Suspiria was the first Dario Argento film I ever saw. I’d heard a few mixed things about is, but was still keen to see it – but not willing to spend full price on what was then to me an unknown. So when I came across a VHS copy in the sales on holiday a few years ago, I just had to buy it. I wasn’t going to get the chance to see it until I returned home, but I very distinctly remember sleeping that night, with the video close to my bed. And I had one of the weirdest, scariest dreams I have ever had, as though some malignant force carried in its tape had somehow infected my very thoughts. Not even that though, could have prepared me for my first viewing of the film itself. To say it completely blew me away would be an understatement. It was completely unlike any other film I had ever seen before – I felt as though my eyes had been opened to a whole New World of cinematic possibilities as these strange terrors flickered across the screen. To say it changed my life may be something of an exaggeration, but I certainly couldn’t imagine myself here now writing for this site without it. I love this film so much that it hurts.
Someone somewhere once said that cinema should primarily be a narrative medium, & this conventional viewpoint has become the mainstream standard. Suspiria, however, sees Argento disregarding these standard constraints in favour of a new approach where the manner of the telling & the sensation of the experience of viewing are all important, & the actual plot secondary. This frequently leads to criticism of the film for being just atmosphere and no story, but to me it seems to be a fallacy to criticise the film according to a set of rules that it quite pointedly isn’t playing by. It’s sometimes been compared to big Hollywood blockbusters in it’s pursuit of pure sensation, but the film is clearly the work of one of cinemas most flamboyant, outrageous & daring artists, working alongside a ream of similarly visionary talents, all intent on pushing the boat out & working at their peak – it’s an incredibly vital film of awesome beauty, poetry, tension, subtlety & nihilistic exuberance. Try to make a similar claim about, say, Armageddon. Had the film had a strong, rational & realistic narrative, I feel that this would have significantly weakened it – much of Suspiria’s hypnotic power stems from it’s weird, dreamlike feel that would be comprised by the intrusion of reality. The sort-of sequel, Inferno, (whilst by no means a real or rational narrative either) is more satisfactory on most levels, but can’t compete with the viciously immediate terrors of Suspiria. The one primary narrative thread in Suspiria also lends it a strong forward momentum lacking in the rather more rambling Inferno. Even after more viewings than I could dare count, the horribly disturbing mood, tension & terror I feel throughout (put particularly in the build-up to the climax) is virtually as strong as it was in that first mind-expanding viewing. There are precious few other films I could say the same about, & none of them have conventional, strong or linear narratives.
Suspiria is, of course, not entirely without a narrative, it’s just that it is of secondary importance, & doesn’t really make much sense when scrutinised under the cold light of day (but to complain about this is a bit like complaining about why Big Billy Goat Gruff doesn’t just go first). It’s done more as a series of brilliantly edited set-pieces on a theme, with recurring ideas & characters that are then put into such a sequence that they nominally tell a story. The story is that of Suzy Banyon (the doe-eyed Jessica Harper – perfect in the role), a young American ballet dancer who travels to Freiburg, Germany in order to study at the celebrated dance academy there, only to discover that evil lurks behind its’ brightly coloured walls. The screenplay is co-credited to Argento & his then partner Daria Nicolodi, inspired by her Grandmothers’ tales of a finishing school with occult connections that she attended. Interestingly, of the 6 Argento films Nicolodi was involved in – from Profondo Rosso to Opera, the directors finest period – Suspiria is the only time she received a screenplay credit, & the only time she doesn’t appear in the film itself – save for a brief cameo in the opening scene. Suspiria is ostensibly about witchcraft, but whilst treating it seriously as a source of fear, it doesn’t go into much detail. Curiously, the term "Witch" is only used (outside the score) by those who have not yet fully understood the goings on in the academy – paving the way for the implication early in Inferno that there was more to the academy than mere witchcraft. One of the most impressive things about Suspiria is its wholehearted embracing of mysticism & magic, not merely suggesting but inhabiting another world somehow beyond our normal perceptions. There’s no slow, reality-based build-up here, Argento instead dropping us headfirst into a furious maelstrom of audio-visual excess from the very start. The film can also be construed as being a dream (or more to the point, a nightmare), with its irrationalities coming out of the subconscious mind. It’s not a particularly satisfactory reading, but the dream-like vibe of the film is beyond question. It’s as though you’re trapped in someone else’s nightmare, a surreal, frightening & sometimes inexplicable world under the rigorous control of some malignant intelligence from which there is no escape. The big question is whether or not you can willingly surrender yourself into this world, or merely sit back awake, viewing from a distance in the harsh light of reality. No wonder the film divides its audiences.
