There has never been another film like Suspiria. There literally can’t be: in an interview with horror bible Fangoria (#35, April 1984), director Dario Argento explained that he shot the movie on “out-dated old Kodak [film] stock,” of which he’d used the last in the world (except — maybe — for a secret stash somewhere in China). The film’s gruesome Technicolor mojo is the product of a lost sorcery. And the look is only part of what makes Suspiria so special. The music, by the progressive rock band Goblin, is overwhelming, immersive, a compelling and terrifying soundscape unto itself. (You can hear it here.) Yet the film and its soundtrack are essentially indivisible. As Argento relates in that same interview, he often played the soundtrack on the set, shooting late at night, because “I wanted the cast to really feel the terror.” The music is a presence, as integral as any actor. Indeed, every element of Suspiria combines to create a fully realized world, unique in all of cinema.
It’s unique, too, even in the work of Argento himself. Most of his earlier films as director (he’d first worked as a screenwriter, notably on Sergio Leone’s 1968 classic, Once upon a Time in the West) were examples of the giallo — a very European form that blends mystery, the gothic, and high fashion with sex and violence pushed to over-the-top extremes — and it was to the giallo that Argento would soon return. He’d follow Suspiria with a quasi-sequel, Inferno (1980), and then largely abandon supernatural horror until concluding the trilogy with The Mother of Tears (2007). That film is generally considered a disappointment. Inferno, however, is an excellent effort, one worthy of its predecessor…and yet Inferno is also no Suspiria.
Daria Nicolodi had been the lead actress in Argento’s Deep Red (1975), and the two became a couple (they are the parents of Asia Argento). Soon they began looking forward to future projects together. In the documentary, Suspiria: 25th Anniversary (included on the Blue Underground 2007 DVD release of Suspiria), Nicolodi says: “Dario was a little bored with [giallos] and he wanted to do something else. And I had this story ready….”
That story, which would inspire the screenplay for Suspiria (attributed to Argento and Nicolodi), was one Nicolodi had heard in childhood…the tale of how her grandmother, as a little girl, had gone to a famous academy to learn to play the piano, only to flee in terror when she discovered that the school really instructed its students in the art of black magic. “I wrote the story and the screenplay together with Dario Argento,” Nicolodi said in the same interview. “But let’s say that the story and screenplay are mine…and naturally Dario shot those great death scenes that he is so good at.”
No outsider (like Yours Truly) can ever know who contributed what to any film. Credit is often hotly contested among collaborators themselves. And Nicolodi’s comments may be less pointed than playful. Nevertheless, Suspiria is informed by a woman-centered sensibility that was new to Argento’s work, which previously found intrepid young men acting as amateur sleuths on the trail of murderers. In some ways, Suspiria stuck closer to the formula Argento had perfected with his giallos than one might expect. But never before had an Argento thriller been led by a heroine, its cast almost entirely female.
Nicolodi’s character in Deep Red — Gianna Brezzi, an aggressive reporter competing with the meeker male protagonist to catch a killer — had declared herself a warrior in the battle of the sexes, challenging the hero to arm wrestling matches and, in one scene, lifting him off his feet. Brezzi is not the star, but it’s clear she thinks she ought to be. With Nicolodi’s input, women did come to the fore in Suspiria, and they would lead many of Argento’s best subsequent films, such as Phenomena (1985), Opera (1987), and The Stendhal Syndrome (1996). By then, though, a horror heroine (or, in contemporary parlance, a “final girl”) would hardly be unusual. She would be the expectation.
Horror in 1977
There’s a lot to talk about — Hollywood produced an absurd number of horror movies in 1977 — but the year’s most seminal features came from outside that ecosystem. Suspiria, for instance, was made in Germany, its director Italian, its cast international. Another off-the-radar entry emerged from a place much closer, conceived and raised to fruition (as it were) in darkness, and finally released on an unsuspecting world at a scarcely-attended midnight show at the Filmex festival in Los Angeles. It would not go unnoticed long. That film was Eraserhead — the debut of David Lynch.
