With Deep Red's success the obvious option for Argento would have been to make another giallo. Instead he opted for a shift of genre to outright fantasy horror. His first thoughts were of adapting something by the American writer H. P. Lovecraft, whose work had earlier also interested Bava1, but for whatever reason he decided against this2. His next source of inspiration was, in any case, somewhat improbable: Walt Disney and his 1937 version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In other words, then, Argento was pointedly ignoring the more obvious Italian horror/fantasy tradition emerging in the wake of I Vampiri and represented by the likes of Bava's Black Sunday (1960) and Antonio Margheriti's Castle of Blood (1964) in favour of earlier, more formative influences. This fairy tale material was then blended with Daria Nicolodi's stories of her grandmother, who had studied at a Steiner school that apparently proved home to a coven of witches. Indeed, Nicolodi has sometimes claimed to be a white witch and takes credit for fostering Argento's interest in the occult3, though in his case it appears more an awareness than actual belief. Early drafts of Suspiria's screenplay thus had the protagonists as young girls at a boarding school, but obvious logistical difficulties encouraged Argento and Nicolodi to rethink the project with more adult characters, changing the school into a dance academy.
The legacy of the original idea (which would re-emerge in Phenomena, where the lead role was played by the then 15yearold Jennifer Connolly) can however still be felt in Suspiria's production design, with door handles, for instance, being positioned higher than normal to create a near subliminal sense of the young dancers' infantilised status. At this stage Nicolodi was slated for the lead role though this idea was also abandoned. Argento's version is that his partner sustained an 11th hour injury meaning she could not perform the dancing integral to the role4, although Nicolodi, has asserted that the film's US backers wanted a more 'bankable' i.e. American name and that she was unwilling to accept a secondary role5. Whatever the case, the lead role was ultimately taken by Jessica Harper, whose credits included Brian de Palma's The Phantom of the Paradise (1974), an eclectic mixture of Faust, The Phantom of the Opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray and rock opera in accord with Argento's penchant for excess6.
The comparatively long production period had a crucial impact on the film's scoring. Whereas with the likes of Deep Red music was added after filming had been completed, here the score or more precisely, a 'scratch' version was completed beforehand. As such, the normal relationship between image and sound tracks, whereby the former is dominant and the latter subordinate, could be explored and challenged. Suspiria can therefore be aligned with a select number of so-called composed or part composed films including Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938), Powell and Pressburger's/The Archers The Red Shoes (1947) and The Tales of Hoffman (1951) and Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. A consideration of the approaches taken by these directors and their associated musical collaborators Sergei Prokofiev for Eisenstein, Ennio Morricone for Leone nevertheless reveals a diversity of practices and underlying assumptions. For Eisenstein the key idea in using sound was a contrapuntal one. It was but one more element within his developing theory of montage, increasingly becoming less about the power of editing alone to construct meaning and more about the expressive possibilities for combination and contrast or, in more dialectical thesis antithesis synthesis terms, conflict and resolution afforded by colour and sound, composition within the frame, camera position and angle and so forth7.
For The Archers the prime goal seems (ostensibly) apolitical: Rather than using the cinematic medium and its distinctive techniques to lead the spectator to political understanding the aim was a more conventional emotional/cathartic one, the aesthetic a somewhat intuitive, non-theoretical one of advancing the Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk into the 20th century. Leone, in turn, pursued a different form of (horse) opera, with the use of the Wagnerian notion of the leitmotif and here we can recall that the term was in fact used by Argento and co screenwriter Bernardino Zapponi within Deep Red, while the girl's school in Phenomena is actually named after Wagner himself undercut and ironicised by Ennio Morricone's decidedly idiosyncratic musical approach. Put another way, whereas Wagner may have introduced the 'Wagner Tuba' to the orchestra, one wonders what he would have made of Morricone's use of the harmonica as a lead instrument in Once Upon a Time in the West or his parodic deployment of 'The Ride of the Valkyries' in My Name is Nobody (Tonino Valerii/Sergio Leone8, 1973) Clearly, it would take more space than we have available here to fully explore matters here we have not, for instance, touched on Eisenstein's productions of Wagner nor Powell's later adaptation of Bela Bartok's modernist opera Bluebeard's Castle (1964), with libretto by film theorist Béla Balász the point being more to initially establish the surfeit of possibilities afforded Argento even before we consider the indigenous operatic tradition, downplayed here but emphasised within Opera; the film being inspired by Argento's abortive attempts at mounting an opera production and featuring a "horror director" staging an avant-garde production of Verdi's Macbeth.
