“These are the Sorrows, and they are three in number … The eldest of the three is named Mater Lachrymarum, Our Lady of Tears. She it is that night and day raves and moans, calling for vanished faces …The second sister is called Mater Suspiriorum, Our Lady of Sighs. She weeps not. She groans not. But she sighs inaudibly at intervals … But the third sister … Hush! whisper whilst we talk of her … Her name is Mater Tenebrarum, Our Lady of Darkness.” Thomas de Quincey, Suspiria de Profundis (1845)
It’s not surprising that the opium-addled imagery of Thomas de Quincey lies behind Suspiria (1977), the Italian art-horror masterpiece famous for its surreal pictures and sounds. De Quincey’s autobiographical account of Victorian drug addiction, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, and its follow-up, Suspiria de Profundis, helped to popularize “dream-painting”, a very purple, very hallucinatory prose style that explores myth, torment, and the utter confounding of logic. Dream-painting is the perfect vehicle for the horror genre and, thanks to H.P. Lovecraft and other beloved whackjobs, it’s become inseparably linked to representations of fear, madness and the supernatural. The link works on film, too; with its images of high physical and emotional anguish, Suspiria dream-paints something very close to the ecstatic nightmares of opium addiction chronicled by De Quincey and fellow addicts S.T. Coleridge and Wilkie Collins.
1845 takes us too far back. Let’s jump ahead to 1994, when the Internet was a novel household toy and Usenet was creating its own legion of addicts, and opening up a world of fandom to isolated enthusiasts. I was just starting to test the filmbuff waters, and the good folks at some rec.arts.movies.something or other were happy to share wisdom and recommend titles. In a thread devoted to horror movies with true atmosphere and teeth enough to frighten, the name Suspiria kept coming up; since I’d been raised from a sprat on fright flicks (my father took me to see Poltergeist when it hit theaters — I was all of eleven), I’d lost my ability to feel a horror movie and desperately wanted to rediscover the thrill. The evocative title intrigued me as much as the promises I read in the newsgroup about the movie’s impact. I scored a copy (no mean achievement in the days before internet retailing or streaming) and watched it alone in my apartment with the lights out. It worked. I was injected with new levels of affect and awe, and I goosepimpled nicely. I’d had no idea, until Suspiria, that a movie could look or sound like that; the film rolled over me like waves, and I’ve been an apologist for Italian genre cinema ever since. I’d call that impact, at some level, and I owe my first-born to Dario Argento and those kindly Usenetters for the hours of pleasure they opened up for me.
Sure, Suspiria has its flaws, and calling it a Masterpiece might rob me of film cred, for whatever that’s worth. I wouldn’t even say it’s Argento’s best film; Deep Red and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage are better directed, in a technical sense, and have withstood passing decades and fashions with more poise. While it saddens me that bad dubbing and out-of-date special effects are apparently enough nowadays to disgrace an entire film, I understand how Suspiria can come off a little cheddar to those who haven’t trained themselves to “hear” past Cinecittà sound editing. Dubbing always makes the acting look worse than it really is, but dubbing is par for the course when it comes to older Italian genre cinema; no pure, undubbed version of Suspiria exists in any language, as it was shot without sound — each actor speaking her lines in her mother-tongue — and overdubbed in post-production. Other complaints: the plot is almost naked, it’s so thin, and it seems to leave a trail of loose ends and unconnected dots. Characters seem either to under- or overreact to provocation. It also happens that the particular visual stylization, or the lunatic Goblin soundtrack, turn some viewers off at a superficial level — that is, the look and sound of Suspiria just might not be someone’s bag, and in a film that depends on look and sound to work its magic, its aesthetic has to be able to enchant.
According to Argento scholar Maitland McDonagh, it was Daria Nicolodi — actor, screenwriter, and one-time Argento mate — who brought the story’s outline to the project; her grandmother had passed down memories of a boarding school whose faculty supposedly dabbled in the occult. Suspiria’s witch premise was conflated with Argento’s own desire to create a sort of nightmarish fairy tale on film — something supernatural that departed from the procedural world of the giallo. While it’s Argento’s second “Mothers” film, Inferno (1980), that directly addresses De Quincey’s idea of the Three Sorrows (an old alchemist’s book describes the “legend” and the soundtrack rings with it), Suspiria inaugurated the trilogy which Argento has only recently completed; North American release dates for Mother of Tears keep scrambling, but it’s looking like June. But if Suspiria’s plot is accused of being simple or barely there, it’s doubtful such an accusation troubles Argento, whose film is built on the skeletal back of the folktale (he’s cited Snow White as inspiration). The basic structure is all Grimm: a heroine leaves home, disobeys injunctions, discovers magical properties, and finds herself on a sort of quest. One of the male students is the academy’s bullied Cinderella, earning his way as errand-boy to the staff. The doomed Pat runs through the woods in a reddish coat with a figurative wolf on her trail. A narrator foreshadows these motifs as Suspiria opens in the modern Freiburg airport — his hearth voice speaks a few familiar lines of There was once in order to establish the movie’s fairy-tale influence, then retreats and lets events unspool in a city that borders on the storybook Black Forest.