Eraserhead tells the story of Henry (Jack Nance), a quiet man with strange hair. Henry lives alone in an empty city full of dead factories, and only leaves his spooky apartment building to pick up groceries. After a disturbing dinner with his girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), and her parents, Henry learns that he’s a father (or maybe not: for, as Mary insists, “They’re still not sure it is a baby!!”). Soon they’re a family of three. The baby is…hard to describe (Lynch has never disclosed the secret of its creation). Its croaking, gurgling, strangling cries keep Mary up at night, and she flees the apartment. Henry tries to care for the child on his own, and falls deep into a paranoid state where his nightmares, fantasies, and real life become difficult to distinguish. There may be no difference.
To call Eraserhead horror might seem reductive, if not plain wrong. It’s a work of surrealism, a masterpiece…but horror can be both of those. And the effect of Eraserhead on the wider genre is undeniable. Like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970), Eraserhead is outsider art that exerted an unexpected hold on pop culture, and inspired countless filmmakers. (After becoming names, Jodorowsky and then Lynch would each attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction novel, Dune; Jodorowsky’s inability to materialize the movie would nearly destroy his career, whereas the reception of Lynch’s finished film almost destroyed his own.) More than anything, though, Eraserhead is important for establishing one of the greatest directors of our time.
John Boorman is no slouch, either — witness his Deliverance (1972) — so what on earth should we make of Exorcist II: The Heretic? A straight-up bad sequel to The Exorcist (1973) would have been one thing…disappointing, but within the realm of normal events. Exorcist II is not normal. The Exorcist had labored to create a sense of realism, one that would prime the audience for the slow intrusion of the occult. Boorman doesn’t give a damn about any of that. Exorcist II is big and bombastic, an odyssey that takes us to the Vatican and South America and Africa, a movie that opens with a possessed woman bursting into flames and includes, as a minor plot point, a machine that allows therapists to mind-meld with their patients like this is “Star Trek” and that’s just a thing that happens. It may not be a good movie — okay, it’s not a good movie — but it’s a hell of a show.
The Sentinel, from Death Wish (1974) series mastermind Michael Winner, is another satanic would-be blockbuster. This one concerns a fashion model (Cristina Raines) who moves into a swanky Brooklyn apartment building, only to learn it’s a haunted gateway to hell (this wouldn’t deter anyone today). The Sentinel is best-known for its overqualified cast — Jeff Goldblum and Christopher Walken appear in small early roles — but it’s a strange, sexy movie with legitimate charms. Unfortunately, the decision to use actors with actual physical deformities to play demonic figures in the film’s last act is so tasteless, and frankly so cruel, that the entire venture is tainted.
Better by far is Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive, his follow-up to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Hooper had based that film on the real-life crimes of Ed Gein, which had also informed Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960); for films inspired by the same case, they are remarkably unalike. In Eaten Alive, Hooper takes aim at Psycho itself, casting as its villain a Norman Bates-like hotel manager (Neville Brand) who kills some unlucky guests himself, and feeds even unluckier ones to his pet crocodile. Eaten Alive is, somehow, more nihilistic than Massacre, a swampy noir slasher that thinks the worst of humanity.
Just as ugly in its outlook on life is Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes. In it, a vacationing family breaks down in the Nevada desert and is set upon by a clan of cannibalistic mutants. Hills is an improvement over Craven’s previous film, The Last House on the Left (1972). But like Last House, it often feels as brutish and callous as its monsters, a dumb, mean-spirited movie made for dirtbags. Yet there are flashes of something more. Characters show surprising depth and vulnerability. Terrific lines burn through the haze of average dialogue, like when we’re told the mutant patriarch has dwelled in the wild “long enough for a devil kid to grow up to be a devil man.” Few viewers in 1977 might have guessed Craven would eventually make two of the most influential horror films of his era, but there were reasons to hope he’d get better.
In the same coldly erotic sci-fi horror vein as his debut, Shivers (1975), David Cronenberg’s Rabid concerns Rose (Marilyn Chambers), a woman critically injured in a motorcycle accident and saved by an experimental surgery that turns her into a kind of vampire. Chambers exudes instant star presence, as well she might: she was already a star. Cinematic porn was enjoying an unprecedented flirtation with the mainstream, and many in Rabid’s audience must have known Chambers as the leading lady of Behind the Green Door (1972). Rose transmits an infection when she takes blood, one that leaves her victims violent, deranged and contagious. She remains sane, but her craving drives her out night after night into a city made increasingly dangerous by the plague.
