Friday, 18 March 2011

Suspiria (1977)

The best looking, best sounding horror film you’ve never seen.

Image: Nouveaux Pictures

Mysterious goings on at a German dance academy, gruesome murders, plenty of suspicious types lurking around and an innocent abroad straight out of a fairytale: these are the simple foundations of Dario Argento’s 1977 film Suspiria. While in themselves they may not sound impressive, the transition of story to screen is treated in such a manner as to create a classic, even from the simplest of plots.
Suspiria represents something of a turning point in horror cinema, and indeed in cinema more generally, both a final hurrah and a glorious renaissance. Suspiria was the final film made in Technicolor, and thus can be seen in part as a farewell to the Golden Age of Hollywood. It would be hard to think of a more appropriate send-off to Technicolor: Suspiria’s Snow White-inspired colour scheme is one of the most beautiful cinematic palettes ever committed to celluloid, with dazzling visual displays of intense red and unsettling green and blue. The architecture of the film is visually stunning, with art deco interiors and artfully lit outdoor spaces concealing terror in every shadow. Indeed, part of Argento’s great triumph with the film is in making the ordinary uncanny, with automatic doors slashing open to reveal a rainstorm carrying portents of the horror to follow, and light reflected from a knife becoming dangerous and magical.
The tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood extends to the casting. An unusually female-centric film, two of the leads are played by women who have made an indelible mark on cinematic history. The disturbingly abrasive Miss Tanner is played with bulldog ferocity and cold German pragmatism by Alida Valli, who is best known for portraying Anna Schmidt in The Third Man, although she also had a dazzling career which included work with Hitchcock and Antonioni. The more maternal, albeit somewhat glacial, character of Madame Blanc, headmistress of the school, is played by Joan Bennett. Bennett’s film roles are perhaps less well known than her interesting private life, but she made her mark in several noir films by Fritz Lang, as the wife of Spencer Tracy’s Father of the Bride(returning with him for the sequel) and finally on television as the matriarch of the Collins family in the daytime supernatural soap Dark Shadows. However, the cast also includes actors whose careers were only just beginning. The trans-continental players include Udo Kier, who appears to explain the plot. Kier is now best known for playing the creepy German guy in many, many horror films (Blade,Modern Vampires, Suspiria sequel Mother of Tears). The central protagonist, wide-eyed ingénue Suzy Banyon, is played by Jessica Harper, who had an eclectic acting career which included work with Brian De Palma, Jim Sharman (replacing Susan Sarandon as Janet in the sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and Steven Spielberg, before becoming a very successful children’s author.
It would be wrong to discuss Suspiria without mention of its soundtrack, as it is just as important as the colour scheme and acting in establishing the singularly peculiar and brilliant register of the film. Italian prog-rockers Goblin had previously collaborated with Argento on his giallo classic Profondo Rosso, and their work here is a step up even from the excellent score they provided there. It really has to be heard to be understood, but from the first clashing cymbals and pounding drums of the title track the score is flawlessly married to the images, elevating the film to a sublime mood in which the viewer is constantly at the mercy of the narrative.
It is rare for horror films to be described as beautiful, but in every way Suspiria is a thing of beauty. The direction, the sets, the music, the lighting…even the title font is a visual delight. While the characters are drawn in fairly broad strokes, this never detracts from the film, and indeed fits it better than deeper psychoanalysis might have – after all, we do not ask for depth from characters in a fairytale. Evil is evil, good is good, and we have our investment in either camp.
Quite simply one of the greatest horror films ever made, and a dazzlingly unique cinematic achievement, Suspiria deserves to be cherished as a masterpiece.

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