Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #7
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: February 1, 1977
Country of Origin: Italy
Box Office:$1,800,000 (US/ Canada), ITL €1,430,000,000 (Italy)
Running Time: 98 minutes
Director: Dario Argento
Producer: Claudio Argento, Salvatore Argento
Screenplay: Dario Argento, Daria Nicolodi
Based on Suspiria de Profundis by Thomas De Quincey
Special Effects: Germano Natali
Cinematography: Luciano Tovoli
Score: Goblin, Dario Argento
Editing: Franco Fraticelli
Production Design: Giuseppe Bassan
Studio: Seda Spettacoli
Distributors: EMI (UK), Anchor Bay Entertainment (DVD), Blue Underground (UK), Magnum Entertainment (VHS), Nouveaux Pictures (Blu-Ray)
Stars: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé, Barbara Magnolfi, Susanna Javicoli, Eva Axén, Rudolf Schündler, Udo Kier, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett, Margherita Horowitz, Jacopo Mariani, Fulvio Mingozzi
Narrator: Dario Argento (uncredited)
Suggested Audio Candy:
“Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds”
How does a ten-year-old boy even attempt to process a film such as Suspiria? That was precisely my age when I received my formal introduction to Dario Argento’s surreal nightmare. Did I understand what was playing out before my eyes? I certainly had a vague idea but, as the end credits rolled and I shuffled off to my bed for further reflection, I don’t think I yet realized the magnitude of my undertaking. It wasn’t the first horror film I had watched but it was perhaps the first to throw up far more questions than it was willing to provide the answers for. I may have been too wet behind the ears to reach inside and grasp it by its beating heart, but I certainly couldn’t shake its shadow from the darkest recess of my room as I laid my head down. If Argento’s movie taught me one thing then that was the immense power of avant garde cinema.
Thirty years down the line and still I struggle to think of a film quite as effortlessly macabre and cerebral. I’m used to movies getting under my skin and, at forty-one, have had more than enough experience of the grotesque. However, few pieces of art are quite as individual as Suspiria, and the only other example I can think of is Inferno, which also happens to be the second in his Mother of Tears trilogy. As fantastic as that film is, and as monumental as its underwater ballroom scene is, it’s not the ballet school. I never much cared for ballet and would imagine that has something to do with the fact that Argento paid my nightmare tuition fees and I turned up there every night like clockwork until the age of fifteen. To be fair to Dario, Goblin are just as culpable. Again, how does a ten-year-old boy even attempt to process their nightmarish renditions?
Just the name Dario Argento is enough to strike fear into most mortal hearts. Over the past forty years, this man has been a true innovator in his chosen field; inside of whom is a great artist and tortured soul both frantic to get out. This is the man who harbors a peculiar obsession with his own daughter, the stunning Asia, to the point that he casts her unclothed in many of his works. Clearly this man has some unresolved childhood traumas wired in there with that embarrassing wealth of twisted raw talent and therein lies the key to his eminence. You see, few can channel their anguish in quite such an exclusive manner and, while his later work may lack a certain artistic flair evident in his most prolific period, he is still dedicated to expressing himself deep into his seventies. In many ways, he’s like horror’s own Woody Allen. If that is so, then Suspiria would be his Annie Hall.
Dario was not content with helping to pioneer the Italian horror insurgency, not to mention weighing in with some classic giallo heavyweights and spearheading the charge for their very own cinematic progeny. He wasn’t satisfied with being known for this alone and decided he wanted to probe deeper into the vaults of people’s deepest dread and insecurity. Not only this but it was clear to him that his knack for staging terrifying floor shows and striking broad bloody strokes across his canvas, was wasted unless he explored more unearthly inspirations. He had to go deep and Profondo Rosso revealed a man already teetering over his own worst imaginings but for Suspiria he finally took that leap and squared up to his demons.
