On Friday the main screen of the Empire in Leicester Square will fall to an eerie silence. Fans will wait with ‘bated breath’, for the glimpse of FrightFest the 13th’s guest of honour: the legendary horror director Dario Argento. Be warned drop even a pin, and it will be heard.
In this FrightFest series ‘Celebrating Argento’, Ian and Jordan have celebrated the two Argento masterpieces: Profondo Rosso and Tenebrae. I have chosen to take a stab at another: Suspiria.
The film’s plot unfolds as American student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives at the famed dance academy in Germany. The night of her arrival coincides with the murder of one of the students at the hands of a serial killer. Settling into her studies, Suzy encounters any number of strange goings on, falls ill and recovers without explanation. She befriends Sara (Stefania Casini) who was best friends with the murdered student, and is trying to uncover the secret that her friend had stumbled upon. Sara’s sudden disappearance leads to Suzy being the one to uncover both the secret, and a terrible plot that targets her.
Suspiria was the film that introduced me to Dario Argento and if anything, it was a baptism by fire. Since then I have watched Profondo Rosso and Tenebrae, neither of which I dare say delivered the same stark experience. From its fabled 14 minute opening, through to its conclusion, with its use of colour and sound, Suspiria is an assault on the senses, burning the film into your sub-conscious mind’s eye like a record; playing on a never-ending loop.
The discussion of Argento’s use of colour cannot be avoided in any retrospective of the movie. He continues his fascination with the primary colour palette, notably red, which is evident in Profondo Rosso. In this, his supernatural classic, white and red are effectively used to offset one another, identifying spaces of safety and danger. Instantly the dance academy is perceived as a nightmarish space because of its pre-dominantly red colour scheme, surrounding the heroine in her white nightgown. The colour red also intrudes on, and constantly threatens, the natural colour palette of the film. Argento deliberately uses red and white for Suzy’s attire, white to reflect her innocence, and red to connect his protagonist with the fairy tale character Little Red Riding Hood; both heroines in danger.
One of the undeniable charms of the movie is Argento’s use of the fairy tale: the young virginal, innocent woman stalked by evil forces who uses her ingenuity to outwit her predators, and at the conclusion of the story confronts and defeats the evil. The film serves as a reminder of how fairy tale and horror complement each other, though this is not surprising considering the dark origins of the fairy tale in the works of the Brothers Grimm.
What struck me in watching this film again was its willingness to disregard both realism and its existence as a film; dreamlike and more a projection of pure imagination. When the film ends, it is as if we wake up, though not from a dream, but from a nightmare. We have seen neither a film, nor an attempt to represent reality. We have been exposed to pure imagination.
Suspiria’s murder sequences are full of excess, but Argento does not save as the expression goes the best for last. Rather he shows us his capacity for bloodletting violence at the outset, staging his opening murder as if he were directing a performance on the stage of the Grand Guignol.
His first victim is attacked by a supernatural force, held against the glass and stabbed repeatedly, before she is gruesomely disembowelled. A cord is tied round her neck, and slowly she comes crashing through the stained glass ceiling, at first just her head, but once the glass breaks she falls, her body hanging from the cord round her neck. Argento’s camera then comes to rest on the final horrific image of the sequence. The friend lays dead, a piece of stained glass protruding from her cranium.
This horror classic is reminiscent of a piece of art. As excessively violent as it may be, he captures the beauty hidden in the brutality. The images are beautifully composed, the murder scenes full of nerve biting tension – the evil so ambiguous that we are cast into an experience of fearing the unknown.
So, it is a film that should be remembered most all for the unique experience it offers, an experience his other masterpieces cannot offer. It is a film that assaults your senses, etching itself onto your sub-conscious so that you never forget having experienced Suspiria.