Suspiria (1977) ***
Suspiria really isn’t the right place to begin talking about Dario Argento. True, it is one of his best-known and most highly regarded films, but it derives its greatest significance from the departure it marked from his earlier work, and a complete understanding of it therefore requires at least some basic familiarity with its predecessors. On the other hand, Argento’s post-Suspiria career is now much longer and certainly more varied than his early giallo period, and to judge from all the anticipation and speculation that followed Mother of Tears throughout its long and troubled gestation, the loose trilogy of which Suspiria forms the opening chapter is viewed by many of Argento’s fans as the director’s magnum opus. From that perspective, Suspiria becomes not merely its creator’s first branching out beyond the gialli that established his reputation, but indeed the pivot-point of his whole career. So while Suspiria may not be the best place to start, it definitely isn’t the worst, either.
Furthermore, whatever else Suspiria might be, it is almost certainly the film that created the most confusion for English-speaking audiences regarding the precise meaning of the term “giallo,” for opinion has long been more or less evenly split as to whether or not it qualifies. Indeed, those who saw it when it was new would not have realized what a break it represented from Deep Red or Four Flies on Gray Velvet until well into the second act. When American ballerina Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper, from The Phantom of the Paradise and Shock Treatment) enrolls at the Tanz Akademie in Freiburg, Germany, to perfect her technique, she descends almost at once into the sort of situation that would make any previous Argento heroine shudder in recognition. It’s pouring down rain when her plane from the States lands at about twenty to eleven at night, and none of the taxi drivers who frequent the airport seem inclined to give her a lift. She practically has to throw herself under a cab’s wheels in order to get its driver to stop for her, and even then the cabbie seems none too happy to have her business. He resists all of her efforts to make conversation, and puts on a big show of not understanding the directions she gives him, even though her pronunciation of the street she names is close to impeccable. (Suzy doesn’t quite have a handle on the guttural German “r,” but all of her other phonemes are just fine.) Nor are uncooperative taxis her only problem. Suzy arrives at the Tanz Akademie just in time to witness a cryptic scene in which a blonde girl (Eva Axen, of Sex in Sweden and Justine and Juliette) exits the front door, hollering something just barely intelligible to somebody still inside, and then runs off into the woods. Whoever is manning the call box for the main entrance refuses to let Suzy in, and she is forced to return to the city and take a room at a hotel. Meanwhile (although Suzy won’t learn about any of this until the following morning), the blonde also makes her way into town, where she seeks shelter at the apartment of a countess a few years her senior (Susanna Javicoli, from Action and Private Vices, Public Pleasures). But even so, she is unable to escape from whatever frightened her away from the school. Somebody lets him- or herself into the apartment from a third-story balcony, and murders both the blonde and the countess in the operatic manner that one expects in a Dario Argento movie.
The next day, Suzy finally gains ingress to the academy, and begins meeting both her exceedingly suspicious fellow students and the exceedingly suspicious faculty. Dance instructor Miss Tanner (Alida Valli, of That House on the Outskirts and The Tempter) might as well be a matron in a Bruno Mattei women’s prison movie, and vice-directress Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett, from House of Dark Shadows and This House Possessed) couldn’t be any more obviously hiding something if you caught her feeding a corpse into a woodchipper. There’s a menacing, mute handyman of Romanian extraction (Flavio Bucci, from Night Train Murders and A Spiral of Mist), and the real directress of the school is away on some errand that everybody seems to be at great pains not to talk about. The other students are all neurotically obsessed with money, and take far more protective attitudes toward their stuff than the items’ intrinsic value could possibly warrant. One student in particular— her name is Olga (Barbara Magnoli, of Cut and Run and The Sister of Ursula)— is erratic enough in both her behavior and her apparent attitudes toward those around her that some low-grade madness is the only explanation that seems sufficient to account for her. Perhaps most worrisome of all is the virtually universal dismissal of Pat Hingle, the recently deceased blonde girl, as an inveterate troublemaker. Such an assessment of the dead girl carries with it the unspoken implication that she got what she deserved. All things considered, it could be a short road from there to actual complicity in Pat’s murder.
Of course, Argento’s track record cues us to expect a certain amount of that stuff to be blatant misdirection, but there’s more going on here than the usual giallo cavalcade of red herrings. In fact, in an important sense, the murder of Pat Hingle and the countess is itself the biggest red herring of them all. The Tanz Akademie is not merely the lair of a killer, you see, and the longer Suzy spends there, the more indications surface that there is some very old supernatural evil in back of all the strange and deadly goings on. One of the cleaning ladies gives Suzy the evil eye, causing a hemorrhage somewhere inside her head, and the subsequent ministrations of staff doctor Professor Verdegast (Renato Scarpa) seem calculated to put one in mind of the Satanic obstetrician in Rosemary’s Baby. The girls’ dormitory floor succumbs to a sudden maggot infestation one night, and although a nominally rational explanation quickly surfaces, it never does feel more than nominally rational. Then there’s the horrible snoring Suzy hears coming from the other side of a partitioning sheet in the makeshift dorm the staff rigs up in the main rehearsal hall to serve until an exterminator can be called to do something about the maggots upstairs. Imagine a tubercular mummy in the throes of an asthma attack, and you’ll have a pretty fair picture of what those snores sound like— which is perhaps only to be expected, given that the silhouette of the woman generating them looks alarmingly skeletal in projection against the faintly back-lit sheet. What’s more, a girl named Sara (Stefania Casini, from Blood for Dracula and How to Lose a Wife and Gain a Lover), who has become the closest thing Suzy has to a friend among her classmates, contends that she recognizes the ghoulish snore as that of the supposedly absent directress.
