Suspiria (1977)

When American ballet dancer Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives at the doors of the Tanzakademie, she is met by Patty Hingle (Eva Axén), a recently expelled student, who is fleeing from the premises while uttering broken phrases. Shortly thereafter, Patty is gruesomely murdered as a fellow dancer becomes an innocent bystander. As the dance academy attempts to regroup, Suzy becomes suspicious of not only the various instructors, but the institution as a whole before discovering it is a front for a more sinister collective: a witches’ coven.

    Tagline: The Most Frightening Film You'll Ever See! / The only thing more terrifying than the last five minutes of this film are the first 90!

    AKA: Chock House (Denmark) / Sasuperia (Japan) / Alarido (Mexico) / Suspirija (Serbia)

Directing:
  • Dario Argento

Writing:
  • Dario Argento
  • Daria Nicolodi

Release Date: 1977-02-01
  • Country: Italy
  • Language: italian | russian | english | german | latin
  • Runtime: 98

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Dario Argento

Director/Writer/Composer/Narrator (voice, uncredited)

Daria Nicolodi

Writer/Actress (Woman at airport - uncredited)

Salvatore Argento

Executive producer

Luciano Tovoli

Cinematography

Franco Fraticelli

Film Editing

Pierantonio Mecacci

Makeup Department (makeup supervisor)

Maria Teresa Corridoni

Makeup Department (hair stylist)

Piero Mecacci

Makeup Department (assistant makeup artist)

Aldo Signoretti

Makeup Department (assistant hair stylist)

Germano Natali

Special Effects

Claudio Simonetti

Composer (as Goblin)

Fabio Pignatelli

Composer (as Goblin)

Massimo Morante

Composer (as Goblin)

Agostino Marangolo

Composer (as Goblin)

Antonio Gabrielli

Assistant director

Jessica Harper

Suzy Bannion

Eva Axén

Pat Hingle

Rudolf Schündler

Prof. Milius

Udo Kier

Dr. Frank Mandel

Alida Valli

Miss Tanner

Joan Bennett

Madame Blanc

Fulvio Mingozzi

Taxi Driver

Renato Scarpa

Prof. Verdegast
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  • Immediately following Deep Red, Italian director Dario Argento considered adapting a work by H.P. Lovecraft to the big screen. Instead of being constrained to another thinker’s ideas, Argento opted to take the American gothic writer’s essence of unseen forces and place them alongside the theories of the unconscious as found in writings of Thomas De Quincey. What results is Suspiria, one of the most authentic presentations of a nightmare dream state ever set to screen. Argento, a consummate stylist known for his giallo mysteries where the detective becomes personally involved with his investigation, borrows the ominous, unbridled, and omniscient presences in Lovecraft and combines them with the theories of one of the earliest and foremost commentators upon unconscious imagery, Thomas De Quincey. In Suspiria De Profundis--published nine years before the birth of Sigmund Freud--De Quincey examines how the mind takes abstract concepts and assigns concrete images to them. It is also in this work that Argento discovered his outline for his trilogy, which Suspiria serves as the opening chapter.

    The British writer states that, as there exists three Fates, three Graces, and three Muses, there is also an equal number of Sorrows: “Mater Lachrymarum, Our Lady of Tears,” “Mater Suspiriorum, Our Lady of Sighs,” and “Mater Tenebrarum, Our Lady of Darkness.” How does Argento visually represent these complex notions to the screen? Wisely, he does not issue us the typical barrage of unconnected, oftentimes (meta)physically impossible cinematic dream visuals, implemented in order for the filmmaker to free him or herself from the bonds of plot feasibility. Instead, Argento creates a very tangible realm with very real, extremely plausible characters in equally believable locales. However, much like an actual dream (as opposed to a cinematically stylized one), the events which take place in Argento’s world deviate ever so slightly from reality, thereby giving them a truly haunting air. For example, maggots fall from the ceiling before we learn that a shipment of rotten fruit stored in the attic is the culprit of the anomaly. The capstone of the director’s vision in this respect is his fashioning a very naïve aggregation of characters, placed in the most unassuming of settings, the culmination of which is--in the director’s words, “an expressionistic fairy tale”--written by Franz Kafka while on LSD.

