Monday, 17 August 2015

Suspiria (1977, Dario Argento)

 Of all of the auteurs of the uncanny to have emerged upon the European Gothic / horror / thriller cinema scene in the period stretching from the late 1950s to the late 1980s, there is one name that stands above all.  For all of the Hammeresque stylings of Riccardo Freda, the sleazy and sultry Euroslash of Jess Franco, the stately Gothic of Mario Bava and the sepulchral terror of Lucio Fulci, the name of Dario Argento - the man once termed 'the Italian Hitchcock' looms like the shadow of a haunted tower.

Beginning his career as a film journalist, Argento (son of Italian movie producer Salvatore Argento) broke into film by co-writing a number of the then-burgeoning Spaghetti Westerns - culminating with his collaborating with Sergio Leone on the screenplay for the epic masterpiece Once Upon a time in the West (1968).  With this celluloid pedigree, Argento soon began writing and directing his own movies, becoming the master of the Italian giallo subgenre (a term for the crime and mystery thrillers characterised in Italy for their publication in pulp paperbacks with a yellow ['giallo'] cover) with his debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and its follow-ups The Cat o' Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (also 1971).  His breakout film was most certainly the finely honed nerve jangling thriller Deep Red aka Profundo Rosso (1975), which co-starred the actress Daria Nicolodi who would become his long term partner and also his muse and collaborator on his next project - a film influenced by the Grimm folk tales about hauntings and Hexen (witches) upon which both Dario and Daria had been raised as children.  This was the genesis of the classic of suspense and terror Suspiria (1977).

Inspired by the idea of a film about witchcraft, Argento turned to the works of 19th century essayist Thomas de Quincey (author of Confessions of an Opium Eater) - namely 'Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow' from the Suspiria de Profundis ('Sighs from the Depths').  In this, de Quincey postulated that to correspond with the trinities of Classical Graces and Fates, there is also a trinity of Sorrows: Mater Suspiriorum (Our Lady of Sighs), Mater Lachrymorum (Our Lady of Tears) and Mater Tenebrarum (Our Lady of Darkness).  Argento and Nicolodi seized upon the idea to concoct a tale of an ancient cult, and of potent and tangible evil.

Beginning with the seemingly everyday mise en scene of a European airport, we are introduced to Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), an American dance student who has been accepted into the exclusive Freiburg Academy in Germany.  The naturalistic shots of Suzy walking through the airport are accentuated almost subliminally by the whispering score of Claudio Simonetti, as the tracking Steadicam shot approaching the airport doors build a sense of tension and unease that explodes as Suzy steps out through the doors and into a thunderstorm in the dead of night, and Simonetti's music crashes in with its minor chords of dislocation and we are swept along with Suzy into a strange and terrifying place.  As noted by none other than iconic horror film director John Carpenter (creator of Halloween [1978], The Fog [1980] and The Thing [1982]) in the Mark Kermode documentary Dario Argento: An Eye for Horror (2000) 'The part of the movie that gets me...I'm following this girl into a rainstorm, with fountains of water cascading... All of a sudden, i'm very disturbed by what i'm looking at.  And i don't know why'.  This tension mounts as Suzy's taxi ride takes her through darkened streets with rainwater flooding down drains to the deeper darkness of the German forest, and we have come into the land of the Brothers Grimm and black and twisted woods as the soundtrack continues to whisper and hiss, with the single audible word 'Witch' echoing amid its music box evil twinkle.  The atmosphere is thick and tense and palpable, as the trees part and we approach the Freiburg Academy's blood-red art deco walls.

Suzy finds herself in the strange world of the Academy, run by the austere Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett, former Hollywood star of the 1940s, in her final role) and the icy and domineering Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) and filled with strange magic and an air of fear.  Argento's brilliant combination of eerie music, slow tracking camera shots and ingenious use of colour give the movie an atmosphere like no other - like a waking dream, or being trapped in a nightmare. Influenced by Jean Cocteau (La Belle et la Bete [1946] and Orphee [1950]) and Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), a strange world of wonder and dread is concocted.

Suzy's only friend in this school of sighs is Sara (Stefania Casini, of Blood for Dracula [1974]), who is beginning to unravel clues as to the evil that lurks at the heart of the building - the identity of the mysterious Directress: Helena Markos, The Mother of Sighs.  I don't want to get into too many spoilers here for those who have not yet experienced the film, but the consequence of Sara's catlike curiosity is one of the most vivid depictions of a nightmare on the silver screen that i have ever seen - Fuseli on film, as 'twere.  You know those dreams when there is a terrifying presence that you just can't escape from, your limbs can't move and the something gets closer and closer?  Like that - in limpid blue / green gel lighting like a sunken cathedral beneath the sea.

Argento and Nicolodi crafted a movie redolent of every childhood fear - witches, darkness, a presence behind the door, sounds you think you hear snatched upon the wind - that stands today not just as one of the finest examples of a scary movie, but as an Operatic (in every sense of the word) work of art.  The black arts, perhaps. Stylish, eerie, enigmatic and unique, Suspiria lives up to its name - a sighing breath, like the wind of the wings of madness, or the breath at the back of the neck that causes the hairs to stand each on end.  A Technicolor fairytale of tension and terror.

Mesmerising.  In the true sense of the word.


  1. That was a really interesting review Glen. It's an amazing film, and for me, the dream/nightmare like quality is the closest a film has come to how it feels for me to lose touch with reality, especially the hyper awareness of light and colour. I must stick it on my rewatch pile pronto, you've wetted my appetite to see it again.

  2. It sounds completely bewitching, if you'll pardon the pun, but I wouldn't want to watch it if I were alone in the house, or if I had to go to bed soon afterwards. Also, you've reminded me that I need to read Suspiria de Profundis.

  3. Sophie: Yes indeed - the hyper light, sound and colour (and the music) are what made this film haunt my brain after i first saw it many moons ago.

    Lucy - It is bewitching. And beguiling. And terrifying in a slow creeping dread kind of way. I highly recommend it. And the De Quincey.

    There are two sequels to this of course, dealing with the other two of the Three Mothers: 'Inferno' is the one with Mater Tenebrarum, and 'The Mother of Tears' does what it says on the tin by covering Mater Lachrymarum. Sadly, the law of diminishing returns means neither are anywhere near as good as this one, but i've got them all anyway. I might rewatch 'Inferno' this week or next and review that, because although it's no 'Suspiria' it's still pretty good.