Saturday 22 December 2018

Season of the witches… Suspiria (1977)

This blog goes where it will, following random trails dictated by the contents of my actual dusty video boxes – they do exist, they’re in the loft – and the directions they take are very often backwards to things I’ve missed. Suspiria has fascinated me for a long time, probably since the NME and Sounds raved about the score from Italian prog band Goblin or, just as likely when the 15-year old me saw the eye-catching poster.

Now we have a new Suspiria with music from Thom Yorke and an all new take on the tale it felt I was long overview a trip to see this in the Prince Charles Cinema just off Leicester Square which led me to purchasing the Blu-ray restored version and to ditch my off-TV VHS recording. I’ve previously raved about Dario Argento’s directorial style on The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and here he is in overdrive with a film packed full of high-quality atmospherics, visceral set design and some extraordinary cinematography from Luciano Tovoli.

Even though there are some graphic segments, there’s so much more uneasiness created by the controlled build up of tension and the casting of the odd and unusual figures; the old women who work in the dance school, the young boy in a period satin pageboy suit, a giant servant who looks so much less fearsome after recent dental work (ha, Dario, ha-ha) and the blind pianist with the Doberman guide dog…

 The sets are extreme, like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on the baddest of trips with reds and yellows, and blocks of deep blue all marking the environment as in-human and uncomfortable. The dancing school sweet Suzy Bannion (the perfectly-cast Jessica Harper) finds herself in is just about believable, but those colours paint a warning from the start.

Tovoli’s camera makes the absolute most of these gifts with acute angles, and massive overhead shots that seem to encompass impending doom whilst at the same time giving the viewer fleeting re-assurance that we’ll be above it… it’s so cruel as we’ll soon be down watching the blood flow and the flesh get ripped.

Then there is the director’s superb use of the score; a character in its own right, that bustles, buzzes and moans creating tension throughout always reverting to a spine-tingling main theme that is not prog exactly but a foretaste of modern composition used ever since. It’s not quite what I expected and genuinely feels out of time, as indeed, does the film.

Jessica Harper, Alida Valli and Joan Bennett
But nothing sends signals quite like the behaviour of odd people and Agento has brought out the disquiet in all of his performers. Even when, in searching for her missing friend, Sara (Stefania Casini), Suzy goes to talk to a psychologist who knows her Dr. Frank Mandel played with a strange intensity by a coca cola guzzling Udo Kier. The conversation is framed by an overhead shot showing the vast, ultra-modern university as if from the wings of a dark bird of prey, the camera swooping closer in as if the two are being watched… there’s no “comfort breaks” in this film and we’re pulled relentlessly on.

The film begins in a downpour as Suzy arrives in Munich to discover that the very elements seem to be against her… this foreshadowing is nothing compared to the reception she gets at the school as a young woman pushes past her and runs off screaming as if pursued by the hounds of hell. Suzy’s finally welcomed by the senior staff at the Tanz Dance Academy, instructor, Miss Tanner (the excellent Alida Valli) and the headmistress, Madame Blanc (*the* Joan Bennett no less…).  She meets the other students, friendly Sara and alpha school bully Olga (Barbara Magnolfi) who she gets to share an apartment with in town.

It's all very off-kilter and deliberately unsettling with director and musicians hitting the viewer with shock and unease; there’s no time to settle in a film when almost everyone our heroin meets is weird.

Suzy joins the ballet school but what she has not seen is the subsequent death of the girl she met, Patricia Hingle (Eva Axén) who has been killed by unseen forces along with a friend… you can leave the school perhaps but you cannot escape the forces within.

Soon, Suzy herself is overcome by a strange illness and the school doctor, Professor Verdegast (Renato Scarpa) decides that Suzy's anaemia is to be treated with a regular glass of red wine or, something that looks like red wine. Suzy soon finds out more unsettling gossip from Sara as weird events continue such as an infestation of maggots falling down on the girls’ hair which forces them to sleep in the hall where they hear the most revolting snores from an ancient sleeper nearby…

Then Sara goes missing and as Suzy seeks answers from Mandel, she hears of how the school was established by a Greek woman named Helena Markos, who locals believed was a witch. Markos supposedly perished in a fire that destroyed most of the school but, as one of Mandel’s colleagues Professor Milius, explains, a coven is unable to survive without its leader… could it be that witchcraft governs the Academy still?

Well, what do you reckon…?

Dusty Verdict: Suspiria is stone-cold classic of period horror that more than stands the test of time due to the quality of design, soundscapes and direction; a genuine art-house success

The film was based on Suspiria de Profundis by Thomas De Quincey and I look forward to reading that *after* watching the Luca Guadagnino 2018 version for comparison: no matter how good it is I find it hard to think it’ll be as uncanny and unsettling as Argento’s relentless and unpredictable atmospherics.

No comments:

Post a Comment