After the mostly international success of Deep Red, Dario Argento grew tired of making giallos. 1977's Suspiria, the first part of the director's unfinished Three Mothers trilogy, marked his first foray into the realm of the supernatural. Argento's deliriously artificial horror film owes as much to Georges Méliès and German Expressionism (specifically The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) as it does to Jean Cocteau and Grimm fairy tales. Having traveled through many European capitals (including the geographical "magic" point where Switzerland, France, and Germany meet), Argento became entranced with the Austrian-born Rudolf Steiner, whose controversial Waldorf schools had been attacked for teaching occult practices in the guise of arts-based education. Less real-world influences came from Argento's partner Daria Nicolodi, who had become attracted to various fairy-tale sources, from Alice in Wonderland and Bluebeard to Pinocchio and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Argento's visuals actively evoke a fairy-tale fantastique, engaging and toying with the Technicolor glory of Disney's cartoon version of Snow White, a film the director had been obsessed with since youth. Additional elements were filtered into the project from Suspiria de Profundis (Sighs from the Depths), a collection of essays written by Thomas De Quincey (Confessions of an Opium Eater), and Fritz Lang's little-seen The Secret Beyond the Door, a Freudian interpretation of the Bluebeard story from which the Argento film borrows considerably more than the fabulous Joan Bennett.
The delirious Goblin composition that accompanies the film's opening scene brings to mind the sounds of a little girl's ballerina music box. A narrator's voice is barely audible over the soundtrack, which plays atop the standard white-on-black credits: "Suzy Banyon decided to perfect her ballet studies in the most famous school of dance in Europe. She chose the celebrated Tanzakademie of Freiburg. One day at 9am, she left Kennedy airport, New York, and arrived in Germany at 10:40 local time." While there are few signifiers here to suggest the tale takes place in Germany, Argento subtly focuses the spectator's gaze on a poster of the Black Forest taped to one of the airport terminal's walls. Suspiria may be Argento's silliest work, but while its plot is scarcely sensible, the film rightfully earns its notoriety via Argento's fabulous and detailed engagement and reworking of fairy-tale motifs. The film's opening "once upon a time" giddily anticipates the nasty folktale that follows.
Suzy (Jessica Harper) arrives at the German airport. Like a ballerina leaving the safety of her music box, she passes through the airport's automatic doors and hails a taxi in the middle of a torrential rainstorm. The lights from the taxicab chillingly illuminate the crevices between the forest trees; a flash of lightning reveals a shadowy image (perhaps a scythe or a knife) reflected on a large tree stump. All the while, Suzy is innocently bathed in the warm blue tones of Luciano Tovoli's glorious cinematography. Blink and you'll miss a subliminal superimposition--reflected on the cab's security divider is the still image of a screaming face (possibly that of Argento's). Arriving at the Tanzakademie, a drenched Suzy witnesses a terrified Pat (Eva Axen) screaming up to someone inside the school. Pat runs off and Suzy is told to leave the school by a girl talking into an intercom. Suzy is too frazzled to pay much attention to Pat's cries, purposefully muted by Argento so as to leave both Suzy and the spectator in the dark. By film's end, Suzy comes to discover that her recollection of Pat's exact words (she can only remember the words "secret" and "irises") will lead to her salvation.
Riding back into the city, Suzy watches a frightened Pat running through the Black Forest. (Compare the jaw-dropping lighting and disorienting pacing of this scene to a similar moment from Secret Beyond the Door when Bennett's character runs into a forest and believes she's being chased by her husband, played by Michael Redgrave.) Pat stays the night with a friend, whose apartment building's architecture is outrageously garish but nowhere near as unnerving as the wallpaper in Pat's bedroom. Modeled after M.C. Escher's "Sky and Water," the walls evoke Argento's signature obsession with sight and sightlessness. Birds and fish are the composite elements, uniting to form an ornate visual landscape. Separately, though, each animal forms a point of departure. The pictorial elements interlock at various points while becoming independent from each other as the wallpaper nears the room's window. Paired concepts such as dark/light and mobility/immobility come to mind as the trapped Pat is seemingly lulled to the window. Pat is hung from a telephone wire and violently thrust through the stained glass ceiling of the apartment complex; the falling glass, in turn, slices Pat's friend to death. The shattered glass, Pat's dangling corpse and her dribbling blood become glorious elements of the apartment building's already phenomenal artificiality.
