Monday, August 6, 2007

reVIEW (15)
SUSPIRIA [1 of 2]

The long-anticipated culmination of Dario Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy, La Terza Madre (Mother of Tears: The Third Mother), is nearly upon us. In light of that momentous horror geek occasion, I thought it appropriate to take a look back at the first two installments, 1977’s Suspiria, and 1980’s Inferno.
(It’s also the 30th anniversary of Suspiria, so here’s to the old gal…)

When Daria Nicolodi (who had appeared in Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso and subsequently became romantically involved with the director) suggested a move away from Argento’s beloved giallo, he took the advice to heart. Collaborating with Nicolodi on the script, Argento would end up creating one of his most enduring works, Suspiria.

New Yorker Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper; her more recent films include Todd Haynes’ Safe and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report) has just arrived in Germany as a new student at the Tanz Akademie, a prominent European dance school. Her arrival at the Akademie in a violent rainstorm coincides with the hurried flight from the premises by third-year student Pat Hingle (Eva Axen), who is soon violently murdered in a horrific setpiece which ends in a devastating rain of glass.
What follows in the wake of this brutal event is a phantasmagorical journey to the dark heart of the mystery that lies in the depths of the Akademie, a journey chronicled in a film that has been described as both a “magical thriller” and a “fairy tale for adults.”
Thirty years after its release, the film’s elements which hold up the strongest are the visual style Argento and his cinematographer Luciano Tovoli adopted, and the disturbing musical score by Italian progressive rock band (and frequent Argento collaborators), Goblin.

In keeping with the adult fairy tale tone of the narrative, Suspiria is drenched with vibrant colours and boasts impressive sets (production design by Giuseppe Bassan, who had worked with Argento on Profondo Rosso, and would again on Inferno and Sotto Gli Occhi Dell’assassino), which bolster the “totally artificial style” the filmmakers were aiming for. Though also heavily influenced by German Expressionism, Argento points to one particular—and rather unlikely—film which was a source of inspiration for Suspiria’s look: Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
It was from this animated classic that Argento and Tovoli drew the rich and deep colours that made Suspiria look quite unlike any horror film that had come before it. (It was shot by Tovoli on the last of the IB Technicolor stock in Italy.)*

Meanwhile, to provide the “infernal atmosphere” needed for the film, Argento collaborated with Goblin, to produce one of the most unsettling scores in horror cinema.
Along with Jerry Goldsmith’s work on Richard Donner’s The Omen, the Goblin/Argento music is one of the most conspicuous and intrusive film scores in cinematic history.
It is also—again, like The Omen score—one of the creepiest soundtracks to ever assault the ears of this particular horror geek. African percussion, Greek string instruments, plastic cups, whispers of “Witch! Witch!” all collide in an aural storm of chaos and foreboding, as the film’s bizarre events unfold before the audience’s eyes.

Given Argento’s tendency to shrug off the conventions of narrative, Suspiria’s plot is not a particularly strong one, subsumed as it is by the dark fairy tale stylings of the piece. It is the sort of tale where the sound of footsteps carries over impossible distances, solely to allow Suzy to uncover the Akademie’s ultimate secret.
If you’re a stickler for story and plot, then Suspiria is not the film for you.
Additionally, Suspiria displays the marvels of postdubbing, a standard practice in Italian cinema, where all sound, including dialogue, is recorded after the film is complete. Thus, some of the English dubbing tends to distract. To further complicate matters, during filming, certain cast members spoke their English lines phonetically, while some didn’t even speak English at all. Thus, some of the performances are questionable in light of the curious on-set language barriers.
And a couple of bits that didn’t work way back in 1977 (you cannot help but note the strangely puppet-like nature of German wildlife) still don’t work today. My sincerest apologies, Signore Argento, but that sadly overweight bat did indeed contribute to the “totally artificial style” of the film, but in a particularly dreadful way.

Still, there is that look, and that score, and Harper is an excellent protagonist (praised by horror writer and unabashed Argento fan, Douglas E. Winter as “the best of Argento’s heroines”). She is the audience’s Alice, simultaneously wonder- and terror-struck, by the Akademie’s sinister mystery, thrust into this shadowed land and left to work her way to the beating heart of it, before she can find surcease and escape.
With the look, rhythm, and logic of a particularly disturbing nightmare, Suspiria may not be to everyone’s tastes, but it’s certainly a must-see, as one of the most visually stimulating horror films ever made.

* Tovoli would collaborate once again with Argento on Sotto Gli Occhi Dell’assassino.
He was also the cinematographer on five consecutive Barbet Schroeder films (the brilliant Reversal of Fortune, the not-so-brilliant Single White Female, Kiss of Death, Before and After, and Desperate Measures).
More recently, he’s shot Julie Taymor’s interesting and kick-a$$ Titus and reunited with Schroeder on the dismal Murder By Numbers.

Parting shot: If you haven’t seen Suspiria yet, check it out, if only to see a really young Udo Kier as Dr. Frank Mandel, who helps provide much of the film’s exposition. Sadly though, he’s in only one scene.

(Suspiria OS courtesy of—this particular OS came alongside a truly horrible trailer that had a sophomoric nursery rhyme on VO, a patently fake skeleton with a wig on, and a font whose letters were made to resemble distorted hearts. In the trailer, the letters actually beat; VHS cover art courtesy of; DVD cover art courtesy of

Thanx once again to the J&R Travel Agency for getting me that plane ticket to Germany.

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