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Dario Argento’s Suspiria: A Visual and Aural Masterwork

Italian horror maestro Dario Argento has built his reputation on gore, and his 1977 classic Suspiria doesn’t disappoint. But with Suspiria, Argento not only brought a fairy tale to life, but created a film whose every frame looks like a nightmarish expressionist painting.

Argento drew inspiration from a plethora of sources, including Victorian literature, ancient mythology, and (oddly enough) Disney’s seminal Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). The final product is a cacophony of primary colors, a raucous blend of tense silence and strident noise, whose dubbed language track and unlikely scenarios reveal the utter dissonance between reality and fantasy.

Watching the film is like stepping into a nightmare. Some American critics have disparaged its surrealism, bemoaning the unreality inherent in all aspects of the film’s plot—but frankly, the filmmakers never set out to make a realistic horror picture. Argento says in the film’s 25th anniversary documentary, “For Suspiria I was inspired by…everything that German Expressionism means; dreams, provocations, unreality, and psychoanalysis.”

The film follows beautiful, childlike Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) from New York to Freiburg, Germany, where she attends the Tanzakademie, a world-renowned ballet school behind whose closed doors witchcraft and black magic rule. The teachers (veteran actors Joan Bennett and Alida Valli) are off-putting from the beginning. The students are immature and act peculiarly.

The original script dealt with young girls, aged eight to ten—but obviously the production companies couldn’t allow children to be maimed and murdered on screen. Thus Argento’s cast is largely in their early twenties, but they act and are treated like small children, which adds another layer of unreality to the film.

In one of the first scenes in the school’s dressing room, a student named Olga (Barbara Magnolfi) sits down next to Suzy and chants, “Suzy, Sara. I hear names that begin with the letter ‘S’ are the names of snakes!” This prompts an almost-eroticized but juvenile battle between Olga and the misfit Sara: they stick their tongues out and lunge back and forth in front of Suzy. It’s bizarre behavior for women in their twenties, but it makes weird sense here.

Further, Argento placed doorknobs on the set at head level and enlarged set pieces to dwarf the actors, creating the feeling that the students are children lost in an adult’s demented playground.

Suzy becomes convinced the school’s teachers are witches, and that they will stop at nothing to kill her (in this she is of course correct). In the final confrontation, in which Suzy finally deciphers the lunatic ravings of a murdered student and discovers a secret room in the depths of the school, Suzy battles the ultimate in evil.

According to Argento and co-writer (and Argento’s ex-wife) Daria Nicolodi, Suspiria was the first of the Three Mothers trilogy. Inspired by the works of opium-addicted author Thomas De Quincey, the Three Mothers are “the Sorrows,” whose influence is like to the mythological Parcae, in whose loom the threads of fate entwine. Writes De Quincey, “The second sister is called Mater Suspiriorum, Our Lady of Sighs…Her eyes, if they were ever seen…would be found filled with perishing dreams and wrecks of forgotten delirium” (McDonagh 136).

It’s obvious Argento and Nicolodi put massive research into the film and its origins, and once aware of the story of the Three Mothers, it becomes clear the evil in Freiburg is truly that of Mater Suspiriorum. Argento’s later works Inferno (1980), and Mother of Tears (2007) are about Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness, and Mater Lachrymarum, the Mother of Tears.

Argento claims he was visually inspired by Snow White, by the color contrast and expressionistic lighting. The film is, of course, a children’s classic whose source material, a Grimm fairy tale, was gruesome, grotesque, and downright scary. Argento plays with Snow White’s bright colors and contrast, but of course where Disney added talking animals, adorable dwarves, and a bright, sing-songy soundtrack to eliminate the terror of the Grimm tale, Argento’s film remains a thing of horrifying surrealism.

Suspiria was one of the last films printed with the expensive and time-consuming Technicolor process; cinematographer Luciano Tovoli “begged” to use the last Technicolor machine in Rome, to great effect. “To intensify the contrast of the colors, we took out a filter used to soften the borders so that every color could remain absolutely pure. We didn’t worry about having perfect borders, as it made it even more unrealistic,” says Tovoli. The result is a harrowing blend of garishly bright colors, starkly contrasted shadow and light, and decadent, beautifully shot 1970s-era sets.

The film’s soundtrack is like none other. At the time, it was apparently a common practice in Italian production to film without a soundtrack, then to dub the dialogue and foley over later.

American actress Jessica Harper, who played Suzy, notes that many of the actors didn’t speak English, and there were sometimes three different languages being spoken in one scene. Sometimes it’s painfully obvious the actors’ voices are incorrect, and the voice actors who did the dubbed dialogue sometimes over-act intensely—creating a strange break between audience and story. While this could be distracting, it ultimately adds to the weird feeling of the movie.

Finally, the film’s musical soundtrack is by The Goblins (who later shortened to Goblin) with Argento’s cooperation. It is a brilliant cacophony of silence and noise, of beeps and boops, thrumming violins, chanting and screeching voices, pounding heartbeat drums, and forceful guitar and mandolin whose rhythms are so repetitive they would become annoying if they weren’t so extraordinary and interesting.

As a genre that notoriously arouses the senses with graphic violence and sex, horror has an immense impact on audiences. Horror movies are infamous for their depravity of subject matter and cheap production values, and plenty of horror flicks are downright ugly to watch. But Dario Argento’s 1977 classic Suspiria is, among other things, a visual and aural masterwork—mixing the surreal, the terrifying, and the beautiful with unforgettable results.

The film is available in a 2-disc special edition from Amazon.com

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