The Re-Appreciator #2: Suspiria

Suspiria

The Re-Appreciator is a feature in which I dust off the classics (and/or personal favorites). If you’ve seen the movie in question, perhaps I’ll provoke a new thought or two. If you haven’t seen it, perhaps I’ll compel you to check it out.

6 Reasons to Re-Appreciate Suspiria

1. WITCH!

Dario Argento is known as a “master of horror” and “The Italian Hitchcock.” His debut feature, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, was released in the U.S. in 1970, and he has since directed nearly twenty more. Bird and his earliest films are prime examples of giallo, a genre derived from yellow-jacketed pulp novels published in Italy.

(“Giallo” is a broad term, like “noir,” and nobody’s altogether certain what it encompasses. To Italians, giallo films are thrillers regardless of origin. To Americans, giallo films are Italian films that typically share common traits: horrific murder-mystery, bloody death scenes, varying degrees of kinkiness, a non-Italian protagonist who becomes embroiled in the mystery, a shadowy killer, a plot driven by the search for the killer’s identity.)

By 1975, Argento had perfected his own brand of giallo with the excellent Deep Red. His next film, 1977’s Suspiria, pushed the genre’s elements far into supernatural territory. It has the outsider protagonist, the faceless stalker, the lurid murders. But it never cares about unmasking its killer so much as immersing the audience in a nightmare.

It begins with an offscreen narrator providing the setup. American ballet student Suzy Bannion has come to Germany to attend “the most famous school of dance in Europe,” “the celebrated academy of Freiburg.” The opening scene shows Suzy (Jessica Harper) exiting the Munich airport, but the world already feels amiss. The doorway itself appears ominous, and it opens out to a raging thunderstorm. Suzy’s cab driver is neither friendly nor reassuring. Upon arriving at the academy, Suzy sees a terrified female student, Pat, fleeing out into the night.

Argento leaves Suzy to focus on Pat for the moment. She makes it to a friend’s apartment building. Unfortunately, a vicious killer has followed her there, presumably from the academy, and soon a few things about this movie become clear: it’s obsessive, it’s gunning for sensory overload, and its director is a brilliant stylist who also happens to have some serious issues.

Here’s what happens to Pat, by the way:

If that puts you off, congratulations, you may be a well-adjusted normal adult. If you find yourself thinking “I want to see the rest of that movie,” then welcome to giallo. Ciao!

2. WITCH!

Bold. Striking. Stunning. Visually, Suspiria is any and all of those. It was one of the last movies printed with the Technicolor process, and Argento doesn’t let you forget it. He fills the screen with colors vibrant enough to rattle your retinas. The sets are fantastic, too, and with Argento never settling for a dull shot, Suspiria lures the viewer into a seductive dream world that’s dangerous but strangely beautiful. Whatever criticisms of this movie one may have, the sheer power of its style makes it impossible to dismiss.

Suspiria’s look was hyper-amped-up, but it wasn’t wholly unprecedented. Argento’s mentor, Mario Bava, was the father of giallo, and his lushly colorful films throughout the ’60s paved the way for Argento’s efforts. It’s worth noting that Suspiria’s credits include a “special thanks” to Bava.

However, Suspiria did boast something no other film could claim: its score, created by the band Goblin in collaboration with Argento. An ungodly mix of prog rock, sinister chants, and deranged music-box melody, it’s quite simply one of the best scores ever recorded for a horror movie. Or any movie, for that matter. As formidable as Suspiria’s visuals are, its music is equally strong and a major reason why it hasn’t lost its intensity over time.

3. WITCH!

Lately it seems that horror is bogged down in sequels, remakes, and pastiches. The top horror movie currently playing in theaters is Eli Roth’s cannibal opus Green Inferno, which wants to gross out its audience like Cannibal Holocaust did thirty-five years ago. The most buzzed-about horror movie so far this year is It Follows, a praiseworthy movie that still leans heavily on those terror-in-suburbia warhorses A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween. Speaking of, yet another Halloween reboot is on the way because God knows we need one.

When he set out to make Suspiria, Argento was inspired by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as much as Mario Bava. He wanted his film to look like the Disney classic, which led to his eye-popping use of Technicolor. Additional influences include the 1845 essay collection Suspiria de Profundis, Fritz Lang and other German Expressionists, and an anecdote from the grandmother of Argento’s then-partner, Daria Nicolodi.

