The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 92.
Suspiria: derived from the Italian sospirare—to sigh
Sigh—to lament, to grieve, to be filled with sorrow
Like the sour wind that rises up from a freshly opened antiquated crypt, the three Sorrows, those heinous mothers of despair, sit in their labyrinthine decaying castles and breathe their painful black art like a queer quilt across the world. Mater Tenebrarum, secrets buried deep inside the rotting walls of a Manhattan apartment building, is the shadow of death, the aging image of the soul's darkest and final condemnation. Mater Lachrymarum, she who brings tears to the planet, as long a part of Rome as its ruins, or its fears. Hers is the most primordial of realms. And then there is Mater Suspiriorum, possessor of the subtlest power, to manipulate and control. Yet hers is also the most hideous revenge—stark, vicious, and destructive. From a decadent dance academy in Frieburg, Germany, hidden beneath walls casting archaic spells and through veils of brutal cruelty, she enters the unknowing as a whisper or a hushed voice. Make no mistake—her purpose is as wicked as that of her sisters, for she is a witch, fornicator with the Devil, and drinker of human suffering. In Dario Argento's brilliant 1977 film Suspiria, she is the foul center to misery and murder.
Facts of the Case
Suspiria tells the tale of Susie Bannon, an American dance student coming to study at the Tanzakademie in Freiburg, Germany. On the night she arrives, there is a terrible rainstorm. Once at the school, Susie sees a young girl flee into the woods. Unable to gain entrance to the building, Susie heads into town for the night. Upon returning to the school the next day, she finds the police questioning Headmistress Madame Blanc, who offers a warm reception. It appears the young girl Susie saw leave was murdered, along with another young lady, by an unknown assailant. Shaken, Susie attends class and makes friends with another student, Sarah, an outcast among the rest of the dancers.
Things almost immediately begin to go wrong for Susie. While attending class she grows sick and hemorrhages. The school doctor places her on a restricted diet with plenty of bed rest. Susie, now a boarder at the Tanzakademie, starts to notice odd things. The blind piano player Daniel has a seeing-eye dog, which is accused of harming Madame Blanc's nephew. Daniel defends his animal and is fired by Miss Tanner, the brutish instructor. One night, the entire dormitory floor is showered with maggots. Events spiral out of control. Late one evening, Daniel meets a gruesome fate in an empty piazza. While discussing the faculty, Susie comments to Sarah that the nightly footsteps, which sound like the staff leaving the school, are actually traveling deeper within the building's walls. Sarah wants to investigate, but Susie cannot wake up. She seems drugged.
Sarah unfortunately discovers where the footfalls lead. Susie looks for her the next day, but is told she has left the school. After another bout of sleeping sickness, Susie discovers she is seemingly alone at the school. She ventures out to follow Sarah's theory about the faculty. Soon, she finds herself in Madame Blanc's ornate office, but before she can go any further, she has to remember a clue spoken by the fleeing girl on the night she first arrived. And when she does uncover the truth about the Academy, it is more horrifying that she, or anyone, can imagine.
Since he first read about them in Thomas DeQuincey's collection of essays Suspiria De Profundis, Dario Argento had been fascinated with the Three Mothers, the imaginary rulers over the dominion of pain and suffering. Conceived as a complement to the entire Graces/Furies/Muses notion of mystical powerful women, their origins do not derive from some ancient teachings or cultural folklore, but from the hallucinatory mind of an opium addict. Seeking inspiration and a chance to move away from giallo, the Italian thriller genre that made him a superstar in his native land, Argento took the tale of the Maters Suspiriorum, Tenebrarum, and Lachrymarum as the logical components to a trilogy. Each film would deal with a different Sorrow. Each would focus on a different location. Currently, the Mother of Tears has yet to find her cinematic home. Inferno, Argento's equally artistic and brilliantly confusing 1980 follow-up to Suspiria, focused on Death herself, the Mother of Darkness. But with the success and acceptance of his experimentation within the conventional mystery drama of Deep Red, Argento wanted to branch out and tackle true supernatural horror. Suspiria is that startling starting point.
