Tuesday 3 October 2017

We Don't Go Back #66: Suspiria (1977)

Look, no one who loves Dario Argento's Suspiria (and a lot of people love Suspiria) loves it for the plot. Or the performances. Or for the dialogue, for that matter. I want to get that out of the way from the start. But if you care about the history of genre cinema it's completely essential. In a lot of ways it's an aesthetic motherlode, which taps into the exact period it's a part of. It looks beautiful, and its soundtrack by prog rock act Goblin goes from tinkly and unsettling to screaming walls of noise, and is one of those legendary film soundtracks that you'd buy in its own right (also, it helpfully hisses "WITCH!" at strategic points, just so you know what you're watching). While Suspiria's storytelling is, to put it mildly, somewhat disjointed, it has this solid cultural grounding, in both the 70s witchcraft boom and the way in which European cultural insititutions have these occult foundations that we take for granted. Suspiria doesn't take this stuff for granted.  

But bloody hell.

Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) comes to enrol at a European ballet academy and whoever is at the door won't let her in, and there's this voice on the intercom that's telling her to go away and then there's this girl running through the woods and then she's not in the woods, she's telling a friend she's leaving only then someone's at the window, and before you know it she's stabbed, and then she's graphically eviscerated, and then she's defenestrated and hanged by the neck, just in case the stabbing and the evisceration didn't hold, presumably. And her friend is killed too for good measure by having herself torn to pieces by bits of skylight and then the following morning Suzy comes back and the scary matron Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) is telling everyone the dead girl (but only one mind) was killed by a maniac like this isn't something you would do your absolute best to keep from the new kid. But of course the ballet school is full of witches, murderous witches, amidst a miasma of decay and bloody evil.

It's never a simple thing. Suspiria is a film that goes the extra horror mile. Suzy doesn't faint, she faints and then she's got blood all over her face. A crate of food rots and fills up with maggots, and the maggots cover the entire ceiling of the floor below and rain down on the girls and get in their hair and on their faces. Another victim gets rammed through three panes of glass, covered in blood, gets trapped behind a door, climbs through a high window and falls into a room entirely full of barbed wire and nothing else which is, let me remind you, in the middle of the ballet school. And then she's knifed. And they're still not done with her. The blind pianist (Flavio Bucci) doesn't just get savaged by his own dog, he gets savaged, and then the dog eats him, piece by piece. You know you're in an extreme film when Udo Kier pops up1 and he's in the quiet bit.

Dario Argento is turning it up to seventeen and then seeing if he can add a few notches, every time. I bet this is amazing if you're high. Or possibly traumatising.
All of these things would count as major plot spoilers if the plot made more than the very loosest sequential sense, but the plot really isn't the point. I mean, I'm generally pretty sceptical of style and substance being treated as a dichotomy. The thing is, sometimes style is substance, and you don't need a plot to say things. The whole thing is an exercise in delirium. But it's also a comment on how batshit insane European cultural institutions are at their foundations. The Nobel Prizes are named after the bloke who invented dynamite. The idea of a Swiss ballet school founded by a witch as an occult act isn't actually that weird. Gurdjieff was a ballet teacher, after all, and this is the sort of place he'd have set up; Rudolf Steiner, likewise, called his HQ the Goetheanum for a reason. Early Rosicrucianism was an artistic movement as much as a magic(k)al one. The difference is of course that the high-minded occultism of these men was the occultism of men, but to women is attributed witchcraft, and that we consider to be – and it's misogyny, of course it is – bloody and painful and full of screaming evil and knives and teeth and pins.
Frank Mandel: Bad luck isn't brought by broken mirrors, but by broken minds.
Suspiria is the most famous and best-loved of Dario Argento's films. It is a parade of excess, basically a horror sketch show2 and it looks amazing, with the reddest blood you can imagine, and this amazing candy-coloured lighting scheme.

Suspiria is a rainbow of perversion. A cartoon of horrors. It's exploitative, of course it is, but somehow it goes beyond exploitation into something stranger, more disturbing. It's not exactly a feminist tract, let's be honest, but it does have a protagonist who survives by her wits and courage, without really any help from a guy; Suzy is more than just a Final Girl. Although poisoned and manipulated, she's got the wherewithal to end the evil.
Is it folk horror? Strictly, it is, inasmuch as there's an isolated ballet school in the woods and there's witches and they make a happening, but beyond that it's important to folk horror as a genre. It's essential, as the main signifier of Italian horror cinema's influence on a vast family tree of European cinema. I've already written about Berberian Sound Studio and you can get via a couple of indirect steps to Gore Verbinski's A Cure for Wellness and Carol Morley's The Falling too. I'll be looking soon at Black Swan and The Neon Demon and neither of these are films that you can approach in depth without knowing that Suspiria exists.

On some grounds, you could reasonably say that Suspiria is a terrible, terrible film. But it's also an amazing film. These things aren't mutually exclusive. It's definitely an essential film.

Just, expect blood and pain.

1Young Udo Kier is pretty dreamy actually. Which is a phrase I never imagined I'd ever write. (back)
2I wish I'd come up with that, but that was Jon. Thanks, Jon. (back)