The following is my contribution to this month's Film Club over at Final Girl.
The great horror films of the 1970's share an elemental approach to the genre, the liberation of film content resulting in a horror cinema stripped to its barest archetypal terms. Suspiria, Dario Argento's first foray into pure horror, is at once the most beautiful and merciless work of the decade. A near-perfect fusion of art and splatter, Suspiria creates a nightmarish world held together by its own surreal language of alchemic signifiers, its hallucinatory images and sounds colliding together on a searing red canvas. It's less a triumph of style over substance than one of those rare moments when style is substance. Argento's horrifying images are more than a triumph of gross-out - at his best, it's as if he's projecting his (and our) deepest, most primal fears directly under the screen. In short, Suspiria gets under your skin.
Over darkness and simple white credits, a narrator informs us that "Suzy Banyon decided to perfect her ballet studies in the most famous school of dance in Europe. She chose the celebrated Tanzakademie of Freiburg. One day at 9am, she left Kennedy Airport, New York, and arrived in Germany at 10:40 local time." The matter-of-fact delivery of objective information (times, dates, places) is undercut by the roar of Goblin's unforgettably creepy score; Argento is immediately subverting the veracity of his own narrative, creating a disconnect between what we are hearing and what we are seeing that is unmistakably dreamlike. Enter Suzy (Jessica Harper), a wide-eyed young woman who steps into this alternate reality - one where a sliding door can take on unknown menace, where strange figures appear for a moment in the corner of one's eye - like a fairytale heroine. Harper's beautiful porcelain features are perfect for the character, who floats through the film as though she herself were dreaming. There's fear in her performance, but also a sort of recognition, a dreamlike sense of inevitablity as she gradually deciphers the symbols around her to defeat the dual maternal figures (Alida Valli and Joan Bennet) conspiring to keep her asleep. Argento originally imagined his characters as young teens, and Suspiria can be read as the horror of adolescence, the gradual realization and experience of things whispered-about by adults in control of one's life. Suzy's dream is a journey deeper and deeper into interiors climaxing in the confrontation of the invisible (and therefore universal) matriarch of the coven; couple this with the relative insignificance of men in the film and the contributions of Argento's then-girlfriend Daria Nicolodi, and it's hard not to see Suspiria as Dario Argento getting in touch with his feminine side.
But the thing is - and please don't take this as an excuse - any interpretation of Suspiria will fail to convey its power as a pure immersive sensory experience. Watching the film for the first time, one is overcome by a feeling of vulnerability - the shot of an escaped student (Eva Axen) standing in a window, the room providing the only light in a vast expanse of shadows, violates our illusions of safety in such an unnerving way that the subsequent, rightfully famous murder setpiece ends, our repulsion also carries a sense of relief at having survived the inevitable. The risk of dealing with the inexplicable is that, with one misstep, the whole film becomes self-indulgent and meaningless; what shines through in Suspiria's best moments (my favorite is Suzy's strange encounter with the old woman and child in a hallway) is the sense of a story unfolding according to its own unknown but precise, exacting logic. Much of this can be attributed to the stunning, Disney-on-acid palette Argento and DP Luciano Tovoli employ, creating a garish distortion of reality that, once experienced, shakes one's perception of the relationship between image and meaning in everyday life. While Argento is frequently referred to as a "Master of Horror" or other such gorehound nonsense, he's rarely acknowledged as a master surrealist. A shame, as there are images in Suspiria that, if placed on a museum wall, would rest comfortably next to Magritte.
Perhaps the creepiest aspect of Suspiria is that evil is never personified. We're given glimpses - a pair of eyes, Argento's trademark gloved hands, animals and inarticulate henchmen possessed - but what lingers is the sense of something unseen but always present. A simple scene between Suzy and her friend (Stefania Casini) becomes almost unbearably tense simply by the presence of the camera looming overhead. The camera often takes on the perspective of the villian, but in the absence of a singular villain, whose perspective are we taking here? It's as if the camera itself - and, by extension, Argento - is possessed, driven to show us our fears with merciless precision. The film itself is an act of exorcism for Argento, but though Suzy escapes, there is the ineffable sense of a horror that continues to exist outside of the frame. Of course, Suspiria does have a pair of sisters...