An even more impressive manipulation of mise-en-scène lies in the film's door handles, another possible shout-out to Secret Beyond the Door: In their higher than usual positions, the handles emphasize the youth and stature of the film's characters in relation to their grotesquely imposing doll house. Suzy returns to the school, meeting the faculty and her fellow students. With the exception of Sara (Stefania Casini), all the girls are petty and cruel. The administrators--the miserly Madame Blanc (Bennett) and the firm Miss Tanner (Alida Valli)--are cold and suspiciously secretive. Just as Madame Blanc and Miss Tanner are the picture-perfect renditions of evil stepmothers, the school's attendees bring to mind Cinderella's bitchy stepsisters. Madame Blanc, like Snow White's jealous stepmother, is instantly aware (and wary) of Suzy's beauty: "You're pretty, very pretty indeed." More importantly, though, is the element of distance from family--Suzy's journey is similar to that of Snow White's in that both heroines left the comfort of home for the misleading solace of a dwelling in the woods. Suzy is forced to stay at the Academy after a mysterious fainting spell; like Snow White's poisoned apple, wine has been used to keep Suzy close to the enemy. Argento wallows in all sorts of weird behavior when the gossipy Olga goes on about the snake-like nature of girls whose names begin with the letter "S" while another student poetically pontificates about school procedures: "Squawk, squawk, squawk. Mata Hari is gong to make her daily report." Even the words in the film are like seductions.
The wallpaper in Pat's bedroom is also Argento's first allusion to flying in the film. Supernatural behavior in Suspiria is pervasive and inescapable, commanded by a coven of witches. Even a simple swim is seemingly chaperoned by a faceless evil. It is this otherworldly presence that perhaps explains why the rationale for death in the film remains so inexplicable: the school's blind piano instructor, Daniel (Flavio Bucci), is mauled to death by his own guide dog; and earlier in the film, Daniel is unceremoniously fired from the school after his dog is accused of taking a bite out of Madame Blanc's young, blond-haired nephew. Whether the dog intentionally attacked the child is beside the point, the animal is clearly commanded by a supernatural being when it lunges for his own master. In this, the film's signature set piece, Tovoli's camera takes on the point of view of a flying monster. Walking through a desolate Munich plaza, the helpless blind man senses evil. Shadowy figures hovering above the plaza's main building become the sole means by which the spectator can gauge the shape of this evil. Later in the film, a bat attacks Suzy in her bathroom. The animal seems to function as bait, convincing Suzy to explore the cavernous hallways of the schoolhouse.
The safety of the Freiburg airport gives way to the psychedelic terror of the Academy, where Suzy has been propelled into Alice's terrifyingly colorful rabbit hole. The film's visual palette is suggestive of a hierarchical journey through the Academy. Hallways are bathed in reds, yellows, and blues, and, in effect, different rooms in the school begin to take on a meaning all their own. Suzy meets the administrators in the garish Blue Room, where a grandiose staircase comes with a handrail made of golden snakes; Miss Tanner conducts her classes in the Red Room, where Suzy defends her right to live outside the school; and in the Yellow Room, her fainting spell gives way to a ravishing nosebleed. Journeying through the school's hallways, a poisoned Suzy seems frozen in time; she's overwhelmed by air-born dust particles and blinded by the light reflected off a star-shaped object being cleaned off by the school's kitchen woman. Every single image is ravishingly beautiful, like watching Secret Beyond the Door in Technicolor!
