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Suspiria Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 20, 2010

  • Movies review


    Suspiria Review

    There are not many movies that would compel me to obtain yet another machine in order to play virtually just them, but Dario Argento's unrivalled horror masterpiece Suspiria is most definitely one of them. This Region “B” locked Blu-ray release of the garish perennial occult nasty from 1977 ensured that I would have to get hold of a UK player - and pronto.

    But was the result worth it?

    With Argento's film receiving a hi-def release in Italy already, but its transfer meeting with criticism and anger over what should have been an audio-visual delight, it is with great relief and satisfaction that we gain this new transfer, mastered from the same 2007 cinematographer approved restoration as the Italian one, but mostly improving upon it, and delivering an image that, whilst far from perfect, is most certainly a rewarding upgrade from any home video edition that we've seen before.

    What follows is my original review for the excellent Anchor Bay Limited Edition, albeit spruced-up with the usual slew of new thoughts and observations.

    “Don't think ... just panic!”

    That's the only bit of advice that Time Out's film critic, Alexander Walker, could think of after surviving Dario Argento's gloriously picturesque, but diabolically brutal, occult chiller, Suspiria back upon its original theatrical release. And those words still ring true today, for this ultra-stylish exercise in pure and undiluted terror from the Italian maestro of the macabre (at least he was back in those outrageous days) still leaves practically every other horror film languishing in its blood-drenched wake. To outline the plot would barely fill a sentence - a young American girl arrives at an esteemed German dance academy amid a welter of horrifying butchery, discovers the witch's coven running the place and then battles to survive its infernal reign. That, in a nutshell, is it. And even this meagre narrative is full of inconsistencies and irrelevance, but coherence is not the point of Argento's pulse-pounding film. He has only one agenda - to scare the audience out of their minds with a succession of the most blood-curdling set-pieces conceived this side of Dante's Inferno, saturated with enough colour to scorch the eyes and a soundtrack to make the ears bleed. And he does, folks. Trust me ... he does.

    “Suzy, do you know anything about witches?

    Back then it was fair to say that nothing on Earth could have prepared you for the impact this movie would have when you first saw it. The imagery, so immediate and vibrant - shot through with thick, emotion-triggering primary colours - immerses you with garish, throbbing intensity. The sound - a wild and frightening score by Italian progressive rock group, and regular Argento collaborators, Goblin - is like a horror film for the ears. Comprising utterly demonic acoustics and soft, insidious whispers, moans and chanting from band supremo Claudio Simonetti, all punctuated by some insanely eerie booming on what has been so fittingly described as a “diabolical didgeridoo”, it is a deeply unnerving experience just by itself. All manner of ethnic instruments make a demented appearance - tabla, sitar, bazouki - and mixed with the Moog and the crazed guitars, the score becomes a living, aggressive entity. The warped visuals play out like a psychedelic trip, enticing you down corridors of pulsating light and shadow that perform their own hypnotic and mesmerising tricks upon you. Nothing is as it seems. We are in the land of secret passageways, hidden rooms, subliminal clues, dreams within dreams - hopelessly lost without a map. The film is like a poison-fever, needling your mind with such intensity that you may often feel disorientated and numb, begging for a let-up in the relentless barrage of intricate illusion. But this crazed and devoutly personal approach is all part of Argento's deep and dark desire to show you a gruesomely flamboyant glimpse of Hell, itself. You don't just sit and watch Suspiria, you simply try to endure it.

    “Magic is everywhere in the world.”

