CULT CORNER: Suspiria (1977)

The horrifying answer to the question, “Do you fancy Italian tonight?” How does Dario Argento’s milestone hold up today? 

Who made it?: Dario Argento (Director, Co-Writer), Daria Nicoldi (Co-Writer), Claudio Argento, Salvatore Argento (Producers), Seda Spettacoli Productions.

Who’s in it?: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé, Barbara Magnolfi, Udo Kier.

Tagline: “The Only Thing More Terrifying Than The Last 12 Minutes Of This Film Are The First 92.”

IMDb rating: 7.4/10.

Suspiria may be the closest a horror film has ever got to replicating the helpless despair of a nightmare. It is an unwieldy tapestry of fairytale imagery, regional superstition and fluorescent blood. After three decades of cult worship, Italian director Dario Argento’s much-touted masterwork remains bewildering stuff; an hallucinatory explosion of sound and vision that doesn’t make much sense, but is all the more beguiling because of it. In Argento’s catalogue, visuals take centre-stage and story is secondary. Modern audiences may scoff at the atrocious dubbing, over-acting and hammy make-up, but there will be just as many of us sitting open-mouthed at the majesty of it all. You either surrender to Suspiria‘s wicked charms, or sit there angrily pondering what it all means.

Perhaps Suspiria works so well because it was the result of a confident filmmaker stepping out of his comfort zone. At that point, Argento was known as the world’s pre-eminent “Giallo” director. These pulpy murder mysteries, named after the yellow Italian paperbacks (giallo meaning yellow), weren’t fine examples of narrative craft, but they possessed virtuosic shots and murder sequences that went above and beyond the barriers of good taste. His rather brilliant debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), more or less established the rules of tackling this material on film. He perfected his take on the genre, directing cult oddities The Cat o’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (both 1971). The director soon became synonymous with stylised ultra-violence.

Perhaps tired of his new-found reputation, Argento broke the mold with historical drama The Five Days (1973), which was a box office failure. He retreated to his old formula, culminating in what some critics feel to be the definitive Giallo: Deep Red (1975). It’s a great film, indeed, but the archetypes were beginning to look out-dated, despite Argento’s penchant for surrealism. The director was at a turning point creatively – carry on making the same stories or go for broke and try something different? His inspiration would come from this then-girlfriend, actress Daria Nicoldi, who informed him about her grandmother’s disturbing childhood stories about occult goings-on. This provided the backbone for Suspiria, which Argento co-wrote with Nicoldi, a film that managed to incorporate the graphic murders audiences expected from his work, whilst probing into fascinating areas like the supernatural and the nature of reality itself. It is often incomprehensible, and instead of being a story to invest in, the picture works best as a filmmaking exercise in aesthetics.

The unforgettable opening makes the film’s gaudy intentions known. An American ballet student, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), arrives in Munich during a storm of mythic proportions. She’s there to enroll in a prestigious dance academy, but her arrival is ill-timed, coinciding with the murder of student Pat Hingle and her friend. After sitting through a gore sequence that pulls no punches, graphically depicting a beating heart being stabbed in close-up, you know exactly what kind of ride you’re in for. But there’s a neat supernatural twist to all the usual blood and guts. The antagonist here isn’t a masked psycho getting his kicks. It’s a coven of seriously twisted witches conjuring colourful spells that make Yellow Submarine look visually-restrained in comparison. The key word here is colour.

Lots and lots of colour.

Once Suzy is at the dance academy, and the girls become aware of the magical threat that surrounds them, Suspiria goes from one illogically terrifying set-piece to the next. It really is just a jumble of scenes (or dreams) that will test the patience of those seeking some substance, but they have great power individually. I don’t wish to spoil the film for newcomers, but I will say it includes a blind man being killed by his own guide dog and a girl trapped in a room filled with razor-wire. Suspiria is best enjoyed without too much prior knowledge, so all I can really offer is a breakdown of the technical credits that have made it one of the genre’s very best films.

