Suspiria (1977)

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I first became aware of Dario Argento during my freshman year of college. At the time, television channel Bravo was still transitioning from the arts-oriented channel that it was when it was first incepted into the reality-TV landfill that it is now; I was visiting home and caught the re-airing of their 2004 miniseries 100 Scariest Movie Moments. It’s a smart list, even if the ascending algorithm of fright is contentious (I adore Nightmare on Elm Street, but scarier than Jacob’s Ladder or Rosemary’s Baby? Please.), and it was from that list that I learned the name “Suspiria.” It ranked relatively high, coming in at number 24, and was the second-highest rated non-domestic feature on the roster (Japan’s Audition claimed the number 11 spot), which also included thrillers like Deliverance and Night of the Hunter, films that wouldn’t normally fall under the banner of “horror” per se.

Thus, I didn’t begin my journey into the Dario Argento oeuvre with his earliest work, I started with Suspiria. In fact, before beginning this project, I had not seen Argento’s films that preceded this, his most well-known picture. I Netflix’d the DVD of Crystal Plumage sometime in 2008, but never got around to watching it before sending it back, a casualty in my mad, gluttonous rush to consume every episode of Veronica Mars. The other films of his that I did uncover and watch, like Phenomena and Opera, all came from the middle of his career, after he had forsaken pure giallo and before he moved on to making the mediocre miscellanea of his later career. And, at the risk of sounding cliche, Suspiria was a revelation to me then and a revelation to me now.

The story follows young American ballet student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), who has been accepted to a prestigious dance academy in the Black Forest of Germany. She arrives during a torrential downpour, and makes her way to the school just in time to see another young student flee into the woods, screaming about secrets. This same young woman is later murdered, brutally, and the friend with whom she took refuge is also killed. The following morning, Suzy meets school’s vice-directress, Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett in her final film role), and dance instructor Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), who appear to be strict but matronly. She also befriends Sarah (Stefania Casini), who was friends with the murdered girl and continues her investigation into the strange goings-on about the academy. Strange events begin to happen: Sarah experiences an unusual fainting spell that forces her to relocate to the school’s dormitories from an off-campus apartment, maggots rain from the ceiling after having infiltrated “spoiled food” being kept in the attic, and disoriented bats fly into open windows while faithful service dogs turn on their owners. It’s hard to describe the film’s plot without it sounding like a standard haunted house movie, but it’s so, so much more than that.

What is a movie? Or, perhaps a better question, what should a movie be? In the West, we have been trained to have certain expectations of films, to be receptive to a particular cinematic style with a mostly-linear structure, to recognize certain constants and feel secure in them. As a comparison, think about how you were first introduced to poetry as a student: poems were words arranged in a particular pattern, with meter and rhyme. You were likely given something palatable to read, something not too dissimilar from nursery rhymes, with an easily-identifiable structure. Then, you were introduced to something completely different, something that wasn’t recognizable as a “poem” within the limited context that you were taught. Films are much the same, as studios make the majority of their money from regurgitating the same kind of mediocre pablum over and over again across all genres: Meg Ryan is a relatable career-oriented everywoman who doesn’t realize that there’s something missing from her life, every superhero has to learn the hard way that with great power blah blah (I won’t even bother finishing that thought because you’re already ahead of me), and every generation has a raunchy sex comedy to mislead them about the birds and the bees. But sometimes, a movie comes along that doesn’t just repeat the same ABAB CDCD EE rhyme scheme of other movies you’ve seen before. Auteurs earn their credibility by taking the same things we’ve seen over and over again and tearing them to pieces, or forsaking them altogether, or using them in a transcendent way by playing with or manipulating audience expectation.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that movies which forego some element of cinema in order to exalt another aspect of film can be a worthwhile endeavor, and that putting narrative consistency on the backburner in order to focus on aesthetics or mood doesn’t necessarily make a film less successful than the median anymore than ee cummings was a lesser poet than Robert Browning. Suspiria is a movie that does just this, by honing in on atmosphere and tone rather than plot, and the film is well-served by this attention to detail. That’s not to say that the plot is irrelevant (this isn’t The Five Days, after all), but color and immersion are much more important here than they are in a lot of other films from the same period (or today). Contemporary critics took issue with the film’s plot structure, apparently failing to realize that Suspiria is intentionally dreamlike, influenced by fairy tales and nightmares more than monomyth. Even the opening narration, which others consider to be out of place and somewhat silly, contributes to the film by acting as a kind of horror-tinged “once upon a time.”

