FILM RETROSPECTIVE: SUSPIRIA (1977)

‘Do you know anything about witches?’

Remakes – a good or a bad thing? The case for the prosecution: Get Carter, The Italian Job, Sleuth, Total Recall, Robocop, The Big Sleep, Planet of the Apes, Psycho, Secret in their Eyes, The Ring … the list goes on. The case for the defense? There isn’t one; the team are still collating the evidence.

There have been several attempts to remake Dario Argento’s Suspiria, the Holy Grail of modern horror films. It came close a few years ago, in a version which had Natalie Portman attached, and was going to be helmed by David Gordon Green (an odd choice, certainly). When the project stalled due to finance issues, Argento fans breathed a sigh of relief, as did the man himself (the Rome born director has always been critical of such a venture). Two years ago it was announced the remake had finally been given a green light, though this time it was going to be helmed by another Italian, Luca Guadagnino, the man behind Oscar nominated drama, Call Me by Your Name.

My initial reservations disappeared when it was revealed this version would star Tilda Swinton, Chloe Grace Moretz and Dakota Johnson (who has proven herself a talented enough actress to survive the curse of Fifty Shades), with a cameo from original star Jessica Harper. Thom Yorke of Radiohead has composed the music. Intriguingly, the new Suspiria has a running time of two and a half hours, compared to the brisk 98 minutes of the Argento version. Guadagnino has approached the source material with a degree of reverence most Hollywood directors would be unable to understand: this could be the rare case of a remake which, whilst it has little chance of improving upon the original, might be different enough to be its equal.

Dario Argento began his career in 1970 with stylish thriller, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, which set the Argento template: dazzling camerawork, elaborate set pieces and extended, violent murders that border on the fetishistic. Crystal Plumage belongs to the giallo genre, a series of mystery films popular in Italy during the 60’s and 70’s. Picking up the baton from Maria Bava  –  whose The Girl Who Knew Too Much is considered the first giallo – Argento helped popularise the genre at home and abroad, with films like Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and Deep Red. A typical giallo plot involves the witnessing of a murder; the protagonist turns amateur sleuth, putting his own life in danger. The killer usually favours black leather gloves. A third act revelation invariably roots his or her motivations in an unprocessed childhood trauma.

Regarded as Argento’s masterpiece, Suspiria marked a change of direction, being a step away from murder mystery into the area of supernatural horror. Written with actress and then-romantic partner Daria Nicolodi, Suspiria took inspiration from a variety of sources, including Grimm fairy tales, and the 19th century, drug induced writings of Thomas de Quincy – in particular Suspiria de Profundis, which detailed a series of visions experienced under the influence of opium.

Argento was aiming for a similar intensity. ‘Fear is a 370 degree centigrade body temperature’, he claimed. ‘With Suspiria, I wanted 400 degrees.’ The result is one of the most visceral, punishing experiences in modern cinema. Suspiria adheres to a dream logic all its own, a film to be experienced with the body rather than the mind, and one which exists between the arthouse and the abyss. The elaborate, Grand Guignol style deaths are still shocking, and the film’s trangressive influence can be seen in many modern horrors, particularly within the slasher genre. The Neon Demon and Mother! might not strictly be horror, but it’s easy to discern Argento DNA in both.  

Suspiria begins with American student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) flying to Munich, and arriving at the airport in the middle of a violent thunderstorm. Suzy is due to enrol at the prestigious Tanz Dance academy in Freiberg: We know this because of the fleeting voice over which begins the story (and is never heard again). After hailing a taxi, Suzy witnesses another student, Pat Hingle (Eva Axen) fleeing from the school, and overhears her mumble the words ‘secret’ and ‘Iris.’ Not long after, Pat is brutally murdered, initiating a series of odd occurrences and mysterious deaths. With the help of new friend Sarah (Stefania Casini), Suzy begins to suspect the Tanz Academy is actually a coven, led by ancient witch, Helena Marcos (or ‘Mater Suspiriorum’, to use her official queenly title). The coven is looking to accumulate greater wealth and power, and will kill anyone who dares challenge their evil agenda. 

Suspiria is the most brilliantly cast of all Argento’s films. He chose Jessica Harper after being impressed by her performance in Brian de Palma’s rock opera, Phantom of the Paradise. She’s terrific, a winning mix of awkwardness, innocence, and rectitude. But the film belongs as much to Stefania Casini as it does Harper; it’s often forgotten the pair share equal billing in the opening credits. Strangely glamorous, Casini enjoyed an ‘under-the-radar’ acting career (she later became a director), the sort that film geeks like me love to celebrate: her idiosyncratic CV includes films with Andy Warhol (Blood for Dracula and Bad), Bernardo Bertolluci (1900), and Peter Greenaway (The Belly of an Architect). She was also the lead in The Bloodstained Shadow, a neglected giallo. If Suzy is the heart of Suspiria, then spiky, neurotic Sarah is the soul; a catalyst for the operatic chaos of the final act.

