Friday, 21 September 2012

Suspiria (1977)

As we head towards October, the season of the witch, it seems right that we celebrate some midnight horror films. And what better place to start than Suspiria, Dario Argento's art-house horror masterpiece from 1977. I remember seeing this at the Scala in King's Cross on the back of a late night double bill with Driller Killer. This was when you could smoke in cinemas, bring in cans of red stripe and get the nightbus home. Naturally it was full of blokes.

The movie is a prime example of a Giallo, the lurid Italian horror genre of the 60s and 70s of which Argento was a prime mover and shaker. Indeed Suspiria's intense colours and hyper sense of reality make it one of the best looking horror films ever made. Argento brings a classic style and depth of vision to the simple but effective storyline. What the movie has in style, it matches in suspense, compounding terror and hysteria. Suspiria bites hard with plenty of look away moments. It's not for the faint hearted.

The story is set in a Munich ballet school for girls. Suzy (a skull-like Jessica Harper) arrives one night off the plane in a nightmarish storm and heads for the Freiburg dance school where she has a placement. There she takes classes under the imposing Miss Tanner (Italian 1940s starlet Valli) while the faculty is run by the civil but curt Madame Blanc. And when expelled student Pat gets (very) brutally murdered by a mysterious black gloved hand, things take a turn for the strange and grotesque. Sure enough it's not long before Suzy discovers some pretty freaky things going on at Freiburg...

It's fair to say Argento eschews a believable narrative in favour of dragging out as much tension and chills as possible from the plot. We are deep in supernatural territory here and anything goes especially the surreal. Everything is aimed towards unsettling the viewer and if you love being scared then that's what you tune in for.

Italian prog rock band Goblin provide one of THE great horror soundtracks, an eerie lullaby that really hangs around after the final reel. Suspiria was one of the last films to use Technicolour, and primary colours are intensified beyond belief throughout the film. The dark blue silks of the walls inside the academy look plush and opulent whilst the blood red hallways outside the girls dorms are foreboding. The film is shot using anamorphic lenses which stretch the action across the screen and this heightens the senses further. Argento does not stint on the scares or macabre either. Maggots fall through the ceiling on the unsuspecting girls and beware the snarling crazed dog of the blind piano player. At one point Suzy and room-mate Sara go for a late night swim in the large ornate swimming pool in the academy basement. It's a superb example of mounting suspense and exploitation of the girls' vulnerability.

Argento's roving camera is always up for a strange angle in the name of art, tracking, panning, zooming constantly. Sometimes we see the action as a reflection from the other side of a mirror say, or a window. Mirrors and windows are continuing motifs throughout the film, whether broken or intact. The art direction as a whole in Suspiria is on point. Argento fills his scenes with art deco Italian furniture and wallpapers. In fact the whole films looks like that other great Italian art deco film, Bertolucci's The Conformist.

You can see echoes of Suspiria's style in Tony Scott's (RIP) 80s vampire flick The Hunger. The film also heavily influenced music videos trends from the early 80s, especially in those made by Julien Temple for The Rolling Stones and Depeche Mode. And Darren Aronofsky owes a huge debt to Suspiria to great effect in his own giallo of 2010, Black Swan. 35 years after it was made Suspiria still has the power to shock and scare the wits out of anyone who watches it. For fans of the genre, you can't ask for more than that.

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