Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Suspiria


Dario Argento's Suspiria is a horror film based almost entirely around mood and the slow escalation of tension through music and garish color schemes. The film's concrete horrors — a sequence of murders and creepy occurrences at a German ballet school — don't arouse nearly as much terror or suspense as Argento's habit of filming nearly every scene as though something indescribably awful were lurking just out of sight. The film's design is lavish and ornate, and rather than finding terror in shadows and dark tones, Argento bathes these scenes in bright, saturated colors. The ballet school where American student Suzy (Jessica Harper) goes to study is a high Gothic palace with hallways decorated in bright red, its wild architecture topped only by the geometric lunacy of the apartment building where doomed ballet student Pat (Eva Axén) flees to in the opening scenes of the film.

The film's opening in general is a masterpiece of slow-building horror. Suzy arrives at an airport, and as she walks towards the doors leading outside, Argento immediately begins building up the suspense, well before there's anything to get the least bit scared about. Suzy seems hesitant and timid, somewhat rattled already; Harper makes good use, throughout the film, of her big brown eyes, which are often widened in anxiety, shifting back and forth, her pupils small and skittish, seeming lost in the broad whites surrounding them. Argento alternates closeups on Suzy's fragile face with shots of the airport doors. The closeups are silent, but the door shots are accompanied by the sinister but gorgeous chiming tones of the score, by Italian prog rock band Goblin, whose eerie chanting and chugging rock set the tone of the film. When Suzy leaves the airport, into a dark, rainy, windy night, the doors slide shut behind her with an air of finality that suggests a break with normalcy, the terror to come foreshadowed by the gloomy, stormy night that engulfs her. Her cab ride to the ballet school, with Goblin's pulsing main theme returning on the soundtrack, is equally chilling. It's only in the subsequent scenes, following Pat as she flees from the school just as Suzy arrives, that these premonitions of terror turn out to be warranted. Pat escapes the school and shows up at a friend's apartment, the very design of which, with its colorful patterns and high, vaulted ceilings, establishes that something strange is going to happen here.


Argento is excellent at using lighting and design to create the film's unsettling tone. He frequently focuses on closeups of the film's women — Pat during the opening, Suzy and her new friend Sara (Stefania Casini) later on — as they confront the strange events surrounding them. Faces mean a lot to Argento, faces in various contortions of terror and uncertainty, faces with eyes widened in fear and mouths gasping breathlessly. Agento films Suzy with colored lights washing across her face, especially hovering around her eyes, emphasizing her deer-in-headlights stare. It's obvious that he likes exploring the vulnerability of these women: Suzy seems afraid even before she arrives at the school, in the opening scenes at the airport, as though she's anticipating the rest of the film. The faces of the women, bathed in various colored lights, telegraph the film's mostly abstract horrors, because despite the murders that occur throughout the film, Argento seems more concerned with capturing the pervasive, undirected sense of dread and strangeness that exists within this film, taking hold of these women and slowly driving them to madness.

The film is thus a study in feminine vulnerability and fear. Argento allows the tension to build and build. At one point, he zooms in for a closeup on Suzy and Sara, their heads pressed together in conspiratorial whispering, the whole image filtered red. The women are talking about the odd snoring of one of their teachers, sleeping nearby, her silhouette cast against a curtain, black in the red room. It would be innocuous or even comical, except that Argento pitches it towards unhinged terror, the two women looking terrified, working themselves into a state of weird excitation over the raspy snoring of an old woman.


The impact of the film's music in creating this state of irrational anxiety can't be overstated, either. Goblin's music is as integral to Suspiria as the stylized imagery, despite the fact that the band — who had previously scored Argento's Deep Red — composed the music before seeing the film. The music just fits perfectly, becoming inseparable from the bright, creepy images. The tinkling chimes and bells of the main theme, which reappears frequently, is often joined by whispery chanting and moaning, ghastly voices that seem to be communicating with the film's characters. The word "witch" is whispered in the music long before any of the characters actually utter it, which makes it seem like the music is emanating from a kind of demon band who are foreshadowing the film's plot with their haunting music. In one scene where Sara is reacting to some unsettling sounds in the darkness, the sounds she's hearing blend into the sighs and thuds of the music, so that it's not clear if she's reacting to an actual noise in the room, or to the music that's creeping in from outside the diegesis.

