SUSPIRIA was one of those films I missed the first time around. When it hit U.S. screens in 1977, I found the advertising campaign decidedly uninteresting; for some reason, it suggested a schlocky gore movie to me. Not that I was opposed to explicit horror: I had been sneaking into R-rated movies like THE EXORCIST since 1973, but I had to feel there was something more than just mindless mayhem to get me into the theatre. The largely negative review in Cinefantastique magazine, which called the film “hackneyed in concept, but experimental in form,” was not enough to change my mind, but it did inspire me to check out SUSPIRIA when it played on cable television. That was the beginning of my life-long love affair with the work of Dario Argento, which continues to this day, thanks to the art house release of THE THREE MOTHERS this weekend.
In retrospect, I was of the perfect age and temperment to enjoy Argento’s garish, overblown, and thoroughly ear-splitting horror film. A film student, I loved cinema in general, but I especially loved films that utilized the form to its fullest extent. In Argento, I saw a sort of Italian equivalent of Brian DePalma, a filmmaker eager to employ every device at his command in order to achieve an effect on the audience. Argento did not utilize any of DePalma’s split-screen tricks, but there were similar lengthy tracking shots meant to pull you psychologically into the world of the movie; there was an over-powering rock-n-roll soundtrack (by Goblin), just as there had been in DePalma’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1975); and of course, PHANTOM’s young ingenue, Jessica Harper, played the lead in SUSPIRIA.
I had little patience with people of more conventional taste, who preferred subtlety and complained that excessive technique was distracting, distancing one from the drama, reminding the viewer that he was watching a movie. For me, this was the whole point. I knew I was watching a movie, and no amount of “subtlety” (for me, a synonym for a prosaic, unimaginative style) was going to convince me otherwise. I reveled in SUSPIRIA’s artificiality, in the outrageous art direction and unbelievable lighting schemes.
From the very first reel, the taxi ride from the airport, I knew I was seeing something special, when the passing streetlights were conveyed not with alternating light and darkness but colors shifting from red to green. It was a bold gambit: immediately challenging the viewer with the obvious artificiality, announcing that what they were seeing made no pretense to verisimilitude. No, I was seeing a film in which the director had pulled out all the stops (post-SPINAL TAP, we would say he turned the amplifier up to 11), flooding the screen with sound and color – a rich, overwhelming experience that explored some of the farthest reaches of what cinema could achieve when unleashed from conventional boundaries.
One scene that particularly won me over involved the death of a blind pianist, walking home one night with his seeing-eye dog. The dog senses something, and the man cries out, “Who’s there?” For several minutes, nothing really happens. Argento builds the scene by editing back and forth between the man, his dog, and the stark facades of the buildings surrounding them, while the screeching soundtrack attempts to pulverize the audience’s nerves. The idea of extending a moment through editing was intriguing – creating a sense of anticipation not through action but through the juxtaposition of images suggesting something about to happen.
I was also amused by the way the scene quotes from the English horror film NIGHT OF THE EAGLE (known as BURN, WITCH, BURN in the U.S.). Near the end of that wonderfully suggestive film (also about witches operating in secret in an academic setting), a man outside a university sees the oversized statute of an eagle, atop the building, come to life and take flight, attacking him. In SUSPIRIA, Argento deliberately tilts up one building, revealing the statue of a gryphon. After cutting in for a closer shot, he cuts to a reverse angle, and the camera swoops down – accompanied by the fluttering of wings – upon the blind man.
The effect suggests that the statue has come to life, but subsequent long shots reveal it is still atop the building where it was first seen. Then what was that fluttering sound? What point of view was being shown as the camera swooped down? Was it some kind of invisible demonic force, somethign that resided within the statue? While I was still working out the answer to that question, the blind man’s dog turned on him and tore out his throat! I had to give Argento credit for taking me totally by surprise. The visual reference to one of my favorite films had me expecting danger from above. Little did I expect that death would come from below, not from an enemy but from man’s best friend. What an excellent piece of misdirection!
