I have no idea how this happened, but this week marks my 150th Schlock & Awe. (Truly; I had an intern count them all.) I have watched a ton of weird, obscure, kitschy, and just plain bad movies in the past three-ish years, and if one thing can be gleaned from these essays it’s that my tastes have changed over time. Not for love of genre pictures, surely, but my desire to watch the crappier stuff has waned significantly. I’ll never stop watching the batshit, but let’s appreciate the greats with the not-greats. To that end, I thought 150 was a perfect time to talk about one of the most interesting and baffling movies in the canon: Dario Argento‘s 1977 masterpiece, Suspiria.
Ah, like so many ’70s horror films—especially the Italian ones released in the U.S.—the English language trailer is a pale comparison to the actual movie. The whole skeleton gal thing doesn’t feature in the movie one bit, nor does that nursery rhyme she cackles. But it’s all in keeping with the strange and sometimes off-putting nature of Suspiria, a movie that almost dares you to keep watching with its intense and horrific visuals and pounding industrial score, but makes it impossible to look away. It’s a film that revolting and beautiful in equal measure, often at the same time.
Famously one of the last movies made with three-strip Technicolor, Suspiria is as vibrant today as it was at the time, with each frame art directed to within an inch of its life, cementing Argento as one of the most visually inventive directors of the Italian horror cycle. Beginning his career as a screenwriter, Argento began directing with the giallo classic The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, continuing on with a string of well-respected entries in the incomprehensibly plotted slasher predecessor of the early ’70s. In those films, Argento had mastered suspense and honed his taste for graphically violent murders as high art, but with Suspiria, he put his foot into the supernatural, adding another layer to the hard-to-understand gloved-knife-wielder movies.
The story begins with Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arriving in Germany to attend a fancy ballet academy. It’s a rainy night when she arrives and as she enters the castle-set school, she sees a girl yell something and then run off into the night. We then cut to that girl, terrified, going to her friend’s place to stay, only to have an apparently floating aggressor attack her through the upstairs window and kill her. This opening sequence, which features this stab wounds, crashing stained glass impaling someone, being hanged by electrical cord, and as much Day-Glo red blood as it’s possible to have, is one of Argento’s most brutal and brilliantly choreographed death scenes.
The girl who died was a student at the dance academy and her death causes much whispering among the other girls. Suzy soon finds that they’re particularly catty and would rather stay in another girl’s apartment rather than in the dorms. However, she’s quickly and suddenly taken ill for no good reason, something which the headmistresses believe is best cured by staying in the school and taking much medicine. But clearly the medicine is what’s making her ill, and soon Suzy and her friend Sara (Stefania Casini) begin suspecting there’s something sinister going on. After a particularly grotty event in which an infestation of maggots is discovered, all of the girls and teachers have to sleep on cots in the gym, and Sara and Suzy hear the deep snoring of a person they’ve never meet, nor even seen…possibly the true head mistress.
After many more strange occurrences and unexplained deaths, Sara is killed for snooping (in the movie’s second most memorable and elaborate death, involving a room full of razor wire). Suzy begins to discover the history of the school and its possible ties to witchcraft, specifically to Helena Markos, the first headmistress from long ago. If she’s still around, she’d be ancient. The coven of witches who may be in control of the school do not want to be found out, but if Suzy is to get out alive, she’ll have to come face to face with Mater Suspiriorum, a.k.a. the Mother of Sighs.
Argento has often said this movie is like a horror version of a Disney cartoon, and in some ways you can see it; the lone girl entering a dark and foreboding place, meeting strange characters, facing an evil witch, and attempting to live happily ever after. This is, of course, turned on its head by all the murder, but the bones are there. This movie isn’t one that makes a ton of narrative sense; it’s hard to follow on first viewing and lots of elements don’t add up. Like, why would witches need to manifest their evil in the form of a black gloved killer with a knife and a razor? But that adds to the trippiness of the whole thing.
The other thing that truly adds to the experience is the oppressive, cacophonous score by the industrial band Goblin (they’d go on to score Romero’s Dawn of the Dead as well, since Argento produced that picture). The main title theme (above) is melodic and repetitive, with chimes and whispers, but it quickly begins searing with fuzzy metal guitars, clanging drums and percussion, and synth sounds out of a nightmare. Another track, fittingly called “Witch,” is straight up loud and abrasive, but it is always used in conjunction with the most horrific of elements. Argento pumped the score through loud speakers on the set while filming to put the cast and crew on edge. It worked, evidently, and it works on the audience just as well.
But truly, what makes Suspiria a classic is the deft way Argento is able to merge all of these elements that on their own would be irritating or disturbing and creates a sort of punk macabre explosion that may as well be an experimental film. Never again would Argento have such a mastery of every single element of a picture and a film of his was never so successful as a work of art. There were two sequels made to this—1980’s Inferno and 2007’s Mother of Tears—but they can’t hold a candle to this. While 1975’s Deep Red is arguably his best film, Suspiria is the one people remember, and will likely remember for all of horror time to come.
And there we have it, friends. 150 film essays about films both strange and sublime. Please, if you feel so inclined, go peruse my back catalog of Schlock & Awe, and I hope you join me for 150 more, perhaps.
Images: Produzioni Atlas