Understand this is Dario Argento's version of the supernatural we are discussing, one rooted deep in European manners and superstition. In Argento's world, ghosts do not kill people, knives do. As he views the paranormal, it manifests itself in everyday, mundane brutality. Possession may lead to illness, or even death, but more times than not a victim will be cut, or hung, as a means of quenching paranormal bloodlust. Suspiria is a horror film unlike any other in that it ventures far away from the standard "old dark house" or "living creature" notions of terror to invent a world where setting, style, and sound are more frightening than the bloody victim on the floor. In Dario's realm, death is a release, an explosion of bound tension and a surrender of will. His work is the natural link between classical, gothic horror and the existential terror of post-modern cinema. Argento is truly one of Italy's best, most misunderstood, and underappreciated directors. His influence on American horror is evident. Just look at any film by John Carpenter, for example, and you will see the trademark frequencies found in Argento's cinematic stockpile.
It's more than his avant-garde style that confuses and angers people. He is not willing to play fair and is more interested in how a film makes you feel than how it resolves its plotline. Something can be beautiful, and confusing as hell, but as long as you see the grace in its presentation, the meaning is unimportant. Argento confounds the fan looking for cold-blooded killing (though he does provide many sequences of graphic mutilation) or expecting the conventions of a standard horror ideal. Suspiria is the best example of this conundrum. While it is a film about witches, we hardly see any of their activities or rituals until the end. While it is a film about the power of black magic, the death is all common and realistic (except for a demonically inspired animal attack). Indeed, Suspiria is its own self-contained universe, a place where palatial settings mask hordes of meat-rotting maggots, or beautiful stained glass becomes a deadly pointed weapon of destruction. Viewed as a trip in to Argento's private realm, it is easy to see why many call it a masterpiece. Suspiria takes convention and tosses it into a room filled with barbed wire fencing, letting it struggle to survive the oncoming visual and aural onslaught.
In order to understand this complicated, yet wonderfully evocative film, it is best to divide the review into threes (in honor of the horrible Mothers) and to subdivide each even further, so that all the areas in which the spirit of Argento dwells are visited and explored like sites or places on a map.
The Realm of Dario Argento: The World of Suspiria's Creation
Area 1: The Story—Suspiria is a true amalgamation of fairy tale, mythology, theory, childhood memories, Disney cartoons, and regional superstition. When creating the film, Argento was inspired by Lewis Carroll, the Brothers Grimm, the German Expressionists, and, oddly enough, Uncle Walt's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Co-screenwriter Daria Nicolodi drew on her grandmother's gruesome stories of childhood. Together, they formulated a film steeped in the rich atmosphere of its European locations and drenched in the horror of innocents in the realm of the wicked. The plot is more a dream, a trip through a damaged and rococo looking glass into a world of color, sight, and sound. No explanations are given, and even the introductory voiceover narration is merely a "Once upon a time" to start this wicked fairy story. Once we are trapped in Argento's otherworldly rainstorm and enter the gothic grandeur of the foreboding academy, we are at a loss for real world equivalence. We are locked in the rich, bastard kingdom of the Three Mothers, and in the deliberate, directorial hands of Argento, where images speak louder than words ever can.
