Sunday, 7 June 2015

Suspiria (1977)

Director: Dario Argento
Screenplay: Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi
Cast: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett, Flavio Bucci
Length: 92 minutes

Synopsis: An American student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) enrols in a German ballet school only for a murder to take place the exact same night she returns. From then on, the school is plagued by further deaths and Suzy discovers the building may be under the influence of a malicious and supernatural force.

Going from a simple to digest synopsis, Suspiria even in its moments of quietness and exposition is a relentless feature in tone as individuals start to die and Suzy is dragged further into the mysteries of her new school. It's a plot that could've be fashioned into many a type of horror film, from a classic thirties black-and-white entry to a Hammer production to a modern day work like Lucky McKee's The Woods (2006), from the subtle to even softcore titillation if you cast the ballet student with Playboy Playmates. What Dario Argento's first full foray into supernatural horror because, adding flourishes of the fantastical into the previous film Deep Red (1975) after a string of giallo murder mysteries and one attempt at a political drama since his debut work, was one of the most critically acclaimed horror films of all time, one of the most acclaimed from the seventies genre boom in Italy and one of the most divisive, rarely from what I have seen online leading to mediocre reactions but between those who adore it and those who absolutely hated it. It's relevance is enforced when I was encouraged to revisit the film when it was brought up in a divisive debate on a Facebook profressional wrestling forum, as far from the cineaste and horror movie fan community as you can get and showing how Argento's take on a simple one-line premise spread its wings into popular culture. Currently David Gordon Green's remake, as of June 2015, is still not in production, and there were rumours of an anime reinterpretation which was fitting since the film was incredibly popular in Japan.  The fact these examples exist, even if only the original film exists itself, shows Suspiria's significance.

The Italian genre films in their heyday, not just the seventies output but before in the sixties and to its decline in the late eighties, has an aesthetic and logic to itself where for every clear cut work that could enter the mainstream, like Sergio Leone westerns, many that even become popular have idiosyncratic details as a result of their creators, and the type of film production in technology and practice which took place in the industry, that feel more and more radically different as time passes. I see Suspiria as a masterpiece but its effect really does depend on how a viewer reacts to its style whether they will be gripped by it or not, explaining its divisive nature. Its story is a jumping off point for Argento to play with style and try to scare his audience with heightened emotions, as with the help of a fellow student Sara (Stefania Casini) Suzy learns more and more about her school. Most of this narrative is dispensed with, when other films would elaborate on them beyond an exposition scene near the end with Udo Kier, and concentrates of the visceral events as a result of what is hidden in the school. Whilst there are narrative points - the suspicious individuals who are at the school such as the headmistress Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and teacher Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), and the deaths that appear to cover up the mystery taking place - they're depicted more for their shock and for hypnotic effect, the narrative in the background and the story being depicted by visuals instead.

Italian films can be an acquired taste with their post dubbed voices and occasional limitations in budget or resources, even a luxuriously designed film like Suspiria having a ghostly roughness hidden with its elegance and artistry. Alongside such beautiful uses of the camera, its still a film where Jessica Harper, with her own voice, is dubbed post production having a ghostly effect and there's a bat attack depicted with obvious strings moving it along. Alongside this Argento makes a dreamlike film that is less interested in a elaborate or even logical story, the unsubtle and ludicrous next to the mesmerising. Suspiria is not a film about lingering, quietly set up horror scenes but continually forcing your senses to be on continual alert, as much in the quiet moments absorbing the production design and music. This practice absolutely depends, more so than with other horror films, on the concept that ultimately affects cinema the most, whether an individual viewer reacts well to the content or not subjectively, as much on preference or for odd reasons, something which is more of an issue when a film like this concentrates on concepts like visceral effects that are affected by this directly. It is about being a continuous effect to the emotions and senses of the viewer as a score by prog rock band Goblin is blasting into your ear. With each scene of murder, there is a jolt whilst the visuals are heightened to over saturation, scenes where the close-ups of characters are soaked in blue or red lighting which engulfs their faces. There is a paradoxical nature where none of Suspiria is subtle but it causes one to feel on edge nonetheless through its intensity. Maybe a subconscious rejection of mine of the cleanliness of modern filmic aesthetic - CGI, digital video - but also my sensitivity to sound, colour etc., I've found myself drawn to older films especially between the Sixties to the end of the Seventies, finding myself closer to the idea of a "Total Cinema", where every aspect stands out from the acting to the music, even when it comes to b-movies and maligned genres like horror.

