Newest Review: ... sickly sweet tune until the sudden hit of menacing strings raising the pitch and the audience's pulses while the vivid lighting gives a sh... more
Itlaian Horror Legend's Finest Hour
Member Name: DWMayeaux
Advantages: Stylised horror at it's peak
Disadvantages: Blue Peter style special effects and some odd plot moves
Suspiria is a nasty tale of a young American ballet dancer alienated in an ancient ballet academy run by some elegant, but suspect ladies situated deep in the Black Forest in Germany.
It was directed by Dario Argento (famed for giallo movies such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) as the first part of a trilogy; the sequels being the equally brilliant Inferno and the more disappointing Mother of Tears. It was produced by Dario's brother Claudio in 1976 and released worldwide the following year amongst strong opinions. Some hailed the piece as a work of genius, while others viewed it a masochistic platform for Argento's misogyny.
Unlike his previous releases it possessed a supernatural theme, but the look and feel remained the same with stylised horror and theatric shots.
"Although often dismissed for their lurid titles and excessive violence. The giallo also reflected some of the social, cultural and political termoil that gripped Italy during the 1970s" - Xavier Mendik (Director of Cine-excess)
The 1970s was a time of turmoil across most of Europe. Rioting by the diseffected youth was frequent and dominated the media. Their causes were generally just, but also violent. Subsequently violence became seductive to the general public. The giallo movies exploited this trend with sensual violent images of beautiful women in art deco settings.
Like Suspiria many giallo films begin or end in airports, giving an international feel, but also putting the protagonist in a world alien to their own. This also provided a connection for the burgeoning jet set generation allowing Italian cinema to exploit its 'Italianess' by setting the murders in tourist hotspots. Contrary to giallo tradition Suspiria is set in Germany, but the idea is still the same. Another common trait of giallo was to present an eye witness who is compelled to return to the place of the crime. Unfortunately for Susie her event takes place in what is to become her home, though her mind frequently returns to the scene to try to piece together her memories of the first night.
"Fear is a 370 degree body temperature. With Suspiria I wanted 400 degrees" - Dario Argento
'Fear' in Suspiria is the fear you feel when you wake from a nightmare you can't remember. It's very real; you can feel it, but there's very little tangible evidence for it. This is cinema of poetry where there is little narrative and only a vague attempt at a linear storyline. The viewer's emotion is controlled by the senses as they are dazzled by colours, images and sounds, heightening awareness and make believing that something moves in every shadow. Because it's not based around narrative, it is a film you can watch many times.
"The opening scene frightened the hell out of me and I couldn't fathom why" - Patricia McCormack (Academic and film theorist)
One of Argento's greatest tributes has to be from horror legend John Carpenter when he claimed his slasher classic Halloween was based on the opening scene of Suspiria. Right from its first steps Suspiria creates an uneasy tension between the viewer and the screen. The bland credits leave the audience with nothing but the soundtrack to lead them, full of anticipation with gentle music box charms playing a sickly sweet tune until the sudden hit of menacing strings raising the pitch and the audience's pulses while the vivid lighting gives a shock the system. Prepped and ready the audience is then subjected to 16-18 minutes of pure terror and all we've done is watch a girl hailing a taxi in the rain (albeit climaxing in the beautifully framed murders of the first two victims). The build up is so intense that it is conversely more terrifying then it's climax and leaves the viewer guiltily wanting the bad thing to happen. Argento had planned to start the film with a bang and continue at crescendo until the end. After the initial murders the tempo of the film retracts to a level playing field and begins again, except now the audience is filled with a strange mix of excitement and trepidation.
"The Black Forest may infuse either mouth-smacking piece of heavenly delight or even spine-chilling images of a thick, dark, secluded place" - Travelworth
Suspiria's international success is owed in some part to its international characters and setting. The heroine, Suzy Bannion (played by Jessica Harper) is American, her best friend Italian and the rest of the students apparently come from all over the world. Though the academy is situated deep within the Black Forest in Germany, the city itself could be any of a number of European cities and is deliberately ambiguous in its nationality other than a humorous nod to local culture and a vicious attack set in a square with Nazi connotations giving it an air of evil. The majority of the action happens in the academy; a big, bright red, neo-gothic house together with gargoyles reminiscent of a gothic fairytale. The image is striking; colouring the grand old house with bold and fashionable colours.
"Whenever [the queen] looked at Snow-White her heart turned over inside her body, so great was her hatred for the girl" - Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
The Black Forest gives an air of the mystic and allows the film a backdrop on which to place a fairytale. The establishing shots of the forest are picture book scary. All that's needed is a witch and a gingerbread house. Argento's first imaging of the female students was as 12-year-old girls, but producers advised against using girls so young. The cast used in the end were around 19-20, but very young looking, dressed simply and delicately and flat chested. Argento also had all the door handles on the set placed high to make them look younger and much of the dialogue displays a naive childishness with petty insults and puerile retorts.
There are many similarities between 'Suspiria' and the gruesome beauty of a traditional fairytale; the over the top bloody violence, the touch of magic and the surreal, jealousy, loss of innocence to name but a few. Without parents in this strange place the girls are as orphans with only their wicked stepmothers to take care of them and as we well know the aging beauty of stepmothers rarely gives way willingly to their younger rivals and frequently aim to dispatch the girls in gruesome and bloody ways.
