Why is it that when you leave an airport at night during a beastly rainstorm and no taxi will pick you up, it’s merely a giant pain in the ass? But, if the same thing were to occur at the beginning of a Dario Argento film, and a taxi does eventually pick you up, and then proceeds to drive you through the Black Forest to an undisclosed location in the middle of the night, you just know that all manner of Hell is going to break loose. The ground will probably open and swallow you whole, and something should tell you that the end is just about nigh.
This is almost how Argento’s 1977 masterpiece Suspiria begins. First, the film introduces us, of course, to the music. The soundtrack, by Goblin, or “The Goblins,” as attributed in the opening credits, foreshadows the impending doom, with a thunderstorm of tympani giving way to evil, angelic bells. There is incomprehensible, unintelligible whispering and the high pitched crying of a dying violin, which could very well just be the shrieks of the damned come to life.
And then, on cue, voiceover narration. The voiceover is a hoot, and it makes you wonder why Argento never tried his hand at directing comedy, or why movie critics at large don’t recognize how much of Argento’s work is laugh-out-loud hilarious.
After the foreboding introductory “Tubular Bells” style score, and after the art deco white font on black background opening credits, full of Italian names like Claudio Argento and Salvatore Argento, Franco Fraticelli and Flavio Bucci (if I ever change my name, it will be to Flavio Bucci), and after the mysterious title Suspiria comes onto the screen, the most white bread, high school documentary voiceover narration ever arrives to give us information that is, well, unnecessary and ridiculous.
We learn from the narrator that our heroine, Suzy Bannion, in order to “perfect her ballet studies,” has travelled to a Dance Academy in Freiburg, Germany. Fair enough. But…why is the narrator telling us this? And, especially, why the creepy details? What does it matter that “one day at nine in the morning, she left Kennedy Airport, New York, and arrived in Germany at 10:40 pm, local time.”
Yes, there is a certain spacey, vagueness to her leaving New York on a non-specific “one day,” but “nine in the morning”? “Kennedy Airport”? “10:40 pm”? These details are a bit too specific to be comfortable with. Voiceover narration generally serves to fill in crucial gaps of indispensable information, but this narration makes it appear more as if the narrator, and by implication we, might be stalking Suzy.
And, why “local time”? What does that have to do with anything, and what does that even mean? Is the narrator trying to keep us from being confused with Solar Time or Nepal Standard time? Is local time anything like Tulsa Time or Dealer Time? Whatever the case, this guy has been paying way too much attention to Suzy Bannion.
When the opening credits end and we spy Suzy walking through the airport in Germany, dreamily lit in blood red as we assume airports in Germany certainly are, sure enough…it is 10:40 pm, just as the flight Arrival and Departure Board has predicted. The narrator wins again! But you know what? Suspiciously, the narrator doesn’t show up anywhere else in the film. There is no longer any voiceover narration to fill in the missing gaps or to emphasize intricate plot points. Was he snuffed? Why was he there in the first place? Or, does he show up sometime later, somewhere else, watching Suzy from afar?
It is one of those mysterious Dario Argento touches that might not have any reasonable answer and, really, should require no explanation. Perhaps the voiceover was simply Argento’s opening joke in a film that is full of them. Finding the humor in horror is something Argento seems to have passed on to his future horror progeny, such as Sam Raimi, whose epic horror films like Drag Me To Hell have as many laughs as they do unsettling staplers to the forehead.
Suspiria keeps the laughs coming with the arrival of Suzy’s taxi. Windswept and rain soaked, Suzy asks the taxi driver, the one who finally stops for her fare, to help with her bags. Naturally, there is no response from the driver and Suzy is forced to fend for herself. In a sense, Suzy is now a damsel in distress, the innocent lamb being thrown to the lions, on her own in the wilderness as the storm rages on around her and her driver remains in the car.
I happen to find it hilarious that the driver stays in the car when Suzy asks for help, but others could easily find this scene a glittering example of the misogyny which Argento has been accused of throughout the course of his career. Critics point out that pretty women die in his films, or that they are mutilated in horrible ways, and somehow assume this is evidence of a misogynistic attitude toward life. But, this treatment of women, in general, is sort of true about every horror film that has ever been made. Whether or not that qualifies as misogyny, one can only conjecture.
Argento’s daughter, actor and director Asia Argento, dismisses such criticism, and insists that her father “makes women look very powerful and very beautiful.” As such, the innocent Suzy Bannion in Suspiria might potentially be seen as the force of good overpowering the monstrosities of evil nature.
