Do you know anything about … witches?
Argento’s Suspiria remains one of the most enduring classics of the Italian giallo genre, and has been a cult favourite ever since its initial release back in 1977. For the uninitiated, giallo is a sub-genre of horror, best described as being akin to a spaghetti western (with dubbing and all) transported into the blood-soaked realm of schlock B-movie grind house fare, via Eurotrash, pure cinema and high art.
Suspiria follows promising young American ballerina Suzy Banyon (played by Jessica Harper) who has travelled to Germany to study at ‚Äúthe celebrated academy of Freiburg‚ÄĚ. All is not as it seems at the Academy, where students are being murdered one by one. Fear and calamity ensues, as the intrepid, if naive, Suzy investigates and picks her way through a thorny path of sinister and bizarre characters and events. What is going on at the dance academy? Who is murdering these girls? Is it…witches?
Everything you need to know about Argento‚Äôs giallo can be gleaned from the film’s breathless, exhilarating opening (just look at the way those airport sliding doors zoom open like the Gates of Hades themselves). Suzy arrives at the academy amidst a deafening and violent storm accompanied by Goblin‚Äôs blistering and thrilling score (of which more later), just as one of the Academy‚Äôs dancers is found brutally murdered – inauspicious to say the least.
And, mein Gott, what horrors await Suzy! Everything goes wrong for her: the grumpy German cab-driver cannot understand her; no one seems to recognise her name when she appears at the dance academy; her classmates are bitchy and obnoxious, treating her with distrust and disdain; in her first dance lesson she is forced to dance into unconsciousness, apparently triggering a series of Biblical events which take place within the Academy‚Äôs walls; more murders take place‚Ä¶.
And not forgetting the strange, chocolate-box, through-the-looking-glass world of the Academy itself, with its stern headmistress and mysterious staff. The only men at the academy are emasculated into subservience to these nymph-like ballet dancers: the velvet-suited helper-monkey of a child called Albert who is mute; an oversized, mongoloid Hungarian butler with false teeth who doesn‚Äôt understand English; then there‚Äôs Dennis the blind pianist whose playing is constantly undermined and unheard by the recorded music that is always playing when he does. The Academy‚Äôs manager is a curt, dry, matronly type with a mouth-breathing problem (Suspiria is Latin for sighs, you see).
Everything Suzy encounters is bizarre and unearthly. The plot ultimately unfolds to involve a witches‚Äô coven, a conspiracy and the undead. I won’t dwell on the plot too much here. Firstly, it is a unique feature of the giallo genre that the plot is inconsequential and baffling, and Suspiria is no exception to this, even if it is not exactly a textbook example of the genre. Secondly, the inventive, gory and statistically improbable murders that follow Suzy‚Äôs arrival in Germany are best left to be discovered for yourself. I must reveal, though, the unusually up-close-and-personal view of the murders Argento gives us ‚Äď not least because those are his leather-gloved hands doing the throttling. Oh, yes. Reader, I‚Äôve seen a lot of bizarro deaths and murders in my time, but the most far-out happen in Dario Argento‚Äôs Suspiria.
There is undeniably a cinematic delight to be had in the death scenes, which, upon release, many found to be tasteless at best and misogynistic at worst – something Argento has always denied (or rather, he denied misogyny). I believe him: his careful exploration of female teenage experience is meant to be cinematic and lurid. His themes are grounded in real life, but the film is a supercharged melodramatic version of the befuddlement of early adulthood.
Suspiria‚Äôs true delights lie not in mere trifles like plot or dialogue, but in Argento’s skilful and stylish direction. This new Blu-ray release renders his lurid stained-glass colour scheme eye-bleedingly crisp and vibrant – the Bavarian castle style exterior of the dance academy is the brightest magenta pink you’ve ever seen, whilst the inside is rich, velvety Bordello blue. Every room in the academy is different. Colours and textures are rendered so clearly you feel you could touch them. The sets are a veritable smorgasbord of kitsch geometric shapes and architecturally constructed contrasts. His style is graphic and incredibly European, using unusual angles to create the one of the most awesomely cinematic and atmospheric places ever committed to film. It is impossible not to be drawn in, and it‚Äôs impossible not to anticipate the next scene, just to see what that crazy Argento has the balls do next. He never disappoints – this is a director operating fearlessly at the height of his powers.
The garishness of the direction is matched only by the soundtrack. Provided by Italian prog-rock heroes Goblin (who also scored the original Dawn of the Dead) and apparently written and recorded in three crazy, drug-addled days, the score draws upon a number of Italian musical traditions to suitably accompany the horror that unfolds. But make no mistake; there is nothing traditional about this music. Operatic shrieks and wails are pitting against the mandolin playing of Italian folk music; Luigi Russolo-style experimental noise music bumps up against pulsating prog rock; percussion noises of an unspecified source accompany and meld with the film‚Äôs sound effects. The effect is one of sweaty, terrifying, visceral decadence and the score‚Äôs a prog masterpiece all of its own.
This Blu-ray release has a brilliantly remixed soundtrack, which can only be described as ‚Äúthrobbing‚ÄĚ. My advice is to put on your surround sound, turn it up loud (screw the neighbours or anyone who happens to be nearby) and revel in it. A soundtrack this brave and radical is the only possible match for Argento‚Äôs stylised visuals, and the effect of the two together is unprecedented.
The film is scheduled for a remake, with V for Vendetta‚Äôs starlet Natalie Portman playing Suzy, but since this has been on the cards since 2004 without much to show for it, I’m not sure it will happen. Such a remake is unnecessary, but I suspect there may be those frustrated by Suspiria‚Äôs wafer-thin plot and scant dialogue (which tends to be slightly hammy and dubbed over) and who will seek to rectify them. However, altering these elements would only serve to make a remarkable film into something more conventional.
A remake or ‚Äėreimagining‚Äô of Suspiria is perhaps inevitable. Hollywood have been desperately scratching around for something remake-able with huge cult value and integrity, which can be exploited and converted into box office gross, for some time now. And we all know where this sort of thing ends up – I’m looking at you here, Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes, 2006), and you, Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 2004). And don’t think we’ve forgotten about you, Marcus Nispel (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 2003,Friday the Thirteenth, 2009). Truly low blows indeed, Nispel, you shameless hack.