Part of the Italian Horror Blogathon at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies
Se also: a gallery of images from Suspiria.
Suspiria is not just AN Italian horror movie - it is THE Italian horror movie. The best-known, the most widely-seen and widely-discussed, the one held to typify the style of Italian horror the most; the last of which, at least, is profoundly unfair, because while in its lavish attention to color and framing, and its almost total disregard for storytelling logic, Suspiria is like other Italian horror movies, in both of these ways it is not "typical", at all, but is perhaps the farthest, most excessive extension of those things to the point that they overwhelm the movie. Overwhelm it gloriously, or frustratingly and annoyingly? That, of course, is for the individual viewer to decide, though I have made no secret over the years of landing squarely on the "gloriously" side of that debate, and claim for it the honor not just of being THE Italian horror movie, but perhaps THE horror movie of all time, in all countries, with its outlandish, confounding style doing more than virtually any other film I can name to create the exact sort of unsettled, panicky mood in the viewer that is at the heart of horror.
It's easy to lose sight of the context in which the film was released: in 1977, outside of Exorcist rip-offs, there wasn't much of an industry of supernatural horror in Italy, where the genre film of choice for the whole first half of the decade had been the gialli, violent, atmospheric, stylised murder mysteries which had been given a significant boost into popularity following the so-called "Animal Trilogy" of director Dario Argento; and it was in the hands of Argento that the genre reached its peak in 1975, with Deep Red. It seems at least possible that having exhausted the possibilities of the giallo with that masterpiece - though I do not want to ascribe motives to the man, and surely nothing about Argento's later career would lead us to think that blindly copying himself struck him as a sin much to be avoided - the director decided to find something even crazier than the gialli, and thus ended up with this monumentally unhinged story of witchcraft and ballet, inspired partially by a crazy dream that his girlfriend Daria Nicolodi had, partially by Thomas de Quincey's 19th Century prose poem Suspiria de Profundis.
Though, even as he prepared to explore new horizons, Argento was not able to completely abandon the style with which he was most associated, and which he had done so much to perfect, and Suspiria resembles a giallo in several ways, particularly in the first third or so, to the point that it's sometimes been called a giallo hybrid, or even, without qualification, a true giallo. The latter of these is plainly not true, and I dither about the former, but whatever the case, the opening situation, by itself, would not have seemed so revolutionary in 1977: American student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper, whose ability to look like a shocked deer in almost every situation is a huge boon to the movie) has just landed in Friedberg, Germany, to attend the most prestigious ballet school in Europe, and almost the instant she arrives, things start to go terrible: during a pouring rainstorm, she cannot get into the school, and is gruffly told by a female voice over the intercom that she'd do best to leave. Before doing so, she observes a young woman running from the school through the forest; this is a certain Pat Hingle (Eva Axén), whose night is going to be even worse than Suzy's, for after finding refuge at the home of a friend, she is killed by a strange humanoid being that attacks her through a second-story window, gutting her, and inadvertently causing the death of her friend as well, in a carefully-detailed depiction of what happens when a person stands underneath a large quantity of falling metal and glass.
When she finally gets inside the school - there to meet a whole class full of snippy, unpleasant young women who seem to take a barely-hidden delight in Pat's grisly demise, as well as the transparently shifty ballet mistress Tanner (Alida Valli, deliciously cruel) and matronly but dark company manager Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) - Suzy is only more thoroughly creeped and disoriented, particularly since she is practically forced to move into the dormitories after having made arrangements to stay with older student Olga (Barbara Magnolfi). Indeed, "practically forced" isn't the half of it: the shift was made while Suzy was in a daze after some illness akin to anemia, which times out rather conveniently to an unpleasant meeting with the school's cook (Franca Scagnetti). Soon enough, Suzy is seeing strange, inexplicable shapes, and hearing strange, inexplicable sounds around every corner, and only one other student, Sara (Stefania Casini) appears to notice or care that things are even slightly out of the ordinary.
So it's a mystery, then, but one that doesn't spend a whole lot of time in giallo territory; for - and I'm about to SPOIL things a bit, except that I'm not sure giving away the plot of Suspiria, or even transcribing its script for that matter, can rightfully be called a spoiler - the ballet school turns out to be harboring a coven founded in 1895 by maleficent Greek witch Helena Markos, nicknamed the Black Queen. Markos is supposed to have died in a fire in 1905, but the band of witches she left behind is still thriving, and whatever mischief they're up to in that school - and other than understanding, in a general sense, that if witches are doing it, it must be bad, we never actually learn what the hell is going on - it's the proximate source for all of the uncanny things that Suzy has been experiencing.
Hip-hip-hooray for the plot. I don't know why I even bothered going deeper into it than "American goes to a haunted ballet school", because honestly, that's all that matters. What Suspiria does better than perhaps any other horror movie ever made is to translate the inexplicable, dislocating sense of being caught in some manner of paranormal hell into cinematic terms, bypassing narrative completely; narrative exists in this film almost solely to provide a pretext for its mood-creating pyrotechnics, since without knowing that we're meant to be in a witch-plagued ballet school, the imagery in Suspiria and the mood it creates would just be inscrutable.
