Suspiria, the original 1977 one not the 2018 remake (a treat for another day), pulls a version of the same trick on its audience that Orson Welles pulled on his crew while making Citizen Kane. “It’s a dream sequence,” Welles would sometimes shout, when he ran into resistance against whatever novelty he was trying out on any given day. Park your timeserved-craftsman’s logical objections, in other words, and give it a try. Armed with a “dream sequence” Welles could experiment away to his heart’s content.
If Welles had a dream, Dario Argento has a nightmare to deliver and everything in his film is shaped by it. Park expectations about “good” acting and “professional” editing and surrender yourself to the wayward stylistics of this classic horror.
A young American woman arrives in Freiburg to study at a dance academy. Already at the airport everything is just weird – rain is lashing like a typhoon has hit southern Germany, the taxi driver doesn’t seem to understand anything she says – and when Suzy (Jessica Harper) does arrive at the forbidding Dance Academy, one of its students is in the process of exiting the building, hysterically muttering something arcane into the howling night.
In short order Suzy has met two key figures at the academy – Miss Tanner (Alida Valli, of The Third Man fame), a ramrod teutonic sort in a military-style uniform and Madame Blanc, the great film noir femme fatale Joan Bennett playing the institution’s oddly disconnected and concrete-corseted Vice Principal.
Also in short order, two of the Academy’s students are dead, luridly, one of them spectacularly – impaled before crashing through the sort of multicoloured glass ceiling that’s in place purely to be crashed through.
Between scenes where dance students limber up, when they’re not dying regularly and randomly. Miss Tanner behaves throughout like a lesbian prison guard in some low budget Euro-sexploitationer. Ditto the students, who keep their clothes on but act as if they might shed them at any moment. Madame Blanc wafts vaguely about, Joan Bennett keeping her powder dry. There is an Igor type figure in the shape of Pavlos (Giuseppe Transocchi), a brutish mute giant who acts as a servant. For no good reason a young Udo Kier is also here briefly, as a friend of one of the dead women, whose entirely unnecessary function is to introduce the aged Professor Milius (Rudolf Schündler, who you might recognise from The Exorcist), an expert in the occult who “explains it all” to Suzy before she heads into the big finale where cackling, screaming, death and witchy apparitions are all laid on by the bucketload.
It is all fairly plotless but makes a kind of sense in the end, sort of. But you don’t visit an all you can eat Chinese buffet if you want Scandinavian food, and you don’t watch Suspiria for its story.
In part you watch it for that deliberately wonky line delivery of the actors and Argento’s unsettling way with an edit, the way he and his brilliant veteran editor Franco Fraticelli constantly crash-cut one moment into another, by, for example, entering a new scene mid-zoom. On top of that there are the superb production design (Giuseppe Bassan) and the gloriously florid, lush, super-abundant use of colour, particularly the colour red, which is already popping up like ripe berries at the edge of the opening sequences set in the airport. By the time Suzy has arrived at the Institute – the exterior painted roof to basement in lurid crimson – the colour has taken over the entire film.
Argento and his excellent DP Luciano Tovoli (relatively fresh from Antonioni’s The Passenger) shot the film in EastmanColor but had it printed in Technicolor, the better to pick up on colours at the red end of the spectrum. Argento also helped co-write the brilliant score, which after an opening tinkler in The Exorcist style by Philip Glass is dominated by the frenzied prog rock of Goblin, nightmarishly raucous.
Focus on the stuff in the film rather than the people – the sound, the look, even the textures have more weight than characters. The different natures of velvet, wool, wood, steel, cotton and tile are all more important than dialogue or plot points.
Seekers after authenticity have a dilemma when it comes to choosing the language. Sure, it’s an Italian film, and most of the actors are non-English speakers. But everyone is dubbed, whether you choose the English or Italian version, and all the key players – Jessica Harper, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett, even Udo Keir (who’s German) – speak in English in their own voices, and their dialogue makes up the bulk of what’s said (go for English, in other words).
This is the first of Argento’s Mothers series, all based on his own explorations of European occult traditions. After Mater Suspiriosum (this one) came Mater Tenebrarum (aka Inferno) and finally Mater Lachrymarum (aka The Mother of Tears), which didn’t arrive until nearly 30 years later. Bold colour and elaborate death feature in all three. There’s a weekend’s viewing sorted.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022