50 years, 50 films: Suspiria (1977)
In a fine year for world cinema, we pick a hyper-weird Italian horror.
The Italians really are different to the rest of us. Well, that’s a stupid thing to say. The Russians aren’t much like non-Russians either. The Japanese insist upon being Japanese. Bear with me. My point (if I have one) is that Italian cinema seems more of itself than any other national oeuvre. Some very particular things contribute to that. The addiction to post-sync dialogue ensures that the nation’s films sound very unlike those from other countries. It is said that the traditional Italian film set can be a cacophony of sound. As the dialogue is added in later, nobody bothers very much about quietening down the catering truck or stopping passing schoolboys from chattering. But there is, more importantly, a bluster, extravagance and exuberance to Italian movies that acts as a “country of origin” stamp. Nobody makes dramas as huge as did Federico Fellini. Nobody made westerns as operatic as Sergio Leone. And nobody directed horror films as bold as Dario Argento. (Well, apart from other Italians such as Mario Bava, maybe. But you get the point.)
In the mid 1970s, Mr Argento was at the height of his game. He had already given the world classics such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red. Inferno and (starring the young Jennifer Connolly) Phenomena were still to come. Suspiria features everything you could as for from an Argento: pink blood, witches covens, confused young women, a spooky soundtrack from Italian rockers Goblin. The picture is often described as a “Giallo”, but, as Mark Gatiss explained in a fine TV programme on European horror recently, that word describes a very particular kind of slasher film. Suspiria is more enthusiastically supernatural: an American student attends ballet school in Switzerland, but soon discovers that all kinds of ghastly witchcraft is afoot. Derived from Suspiria de Profundis by Thomas de Quincey, the piece is certainly not short of Gothic trappings. Read the synopsis and you might expect it to play out like a dusty Hammer or Universal classic. But Argento’s work was defiantly of its time. The music throbbed progressively. The colours were those of post-glam platform-shoe nausea. The violence was explicit in a way that Hammer never quite managed. Some might say that this embrace of contemporaneous aesthetics means that the film now looks a little dated. That’s just crazy, man. You may as well diss the wind for blowing in any particular direction. The day-glo nuttiness of it is part of the horrible, horrible charm.
That has not stopped David Gordon Green — oddball director of low- and high-brow gems — from threatening to knock together a remake. That plan has been on. That plan has been off again. Meanwhile, Argento has rather lost his way. Indeed, his daughter, the fire-breathing actor Asia Argento, is now probably a tad more famous than her dad. It has been decades since one of his films received theatrical release in this country. The last time I saw one in the cinema — a screening of Dracula 3D at Cannes — I rather wished I’d done something else instead. But he remains one of the greats. If you’ve never watched an Argento horror then you are in for several ghastly treats.
For the record, when picking a film to represent 1977, we also considered Saturday Night Fever, Stroszek, Annie Hall, The American Friend, The Hills Have Eves and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (but not Star Wars). If we were going with our favourite we’d have named Eraserhead, buy Dario needed a shout out. Who knows? We might get to Mr Lynch later on.