I couldn’t avoid Dario Argento when I lived in Italy. A giant poster from one of his films loomed from the cinema across the road when I moved into my flat. An artfully slain woman featured prominently, of course, a thin ribbon of blood the only colour on her porcelain pale skin. She haunted me for weeks.
I steered clear of the film itself, though, having no particular desire to see yet another film where women are sliced and diced, even when created by horror maestro Argento.
The release on Blu-ray and DVD of a brand-new high-definition transfer of the Italian director’s 1977 masterpiece Suspiria has prompted me, however, to see what the gore hounds have been raving about all these years. If you are going to give Argento a go then Suspiria is the film to watch. All the horror movie mavens, including Kim Newman, who delivers the disc’s entertaining commentary track in tandem with Frightfest guru Alan Jones, call it “the pinnacle of his career”.
Originally released in 1977, after Argento had established himself as one of Italy’s leading directors of gialli with such films as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red, Suspiria saw him introduce a supernatural element to his lurid brand of thriller. This is the one where cult actress Jessica Harper’s young American dancer travels to Germany to attend a ballet academy deep in the Black Forest and finds out that the school is a front for a coven of witches.
The film starts brilliantly with a bravura sequence in which Harper’s Suzy Bannion lands in Munich in the middle of a rainstorm and travels by taxi to the school. Right from the start, by means of colour, sound and camera movement, Argento creates an incredible sense of impending jeopardy. Even the innocuous swishing shut of the airport door appears menacing. Before long, the viewer is so on edge that a sudden splash of water lit up by red neon seems a spray of arterial blood and the shadow of a branch looks like a sickle.
Argento sustains the tension for more than ten minutes. In this time Suzy arrives at the school to witness a girl’s mysterious flight from the blood-red building. The rain still lashing down, Suzy fails to gain entry and returns to town in the taxi, glimpsing the fleeing girl through the trees as she goes.
The sequence climaxes with one of the elaborately staged slayings for which Argento is famous, a baroque set piece that sees the victim stabbed, strangled and hanged. As her body crashes through a stained-glass ceiling, the falling glass turns a bystander into grisly collateral damage.
For me, the double killing isn’t nearly as unnerving as the gore-free passage that precedes it, but as the story advances Argento does keep the film at a pitch of near-constant hysteria. In large part, that’s thanks to the amazing score by Italian prog rockers Goblin, whose tingling, rasping, throbbing score, accompanied by Argento’s constantly gliding camera, creates an almost unbearable sense of unease and suspense. And the film’s intense colour, achieved through the use of low-speed 40 ASA Technicolor film stock salvaged from a lab in Texas, only heightens the impression that we are watching a nightmarish fairy tale.
Notwithstanding the film’s cheesy dubbing, Surpiria did impress me. I don’t buy Argento’s claims (reiterated in the disc’s documentary extras) that his female protagonists somehow make him a feminist, and I’m still not particularly keen on the slasher genre, but the movie’s surreal, dream-like terrors, Grand Guignol excessiveness and technical panache put Suspiria into a class of its own.
Suspiria is released on Blu-ray & DVD by Nouveaux Pictures.