"It is women who bear the race in bloody agony. Suffering is a kind of horror. Blood is a kind of horror. Women are born with horror in their very bloodstream. It is a biological thing." - Bela Lugosi
Many of Argento's films play with conventions, using them to explore sexuality and identity. He is often accused of misogyny as his art contains a great deal of female suffering. Often his movies feature beautiful girls murdered in vividly bloody ways usually with some form of blade or more imaginatively with works of art. The homosexual undertones here cannot be missed, but they are also not overplayed to become crass or fetishist. Far from misogyny it is Argento's love of the feminine form that in the end poses each corpse stunningly framed in glamour and becoming hypnotic in its combination of the grotesque and exquisite. Even their blood is vivid and stylised, adding to their beauty. Argento's influence on the world of giallo was to see women play stronger and sometimes even sadistic roles. Cast in the roles of the 'wicked stepmothers' in Suspiria are indeed real life aging beauties. Joan Bennett, a Hollywood legend back in the seventies, plays the rather inaccurately named Madame Blanc, whose intelligence and searching gaze penetrates Susie from their first meeting. Second in command stands the striking figure of Alida Valli playing the formidable teacher Miss Tanner. Valley was considered an Italian Diva in her day. Though in Suspiria she may have lost her traditional good looks she still dominates the screen in her appearances. She has a disconcerting constant smile/grimace that never leaves whether she is being amiable or screaming threats and abuse.
Jessica Harper has always had a skill for picking slightly off the wall films and is well known for appearing in cult classics with a resume including 'Minority Report' and 'Pennies From Heaven'. Her character is Suspiria does not fall far from the traditional fragile, but strong heroine we get frequently in horror films these days, but we have to remember this is long before the days of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in 'Alien' or Jamie Lee Curtis' Laurie Strode in 'Halloween'. Supported by her innocent looks and childlike figure she appears as the little girl lost, naive to the wickedness of the world, but learns quickly with the help of her new found best friend, Sara. Sara herself (played by model Stefania Casini) also has a childishness to her character, though for her it is one of rebellion. She clearly doesn't fit in with the other girls right from her first scene. Her retorts to the catty remarks clumsy and childish including poking her tongue out on more than one occasion. This adds to the apparent lack of experience of the girls and particlarly for today's audiences, even more so when partnered with the lack of strong language and no sexual references (apart from a shy and awkward flirtation with one of the male ballet dancers). This brings me nicely to a quick note on the men in the film. Men do not play much of a role in the film at all and the ones that are there are all emasculated in some way; a blind man, a mute, a small boy and the rather effeminate dancer. It is a man that provides an answer to Suzy's questions about her situation, but even he is powerless to help.
"Suspiria's violence doesn't make the viewer want to turn away - it makes the viewer stare guilty that they do not even want to look away" - All Horror Films
Light and colour during Suspiria are used to such a degree that they almost become a character themselves. Even the rooms and some of the characters at the academy are named after colours. Far from other successful films during the seventies, such as 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' which used washed out yellows and browns creating a horror that is cold and unyielding, Argento uses vivid primary colours full of emotional cues to create intense moments of shock and horror. To achieve this saturation of colour Argento used special tape stock. Since there were limited tapes, each scene had to be carefully rehearsed and set up before it was shot; hence it took 14 weeks to record, but only 2 weeks to edit. Red and green lighting feature heavily as a way of oppressing the characters and is often places next to scenes of bright white to exaggerate those emotions. In the dorm scene Susie and Sarah are claustrophobically framed in a tight close up saturated in red light as Sarah relays a ghost story of the secretive directress.
The colour red features heavily throughout the film; on buildings, posters and of course puddles and splatters of blood, extenuating the blend of violence and sensuality. Each shot is so carefully composed it could be a piece of stand alone artwork, thoughh it is rare that the camera itself stays still, each tracking or panning shot lending itself to Argento's picturesque surrealist art.
During filming Argento used mirrors to reflect and refract light, but they are also used as a narrative tool. Many of the pivotal moments are revealed in a mirror including the beginning of Susie's last journey.
All of these simple effects make up for the abysmal special effects including a plastic bat clearly dangling from a piece of string.
"Musicians are very important because they add to the atmosphere of the film" - Dario Argento
Argento is famed for being a fan of heavy metal and progressive rock, even cancelling filming once just to attend a concert and working with Keith Emerson on his next project. Argento felt music was intrinsic to the film itself, adding to emotion and creating atmosphere. He is credited on Suspiria's soundtrack together with The Goblins. It is thought in reality however, that Argento had very little to do with the score. The music was written by Claudio Simonetti and performed by his Italian progressive rock band Goblin. In Suspiria the aim was to make you believe that danger is ever present even when not visible on screen. The effect is indeed disconcerting at the very least with childlike charms playing next to harsh strings, discordant sound effects and a disembodied voice. Apparently the soundtrack is available on CD, but why you would want it is beyond me. It does its job on film, but why you would want to introduce terror to your stereo...
"The last thing you want on any game is an easy win- It's worse than a tie" - Rob Weeks
Sticking with the fairytale motif the ending is brief and for some less then satisfying. Whereas the beginning juxtapositions Suzy's arrival with extremely powerful images of the first two murders suggesting that Susie's path may lead to the same sticky end, the ending shows little in the way of plot twists or surprises and an unfortunate lack of power from the 'bad guys'. Suzy wins with little else but her virtues.
Summary: This is a horror that touched the senses - Don't expect much in the way of clever plot or dialogue.