Traps have been set for those who should near or stumble upon the school's hidden passages--a nosy Sara meets her Grimm demise inside a room inundated with barbed wire. After her friend's demise, Suzy is forced to crack the code of the "secret/irises," imprinted on the walls of Madame Blanc's flowery chamber room and readily available to Suzy (not to mention the careful spectator) for deciphering. Once Suzy has destroyed the coven of witches, walls begin to crumble and crack. Indeed, the intricacies of Argento's mise-en-scène are as beautiful to behold as they are devastating to see falling apart. Suzy fights for balance, walking through the jewel-toned hallways of the academy so carefree she resembles a skittish, liberated diva seeking refuge from the deep recesses of her own subconscious. Once skeptical, she is now the master of Argento's magical domain. Snow White has left the building.
This costs £18 at the moment, which is unusually high for a Blu-ray released a few years ago. Possibly it's on the cusp of going out of print.
Dario Argento is the best-known Italian horror director of the 1970s, probably of all time. He started out making gialli (stylish horror-tinged murder mysteries), but although they were generally better than other directors' gialli, they weren't spectacularly so. The film that really put him on the map was Suspiria, which is one of the most visually stylish horror films ever made, and has what is probably the best ever horror soundtrack.
An ex-pupil of a German dance school is brutally murdered, just as a new American student, Suzy, arrives to enrol. Suzy realises that something is very wrong at the school, with other mysterious deaths and disappearances. Where do the teachers go every night? And what secret did the murdered girl uncover?
I've never really warmed to Argento, and although this is easily his best film, it still leaves me a bit cold. It's certainly visually amazing and creates an uncanny atmosphere like nothing else. But I find it too precise, too distant; it doesn't engage me on an emotional level at all. It's difficult to care about Suzy, because she isn't really very well drawn as a character - we're left with the suspicion that we're supposed to be rooting for her simply because she's on camera the longest, and because we're naturally expected to like pretty young women in horror movies.
It never quite feels like Argento cares about her either. It's practically an art house film, with its very intrusive camera-work and odd little cutaways to random details. The sets, the photography and especially the direction and music are the stars here. And this faintly inhuman quality is what I find off-putting. All Argento's films have that quality, but Suspiria and its sequel Inferno go furthest away from human interest.
But, for all I wish he'd given us a plot that made sense and characters we could care about, I have to admit that Suspiria is one of the most beautiful horror films ever made. It's full of heavily saturated colours, from the icy blues and night-vision greens of the boarding school's bedrooms to the blurry blood red lighting that fills the corridors. It feels almost like its colour-coded, in the same way Corman's Masque of the Red Death or Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover do. The sets are sumptuous, art deco to the point of extreme kitsch, and the occasional glimpses of the world outside the school aren't much more natural looking - a creepy, expressionist forest, or a city square look just as controlled as the interiors.
The camera prowls through these sinister locations. I don't think I've seen a film which so successfully summons up a sense of dread without anything really happening. The first ten minutes are laden with menace, even though all we see is a girl catch a taxi from an airport to a school. Argento somehow makes absolutely everything seem alien and dangerous, something which keeps up throughout almost the entire movie. Suspiria exists on a constant knife edge of hysteria.
Probably the main reason for the film's effectiveness is the incidental music by Italian prog rockers Goblin. I cannot think of a better horror soundtrack. It's a barrage of amazing noise. The discordant cacophony that accompanies the murder scenes is only bettered by the creepy music-box-with-sinister-whispering main theme. Without it the film would only be half as good as it is and Argento's work noticeably plummeted in quality when he no longer had Goblin to fall back on (just like Peter Greenaway's films fell apart when he stopped working with Michael Nyman).
There are surprisingly few violent scenes in Suspiria, but those that there are do not disappoint. Well, except for one, which is bloody ridiculous. Argento is often charged with misogyny, and his films do tend to feature beautiful girls getting killed in heavily stylised scenes that end with them posed like fashion models covered in blood. I'm an aficionado of 1970s exploitation films, and there are some pretty rotten examples of violence against women in such films. But I do tend to feel an extra frisson of unease with Argento, perhaps because his films are made with a technical competence far beyond the grasp of most horror directors. Although not everyone who dies is female, there is a gloating attention to the scenes where women die that is uncomfortable to watch. The phallic knife thrusts, and the pretty hideous scene where a girl thrashes around in a room full of razor wire, are nastier than anything you'd find in most gialli.