    When Suzy Banyon, played with consciously wide-eyed, child-like innocence by trained dancer Jessica Harper, first arrives in this gothic, spectral landscape, amid an almost supernatural rainstorm, we are catapulted right alongside her into a dream world so mysterious and menacing that even the shadows of the roadside trees seem to be luring her deeper in, her meek purity attracting the malicious attentions of the environment, itself. From the get-go, even her taxi driver seems to have the evil eye. When a frightened girl runs from the Academy, as Suzy pulls up, she utters a clue - in a pure Argento trademark - that is barely heard through the storm's rage, and plunges headlong into the squall. Flashes from the cab's headlights illuminate her, vulnerable and bedraggled, as she flees in galvanising terror through the woods. A dreadful shadow, like some poised killer, is ignited against the trunk of a tree by the lightning, reinforcing a theme that the very environment is hostile, too. What follows next, is perhaps, the most celebrated set-piece murder sequence ever filmed. Topping even Janet Leigh's doomed shower/knife interface in Psycho, Argento here fashioned a bravura and extremely gruelling, slaughter scene that is as beautiful as it is brutal. But, it is telling that in these times of audiences applauding a great murder scene and deriving entertainment from protracted torture-porn - something that Argento, unapologetically, had a hand in creating - this double-event elicits no such spontaneous behaviour. It has been said many times that the only thing more terrifying than the first ten minutes of Suspiria, are the last ninety - though, strangely enough, in America, it was the total reverse of that equation. And, in many ways, this is true. For, at this juncture, we know absolutely nothing. We have been cast adrift on a sea of baroque insanity, lured away from all sense of reason and fair play. We are on our own, with no-one to cling to - no obvious villain, no obvious hero - and like the shell-shocked victim of a surprise explosion we are left struggling with only fragments of reality to gather up. For any other movie - and many have attempted to emulate Argento's miasma of mayhem - this would be off-putting and, more than likely, ridiculous. But when that hairy, talon-tipped arm smashes through the window of the friend's apartment, to which the frightened girl has fled, and rams her screaming face against, and then through the glass we quickly, and painfully, realise that all bets are now off.

    “Poor Daniel ... torn to pieces.”

    The repeated stabbing during this graphic murder scene is unbelievably shocking - it just keeps on going - the last thrust dealt to the victim's exposed, and beating, heart. American audiences had been spared much of this sequence until recent years, though, miraculously the UK versions had remained largely intact, save for a couple of censor-snipped re-releases in the aftermath of little Jamie Bulger's terrible murder. The stained-glass death plunge, the snap-jolt of a tight noose and the horrific camera reveal of another, inadvertent victim down below protract the agony still further. Salt in the wound, as it were. We'd had the advent of the blood-squib and the realism of Peckinpah's slow-motion bullet-hits, but Argento was now proving that cinematic carnage could be pushed even further, made as extravagant as it was grisly. That he worked with George Romero on the epic Dawn Of The Dead throughout the following year comes as no surprise at all. His skill for long drawn-out murders was already well known from his earlier giallo pictures, especially the bodily destruction seen in Deep Red (that teeth-bashing episode would put a serious dent in anybody's day), as was his distinct pleasure at placing women in truly appalling situations, to wit Suzy Kendall in The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (see BD review) but in Suspiria, his penchant for such tortures seems to know no bounds. To wit, an unfortunate student enmeshed in the vicious coils of a death-trap room full of razor-wire, her agonised struggling cruelly lingered on as she works herself ever-deeper into skin-slicing extremis, and the afore-mentioned double-event, the unwitting second victim put through paroxysms of terror as tries frantically to help her friend.

    “She's there ... right behind that sheet.”