This scene was also at least partly responsible for Argento’s reputation as a filmmaker who did a poor job of handling basic story points. What did the scene contribute to the plot? In fact, why did the man die at all? Later in the film, we learn that witchcraft is afoot, and we are told that witches can use their power to destroy those who offend them, for whatever reason. The death was obviously a set piece, thrown in for its own sake, and I simply assumed the blind man had somehow or other offended the coven living in the dance academy. Only years later would I learn the specific reason.
I was not completely blown away by my first viewing of SUSPIRIA. I was – and still am – dedicated to the position that you have not really seen a movie until you have seen it in a theatre. The television experience simply could not overwhelm me in the way that the film intended to, but enough of the impact survived to make me want to see SUSPIRIA on the big screen at the earliest opportunity. Back in the days before home video had decimated the repertory theatre business, this was not an impossible dream. Not too many months passed before the film showed up at the old Cameo Theatre, a dilapidated flea pit on Broadway in Los Angeles.
The Cameo was one of many old theatres in the downtown area, but it lacked the faded elegance of the Orpheum, the Los Angeles Theatre, or the Million Dollar Theatre (the later is the one seen across the street when Sebastian meets Pris in BLADE RUNNER). These other three theatres were relic from an earlier era – movie palaces that had once offered a fashionable, luxurious cinema-going experience – before shifting demographics and changing economics turned them into de facto museums. The Cameo, I suspect, was always a dump: there were no magnificent balconies, no elaborate decor, no carved pillars, no painted murals. It was really barely one step away from being a large auditorium.
Typically, the Cameo played quadruple bills of second run movies, at discount prices. I don’t think the marquee listed the titles (you had to walk up to the box office window to see them), and there was definitely no list of screening times. I suspect that most of walk-in customers simply bought a ticket and took their chances, walking into the middle of whatever film happened to be playing.
Of course, I had called ahead to get the correct starting time. I was too cheap to pay for parking in those days, so I parked literally miles away (there were no nearby streets without parking meters) and hoofed my way over, along with a fellow film student. After buying our tickets, we entered the dark realm of the inner theatre, which gave a pretty decent impression of what the outer circles of hell must resemble: there was a foul stench, incessant rustling, dark shapes silhouetted against dim lights, and the constant murmur of lost souls. From previous experience at the Cameo, I knew that this last sound was the multi-lingual audience translating the English dialogue into their native tongues for the benefit of their non-English-speaking companions.
Then the trailers and previews finished, and SUSPIRIA began.
As fun as the film had been on television, the expanded visual and audio achieved a much more awesome impact on the big screen. Although the projection and sound quality were far from the best, the audience was completely into the movie. The artsy effects and complete lack of realism did nothing to dampen their appreciation of the horror on screen. The sound may not have been six-channel Dolby stereo, but it was louder and more pulse-bounding than it could have been from my television speaker, and it figuratively rocked the house.
The famous first murder was stunning. It must be a trick of memory or perception, but the shot of the unfortunate victim, crouched and wounded as a hand shoots into frame with a knife, gave me a sense of vertigo, as it it were off-balance, tilted. The scene goes on much longer than necessary to make its point, with a female victim pushed face first through a piece of glass, then repeatedly stabbed to death (including a glimpse of her beating heart), and finally hanged, her body dropping through a horizontal stained glass window that showers debris on her roommate, impaling and killing her as well. The sequence elicited an awestruck whisper from my friend, who, knowing I had seen the film before, turned to ask, in all seriousness, “Is this the best horror film ever made?”
I gave a vague answer, to the effect that it contained several great set pieces. From my television viewing, I recalled that the pace was uneven, with long slow passages separating the key horror sequences. This became even more apparent on second viewing. Numerous tracking shots down long corridors (with little or no payoff) combine with dialogue of Suzy (Harper) and her friend Sarah (Stefania Casini) whispering about what may be lurking within the dance academy where the film is set, to create some uninspired longeurs. Clever camerawork adds some visual interest to these sequences, suggesting an omnipresent evil, a sort of magical alternative world of witchcraft at work even when nothing is overtly horrific happening.
In the end, however, it is not enough to sustain SUSPIRIA through its many slow scenes. The result is a film of highs and lows, worth seeing for its bravura style but falling short of the critical mass that would achieve masterpiece status. As the lights came up and we headed back to my car, my friend expressed some muted praise for the film as a whole but he was slightly disappointed since the opening reel had led him to believe he had discovered “the mother lode” of horror movies. Alas, that turned out to be not quite the case.