That the film eventually provides a supernatural explanation for all these odd occurrences and acts of violence does little to resolve anything. Argento is so good at whipping up an atmosphere of edgy, all-encompassing dread that harnessing this aimless terror to concrete causes is somehow unconvincing. The film never seems to be actually about a coven of evil witches who run a ballet school, even though that's a fair description of its plot. Suspiria is rarely constrained or dominated by its plot; at times it seems almost plotless, more of a mood than a story. That's what makes it so affecting, so unsettling. In typical horror movie fashion, it wraps everything up in the end, driving the protagonist towards a confrontation with the evil lurking within the school. But the operatic excesses and flashy violence of this denouement do nothing to ease the sense of unmotivated fear roused by the union of Argento's visuals and Goblin's music. In the final scene, Suzy grins with relief as she rushes out into the rain, mirroring the stormy opening scenes, but the unease generated by the film lingers well past its supposedly happy resolution.

32 comments:

Vladimir said...

The first film of a trilogy also. But last two is not as succesful as Suspiria. Inferno had been shot not long after Suspiria, suspense grows slowly in that one also. But the last one in the trilogy "Mother of tears" had been made in 2000s.. That is the weakest one. There is only one remarkable scene.

Steve Langton said...

Nice review, Ed. As you say, that soundtrack is so effective, almost playing as an ally to the evil. Not hard to imagine Harper and friends being physically threatened by its power, via speakers strategically placed throughout the building.

Ed Howard said...

I didn't realize those were sequels to this one, Vladimir, thanks. I need to check out some more Argento.

Steve, the soundtrack was probably my favorite part of the movie. Like you, I loved the way it seemed to be a real active part of the film, not just setting the mood but often creating much of the horror purely with its sinister presence.

J.D. said...

Excellent review! You certainly hit all the right points on what make it an exceptional horror film. The music is so key to the power of this film.

In regards to the trilogy of films, I agree that MOTHER OF TEARS is the weakest link, but it does have its merits. I always felt that PHENOMENA should have been the concluding film of the trilogy as it kinda has the look and feel of the previous 2 films.

DavidEhrenstein said...

You're quite right about the use of color, Ed. Argento compleely flips the script on Horr, relating it to light rather than darkness. His subsequent films, als, have been disappointing -- only of fitful interest. Perhaps he had only one film in him. But it's a doozy.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, J.D. and David. It's really amazing, considering how used to the idea of shadows=horror we all are, how Argento builds this film's horror out of all bright color schemes, making the geometric stained glass-like patterns of that apartment building at the beginning seem threatening and creepy in their gaudiness.

Even if this turns out to be Argento's only great film (and I guess I'll find out as I explore his work further) that'll be more than enough.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Ed:

This is great! I always love to see my favorite bloggers tackle Italian horror. I'm so glad -- though not at all surprised -- that you mentioned the music of Goblin as a key component to the film's success. There's a reason why when people talk about Italian horror they first talk about Suspiria, and Goblin's music -- along with the ethereal, displacing aesthetic -- is a big reason for that. Not only does it add to the aforementioned atmosphere, but it also has become synonymous with the subgenre (along with garish set designs, nonsensical plots, and extreme gore) in terms of elements that makes Italian horror so singular. The music of an Italian horror movie can always make a poor to average movie seem much better at creating the desired effect than it really is, and Goblin was one of the best at doing this.

I would suggest that you don't waste your time with Mother of Tears. It's a sad, ugly movie that seems to have been made by a filmmaker who forgot everything he learned from Bava and Leone. Inferno, however, is great. It's much maligned because people constantly compare it to Suspiria because of its unofficial connection the film as its sequel; however, it has some equally impressive set pieces and music by Keith Emerson. That film's opening (directed by Mario Bava) is almost as impressive as Suspiria's, and is certainly one of the best sequences he's ever conceived. Great movie...a little goofy at times, but still great.