For starters, every shot is just screaming out for a screen capture. Lucinao Tovoli’s cinematography is still a knock-out, brilliant for its use of imbibition Technicolor prints, the process used for The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, amping up the colours to painterly effect. They create a world far-removed from our own, and Argento’s precise camera movements bring a claustrophobic intensity to the dance academy, an ideally atmospheric backdrop for this massacre. You can see the influence of everything from German Expressionism to Disney, making this one of the most sumptuously-realised horror films in history. Your eyes will be pleased.

If the pretty images do half the work, then the music does the rest. The infamous score by rock band Goblin was recorded before filming began, and Argento played it on set to keep the actors in a state of frenzy (a technique used by Sergio Leone while making Once Upon a Time in the West, which Argento co-wrote). While it didn’t aid some of the performances, the soundtrack is one of the creepiest ever composed for a horror film. It is a truly deranged cacophony of distorted voices and repeated bars that get under your skin and lay seeds of twitchy paranoia. Suspiria wouldn’t be half as transfixing without it.

In typical Argento tradition, the acting is all over the map and barely worth discussing, but Harper is a solid heroine. She was picked after catching Dario’s eye in Brian De Palma’s cult classic Phantom of the Paradise, and she gives Suzy a convincing vulnerability. Harper gains our sympathy as the events grow wilder and crazier, leading to her explosive confrontation with the demented Helena Markos, a deadly witch with a knack for invisibility. The cast is merely there to lead us to this excess-all-areas finish, with Argento kicking up the pace to near unbearable levels. The denouement offers no answers, but brings the picture to a close on an delirium-fuelled high.

Suspiria was a hit around the world, doing great business in Argento’s homeland, as well as making a mint in America. It remains the director’s most successful work. He quickly followed it up with a loose sequel, the second in his so-called “Three Mothers” trilogy, Inferno (1980). It wasn’t well received at the time, but has slowly earned a cult acceptance, with Total Film naming it as one of the fifty best horror films ever made.

Suspiria isn’t a film that should be recommended to everyone. An appreciation of horror cinema and non-linear storytelling is all but demanded, although it remains the director’s finest achievement. I can live with the dubbing, an unfortunate by-product of the era in which it was made, but others won’t be so kind. I can even forgive the fake blood for looking so much like red paint. This isn’t a film concerned about realism or audience expectations. Suspiria is an unbridled style piece that is both horrible and beautiful in equal measure; a truly original concoction that is utterly unique and unforgettable. Your nightmares have never looked as good as this.

Best Scene

The opening murder sequence is easily one of the most creative in 70s cinema.

Useless Trivia

  • Argento’s original idea was that the ballet school would accommodate girls no older than 12. However, the studio and the producer (his father) denied his request because a film this violent involving children would be surely banned. Argento raised the age limit of the girls to 20 but didn’t rewrite the script, hence the naivety of the characters and occasionally childlike dialogue. He also put all the doorknobs at about the same height as the actress’ heads, so they would have to raise their arms in order to open the doors, just like children.
  • The first Italian film to make use of the then newly invented Steadicam, which had been used extensively for Rocky (1976).
  • The woman playing Helena Markos is uncredited. According to Jessica Harper, she was a 90-year-old ex-hooker Argento found on the streets of Rome.
  • The voice heard whispering on the bizarre soundtrack by Goblin is that of band member Claudio Simonetti. He stated in interviews that much of what he whispers on the music score is just gibberish. In the opening credits, they are incorrectly referred to as “The Goblins.”
  • Quentin Tarantino was inspired by Argento’s indulgent use of colour for his dreamlike segment in Sin City (2005).
  • The Smashing Pumpkins used the theme from the film as introductory music on their 2007 tour.
  • Empire magazine ranked Suspiria #312 on their list of the 500 Greatest Movies of All Time, as well as #45 on their list of the 100 Best Films of World Cinema.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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