Update late 2018: Watching Argento’s film again in light of the remake, I’m struck by how thoroughly anti-psychological Suspiria is, and how seriously it suggests a more mid-to-late-century continental, European perspective of wider social-structural reality rather than, say, American horror cinema’s (or earlier European cinema’s) frequent equation of maturity with internal, individual psychology. Which is to say, while many viewers legitimize horror through a frame of psychological modernism – the ability to peer beneath a layer of reality to expose the psychological warp and weave of experience in the mind of one figure who doesn’t see the world as we do, or as according to some ultimate and inescapable “truth” – Suspiria almost never imagines horror as something from within.
Unlike, say, Rosemary’s Baby, it only seldom plays on the often enlightening but sometimes rote, automatic, manufactured “ambiguity” which validates horror from without by reminding us how it might be horror from within, a perspective which thereby resolves the terror of the knowable world by ensconcing the film in the mind of one person who is implicitly figured as delusory, an unreliable perspective on what would be an objective reality outside their mind. This perspective, wonderful though it can be, is often timid when it comes to more fundamental interrogations of social reality; it allows a film to preserve a “real” truth that one character simply may not be able to see, couching itself in a kind of medicinal American individualism which sees reality as either objectively true at a macro level or completely manipulable at the level of individual mind; the world effuses from within, and conflict is ultimately a question about how to reconcile individual creativity and perspective with the structural violence of society, often figured as limiting to individual consciousness rather than constitutive to it.
Suspiria, frankly, seems to resist any such ideological safeguards; it seems to be ontologically and epistemologically decomposing regardless of who is on-screen or whose “perspective” we are being granted. It oblique maneuvers intimate not a glimpse into one character’s warped mind but a flickering vision of a more fundamentally unstable reality, a world where occult speculations dance with modern materialism and problematize any resources – including the “it’s all in her head” frame I allude to above – we might dress the film up in so as to contain it. Argento, in this sense, is a more singular creature, and Suspiria a truly untamed beast in the annals of modern horror cinema.
Edited March 2016
It only seemed appropriate to open the post-Halloween month with a review of one of my absolute favorite horror films.
When I initially chose the four films to cover for my exploration of Italian cinema (as I choose to call my attempt to really just put up more reviews in the early stages of my writing loosely wrapped around some semblance of a theme), I concentrated primarily on the esteemed classics. And indeed, the Italian neo-realist movement in the late ’40s and the new wave in the late ’50s and ’60s (populated by the likes of Fellini and Antonioni) are two of the most densely-packed periods of filmic invention ever. But then I realized something … the cinema of a nation isn’t defined by its most traditional paragons of greatness, but by all the films it produced, including its genre films. And few nations have produced more genre films than Italy, especially during the ’60s (Spaghetti Westerns) and the ’70s (giallo horror). Having already published a review of my absolute favorite Italian Western, Once Upon a Time in the West, I decided to return to my bread-and-butter, horror, to kick-start the month with some blood-red pizzaz. And if I was going to do Italian, it needed to be giallo. No, it needed to be THE giallo, a B-picture that not only defies conceptions of artistic veracity but recreates them to its own liking. Ladies and gentlemen, Dario Argento’s Suspiria.
Dario Argento’s failures as a filmmaker were identical to the troubles of his predecessor Mario Bava: not, as many presume, their incompetence as storytellers, but their initial submission to the deluge of story at all. Even Argento’s poetic, bracing Deep Red suffers due to its histrionic mystery plot as it elsewhere skirts the realms of horror-heaven via its hyperkinetic camerawork and lurid, ultratheatrical presentation. The beauty of Suspiria, Argento’s follow-up to Deep Red, is its severing the umbilical cord of Italian giallo to classical narrative cinema altogether. By absconding with the mystery plot and subsuming his imagery into a swampy, psychotic, fever-dream of ethereal music and crimson-colored nightmare logic, Argento uses Suspiria as a mechanism, a toy more likely, to untether himself from the representational qualities of most cinema to propose instead a sublime symphony or a poem of destruction, desolation, and transgressive cinematic entropy.
Watching Suspiria is definitionally no reflection of sane life at all; rather than skirting questions of reality, this film flaunts its own intangible quality and its fundamental ingraspability as plot or character. Positing the cadence of a demented fairy tale and interrogating the connections between the fable and the drug-trip, Suspiria sees Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli refurbishing influences from FW Murnau’s expressionist horror Nosferatu to the equally non-naturalist Disney fantasies like Snow White. The disarming, grotesque anti-magic of the piece feels like a spirited work of cinematic conjuration, reviving the incorporeal forms of pre-modern cinema and embroidering them in drippy, blood red strokes. Set in a ballet school, Suspiria’s sequences of terror are phantasmal dances of patchwork blood and guts that deny the validity of logic and suppress the propriety of narrative, replacing both with the lightning bolt majesty of giddy-nasty cinema-as-play. Reason be damned when your art rhymes this fluidly.
