starring Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé
screenplay by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi
directed by Dario Argento
by Walter Chaw At their best, Dario Argento's films are lurid splashes of Hitchcockian reinvention that bristle with audacity and a pornographer's sensibility. He deconstructs the male gaze in the mutilation of beautiful women, taking a moment (as he does in Tenebre, Opera, and Suspiria) to make guerrilla art of their extravagant suffering. Argento's films are generally split between two sub-genres of the slasher flick, each defined to a large extent by his contributions. The first is the giallo, films indicated by their impossibly convoluted mystery plots and elaborate set-piece murders; the second, of which Suspiria is one, is the "supernatural," distinguished by their surreality and lack of a traditional narrative. Known as "The Italian Hitchcock," Argento, as I've said before, is more accurately "The Italian DePalma," in that Argento's imitating reads as homage. And though he occasionally selects sources to ape badly (i.e. attempting to adapt Jeunet and Caro to "Phantom of the Opera"), when he finds the perfect source material to serve as foundation for his redux perversions (Psycho, Vertigo, The Birds, and Rebecca for Suspiria), the end result can be as original as it is discomfiting.
Young Susy Banyon (Jessica Harper), doe-eyed and lovely (and resembling Brooke Adams circa Days of Heaven to a shocking degree), arrives late one blustery night at her new German dance academy, only to be denied entrance. While Susy yells into an intercom, a girl trails half-heard invectives upon exiting the building and disappearing into the Stygian night. When the same girl and her roommate turn up mutilated the next morning, Susy finds herself embroiled in the mystery of their deaths and the dark secret squatting at the centre of her new school.
Suspiria is an amazing film, easily Argento's masterwork and among the best horror films ever made. His main character mostly passive, Argento depends upon the archetypal power of borrowed images (and his ability to riff on those images) to move the film with its own animal logic; once the term "archetype" is dropped, it goes without saying that Suspiria is the stuff of fairy tale and myth (particularly in Suspiria's case, that of "Amor & Psyche"). Going a little deeper than the magnificent gore effects (and the surplus of them) and the expert establishment of tension and peril, the success of Suspiria reaches all the way into collective night and the fear of meaninglessness in the midst of an ephemeral illusion of order.
Suspiria less dreamily recalls Vertigo in its segmentation of women and its colour suffusions; Psycho, in a fixation on bird imagery, first act monetary concerns, and a swirl of vermouth down the drain; Rebecca in its monstrous maid (Olga (Barbar Magnolfi)) and torching of an analogous Manderly; and Suspicion and Notorious in the slow ascents and lingering reveals of doctored libation. How Argento transforms Hitchcock's themes and images can be illustrated using the example of a particularly brutal sequence in which a blind man walking amidst a national monument is attacked by his own dog. Rather than amuse himself with undermining the sanctity of a recognizable setting, as Hitchcock might, Argento has parts of the monument appear to come to life and menace his victims. Similarly, Olga does more than gently suggest to the heroine that maybe suicide would be the best policy (as Mrs. Danvers did in Rebecca): She actually appears to cause brain haemorrhaging and a seeing-eye dog to rip out its master's throat.
Suspiria is a tremendous achievement deserving of the "art" label, but it's not enjoyable in the conventional sense. It is a cruel film, graphic and uncompromising because of the knowledge, imparted often, that Argento has no inhibitions in his treatment of his victims. It is a difficult film as well in that most of its cast has been dubbed from the Italian, that its dramatic sensibilities are foreign besides, and that it is free of the act distinctions and standard plotting of western cinema. Based very loosely on a Thomas DeQuincey essay called "Suspiria de Profundis,"* Suspiria honours the Romanticist author's dedication to surrealism and issues of the unconscious. The first of a projected trilogy (Inferno is the second film, while the third has never been made), Suspiria breathes like a thing possessed: unsettling, deeply disturbing, and artistically and intellectually satisfying. It is a landmark entertainment, and the high water mark for a director who, for an incandescent period of time, sought to elevate the splatter/slasher film into the auspices of high art.
In addition to its invaluable 3-platter Collector's Edition release of the film, Anchor Bay has with considerably less fanfare issued a standard edition of Suspiria as a single-disc addition to their indispensable Dario Argento Collection. Gone is the documentary and experimental electronica group Goblin's grandiloquent soundtrack CD (tribal rhythms, nattering keyboards, human sibilance); remaining is the gorgeous, THX-approved video transfer that does justice to Antonioni cinematographer Luciano Tovoli's astonishing images. Argento's pulp-lurid colour palette explodes like an over-saturated dye rag--the widescreen print is impossibly pristine, with none of the popping and imperfections that might be expected from a source of this age. Some moiré patterns present a minor problem in the early going over ornate black and white wallpaper, but that small complaint aside, Suspiria is a showcase presentation. It will be first in my player when extolling the virtues of the format to prospective buyers. Anchor Bay's typically expert restoration job has hit its pinnacle with this 2.35:1 anamorphic presentation.
Not to be outdone, Suspiria's English dub (in DTS 6.1 ES and Dolby Digital 5.1 EX listening options) sounds like it was recorded in a digital environment a scant few months ago. Rear channels get a healthy workout (particularly in the justifiably lauded opening sequence, with its howling score and raging thunderstorm), dialogue is always clear and distinct while getting equal time in each of the front speakers, and high and low levels are reproduced with no trace of distortion. Though Dolby Surround French and Italian tracks are offered, there is no subtitle track to facilitate their usage.
Remastered 1.85:1 anamorphic American and European trailers are included along with a TV spot and three radio spots, a still gallery containing nearly a hundred fascinating promotional images, and a music video of the "Daemonica" main theme, which comes off in unforgivably cheesy home video fashion. An Easter egg in the special features menu can be accessed through a peacock feather to the right of the title links; it leads to an outtake from an interview with Udo Kier wherein the German actor plays with his microphone. Anchor Bay's typically fantastic biographies do honour this time around to Argento, star Jessica Harper, and co-writer Daria Nicolodi. Originally published: January 19, 2002.
*A hallucinogenic piece that first details DeQuincey's structure of the human unconscious (as a palimpsest) and then posits that the source of the world's sorrows can be traced to three evil mother figures (Mater Lachrymarum, Suspiriorum, Tenebrarum). return