Area 2: The Cast—Again, Argento is looking for type here, wanting his actors' look to impress and express his themes upon the viewer. Frankly, the spoken word portion of Suspiria must be no longer than 40 or 45 script pages. Aside from some necessary exposition and interludes of thinking aloud, the movie is mostly an exercise in silent story telling and tone setting. The brilliance of Argento is that he indeed matches his actors to their visual roles perfectly. He wanted a doe-eyed Snow White Susie and received one in the beautiful, innocent Jessica Harper. As the calm, naïve center in this tale of witches and the supernatural, she is worthy of our concern merely because of her china doll presence and delicate nature. In sharp contrast is Stefania Casini, as the worldly, weary Sarah. She wears her destiny in her tired eyes and victimization in her gangly, acrobatic body. Joan Bennett, hired to portray beauty in decadent decline, is wonderful in this film. Her ghostly makeup and sagging features add dread and menace to what is basically a deceptively comforting role. With the Aryan artifice of Alida Valli as the dictatorial, overly polite Miss Tanner, the players within this nightmare of necromancy are set. Like the statues in a collapsing temple, they illustrate and commemorate Argento's battle between the wicked and the pure.
Area 3: The Direction—From the opening airport sequence to the discovery of Helena Marcus, Argento is in full, unswerving dominion over his camera. He never wastes a shot or misplaces a frame. He manipulates the lens as a near-literary device and presents points of view and images rarely seen outside the experimental film. Influenced by camera placement and what it means to a scene, hidden messages and unannounced themes can be viewed and enjoyed simply in how Argento captures the material on film. When Susie passes a bulky kitchen worker polishing a mysterious silver object, Argento builds the sequence by crosscutting, letting us know that whatever happens, the two individuals are connected on an entirely ethereal level. And when the silver object (which looks surprising like a knife) flashes into Susie's eyes the screen is brightly illuminated. Argento then inserts a shot of dust and particles raining through the air, indicating that this sunny luminescence may contain something far more harmful than its blinding light. In mesmerizing moments like these, Argento exhibits why no one can match his flair with the camera. He wields it like the wand of a magician. His is film as art in motion.
But he also doesn't sacrifice the other aspects of film for the sake of his vision (as many have wrongly accused him of doing). Argento wants the screen to be filled with images and sound, since that is how the life of the dream is lived. No nightmare is deathly quiet, no visit to a graveyard or abandoned house without its eerie, underlying soundscape. There have been times when Argento's focus is solely on a single moment or one static image on the screen (see his use of darkness and the unknown in Deep Red). But in the fabricated world of his horror folk tales, everything is over-decorated and symbolic, drawing on a myriad of designs from classical to deco, with even a little M.C. Escher and Fritz Lang thrown in for good measure. In the hands of a weaker filmmaker, one unsure of his abilities or unclear in his meaning, these wildly varying canvases could crash into a disaster of boring or pretentious proportion. But Argento is a master of containment, and he sifts the elements carefully, like a great chef, adding the right mix of borrowed and original ingredients, simmering them within the cinematic crock pot of this camera, hoping (and succeeding) to perfect his recipe of terror. Suspiria is a rich, decadent dish.
The Realm of Suspiria: The World of the Film's Themes and Techniques
Area 1: The Set Piece—Like other great directors before and since, Argento is in love with the set piece, the long form formulation of actions, events, and film techniques that move the mise-en-scène from something familiar into the sphere of the transcendent. In many ways, Suspiria is all set pieces. From the languid walk thorough the airport to the double murder in the gloriously gauche apartment block, each new sequence is a work unto itself and tells its own twisted tale. It is interesting to revisit the film once it has been viewed in its entirety, to watch this mini-movie unfold. Argento takes his story, divides it into several self-contained sections, and then once created, merges them together using mood, music, and visual design. Any one would be the foundation for an average, individual exercise in horror and suspense. Or he could utilize them, like Hitchcock (an obvious influence) and DePalma (one of his many students), as accent pieces to an overall complicated and interwoven narrative. But Argento sells no great mystery here. What happened to the young girl at the start of the film is obvious, and what she knew (and what we are later to discover) is of little consequence. What is important is how it is told, and Argento decides to load the film with these magnificent directorial exercises to maintain his unreal otherworldly universe.