Next in Suspiria’s cavalcade of comedy, there is a bit of lost-in-translation dialogue between Suzy and her taxi driver. An American speaking English to a German cabbie in an Italian film is humorous enough by itself, but Argento doesn’t leave it there. When the taxi driver asks Suzy where she is going and she replies “Escher Strasse,” he doesn’t seem to understand. “What?” “Escher Strasse.” “What?” Exasperated, Suzy holds up a piece of paper with the name written on it. “Ohhh,” the driver replies, “Escher Strasse.” Like, of course.
Hilarious. Argento additionally includes such comic relief as a blind piano player for the Dance Academy, a seeing eye dog with a predilection for human flesh, gratuitous maggotry, and the always indomitable Udo Kier.
Suspiria, however, isn’t all just fun and games. One knows from the first few seconds of the Goblin soundtrack that we’re in for an apocalyptic ride. As Suzy Bannion leaves the safety of the mundane world by stepping outside of the airport into the wild German night, Argento gives us a microsecond close-up of the hydraulics opening and closing the automatic doors to the terminal. It is a short shot of an industrial device not doing anything particularly sinister, but it seems to signal the end of Suzy’s time in the real world. Although she is shown leaving the confines of an airport lobby, she is actually moving from the outside of the real world into the sinister nether regions of a terrifying nightmare.
As Suzy travels to the Academy, we witness glimpses of a river overflowing and see that the storm has penetrated the tunnel. Why would it be raining in a tunnel? The word “WITCH” conjures itself up at irregular intervals on the soundtrack, but also alternates with the word “WAIT” on occasion. Upon Suzy’s arrival at the Academy, a terrified girl comes running out with no explanation, and a voice on the intercom at the entrance shouts at Suzy, “We don’t know you-Go away!”
Suzy jumps in the cab and travels back into town, passing the girl who escaped running helplessly through the forest like a hellhound is on her trail. The girl arrives at the art deco apartment of a friend, tells her that she’s been kicked out of the school, and verbalizes, in dubbed English, a critical assessment of the world we are about to enter: “It all seems so…absurd. So fantastic.”
Welcome to the wonderful world of Dario Argento.
Within minutes of the unknown girl’s proclamation, she and her friend are murdered in the most unimaginably grisly, and purely cinematic, ways possible. There is a certain glee in Argento’s unleashing of terror on his hapless victims, as if he is representing the dark, unknown forces alive beneath the surface that manifest themselves in strange and ominous ways upon reality.
Argento supplies plenty of mystery and intrigue for all, whether one is drawn to the primary colors that change on a whim, as a red room will suddenly become blue for no reason, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s 1964 Marnie, or the M. C. Escher-esque wallpaper, or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari disorientation at certain angles in certain rooms. Or the numerous reflections in the windows and mirrors, suggesting that where there is a real person in one place, there is also one who is not so real in the same place. Reality versus perception.
And Udo Kier as the psychiatrist. There is always a psychiatrist.
Actress Jessica Harper is perfect as the Snow White of Suzy Bannion to Alida Valli’s Wicked Queen of Miss Tanner. Harper, eternally the girl next door, starred in some of the greatest movies ever made, including Woody Allen’s best film Stardust Memories, Peter O’Toole’s funniest film My Favorite Year, and Brian DePalma’s most interesting film, as well as Harper’s movie debut, Phantom of the Paradise. She went on to work in television, including a season of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, for which she won a Cable Ace Award, and has produced seven albums of children’s music, as well as written a number of children’s books, including I Barfed On Mrs. Kenly, Underpants On My Head, and I'm Not Going To Chase The Cat Today. She most recently released The Crabby Cook Cookbook, a collection of “recipes and rants” for the “kitchen challenged.”
While promoting The Crabby Cook Cookbook in the press, Harper was frequently asked about her work with Dario Argento, and about accusations of misogyny from his critics. She insisted that the director was never more than supportive and respectful to her and her other female co-stars, and that he was always very inspired and inspiring.
The band who provided the unforgettable soundtrack to Suspiria, Italy’s Goblin, known variously as The Goblins, Goblin Rebirth, and Back to the Goblin, have reunited and have recently performed in Los Angeles for the first time in their 40-year career. The band played selections from the films they collaborated with Argento on, as well as the Dawn of the Dead soundtrack they produced for the 1978 George A Romero film.
Suspiria is considered a classic amongst horror aficionados, and rightly so. There is not a moment wasted in the film, for even when a scene consists merely of two people talking, there is always something strange just out of reach. And, for those who criticize the film for having a threadbare plot, perhaps they are missing the point that Udo Kier makes when he explains the occult to Suzy; “Bad luck isn’t brought by broken mirrors, but by broken minds.” Makes sense to me.
With Joan Bennett as Madame Blanc.
Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.