Monday, September 8, 2014

Suspiria: Push It Into The Red

I’m pretty secure with my tastes in scary movies, and because I try to approach stuff on a film-by-film basis, it means I don’t often think in terms of genre. Sure, there are some things on which I’m going to be a harder sell than others (not really a big fan of slasher films, for example), but I try to think about movies as individual pieces of work, rather than examples of a larger style, and not get bogged down in not being sufficiently familiar with a particular style or not. That said, I am aware of particular gaps in my horror film education, and as an aside to all the other stuff I do, I’m trying to familiarize with particular genres or periods or directors with whom I feel like I should be more familiar than I am. I don’t purport to be an expert, but sometimes I feel like I should have a better general knowledge of horror film than I do. One of the genres with which I am pretty much completely unfamiliar is giallo, so I thought it'd be good to educate myself by starting with one of the classics. Namely, Suspiria.

Suzy Bannion is a ballerina from the United States, who has been invited to study at a prestigious ballet academy in Germany. Upon arriving at the school (in the middle of a downpour), she passes a young woman leaving in some state of agitation. The door attendant claims to not know who Suzy is and tells her to go away. She glimpses the girl running through the woods as she drives away in her cab, and we follow the girl to a friend’s apartment. She’s upset about something - terrified, in fact. She doesn't have anywhere else to run.

As it turns out, this dance academy is full of secrets, and the young woman who ran pays a terrible price for her knowledge.

We pick up with Suzy the next morning as she returns to the academy, and immediately she feels wrong-footed and out of place. Her room at the school isn't ready so she’ll have to stay somewhere off-campus, the students seem preoccupied with money, there’s a lot of whispering and some odd hostility toward the new student. It’s a very gothic film in the classic sense of the word - the mood is generally foreboding and overwrought, there’s an ingenue, and a mysterious, imposing structure (in this case a dance academy), filled with strange people with secrets of their own. What sets this film apart is a level of violence not usually found in gothic stories. It isn't especially realistic violence, but what’s signified is certainly explicit enough to be a departure from traditionally gothic horror. I can see how in its time it would be a potent combination for filmgoers new to the idea.

Where Suspiria really works to me is, in fact the way that realism and restraint is, at every level, pretty much pushed out the window along with the poor girl from the introduction. Everything is pushed to extremes sufficient to place it somewhere in the realm of pop art visually and opera narratively. Everything is shot in garish color and deep shadow, with a lot of vivid reds (and I do mean a lot of vivid reds), blues and greens, to a point that looks blatantly artificial. This movie is deeply, deeply stylized. Every location is ornate and almost overdecorated. Given, part of this might have just been the aesthetic of the time in which the movie was made (Europe in the 1970s), but every location leaps off the screen in some way. Even relatively monochromatic scenes blaze with pattern and texture. It’s so artificial that it almost feels like everything is taking place on a set - not even a soundstage, but almost like a theatrical set, which heightens the sense of unreality communicated through the dislocation that Suzy feels among her fellow students, thrown into this strange situation. Even the blood looks less like blood and more like tempera paint, which both fits the palette and continues to communicate this idea that nothing we see is meant to be taken as literal, everything is just a representation, a signifier.

Against this artificiality, the explicitness of the violence is a little surprising, and the juxtaposition of the high style with gross-out moments of stabbing and throat-cutting and mauling is interesting. It somehow manages to be stylish, gross, artificial, and hysteric all at the same time, not feeling exactly like anything else I've seen, while still making clear to me the ways in which it has influenced other films I have seen. Gilderoy in Berberian Sound Studio is as much a stranger at sea in a foreign country as Suzy, dealing with equally rude and opaque people, working on a film that itself is cut from entirely the same cloth as this, and Saw begins to make a lot more sense if we think of it as a North American filtering of the giallo sensibility.

The story is a little spotty, but it almost doesn't matter because what there is is communicated so broadly and at such a pitch that the feeling sells it more than any neatly structured plot would. It's made clear by the end what the secret of this academy is, but without really communicating why the specific things that happen are happening. It’s more the case that a lot of creepy shit is happening and hey, here’s why. That the film doesn't seem overly concerned with making perfect sense sort of helps it in a way. It's more just a framework on which to hang a lot of weird shit, and I have to say, despite how dated this film is in terms of its effects work (ameliorated to a degree by the way the fakeness sort of adds to the whole thing), there are some very striking moments. It may not have survived the decades with its original power fully intact, but the way it pushes itself into the red (in all sorts of ways) with the utter confidence that it’s barreling full-tilt towards batshit insane, it's still a singular statement.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix Instant (Available on DVD)


  1. Are you planning on reviewing the other two movies in the trilogy? Particularly interested in your reaction to the third one, which is pretty much universally derided.

  2. I don't know - I might very well, though, based on how much I enjoyed this.

  3. Suspiria is my favourite horror movie of all time. I vividly remember watching it for the first time. I was sixteen and home alone, and even on an old and worn pan & scan VHS tape it had an unearthly power unlike anything I'd encountered before. I most recently saw it last year, on a huge screen with the band Goblin playing the score live. That was pretty overwhelming.

    I'm not really sure that it's a giallo, though. It's often seen as Dario Argento breaking with the giallo after popularizing it and establishing many of its tropes with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and then busting the whole genre wide open with Deep Red. Giallos don't tend to have a supernatural component, and Suspiria is very consciously set in a world of magic - the movie even clearly demarcates the moment Suzy steps into the supernatural world when she steps out of the airport into a raging storm and Goblin's score kicks into high gear. That cab ride is a real journey into the underworld.

    I think that the second movie, Inferno, is almost as strong. It is even more stylized and artificial than Suspiria and pointedly makes a lot less narrative sense. Unfortunately it's let down slightly by an inferior score by Keith Emerson, less vivid colours because of a different cinematographer and a lack of the Technicolor stock used in Suspiria, and a weak male lead. The third movie, Mother of Tears, is utterly terrible as it was made when Argento was deep into his "total crap" period.

  4. I mean, I know that the genre "giallo" is more than just weird Italian movies about mysterious killers, but I see this lumped in with the movies you mention often enough that I'm willing to consider it part of the same movement/style. Irreversible gets lumped in with the New French Extremity a lot, and it's about as far away from something like Martyrs or even Frontiere(s) as you can get.