Suspiria's credits are rendered in the same graphic style as Deep Red, thereby immediately creating a sense of continuity and authorial identity. This time, however, there are no visual interruptions, thereby placing the emphasis on the sound first a low rumble, building to a crescendo, then the "celesta and bells" leitmotif, a gentle music box like melody with resonant percussion and near-subliminal vocals9, along with a voiceover10:
Suzy Banyon decided to perfect her ballet studies at the most famous school of dance in Europe. She chose the celebrated academy of Freiburg. One day at nine in the morning she left Kennedy airport in New York and arrived in Germany at 10.40 p.m. local time.
Immediately, then, we are being ambiguously positioned between contrasting registers of discourse, one concrete and mundane reminiscent, perhaps, of Psycho's specificity ("Phoenix, Arizona. Friday, December the eleventh. Two forty-three p.m.") the other redolent with magical possibility, in a characteristic excess of interpretive possibilities.
Our sense that the still unidentified Suzy is about, in mythic terms, to cross the threshold to adventure11, continues with the first images of the film proper, of an arrivals board and a succession of people filtering through a symmetrically composed doorway, framed on either side by too bright pink and green decoration.
Argento then cuts to a white clad young woman, who we can assume to be Suzy, his Snow White, flanked on either side by red dressed counterparts (sharp-eyed viewers might note that the woman on the left is Daria Nicolodi in a cameo; she also appears to shoot Suzy a knowing, perhaps hostile glance.)
This is followed by a point of view shot, the title theme briefly reappearing on the soundtrack then fading once more as we cut back to Suzy, then to the mechanism of the automatic doors. Here, while reminiscent of the de-familiarising views of objects within Deep Red, there is nevertheless something about the almost sentient malevolence with which they hiss open, signalling a key difference: Suzy is being presented as less the tourist of the giallo than the fantasy film's quester. The impression is enhanced by the apparent suddenness and severity of the storm by now familiar primal, elemental imagery into which she emerges, accompanied by another appearance of the main theme, this time developed through vocalist Claudio Simonetti hissing "witch". A succession of taxis pass before Suzy compels one to stop by almost throwing herself in front. The driver12, nevertheless, declines to help her with her luggage, the first of the film's moments of selfishness and petty cruelty.
By now a number of things have becoming increasingly apparent: Argento's conscious interventions are evident throughout in lighting, design, camera angle and movement, composition and the interplay of sound and image. Or, as Kim Newman (1988) succinctly puts it, "all set pieces, and thus all of a piece"13 though one necessarily thereby also disagrees with his situating of Inferno as the moment of fruition here). The audio channel, meanwhile, is even more important than it has been hitherto (and here we might also mention as a way of reiterating the point that Argento has never been merely a great visual stylist that one of his protagonists in Four Flies on Grey Velvet, ex-journalist Franco Arno, was actually blind, prefiguring the character of the blind pianist here) with the leitmotif now having been repeated three times, heralding the witches' presence. At the same time, this is offset by the sheer intensity of the hyper saturated colours. The excess is, as Argento explains, calculatedly absolute:
I studied using Dolby and then decided that four track is better, the sound is much more powerful… I also used outdated old Kodak stock, a formula nearly 40 years old… it was processed using the old three pack process… never used these days. You can alter the look of the film in the lab by those means.14
Here, the Disney influence again asserts itself if we consider not only Disney's pioneering work with Technicolor in the Silly Symphonies series but also his experimental use of stereo sound on 1940's Fantasia, a film that arguably exhibits a similar aesthetic to Argento, even if his lack of concern with bourgeois 'good taste' also distances him from it. The chain of interpretive possibilities (and contradictions) then continues as we recall Eisenstein's liking for Disney's product if not politics Mickey Mouse as his 'American Friend' and the opportunities the Soviet director had to work with the expressive/subversive potential of colour within Ivan the Terrible Part II (1946/5815) free from the strictures that 'Technicolor Consultant' Natalie Kalmus sought to impose on The Archers within the likes of Black Narcissus (1947), a film equally relevant here for its female dominated environment, hysterical excesses and juxtaposition of idealistic religious/mystical and rationalist/psychological discourses.