    Argento takes the theme of the occult and mixes it with the motifs and the distinct look of a fairytale. He purposely sought out the same Three-Strip Technicolor film stock used in Disney's Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, the film he still claims was Suspiria's visual template, finally sourcing a limited amount in Texas, and, together with master cinematographer Luciano (Single White Female) Tovoli, liberally painted his own unique fable of innocence and witchcraft with it. Even the brief narration that opens the film has a clear storytelling beat ... a “Once Upon A Time” for the clinically unhinged. Always a delicate actress, Jessica Harper, whom Argento had latched-onto after seeing her in Brian De Palma's The Phantom Of Paradise, completely fits in with that fairytale ethic, too. With her huge doe-eyes, dark hair and pale complexion and waif-like figure, she is Snow White. And watch how she almost flutters about the livid labyrinth, flitting from one colourful atrocity to another - it brings to mind the inquisitive Alice ... though this is certainly no Wonderland into which she has fallen. She gives the most assured performance in a movie where the actors are not there to act, but to react to the nightmare around them. She may be quite strong-willed and brave, but her fragile vulnerability still presents her as a wonderfully sympathetic character, her tussle with a homicidal bat and the rain of maggots adding considerably to her plight. Her terrified face, as something utterly unspeakable emerges from behind a closed door, is so genuinely affecting that almost every stalk 'n' slash heroine facing-down their nemesis in the years ever since pales in comparison. And the fact that Jessica Harper, as she appears here in the film, is a virtual dead ringer for my wife, has no bearing on my affections, of course. Ahem. But everyone else seems merely on hand to populate the image. Even the esteemed Joan Bennett, in her last film role, as the Academy's starched overseer, Madam Blanc, seems stifled, and tiredly uneasy in the role of the ambitious lesser-witch, her less-than-stately career dive into Euro-horror striking up something of a weary Dot Cotton, rather than a satanically-charged Joan Crawford or Bette Davies, say. Former model Stefania Casini, as Sara, Suzy's new-found friend and ally, is luminous and intense, yet her character is threadbare, serving only to perpetuate our fears and anxieties when she foolishly goes prowling around the school. Knife-fodder, in other words. But Alida Valli, once so alluring in Orson Wells' The Third Man, certainly understands the power of a sinister grin as the brusque and edgy dance tutor Miss Tanner. But, again, as with so many of Argento's movies, and Italian genre product in general, the acting is merely another example of set-dressing and should not be analysed too deeply. That gypsy nanny-cum-cook still cuts a frighteningly scary figure, with that meat cleaver in her paw and that demonic scowl, though. I mean, she sure convinces me that she's up to no good.

    “The secret ... I saw behind the door.”

    From a technical standpoint, Suspiria broke new ground and cannot be faulted, remaining something of a virtuoso benchmark for the horror films that followed. From audaciously nasty close-ups of horrific violence to lengthy and elaborate tracking shots that climb walls, whirl around empty plazas and glide along sumptuous sets, the lighting, camera angles and directorial verve displayed are a constant eye-opener. From extreme long-shots to intensely intimate, frame-filling portraits in the blink of an eye - think of the horrific murder-by-guide-dog, that was virtually nicked by Lucio Fulci for The Beyond - the editing is whip-crack and jolting. The intricate and complicated manoeuvres that Argento's lens undertakes are often akin to a drunken jaunt through a hall of mirrors, deviating wildly from the directions your eyes and your mind expect them to go, yet as sinuously smooth as a snake. He had now moved from being thematically outrageous, what with all those convoluted, red-herring stuffed thrillers, to exploiting and exploding the medium altogether in every way possible, from the visual to the aural to the emotional. The final night, when Suzy - who has asked too many questions - is left to fend for her herself against the coven, who are now hell-bent on destroying her, features some truly amazing photography. I love the moment when she works out where the mysterious footsteps have gone to, and, after she has moved with trepidation down the hall to the rear of the shot, the camera then suddenly realises what she is up to and glides hastily after her. Especially well-realised is the round room, with its crucial three irises clue, and the miraculous photography that swirls around it. Look for the uncanny spell during the pan from left to right as Suzy first enters it, when the image seems to fold in on itself with that mesmerising anamorphic lens. Literally bending the room around us. It's a blink and replay it moment, folks, that Argento obligingly serves up again a few minutes later on when Suzy is compelled to flee back the other way.

    “Vanish. She must vanish! Die ... Die ... DIE!