That’s a diverse list, and I suspect that eclecticism plays a large part in why Suspiria still feels so fresh today. Had Argento only paid homage to old horror movies and gialli, would Suspiria have turned out to be so unique? Maybe the more timely question is: what would happen if more of today’s horror filmmakers broadened their influences beyond other horror movies? I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

4. WITCH!

Poor Suzy. With Pat’s disappearance already weighing on her mind, our intrepid American soon falls ill. As she develops a friendship with fellow student Sara (Stefania Casini), Suzy also notices the school’s instructor, Miss Tanner, and vice directress, Madame Blanc, telling odd little lies. Then Sara disappears, too, leading Suzy to discover that many in the academy are harboring a wicked secret...

Nicolodi and Argento co-wrote Suspiria with Nicolodi intending to play Suzy. Argento cast Jessica Harper instead when the film’s financiers insisted on an American lead. With all due respect to Nicolodi, it was the right choice, for Harper is exactly the heroine Suspiria needs. She’s a doe-eyed picture of fairy-tale innocence, fear, and vulnerability. She looks so startled so often, you’d think Goblin’s music was jangling her nerves, too. (As a matter of fact, it probably was. The band had recorded a version of the score before filming began. This enabled Argento to blast it during the shoot, thereby unsettling the actors.)

The other key cast members also pitch in. Casini is likable, Alida Valli is appropriately menacing as Tanner, and Joan Bennett brings classic Hollywood star wattage as Blanc. Bennett was an iconic femme fatale in Lang’s The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, and her presence benefits Suspiria as well.

Argento could have cast these roles differently and still come away with a decent movie on style points alone. The characters are underwritten, as befitting a movie Argento himself described as “an escalating experimental nightmare” and “real magical acid trip.” Even so, the cast wrings vivid characterizations from what little the material gives them, further elevating Suspiria above the standard horror fare.

5. WITCH!

Suspiria presents an interesting case study in movie marketing. Here we have the international trailer:

Here we have the U.S. trailer:

 (The contrast between the Italian and American poster art is also worth a look.)

These trailers couldn’t be more different, but they are in fact selling the same movie. One is selling the experimental nightmare and magical acid trip. The other is selling a horror flick fit for a drive-in or grindhouse. The U.S. trailer might invite giggles, but its cheesiness is also a lot of fun. Nor is the trailer wrongheaded or misleading; Suspiria is what the U.S. trailer promises as much as it is what the international trailer promises. It breaks the barriers between art and exploitation, and that’s one more reason to admire it.

My nitpick with the U.S. marketing is the tagline: “The Only Thing More Terrifying Than The Last 12 Minutes Of This Film Are The First 92.” That sounds foreboding enough, but doesn’t it also mean the ending is a letdown? Shouldn’t it be switched so the scariest part comes last? Yes, I contemplate these things.

6. WITCH!

As a Gen-X horror fan, I came late to the Argento party. Suspiria was the first Argento movie I had seen, and not until 2003. I caught a battered print of the ’77 U.S. cut in a theater and was floored. I’d seen countless horror movies and never expected this old thing to be so potent. It left me wondering what kind of sick freak would film such carnage so artfully. Since then, I’ve seen enough Argento movies to conclude that he’s a special kind of sadistic sick freak, and I’m an unabashed fan. There isn’t anybody like him, especially when he’s working at his peak. There just isn’t.

Rumors of the inevitable Suspiria remake have been swirling about in recent years. David Gordon Green had expressed interest up until 2013, when he seemed to give up on the idea. As of this writing, it’s apparently on again, with Luca Guadagnino directing.

I can’t speak for a movie that doesn’t yet exist, but I can say that the original doesn’t need to be remade. Thanks to the customary digital upgrades for home video, it now looks and sounds even more impressive than it did when it blew horror-geek minds in the ’70s. More importantly, when you see Suspiria, you know you’re seeing a singular film from a singular filmmaker. In this case, he delivers a masterpiece.

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Recommended reading:

David Kalat’s article for Turner Classic Movies

Ed Gonzalez’s review for Slant Magazine

Better Know A Director: Dario Argento and Better Know A Director: Mario Bava

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