The tools Argento uses to create this mood are chiefly four, two of which are very important and two of which aren't so much. Of these less-important techniques, one is the content of the images themselves, which are baroque and artistic in its violence, even by the standards of Italian genre filmmaking in the 1970. Though it's not simply the preponderance of beautifully abstract bloodletting that gives Suspiria its kick, and indeed the violence is so artistically rendered as to be almost non-horrific. The genuinely unsettling images are, typically, those which are totally inexplicable but somehow threatening - a pair of green eyes hovering in the middle of the air, a silhouette of a body so emaciated that it looks awfully like a skeleton. The other less-important technique is the use of the camera itself, the framing and movement: Suspiria used Steadicam extensively, and along with The Shining from 1980 (I do not know for certain that Stanley Kubrick was inspired by, or had even seen, Argento's film, but I'd be totally stunned if that wasn't the case) provides ample evidence that what Steadicam does best is apply a layer of sinuous, predatory smoothness to generate almost insufferable amounts of suspense in a horror film. And of course, there's the simple matter of compositions, which frequently sideline Suzy or put her in the middle of a dead space, either trapping her or isolating her. One of my favorite shots in the movie, near the very start, shows her pale face reflected from the back seat in the windshield of a car, not only caging her in a very tiny space, but suggesting that she's already turning into a ghost.
The two more important tools are almost so abstract and intuitive that it's hard to talk about them: color and music. Suspiria is a fantastically colorful movie, and I mean that in both primary senses of the word "fantastic": unspeakably gorgeous, but also totally divorced from realism. This is a profoundly red motion picture, tinged with frequent blue and the occasional dash of green or yellow: but mostly red, bright reds searing your retinas and washed-out reds that are somehow even worse, not so obviously aggressive but still distressing. For red, as all we trichromatic mammals know, is a singularly distressing color, and Argento's use of it, as far from subtle as you can possibly get, is designed with singular intent to put us on edge. Nor does blue, typically a soothing color, get it much better: the reds are varied but the blues are always blindingly over-saturated and completely nonsensical, and instead of calming the eye they clash with the red, and clash with our logic, and seem quietly menacing and uncanny instead of the alarming, screaming reds. Colors don't signify in Suspiria: though it looks like you might be able to associate red with a certain type of moment and blue with another, mostly they're not tied to any particular narrative element. They're just there to snap us instantaneously into a particular emotional state, the kind you can only get to when you're watching a girl run, panicking, down a hallway that comes in a florid cherry shade found nowhere in nature. And in fact, Suspiria was printed - though not filmed - in the three-strip Technicolor process, which tells us plenty about Argento's priorities for the color.
Then, last and surely most importantly, the music. There is nothing so divisive about this movie as the score written by Argento and performed by Goblin, and it's not hard to see why: progressing from a threatening, chiming motif that I always forget could not possibly have been influenced by the later Halloween - though I wonder if influence flows the other way - it starts to get itself into trouble as the orchestrations begin to pile up, especially the one that sounds like a man with a deep baritone and a debilitating cigarette habit trying to cough up his tonsils, but in key. I have known people with impeccable horror fan credentials who finds this music astonishingly bad; and it is surely peculiar and distracting. But Suspiria would not work without it, and I think, in fact, that it might even be more effective for the viewer who hates the music than the viewer like me, who sort of adores it (but I am a sick bastard who has enjoyed every single Goblin score I've heard), for the music's purpose is not, as in Halloween, to create an insinuating, unnerving state of minor-key dread; nor, as in Psycho, to grab us by the throat and shake; but to make us extravagantly uncomfortable. It is loud, it is jangling and messy, and that hacking breathy vocalising is tremendously unpleasant. That it's all being forced into a melodic structure somehow makes it even worse, and I mean all of this in the best possible way, for what the music does is to put the listener into a highly agitated state, and in that state the imagery and colors get to do their very best work. I have, in the mood of experiment, watched a few of the more intense sequences from Suspiria with the sound off; and while that has a marked tendency to make just about every horror movie worse, Suspiria feels like a completely different project altogether.
This manner of purposefully anti-real, style-as-substance, emotion-first-brain-never horror filmmaking is, naturally, not to all tastes, but I rather believe that if any film could turn somebody into the sort of viewer who gets as much sheer joy from this sort of filmmaking as the present writer does, it's Suspiria. For it is not just aesthetically aggressive in this regard - many Italian horror films of that generation are aggressive - it is almost certainly the most aggressive and even better, the most successful. It is the greatest triumph of a very specific branch of filmmaking, and deserving of a reputation even more grandiose than the one it enjoys. This isn't just a good, unnatural horror movie, it is one of the great works of cinema.