    Suspiria is flooded with hard images, many of which intentionally, as well as unintentionally, form motifs: triangles are the predominate shape throughout as flowers, sleep, a preoccupation with money, blindness, water, and the color red fill the screen for the duration of the feature. In order to create and sustain a state of naturalistic ambiguity and imbalance akin to dreams themselves, only a handful of these themes are given the slightest logistic validation while many exist in order to sustain and heighten the suspense throughout while others merely exist in order to jar the continuum of the film. Shortly after we enter the academy, we discover a large number of those within the studio’s walls house a preoccupation with money, only later to be granted the insight by Professor Milius (Rudolf Schündler) that “Their [the witches’] goal is to accumulate a great personal wealth.” As such, we are left to deduce that the dance school is a cover for the instructors (the witches) to allocate potential membership. This also legitimizes why the students, after the double murder at the offset of the film, were not relocated or, better yet, immediately sent home atop the fact that we never see one investigator after the initial reporting of the crime. Once this seeming plot ambiguity is resolved, our epiphany acts as a daunting, macabre revelation in that--those not fixated by the almighty dollar or, worse, have reason to believe that something is amiss--are doomed to suffer as we are left applauding Argento’s clever postponement of plot exposition in order to maintain tension through the majority of the film. Yet the aforementioned motif is one of the few which is not juxtaposed, leading to a negation by which the viewer is left with little to help decipher Suzy’s predicament. In a rare instance in which we are permitted out of the academy, Daniel (Flavio Bucci), the school’s blind pianist, is found in a crowded pub immediately after being relieved of duty by the headmistress. The controlled, appeasing compositions which had, only moments before, emanated from the pianist’s fingers are countered by the cacophonous sounds of Schuhplattler dancing (as are the organic movements of the ballet students to the drunken undulations of the folk dancers). Yet, further compounding the dissonance, the following scene has Daniel, now isolated in a barren town square, lost amid a barrage of gray, stone architecture. In the only other instance which takes place outside of the school save for the opening, the hard symmetry of the academy and its décor is set against the rotund buildings which comprise the local university where, perhaps predictably, two scholars are at odds regarding the legitimacy of the occult. To help achieve his harrowing psychological ends, Argento has his cinematographer, Luciano Tovoli, mimic the color schemes found in Walt Disney cartoons as the triad of red, blue, green dominate throughout. Though the former is the preeminent hue of the feature--seen in the guise of entire rooms, fingernails, wine, and blood--the colors, often implemented monochromatically, appear together at the finale, to cunningly effective ends (in the form of a peacock nonetheless), hinting that the source of the film’s dilemma has been omnipresent since we first entered the school. Also in reference to color, the name of the administrator of the academy, Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) stands in staunch contrast to the purported source of Suzy’s difficulties, that is, the “Black Queen,” the head of the witches’ coven. Lastly, Goblin’s score--with leitmotifs including piano and bells, dominating bass rhythms, and chants--is perhaps one of the most remarkable, masterful soundtracks of any film as it helps, helps mind you, direct the reader to some form of stability before it offsets our recently acquired equilibrium once more.

    Much like David Lynch, another master of the cinematic nightmare, Dario Argento--by not issuing a torrent of illogical, unrelated symbols as does Salvador Dalí in his Un chien andalou--but rather a plausible scenario which is thereby riddled with feasible, yet offsetting, events--creates a true nightmare which few have been able to rival (Eraserhead was released the same year). Arguably, a little noticed facet of Suspiria serves as a metaphor for the whole: A brief segment appears in which wallpaper repeating an M.C. Escher print can be glimpsed in the background, patterns which are logistically impossible but nonetheless continue to persist right before our eyes.The soundtrack to Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977) is a very striking piece of music. First of all, because it has a very recognisable main theme to it, but also because it is one of the most experimental soundtracks that I've ever heard. This offers the listener a very interesting sound experience, since the music always walks a thin line between easily accessible and highly complex.

    The version of the soundtrack I am reviewing is a release from 1997 on the original Cinevox label, which features four bonus tracks, which were previously unreleased and thus were missing on the original Cinevox record from 1977.

    If you have seen Suspiria, you probably already noticed that the music is slightly offbeat, which offcourse matches the style of the film very well, but also when taken out of context this music offers a challenge to the ear. In fact, when listening to the record without having to concentrate on the images at the same time you'll discover how cleverly the soundtrack is constructed and that the complexity of it is only a clever illusion.

    What makes this music sound complex, is the fact that Goblin used layers within their music. Take the record 'Witch' for instance. This one starts out with some fast paced drums, adds some frantic voices and after a little break there's a high pitched, screeching keyboard being added, but all of the instruments don't seem to interact with eachother, thus creating a complex sound - which is actually not that complex if you would listen to the instruments seperately.

    This seems to be the formula that Goblin used on this album, since we hear the same thing going on in the records 'Sighs' and 'Markos', only with different instruments. On these two records you can also hear another technique that Goblin used to create their offbeat sound. Normally the bass and the drums are the base of a song and the keyboards and / or guitars are the melodic solo elements which draw the most attention. On these two records however Goblin turned this hierarchy upside-down. This results in a base which is played by the keyboard, while the bass and the drums are used more freely and get to diversify. So what Goblin is mainly doing is playing with the way we are used to listen to music.

    Not all records on this album are this experimental though. There's the accessible and catchy main theme for instance and groovy, jazzy, atmospheric tracks like 'Black forest' and 'Blind concert'. In fact, these last two would sound great in a film like À Bout de Souffle or Taxi Driver. This is what is really nice about this album. Even when you take the music out of context it still sounds very nice and inspiring.

    Like I already mentioned, this release includes four bonus tracks. The first one is an arrangement of the main theme for celesta and bells and really lets the main theme have it's moment. There isn't any development in the music however, so it's more of a mood piece, than a composition.

    The second bonus track is the same, but with a narration over it - which I am still trying to figure out, since I can't hear what is being said, but it obviously has something to do with the plot of the film. The third is a mysterious intro to the main theme. It's mysterious since the intro to the main theme in the film itself is the record 'Opening to the sighs'. The fourth and final bonus track is an alternate version of the record 'Markos'. It doesn't really sound much different, except for some minor changes in the arrangement of the song.

    The only criticism I have on this album are the tracks 'Death valzer' and the second bonus track. The reason for this is that both these tracks are diegetic, i.e. music that stems from within the film. The record 'Death valzer' for instance is the music that is being played by the blind pianist during the rehearsal in which Susie faints. I consider the second bonus track diegetic, because it refers to the plot of the film and therefore cannot be seen apart from the film. This offcourse goes for all of the records on the album to some extend, since they were at least inspired by the film, but the other records on the album are all non-diegetic.

    The Suspiria album maintans a nice balance between accessible and experimental, but never becomes either boring or a cacophony. Even without the film, this music is very interesting and will last you a long time. I'm sure you'll have fun figuring out the mechanisms behind the tunes and trying to get a grip on them. Definitely worth tracking down.

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