    The first of a proposed trilogy chronicling the powerful and dark Three Mothers, Suspiria features the reign of the Mother of Whispers. So how else could the film end but with a final, traumatic confrontation with the wicked witch? And for the ghastly Elena Markos, Argento found the oldest woman he could to portray the grotesque old hag. She is definitely not a pretty sight. And nor is the truly terrifying image of a cackling corpse, butcher knife in hand, advancing upon Suzy, which is as indelible a vision as anything else conjured up in this kaleidoscopic twilight realm. Quoting his earlier film, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Argento even finds a delightful trick for Suzy's retaliation, in a glass dagger plucked from the tail of an ornamental peacock, and the resulting devastation wrought by an exploding and imploding academy is as majestic and fiery a finale as you could wish for.

    “You think you can kill Elena Markos!

    Despite being often described as such, Suspiria is actually not at all surreal. The film, in fact, achieves its dreamlike incandescence and ethereal mood through an overtly stylised sense of heightened reality, emotions enhanced to an almost unbearable degree, the visuals that en-drape it blazing the narrative as opposed to diffusing it. Sharpening each episode to a fever-pitch of cascading crescendos. Argento's theme is raw, primal and explicit, its development never masked with either spiritual or intellectual ambiguity. He wants you to feel the terror, experience the agony. This is not a film he wants you to simply walk away from, and have a pizza afterwards. Even the rare moment of clarity, when Suzy meets genre veteran, Udo Kier, and Rudolf Schundler's rather strange occult expert, Prof Milius, in the bright natural daylight of the real world, the mood is bizarre, and unearthly. But never once does the film overstep its own, admittedly illogical, boundaries into overt surrealism. In their accompanying commentary, both Kim Newman and Alan Jones denounce this particular sequence for being unnecessary and one of the film's very few failings, although something rather typical for Argento to come up with as a plot-expounding breather. I actually disagree with their view. This suddenly natural colour interlude in the supernatural proceedings provides a stop-gap that, on the surface, acts as a resume of what's been going on for those audience members still utterly bewildered by it all, but, going a little deeper, it provides a touch of the uncanny in a place of total normality - the mirror image of Milius, for instance, with his flapping hooks of wispy hair like Angus Scrimm's notorious Tall Man from Phantasm and a semi-letching countenance rather suggestive of Klaus Kinski, reveals a curious double-life, almost as though he has something of a split-personality, something two-faced and not quite so benign, after all - and this serves, perhaps subconsciously, to cement what he says about magic “being everywhere”. Combined with the menacing cab driver who reluctantly ferries Suzy from the airport at the start (he even crops up again in Inferno to give another taxi ride to oblivion), this gives a Rosemary's Baby/Race With The Devil frisson that perhaps everybody is in on it.

    And, going along with this, it is worth noting some of the other important horror films that Argento references with Suspiria. With the passing of time they become part of his and the film's dark magic - the genre baton passed on and, if nothing else, help newcomers to seek out earlier examples of such styles as those found in Val Lewton's Cat People, Hitchcock's original Psycho, Polanski's Repulsion, the flapping of a stone bird echoed from Sidney Hayer's Night Of The Eagle, Powell and Pressburger's The Tales of Hoffmann and The Red Shoes, the influence of both reinforcing Dario's lush canvas with the visual elegance of the theatre combined with the most avant-garde of the cinematic, and even Powell's visually and psychologically experimental Peeping Tom. But the influence of Mario Bava is, to my mind anyway, inescapable. The whole garish colour palette and stylised lighting has always reminded me of Bava's Blood And Black Lace, itself a major trendsetter back in 1964 or even Planet Of The Vampires from the following year and, as Kim Newman points out, there are definite elements of James Whale's classic The Old Dark House (see my separate DVD review) to be savoured with copious wonderful shots of long corridors beset with fluttering curtains and the shuddering visage of the imposing, slab-toothed manservant (who looks a little like Argento, himself, as does blind Daniel!) somewhat recalling Boris Karloff's mumblingly aggressive butler. Indeed, this visual flourish - the dreamy tracking views of the Academy's hyper-primaried halls - owes a lot to Universal's evocative set design as much as it does Cocteau, which often portrayed angles, shadows and décor that were just as elaborate and beguiling.

