This October, we’re celebrating some of the best horror films ever made. Look out for a new classic review daily across the month on The Film Blog, as well as more special treats along the way!
There may be a remake on the way but we’re returning to the original Suspiria for day twenty-eight…
On learning that there was to be a twenty-first century remake of Suspiria – that surreal horror masterpiece of 1977 – director Dario Argento complained that directly mimicking his film was a pointless endeavour but to alter it in any way was to stop it being Suspiria. His was a very good point. Suspiria surely ranks among the most distressing features ever committed to film, yet even those who cannot bare to watch it must agree that it is an artwork like no other and can only exist within its own perimeters.
The best way to describe Suspiria to the uninitiated is perhaps to speak of it as the demented offspring of Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and De Palma’s Carrie. Even that is woefully inadequate. This is a film with a score like no other, a colour scheme that must be seen to be believed and heightened structure that makes Lewis Carroll’s imaginarium seem plain. Disney proved to be a bizarre inspiration for the film – which leans heavily on fairytale thematics, not to mention the Italian sub genre of giallo – with cinematographer Luciano Tovoli instructed to watch the likes of Snow White and Alice in Wonderland prior to production.
Jessica Harper is wonderfully wide-eyed as ingénue ballerina Suzy Bannion, who departs from New York to the Tanz Dance Academy in Suspiria’s gloriously intense opening. Whilst Suzy’s actions are perfectly ordinary, the progressive rock accompaniment music of Goblin shrieks of anything but. On arriving at her new home in Freiburg – curiously mispronounced in the English dub – Suzy witnesses a blonde fellow student fleeing the Academy in terror, powering into the surrounding forest, mid-storm, as though she were the star of another, climaxing horror film. Flashes of lightning illuminate her escape but it is a short lived victory; before the sequence is out, this traumatised young woman will have met a grisly end.
Grisle is a pervading force throughout Suspiria, pitted with irony in juxtaposition to the beautiful set designs of Giuseppe Bassan. Were the already heightened physical backdrops of the film not striking enough for viewers, each is illuminated by a wilfully artificial bathing of thick light. Reds and blues dominate, with the film’s colourful arrays created by shielding extraordinarily large carbon arc lights with layers of fabric, as opposed to more commonly used gel filters. To further enhance the otherworldly aesthetic of his film, Argento insisted on the employment of the three-strip Technicolor editing process that had given the likes of The Wizard of Oz their incredible vibrancy. Visually, Suspiria is a visceral and unique entity.
The film’s sensorial attack is not, however, limited to that which can be seen – as blind pianist Daniel (Flavio Bucci) discovers to his cost. If ever a film were to claim that its soundtrack was a significant character in its own right, this is the one. Argento had worked with Italian band Goblin before inviting them to collaborate on Suspiria and knew them to be capable of creating a soundscape like none cinema had before experienced. African drums and Greek bouzoukia were recorded alongside a parade of foley effects – plastic cups squeezed against microphones, buckets hit with hammers – and ghastly chanting voices to gift the visuals a nightmarish quality. Argento plays his music just too loud, whilst lowering his diegetic voices; one leans in for the latter, only to be repeatedly attacked by the former.
Late in her spiralling story, Suzy is told that magic is everywhere in her world, and we viewers believe it. Only witchcraft could have created a film like Suspiria.