Here, of course, Argento and director of photography Luciano Tovoli were free to do whatever they wanted even down, as we shall see, to producing some single colour tinting-like effects.
If this opening sequence thus seems geared towards a unidirectional emotional/visceral effect in the manner of the gesamtkunstwerk, that it is also so self-consciously artificial and stylised can be seen as affording the possibility for a more detached, intellectual appreciation even if again multiplying the contradictions it seems at this point to be setting the stage for a case of "art for art sake"16 or "a tale of sound and fury, told by a madman, signifying nothing" that would not find favour with the politically motivated critic/theorist17.
The nightmarish taxi ride is characterised by the play of red and blue lights across Suzy's face and further displays of 'nature'18 in the raw water cascading down drains and waterfalls, lightning flashes momentarily penetrating the darkness sees Argento essay now familiar themes of language and communication as Suzy struggles to make herself understood, simultaneously referencing another artistic influence:
As the taxi draws up to the Tanzacademie, a red art deco style building adorned with gargoyles and such details as an Illuminati-like red triangle above the door and a plaque commemorating the alchemist Erasmus of Rotterdam, Pat Hingle flings open the door and yells, her cries obscured by the crash of thunder, and flees.
Taxi driver: Was?
Taxi driver: Was? [She shows him the address on a piece of paper] Ah, Escherstrasse!
Unable to gain admittance to the Tanzacademie, the figure on the other side of the door telling her to "go away", Suzy returns to town, Pat now running through the trees in parallel. It is about the only thing we can really say about the emerging spatial and temporal relationships, their lack of clarity further signalling the move from the mundane to the magical. Then we cut to Pat's arrival at her friend's house. From the design and décor of the place note, for instance, the red triangle atop the lift and the appearance of the celesta and bells leitmotif on the audio track it is however apparent that it is no 'place of safety'. Pat's friend tries to find out what has happened but soon gives up. "It's useless to try and explain it to you. You wouldn't understand. It all seems so absurd, so fantastic," remarks Pat, her self-conscious remarks doubtless characterising many a spectator's responses as well, before going to dry herself off in a bright pink bathroom, decorated with Escherian tessellations.
Argento cuts to an exterior, the bathroom window now but a small square in the centre of the frame, surrounded by pools of red and blue light. The motivation of the shot is confirmed as, with Pat turning away from us, we start to track in. As if in response, Pat peers out into the night, the lamp in her hand serving only to better illuminate her mirror image in the glass. With the shock amplified by a jarring noise on the soundtrack, she and we glimpse a pair of (seemingly?) disembodied, inhuman eyes glowing in the darkness. Pat recoils in shock, then resumes her search.
Suddenly a hairy arm smashes through the left windowpane, grabs Pat and presses her head up against the right pane, percussive noise building on the soundtrack. Outside her friend hammers on the door and raises the alarm. We cut back to Pat, who has mysteriously escaped to elsewhere more a "gothic space" than an "any space whatever", given the lighting the spatial relationships again confused and confusing. Bathed in red and blue light, a knife plunges into her chest. As the montage continues, we get a gratuitous shot of Pat's exposed heart being penetrated and beating its last. The moment seems almost pornographic, as if Argento wanted us to see the 'actual' moment of death in a manner analogous to pornographic cinema's "frenzy of the visible" in the form of the (male) orgasm or, as Argento himself would remind us, le petit mort:
In such an intense physical act like murder between the victim and murderer there is something sensual, something erotic deep down… The knife, for example, is phallic, which we all know, and therefore the link between the two orgasms the death orgasm and the sexual one.19
Argento is not however content to leave things here though as the killer now ties Pat's body with a cord and allows it to smash through the stained glass cupola. The body plummets through and jerks to a stop a few feet above the ground. Pat's friend, meanwhile, has been fatally impaled by falling debris. Fundamentally the whole set piece again really has to be seen for the way it takes everything to an entirely new level, such that we can say it manages to standing out as a set piece in a film where everything is a set piece without inconsistency. If ever there was the aestheticisation of death and murder as art form or a moment that made Argento's name as "the Vicente Minelli of ultra-violence"20 this would surely have to be it.
