Monday, December 15, 2008

Suspiria (1977)


In Dario Argento's greatest motion picture, Suspiria, every blade of variegated light reaches out and stabs the viewer with a brilliantly calculated precision that is, all by itself, exceptionally haunting. In Argento's relentless scare-fest, every note of the alternative-progressive Italian rock group Goblin's alarmingly terrifying score serves both literally and figuratively as notes on a musical staff, the greater and most ambitious of which is the film's entire multi-pronged construction. Argento's intensely driven desires result in a picture not just of stunning frights springing from the depths of personal, physical and palpable despair but an impeccably-formed picture. Whether interpreted as single-minded obsessiveness as an artist or the ascendancy of that artist's talents, Suspiria nevertheless represents the height of its maker's powers, the apex of his artistic worth.

The son of the highly influential Italian film producer Salvatore Argento, Dario Argento cut his teeth with great commitment as a filmmaker representing the genre of giallo (veritably, “yellow” in Italian, finding its cinematic meaning from the luridly sallow dust jacket covers of Italian pulp detective fiction), beginning with his first picture, 1970's The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. Giallo's focuses on sensationalistic crimes and occurrences would be an ideal breeding ground for Argento's twisted odysseys. His first movie introduced audiences to what would become thematic touchstones for Argento, which helped to give him the moniker of the "Italian Hitchcock": usually men playing the role of amateur detective, witnessing the violent demise of or attack upon a woman, and frequently finding themselves under suspicion for the ghastly crime(s) by the police.

What Suspiria partly marks is Argento's progression as a filmmaker, and the continuous drifting from pulpy detective archetypes, such as in his second picture, The Cat O' Nine Tails (1971), and bringing forth a purified distillation of the horror/supernatural facet of Deep Red (1975). Deep Red foreshadows Argento's plunge into sheer horror, whereas earlier pictures The Cat O' Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1972) display manipulations of the medium of cinema that push the boundaries of the constructions and formulations of cinematic time, plot, space and format that would serve as practical tools with which Argento could create a dreamlike (or rather nightmarish) picture. That film would be endowed with unbridled frankness, lacking in the restrictions that can and often do undermine such efforts.

After setting the time and place with a superfluous but unmistakably arresting formal declaration of the time—in a manner not dissimilar from Hitchcock's introductory notes in Notorious and Psycho—Suspiria opens with a gloriously grisly and histrionic murder. A young, beautiful woman is terrified by the recent happenings of her spiraling life with which she has become all too familiar. Finally she looks through a window, her eyes' moistly swimming and brimming with unadulterated terror. Suddenly an arm bursts through the glass and pulls her. Just as certainly, the viewer is pulled into the tale. The circumstances of the woman's shocking death are incredible, leaving a witness standing in the place of the audience dumbfounded and ushering in the doubtlessness of the supernatural as a decisive force within the framework of the narrative. It is with an overpowering sense of directorial manipulation and control that Argento spreads the lingering importance and relevance of such spellbinding set-pieces, atmospherically pushing the limits of spine-tingling spectacle. This most crucial characteristic of the film is thus immediately established.

Suspiria may be superficially about witches and witchery—derived in no small measure from Argento's fascination with Disney's Snow White and the allegorical trappings of the film's fair princess protagonist Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) being victimized by her metaphorical sisters (other young women) as well as more macabre forces—but its thematic undercurrents are largely about sisterhood, and spiritual awakenings. These are matters innately pertinent to tales of ghosts, ghouls and witches, however, emanating from the haunted environs like fearsome, unresting spirits. In Suspiria, the place of anagogic tumult—creating the conditions for the destruction of the ontic and tangible—is a famous German dance school, but the cadaverous and diabolically elaborate structure, from within and without, is as grandly flagitious and malevolent as the most imposing haunted house. And it is the linkage with that sub-genre where Suspiria finds much of its mood, characterized by long, sustained sequences of wordless terror and fiendish revelation. Shrouded whispers juxtaposed with pulse-pounding horror are richly unsettling at all times and Argento refuses to merely allow his vehicle to coast, driving the film's mounting dread with an awesome alacrity. Yet the commonplace, everyday fears of individuals are the hatchery from which Argento finds the more acutely realized visages of fear, transfixing the wholly captivated attention of the viewer against the diamantine backdrop of garish reds and translucently beryl blues.

