Suspiria (1977)

D: Dario Argento
S: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Joan Bennett

If you're looking for a spooky horror tale well told round a cosy fireside, forget it. Dario Argento's opera of death and suspense has one of the least convincing narratives ever put on film. The story is inane, the characters cardboard and the film has nothing to say in the line of cautionary tales of the supernatural for contemporary audiences. But it is a film made with such technical virtuosity and that is so deliberately and resolutely excessive in every possible way that one begins to wonder if that it not precisely the point.

In the wake of the neo-conservative American horror films The Exorcist and The Omen, it seems as if Argento has attempted to reconceive the cinematic palette upon which the genre is based. Using technologically outdated Kodak Technicolour film more commonly used in the 1950s, he presents a world coloured with lurid tones of red, yellow and blue which are used to heighten the artificality of the world in which the film is set and gleefully abandon all pretence of realism.

Instead of crafting a chilling tale of modern urban paranoia as in Rosemary's Baby, a convincing scientific debate on the soul as in The Exorcist, or a contemporary update of myths of the apocalypse as in The Omen, Argento gives us an old-fashioned folk tale of witches lurking in the dark forests of rural Germany: full-bore, full tilt grand guignol mayhem in the tradition of The Bride of Frankenstein and The Black Cat.

American student Jessica Harper arrives at an exclusive dance academy in the depths of the Black Forest in the middle of a ferocious thunderstorm. Though she is turned away at the door and must spend the night in town, she sees a girl fleeing the building in the dark and the rain who is later brutally murdered. Rumours abound, and despite herself she begins to investigate a series of strange goings-on like an adolescent sleuth in a pubsecent's adventure story. When a fellow student who is her confederate is also savagely slain, she redoubles her efforts and finds herself almost hypnotically drawn down long corridoors and secret passageways which lead to an ancient evil.

Despite this literal summation, the film is not at all concerned with the mechanics of plotting, or of uncovering the details of the mystery except in passing. The identity of the murderer is never really established, nor is it important by the time we reach the film's resolution. This is a tale of pervasive corruption and vileness which has nothing to do with the logic of the real world. It is more Red Riding Hood than The Haunting and more Last Year at Marienbad than The Innocents.

From the opening scenes the film is imbued with a heightened sense of terror which stems from Argento's use of extended suspense. Like Hitchcock, he protracts the moment of anticipation and uncertainty until breaking point. Even the completely harmless shots of Harper arriving at the airport and making her way to a taxi are laden with atmosphere (pumped to the extreme by the demented musical score by Goblin which while reminescent of Mike Olfield's Tubular Bells, is more hysterical and nerve jangling than creepy). But unlike Hitchcock, he goes beyond all reasonable expectation in his payoffs with a series of vicous set pieces whose intricacy are as likely to inspire awe as fear and disgust.

The film proceeds like a visual symphony: a series of interrelated harmonies and motifs building to a chorus of mounting climaxes which do not resolve the overall theme. Beautiful widescreen images make full use of the cinematic frame to explore the limits of a subjective perspective, with some disorienting play on identification as the camera creeps forwards towards potential victims at unusual angles and heights. If they represent the perspective of the killer, then the killer is the nameless dread which stalks the characters rather than any particular person. We are asked not to identify with either victim or antagonist, but to immerse ourselves in a garish, surreal landscape, at once familiar and extremely unnerving. Though primarily focused on the power of individual images and camera movements, the film is edited again for maximum disjuncture, alternating traditional shot-reverse-shot patterns with intercutting and montages which produce no consistent style. With the continuing presence of the howling score, the film's rhythm often seems more insistent than it is, with the slow, dreamlike meandering through the corridoors of the girl's school intercut with momentary flashes of pending and actual violence.

Suspiria is a sensory immersion which concentrates on the orchestration of suspense and violence in the name of an exploration of the roots of evil. It delves into the primal depths of a film viewer's experience and emerges not with a cold grip on the soul, but having thoroughly assaulted the nerves. For some this will remain a superficial and exploitative venture. It is extremely violent and one of the most strident and noisy films the genre has ever produced. But it is equally fair to see the film as a necessary redress of the rational, a fundamental evocation of the roots of human terror ­ our fear of being alone in the dark with the unknown. Suspiria works, and the more familiar and predictable the plot becomes, the more we suspend our rational engagement with the details. We find ourselves lost in a mindscape as vivid as our own upon hearing the tale by the campfire, and as we leave the theatre to face the darkness, we can't but feel that uneasy chill that comes with the dying embers.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.