The first ever Dario Argento film I saw, at the tender age of 18, was Suspiria. It was one of those fortuitous visits to the video rental shop that brought us together and we've never been apart since. As an 18 year old, fully obsessed by the horror genre - from the silent classics of Caligari and Nosferatu, the Universal Frankenstein and Dracula cycle, the eroticism and colour of the Hammer studios output and through to the modernism of The Exorcist, Halloween et al - this was my first real taste of Italian.
Actually that's not entirely true. I had been exposed to Mario Bava's sublime Black Sunday in one of those legendary BBC2 horror double bills. Bava is an interesting place to start because he's as much an influence on Argento's vision in Suspiria as Disney, Hitchcock, The Wizard Of Oz and Jacques Tourneur. The lurid lighting scheme of Bava's seminal giallo Blood and Black Lace undoubtedly inspired the lighting scheme of Suspiria. The contrived set piece murders. the close ups of pendant lamps and red wine drained down a plug hole are all Hitchcockian visual tropes whilst the observation of Suzy and Sarah in the shadowy swimming pool is pure Cat People period Tourneur.
Suspiria tells the (fairy)tale, a sort of anti-Wizard Of Oz if you like, of Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper). An American dance student, she arrives in Freiburg to attend the Tanzakademie dance school. On her arrival she learns of the brutal murder of a fellow student, Pat Hingle, a woman she saw leaving the school the previous night shouting out a cryptic message. She realises all is not well at the school when she befriends Sarah (Stefania Casini) who warns her of the odd behaviour of the teachers and the mysterious Directress.
Sarah is chased and murdered one night and the school's blind piano player is killed by his own dog after it has previously mauled the nephew of the academy's assistant director Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett). Suzy consults with Sara's friend Dr. Frank Mandel (a rather young and gorgeous looking Udo Keir) who tells her of the occult history of the academy and of a coven of witches led by the sinister Helena Markos. Suzy returns to the school and follows a map of footsteps drawn by Sarah and, remembering the clue in the cryptic message of the murdered Pat, discovers the teachers at the academy attempting to cast a spell on Suzy in order to kill her.
Argento takes his cue from Thomas De Quincey's sequel to Confessions Of An Opium Eater. In the essay Suspiria de Profundis, spawned from De Quincey's own nightmares as an opium addict, he tells a tale of a Roman goddess who communes with the dark powers of the Three Sorrows (the Mothers of Tears, Sighs and Darkness), a strange story that resembles the hallucinatory and dream-like atmosphere of Argento's film. The highly Romantic and gothic elements of the film, with dark forests, haunted schools and murderous supernatural forces crash up against the real world images of airport arrival lounges, taxi cabs, telephones and convention centres.
The film's production design blends in several European art forms, from German Expressionism and Art Nouveau to the illustrations of M C Esher whilst its searing primary colour schemes of red, blue, green and yellow offer a lush Technicolour splendour to underline the claustrophobic hyper-reality of the Tanzakademie's castle like interior. Illogical space and the sense that we, Suzy and Sarah are entering an endless labyrinth with no clear escape both mirror the Escher like designs in Madame Blanc's office, in Olga's apartment, in the secret tunnel leading to the coven's hideout and the bizarre geometric designs of the apartment block lobby. The school itself is a warren of luridly coloured tunnels and corridors, a metaphorical haunted house in which the strong and pure are pursued by the projected will of the evil Helena Markos and through which Argento's camera silently prowls.
The intertextualities don't stop there. Suspiria locates itself within a dance school, primarily attended by young women (the young men in the film seem codified as beautiful, sylph-like effetes with Mark, played by the Nureyev like Miguel Bose, directly subjugated by Miss Tanner) and the school setting suggests this location of female solidarity and power as a force to counter patriarchal dominance. Ironically, Alida Valli, playing the stoic and brusque dance instructor Miss Tanner, who also turns out to be a witch, was the star of many Hollywood schoolgirl comedies of the 1940s,
The patriarchal dominance of reality is symbolised by Suzy's conversation with Frank, and through extension with his colleague Professor Milius, which takes place in a concrete concourse outside a convention centre beneath some rather phallic looking skyscrapers. The two men put all the female magic and sorcery down to some form of mental illness ("bad luck isn't brought by broken mirrors but broken minds"). The film opens out further as a direct challenge to masculine anxieties about female power in one sequence, as Suzy witnesses the witches Sabbath, where Miss Tanner and Madame Blanc subvert the Christian rituals of the Eucharist. As an anti-fairy tale it also positions Suzy and the ancient witch Helena Markos as the maiden/hag duality, the Snow White to the Evil Queen. The film's sets also seem to dwarf the actors suggesting children lost in a nightmarish adult sized world and images of flowers and blossoms litter the decor, from Olga's apartment with its explosion of black and white blooms to the highly important irises at the centre of the mystery. There's a febrile, sickly quality to them and the colour schemes they inhabit.
On top of this layer of European hyper-Gothic is a wild carousel of violence, bizarrely staged murder sequences and a nerve shredding acid rock soundtrack complete with music box like melodies, thudding drums, screeches, whispers and screams. It's a highly stylised and baroque film with performances that are certainly variable. Jessica Harper manages to keep the film from tipping over into outright camp, giving a very naturalistic performance that's the personification of innocence amidst all the hyperbole around her and acting as a counter to the Teutonic knowingness of Alida Valli's stormtrooping dance teacher and the powder blue glittering jewel of Joan Bennett's performance as Madame Blanc. It is somewhat hampered by that bug-bear of international horror films - bad dubbing, but it's an eyepopping, gory, often disturbing experience, suffused with a tangible unease generated by the culmination of the visual and aural elements, that once seen and heard is never forgotten.
Nouveaux Pictures bring us a newly restored transfer that's probably the best version of Suspiria we're likely to see on the Blu Ray format. Plenty of detail, especially in the set designs, becomes more evident here and the colour palette seems to be spot on, removing the greenish quality of the Anchor Bay release of some years hence. But it's not quite right. The whites have been boosted to a level which leads to a bleached out look in some frames and the picture often looks soft and overly grainy too. Despite these quibbles the film looks ravishing and benefits from the HD transfer. Better still is the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack which propels the insane music from Italian group Goblin, the thunderstorms and the rattling breath of Helena Markos around your living room at high velocity. A shame there's no original Italian dub available here, though.
- Commentary - The fabulous pairing of Argento expert Alan Jones and cult film expert Kim Newman is perfect for this film and they make for an entertaining, fact filled and informative listen.
- Fear at 400 Degrees: The Cine-Excess of Suspiria - A well made documentary that features contributions from Goblin musician Claudio Simonetti, Norman J Warren, Kim Newman and film scholar and theorist Dr. Patricia McCormack.
- Suspiria Perspectives - All the interview footage of Simonetti, Warren and McCormack in its entirety, including some sections already featured from Fear at 400 Degrees.
- Welcome to Cine-Excess - Chief executive Xavier Mendik takes us through what the company will release next. The major gripe is that they label Suspiria as 'trash' along with all the other rather B grade films they have lined up.