Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Section 3: Suspiria

Section 3: Suspiria

Welcome to Section 3, the DPP's further viewing list of highly recommended horror and exploitation films that existed outside the Video Nasties list. This first episode we have an eminently seizable title that holds up as a favourite and a classic amongst the catalogue of the horror maestro Dario Argento. Thomas De Quincey provides the inspiration and Argento supplies the beautiful brutality as we join Jessica Harper on a trip into Hell on earth. Ballet and blood and evil incarnate come together in the twisted world of Suspiria.

Susie Banyon travels to Germany to attend a highly prestigious dance academy. Almost immediately on her arrival though things start to take a dark turn when people begin to disappear or turn up dead in gruesome circumstances. As soon as she starts to attend classes she finds herself drawn involuntarily closer to the school which attempts to control every aspect of her life. When Susie looks into the dark history of the school she realises that something is terribly wrong with the staff, and that the sordid past of the school hasn't been entirely consigned to history.

Suspiria, Dario Argento's diversion into supernatural tales, is generally regarded as one of his best. His step outside of the giallo genre that made him famous still bears the marks of his earlier giallo work though the visuals in Suspiria go beyond anything he'd done before.

Suspiria is in every respect a nightmare in cinematic form. Its look, its feel is so deeply ingrained in childish nightmares that the fitful night terrors of childhood come flooding back immediately when you sit in front of this masterpiece of horror cinema. There is an unmistakable childish nature to the story, Dario reportedly had wanted to cast girls of 12 years and younger for the film and this was overruled due to the obvious problems the film would suffer if it meted out such violence upon kids. However despite the casting revision the script, the set, and the events still strongly suggest a story that is routed in a pre pubescent world.
First of all there the authoritarian world that the child exists in, the authority structure of the school is not one that adults would be expected to found in and though Susie does comment on her disdain for the boarding school lifestyle, for the most part the script keeps the dancers in the film as children in all but body, they are rather infantile and Susie herself is a doe like innocent.
The world of Suspiria is filled with images from the dream world, all the childish anxieties of nightmares in fact it goes so far it's almost Freudian in it's obsession with childhood trauma though the sexual anxieties of Freudian concerns is almost entirely absent. For the most part Suspiria bases itself in other fears, most noticeably a fear of authority figures and a fear of lack of control. It's the adults that constantly pose the most overt threat as we are never, until very late, privy to what their plans are, or indeed why they are the way they are. Susie herself is very much out of control, her only glimmer of independence is taken away from her almost immediately when she's forced to take residence in the halls rather than her apartment. She's also constantly drugged, told what and how much to eat and is generally manipulated by the staff of the halls. Childish anxiety is a strong theme through out Suspiria, Susie is even right from the beginning inflicted with separation from the familiar, and immersion into an entirely domineering world that smothers her independence. Following on from the implied youth of the characters these things in particular play into the idea that the subtext to the story is one of the anxieties, fears and frustrations of the transition from prepubescence into the turmoil of puberty where everyone becomes the enemy. The recent release of Black Swan, which ran like a love letter to Suspiria, in a good way I hasten to add, saw a rather different take on the characters in which it is very much a sexual awaking tale, Suspiria doesn't seem to go as far as that though. There are some subtle sexual references, and possibly a couple of passing references to bodily sexual maturity, for the most part Argento focuses on a more innocent mind set with Susie Banyon showing little or no interest in the pretty boys at the academy, other than a passing and childish crush on one of the male dancers, the treatment of her is oddly tentative for Italian horror, though Argento often seems to have these female figures who are entirely innocent, even in the eyes of the often leering camera. Jessica Harper fits into this role perfectly. Her slight figure is strikingly youthful and she has a face and eyes that project a doe like innocence, indeed her appearance and demeanour are child like to the point that she is stripped of sexual focus, and it's rather notable considering how beautiful she is that Argento resists any opportunity to exploit her looks.

Harper has used this aspect of her appearance to create the contrast between innocence and experience in other films, particularly the Rocky Horror follow up Shock Treatment where Janet once again undergoes a character transformation, this time she's seduced by fame to become an attention seeking media whore. The transformation here though is more about breaking the shackles of control, her teachers, though ostensibly evil witches here, are most concerned with control, to the point where Susie's diet and even state of consciousness is controlled. Susie does something that rings of a young girls behaviour when trying to gain some semblance of control of their lives, she throws her food down the toilet.
Another aspect of the world as part of Susie's mind set is the architecture. Much of the architecture in Suspiria has a bizarre look to it, it's very strikingly gaudy and bold, it in many ways resembles a dolls house in appearance and it's a notable feature that the scale of the buildings design is such as to dwarf the actors in them. Even the door handles are placed too high which further reduces their stature, again lending a child like aspect to their interaction with the environment around them.