For any freshmen, Suspiria is a blood-drenched fairy tale of a coven of witches masquerading as a prestigious German dance academy. Argento’s stimulation come from fables told by the grandmother of fellow screenwriter Daria Nicolodi, who allegedly fled from a German music academy herself because necromancy was being surreptitiously practiced there. American student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives in the dead of night and torrential rain looking to enroll in one of the most magnificent opening scenes from the entire annals of horror. Shadows whisper, the incessant rain appears to be conferring too, and all the while Goblin are tapping at the doors of our mind, laughing grimly as they do. Their score was played at full volume on-set to needle the cast and extract truly fearful performances from them. It’s a truly hellish piece of music.
One of the factors which Suspiria is celebrated for is its exquisite production design and lurid coloration. Argento uses striking primary tones, red in particular, to filter the fear through and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli works with his vision beautifully to create an insular hell hole unlike any other. Tovoli was advised to watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs beforehand and to then remodel the color scheme. In addition, it was the first Italian film to make use of Steadicam, so it is visible just how invested he was to creating something truly commemorative. His passion bleeds through the deep reds and his own cold terror dances around the somber blues also providing a banquet for the retinas.
Naturally, it also features beautiful women, another ever-present and, to be fair, not totally exclusive with this particular Italian stallion. A population of highly sexed alpha-males demanded no less than a quota of at least one siren-like beauty to accompany their linguine and Dario gleefully obliges. Harper had impressed him so much with her turn as Phoenix in Brian De Palma’s Phantom of The Paradise that he snapped her up on the quick and those large peepers captivate between every blink. Every time she sleeps, Argento’s roving lens goes walkabout and we are given advanced warning as to what kind of hideous acts play out each night while her aching body heals. The rest of the time we’re Suzy’s spotters and she conveys her horror magnanimously throughout.
Argento also pushes the envelope here in terms of the beautiful bright red stuff. Profondo Rosso had already ruffled a few feathers and the censors were starting to sit up and take notice. His solid giallo Tenebrae was destined to land him in the dock for its notorious arm dismemberment but just how any censor could dare touch this man’s scientific art is a concept I will never be comfortable with. Suspiria has a suitably atmospheric and grisly opening. Actually, I feel that this is doing it an injustice. The opening drips ominous darkness like a leaky faucet. His use of audio, silence as much as score-driven, instantaneously whisks us away into a small corner of his splendidly deranged psyche and pins us down, forcing us all to take in the sublime beauty in his beast.
It doesn’t stop there though…oh no! Dario hasn’t finished with us yet. Suspiria features many distressing instances throughout its duration and, for each, he uses a different shade in his wide palette to apply that distorted genius. The witches are hinted at rather than shown for the main part and this benefits the experience substantially. Without always looking toward visceral shocks and cheap jump tactics to achieve his desired effect, he is enabled to focus on taking that scene further into his own mind, where the limitations are considerably reduced.
One particular standout scene featuring a vortex of barbed wire, set against a striking blue backdrop, draws out the tension for a number of minutes and you feel your insides tangling up like our onscreen fly in her proverbial web. A popular saying has always been that “you are your own worst enemy” thus, should you feed your brain ninety minutes of his phantasm, then said mind may well play cruel tricks on you for weeks afterwards.
Both haunting and beautiful in equal measures, Suspiria has become known, not for its wayward narrative but for the delightfully composed set-pieces, brimming with vivid coloration and accompanied by strings of torment. Currently Luca Guadagnino is set to attempt the long-rumored remake intended for release in 2017. Should this actually come to fruition, then he may just be the bravest man on the planet, and I wish him well with such an unenviable task. After all these years and so many subsequent views, there still isn’t any other film that I’m aware of that is quite like it.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10
Grue Factor: 4/5
For The Grue-Guzzlers: The wonderfully horrific opening features plenty of Argento’s delicious deep red alongside some truly affecting imagery. However, Dario’s gory set-pieces are drip fed and so stunningly composed that it becomes hard to refer to it as actual grue. My fascination for sanguine fluids actually stemmed from watching Suspiria for the first of many times. Goddamn, I owe this man a mochaccino. Maybe even a hand job. If that’s what it takes to get a shot at Asia, then load up that cannon Dario.
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Copyright: Crimson Quill: Savage Vault Enterprises 2013 (Revised Edition 2015)