Why a dance school even has a room full of razor wire is a moot point. I guess because it's a dance school... of eeeevil. Muah hah hah hahhh. The film seems at first to be just another giallo, albeit one with a particularly competent murderer. But as things go on it takes a distinct turn for the strange and ends up far more rooted in traditional, gothic horror. But that doesn't make the plot any more sensible. It has a kind of dreamlike disregard for logic, which is fine I guess. The plot itself is quite silly (there's a terrible exposition scene just before the climax), but that's true of most dreams, too. I love the idea that the school was originally set up to teach 'dance and occult sciences'. It's very obvious that Argento has included things he thinks will look cool, rather than things which necessarily further the plot. So we get showers of maggots and creepy children and corpses with nails in their eyes, not because the plot demands such things, but because the film needs to keep throwing weird stuff at us to paper over the cracks where the plot should be.
It is scary at times - the creepy kid is particularly good (he's probably based on the creepy little girl in Mario Bava's Kill Baby Kill). There's also a textbook stalk-and-slash sequence when Suzy's friend unwisely decides to leave her room after dark. Some of the gore effects are a bit clunky (including one terrible latex throat-slitting), but the really awful special effects are saved for the unwise moments where animals attack. The fake dog's head is bad, as bad as anything in Lucio Fulci's The Beyond. The bat is sub-Hammer, and the beauty of HD is that you can see the wires holding it up with complete clarity. It's bizarre that a film that is otherwise so precise, so controlled, blows it on such dreadful animal props.
Oddly, the film features no nudity whatsoever. Most horror films set in girls' boarding schools (especially ones where all the girls are clearly meant to be over 18) would be rife with shower scenes and lesbian snogging. I can't help but feel a little cheated.
Jessica Harper is excellent as Suzy, managing to make us sort-of care what happens to her even though the script doesn't give her much to work with. She is very good at looking scared and confused, anyway. Old-school Hollywood star Joan Bennett plays the head of the school, and Alida Valli (from The Third Man among other things) is great as the most obviously sinister teacher. Exploitation perennial Udo Kier turns up to spout exposition for five minutes, but doesn't make much of an impact.
The film looks very good in HD. It's a more than adequate transfer, and is the only reason I wanted to see the film again. Blu-ray could have been made for a film that's so visually stylish, and that's so drenched in rich colour. To my untrained eye this looked superb, and it's the kind of film that benefits massively from higher picture quality. A couple of scenes noticeably lost quality for some reason - perhaps they were taken from a different source. But that was only a minute at most.
This was released on Nouveux Pictures' 'Cine Excess' label (there's a really annoying pink logo messing up the otherwise very nice front cover image). Unfortunately, while I instinctively applaud any company putting films like this out, the logo that plays at the beginnings of their documentary featurettes is rubbish. It's a minor point, but it put me off from the start.
The actual extras include a decent half-hour talking head documentary about the film. Argento and musician Claudio Simonetti give their perspective on making the film (Argento amusingly claims he's not a misogynist basically because he says so). There are also contributions from critic Kim Newman, British horror director Norman J Warren, and academic Patricia McCormack (she turns up in a lot of stuff like this, and I wonder if it's a rather desperate attempt to persuade audiences that women do like this kind of thing, honest). The main problem with this is the narration by Zavier Hendrik, who I think is in charge of the company that released it. He delivers over-academic narration that would be fine to read, but sounds overblown when said out loud.
There are also longer versions of the Simonetti, Warren and McCormack interviews, and a ten-minute puff piece for the Cine Excess label's other releases. I'd rather have had some normal, unpretentious trailers.
The best extra is a commentary by Kim Newman and Argento expert Alan Jones. I'm not a huge fan of film historian/critic commentaries usually, but this one was actually interesting enough to watch through to the end.
Although I was suitably impressed by Suspiria in HD, I still fundamentally don't really like the film all that much. It looks and sounds incredible, but it lacks soul.