This was a great read, Ed. I hope you check out more Argento, too!

Sam Juliano said...

"Goblin's music is as integral to Suspiria as the stylized imagery, despite the fact that the band — who had previously scored Argento's Deep Red — composed the music before seeing the film. The music just fits perfectly, becoming inseparable from the bright, creepy images."

Absolutely! This is one of the most compelling and integral examples of music dictating the trajectory of a film, and the pulsating rhythms are both disorienting and jolting. With this vital contribution, I'd venture to believe we'd be seeing a far different film. I know others feel otherwise, but I'd have to agree with what you add in the comment section when you speculate it might be Argento's one great film. A few others (Deep Red and Crystal Plumage are very fine, but this one is a home run)

Again you set a standard of reviewing here that's always a joy to behold.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Also...

Early Argento is quite good (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Four Flies on Gray Velvet), and I've always liked Deep Red the best out of all of his films. Also, Tenebre is a helluva crazy giallo...the last great movie he made.

I hope this leads you to check something out by the likes of Fulci (The Beyond is the one to go with there) and Soavi (Stage Fright and The Church). You know how I love the subgenre, so I'm probably overselling it to you here, but I hope you check it out further.

Ed Howard said...

Kevin, this is obviously your area of expertise, and very far from my own, so I appreciate the comments and the recommendations. I definitely need to check out some more Argento and Italian horror in general, so the films you mention seem like a great starting place to delve deeper. I've been fairly ambivalent about the Bava I've seen so far, but Suspiria is brilliant.

Sam, I agree that the film would be totally different (and not nearly as good, I'd venture to say) without Goblin's great music. Much of the atmosphere of the film is in the union of that gothic music with the colorful visual aesthetic and baroque design sense.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Actually, Ed, I'm pretty ambivalent towards Bava, too. His baroque style was definitely an influence on Argento (who later influenced Michele Soavi, the man I think is the most interesting Italian horror filmmaker), but his films have always left me a little cold. His influence on the genre (and on the American slasher film), though, is something that has caused me to sit through a lot of his movies. I just wanted to clarify.

Two other fantastic Italian horror movies (non-Argento): The Perfume of the Lady in Black and The House with Laughing Windows.

Okay...now I'll stop! Hehe.

Ed Howard said...

Nice! Always good to have more recs. When's the next Italian horror blogathon, Kevin? Maybe I'll save up some of these films and participate this year, try and improve on my lack of experience with the genre.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I'll be doing another blogathon this year. I'm thinking I might do it during the summer since October is usually a bit crowded with horror-themed blogathons. I'll send out an email when I figure it out. It would be great if you wanted to contribute something for that.

Mike Lippert said...

Brillant film, great review. Nothing more to be said.

Sam Juliano said...

"Actually, Ed, I'm pretty ambivalent towards Bava, too. His baroque style was definitely an influence on Argento (who later influenced Michele Soavi, the man I think is the most interesting Italian horror filmmaker), but his films have always left me a little cold."

Ah Kevin, au contraire! I feel Bava is the superior of Argento by quite some distance, though I respect your well-argued position. With Black Sunday, Black Sabbath, The Whip and the body and about a half-dozen others, I feel Bava set teh standard for Italian horror in his atmospherics, exquisite use of color, and exceptional use of literary sources.

"A Drop of Water" from Chekov may well be the most horrifying segment ever in all of cinema.

Again, I fully understand it all comes down to taste in large measure.

This is a great thread!

Ed Howard said...

Mike, thanks a lot!

Kevin, I'm looking forward to the blogathon.

Sam, Black Sabbath is pretty, but almost painfully boring.

Jeremy Richey said...

