SUSPIRIA achieved some notoriety when it came out in 1977, a bizarre new and blood-dripping addition to the giallo genre of horror pix from Italy. Reviewers sniffed and snorted, but it did manage to cringe and creep its way to 65th place at the US box-office, in a year dominated by easier-to-stomach fantasy fare like Star Wars and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. It gained a cult following, as stylish mayhem threshold crossers are wont to do, and today is regarded as a classic— a loopy, lurid, lunatic one, but impossible to dismiss thanks to its look, hard to forget due to its headlong momentum and audacious imprinting of ravishing, disturbing, often downright merciless imagery. It’s whacked as Hell. *
That’s because it was directed by Dario Argento, who co-wrote it with Daria Nicolodi, riffing on The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson and partly off sections of “Suspiria de Profundis” (“sigh from the depths”), an 1845 essay collection by Thomas De Quincey. Possibly there was some measure of input from Nicolodi’s memories of a story told by her grandmother about her experiences in an acting school that also taught black arts.
“We must get rid of that bitch of an American girl. Vanish! She must vanish! Make her disappear! Understand? Vanish, she must vanish. She must die! Die! Die! Helena, give me power. Sickness! Sickness! Away with her! Away with trouble. Death, death, death!
Unsuspecting American ballet student ‘Suzy Bannion’ (Jessica Harper) makes a big mistake by entering a dance academy in Freiberg, Germany (on—hint—a stormy night). The weird cab ride from the strangely lit airport should have been a clue, or at least the screaming girl trying to flee the studio could have cause for pause. That wised-up unfortunate shortly comes to a grisly (and spectacular) end.
Eventually, Suzy puts two & two into a knife, but not before we’re taken through a phantasmagoric carnival of unsettling settings, crazed characters and hideous reckonings. Harper, 27, is the stories essential Snow White, her innocent wide-eyed look, tending to ethereal, is underlaid with a patina of melancholy. Not the best equipped pixie to deal with the butch Teutonic instructress ‘Miss Tanner’ (Alida Valli, unhinged, and a kick) or ‘Madame Blanc’, the fakely nice vice-directress (Joan Bennett), and a staff seemingly harvested from a wormhole into the Middle Ages. It was Bennett’s last feature film role, at 67, joining the clique of Golden Era leading ladies who ventured into the horror genre in their career closeouts—Davis, Crawford, de Havilland, Fontaine and Bankhead (Kate Hepburn a notable holdout)—but then she’d certainly played plenty of cold-blooded dames before.
Maggots rain from the ceiling, Miss Tanner goes berserk chewing out a blind pianist, who is later chomped to death by his guide dog, someone has a horrific encounter with a room full of barbed wire. All that and then some, with a perfect zonked out music score courtesy the Italian progressive rock band The Goblins.
The acting is over-the-top, the script is sublimely silly, but the gorgeously insane look is to die for. Argento: “We were trying to reproduce the colour of Walt Disney’s Snow White; it has been said from the beginning that Technicolor lacked subdued shades…was without nuances—like cut-out cartoons.” The sensational cinematography is from Luciano Tovoli, the remarkable production design came from Giuseppe Bassan. The murders are pretty nasty, but they’re so flamboyantly outrageous that they can’t be taken seriously enough to truly offend, living/dying as they do within the entire unreal world of the film, like being plugged into someone’s 98-minute bed-rocking nightmare. Brilliantly realized, this jolting, absurd, funny, nerve-tingling, eye-dazzling creep-out is unlike any other movie.
* Other macabre offerings competing for fan fun in ’77 included Audrey Rose, The Car, Damnation Alley, Demon Seed, Desperate Living, Eraserhead, Exorcist II: The Heretic, The Hills Have Eyes, Kingdom Of The Spiders, Martin, Orca, Rabid, The Sentinel, Tentacles and Wizards. A pretty lame crowd, though Eraserhead’s buzzing weirdness commands a loyal following. All of them pale next to the inspired design, gripping insanity and stunner visuals of Suspiria.
** Presumed innocent: Jessica Harper, aside from working in movies like Phantom Of The Paradise, Love And Death, My Favorite Year, Pennies From Heaven and Minority Report, has written 11 children’s books and done seven albums of songs for kids. As to Argento, she said in an interview: “Dario was great, very inspired and inspiring, and incredibly supportive. His high energy was infectious, as was his commitment to making a movie with such a strong and pure vision.” On her blog, she mentions “Recently, I was asked to name the scariest movie that I’d ever seen. The answer was a no-brainer. It was the first movie I ever saw, at age five, and it still haunts me: The Wizard Of Oz.”
Speaking of flying monkey types, The Goblins of Suspiria‘s wild soundtrack have changed the name of the group at least six times. As of ’18, they’re just plain old Goblin.
*** I’m not big on murder-for-your-viewing pleasure gunk, so if you wish to slobber over writeups of slasher films, torture porn and the sick like, equating sex with stabbing, there are hordes of fan-sites you can dip your simmering psyche into. I had brief entries on some of this type of product but ended up removing them, as a matter of personal taste, and frankly, conscience (yes, I possess one of those archaic things). Kept Halloween and of course I’ll get around to Psycho (when Mother lets me), but while I have in fact sat through too much filth (movie-nut curiosity, a weird sense of log’em duty and common garden-variety venality) that’s best flushed, I don’t see the need to add my opinion on the assorted Friday the 13th (s) and kin, Saw‘s and Hostel‘s, rape-revenge offal, etc. Please don’t tell me Irreversible, The Last House On The Left and I Spit On Your Grave are up your dark alley. See a shrink, or find a bridge. Extended comment on Horror and its red-red veins is too much of a mouth-off to foist here, but I see the artistry (and zaniness) in Suspiria and a few like it as worthy enough to give them my lonely hunchbacked blessing. And then all was quiet…too quiet…