers this usually ends up dead. Messily dead. On the night of her arrival, no one will let her in. An hysterical young student, Pat (Eva Axén), runs out into the night after screaming some thunder-muffled message. Whilst Suzy heads to a hotel, the panicked Pat goes to the apartment of a friend. Whilst her friend is out of the room, Pat feels a presence. She sees a pair of glowing eyes outside the window just before a hairy arm smashes through it, jams her face into the glass, and hauls her onto the balcony. She’s stabbed repeatedly to the point of baring her still-beating heart before being hung with a wire noose and dropped through a skylight. The broken glass from the skylight impales her friend as she frantically screams for help.

It’s an impressive scene, though Argento’s gore is always so cartoonishly overdone—a virtual apogee of horror cinema in itself—it’s hard to take seriously. Suzy finally gains admittance to the academy the next day. She is greeted by the mistresses of the school, Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and the formidable dominatrix Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), whom she irritates by deciding to live in town. The Directress of the Academy is never around—the excuse is always that she’s travelling abroad.

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Shortly after arriving, Suzy seems to be hypnotically affected by one of the staff members and becomes ill during a training session. The camera flows back and forth as Harper buckles in pain as the sadistic Valli puts them through their paces. Suzy soon finds herself placed on a special diet, and her temporary infirmity used as an excuse to move her belongings to the academy. One night, all of the girls are driven screaming from their rooms by a shower of maggots that seem to have come from tainted food stored upstairs. Waiting for the fumigators, the students are forced to bunk down on mattresses in a dance hall, divided by screens from the staff. As they lay trying to sleep, Suzy and her new friend Sara (Stefania Casini) hear a strange, wheezy breathing from the ugly shape that has just settled beyond the curtain. Sara recognises this from a past incident as the breathing of the supposedly absent Directress.

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Gasp! Could the Directress really be Helena Marcos, the fabled Greek witch who founded the Academy at least two centuries ago? Is Suzy a prospective sacrifice? Yeah, something like that. Argento’s basic notion, inspired by an element of Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis describing the Three Fates, was to construct a trilogy around the three different Mothers De Quincey mentioned. Argento made the second film, Inferno (1980), a more baroque, nasty, and uneven work than Suspiria. In 2007, the third part The Mother of Tears finally appeared.

Argento began as a screenwriter, and had a notable early contact with two greats of the Italian cinema, Sergio Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci, with whom he developed the story for Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Like Leone, Argento became fundamentally concerned with exploring cinema as a series of rhythmic scene structures; like Bertolucci, he had a sensual fascination with the use of décor and beautiful women. Unlike either, he became an unconscionable goremeister (the respect Leone received, and still receives, over Argento and Bava before him, is largely due to the less outré genres he worked in, and the commensurately higher budgets). Argento took to an extreme a kind of cinematic fetishism logical in the horror genre—the plush, but untouchable beauty of what is on screen can only provide sensual satisfaction by being destroyed. In The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento confronted the erotic danger of his brand of cinema, leaping off from the dualism rife in Mario Bava’s films, by contrasting the face of female fear (Eva Renzi’s and Suzie Kendall’s) with one of female madness (Renzi’s again) as victim becomes villain. Argento often took the edge off the misogynistic air of his films by having female heroes and villains.

Bird’s narrative circles around an obsession with a naïf painting. Suspiria, on the other hand, is a naïf painting that places it ingénue heroines against backgrounds of primary colours. Argento surely influenced not just De Palma but also Kubrick (e.g., The Shining), in emphasising environment as a kind of high-décor trap of space and time.

In addition, there are none of the bluffs and games of Argento’s earlier films. Instead, Suspiria patterns itself after a fairy tale, down to aping the setting of many a children’s book about adventurous scamps, and stranding its heroines amidst a terrifying mystery. In the screenplay, the characters were originally supposed to be no more old than 12 years old, an element that was changed shortly before shooting to avoid the controversy the film’s violence might stir. Yet, Harper and her fellows are still babes in a very strange wood. Lake a far more interesting Harry Potter story, Suspiria manipulates the cosy/frightening duality of the boarding school mythos in a supernatural world. When the girls venture out of the security of their domiciles, they inevitably discover something horrifying and die horribly, like Sara, who tries with youthful ingenuity to work out where the teachers go every night by counting out their footsteps, only to end up being pursued by the hairy-armed demon with a straight razor.

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Argento’s progressive rock band Goblins provides the film’s relentlessly eerie score, which underscores even supposedly innocuous scenes, for example, when Sara and Suzy swim whilst discussing witches, as the camera evokes the same hovering menace that has already claimed Daniel (Flavio Bucci) the blind school pianist. (His seeing-eye dog bit Madame Blanc’s creepy nephew Albert [Jacopo Mariani]. Daniel is booted out, but his final threat [“I’m blind, not deaf!”] precipitates his death—the strange fluttering presence swooping over his head in an empty square, causing his dog to leap on him and tear his throat out. Argento’s vicious humour is at its most stinging in such scenes.)

But Suspiria is barely about its gore. It’s more about a mood of relentless unease. Like so many Italian horror films, the narrative imperative demands the heroine explore the increasingly mysterious bowels of the building at the centre of the narrative— a the labyrinth of the mind where psychology and sexuality become entrapped and septic, perhaps—and penetrate the heart of a deathless mystery. The heroes either escape or die trying (Mario Bava, in Lisa e il Diavolo, 1972, became one of the few directors to defy this sure ending, with the heroine falling prey to fate after escaping the trap). As Suzy follows the clues, she explores a shadowy realm of absurd beauty and menace and finally penetrates the inner sanctum of the witches just as they’re endeavouring to bring about her end by a hex. She retreats into a bedroom and hears that signature hoarse breathing of Helena Marcos, who mocks her (Daria Nicolodi, who cowrote the screenplay with Argento) before summoning Sara’s reanimated, knife-wielding corpse to take care of her. Yet in a moment of reflexive conciseness, Suzy stabs Markos in the neck (with the crystal plumage from a bird statuette, no less), causing Markos to expire, the rest of the coven to fall about in bleeding agony, and the Academy to begin crashing down around their ears in a final expulsion of utter malevolence.

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Argento’s careful use of colour, sound, and décor make him one of the few horror directors who has ever been able to evoke a truly powerful sense of atmosphere in an indisputably modern version of the genre—Suzy’s arrival in an airport with its drenching blues and reds and muted sound effects to her first journey through the Black Forest where plays of lightning briefly highlight the shape of something upon a tree trunk, and her final penetration of the Academy’s heart. Mood constantly trumps both plot and horror. Suspiria is a strange, beautiful, ugly dream.

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