Italy 1977 : Dario Argento : 95-97 mins
“You have been watching SUSPIRIA” proclaim the closing credits. This is a jarring note of understatement after an hour and a half of extravagant excess: watching is a hopelessly inadequate way to describe what’s less a film, more a full-on experience of quadrophonic sounds and quadrophenic images. Argento aims for, and achieves, total sensory overload – it’s just as well nobody suggested smell-o-vision. By the end, you may feel that you’ve had needles thrust into your ears, and acid thrown in your eyes: but, this being cinema, you’re unscathed – in fact, you’re better off, as your sensory frame of reference has been forcibly widened.
To do the film full justice, this review should probably be written in bold, underlined, italic CAPITALS flashing on and off, in garish red. At the time of the UK release, the Evening Standard‘s Alexander Walker* commented that Suspiria ‘makes other tales of terror look anaemic,’ – a fair comment, as far as it goes. Substituting ‘films’ for ‘tales of terror’ would be closer to the mark: this is the one moment in Argento’s erratic career when everything came together. It is, by any standards, a dazzling feat of movie-making.
But you’ll search in vain for Suspiria among ‘ten best’ lists of seventies cinema. Argento’s aims, and his methods, differ so radically from those of his more ‘respectable’ arthouse contemporaries – Tarkovsky, Rivette, Angelopolous, Godard. Suspiria is, first and foremost, a horror movie, made for the widest possible international market, and it was a notable box-office success on both sides of the Atlantic. But it’s also the work of a real auteur, with every frame of the film, every element of the production the recognisable result of a distinctive, powerfully original, cinematic temperament. Suspiria has been often criticised for its ‘nonsensical’ plot – but when a film comes this directly from its creator’s subconscious, we should instead be thankful it makes any sense at all. Abandon all notions that great cinema must be somehow ‘well made’ – Suspiria operates in a nightmarish, thrillingly absurd universe of its own, and normal rules do not, must not apply.
This is all immediately apparent from the bravura opening sequence, in which American ballet student Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) arrives in Germany to attend the prestigious Freiburg tanzakademie – as Argento himself has informed in his deadpan, amusingly redundant opening-credits voiceover. Just as Suzy is confronted by a confusing, insanely hostile new environment as soon as she lands at the airport in the middle of a raging storm, so the audience must also adapt to Argento’s new world of garish colour schemes and pounding music, a heightened realm where nothing is familiar, nothing can be taken for granted. The film’s technique can be read as an attempt to convey Suzy’s frenzied frame of mind – as ballet movies go, this is more Red Shoes than Billy Elliot, though Argento goes much further, in every respect, than even Powell and Pressburger dared to attempt. His relentlessly inventive camerawork endows the most mundane items, such as a sliding-door mechanism, with a bizarre aura of sinister intrigue: as Suzy is later informed, ‘magic is everywhere.’
Having established an overwhelming mood of ominous foreboding, Argento further disorients us by rapidly switching to mode of pure terror, as two of Suzy’s fellow students are killed in a ludicrously over-elaborate, extended sequence: by this point, audiences will either be hooked or repelled. The ‘plot’, such as it is, is really just an excuse for such set-pieces – there have often been rumours of an American remake of Suspiria, and it’s hard to think of a film less suitable for such treatment, the story-line being by far the least important aspect. Disturbed by the spate of mysterious killings, Suzy discovers that the dance-academy, as run by the formidable Miss Tanner (Joan Bennett) and the harpy-like Miss Blanc (Alida Valli), is a front for a witches’ coven. Suzy eventuallypenetrates the school’s inner sanctum to confront ancient uber-witch Helena Markos, sparking a climactic orgy of destructive pyrotechnics.
It’s tempting, but not quite correct, to describe this finale as a crescendo – the oft-misused term refers to a piece of music which gradually gains in intensity and loudness throughout its length, so it would be better to describe the whole film as a true crescendo. The film lends itself to such musical analogies: Argento pays at least as much attention to the way his movie sounds as to how it looks – and, with this director, that’s really saying something. The frame is typically packed full of remarkable things – startlingly designed rooms, clothes, furniture, weapons – as the prowling camera makes the tanzakademie a character in its own right, one of the great haunted houses of the movies. But Argento can go the other way: there’s an audaciously lengthy sequence which takes place in an eerily empty public square at night, shot to resemble one of Giorgio de Chirico’s sparse, quasi-classical surrealist vistas.
Rather less attention, it must be said, has been lavished on the screenplay, but there is a startling amount of humour in there, which even the dodgy dubbing can’t obscure. Everything is played totally straight, even the most ludicrous lines and events, such as when, in what must be a unique moment in movie history, an unseen villain is identified by her snoring. At one point, as the ailing Suzy rests in bed, Miss Blanc notes approvingly that she’s got ‘colour’ back in her cheeks – it’s hard for us to tell for ourselves, as Argento’s suffused the room in a characteristically hellish red glow. Bennett makes the most of these droll quips – she and Valli make for a quirky double-act, a kind of satanic Hinge and Brackett. Or, given, the movie’s fairy-tale structure, the Ugly Sisters: Bennett businesslike and off-hand, Valli screeching most of her lines in a permanent fit of foul temper.
It’s touches like these that make Suspiria among the most enjoyable of all great movies – never afraid to go too far, in fact embracing excess. The crazy design is partly underpinned by rudiments of structure, with aspects of both detective story and fairy-tale giving shape to Suzy’s ‘quest’ for the truth: she must piece together clues, using her eyes (not for nothing does the plot hinge on an ‘iris’) and her ears – precisely the organs most dangerously threatened by the film’s collection of lethal sharp edges. And Argento, in a typically daring move, withholds many of these clues from the audience, as in the early sequence when a fleeing, doomed student yells some vital but, to us, inaudible phrases as a thunderstorm drowns out her words, phrases which only Suzy can hear and, much later, comprehend.
This is Argento at his best – casually pulling off what few other directors would even dream of attempting. There are moments in Suspiria that defy critical description – not to mention rational analysis – but which genuinely seem, to use overworked expressions, magical. transcendent. And these ‘Argento moments’ come thick and fast. To pick just one: Suzy, making her way down a corridor, suddenly comes across the academy’s sour-faced maid, with her ever-present companion, a strangely dressed, eerie child known as ‘little Albert’. The maid is polishing a bizarre, dagger-like ornament, tilting to reflect bright light onto Suzy’s face, dazzling her, into the camera, dazzling us. Time stands still as the scene freezes in static tableau: the air in the corridor shimmers, and the dust particles drift, bright as fireflies.
*Suspiria has often brought out the best in its reviewers: in Time Out, Scott Meek (later producer of Velvet Goldmine) noted that “the thrills and spills are so classy and fast that the movie becomes in effect what horror movies seemed like when you were too young to get in to see them.” In Guide for the Film Fanatic, Danny Peary was perturbed by the ‘deafening’ score: “One begins to suspect that the unseen murderer walking about is an avant-garde rock musician.” In a way, that’s exactly what he is – as usual, Argento wields the knife, and also collaborates with the ‘Goblins’ on the music. Peary complains that the film is ‘done in by too much visual flair.’ For Argento, of course, too much is never enough.
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by Neil Young