It's notable that the set design seems to lift from the stylistic approach of The cabinet of Dr Caligari, not only an appropriate choice for the country this is set in but also appropriate because of the sonumbalist thread to that story. The structure and capturing of these sets leans heavily into the expressionist style, and it has an uncomfortable, disorientating sense to it

This aspect amongst others puts us firmly in the point of view of Susie. Suspiria is very much a trip into a nightmare inspired by the anxieties of youth. This world is presented to us in the form a cinematic representation of a literal nightmare. The dream world is not only highly exaggerated, something which is heightened by the use of colour, the crazed, yet strangely formal set design and of course the extraordinary collage of sound, but by the fevered interpretation of the events, in particular the most violent.
In one scene we find one of the girls being chased by the mysterious, faceless killer. When she escapes into the room we get an odd, and tortuous scene where the killer is inexplicably having a hard time raising the catch on a door latch. This feels lifted from the irrational mind, it's the slow, painful and deliberately tortuous, it's also rather abstract and clearly more about the build up of fear than presenting a reality. This is the stuff of nightmares, a slow but inevitable creeping towards you of the big bad and if there's any doubt of that this is a dream world then the girls tortuous death in a bed of razor wire should make it clear. This is a classic nightmare scenario, being slowed down, sometimes painfully, by some bizarre aspect of your surroundings. It's this inevitability, the inescapable and relentless attacks that reflect the nightmare world so perfectly and the iconic opening murder is frankly breathtaking and bizarre at the same time. The victim suffers what could be described as one of cinemas greatest moments of overkill as she's pushed through a window then stabbed time after time only to be dropped from a great height and hanged by the neck while simultaneously her flat mate is killed by the falling debris. It's sequences like this and many others
that display argento's rather refined talent for conducting visuals in an almost musical sense, when this is backed up by his work with the iconic musical landscape the Goblins lay down it all combines to be a seamless combination of image and sound. The skill that this handled with makes Suspiria one of the most accomplished piece of film making not only in the horror genre but in film in general. One of the most fascinating examples of this is a scene right at the beginning where we are introduced to Susie. Symmetry is heavily employed throughout the film, from the architecture to the blocking of the actors, and this is what we immediately find with this shot that seems tense, almost uptight in it's order but not extraordinary in an obvious way. The Goblins play a gentle, almost music box like riff, that despite is gentle, childish qualities also carries an oddly menacing undertone. This of course culminates with Susie walking through the sliding door when the calm and quiet of the airport is suddenly replaced on the cue of the doors hydraulic hiss by the storm outside. Susie's transition from the safe and familiar world into the brutal dream world is now complete. This transition is something of a theme within both this and Inferno, it's the transition from the real world into the fantasy or dream world and it's often accompanied with the familiar use of primary colours that Argento's supernatural films are known for. The depth of the colours was achieved by using the three strip process which allowed Argento to have exquisite control over colour saturation. As a technical side note it seems the scenes were lit with orange gels instead of red which makes sense considering the problems cameras have with reading reds, it allowed the camera to do it's work to a higher standard and the three strip process then allowed Argento to manipulate it colour in post to achieve the desired tone and intensities.
All the various methods and devices Argento uses to construct these dream worlds make them so effective at working their way into the psyche. They play on familiar themes of lack of control, of being an outsider, a fear of strangers and of course the manifestation of evil incarnate.
In the case of Suspiria it's also carries the baggage of childhood and here Argento manipulates everything form the set design in scale and style to make Susie look smaller than she is but also camera angles are carefully selected to further this effect....In this shot where Susie has been taken ill she's infantilsed not only by the actions of the overbearing authority figures around her but is placed very low and in a submissive position, in short she looks very child like in this shot. As I've mentioned before Jessica Harper did already look quite childlike already and this shot does have her reduced in stature to that of a helpless child being fussed over by an overbearing family. The costumes enhance this as well by stripping the girls of sexuality further beyond the innocence of their written characters.

When it comes to costumes, these seem to be deliberately designed to hide the adult attributes of her figure and accentuate the fragile aspects of her stature, again refusing the chance to exploit her sexuality. The overall effect is one of making her seem childishly feminine.
In essence what seems to be happening with Suspiria is that we're following a transition from childhood into adolescence a time that is accompanied by a distrust of and push against authority. It's unusual in this sense that it focuses on some more subtle fears rather than the raging hormones sexual awakening tale ala Black Swan, which I rate very highly though Suspiria is less exploitative in some regards as it tells as involved a tale, just without the promise of eroticism.
Regardless of the subtext of the film though Suspiria is a masterpiece of cinematic art. It's adventurous use of colour, the extraordinary set pieces, the set design and the unnerving dream like qualities all tied together with one of the best and most effective soundtracks to grace a film make this an extraordinary piece of movie making. Visually powerful, aurally gripping and engaging on multiple levels, Suspiria comes as close to being the perfect horror film as is possible and stands in my opinion as the most solidly accomplished film of Argento's that I have seen, some of the others come close but don't quite match this extraordinary film...

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