    “Bad luck isn't brought by broken mirrors, but by broken minds.”

    Comments are made about girls wandering endlessly down neon and shadow draped corridors being all the film has to offer besides a smattering of gory killings, but watching Stefania Casini and then Jessica Harper making brave, sleuthing voyages through the twisted labyrinth behind the walls of the Academy simply is the structural allure of the film. Argento went all-out to compose a fairytale - from the deceptively soothing opening narration through to the final confrontation with a wicked witch - and yet he came up with one of the greatest horror movies ever made. So sad then that its creator followed a similar career-plummet to that of another terror-trendsetter - ironically one who was heavily influenced by Suspiria - Halloween's own John Carpenter. Argento followed up his art-nouveau bloodbath with a semi-sequel about the Mother Of Darkness in Inferno (1980), which, although equally flamboyant and gory, never really came close to capturing the intensity and sheer class of its predecessor, although when compared to the risible final chapter, Mother Of Tears, that eventually limped pathetically along in 2007, it is nothing short of a masterpiece. It is an utter bewilderment to me how both filmmakers could have lapsed so badly after scaling such heights. But it does serve to indicate just how impossible it is to improve upon, or even replicate, the tone, mood and atmosphere of such classics of the genre, and with that we are still left with the nagging prospect of a remake of Suspiria loitering unwanted on the horizon, proving that Hollywood will simply never learn.

    “Hell is behind that door! You're going to meet death now... the LIVING DEAD!

    Despite Alan Jones insisting that he has never been able to spot the cable for the incredible death-sliding camera swoop in the dog-kill square, it is very plainly visible in the shot that follows that actual movement, taken from a slightly different, long shot angle. Visible, too, and perhaps more so in this hi-def transfer, are the wires on the vicious bat that attacks Suzy. Sadly, there is also the unmistakable reflection of Dario, himself, as the camera zooms in on the, otherwise, highly stylish image in the window of Suzy and Prof. Milius as they sit and talk about witches. But something that you should look out for that is most definitely not a production error, is the fact that the door-handles are all positioned higher than usual, making the girls seem a lot smaller than they really are. This, coupled with the rather juvenile dialogue that they often utter, are the residue from Argento's first desire to have his cast of victims aged much younger than the eighteen, nineteen, twenty-year-olds that we see populating the Academy. It is truly disturbing to think that the script, co-written by Argento's then-partner, Daria Nicolodi (and based loosely upon her own grandmother's frightening bedtime recollections of attending a sinister school in Bavaria that allegedly had sorcery on the curriculum - though not Quidditch), is essentially the same as the one that the intended child-cast would have enacted. Just reflect upon that for a moment.

    Oh, and despite Alan Jones denying that we actually see Nicolodi, who would go on suffer a terrible, cat-clawing demise in Inferno, walking alongside Harper as Suzy heads out of the airport at the start of the film, I still reckon that it is her. She may have taken the hump, and then been ousted after Dario refused her offer to play Suzy, but her presence still penetrates the film.

    Forming the stepping-stone that would transport Argento out of the giallo and into the supernatural, although it still contains plenty of the ingredients of the former, Suspiria remains the pinnacle of the cult director's work to date. It is hard to think a genre film that has won over as many critics as this which, in itself, is something that should be quite worrying. After seeing so many tantalising stills from it and reading so much about it - from the likes of Alan Jones - when I was a kid, when I finally caught the film on Betamax on the old uncut Thorn EMI release (which I still have, by the way), it was easy to see why so many had become so smitten with it. I was hooked immediately and have been ever since. There is nothing else like this out there. Not even Inferno, which tries so damn hard to be.

    Extraordinary filmmaking. Retina, ear and soul-scorching, Suspiria is a genuine masterpiece of Cinema.