Area 2: The Themes—Thematically, Argento is intrigued by location and history. Many of the decisions for settings come from his study of ancient as well as modern legends and the architectural significance of where he is filming. Frieburg, Germany is the setting for Suspiria, and was utilized because it's near the "three corners," a place of mystical occult beliefs and alchemy (it is also where France, Germany, and Luxembourg meet). External locations, like the school or the outdoor atrium featured in Daniel's attack, are used for their beauty (in a decaying, malevolent way) or significance (the atrium is where Hitler held many of his massive rallies). Along with color, which symbolizes change, and the presence of unseen forces, Argento is that rare director who acknowledges that the backdrop is as integral an aspect to a film as any performance or plot point. If it doesn't look right, or evoke the proper response, it will undermine the tone of the visual poem he is reciting. Even his use of the modern BMW building in one of Susie's rare ventures outside the school is filmed in such a manner to accentuate and intensify the structure's futuristic, alien quality.
Everything is about perception for Argento. Doorways into the mind and the unknown are symbolized as arcane, bewildering entrances and egresses. Unusually high doorknobs (Argento had originally conceived the film as an exercise in witches versus children) are meant to signify the forbidden realms to the adolescent (and reinforce the fairy tale feeling). Elongated and frosted transoms are shaped tall, round, and full like ripe, unspoken passions. His door contours are odd, defying construction and practical design. All this heightens his portal fixation. No entrance opens into somewhere specific. Each one leads to another hallway, another path to traverse, another secret to unravel. Argento is at his best when he doesn't give away all the details at once. Having them slowly evolve and reveal themselves in all their tensile glory fosters the control he is so careful to protect. But he does provide some hints along the way. Watch what happens as individuals open doors. Colors shift, tones change, and the security of a room is broken to let the heinous forces of the outer in. Like the wheezing, decaying silhouette behind the curtain in the makeshift gymnasium dormitory, there is evil behind the walls of Suspiria, be they brick or linen. And Argento will show us all of it, each and every disgusting aspect. When he wants to.
Area 3: The Visualization—If he is anything, Dario Argento is a true film stylist. Like the great Michael Powell or the equally magnificent Hitchcock, Argento strives to capitalize and intensify the film's visual approach. One of the reasons why people have such a difficult time with his movies is that he relies on the imagery to tell the tale. Those looking for crazed killers with vengeance and destruction on their mind, or suspenseful stalkings should visit his other films, like Deep Red or Tenebrae. Here, as in Inferno, Argento is working the artistic palette, splashing paint and pain around the ruins to full flashy effect. Characters may claim fear, or express worry, but it is only with striking colorization and well-crafted cinematic tableaus that the true essence or mood is revealed. Argento loves the juxtaposition of color upon color, of light with deepest darks and blood red on royal blue. He startles us with his brash use of pigment and sweeps the viewer into an absolute dreamscape by utilizing the emotion, power, and reference of hues.
But his work is more than just rainbow bright walls and atmospheres. He pushes the subliminal reality of hyper-colorization, relying on it to wash away surface artifacts and reveal the image beneath. When Sarah discovers the truth about where the teachers actually go at night, Argento turns up the blue, illuminating her face until all we can clearly see are her eyes (eyes that will pay the price for what they see). The rest of her face is a mask of cobalt gray terror, only the windows to her soul revealing the depth of the despair and understanding. It is through little cues like these where Argento's true mastery of horror, the terror of personal, not external fear is revealed. In the end, when the witch's lair has been discovered, it is tacky in its ornate trappings, but at the same time intimidating in its style and setup. As voices whisper in the soundtrack, and Susie moves along the wall like a needle on some grand, gruesome wax cylinder recording, the audience understands that she is playing these arcane, ritualistic scales, moving us ever closer to our date with demonian.
