For many years I couldn’t watch horror films. A vivid imagination and a complete belief in the existence of vampires meant sleepless nights and tortured dreams at the mention of Dracula. Confronted with a compulsory film module in ‘Horror and Fantasy’ during my second year at university, this was going to be tricky. No way could I watch any of the horror films on the designated list that started with ‘Night Of The Living Dead’. Told to comply or fail the module, I closed my eyes, pressed my fingers into my ears to muffle the screams and made it all up during the ‘discussion’ seminar.
That was until my tutor whispered in my ear that ‘Suspiria’ was unlike any of the other films. Dario Argento was the master of horror and the surreal. Fact.
Many of the main players in the horror genre pay homage to direcot Argento’s talent, innovation and vision. Check out John Carpenter, Quentin Tarantino, George Romero, James Wan and Brian De Palma, who all cite Argento as one of their influences. Voted No.9 in the Time Out top 100 horror films of all time, ‘Suspiria’, in retrospect, has a few flaws but many more fans. Given 5 Stars by Empire Magazine (that’s in the unmissable category) it is widely considered to be a most deserving classic in the horror genre.
So what is it about ‘Suspiria’, a badly dubbed film with poor production values and a nominal budget, that sets it aside from so many other horror movies? Quite simply, it is the genius of Dario Argento – often compared to Alfred Hitchcock – and his knowingness of how suspense works and its impact on the viewer; combined with the ability to stretch a tight budget in order to make fabulous scenes out of tissue paper and string. Evocative of the gothic and totally surreal in its imagery and deployment of colour, Argento uses a hypnotic soundtrack that makes ‘Suspiria’ a truly terrifying, gruelling and shocking film. Composed by Argento and played by progressive rock band Goblin, this is an eerie and wailing high-pitched cacophony of sounds punctured by the occasional hiss and shriek of the word “witch”. All intended to disturb and disorientate the audience.
Where do I start? A beautiful young American dancer (Jessica Harper) joins a famous ballet school in Germany, but on her arrival during a ferocious storm, she witnesses a gruesome murder. A series of weird and occult encounters, plus more grizzly murders, eventually reveal that the school is a front for an ancient clan of witches. That’s the plot, and all we need to know because the real genius of this film is in that hauntingly effective soundtrack, the images and the art-house devices used to unfold a tale of primordial evil.
Argento uses a psychedelic palette of colours and techniques to tell this story. His sets are steeped in blood red hues – Argento allegedly acquired a stack of 1950s Technicolor film stock in order to capture the correct tones for this film. Escher, art-deco, German Expressionism and flamboyant baroque all meet in the same film, creating decadent scenes that conceal the foul decay of the supernatural at the heart of this story.
‘Suspiria’ is the first film in a trilogy about ‘The Three Mothers’ that Argento planned to roll out one after the other. The second installment was ‘Inferno’ (1980) and the final film ‘The Mother Of Tears’ eventually premiered in 2007. ‘Suspiria’ is the only film in the trilogy that has received critical acclaim, although Inferno has been elevated retrospectively and has been described by Kim Newman as “the most underrated horror movie of the 1980s”.
‘Suspiria’ should be seen on Blu-ray – the sound and picture quality in this medium is superb. Some of the scenes and the effects may seem a little dated now but it is still an intense and deeply disturbing film that is full of beauty nonetheless. I urge you not to view ‘Suspiria’ on Netflix, because this is an edited version of the film and such a masterpiece of its genre deserves to be experienced in all its gory glory.
DIRECTOR: DARIO ARGENTO
STARRING: JESSICA HARPER, STAFANIA CASINI, FLAVIO BUCCI, UDO KIER