And if there is thereby a danger of skirting close to Walter Benjamin's fascist aesthetics21 remembering here not so much Minelli as Busby Berkely and the associations Susan Sontag saw between his choreography and that of Leni Reifenstahl we can only reiterate that it is about art/art-horror rather than reality/realityhorror22 here, even if Benjamin could then legitimately counter that the point is to bring the two together and politicise aesthetics. (Here it can be noted in passing that within Lucio Fulci's Suspiria-influenced City of the Living Dead (1980) the director sought to justify a gory scene in which a retarded young man is drilled through the head by a redneck type as "a cry… against a certain sort of fascism"23)
After the contrived artificiality of everything thus far it comes as something of a shock to see the Tanzacademie in (apparently) natural daylight as Suzy enters the building and meets the instructors, led by the stern Miss Tanner and the too nice vice director Madame Blanc - the director herself is conspicuously absent accompanied by her creepy young nephew, Albert. It is perhaps not much of a welcome, however, as Suzy learns that "some madman" murdered Pat Hingle after she been expelled for "improper conduct" the previous night. Nor is there a room for her at the academy as planned.
Instead, she will have to say with one of the other students, at a cost of $50 a week; an unexpected register of mundane reality that contrasts markedly with Guiseppe Basan's characteristically extravagant interior designs. Intertextually, meanwhile, the casting of Alida Valli and Joan Bennett here establishes associations with the (Italian) operatic of Visconti's Senso (1954); the attempt to understand the mentality of fascism24 of The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1948); and Lang's noirs The Woman in the Window (1945) and The Secret Beyond the Door (1948).
As Miss Tanner leads Suzy on the way to the locker room and her fellow students, the young woman overhears Madame Blanc's conversation with the police and mentions she saw Pat leaving. Here, as McDonagh points out, continuing her Proppian analysis of the film as (admittedly self-conscious and hence problematised) myth, Suzy can be seen as breaking the first of a series of injunctions, sticking her nose in where it is not wanted25, the move also reaffirming her status as another of Argento's artist-investigator protagonists with the too-quotidian police predictably playing no further part.
Suzy's fellow students seem characterised by petty squabbling and greed. One is a telltale and spy for Miss Tanner, while another seeks to sell rather than lend Suzy a pair of ballet shoes for the day. The sole exception is the jumpy, neurotic Sara, an(other) obvious outsider. In contrast Suzy's new housemate, Olga, is in her element: "Sara, Suzy. I once read that names that begin with the letter S are the names of snakes." But, back in their garishly decorated apartment, she seems to warm to Suzy somewhat: It is "just how people are here," not to be taken too seriously.
Mark, an impoverished young man who performs various chores for Miss Tanner ("that bitch") to pay his way, arrives with Suzy's cases but declines the offer to stay. "They get very upset if you show up late for supper," he explains. Suzy also recalls fragments of what Pat said, something about a "secret" "irises" thereby posing a mystery and cluing us in to the panoptic qualities of the Tanzacademie and its denizens. (Recall the Illuminati-like triangle, admittedly sans all-seeing eye, above the main doorway.)
If, then, the preceeding gialli could be seen as exploring the inadequacies of masculine authority and symbolic order, Argento's first outright horror film seems to be expressing grave doubts as to the feminine alternative26.
While we could no doubt again read this as evidence of a deep seated misogyny on Argento's part, Daria Nicolodi's co-authorship introduces further complexities and contradictions.
Suzy returns to the academy the next day to be told by Madame Blanc a room is now available. She can move in immediately. Preferring to stay with Olga, she politely declines the offer. The rebuff elicits surprising approval from Miss Tanner "my compliments. I had no idea you were so strong willed" though it is soon evident that something is afoot when, en route to the "yellow room" through the womblike passages of the Academy, the witches leitmotif plays on the soundtrack before Suzy is caught in a beam of magical light by one of the ogrish Romanian servants, causing her to almost faint. Still weakened, she attempts to resist Miss Tanner's injunctions to dance, but the instructor is insistent: "Come on, it's an easy step… get those knees up higher! You're not paralysed!"