THE COMPLETE CUT
Since then, I have seen SUSPIRIA several more times: on home video and at least twice in theatres, including a 1990s American Cinematheque screening – part of an Argento retrospective, with Argento, actress Jessica Harper, and actor Udo Kier on hand to answer questions afterward (Argento graciously praised Harper’s contribution to the film, declaring that her smile before the final fade out “saved the movie”).* I had heard that a longer version existed, and if I eventually saw it on an imported Japanese laserdisc – once the best way to find complete versions of truncated movies. Unfortuantely, the image was pan-and-scan, if I recall; nevertheless, it was a godsend to see the film in complete form.
In the uncut version, the opening murder is even more brutal, including several more stab wounds and a clearer view of the victim’s still beating heart. The death by dog lingers even longer on the aftermath, watching as the canine rips long strands of raw flesh with its teeth. But most important, we finally learn why the blind man drew the ire of the witches in the first place.
There is a scene in which he arrives to work at the academy, leaving his dog outside. Moments later, a furious Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) burst into the dance instruction room, announcing that the dog has bitten someone, who had to be taken to the hospital. She fires the pianist, who is outraged at the accusation against his dog. Leaving, he announces that, although blind, he is not deaf, implying that he knows some dark secret about the academy. From this, we can conclude that the coven took action both to silence the man and to punish the dog that had attacked one of their own.
The other significant difference between the complete version and the U.S. cut is that the U.S. distributor (20th Century Fox, working through a subsidiary label) changed the opening title card. Instead of stark white letters on black background, the theatrical prints in America featured the word “Suspiria” spelled with pinkish “breathing” letters that looked a bit like mutant lungs. Although absurd (movie audiences typically laughed out loud at the sight of them), at the time I thought they had a certain charm. Now I’m glad to see the film, including titles, as Argento intended.
The restoration of SUSPIRIA to its uncut form heightened the already over-the-top impact and clarified a major plot point, yet over the years the film has somewhat dimmed for me. I still enjoy the aural-visual assault, but I find myself more quickly losing patience with the slower passages.
Also, after seeing the work of Mario Bava (Argento’s forefather in the field of Italian horror), SUSPIRIA no longer seems quite as innovative as it once did. In films like THE WHIP AND THE BODY and KILL, BABY, KILL, Bava had already explored the possibilities of artificial lighting schemes, using wild color palettes to create atmosphere and suggest the characters’ psychological states, regardless of the apparent light sources on screen. It would be fair to see that Argento took this approach at least two steps further with SUSPIRIA (and with its follow-up INFERNO).
Unfortunately, Argento borrowed something else from Bava: a predilection for spooky vignettes that lead nowhere. Bava’s WHIP AND THE BODY, in particular, feels like a half-hour story padded out with endless scenes of characters walking down dark corridors; the beauty of these scenes cannot conceal their dramatic paucity (which might be forgivable) but also their lack of a horrific payoff. Seldom do characters discover anything frightening at the end of those long corridors; the point of the scenes seems to be the journey, not the destination. In a similar manner, SUSPIRIA features numerous shots lingering over the dance academy’s architecture in an effort to create atmosphere and suggest that the house is a repository of evil.
There is also a Bavaesque moment when, after Suzy and Sarah listen to the footsteps of the academy’s staff descending into some unknown part of the building, the camera takes us on a brief trip through the corridors. It is a nice little moody sequence, but the payoff is almost literally nothing: the camera dollies into a darkened, empty room; then cuts to a zoom in on the moon, as a seque to the next scene (the death of the blind pianist). In retrospect, it becomes clear that the camera was following the path that the staff took to their lair; one might even conclude that the death in the following scene is actually a result of rites and incantations that the staff are performing in their lair. Nevertheless, we are still left with a pretty piece of film-making that lacks visceral impact and also fails to elicit a shudder of anticipation. Argento no doubt wants to tease us with the mystery of what is lurking behind the scenes, but as an evocation of Freud’s “Primal Scene,” this sequence falls far short of similar scenes in Roger Corman’s Poe films (an apparent influence on Argento), which frequently featured characters confronting locked doors that hid terrible secrets.