Suspiria inhabits a strange world of thresholds – most notably between life & death, the film is delicately poised on the edge, constantly cycling back & forth, blurring the boundary. The film is obsessed with boundaries, not just life & death but also between light & dark, inside & outside, noise & silence, wet & dry, the rational & the irrational, simply between one room and another – time & time again our attention is drawn to the crossing from one to another, & the often frail & fragile things that separate one from the other,
There are two key elements in Suspiria that make its strange fairytale world of witches & magic, & one of those is the look of the film – with particular mention having to go to cinematographer Luciano Tovoli & production designer Guisseppe Bassan. The film really is an outrageous visual feast. Inspired by Snow White & the Seven Dwarves, the screen is awash with amazingly deep & bright colours, lighting some of the most flamboyant & eye-catching designs in the whole of cinema. The almost child-like milieu of the film is reflected in the visuals in many ways, from the colours to simple things like the height of the door handles. It has been noted that the film plays like a modern, violent, scary fairytale for adults. The other key element is the music, or more pertinently, the flawless melding of the music with the visuals. Re-uniting with the rock group Goblin, who he’d brought into film scoring with Profondo Rosso, Argento thrusts the music into the foreground, producing an extraordinary, throbbing beast of a film. Everything in the film is cranked up to 11 in order to create a completely artificial environment. No matter how great the visuals, the film simply could not work without the music. The main theme is a simple, yet hypnotically repetitive piece that nods in the direction of The Exorcists’ Tubular Bells, but is actually more of a lullaby or music box melody – again accentuating the childlike feel – although building up with pounding prog-rock intensity, offset by weird whisperings & distorted cries of "Witch!" Elsewhere, there’s subtly menacing breathing, furious metallic pounding, hideous shrieking, & enormous rafts of organs. It’s music in a truly nightmarish, vividly hallucinatory style, which has few equals.
Suspiria has a real reputation for being a very gory film, but that’s not entirely true. Certainly, when it gets gory, it’s extremely strong stuff (don’t get me wrong on this), but there isn’t actually all that much of it – the effect of the film (& the deliciously extended build-ups to the killings) is such that it makes you think you’ve seen more than you actually have. The body count is actually fairly low, & in the gory close-ups, there is usually little blood seen actually spilling. Besides, the gore effects actually haven’t dated too well. One of the things that makes the film so great is that Argento continually (but most notably in the first attack) refuses to relieve the tension – you think you’ve seen enough, but he then keeps showing you more & more, cranking things continually up to the next level. It becomes scary thinking about what Argento may be just about to show you around the next corner.
One of Argentos’ favourite themes is pretty prominent in Suspiria, being a frustration with language. Communication is made harder, not easier, by the necessity of having to put things into words, & when they are their meaning is often misheard, misunderstood, or distorted. I actually like to watch Suspiria in Italian (even though most of the major actors are actually speaking English), since I’ve seen the film enough times to be able to follow it, & not being able to understand a word people are saying really adds to the unnerving, dreamlike atmosphere of the film – as well as adding a whole new layer to the communication theme. This seems like fuel to the critics’ fire – it doesn’t really matter too much exactly what the characters are saying. But in a way, that’s the whole point – Suspiria is filled with strange images & feelings that cannot be conveyed by words, but by sights & sounds. It’s cinema at it’s purest, & quite simply could not work in any other form, unlike so many other "classic" films which could exist quite well in book form. As such, rather ironically since I think this is now the longest review on the site, the words of this review border on the pointless. As one character says – "It’s useless to try to explain it to you. It all seems to absurd, so fantastic." Suspiria cannot be explained or described in mere words, nor can it really be simply watched. It must be experienced & felt. This makes it virtually the definition of a love it or hate it film. But I feel sorry for those who are unable (or unwilling) to let themselves go with the film, for they are missing out on something amazing.
When Anchor Bay released Suspiria on DVD, there were two versions available, the standard single disc, & a three-disc limited edition version of 60,000 copies (plus 10,000 in Canada), that sold out in around a week of release. This version contains the first disc, with all it’s extras (see my review here), plus two other discs. The second disc contains the 52 minute 25th Anniversary celebration featurette, which includes interviews with most of the key people involved in the film, including Dario Argento, Daria Nicolodi, Luciano Tovoli, Goblin, Jessica Harper, Udo Kier & Stefania Casini. This is broken down into different sections dealing with different aspects of the film: The Story, The Director, The Stars, The Score, The Style, Favourite Scenes & Anecdotes, Looking Back. Although this perhaps doesn’t go into quite as much detail as might be liked, there’s tons of interesting stuff, including Tovoli explaining how the Technicolor process was used to create the unusual look of the film, & it will likely please most fans. Amongst the other highlights are Argento & Nicolodi both trying to claim that they came up with the basic story, Casini getting extremely passionate about everything, Harper explaining the difficulties of working on a scene when three different languages are being spoken by the actors, & Udo Kier appealing to Argento to make another film with him. There are plenty more, or course, but me telling you about them just isn’t the same. If you’re a fan of Suspiria, you will want to see this documentary.
The third disc contains a new CD version of Goblins’ soundtrack album. This version includes all but one track that was on the recent complete Cinevox CD issue, with rather more dynamic & richer sound quality. The one track that is missing is a simply Celeste & bells version of the Suspiria theme, which is included with narration on the top (as on the Cinevox CD). This is not a particularly upsetting omission, since this track is only fairly short & quite boringly repetitive. Included on this version but missing from the Cinevox version is the Daemonia version of the main theme, which makes this the best version of this score currently available on CD.
But that’s not all. In addition, you get a 32-page booklet, containing several nice pictures, a brief introduction, & an interview with Jessica Harper that doesn’t cover too much of the same territory as the ones in the documentary. Plus, there are 8 reproduction lobby cards. Sadly, though, the cover artwork is not as attractive as the one for the single disc version, in my opinion. Overall though, if you are lucky enough to find a copy, this release is a Suspiria fans wet dream.