This is quite obvious to anyone who sees it, but SUSPIRIA is a really red movie. It may be the reddest movie of all time. It’s redder than all the posters for CRIMSON TIDE. Hell, they made a movie called RED and this one is way redder than that one. It’s even redder than RED 2. Director Dario Argento floods the screen with color. Not all of it is red, but all of it is bold and very purposefully deployed. Argento’s production design team, costumers, and his cinematographer, Luciano Tovoli, all collude to make the look of SUSPIRIA florid to an almost overwhelming degree. It’s the look of a nightmare, the feel of a migraine. It’s beautiful and horrible nearly simultaneously.
Dario Argento was five features into his directing career when he made SUSPIRIA, which critical and popular consensus generally holds to be his masterpiece. Argento is the best-known of the Italian giallo auteurs. “Giallo” means yellow, and it’s a reference to the yellowed pages of pulp mystery novels. Most of these films are thrillers, many involve beautiful women and knife murders. SUSPIRIA certainly has those things, but it has a dreamy air from the start that prepares the viewer for the more supernatural happenings that are to come.
The story of SUSPIRIA involves a young American ballet dancer who arrives at a dance academy in Germany where some horrendous murders have taken place. The star is Jessica Harper, otherwise best known for 1974’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. She looks to me like the missing link between Karen Allen and Ellen Page, all fortunate resemblances, and telling. She has an instant likability to her face, a scrappy North-American-ness, that draws an audience into a film that would feel foreign in any country it played. It’s interesting how this is an Italian film about an American in Germany. It has an innate effect of disorientation that works for the atmosphere of the film. Argento would later pull a similar trick in PHENOMENA, starring Jennifer Connelly as an American girl caught up in paranomal goings-on in Switzerland.
Argento wrote SUSPIRIA with Daria Nicolodi, an actress and screenwriter and the mother of his daughter Asia. Without getting too presumptuous, I think inviting a female collaborator may help the film to work as well as it does. The feminine touch goes a long way in this genre, as far as I’m concerned. One aversion I have long had to many giallo films is that they are, by nature, movies about vicious violence, most often perpetrated towards women. SUSPIRIA racks up the female casualties, and let’s just say the film’s villains share a gender, but there isn’t a trace of misogyny to any of the proceedings, I don’t think. If SUSPIRIA took place in a firehouse, maybe not all the victims would be young women, but it’s a ballet academy. This is just the story that it is.
Adding to this line of thought is the profoundly eerie score by the band Goblin, Argento’s frequent collaborators. Goblin is to Argento as Ennio Morricone is to Sergio Leone — not a coincidence, probably, as Argento is one of several writers credited on the story of Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. As Leone did with Morricone’s score, Argento played Goblin’s score on the set of SUSPIRIA. This is uncommon practice in films — usually a film’s score is recorded long after shooting is complete — but it clearly has its advantages. The score is both droning and twinkly — the sound of chimes is recreated as a leitmotif. The effect is as Argento no doubt intends: SUSPIRIA feels like the darkest of fairy tales.
SUSPIRIA is a widely influential horror film. Most recently, Rob Zombie’s THE LORDS OF SALEM draws heavily upon it for inspiration. [Read the Daily Grindhouse review of that one here.] David Gordon Green, of all people, has spoken of a desire to mount a remake. Goblin’s score is equally influential, having been sampled quite recently in songs from hip-hop artists such as RJD2 and Ghostface Killah.
SUSPIRIA is screening tonight at 8pm at New York City’s Anthology Film Archives. This is a special screening co-sponsored by Malastrana Film Series, the same folks behind last year’s Giallo Fever! program. They’re showing SUSPIRIA in 35mm, with the Goblin score promising to be cranked up loud, so get over there if you can! Goblin is touring now, but tickets are hard to come by.
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