One element that helps push SUSPIRIA past its slow points is the soundtrack by Goblin (inexplicably renamed “The Goblins” in the film credits). This four-piece rock group (keyboards, guitar, bass, and drums) provided both entrancing musical motifs and almost avant garde aural assault. Most of the score is built around a repeating 14-note theme, played in 6/8 time, that suggests a demented fairy tale, effectively conveying the magical quality of the film. Many of the uneventful scenes are scored with whispering voices (titled “Sighs” on the soundtrack album); in a stero mix, the effect powerfully suggests unseen evil forces at work. The murder scenes are enhanced with jangly acoustic guitars; shrill, overlapping vocals; and pounding timpani drums. At times the music is discordant, almost atonal; it may not be a pleasant listening experience, but it adds the perfect punch to Argento’s visual excess – far more effectively than a conventional orchestral score could hope to do.
Though not known for providing in-depth characters, Argento cast his film well; his performers are, fortunately, interesting to watch, even if their roles are underwritten. Harper is the perfect picture of innocence; given little or no personality to work with, the actress uses her personal appeal to hold attention, so that we identify with her as we identify with the undefined heroes of fairy tales. Joan Bennett (known to fans of DARK SHADOWS) probably was not proud of appearing in a violent horror film (her last big screen appearance to boot), but she brings all her professionalism to the role of the academy’s head mistress, Madam Blanc. And Alida Valli (a popular character actress at the time) is perfect as Bennett’s right-hand woman; her stiff body language and sharp manner of speech (regardless of the dubbing) carve an entertaining characterization out of almost literally nothing.
The simplicity of characterization reflects the film’s fairy tale trappings. SUSPIRIA was conceived as a sort of violent, adult version of a story by the Brothers Grimm. Inspired by tales that co-screenwriter Daria Nicolodi’s grandmother had told her (of attending a school where the faculty practised magic at night), the screenplay was originally intended to feature young girls, until the producer objected that audiences would not tolerate seeing children put in mortal jeopardy. Argento had the last laugh: although the characters are played by women in their 20s, the dialogue retains its juvenile tone, and the academy’s doorknobs are set at eye-level, so that the dance students have to reach up for them as a child would for an ordinary door.
SUSPIRIA remains Argento’s biggest international hit, a cult favorite that many fans consider to be his best work. Having seen all of Argento’s other horror films, I would have to disagree. SUSPIRIA is a remarkable exercise in style, but Argento’s most well-realized film, as a whole, is TENEBRE, followed closely by DEEP RED. Working in the giallo format, Argento seems more adept at sustaining a film from beginning to end; his murder-mystery plots may not stand up to logical scrutiny, but they do tie the set pieces together more firmly and keep the pace moving along at an exciting clip. The virtuoso stylization seems to be more under control, crafting both suspense and shocks, without weighting the expository scenes down.
SUSPIRIA’s cult reputation has generated a backlash over the years. Many viewers are put off by the artificiality of style. Some see the simple plot and characterization not not as dramatic devices in the service of creating a cinematic fairy tale but as simple artistic failings. Even Argento fans argue about the strengths and weaknesses. There is a consensus that the film starts strong and fades, never matching its outstanding opening; some even complain that the ending is a major disappointment.
Here, I have to offer a defense. Although I have always been as knocked out as anyone else by the famous first murder (especially the more explicit, uncut version), I find the ending equally satisfying, if not nearly as terrifying. The film finally kicks into gear; the plot, having lain dormant most of the running time, actually comes to life. Most of the movie suffers from a passive protagonist, who does little but take note of the strange events surrounding her; only at the end does Suzy take action.
In some ways, Suzy is a typical Argento character, an innocent artist whose benign view of the world is shattered by a glimpse of the dark side. An American, she has come to Germany to perfect her craft: like Argento’s other artists, she is trying to create beauty, which derives from fashioning order of of chaos, from imposing man-made discipline upon nature, creating artificial structures that delight the mind with their symmetry; however, her education ends up moving in the opposite direction, revealing forces of darkness and chaos that lurk beneath the surface of our perceived reality.