It was a masterstroke to use screen legends Alida Valli and Joan Bennett. In her early 20’s, critics dubbed Valli ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’, and she will be familiar to classic movie fans thanks to her appearance in The Third Man: She earned her horror icon stripes when she starred in George Franju’s mad plastic surgeon movie, Eyes without a Face. As the ballet teacher Miss Tanner, she’s an intimidating presence. She smiles frequently but there’s contempt curling at the edges of her mouth; what she wants to say to her students is ‘I like you in this moment but it isn’t going to last, dear.’ 

Joan Bennett was another screen legend, who started her career in the silent era, and is fondly remembered for a pair of classic film noirs, Woman in the Window andScarlet Street. She had virtually retired from acting when Argento cast her, at age 77, as school director, Madame Blanc. Bennett brings a natural elegance to the role, so it’s a shock when we eventually see her unmasked, putting a hex on that ‘bitch of an American.’ It’s like catching your grandmother pulling the legs off a spider. This was to be Bennett’s last film but what an exit.      

The cinematography of Luciano Tovoli, and production design of Giuseppe Bassan have been justly acclaimed. By using a saturated colour palette, Tovoli’s aim was ‘to immediately make Suspiria a total abstraction from what we call everyday reality. I used the usually reassuring primary colours only in their purest essence, making them surprisingly violent and provocative.’ Argento and Tovoli wanted to create a look to rival early Technicolor films, and managed to source 40 ASA stock from a photographic lab in Texas. The drawback was that their supply was seriously limited, and Argento was only able to do 2 or 3 takes for each scene (which may explain why the finale feels so rushed – a minor quibble).

You could screenshot a dozen scenes from Suspiria, and turn them into classy  prints. There’s Suzy in the back of the taxi, faced bathed in an eerie red glow; Pat running through the black forest, a tiny figure lost in a hostile void; Suzy and Sara swimming in the academy pool, the camera watching from above, whilst the pair tread water, bathed in translucent blue light. These are images so vivid, they sear themselves to the retina.  

Giuseppe Bassan collaborated with Argento on numerous occasions but he excelled himself on this occasion. The exterior of the Tanz academy looks like it was designed by famed architect Gaudi – if he had enjoyed a nougat and gingerbread phase. The school’s art deco styled interior includes rooms with high ceilings and stained glass windows. There are Escher-like geometric patterns on the academy walls and floors; lush orange drapes hang along the corridors; ultramarine wallpaper with gold leaf stencilling decorates the staff quarters. Is such a level of ostentation necessary for a coven? Absolutely. They might be plotting to bring civilization to its knees, but witches still gotta chill.

This brings us to the soundtrack. There’s a thin line between music and noise, and the score, from Italian prog rockers Goblin, lies in the middle of that line. The visuals and the music are inextricable; the score is so up-front, it feels like the film is through-composed. A rough mix was played on set to get the cast into a suitable state of unease. A variety of instruments – guitar, tabla, bouzouki, sitar, moog, kettle drums – are heavily layered, with the addition of random shrieks, creating a discordant soundscape that has the feel of a death waltz. This is music to batter the senses. A clue as to what lies ahead is buried in the second track, a warning to Suzy to perhaps turn the taxi around, and head back to the airport: if you listen closely enough, you can hear Goblin leader Claudio Simmonetti hissing the word ‘witches!’      

Writing about Argento, one has to address the accusations of misogyny which have followed him throughout his career. Film critic Mark Le Fanu once claimed Argento was unhealthily obsessed with ‘devising novel and increasingly nasty ways of killing his female characters.’ This is possibly unfair, as there as many male victims in his films as there are female. That said, the director hasn’t done himself any favours, often being deliberately provocative in interviews: ‘I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man.’ It’s hard to know if this comment was meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

Australian critic and academic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas wrote an interesting monograph on Suspiria, published by Auteur in 2015. Whilst acknowledging Argento’s often contradictory nature, she makes a good case for his film being fundamentally feminist. Suspiria effortlessly passes the so-called Bechdel Test (a method devised to evaluate convincing portrayals of women in fiction.) It’s refreshing to see a movie which features such a self-reliant female character: Suzy doesn’t need to be rescued by a man, neither does she need any help figuring out the significance of the words ‘secret’ and ‘Iris.’

Suspiria was the first part of a loose trilogy. Inferno followed immediately afterwards, whilst Mother of Tears arrived in 2007. With Inferno, the focus is on a New York coven, ruled by another queen, Mater Tenenbrarum. Mother of Tears is set in Rome (where Mater Lachrymarum wears the biggest pointy hat).  Argento makes no attempt to explore the culture or mythology of witchcraft in either. With Inferno, he’s more interested in pushing the dream logic to its furthest extremes, resulting in a baffling, occasionally brilliant affair. Mother of Tears isn’t as bad as has been reported, though seems like a missed opportunity, with many scenes verging on parody (it’s the most sickeningly violent of all Argento films).       

Some critics argue that the director hasn’t made another film as good as Suspiria. A fair point. But then neither has anyone else. Forty years after its original release,Suspiria has lost none of its terrifying power. Are you brave enough to step inside the Tanz Academy? The poster tagline is warning enough: ‘Once you’ve seen it, you’ll never again feel safe in the dark.’   

 Article by Steve Timms

Suspiria is available on DVD, released by CineExcess  

The remake arrives in November 2018

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