Originally posted over at Alexander's blog on December 15, 2008.
In Dario Argento's greatest motion picture, Suspiria, every blade of variegated light reaches out and stabs the viewer with a brilliantly calculated precision that is, all by itself, exceptionally haunting. In Argento's relentless scare-fest, every note of the alternative-progressive Italian rock group Goblin's alarmingly terrifying score serves both literally and figuratively as notes on a musical staff, the greater and most ambitious of which is the film's entire multi-pronged construction. Argento's intensely driven desires result in a picture not just of stunning frights springing from the depths of personal, physical and palpable despair but an impeccably-formed picture. Whether interpreted as single-minded obsessiveness as an artist or the ascendancy of that artist's talents, Suspiria nevertheless represents the height of its maker's powers, the apex of his artistic worth.
The son of the highly influential Italian film producer Salvatore Argento, Dario Argento cut his teeth with great commitment as a filmmaker representing the genre of giallo (veritably, “yellow” in Italian, finding its cinematic meaning from the luridly sallow dust jacket covers of Italian pulp detective fiction), beginning with his first picture, 1970's The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. Giallo's focuses on sensationalistic crimes and occurrences would be an ideal breeding ground for Argento's twisted odysseys. His first movie introduced audiences to what would become thematic touchstones for Argento, which helped to give him the moniker of the "Italian Hitchcock": usually men playing the role of amateur detective, witnessing the violent demise of or attack upon a woman, and frequently finding themselves under suspicion for the ghastly crime(s) by the police.
What Suspiria partly marks is Argento's progression as a filmmaker, and the continuous drifting from pulpy detective archetypes, such as in his second picture, The Cat O' Nine Tails (1971), and bringing forth a purified distillation of the horror/supernatural facet of Deep Red (1975). Deep Red foreshadows Argento's plunge into sheer horror, whereas earlier pictures The Cat O' Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1972) display manipulations of the medium of cinema that push the boundaries of the constructions and formulations of cinematic time, plot, space and format that would serve as practical tools with which Argento could create a dreamlike (or rather nightmarish) picture. That film would be endowed with unbridled frankness, lacking in the restrictions that can and often do undermine such efforts.
After setting the time and place with a superfluous but unmistakably arresting formal declaration of the time—in a manner not dissimilar from Hitchcock's introductory notes in Notorious and Psycho—Suspiria opens with a gloriously grisly and histrionic murder. A young, beautiful woman is terrified by the recent happenings of her spiraling life with which she has become all too familiar. Finally she looks through a window, her eyes' moistly swimming and brimming with unadulterated terror. Suddenly an arm bursts through the glass and pulls her. Just as certainly, the viewer is pulled into the tale. The circumstances of the woman's shocking death are incredible, leaving a witness standing in the place of the audience dumbfounded and ushering in the doubtlessness of the supernatural as a decisive force within the framework of the narrative. It is with an overpowering sense of directorial manipulation and control that Argento spreads the lingering importance and relevance of such spellbinding set-pieces, atmospherically pushing the limits of spine-tingling spectacle. This most crucial characteristic of the film is thus immediately established.
Suspiria may be superficially about witches and witchery—derived in no small measure from Argento's fascination with Disney's Snow White and the allegorical trappings of the film's fair princess protagonist Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) being victimized by her metaphorical sisters (other young women) as well as more macabre forces—but its thematic undercurrents are largely about sisterhood, and spiritual awakenings. These are matters innately pertinent to tales of ghosts, ghouls and witches, however, emanating from the haunted environs like fearsome, unresting spirits. In Suspiria, the place of anagogic tumult—creating the conditions for the destruction of the ontic and tangible—is a famous German dance school, but the cadaverous and diabolically elaborate structure, from within and without, is as grandly flagitious and malevolent as the most imposing haunted house. And it is the linkage with that sub-genre where Suspiria finds much of its mood, characterized by long, sustained sequences of wordless terror and fiendish revelation. Shrouded whispers juxtaposed with pulse-pounding horror are richly unsettling at all times and Argento refuses to merely allow his vehicle to coast, driving the film's mounting dread with an awesome alacrity. Yet the commonplace, everyday fears of individuals are the hatchery from which Argento finds the more acutely realized visages of fear, transfixing the wholly captivated attention of the viewer against the diamantine backdrop of garish reds and translucently beryl blues.
That outlandish color scheme by Argento and his cinematographer Luciano Tovoli was considered to mimic the storybook unreality of the splashy coloring of the aforementioned “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Argento described the origins of the color scheme with this very important parallel parable: “We were trying to reproduce the color of Walt Disney's Snow White; it has been said from the beginning Technicolor lacked subdued shades, was without nuances—like cut-out cartoons.” The cumulative potency of the color scheme is magnificent, puissantly aiding Argento in chronicling the gripping tale of demonic evil. In one breathtaking shot after another, Argento allows the asperous obstructions to create a retina-taxing light show—the obstructions enabling him to create those blades of light against dark, shadowy penumbras. In a dynamic manner, Argento inverts many an expectation by making the camerawork only more furtive as the film proceeds, until finally certain bloody occurrences appear before the viewer. Buffeting the spectator with credulous performances, devilish whispers accompanied by eerie musical chords by Goblin and the efficacious usages of lashings of rain, cacophonous thunder, Argento's picture is an exquisitely composed assault on the senses.
The camera work is regularly scintillating in its parallax ramifications. Yet it is also quite frequently disorienting, causing greater discomfort and uneasiness. In one consummately fluid camera movement, Poseidon's Trident is directly, straightforwardly made the focal point of the camera. This pointed configuration, painted in crimson, fantastically portrays the inner truth of the picture, the central point of which is that souls are at stake. Appearing to be the Devil's property, this trident pitchfork is finally cast against the serene coolness of a pool below it, in which the protagonist princess swims with her only good friend at the dancing school, the porcelain-skinned redhead beauty named Sara (Stefania Casini), drawing the frightening implication that they are being brought baptismally into a most sinister nest of satanic iniquity. The unnerving hysteria produced by the elemental components of the picture here unabashedly curdle into the headlong climactic struggle between good and evil.
Argento's iconic cult film statement about inspiring sheer fear from his audience is understandable for those who have braved Suspiria's torrential downpour of aesthetically sumptuous and adventurous horror. Argento is routinely quoted as saying that he wanted to exceed the 375 centigrade degree experience of fear for the audience, reaching a 400 centigrade. With Suspiria, Argento grabbed a hold of a wide canvas and utilized every last nook and cranny. His utensils are varied and precisely applied, as diverse as Goblin's nerve-shattering score to an army of descending maggots symbolizing the rot of humanity to the aplomb of Alida Valli to noir dame goddess Joan Bennett in her last film role, and he makes opulent use of everything in his arsenal. The film he created from these disparate pieces is astonishing in its texture, terrifically resonant in its afterglow. This is cinema of the visceral, of the vibrantly chimeric, of the connaturally aware. Built on the very foundational quiddity of penetrative fear, Suspiria is a cinematic maelstrom, seemingly originating from the very innermost abysm belonging not merely to Argento but to all who bravely dare to peer through subfuscous trappings of the soul.