Unfortunately, what separates Suzy from previous Argento protagonists is that she is not galvanized into action at the beginning of the film. Films like THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (which is referenced at the end of SUSPIRIA) began with a murder, witnessed by a character who spent the rest of the plot trying to unravel the mystery; the only event Suzy witnesses is a hysterical student mumbling a few barely audible words before stumbling off into a thunderstorm. Suzy reports this to the headmistress but takes no other action. Although Alida Valli’s authoritative Miss Tanner compliments Suzy on her strong will, the young dancer spends much of the film in a lethargy that we eventually learn was induced by drugs inserted into her food.
In the third act, Suzy finally wakes up. After learning that the hysterical student – who was later murdered – was convinced that the faculty were witches, Suzy throws out her drugged food. (Apparently peeved, the forces of darkness send a black bat to nip at her hair, but she easily smashes it to death with a stool.) Now able to stay awake and count the footsteps as the faculty descend to their lair, Suzy traces them to Madame Blanc’s office, where in an archetypal Argento moment, the young student suddenly realizes the significance of what she saw and heard earlier; the fragments of memory unite, and she recalls that the murdered student was saying that turning a blue iris will reveal a hidden passage.
Following the directions, Suzy, in a sense, goes down the rabbit hole, discovering the source of evil at play throughout the film. She sees Madame Blanc leading the rest of the faculty in a ceremony that suggests a blasphemous inversion of a church service, and finds herself confronting Helana Markos – a witch who survived a fire that supposedly killed her years ago. Speaking in a raspy (and frankly overdone) voice that suggests a cartoon version of THE EXORCIST, her face covered in ghastly burn marks, Helena is the “Black Queen,” who sits at the head of the coven operating in the academy.
This confrontation between ancient evil and youthful innocence is a splendid climax. The imbalance in powers between the two characters suggests a hopeless mis-match: not only can Helena render herself invisible; she can also summon the living dead (Sara, drooling blood, pins and needles poking out of her flesh and eyes). All Suzy has going for her is desperation and a make-shift weapon, the sharply pointed “feather” from the statue of a bird. (The statue suspiciously resembles the titular “Bird with the Crystal Plumage,” which figured prominently in solving the mystery of Argento’s directorial debut. The statue appears at approximately the same point, structurally, as the living bird did in the previous film.)
Fortunately, it is enough. Guided by good fortune – or just plain luck – plus a glimpse of the witch’s outline, Suzy is able to drive her point home, precipitating the destruction of the coven and the academy in a spectacular display of exploding objects, overturned furniture, ripping wall paper, and – at last – a cleansing fire, leaving no doubt that the vile contagion infecting the academy has been thoroughly eradicated. Suzy’s smile of relief, as she wanders from the immolating structure, is shared by the audience. As in a fairy tale like “The Three Little Pigs,” we identify with and exalt for the survival of our hero. The other characters are not believable people whose deaths we mourn; they are shadows, fragments, bits and pieces of our psyche personified on screen and wiped away so that our better self can emerge, unhampered, in the form of the character who will defeat the evil.
With its bloody violence, SUSPIRIA may not fully suppor this reading. In fact, the very nature of film, with actors playing characters, tends to subvert the nature of fairy tales, which exist more fully in the realm of the imagination, making it easier to interpret, for example, the first two little pigs as not separate entities but las ess mature versions of the third pig – that is, as stages of psychological development that will lead to the maturity necessary to survive. (See Bruno Bettelheim’s The Use of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.)
SUSPIRIA may not resonate with the full force of a tale by the Brothers Grimm, but as an exercise in excessive style it is one of the most amazing experiences ever recorded on celluloid. A strange combination of the art house and the slaughterhouse, it may be too violent for the typical cineaste and too contrived for the typical gore-hound. Yet somehow Argento impressively straddles both worlds, offering a unique vision of magic and the supernatural that deserves its place in horror movie history.
INFERNO, the 1980 sequel to SUSPIRIA, makes it clear that the trilogy (which was finally completed with MOTHER OF TEARS) is inspired by “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow,” an essay in Thomas De Quincey’s non-fiction book, Suspiria de Profundis, which is a sequel to his earlier Confession of an English Opium-Eater. In “Levana,” De Quincey recounts an opium-induced vision of three supernatural figures (Mater Lachrymarum, Mater Suspiriorum, and Mater Tenebrarum), who oversea the tears of sadness, the sighs of resignation, and the darkness of despair that afflict mankind. Helena Markos, the witch ensconced in the German dance academy, is actually Mater Suspiriorum (the Mother of Sighs), although she is never so designated in SUSPIRIA itself (where we are told she was called “The Black Queen”). In fact, about the only obvious reference in SUSPIRIA to De Quincey’s essay is the title.
