Suspiria is the first of a trilogy directed by Dario Argento that he’s referred to as “The Three Mothers”. It was released in 1977, followed in 1980 by Inferno and in 2007 by The Mother of Tears. The films are of the ‘slasher’ genre ‘Giallo‘, in which gory violence is rendered with relish. Though I saw the film in the year of its release, I haven’t watched it since, yet here I am writing about it long after the event. It got under my skin, particularly the red and blue palette.
Jessica Harper plays an American student enrolled at a German ballet school which transpires is the nest of something far more sinister than a bunch of elderly retired dancers-turned-teachers. The cast is an interesting one for film buffs, with Alida Valli, cult horror film actor Udo Keir and Hollywood star Joan Bennett in her final film. Somewhere there is an entire book to be mined from the phenomenon of once illustrious Hollywood women whose careers end in the horror genre.
Above: Joan Bennet as Madame Blanc
The plot might charitably be described as opaque, though in some ways that’s a part of the film’s compelling strangeness, aided and abetted by the oddness of the dubbing made necessary because the international cast of actors spoke English, Italian and German in front of the camera. I’m always made uneasy by the disjunction of lips not matching words in films, and find myself peering obsessively at mouths in any shot, as though a subconscious bit of my brain stubbornly refuses to accept a cinema convention I should be able to make allowances for, but clearly can’t.
Above: Don’t go in there! (You know she will!)
Below: a scene that references Cocteau’s dream-like corridor with billowing drapes in La Belle et la Bête
While the narrative meanders, making the film frustratingly choppy and episodic, in terms of soundtrack and visuals, the director nails it. The Italian prog rock band Goblin contribute a score that lodges like ice in the spine to accompany retina-searing cinematography drenching the screen in reds and blues. The school is full of empty rooms and whispering, and there is sense in which the atmosphere of the building is almost narcotic. The iconic moment for me in terms of how disturbingly colour is deployed, comes when the exterior, shot by night in the rain, is shown with its red-painted walls streaming in the downpour, as though the building is haemorrhaging.
There are the unforgettably cruel moments one finds in this genre. A murder victim’s punctured heart is exposed as the camera takes us into the cavity of her chest to witness the violation. Later a student in the school is pursued by an unknown assailant – a standard element of Giallo– when she falls from a window into a pit of razor-wire. Shot from overhead, she’s viewed like an insect in a hideous web, enmeshed by her struggles and unable to escape the black-gloved hand that emerges from the darkness to deliver the coup-de-grace. All these years on I wince at the remembrance of the scene.
Suspiria was shot with anamorphic lenses, and Argento made use of the ‘imbibition’ process used for The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind which resulted in colour more vivid than emulsion-based release prints. It’s said to be one of the final feature films to be processed in Technicolor.
Below: a dance academy like no other.
A remake has been rumoured for decades, though plans have repeatedly foundered in various mires of legal wrangling. Argento has been vociferously against the idea. But now, riding the critical success of his film A Bigger Splash, it would seem that director Luca Guadagnino is on the case, and a remake starring Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson has been announced for a 2017 release.