Requiring nary the merest of introductions to anyone remotely familiar with genre cinema of the past few decades, Dario Argento has become synonymous with the macabre and a rather special brand at that. Having spent much of his early directorial career working within – and perhaps refining – the Italian giallo film, Argento went decidedly supernatural for his first part in the Three Mothers trilogy: SUSPIRIA.
Hardly the easiest film to synopsize – though surprisingly easy to spoil – Argento’s pastel, candy coated cum savagely dark tale of witchcraft set inside a German ballet school is riddled with the filmmaker’s signature abrupt moments of brutality, committed both off screen and on. Argento’s reputation as a nearly purely visual storyteller, especially prior to and immediately following the 1977 release of this film, is perhaps too potently on display here. Rather than following a linear narrative – and not for lack of trying – SUSPIRIA plays out like an avant garde nightmare, perhaps sharing more in common with the subversive likes of Kenneth Anger or Curtis Harrington than Argento’s more mainstream horror contemporaries.
SUSPIRIA is infinitely more recognizable for its bold aesthetic choices than for any narrative it attempts to force upon the viewer. Using the IB Tech process, which involved dye transfer, Argento allowed the picture to stand out amidst a genre of patently dark, and comparatively pale, features. Unfortunately, it would also be the last horror feature to use the IB Tech process too as the US Technicolor plant shut down in 1975 and in 1977 SUSPIRIA would be the last dye transfer print to be struck in Rome.
Aurally, SUSPIRIA is a mixed bag. Like most other Italian features at the time of its production, dialogue was dubbed in post-production with the actors speaking their native languages on set. The result is different territories getting a voice cast dependent on where they may be and what the native language is rather than any sort of uniformity through subtitling. As it is, no mix of the on set dialogue exchange exists (at least that has been publicly released) which is not all that dissimilar from most other films from Italy at that time, including Argento’s prior work. Fortunately, Argento recruited fan favorite rock band Goblin to compose the now iconic score for the film and the dialogue (which already was nonsensical) takes a justifiable backseat to it.
Though SUSPIRIA is not a giallo film proper – with the genre’s fare typically being crime oriented rather than supernatural – it contains many of the visual hallmarks of works considered to be gialli: sharp weapons, ambiguous killers, beautiful female victims and copious bloodletting. The sound is here too: Goblin’s aforementioned score (though it can be from any source), the ADR screams and, perhaps most importantly, the sound effects. Argento is rather careful about establishing off screen space, and he does it remarkably well here by utilizing sounds that can potentially be coming from any direction. Including the sounds that coincide with – or precede – the various slayings.
Giallo cinema has seen a cinematic appreciation – though not a resurgence – recently, with the 2009 AMER and GIALLO as well as 2012’s BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO. The 2009 titles are primarily intriguing as the latter was helmed by Argento himself yet was not received nearly as well as the latter. AMER is about as narratively confounding as SUSPIRIA and equally aesthetically striking. It is a bit more erotically charged than much of Argento’s work – which is saying something – but it works in establishing itself as a tribute rather than a redefining of sorts. The most recent giallo inspired work is a film that deals with the genre rather explicitly, that of Peter Strickland’s BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO. The film focuses on a British sound artist working on a giallo feature in the 1970s. Its period setting works well in its favor and serves to show many of the tricks of Argento and Co’s trade, replete with some decidedly sinister tricks of its own.
The years have been kind to SUSPIRIA as nothing else quite compares to it. An American remake was announced years ago with David Gordon Green being attached to direct and was met with many groans from the genre devotees, but they need not worry about any attempts at besting Argento’s most oft revered work. For all of its flaws, it’s a singularly bizarre work that’s still strident reputation owes as much a debt to what came after it as what came before. Nobody has made a film quite like SUSPIRIA since 1977 and nobody seems intent to try to.