As in Shivers, Cronenberg keeps his distance; he observes his scenes, like a naturalist documentarian. Rabid doesn’t tell us how to feel, or whether we should feel anything at all. But Chambers brings Rose to life so completely we can’t help but care for her. Cronenberg’s universe is not a spiritual place, is perhaps a godless one…but the inner lives of his people, their hearts, are no less profound for that. The notion of the intellect imprisoned in a doomed, rebellious flesh is central to “body horror,” the subgenre most identified with Cronenberg. In Rabid, body horror takes on a tragic dimension, to stunning final effect. In later films — as Cronenberg would let more light in, and lavish (almost) as much attention on his characters as his ideas — that effect would be devastating.
And there were many more: Orca, a visually sumptuous but very goofy riff on Jaws (1975) by way of Moby-Dick, wherein a killer whale hunts a whale-killing fisherman (Richard Harris, apparently method-acting drunkenness); The Island of Dr. Moreau, a solid adaptation of the H.G. Wells classic; Demon Seed, which can only be summarized as occupying a twilit middle ground between 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Fifty Shades of Grey (2015); The Incredible Melting Man, an unintentionally hilarious movie about an astronaut who’s afflicted by an alien contagion and becomes a wandering monster when he gets home, a simple concept made unworkable (despite great makeup effects) by a script so confoundingly incapable of satisfying our most basic expectations of halfway-decent storytelling that it is, I’m sorry, indeed incredible; and The Car, a film about an evil car.
But there’s still one major movie we’re overlooking, to our misfortune: House (AKA Hausu). The film was unknown in the English-speaking world until 2010, when Criterion released a handsome home video edition (the first in the US). House became an overnight cult object — and no wonder.
In a psychedelic wonderland understood to be somewhere in Japan, a group of schoolgirls travels to the remote country home of one girl’s aunt, who turns out to be a witch. Our heroines begin meeting ghastly-slash-ridiculous fates immediately upon arrival, but it’s all part of the fun. House is a dazzling wild ride, a singularly strange pop art experience…or maybe not quite singular. Although it’s improbable that the productions could have had any awareness of one another, the bizarre, colorful horror-comedy about teen girls and witchcraft had a sinister European sister…
Our Feature Presentation
“Suzy Bannion decided to perfect her ballet studies in the most famous school of dance in Europe. She chose the celebrated academy of Freiburg. One day, at nine in the morning, she left Kennedy Airport, New York, and arrived in Germany at 10:40 PM local time.”
Suspiria begins with these words — calmly spoken by a narrator who could be the late-shift DJ on a smooth jazz station (in the international version, the speaker is Argento himself) — but his voice is not the first sound we hear. The real first word belongs to Goblin’s main titles theme: a rumble of drums like rolling thunder, followed by the faintly eerie chimes of what might be a child’s music box.
The narration doesn’t tell us anything we need to learn going in, and its inclusion is curious. The times and place names — nine, 10:40, Europe, Kennedy Airport, New York, Germany — root us in reality, set Suspiria in the world we know. A similar attention to everyday detail in the opening narration of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre gave that film the authority of a crime scene report. But Suspiria is a fantasy, pure and simple, and it has no desire to convince the viewer otherwise; the film’s introduction does establish a sense of the familiar, but only to blast it all away. Like Carrie (1976), Suspiria is a dark fairytale — in this case, the story of a young woman who journeys far from home and falls under the spell of evil forces. And it might as easily begin, “Once upon a time…”
At once, we are plunged into an unearthly phantasmagoria. Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) steps through the sliding glass doors of the Freiburg airport, and into a night of fearsome storms. She then hails a taxi cab and heads for her new school. These are the literal facts, but everything about the film tells us there’s nothing ordinary about what’s unfolding. The colors that blaze through the rain-slick, lightning-lit darkness are weird and vivid beyond life, all flashing, super-saturated reds and greens and blues. More than that, the sounds: howling vocals, pulse-quickening basslines, swirling all around us shrieks and whispers and hisses and reverberating metallic bangs, mysterious words muttered in heavily-accented English, sudden shouts from nowhere: “Witch!”