Events go something like this: Suzy (Jessica Harper) is an American ballet student who arrives in Germany on a storm-tossed night, witnesses a girl fleeing her new dance academy, learns the girl was torn apart by a murderer later that very evening and, with the help of another student (Stefania Cassini) and an occult specialist (Udo Kier), uncovers evidence of a malignant coven of witches who instruct ballet by day and chant intonations by night. Naturally these witches are behind the death of the fleeing student and her friend, the savaging of the academy’s pianist, Suzy’s dizzy spells, and other moments of blight and weirdness. If the art design seems a little skewed towards bizarre, and if the narrative thread has all the logic of a fever dream, attentive viewers will pick up on Argento’s deliberate warnings in the film’s first moments: Suzy’s dance academy is located on Escherstrasse, a street name emphasized in the taxi through repetition as Suzy and the driver try to make themselves understood. I have a hard time believing this street name is random; “Escher Street,” in the context of a dream-painted film, conjures up the cocked, illusory images of M.C. Escher — and with that we find ourselves not only inside a fairy tale but in a very unstable sort of dream. Objects come into the foreground, take on significance, then vanish completely (such as a unique lighter obsessed over by the academy’s sinister manservant). In Suspiria, the advance/retreat of a sign is more than a commonplace red-herring or (as some argue) poor continuity — it’s a reflection of the way our own dreams work their non sequiturs: people do over- or underreact to events (especially Suzy, Olga, the blind pianist, and Alida Valli’s iron-fisted Miss Tanner), and people and things appear, disappear and are casually replaced by new people or things. Facts slip and slide, and time is anything but concrete. You can’t enter a building on Escher Street and expect your narrative to be wrapped tightly in workaday hospital-corners, especially when the main character is being pumped full of what might be laudanum every night before bed (the spiked wine, the De Quincey allusions, and Suzy’s symptomatic drowsiness suggest as much, but like everything else in Suspiria, the point is we can never be sure one way or the other).
The movie is as famous for its production design and soundtrack as it is for its outrageous violence; these three elements are structurally inseparable and transform the dream into a nightmare. Sight, sound and murder complement and augment each other so craftily that together they’ve earned Suspiria its Masterpiece credentials (in the art-horror category, if not beyond it). Argento decorates his work with unsettling tableaux — Albert the grotesque Dutch-Boy, or the Rosemary’s Baby “kindness” of smothering caretakers — but this is just veneer lacquered over the supports Argento has moulded improbably from insubstantial music and image. Raised in Verdi country and familiar with the intense bursting of aria out of action, many Italian filmmakers use music operatically — chords mutiny out of stillness and, filtered through Goblin’s proto-symphonic metal, a lullaby becomes a growling carol that shadows Suzy through the peacock-blue rooms and poppy-red halls of the academy. Suspiria is an archetype of brazen lighting design and gel-work, and the film’s saturated colors were deliberately made even more hectic in post-production; the lurid violence is surrounded by lurid hues, and when your eye isn’t being led across the screen by the colors, it’s being fixed in place by the astonishing interiors of apartment lobbies and schools, or the William Morris textiles in Olga’s flat. Argento has, in effect, distilled the beauty of art nouveau into cinematic eye-candy, and to this day I want one of those organic tulip-topped doorways in my home, and a study painted like Madame Blanc’s floral office.
Matthew Barney could be running an LSD drip and a server’s worth of CGI effects — no Suspiria remake can reproduce the phosphorescent uncanniness of Argento’s dream-painted dance academy. Suspiria’s wonder is amber-caught in a specific time, place, and set of aesthetic preferences, and any remake (rumors have churned for a decade) is faced with imitating the inimitable on a framework as gossamer as a notion: ballet school, witches, go! Anything could happen and still might (if the most recent round of talks come to anything), but all the razor wire, maggots and possessed dogs in the world can’t manufacture another Suspiria. Any film, as a cultural product, can only really be made once, of course, but Suspiria somehow seems to be even less reproducible than other movies. Like Eraserhead or “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, this is the kind of artwork that was plucked out of an imagination that barely dared show itself. Argento’s faux-opium trip is indeed from the depths, as De Quincey’s title suggests, and slimed with a personal residue that gives it its signature mood and glimmer. Masterpiece or not, Suspiria possesses the aura of something original and iconic, and any remake will look as counterfeit as a Mona Lisa postcard lying in a damp street three blocks over from the Louvre. It’s of so little consequence, it’s not even worth worrying about. It will be a completely separate film. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on March 27, 2008.)