Suspiria is a masterpiece. It is one of the few horror films that works as both art and unsettling entertainment. It lacks the cohesive structure of his giallo, or the blunt scares of his later slasher classics, but Argento makes such a fluid, elegiac statement that to complain his tale of the bewitched, bothered, and beguiled lacks fright is to crave juvenile jolts over jaded beauty. Like the Mother of Sighs, this is a celebration of horror as sorrow, as grief for the loss of innocence and the destruction on the soul. In life, when someone dies, a long last breath escapes from their lips as the sigh, as life force flows forth in one last whisper of wind. In reality, when someone acknowledges the misery and torment of their life to themselves, a sigh adds the halfhearted exclamation point. When a killer cuts into the body of a victim, the very essence of humanity and existence seeps out in little devilish winds, sighs from the wounds. Suspiria is the realm and source of such air, of such painful and wicked breezes. And standing nearby, drinking every last horrendous waft in, is Argento. He wants you to experience the atmosphere of death. Suspiria is an artist's interpretation of that atmosphere
The Realm of Anchor Bay: The World of the DVD Release
Area 1: The Picture—Visually, Suspiria is one of the most magical and striking films you will ever see. As one of the last to employ the dated, yet technically superior Technicolor process, its images shine with an overwhelming hyper-reality. For a long time, anyone who wanted to witness Argento's vision had to settle for VHS tapes that diminished the colors and mutilated the widescreen presentation. With the onset of laserdisc, some better versions of the film were offered, but more times than not, compensations were made for the wild color schemes used. Leave it to Anchor Bay to finally get the DVD image right. Suspiria is breathtaking in this definitive transfer. The anamorphic 2.35:1 picture is unbelievable. The colors leap from the screen without any flaring or bleeding (and this is a film that uses untold pixels of ultra-lustrous red) and the blacks are full and crisp. The image is so sharp that words and phrases that were otherwise blurred in video or laser incarnations can be read in all their unsettling and enlightening glory. The DVD version of Suspiria is like experiencing it in a theater upon its initial release in 1977. This is a spectacular DVD image.
Area 2: The Sound—Since its release over a year ago, fans and internet experts have been debating and berating Anchor Bay's new 5.1 surround mix—not for what it adds, mind you, but for what it leaves out. Those used to old VHS or laserdisc versions of Suspiria have spent anxious newsgroup and forum time arguing over the mishandling and maiming of Argento's sonic signatures, noises, and music. They feel his work was changed unnecessarily for this version. First, let's point out that the new mix sounds incredible. All the English Dolby tracks, in any configuration, breathe new life into the old Suspiria soundtrack. The score, one of the best in any genre, let alone horror, is simply outstanding. Goblin, the Italian electronica group, mixes music box simplicity with found elements, unusual instrumentation, and ear-splitting cacophony to present a score that acts as a separate character and commentary on the film. Notice the childlike jingle that plays whenever the doors open. Listen to the breathy disturbed voices singing along. In the old versions of the film, this delicate, intricate differentiation between noise and nuance was obliterated in favor of decibels. The new version, while highly criticized, is a massive improvement.
The response from Anchor Bay has been measured and intelligent. DVD producer William Lustig has addressed fan criticism with a fairly straightforward reply. The mix currently found on this DVD is taken directly from the stereo masters Argento conceived when the film was first released in theaters. Any other mix or variation of Suspiria's sound is the result of input and tweaking from other parties. He argues that any soundtrack heard before this one (including the Italian track on the DVD, which mimics the old, longed-for presentation) was not one that Argento wanted. But seeing as he only had control over the Italian, not the foreign rights to his films, companies have freely modified and reimagined his aural tapestry when they release the films overseas. Having heard both the new mix and the old, this reviewer finds the arguments and distinctions petty. The new soundtrack is immersive, compelling, overpowering, and unnerving. This is the response Argento wanted, and this is the one achieved by Anchor Bay.