Actually, depending upon your perspective, striking up a friendship with Sara is either the luckiest or the most unlucky thing that could have happened to Suzy at the Tanz Akademie. Sara, you see, was also a friend of the late Pat Hingle, and it was Sara to whom Pat was shouting when Suzy’s cab pulled up at the front door. For that matter, Sara was also the one who refused Suzy entry that first night. Sara believes that Pat had uncovered some sinister secret at the school, and that she was killed to prevent that secret from getting out. Ever since the murder, she has taken it upon herself to reconstruct whatever Pat had learned in the hope of bringing her killer (or killers) to something like justice. So far, all Sara knows is that the academy staff convene late each night in a secret location somewhere on the school’s third floor. She clearly suspects a great deal more than that, though, for the last thing Sara does before she herself is slain (and I must say, that’s a very inventive use of razor wire there) is to ask Suzy if she knows anything about witches. Suzy may not now, but you can bet that she’ll do anything within her power to educate herself once it becomes clear to her that anyone who makes even the most distant approach to the secrets of the Tanz Akademie can pretty much count on winding up dead. Since she already knows more than enough to condemn her, picking up where Pat and Sara left off is now her only chance of survival.
Although Suspiria is a mystery that begins with a murder, it is hardly a murder mystery in any sense that fans of Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, or Mary Roberts Rinehart would recognize. Consequently, the question of whether it can properly be considered a giallo hinges upon the answer to a much broader and more fundamental question: is content or form more important in making genre determinations? Suspiria undeniably follows the giallo’s structural conventions. It has the villains who will stop at nothing to preserve their secrets, the protagonists who begin as bystanders to a shocking crime, the supporting characters scrambling over one another in their striving after the very pinnacle of untrustworthy behavior. There’s even a pair of black gloves— although they’re made of some thick, stretchy cloth rather than the traditional leather. On the other hand, gialli don’t generally concern themselves with effectively immortal witches, subject their heroines to Bat-on-a-Stringtm attacks, or have the stone eagles adorning the roofs of government office buildings come to life and slaughter blind pianists on their way home from work. Truthfully, there just isn’t any pigeonhole into which Suspiria fits comfortably, and that contrariness is one of the movie’s greatest strengths.
An even greater strength is the air of disorienting dreaminess with which Argento invests practically everything that goes on during Suspiria’s running time— unless maybe that’s a weakness instead, and “disorienting dreaminess” is merely a polite way of saying that Suspiria is an absolutely gorgeous film that makes no logical sense whatsoever. Depending on my mood, both interpretations seem equally valid. If I’m feeling analytical, I have a hard time even thinking of Suspiria without asking, “Yes, but why a ballet school? Surely the most powerful witch in Germany could think of some more productive application for her talents than that!” Similarly, I must object on principle to the revelation that Sara just happens to have remained friends with her old psychiatrist (Udo Kier, from Johnny Mnemonic and Shadow of the Vampire, in what might be the least Udo Kier-y role of his career), and that the shrink just happens to be in town for a convention right now, palling around with the psychiatric profession’s foremost expert on witchcraft (Rudolf Schündler, from The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and The Sinister Monk). Seriously, what the fuck is the psychiatric profession doing with a foremost expert on the subject of witchcraft in the first place?!?! And breathtaking though it is to see, the razor wire scene is totally incapable of withstanding even the most cursory scrutiny. However, if there’s one thing at which Dario Argento excels, it’s forcing me out of an analytical mood, and for me, Suspiria is the sort of movie that manages to put off any and all inconvenient questions until after the closing credits. Also, like Takashi Miike’s Gozu, Suspiria can get under my skin in a purely irrational way, building a powerful case of the creeps out of materials that ought to be merely laughable. Take the incident of the directress and her snoring, for example. It’s an absurd scene, and there is no explicable reason why it ought to be as unnerving as it is. Maybe the music has something to do with it. Goblin’s obtrusively weird, shamelessly heavy-handed score— obtrusively weird and shamelessly heavy-handed even for them— will probably make as many enemies as it will friends, and there are plenty of horror movies out there that could never get away with using anything comparable. It works for me, though, not least because it strikes me as the direct auditory equivalent to Dario Argento’s visual technique. Both are, in essence, attempts to transform style into substance, and in Suspiria at least, they are mutually reinforcing to the extent that they often succeed at that seemingly impossible task. Suspiria, in its best moments, is like a nightmare whose horrific power is impossible to convey to anyone upon waking, and which remains unsettling in memory precisely because it can never be adequately explained to anyone else.