Excellent piece Ed on one of my favorite films. I have to disagree with some of the comments stating this is Argento's only great film though. I would agree with those who recommended THE BIRD WITH CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, DEEP RED and INFERNO and would also include his 1996 work THE STENDHAL SYNDROME, which I think is as masterful as anything in his canon. Those are all great films to watch if you are new to Argento but I think any of his works up through 1987's OPERA are all extremely valuable. He's been hit and miss since and I do agree that MOTHER OF TEARS was incredibly disappointing.

As for Bava, I am not sure which ones you have seen but absolutely check out WHIP AND THE BODY, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, KILL BABY KILL, TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE, LISA AND THE DEVIL, RABID DOGS and SHOCK if you haven't yet.

I agree with Kevin about PERFUME OF A LADY IN BLACK and HOUSE WITH THE LAUGHING WINDOWS and would also recommend Sergio Martino's ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, Fulci's THE BEYOND, D'Amato's BUIO OMEGA (which features my favorite Goblin score) and Soavi's DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE as all supreme examples of iconic works of Italian Horror.

As for Goblin, all of their soundtracks are essential but if you can seek out their 1976 LP ROLLER, one of the great Prog albums of all time.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Yeah, Bava is just plodding and boring to me. His films, as Ed states, are pretty, but they're often a chore to get through. I have the same problem with Hammer horror films. I know that's blasphemy for a horror fan to say, but I've tried on numerous occasions to try and see what so many love about Hammer films and the Gothic horror of Bava, and I just can't find anything aside from the great set-designs that can keep interested in the plodding storylines found in those films.

The Hammer films do have a tinge of humor in them, but they're still incredibly tough for me to get through.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Jeremy and I definitely disagree on the D'Amato movie...I abhor it; however, I'm glad he mentioned Martino (another unheralded contributor to the subgenre) and Argento's Opera...I think it was the only giallo to have a significant budget, and it shows. A brutal film with some interesting meta-commentary running through it.

Jeremy Richey said...

Kevin,
I though I recalled that you couldn't stand BUIO OMEGA. It seems to be one of those love it or hate it films for folks with some, like me, absolutely swearing by it. It's a real favorite of mine...
Glad to hear we agree on Martino, who I hold in as high esteem as any of the great Italian Horror Maestros, including Argento.

Ed Howard said...

Jeremy, thanks for all the recommendations. I definitely have more Argento on the agenda after this one, and will be starting with a few of the ones you mention. And I love this Goblin soundtrack so much that I've been listening to it a lot outside of the movie, and will definitely be seeking out more by them. Great stuff.

Drew said...

Well yeah, I pretty much love this movie to pieces like everyone else. Not sure what more can be said about Goblin's score, it's about as perfect a marriage between music and imagery as has ever been produced in the genre. I always appreciated Goblin's musical contributions to the handful of other classic Argento flicks, but it seems to me that they never quite had as profound and hefty a cosmic presence as they do here.

I really like how you highlight Argento's consistent fixation with eyes in the movie, it's such an eerie touch, constantly underscoring the air of dread at any given moment.

Though I've yet to see anything post-Opera from Argento that's struck me as more than tiresome and mediocre (it's like watching an entirely different director), I love his 70's and 80's films with a passion, his work in those two decades containing many desert-island horror picks for me. INFERNO is a must, Ed. It's my single favorite Argento, a sequel to SUSPIRIA in only the most tenuous sense, but it contains passages of inspired, feverish visuals and ethereal dread to match anything in his canon. It's just completely unhinged and surging with insane digressions and the like, really unlike any movie I've ever seen. Of course most of the other Argento's mentioned from this period are well worth watching.

Sam Juliano said...

I'll meet you 33% of the way on BLACK SABBATH, Ed. The formulaic and predictable "The Telephone" is weak, but to say that "The Werdelak" and "A Drop of Water" are boring, well, I really don't know how to answer you there.

We'll just have to agree to disagree, in the same way that I strongly disagree with my friend Kevin on the often magnificent work from Hammer studios.

I'd take Hammer over Argento any day, (this one single film excepting) but again, I know this is all taste and what we expect from horror. I favor Bava, Hammer and Val Lewton probably because I largely gravitate toward the literary, the poetic, and old-fashioned atmospherics, more than visceral horror.

