“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 in 1977. And those words still ring true today, as the Italian maestro of the macabre (at least he was back in those outrageous days) stylish exercise in pure and undiluted terror still leaves every other horror film languishing in its blood-drenched wake. To outline the plot would barely fill a sentence - 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. In a nutshell, that is the plot. 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 bloodcurdling 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?”
Nothing on Earth could prepare you for the impact this movie has when you first see 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 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 punctuated by some insanely eerie booming on what has been described as a “diabolical didgeridoo”, it is a deeply unnerving experience just by itself. 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, 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 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.”
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 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. 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, 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. 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 this DVD release, 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. Cinematic carnage would never be the same again. That Argento 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 is well known, as is his distinct pleasure at placing women in truly appalling situations, but in Suspiria, his penchant for such tortures knows 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.
“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 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. A delicate actress, Jessica Harper 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 toreact 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. And the fact that Jessica Harper, as she appears 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, as Madam Blanc, seems stifled, and tiredly uneasy in the role of the ambitious lesser-witch running the academy. Stefania Casini, as Sara, is luminous and intense, yet her character is threadbare, serving only to perpetuate our fears and anxieties when she foolishly goes prowling. Knife-fodder, in other words. But Alida Valli, as the brusque and edgy Miss Tanner certainly understands the power of a sinister grin. 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. 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 is a constant eye-opener. 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. 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 amazing photography. Especially well-realised is the round room, with its crucial three irises clue, and the virtuoso camerawork that swirls around it. Look for the uncanny moment during the pan from left to right as Suzy first enters it, when the image seems to fold in on itself. Literally bending around the room. It's a blink and replay it moment, folks.
“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 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 a majestic and fiery finale.
“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. 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 afterward. Even the rare moment of clarity, when Suzy meets genre veteran, Udo Kier, and Rudolf Schundler's rather strange occult expert 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 surrealism.
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 - and 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 even came close to capturing the intensity and class of its predecessor. It is an utter bewilderment to me how both filmmakers could have lapsed so badly in recent years. But, it does serve to indicate just how impossible it is to improve on, or even replicate, such classics of the genre.