Also of interest, its own paragraph, with this film is how distinctively female orientated it is in emphasis even in comparison to other Argento films. Women have stood out as strong characters and have been protagonists in his work, but with mainly male centred works in the beginning, this noticeable distinction with Suspiria stands out especially when there are only a few males on the sidelines and every other character is female. While it's been argued who exactly came up with the film's premise, the importance of Argento's than life-partner Daria Nicolodi as a co-writer for the script cannot be ignored. How Argento films women even in their death scenes also factors into this alongside the strong casting choices because they are always larger in life onscreen in his films. Jessica Harper as a strong central figure is never sexualised yet not completely juvenile as she is always opinionated, confined into a bedroom with a strict plain diet and red wine every night, and shows moments even brooding over a lit cigarette that effect the original idea Argento wanted of much younger female characters until the producers baulked at it. This strong femininity, contrary to accusations of misogyny thrown at the director, is as much a factor of why Suspiria stands out, for the simple reason that it makes the film even more distinctive when the usual idea for supernatural horror films is include a strong male lead who settles everything straight.

Technical Details:
Suspiria was a film made to be seen on the biggest screen possible but also belongs to a small group of films as well where even the complete opposite type of viewing experience, on a tiny TV on a bootleg  videotape, would not take away from the ethereal effect of the movie, sucking a wide eyed viewer into its aesthetic world if fully engaged with. The cinematography is complete horrifying ecstasy, director of photography Luciano Tovoli managing to access exactly the presentation Argento had pictured in his mind for the look of the film. Between Suspiria and Inferno (1980), the sequel which increased the emphasis of the "Three Mothers" mythos between the films and the finale Mother of Tears (2007), every colour in the spectrum fills and covers the screen, some of the only films where colours instead of shadows hide an unseen force that could swallow up and destroy characters. The elaborate camera movements that sometimes occur are amazing from the same man who did the cinematography of Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger (1975) and its incredible final sequence done in one single take, the gliding camera and elaborate movements in Suspiria, including a swooping "bird" POV, hard work which pay off for the movie's style. (In this highly productive period of Argento's career, Tovoli would only work with him again on Tenebrae (1982) but considering that film's septic sci-fi white palette and memorable uses of camera movement you appreciate how much it was worth it.) The production design sells the film's majestic look further, proof of this in how detailed it is to the point there are art references in the designs, such as a M.C. Escher motif on blood red walls where the first murder of the film takes place. Against the brutality, stabbings the usual M.O. which call back to the director's giallo against the supernatural tone, the sets seen in front of the camera are both utterly beautiful in vast contrast and also still terrifying when the sets are allowed to become more sinister or archaic by a switch of location or even a mere change in lighting in the same set as before.

It would be sacrilege not to mention the score. The music by Goblin is legendary by itself. Even as a fan of progressive rock of the period like Yes, Suspiria's score as with all of Goblin's work for Argento avoids all the worst aspects of the subgenre, always more direct, more atmospheric and, here especially, as avant garde as it is rock music. Hair raising utterances under a being's breath in a diabolical language, electronic synth throbs and rock cords were melded together into a score that is at ear drum breaking volume that is ungodly in its power but also adds the final touch that takes the unsubtle excess of Suspiria and causes it to work as a creepy, ethereal horror film.

Abstract Spectrum: Fantastique; Psychotronic
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): High

Controversially, I did consider only giving Suspiria only a Medium rating because, originally, I viewed it as being still heavily dependent on its plot.  But like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), there is only a simple plot that could be encapsulated in only a few words - witchcraft and a ballet school - which is just a catalyst for everything else that you leave the film with. Dario Argento is a commercial director in Italy, but especially when he added the supernatural and tangents in the original Italian cut of Deep Red onwards, he went from very straight forward if knotted murder mystery narratives to ones where the unexpected and irrational take centre stage. Only Inferno (1980) is more abstract than Suspiria out of all his films, going further by displacing the notion of a single, clear protagonist to the story.

Many of the scenes have a complete artifice which takes the film out of conventional reality. The events that take place work by their own logic, characters who are never explained but make their prescience known and scenes stepping out of convention. (For an obvious example, the appearance of a room full of metal coils that, despite not being of the razor variety, still cause a shock in seeing their sudden appearance). The result is abstract in taking tropes of classic horror films and pulling into moods and presentations that are still unconventional decades later.

Personal Opinion:
The Italian genre films around when Suspiria was made, with their technical flaws and plot irregularities as much as their virtues, have an unearthly tone that, to avoid dipping into insipid pseudo-talk on cinema, cuts through my normal conscious viewing and hits an emotional register that is the closest to a dream in cinema. The protagonist is the only anchor in this Technicolor horror fantasy, originally meant to be a fairytale with much younger characters that, even when that was rejected, still has that effect alongside the brutality, lashing of poster paint red blood and a vicious dog attack amongst the various horrible sights seen. From the moment Suzy goes out of an airport lobby in the first scene, the sight of the automatic doors opening and closing in extreme close-up is the sign for a nightmare for the rest of the movie that will take place. Suspiria also rejects the convention of narrative being of central importance. Narrative is not an inherent part of cinema, cinema itself visuals and sound, the visuals only and further in fact when you get to experiments by the likes of Stan Brakhage. Horror is not necessarily more interesting if there's more narrative, only when the narrative is very good, whilst other factors like the visuals and tone can have a greater power especially in the genre. For me, Suspiria is an incredible pinnacle of this. I can watch it twice without one or two weeks and it never loses its luster. 

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