This is taste of course, and I understand that everyone's goes in different directions.

Sam Juliano said...

Needless to say, this is friendly disagreement, the kind that I would have with a few colleagues in a teacher's room, or a few friends in the car after a movie. All the reactions here are informed and of a very high caliber, and are automatically followed by a handshake and a big smile.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Drew - it does seem like everyone likes this one, and for good reason. Argento really highlights the eyes here, and the faces in general. Such great closeups of expressions of fear.

Sam Juliano said...

LOL!!!!!!

Dylan S said...

Great review of Suspiria, Ed.

From what I've seen, my favorite Italian horror films (though they definitely fall under the category of "psychological horror") are "A Quiet Place in the Country" by Elio Petri (a masterpiece, really) and "Le Orme" by Luigi Bazzoni. There's also Fellini's amazing "Toby Dammit" from the omnibus Italian/French co-production "Spirits of the Dead." I will also follow the others who've recommended "The Perfume of the Lady in Black."

My favorite giallo is probably Bazzoni's "The Fifth Cord," a solid little mystery with breathtaking Vittorio Storaro cinematography, and Franco Nero is always fun to watch.

Troy Olson said...

A great review Ed (and a fun comments section). SUSPIRIA is one of those great horror films for people who don't like horror films. The sounds, visuals, and atmosphere just sweep you up into a sort of trance -- like watching a gothic fairy tale unfold. I simply love the introductory 15 minutes of this film (when I reviewed it for last year's horror countdown I spent 850 words on just the opening scene alone) which shows Argento encapsulating all of his fascinating skills in two magnificent setpieces (his filming of the apartment complex is just a brilliant usage of architecture on film).

As for further Argento, a safe bet would be DEEP RED (another fantastic Goblin score) or THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (have you reviewed a giallo before?), while both INFERNO and PHENOMENA are interesting for parts, frustrating in others. OPERA is more in the slasher mold, but still his last movie that wasn't mostly awful (sorry Jeremy, but I can give no love to THE STENDAHL SYNDROME). TENEBRE is a great post-modern giallo before being post-modern was a trend...it's perhaps my favorite of all his films and has another fun Goblin score, but again, I could see how a non-genre fan would have some issues with it.

Troy Olson said...

As for Bava, I like all of his movies -- he was incredibly consistent -- but don't really find any of them to be better than SUSPIRIA. I wrote about BLACK SUNDAY, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, and KILL BABY, KILL, the latter two which are obvious influences on Argento (I also appreciate TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE). I think he's pretty much great, though I know Sam loves BLACK SABBATH more than anyone else :)

Finally, other Italian horror -- I'll second everyone's suggestion to see THE BEYOND next. It's a bit rougher around the edges than SUSPIRIA, muddier and darker, but equally fascinating in its crazed vision. My first viewing had me laughing at the lack of narrative cohesion, but in watching and learning about Italian horror over the year, it's probably the film I've rewatched the most over the year and find equally rewarding each time I watch.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, Dylan and Troy. Everyone obviously loves this movie (I totally agree about the greatness of the opening scenes in particular, Troy - I felt sure I would love this film before she even left the aiport) and everyone has such great recommendations for more giallos and Italian horror. It's an area I know almost nothing about, and this film has gotten me pretty excited to delve a little deeper.

Steve Langton said...

Bava fan here, though I fully respect those who don't care for his work. I'd certainly recommend Kill, Baby...Kill!, Black Sunday and Lisa And The Devil as solid examples of his brilliance. Argento? Some terrific stuff early doors, though I do love some of his later work such as Stendhal which Jeremy mentioned. Also rate The Perfume Of The Lady In Black, and hope you get chance to check out some of Fulci's work, including House By The Cemetery and Don't Torture A Duckling. Great thread!

Ed Howard said...

Steve, thanks for commenting and for the recs. Fulci has jumped up my list based on the suggestions here, and so has more Argento, that's for sure.