This Technicolor trek into the dark forests of the subconscious tangentially follows a new ballerina dancer in a middle European boarding school for female artists of the form that happens, to no surprise, to contain a witch’s coven. Fitting for the subject, Suspiria feels like a séance or a transcendent communique with the deceased, a portal not only to another world but a vision of ulterior conceptions of time and place where existence is defined via volcanic sputters of motion and stasis rather than A to B to C common sense. With good sense and the reality principle threshed to bits, Suspiria invokes a primal flight-or-fight incandescence of color and stagebound artifice, a kinetic fantasia of undivine imagery matched in its demonic nature only by its radiance. Unlike Deep Red, it doesn’t fail at success along the traditional planes of the motion picture; it invents its own plane to inhabit altogether.
Which is to say, the sublimity of Suspiria is its brash refusal to subsist under the narrative rules of other cinema and to, instead, flourish in a mental space that is not so much antithetical to the audience’s capacity for reason as willfully teasing the audience about its own limits. While giallos were always slightly hampered by their self-effacing complacency to the rules of cinematic explanation, Suspiria stakes no claim for connecting its own narrative dots altogether. While other giallos relied on narrative as a guideline, if not a set of dogmatic preconception, Suspiria slashes its ropes to the reality machine and utilizes the tremulous, surreptitious suggestions of nightmare logic to structure not only its imagery but to lay the mortar and brick of its narrative as well. It’s a film that uniquely, boldly dares us to question our own preconceptions about representational reality in cinematic art not via a twisty, perilous, back-dealing narrative – as so many narratives do – but through a form that insinuates its own suggestible subjectivity.
And insinuates its own beauty, as well. Not so much a ballet as a vacillation between the bedlam and pandemonium of the Pollock-esque drip painting and the accidental order of a Dadaist space deconstruction, Suspiria willfully avoids examination of the ballet school as a space that conforms to geometric logic in anything other than the most tentative of senses. Sequence unfolds not with a filmmaker’s belief in space but a graphic artist’s attitude toward color, Argento and Tovoli basking in a hypersaturated mindscape of envious reds and falsely soothing blues. It’s amateurish filmmaking from a certain mindset, but carefully calibrated freedom from another, relinquishing propriety and giving in to the sensory impulse and emotional spitfire and the nightmarish, expressionist Grand Guignol violence of a child let loose in a pale, white room with only their imagination and every crayon known to man and to bolster them up. Yes, this is entirely a film of sequences, but the sequences swallow any doubt of tempered respect whatsoever.
As does the score, an id-driven masterpiece of negative space and derangement, all bent up and fractured on multitudes of angular notes played over one another at uneasy angles and fighting for precedence – it’s hellish, angry, destructive, ghostly music that alternates between unnervingly childlike and ear-shatteringly baroque and byzantine in its incessant madness. By Italian semi-progressive rock band Goblin, long an Argento collaborator, the score becomes a sort of inhuman force ready to swoop in and haunt or devour us. It moves beyond over-the-top into numbing. And it’s pure genius, not style-over-substance but style-and-substance as one.
With its giddy brand of cinematic nihilism and discordant, flagellating sense of unholy self, this is self-aggrandizing, self-confident horror with braggadocio and spunk, not the inchoate babies of prior giallos. Spendthrift in its employment of sense-shattering imagery, it feels quite like the natural endpoint for the giallo – perhaps this is why, barring the odd The Beyond here or there, the bottom fell out of the genre almost immediately after the malevolent alley cat Halloween brought it across the pond to the States and the corporate monstrosity that was grubby, all-hands-on-deck American cinema in the ’80s ended the genre’s self-sabotage of all things sensible about modern cinema at the time. Of all the horror films released since, excepting perhaps The Shining, Suspiria feels the most holistically rapturous in its vision of presentiment and operatic melancholy, as though horror is not its genre or its mode but its mission statement or, better yet, its nerve endings and its reflexes. It’s times like Suspiria that beg one to reconsider the Italian masterworks and the auteurs of the form the nation produced. Fellini, Antonioni, Rosselini, De Sica, Argento. With a vision of experience as artistically evocative as any other, you better believe he belongs. Suspiria, more than any horror film since, and much like the great horror masterpieces of the ’20s and ’30s that eschewed reality for profligate artistry, feels like a premonition of another mode of being.