That outlandish color scheme by Argento and his cinematographer Luciano Tovoli was considered to mimic the storybook unreality of the splashy coloring of the aforementioned “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Argento described the origins of the color scheme with this very important parallel parable: “We were trying to reproduce the color of Walt Disney's Snow White; it has been said from the beginning Technicolor lacked subdued shades, was without nuances—like cut-out cartoons.” The cumulative potency of the color scheme is magnificent, puissantly aiding Argento in chronicling the gripping tale of demonic evil. In one breathtaking shot after another, Argento allows the asperous obstructions to create a retina-taxing light show—the obstructions enabling him to create those blades of light against dark, shadowy penumbras. In a dynamic manner, Argento inverts many an expectation by making the camerawork only more furtive as the film proceeds, until finally certain bloody occurrences appear before the viewer. Buffeting the spectator with credulous performances, devilish whispers accompanied by eerie musical chords by Goblin and the efficacious usages of lashings of rain, cacophonous thunder, Argento's picture is an exquisitely composed assault on the senses.

The camera work is regularly scintillating in its parallax ramifications. Yet it is also quite frequently disorienting, causing greater discomfort and uneasiness. In one consummately fluid camera movement, Poseidon's Trident is directly, straightforwardly made the focal point of the camera. This pointed configuration, painted in crimson, fantastically portrays the inner truth of the picture, the central point of which is that souls are at stake. Appearing to be the Devil's property, this trident pitchfork is finally cast against the serene coolness of a pool below it, in which the protagonist princess swims with her only good friend at the dancing school, the porcelain-skinned redhead beauty named Sara (Stefania Casini), drawing the frightening implication that they are being brought baptismally into a most sinister nest of satanic iniquity. The unnerving hysteria produced by the elemental components of the picture here unabashedly curdle into the headlong climactic struggle between good and evil.

Argento's iconic cult film statement about inspiring sheer fear from his audience is understandable for those who have braved Suspiria's torrential downpour of aesthetically sumptuous and adventurous horror. Argento is routinely quoted as saying that he wanted to exceed the 375 centigrade degree experience of fear for the audience, reaching a 400 centigrade. With Suspiria, Argento grabbed a hold of a wide canvas and utilized every last nook and cranny. His utensils are varied and precisely applied, as diverse as Goblin's nerve-shattering score to an army of descending maggots symbolizing the rot of humanity to the aplomb of Alida Valli to noir dame goddess Joan Bennett in her last film role, and he makes opulent use of everything in his arsenal. The film he created from these disparate pieces is astonishing in its texture, terrifically resonant in its afterglow. This is cinema of the visceral, of the vibrantly chimeric, of the connaturally aware. Built on the very foundational quiddity of penetrative fear, Suspiria is a cinematic maelstrom, seemingly originating from the very innermost abysm belonging not merely to Argento but to all who bravely dare to peer through subfuscous trappings of the soul.

30 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

This looks like a great return here Alexander. You will hear my full report later today!

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Sam, I look forward to it!

Sam Juliano said...