Daria Nicolodi, who has a co-writer credit on the film, stated that she based her contribution on stories her grandmother had told her as a child, like the misadventures of Lewis Carroll’s Alice and, supposedly, the elder woman’s discovery that the faculty of a school she attended was secretly into occultism. Argento has claimed that this story is false, but I prefer her whimsical lie to his pragmatic honesty, as it’s a fun and intriguing fiction that’s better than the truth; that’s one of the things art is for, in my opinion. Argento has also said that he initially wanted the film to star adolescents, but that this was quickly nixed (watch that first murder scene and imagine that the victim is twelve years old, and you can see why this change was necessary); to maintain that viewpoint, the set was designed with all doorknobs at eye level so that the subconscious recognizes the actors as being smaller and more childlike. This kind of set detail, along with the omnipresence of bright, vivid colors, contributes to the film’s overall surreal ambiance. It’s a movie that’s experienced and felt more than it is one which is interpreted, and it’s all the better for it.

This is perhaps best encapsulated by the experience of the main character, Suzy. Suzy spends a great deal of her screentime being sedated each night while the heavy-lifting of the mystery is largely performed by others around her. Pat, the girl who flees the school in the opening, kept notes about the faculty’s suspicious behavior and practices; Sarah listens to the steps being taken by the teachers at night and records them so Suzy can use this information to discover the coven later; Suzy’s disappearance leads Sarah to Dr. Mendel (Udo Kier, of all people), who introduces her to exposition-laden Professor Milius (Rudolf Schundler). Suzy is a character who is acted upon more often than she is one who has agency, but isn’t that so often the case with dreams? In another movie, this would be a detraction, but here it’s actually a feature. If you haven’t seen this movie already, what are you doing here? Stop whatever you’re doing and go watch it, right now.

Additional notes:

  • I can’t believe I didn’t address this above, but this was prog-rock band Goblin’s second time collaborating with Argento, and the movie’s score is absolutely phenomenal. Anchor Bay’s DVD release of Suspiria includes a copy of the soundtrack, which has long been out of print but must be heard. It’s like the apotheosis of what a horror film score should be, at once delicate and disquieting, unsettling but eerily beautiful and vaguely mystical. Halloween’s may be the best-known horror score, but Suspiria‘s is technically and thematically superior and one of the best scores of all time.
  • When I first saw this movie, I had never seen any previous Argento films, so I didn’t know what his recurring motifs were. Although this is not a giallo film in the strictest sense of the word (obviously, the “mystery” here is much less important than visuals and mood), his trope of a character witnessing something at the beginning of the film that they struggle to comprehend is present here. As in Deep Red, a mirror holds an important clue and plays a key role in the resolution of an investigation. Most amusing to me, however, was the fact that Suzy’s ultimate defeat of the evil coven queen requires her to use a crystal-handed dagger that is part of a sculpture of a peacock, presumably the same genus as titular Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
  • He doesn’t factor into the film all that much, but Suzy’s love interest Mark (Miguel Bosé) is a total babe. Yowza.
  • A minor quibble: Why do the witches even care to bring Suzy into the school in the first place? In a more standard Hollywood film, they would probably be looking to use her in some way (see: Rosemary’s Baby) or convince her to join the coven, but there’s no real reason given or explored here, further adding to the dreamlike atmosphere. We never get an answer, but if this frustrates you, you may be missing the point.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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