FREAKSHOW Suspiria

Join us every Monday, as we look at a cult movie. Our film of the week this time concerns gruesome murders at a ballet school…

Suspiria poster1977
Director:
Dario Argento
Cast: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci
Available on region one and region two DVD, and on region two Blu-ray
Watch the trailer here

Critics can’t help talking about Dario Argento using musical terminology. His films are described as “operatic” or “balletic”, as “symphonies” or “arias” of outrageous violence. Argento “orchestrates” them, as if he were wielding a baton instead of moving the camera. It’s entirely understandable why they do so, because the conventional language of film criticism is just not the right set of tools for the job when it comes to Argento. His films elude satisfactory description in the same way that it’s impossible to express in words the heart-racing visceral potency of great music and its ravishing effect upon the human nervous system. Argento is, indeed, a maestro. And his greatest work – his magnum opus, if you will – is Suspiria.

The story is simple enough for a child to understand: a blood-soaked “fairy tale for adults”, as Argento put it. American student Suzy Banyon arrives at a German ballet academy. She witnesses a terrified student running away. Later, the student is brutally murdered, as is another girl who spoke to her just before her flight. Inexplicable events occur: a shower of maggots falls into the girls’ bedrooms; the school’s blind piano player has his throat torn out by his guide dog. Suzy eventually discovers that the school’s teachers are a coven, led by a legendary “Black Queen”. She kills the ancient hag, the coven’s power is broken, and the Academy is wiped clean by flames.

This dry recitation of events bears as little relation to the experience of watching Suspiria as looking at the score of Wagner’s Ring das Nibelungen does to hearing it belted out by a full orchestra. Why? Because Argento is the greatest stylist of horror cinema, and Suspiria is an eye-popping maelstrom of visual excess. He uses coloured gels to light scenes in an ever-revolving palette of vivid primary colours, so that, say, a shot of rain falling becomes a shower of blood. The set design is baroque: ornamental staircases, geometric-patterned glass ceilings, Escher murals. Argento’s flamboyant visuals mesh perfectly with Italian rock band Goblin’s bombastic prog score: an astonishing fusion of tinkling music box melody and apocalyptic drums, ominous incantatory whispers and thunderous synth screeches, all blasted out at the volume of a nuclear detonation. Evening Standard critic Alexander Walker memorably described it as “as if 500 cats are having their tails trampled on in unison”.

Argento has the ability to combine savage, brutal sadism with overwhelming sensual beauty. He aestheticises atrocity so successfully that, watching Suspiria, you start to wonder: is this what it’s like to be a killer? To savour the unspeakable? To feel this intoxicating exhilaration? At the same time, it’s like being the murder victim: brutalised, punished, beaten into exhausted submission and finally slayed by Argento’s all-out audiovisual assault.

In this universe, danger is everywhere. Ordinary objects become invested with paranoid significance, pregnant with menace: electronic doors swish shut with an unspoken threat of decapitation; rainwater flooding down a grate becomes a sucking black hole of annihilation. It’s a world where secret rooms lurk behind the walls, filled with glistening shards of broken glass, coils of razor wire, and throat-slitting psychopaths. If you’ve never entered Argento’s dimension, I urge you to take a trip – but be prepared to pay a return visit in your nightmares.

Ian Berriman, reviews editor of SFX and cult movie nut, has watched Jess Franco’s Female Vampire four or five times, but never seen Casablanca. The nutter.

Like cult movies? Then check out Total Film’s regular Trash Talk feature.