SUSPIRIA is currently available as a 2-Disc Special Edition DVD (see below), but the preferred version is Anchor Bay’s limited edition 3-Disc box set from 2001. Now out of print (some copies are still available from specialty dealers), this set contains the uncut 98-minute version of the film on Disc 1, plus theatrical trailers, TV and radio spots, a gallery of posters and stills, a music video (of former Golbin-member Claudio Simonetti’s new band, Daemonia, performing a beefed-up version of the “Suspiria” main title), and talent bios. The soundtrack features three language options: English, Italian, and French. Unfortunately, there are no subtitles, so English viewers are stuck with the English soundtrack (not a bad choice, considering that is the language of the lead actress, but it would be nice to hear the Italian dialogue for a change and know what was being said). The American trailer features a campy nursery rhyme, a phony skull, and the “breathing” letters seen in the U.S. version of the film. The Italian trailer is virtually abstract: a series of still images giving no hint of the plot, while credits emphasize Argento’s name, as if his reputation alone is enough to sell the film.
Disc 2 contanis a 52-minute Suspiria 25th Anniversary documentary, featuring interviews with Argento, co-writer Daria Nicolodi, cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, members of Goblin (Augostino Morangalo, Massimo Morante, Fabio Pignatelli, Claudio Simonetti), Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, and Udo Kier. This gives some pretty good insight into the inspiration for and making of the film. Hardcore fans may wish for even more in-depth detail, but what is here is well put together and even interesting enough to appeal to non-fans. Kier (who has only one brief scene in the film, as a skeptical psychiatrist) signs off by expressing a wish that he and Argento work together again – which came true six years later with MOTHER OF TEARS.
The final disc is a soundtrack CD containing three bonus tracks not found on the original vinyl release from 1977. The bonus tracks are somewhat misleadingly titled “Suspiria (Celeste and Bells),” “Suspiria (Narrator),” and “Suspiria (Intro),” implying that they are all remixes or outtakes of the main title theme. This turns out not to be the case:
- “Suspiria (Narrator)” contains no narration; it is actually an alternate take of the track titled “Markos,” which features heavy pounding on the drums and some ripping baselines playing over a sequenced synthesizer riff.
- “Suspiria (Celeste and Bells)” is the track that actually features narration. Keyboardist Claudio Simonetti chants non-grammatical nonsense about witches, while celesta and bells perform a subtle version of the main theme.
- “Suspiria (Intro)” is not an intro but a new recording of main title music. Although there is no separate credit on the CD, which is attributed solely to Goblin, this version is clearly the one performed by Daemonia, as seen in the music video on Disc.
The DVD set also contains a miniature cardboard poster listing the Chapter Selections on the back, a set of nine stills printed on 7×5 matte paper; and a colorful 28-page booklet. Packed with images (including a reproduction of the original U.S. theatrical poster), the latter features an introduction by Scott Michael Bosco, an appreciation of Argento’s work by Travis Crawford, and a lengthy interview with Jessica Harper (who turned down a small role in ANNIE HALL to play the lead in SUSPIRIA).
SUSPIRIA (1977). Directed by Dario Argento. Written by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi. Cast: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bose, Barbara Magnolfi, Susanna Javiocoli, Eva Axen, Joan Bennett, Alida Valli, Jacopo Mariani, Udo Keir.
*The American Cinematheque screening of SUSPIRIA offered evidence that the film has a cult reputation that extends beyond that of Argento’s other work. The weekend retrospective of Argento’s work was well attended, but the SUSPIRIA screening sold out so fast that an unscheduled midnight screening was added on the day of the event, and that sold out, too. The only other sell out was for FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET – a film difficult if not impossible to see in the U.S., not available on VHS or laserdisc at that time. (PULP FICTION fans take note: Quentin Tarantino showed up too late to purchase a ticket.)