And so my introduction to Italian Horror Cinema finally concludes with Dario Argento’s supposedly seminal ’Suspiria’, released in ’77 and the last film ever to be processed in glorious Technicolour fact fans. It’s a companion piece to ’Inferno’ in that it deals with the last of ‘The Three Mothers’, Mater Suspiriorum, The Mother of Sighs, who we find exacting vicious revenge for perceived slights in her imposing house turned dance academy in Germany. The staff are her coven and the pupils are her prey, and it’s down to yet another unsuspecting ingénue to flush her out.
The new arrival this time is Suzy Bannion, played by Jessica Harper, who’s greeted straight off the plane by a massive cloudburst that depopulates the already alien environment and immediately isolates the poor girl, damply cowering in the back of her cab - bloody reds & garish greens crashing against her face in a typically Dario stylee. The Munich beyond her rainswept window is very much like Argento’s New York – a vast soundstage containing only monumental buildings and monumental horror.
Suzy reaches the Academy just in time to see another student, Pat, running out the door in a blind panic. She disappears into the woods and is soon murdered, along with the friend who gives her shelter, in a graphic scene of slashing & lynching. It’s probably the film’s most shocking moment and an unequivocal statement of intent: Mater Suspiriorum means business.
This scene also showcases the soundtrack brilliantly, with synthmeisters Goblin doing an exemplary job of creating one of the most disturbingly dense soundscapes in cinema. Their actual ‘Suspiria’ theme is a dazzlingly simple twelve-note arrangement that stands alongside horror’s best, and the combinaton of the two contrasting aural approaches is a masterful use of shock audio that, like all the greatest soundtracks, creates a third world even more terrifying than the visuals into which it slips so perfectly.
Oversaturation is another classic Argento weapon. Solid blocks of colour box-in the Witch’s victims; from the blue velvet walls of the Academy’s entrance hall to the crimson cage of the makeshift dancehall dormitory, the palette is overpowering, almost hysterical, and it further widens the schism separating the Witch’s world from reality. Like ‘Inferno’ before it, the warped world of ‘Suspiria’ repays immersion, and that means suspending all expectations of any naturalistic treatment. Unlike ‘Inferno’, however, ‘Suspiria’ has an actually likeable protagonist, and her calming presence is the pivot around which the whole deranged edifice cracks & rolls. Without her, I think it would be unwatchable, so overwhelming is the mise-en-scene.
Suzy gradually uncovers the truth behind the brutal murders only whispered about in the Academy’s dark corridors, and everywhere the camera/witch is watching, more often from a distance; listening, noting, waiting to strike. Argento’s shot selections are largely designed to ensnare & smother, but there are a few inspired frame compositions that are as startlingly beautiful as they are unnerving, like this pool scene:
Finally, Suzy’s confidante, Sarah, is targeted. She narrowly escapes the knife only to fall into a room full of razorwire, from which she’s plucked and slaughtered. Following Sarah’s lead, Suzy then discovers where all the teachers have been hiding after lights out. They are the coven plotting Suzy’s death while their wizened Queen, Mater Suspiriorum, lies on her bed, cackling. She reanimates Sarah’s throatslit corpse to slay Suzy, but our heroine swiftly stabs the Witch in the neck and flees, the whole house burning behind her.
‘Suspiria’ and ‘Inferno’ share a story arc and a significant amount of style DNA, but the former is a far more focussed piece of work. I’d go further, and say that ‘Suspiria’ is the purest form of cinematic Horror I’ve ever seen. In fact it’s the only scary movie that’s actually given me nightmares, perhaps because it operates best in that space between instinct and intellect. To work at all it has to be seen in complete isolation, by which I mean that you have to forget any other type of cinema exists. Forget about performance. Forget about logic. Accept that you are in a different dimension - The World of Witches - where most critical reasoning is counterproductive and maybe you’ll see this movie for what it is: a sensory masterpiece.
So that’s it. Head Chef’s Horror Academy closes its doors after an unexpectedly successful first semester. From here I plan to expand my experience of Horror into different film genres – notably the Zombie movies – and also into literature, starting, perhaps, with Poe. So thank you Head Chef. Thank you for opening my eyes to the creative alternative of terror. I hope my children never hate you for it.
Head Chef: It’s been a pleasure. Maybe we can do a revision piece every so often and I’ll select something that I think could interest you? As for zombies, Romero’s films alone are a good starting point, though Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters has to make an appearance. Then there are horror comics, Japanese films - like House or Kwaidan - and you can’t ignore the Universal classics. So much horror, so little time. Congratulations Roomy, now about your fees….
Here’s some suggested further reading, but you must have seen some of these?
The Thing (1982)
The Fog (1980)
Bride of Frankenstein
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) & (1978) versions
Day Of The Dead (1985)
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Zombie Flesh Eaters
28 Days Later
Evil Dead 1 & 2 (1987)
The Haunting (1963)
The Wicker Man (1973)
Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) (1975)
Night of the Demon (1957)
Who Can Kill A Child? (1976)
Dark Water (2002) (Japanese version)
The Dead Zone (1983)
The Fly (1986)
Theatre Of Blood (1974)
Tales From The Crypt (1972)
The Vault Of Horror (1973)
Phew! That should keep you busy…
Magic. And you’re right, I’ve seen more than a few of these – the Carpenter’s, the Cronenberg’s, the Raimi’s, and other classics (Psycho, Alien, The Shining) but ‘Who Can Kill A Child’, after the day I’ve had, sounds intriguing, so I’m starting right there. Then the Romero’s.
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