After watching Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977) for the third time, I have a few thoughts about why it remains so interesting... How is it that Argento never again matched the audio-visual shock of this film? While obviously sensationalist, stiffly acted and generally absurd, every scene in this movie displays an idiosyncratic approach to editing, sound and set design. Like many viewers, I am amazed by the film's confident, over-the-top beauty and grotesquery. Intensely artificial, Suspiria produces a Brechtian distance that I find thoroughly enjoyable. Cinematic effects are emphasized at the cost of coherence. While some of these eccentricities may be the result of low budgets or technical limitations, I find it more interesting to treat them as intentional - stylistically or conceptually purposeful.
Suspiria is sometimes attacked as being overly stylized, or stylized at the cost of content. However, it’s exactly this excess that I like - the way the film so obviously reveals itself as a machine for producing effects. The first thing we notice is the use of overly theatrical lighting - intense reds, blues and greens sculpt space and create chromatic drama. This is apparently a tradition among Italian giallo directors, as demonstrated in a much earlier film, Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964).
Argento amplifies the color to an even greater degree, emphasizing its garish and cartoon-like possibilities. We first encounter ballet student Suzy Banyon in the generic modernist space of an airport where the pools of primary color seem out of place. We immediately know that something is very wrong...
The same excess could be noted in the editing style of this first sequence. As Suzy leaves the airport, Argento abruptly cuts to a close-up of the automatic door’s pneumatics. The edit feels similar to the three-shot “salvo” in the “Dead Dan” sequence of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963).
While Hitchcock reserves this technique for the climactic moment of his film, in Suspiria it is unmotivated, and the significance is unclear. Suzy’s world is presented as one in which ordinary objects and encounters are overloaded with unexplained dread. The effect peels away from meaning and the edit becomes a stylistic device.
Sam Raimi plays a similar game with the viewer in Drag Me to Hell (2009), for example in a scene where a white handkerchief “attacks” the windshield of a car, animated by a sharp edit and a blast of "stinger" music.
By quickly deflating itself, the moment reveals how shock is unrelated to content and is instead simply a collection of techniques, designed to manipulate audience response. Raimi invites us to observe our own reactions and to laugh at the silliness of how easily we can be controlled. Argento, on the other hand, maintains a serious, even maudlin tone throughout. The same jump-cut technique is again used as Suzy rides in a taxi through the rainy night. Streams of blue water rush noisily into a sewer grate and we are left wondering – what is the significance of this shot? Should we pay special attention? Will the theme of water be developed later? Does the shot explain something about Suzy’s mental state? In the end, it seems only to emphasize a universal dread - a sense that the banal world has become filled with antagonistic ill-will.
Such antagonism is pervasive and can also be found in Suzy’s interactions with other characters. While she seems to be a sincere and well-meaning young woman, the residents of this unidentified German town are snide, ironic, rude, demanding and aggressive. Their attitude seems so entirely unprovoked that we have to wonder where it comes from. Are we witnessing the subjective view of a paranoid schizophrenic?
This transformation of the “normal” world reminds me of a description of physical exhaustion on Radiolab. As a long-distance biker pushes past his bodily limits, his mind revolts and hallucinations emerge, creating a final burst of desperate adrenaline. It also reminds me of the spooky forest sequence in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), in which the limbs of trees transform into monstrous claws, clutching at Snow White’s dress as she flees. This animation, a direct inspiration for Argento, itself
was based on classic horror films such as Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931).
The soundtrack by Goblin is another strong component of the film, and one much noticed by fans. There are a number of things that make the soundtrack unusual, beyond the groovy psychedelic music itself. First, we notice how prominent the music is, and how quickly it takes over. The soundtrack often subsumes the image and these sequences begin to feel like a music video. Apparently, the music was often played loudly on the set to put the actors in the appropriate mood (a technique David Lynch also employs). In the first sequence of the film, Argento cuts between tracking shots of Suzy in the airport, and shots from her perspective. With matched sound edits, the music is associated to Suzy’s point of view - but why? It continues through her rainy taxi journey, and returns again and again throughout the course of the movie. These manipulations of intensity are impressive and, like many of the other elements, incoherent. Where do these layers of creepy voices and demonic growls reside? They create an ambiguous space – more than soundtrack, but not quite diagetic. Overall, this excess has a tendency to flatten the film. Rather than building toward moments of violence, the entire atmosphere is suffused and equalized.
I’m also intrigued by the ambiguous role of the “band” Goblin. Too moody to really succeed outside the context of Argento’s films, and yet too forceful to operate as simply supportive emotional soundtracking, Goblin are stuck between the world of fiction and the real world.
There are other pleasurable discomforts in the sound design of Suspiria. Many of the sound effects are over-loud or over-close. The voice dubbing displays the infamous Italian tendency towards looseness, and many of the vocal affectations (accents, etc.) are ambiguous and exaggerated. The editing of dialogue reveals strange shifts in acoustics, moving inconsistently between various amounts and types of reverberation in a single scene. The acting itself feels both stilted and hyperbolic. I often have the impression that actors are reading their lines from scripts.
An additional distance is created in the lack of appropriateness in the script itself. Apparently, the lines were originally written for ten-year old actresses. When it was decided that the film was too violent for such young actresses, the script was not revised to reflect adult attitudes. Thus we have actresses who don't "fit" their lines, adult women who act like children, and a feeling that the dialogue splits away from the "reality" of a scene. This distance between the voices and their on-screen bodies again creates a beautiful artificiality.
Finally, one must comment on the outrageous geometry of the sets, with their art-nouveau curves and sinuous lines. In combination with the dramatic, richly-colored lighting, these over-embellished floral patterns and contrasting ornamentations produce a refracted, gothic, interior world. The consistency and zeal with which Argento decorates this film is excessive. Scopophilic pleasures are encouraged and in many ways become their own separate (even dominant) plotline. It’s worth noting that characters in Argento’s films are often killed by pieces of art. Is there a thesis here about the dangers of beauty?