Although Dario Argento is widely-hailed within the pantheon of European horror, and he is the prime propoent of the famed "giallo," (which you comprehensively discuss in this review) he falls well-behind Mario Bava both as a stylist and creator of some of the most renowned works in this oft-emulated genre. Bava's BLACK SUNDAY, BLACK SABBATH, THE WHIP AND THE BODY and a few others, constitute a body of work that Argento cannot come close to matching. In fact, without SUSPIRIA on his resume, Argento would fall into the middling category, and most of his films are stylish (but empty) excursions in the slasher genre with bad dubbing and narrative flaws of a major variety. Still, SUSPIRIA, as you rightly note at the outset, is a masterpiece of its kind, and Argento's one true moment of greatness. By the way, my first exposure to Argento was in a movie theatre with THE BIRD OF THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, in the early 70's when I was a teenager. That film did manage to leave a lingering impression on me for many years, and I watched the DVD over the summer, and it still boasts some of those celebrated Argento stylistic trademarks. (which you have exhaustively covered in your triumphant return to CCC reviewe posting) Of course, you yourself did bring up THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE early in your review as a lead-in.
No review of SUSPIRIA can rightly be called definitive or even near-definitive without a comprehensive discussion of Goblin's score, which is one of the most iconic in cinema history for all sorts of reasons. The creepy cadences, the choral segments, the electrical, phantasmogorical aural elements perfectly accentuate this malevolently mysterious film with astonishing power.
Yes indeed, "the Italian Hitchcock," is an apt comparison, particularly in reference to PSYCHO. The 'brutally terrifying murder' you talk about as happening near the beginning of the film is rather unforgettable. In his "Guide For the Film Fanatic" Danny Peary bemoans the murder of the two girls after a prologated torture sequence, stating that it's "simply too much." But i don't agree with peary, as this is what fuels the film, and makes it so horrifying. Geez, this is a horror film, not a musical or a comedy. technique and excess is all rightfully part of the mix here.
I also appreciated the mention of CAT O' NINE TAILS and DEEP RED, both of which were instrumental in Argento's artistic evolution. Both were flawed, but exhibited some of the filmmaking style and technique that can be evidenced in SUSPIRIA.
Excellent point there discussing SUSPIRIA as (superficially) a film about 'witches and witchcraft.' That is exactly what most viewers will take from it, but as you perceptively note: it's a film about "sisterhood and spiritual awakenings" to be culled from "thematic undercurrents."
Watching the film does indeed conjur up "wordless terror" and "fiendish revelations" and there are disturbing "whispers" permeating the soundtrack as well, to heighten the terror.
The garish color palette (yes, th ereds and blues are dominant) are negotiated by cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, whose work here is exemplary.
Your discussion of the "storybook unreality" as per 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" is most superbly transcribed.
"A cinematic maelstrom?" You bet.

And a review that immediately takes it's place among Coleman's Corner's most sublime achievements in film criticism.

Sam Juliano said...

Another "giallo" proponent is Lucio Fulci, who made ZOMBIE, HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY and other gorefests. But Fulci is a hack, and despite the early giallo entries in a minor figure in italian cinema (why do I own all his films on DVD? Well, i won't even go there)

Alexander Coleman said...

Ah, Sam, thank you for the wonderfully exhaustive comment (and now your second one about Fulci, about whom I agree: his films are intermittently entertaining, but he's ultimately a hack)!

Yes, the score by the Goblins is truly unlike any score, much less any horror score, I have heard. I have heard a few people over the years say that it's too repetitive and the film's use of it is excessive. I entirely disagree, for reasons not unlike your defense of the grisly murders: they quicken the pulse, heighten the suspense and terror, and serve as parts of the broader tableau of the entire film. The blending is most successful, and the entire film, awash in its dazzling color palette, is truly spectacular.

I now have a beautiful widescreen DVR copy from a November 14 showing of Suspiria on Turner Classic Movies. Such an impressive film. Though as you note, Sam, without it, Argento's reputation would not nearly be what it still is today.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the generously kind words and compliments as well, naturally.

AllanFish said...

Very well stated case Alexander of a film I also revere. The soundtrack is one of the most disoriented we've had, but it's all part of this marked experience of terror. This is quite the fusion of sight and sound. exhaustive and impressive piece.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the kind words, Allan. Yes, this truly is a marvelous "fusion of sight and sound," simply one of the great horror films of all time. Great point about the disoriented soundtrack as well.

Horror Fanatic said...

Wow you've written a tremendous review of one of my favorite movies of all time. I love the horror genre and Argento is a real hero! And now you are because you did right by this masterpiece!

Daniel Getahun said...

Ulp, sounds too scary for me...

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the effusive kind words, Horror Fanatic. I'm glad that a genre specialist such as yourself found this particular review worth looking at.

Daniel: ah, come on, now... You know you're curious.

Yes, I'm the guy in film class who pulls the adjacent lady's hands away from her eyes during the scariest parts of horror movies. :-)

ben said...

Sounds awesome. I need to see this!

Daniel Getahun said...

Well I imagine you're doing her a disservice by allowing her to not watch. You don't want her to fail the class or anything...

Sure I'm curious. But I'm curious about what fire tastes like, too - doesn't mean I'm going to eat it. ;-P

No I've actually heard a lot about this movie recently, but horror is just one of those genres that I no next to nothing about. That's not an excuse, just an explanation.

Moses Hernandez said...

A hardcore movie deserves a hardcore review and you've definitely delivered on that front, Alexander. Incredible work.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, you should certainly check this one out, Ben.

