Suspiria (1977)

*. I suspect I was like most other people in being blown away by Suspiria the first time I saw it. I still love it — though I’ll stick with Deep Red as Dario Argento’s masterpiece — but today I find it less raw and more overcooked.
*. I remember how genuinely scary it was the first time. Just the hissing sound of the sliding door as Suzy (Jessica Harper) exits the airport made me jump. Now all of that seems incredibly silly. Loveable, but silly. I mean, I always thought the bat that’s the size of a football was silly, but now everything seems like that.
*. Just by the way: despite being standard props in horror films since forever, probably even before Dracula, has there ever been a scary movie bat? Or even a whole flock of bats, as in Nightwing?

*. It’s very much a picture of its time and place, and I’m not just talking about the snazzy decor. The colour, for example, is straight out of Bava, but takes that master of the primary palette even further. Do the colours in this film make any sense at all? Sometimes whole rooms are alternatively washed in reds and blues and greens without any source for these colours in sight. I mean, it’s one thing to ask “Why is this room all red?” and another to ask “How did this red room turn green all of a sudden?”

*. Then there is the sound, which, as was common for Italian films like this at the time, was mostly done post-production. Along with the dramatic colour shifts, stagey set design, and other random elements (the dog attack clearly done by a puppet dog’s head, for example), this gives the proceedings an extra sense of artificiality.
*. The results are profoundly disorienting. Watching the film again I had completely forgotten that Udo Kier was in it. But appearing in a bit part, wearing a wig and with a dubbed voice, he isn’t as recognizable as he usually is. To be honest, and this is the disorienting part, I thought for a moment that he was playing Ms. Tanner (actually Alida Valli) in drag. She’s one scary instructor, all flashing eyes and grinning teeth, but she doesn’t seem out of place in the School of Freaks. Just look at how spooky the caretaker Lurch and little Albert are, and they don’t even have any lines.

*. It’s not much of a story. Apparently it drew inspiration from Thomas De Quincy, but the connection there may have only existed in Argento’s mind. I think it holds together though as being much more than just a series of scary sequences, as much as these stand out. You can’t look to the plot for coherence, or any explanation of what those glowing eyes are, or why the school has a room full of razor wire. What unites it is that bizarre visual and aural texture. The wallpaper that looks like fabric and the windows that seem to be all stained glass, with the crazy music of Goblin not so much providing cues as just keeping us on our toes throughout. I know some people who don’t like the score, but I have a hard time imagining Suspiria without it.
*. I’ve tried to think of some clever way of describing Goblin’s soundtrack but I couldn’t come up with anything. They’re hard to pin down. I’ve often heard them described as a “prog rock” group, but prog (or progressive) rock is a label I’ve never seen defined in any meaningful way. A lot of different bands have been called prog rock but I’m not sure what it refers to.

*. It’s weird. It’s silly. It’s brilliant. I love it. I don’t know how influential it’s been though. Despite being remade forty years later I don’t see it as having had many imitators. Even the rest of Argento’s work — some of which I like very much and rate even higher than I do Suspiria — pales alongside it. I’ll call it a classic as it fits one of my chief criteria for that label, being a movie I can watch over and over and enjoy every time.

2 thoughts on “Suspiria (1977)

  1. Tom Moody

    Goblin’s Suspiria score counts as progressive rock, if you define “prog” simply as the combination of classical structure & instrumentation with rock guitar/drums/bass. The piano and chimes in the main theme, playing a stately arpeggiated chord pattern, meld with jammin’ (syncopated) mandolin, and eventually bass and drums enter the mix. The tuned drums and vocal wails sound more free-form and might be classed as psychedelia, but a lot of prog contains “psych” elements. It’s a very original and inspired soundtrack, so it hurts a bit to classify it as prog compared to something like Keith Emerson’s Inferno score, which uses a more obvious trick of playing Verdi’s Va Pensiero in 5/4 over a rock drum kit. (I hope you write about Inferno at some point — it’s my fave Argento.)

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Thanks Tom! I’m not that musically literate and the label prog rock has always confused me. I’ve never been quite sure what it referred to. What you say here helps! I haven’t seen Inferno in years so notes on that might be a while. I really want to do Deep Red sometime because that’s one of my all-time favourites.


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