The full effect is as strange and exhilarating as a fever dream…and yet, like a dream, Suspiria is powered by a hidden logic, so that our intuition divines there is a purpose and meaning to the events we witness, even if we don’t completely grasp them all on first viewing. Suzy arrives at the academy, where she finds a girl, a student we’ll later learn is named Pat Hingle (Eva Axén), standing in the threshold, yelling incomprehensibilities at someone Suzy can’t see. Pat dashes off, into the storm. Suzy uses the intercom to try and gain entrance, but an anxious female voice on the other end tells her to go away. With no alternative, Suzy gets back in the taxi, in search of some other shelter…and as the car returns to the road, she sees from her window Pat, running through the forest that surrounds the school, vanishing into the night.
We leave Suzy and rejoin Pat as she reaches civilization, in specific an outlandishly opulent apartment building (most of the settings in Suspiria are outlandishly opulent) that a girlfriend of hers calls home. Pat was expelled, we realize — but whatever drove her out into the rain screaming must have been worse than that. She steps alone into another room to clean up, and what happens next is one of the most legendary sequences in horror cinema. Glancing out an upper-story window, Pat is startled when a pair of disembodied, questing yellow eyes look back at her from just outside the glass. A man’s fist crashes through the adjoining window, and Pat is set upon by an unseen attacker. Pat is stabbed repeatedly — the assault culminates in a close-up on a knife piercing her heart — and that’s only the beginning of the gruesome fate that befalls the two girls (suffice it to say, both die). Explaining too much more would be unfair to new viewers…
…But this scene is so seminal, and its importance to Suspiria so central, that we must talk around it for a moment. Every aspect is exquisitely crafted, every shot selected for maximum aesthetic impact. Within the context of a heightened reality, Argento uses instrumentation and shocking imagery to tell a story in a way that anticipates the music video genre of the following decade, and that would likely influence directors like Michael Mann, Tony Scott and Paul Schrader.
And yet, for all the deliberation that must have gone into constructing the scene, the artistry at work isn’t chilly or sterile. We don’t admire Argento’s ingenuity from a comfortable distance. Here and elsewhere in Suspiria, terrible things happen to the human body — throats slashed and wrung, eyes impaled on nails, flesh caught and cut on razor wire — and although these atrocities are presented beautifully, they are also depicted with great empathy. In other words, watching this movie hurts.
Suzy finds the dance academy more welcoming in daylight, but not much more. Her instructors, Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) and Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett), are stern and antagonistic. A looming handyman, apparently mute, lurks around and smiles at her, with horrible fake tombstone teeth. Her fellow students are self-centered and money-hungry, regarding her as a threat or a potential payday in exchange for whatever petty service they have to offer. Of them all, only Sara (Stefania Casini) seems genuine. An easy chemistry between Harper and Casini makes their fast friendship believable, but it becomes clear Sara is looking for something from Suzy, too: an ally.
Sara knows that something at the school is wrong, and news of Pat’s murder seems to confirm that…because Pat was Sara’s roommate on campus, and the two of them had spent many hours trying to figure out just what was happening behind the scenes. Pat kept notes about her suspicions, but these mysteriously have gone missing. Sara doesn’t have enough information to draw any conclusions; every clue leads to more questions. But we have an idea of what she’s thinking when, in a desperate moment, she asks: “Suzy, do you know anything about…witches?”
In fact, to her peril, Suzy does not…but she does know more than she realizes. She recalls that Pat said something odd when they crossed paths in the rain, and after a time, the words come back to her: “Secret…iris.” As is often true of Argento’s giallos — like Deep Red, wherein the hero sees something in the first act that would alert him to the identity of the killer, if only he could remember it — the protagonist doesn’t consciously understand what she knows. Although these words are meaningless to Suzy, they have a meaning…and, when she innocently shares them with Madame Blanc, we sense that she has placed herself in grave danger.
Most of Argento’s films are detective stories: no matter how disorienting they are, we still process them with a measure of detachment as we watch, trying to “solve” them. But Suspiria isn’t an intellectual enterprise — it’s an experience. The film’s logic is a scaffolding, a skeleton, a necessary support structure for Suspiria’s real purpose, which is not to set forth a narrative, but to submerge us in a nightmare. There has never been another film like it, nor will there be.
Next Time: Coming in 2018, it’s…1978! It’s a year jam-packed with horror — too much for a single article to contain! Be here for part one of a special double-feature, when we’ll take on George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Happy holidays!