Ha, good points, Daniel. Great comparison between seeing this and discovering what fire tastes like. This is (I imagine--never tried fire for a meal myself) more entertaining than that, though. :-p

Seriously, though, I realize horror, especially horror this "hardcore," to borrow a word from Moses, is not everyone's cup of arsenic.

Speaking of Moses--thanks for the very kind words. Very much appreciated.

the editor., said...

Hi! Alexander,
A very well written, indepth, review of a film that I would probably never watch...
No way!...Will I ever watch a film were "blood and gore" and "sharp pointed shiney" objects rules!
I know you may wonder..Well, how did I watch the " almost bloodless, but implied" deadly scene in Hitchcock's "Psycho?"..."very carefully" with my hands over my ears, then covering my eyes with my hands!...I still feel very uncomfortable when I try to watch the shower scene in Hitchcock's 1960 film Psycho.
Tks,
dcd ;-)

Alexander Coleman said...

Haha, Dark City Dame, I thought you could be counted on to endure such grisly content. Psycho's shower scene is justly celebrated and indeed, it's actually bloodless, but the effect is all too convincing in making the viewer believe in the murder's actuality.

I hope you reconsider with regards to Suspiria, though, Dark City Dame. The image of you attempting to cover both your ears and your eyes with your hands during the Psycho has me quite amused, however.

DOOGIE FUNGLER said...

IS IT animal cruelty when i pee on my dog!

Sergei Smirnov said...

This, I remember seeing back in the early 1990's. Your review is truly exhaustive and brilliant. Such horror is part of my Slavic DNA.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you so much for the very kind words, Sergei.

Horror Fanatic said...

I saw this one again last night with your excellently erudite review in mind. It really helped me look at this movie in an entirely new way. Awesome review, Mr. Coleman. Are you a film professor?

Alexander Coleman said...

I'm glad you found more in the film after reading the review, Horror Fanatic. No, I'm not a film professor at all, haha. Thanks for stopping by Coleman's Corner. Do you pursue horror film reviews throughout the Internet?

tim watts said...

One thing about your reviews I love is that they don't give basic plot summaries. Anyone can do that. You actually offer deep analysis.

Also, this review is so superb and descriptive that I'm already scared. I'm not sure I could handle something this shocking and terrifying. Superb Mr. Coleman.

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, thank you very much, Tim, for that most generous compliment. Quite appreciated.

This is worth a look. Of course, I was numbed to the scares of the silver screen at an early age, watching The Exorcist and consequently being scarred for a good while. That provided me with a greater sense of protection, however; for me, Suspiria is thrilling and pulse-poundingly intense--and quite a powerful treatise on soulful matters entire--but it does not scare me so badly. I suppose my toleration level for frights is almost abnormally high, however.

tim watts said...

Well, if you say so! I will try it out one day when I'm feeling adventrous.

Alexander Coleman said...

Great!

tim watts said...

Ok so I felt adventurous today. I just finished watching Suspiria 5 minutes ago. Scared shitless from the beginning to the end. Damn what a rush!!

Alexander Coleman said...

Haha, Tim. I'm glad to hear you gave it a shot. Certainly one of the great rushes you could experience, cinematically or otherwise. You were true to your word, seeing it only a few days after saying you would. :-)

Alison Flynn said...

I finally had time to sit down and read this review thoroughly. :)

This movie is definitely one of the scariest ever, and it's not the plot that makes it so. It's the effects, the color and style and every detail that he so meticulously constructs to set the mood that makes it as terrifying as it is, and which you've analyzed beautifully (and explain much better than I ever could). The first murder in the movie has to be one of the most gruesome ever seen in cinema.

Jessica Harper, who had a very varied career as actress, author, and other, was perfect in the role - she had exactly the right look.

Thanks for posting this terrific write-up. :)

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Alison! :-)

I naturally agree with you--this is one of the scariest of all films. And I love to be scared, a feeling which makes me all giddy.

You are completely right to applaud the effects, color and style of the film. It is so rich and surreal, it truly does "meticulously" construct the picture's mood, just as you note.

You're also right about Jessica Harper. She was indeed perfect for this. You're most welcome for the write-up, Alison; I knew you thought highly of the film, and I thank you for the very kind words and comprehensively detailed remarks about the film.