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Where Terror, Awe And Rapture Fuse: Dario Argento's Suspiria
Jimmy Martin , October 15th, 2010 10:21

On the eve of Cigarette Burns' screening of Suspiria, Jimmy Martin explains why Dario Argento's masterpiece is the cream of occult horror

Whether it’s cheap thrills or hypnotic beauty one’s looking for, it’s hard to think of a finer vintage of giallo than the mighty Suspiria, a gloriously lavish occult fairy tale with an exquisitely savage bite, So dramatically does Dario Argento’s dreamlike, expressionistic 1976 piece-de-resistance, in which Jessica Harper uncovers a witches coven at the heart of a Munich ballet school, loom over all else in horrordom,and so loved is it by aesthetes and gorehounds alike, that its weaknesses seem irrelevant. Indeed, fans of this claret-splattered revelation, this one included, have a habit of waving their hands dismissively whenever anyone tries to criticise it, so transfixed are we by the feverish, sadistic set-pieces and the haunting primary colour hues.

Even if we were to discount, as is only sensible, the dimbulbs who frantically type piercing insights of the 'OMG so unrealistic lol so obviously red paint' variety onto youtube comments forms, there's plenty to criticise in Suspiria. Were all but the most ardent trash aficionado to have any other film described to them with the proviso that the plot, characterisation and dialogue should be all but totally ignored, scepticism would indeed be the natural reaction. Yet still, that’s pretty much what we have on our hands here. Besides a clumsy if compelling bit of exposition about two-thirds of the way through, there is no plot in Suspiria, at least beyond one that can be explained in about fifteen seconds. Dialogue trundles from the characters like a clapped out Reliant Robin throughout, with non-sequiturs and stilted exchanges in clumsy abundance. The cast were performing the material in as many as four different languages in any one scene, and in one case a German-speaking actor was forced to tug on Jessica Harper’s skirt off camera whenever he’d finished reciting a line, so she’d know it was time for her to speak, thus meaning that the dubbed voices often err on the side of the hammy and pantomime-aligned. We get to know nothing about any of the characters, or even why the ballet students appear to be forever behaving like a bunch of over-excitable teenagers despite being all well into their twenties. The cornball narration that starts the movie is ill-advised at best. Still more, the gravitas of the final, nerve-jangling climax is rather endangered by the cackles and boisterous threats of a dubbed voice more resembling those of a psychotic Scooby Doo villain than the horrifying leader of a coven.

But of course, as Nigel Tufnel would have it, that’s nit-picking. Yet more, uncannily, almost all of this actually contributes to Suspiria’s phantasmagorical spell. The overhanging plotlessness only brings more impact to the grandiose set-pieces, as if the audience are stuck in some genuinely nightmarish place devoid of narrative and reason. What’s more, the unsettling, otherworldly atmosphere of the ballet school can’t help but owe much to the fact that its inhabitants recite their lines as if they’re reading them off the script for the first time. Moreover, the childish behaviour of the ballet students is there by design: Dario Argento originally set the story in a school for children, yet when he perhaps wisely decided to change the characters to adults, much of the dialogue remained as was, and he even moved the set around to make the cast resemble children in an intimidating adult environment, with door knobs heightened to add to the unsettling ambience of a movie whose primary influence was the Disney version of Snow White And The Seven Dwarves. Even the hammy dubbed voices contribute to both a heightened sense of drama and a potent hysteria that adds a welcome extra layer of Grand Guignol to the proceedings. Whatever dark forces Argento and his then girlfriend and co-conspirator Daria Nicolodi were drawing on, the alchemical processes that take place in this film have rendered it an inhabitant of a bizarre realm far removed from kitsch and even genre.

The beauty of Suspiria, in essence, is not so much that this film is an epic and heartening triumph of style over substance. More so, the style of this film is the substance, the vivid, dreamlike Technicolor of the lighting, the overwhelming opulence of the sets, the wild, thundering majesty of the soundtrack and the elaborate choreographics of the bravura set-pieces weaving an intoxicating spell unlike any other movie. Lost in the stain-glass-strewn halls, the ludicrously ornate art deco of the teachers lounge, in the deep red corridors or in the dark blue labyrinths of the school’s further reaches, boundaries between characters surroundings and motivations are blurred. So fully realised is the ornate and gloriously unsettling environment of the school, It’s hard initially to believe that the building wasn’t built specifically for the film itself, Just as its hard to imagine any other movie with such an embarrassment of visual riches to be savoured upon, or one that manages to brutally evoke the visceral and the abject while also dealing out aesthetic beauty in a manner that rivals the comparatively wafty like of Elvira Madigan.

And of course, this is barely to mention Goblin’s score, which works in uncanny tandem with the movie to create a uniquely terrifying and surrealistic aura. Much of this, as we know, is down to the band creating the music first, allowing Argento to draw atmospheric inspiration from it onset. Yet the manner in which Goblin’s violent and intensely rendered collision between ornate progressive flourishes and wild, raw experimentation marries with Argento’s vision marks a powerful and beguilingly potent aesthetic marriage. Subtlety may not be Goblin’s strongest hand, but one need only compare the much-derided Keith Emerson’s contribution to Argento’s subsequent Inferno to put it into context: The old Hammond-stabber’s perfectly acceptable if rather more subtle and refined score somehow completely fails to rival the dark malevolence that Goblin’s raw, hallucinatory drones and percussive ballast effortlessly conjure up.

Inevitably, however, just as specific naming and shaming of this celestial bloodbath’s weak points ultimately proves futile, and as much as one tries to pick its exquisite domain to pieces, this is a film whose appeal cannot easily be quantified: It’s a feverishly atmospheric world to step into, an aesthetic hex that intoxicates the senses, 93 minutes where terror, awe and rapture fuse and become one. Like a childhood memory of the Disney films and the fairy tales Argento drew inspiration from, the otherworldly and enchanting ambience of Suspiria will lurk in a suitably menacing and magisterial fashion in the darker reaches of our subconscious for many a midnight to come.

The magic is ever-present, indeed.

Although, needless to say, there’s a Hollywood remake on the way.

_Cigarette Burns Cinema is screening Suspiria at Dalston Rio on Saturday Night. For more details click here.