Area 3: The Extras—Another issue fans and film buffs have complained about is the failure for Anchor Bay to release the original, behind the scenes documentary, Suspiria: 25th Anniversary on any version of the DVD package except the three-disc collector's set (the third disc being a CD of Goblin's score). The main lament is that the difference in price (anywhere from $5 to $15) is not warranted, when all you truly get is the extra feature. Unfortunately, most people have made this argument without seeing the featurette, because a single viewing will justify, to some extent, the added cost. Wonderfully detailed and featuring many of the original participants in the film (everyone from Argento to Goblin to Harper), this nearly one-hour document describes the trial, tribulations, but most importantly, the inspiration for Suspiria. Daria Nicolodi is especially fascinating with her account of the screenplay's creation (compare and contrast with Argento's version for some entertaining "he said, she said" fun). Through interviews, behind the scenes and location footage, and references to and within the film, this is a wonderful added extra.
But the question really is, will someone miss this feature if they opt for the less expensive version of the disc? The answer, frankly, is no. True, it is one of the best Argento featurettes around, but as it is the only thing on the bonus disc, it does give off the scent of being included to up the retail price (the limited edition numbering doesn't hurt the bottom line either). The single disc version still has trailers, galleries, and an incredibly stupid video by Goblin founder Claudio Simonetti's new band, the goth goofs Daemonia. While those who do opt for the three discs will get the CD and a booklet with information on the film (and some really snazzy postcards), without a commentary or other serious extra, the three-disc set seems rather thin to be hyped in such a bloated fashion. Yes, this is a great film, and the new image and sound are exceptional, but that can all be found on the single disc version. One does not have to spend untold extra dollars (especially not on eBay) to buy something that, while of substance, does not really justify the additional packaging presentation.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While it is true that Suspiria is achingly beautiful and masterfully composed, it is simply not scary. The tactics employed by Argento to build suspense and to capitalize on fear are weak and telegraphed. Sequences like the atrium murder of Daniel, the blind pianist, are wonderfully shot and created to resemble paintings in a real life night gallery, but beyond their artful artifice, there is no surprise. Every indication is given that our poor sightless bugger is about to meet an untimely, violent end. Since we know that, the fancy camera tricks and musical cues used to impart dread only underscore the obvious. Once the crime occurs, Argento is left without the scare he had hoped for, so he retreats to gore to hopefully provide some thrills. This cold, calculated control of every aspect to the film—the color, the lighting, the acting—results in something very much like an elegant Arctic glacier: beautiful to look at, but frigid in its emotional power. Even with all the bizarre locations, kinetic music, and subtle sound shifts occurring, Argento just cannot seem to rouse the viewer from the dream state he has created to have his horror make an immediate impact. He substitutes the visual for the visceral. This focus on the look, not the language of horror, makes Suspiria a dull exercise in style.
So why is Suspiria such an effective horror film if it avoids so many of the genre's trappings and pitfalls? Why do people proclaim the genius of the filmmaking when there is a vocal consensus on the use of stylistic overkill and self-indulgent visuals? Why is something so devoid of typical terror tactics such a compelling exercise in visceral, supernatural fear? The answer is simple: Dario Argento. Here is a man who places his passionate, hellacious inner torment on the screen for all to experience, for everyone to become involved and possessed by. He batters you on three fronts: the visual, the aural, and the thematic. He could not care less if the characters engage you or the villain is unmasked. He simply creates nightmares and waits for you to surrender your pretensions and experience unrelenting dread on a basic, primal level. After the all-out surrealism of Inferno, in which Mater Tenebrarum met her fate, it will be interesting to see what Argento conceives for his final subject, Mater Lachrymarum, the bringer of tears. If it is anything like the first film in his series on those horrid whores of suffering, the Three Mothers, it will be another cinematic classic. Suspiria is a brilliant, unique, and disturbing motion picture. It is not to be missed.
Suspiria, its cast and crew are acquitted on all charges. Anchor Bay is also found not guilty, although the court does question the wisdom and financial soundness of offering a near essential extra as part of an overpriced, limited edition version of the title.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Suspiria 25th Anniversary: an All-New 52-Minute Documentary
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