Suzy pirouettes to the ground in a faint, blood coming from her nostrils as the now-diegetic music stops in a typical triumph of effect over logic how does the blind pianist Daniel know what has just happened? The sequence, then, might be read as something of an intertextual reference to The Red Shoes, whether in the form of Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale or The Archers' film of the same name. But where Andersen's ballerina was compelled to dance to her death, Suspiria's witches only want to bring Suzy closer to them.
She awakens in one of the Tanzacademie bedrooms, her gear supposedly having been brought by Olga who, in an equally suspicious display of generosity, has also returned the $50. (Olga is conspicuously absent from the remainder of the film.) The sinister Professor Verdegast the name, as McDonagh notes seems to refer to the Bela Lugosi character in Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat27 (1934), though she fails to then pursue the question of whether Ulmer's use of modernist Bauhaus architecture in a horror/fantasy context might also have influenced Argento in any way here gives the confused and vulnerable Suzy an injection and prescribes that she should "eat bland food for about a week" with "no fruit", although a glass of red wine with each meal is endorsed.
It seems a curious regime and set of licenses and prohibitions, but one in accord with the film's eclectic and syncretic approach. (Argento would replay this trope with variation in the fantasy-horror/giallo hybrid Phenomena, where protagonist Jennifer Corvino's vegetarianism functions as irrelevant, excessive detail.28)
Later, Sara comes to visit, the room now being bathed in red light. Suzy feels strong, "as if nothing had happened" and voices her frustration at being stuck "in a boarding school like a ten year old," momentarily recalling the earlier draft screenplay. Another of the Tanzacademie's ogres, the creepy handyman Pavlos, enters, and exhibits a dubious interest in Sara's distinctive cigarette lighter, though she thinks it unlikely he would try stealing it, before the bell for supper rings, prompting Sara to go get changed. As Suzy herself prepares, ominous noises once more provide the c(l)ue that something horrible is about to happen, as maggots rain down on the terrified students29. Miss Tanner goes off to investigate, discovering the source of the infestation in the attic.
Shortly thereafter Madame Blanc gathers the students in her office, painted with murals reminiscent of the impossible space of Escher's 'Relativity' and explains away the maggots as the natural result of a consignment of rotten meat, bought from "a reliable firm we thought to be honest". While there is no reason to disbelieve her remarks, Inferno allows for a different, retroactive interpretation, the presence of the witches blighting the environment around them; a notion not altogether out of place here considering the casual unpleasantness evident among the students. With fumigation arranged for the morning, it is decided that the main practice hall will be made into a dormitory for the night. After the lights go out though the switch from even lighting to red suggests more that a filter is being applied a figure gets into bed the opposite side of the curtain from Suzy and Sara. Its wheezing startles Sara, who awakens her new friend: "They lied to us. The directress is here. That's her. The one who is snoring," explaining how she had heard the same noises last year, later overhearing that the directress had paid a clandestine visit.
The next sequence opens with the exterior of the Tanzacademie where Daniel's guide dog is tied up. One of the servants and boy Albert approach, before we cut to a stately tracking shot of the empty main hall, classical orchestral music playing on the soundtrack. Miss Tanner marches into view, enters the "red room" and shouts at Daniel who stops playing, 'magically' accompanied by the absent orchestra to impart the preceding music with a curiously ambiguous quality, neither diegetic nor non-diegetic. Miss Tanner fumes that Daniel's dog has attacked the child. He retorts that the child must have done something to provoke it and storms out, reminding the still shouting Miss Tanner that he's blind rather than deaf a remark signalling he may well know (if not see) too much to be allowed to live as an unmotivated overhead shot disorients us and/or conveys the panoptic gaze once more.
That evening as Suzy and Sara listen to the teachers depart the latter notices that they do not seem to be leaving. The exit is on the right, whereas the footfalls are going to the right. Amazed by her new friend's discovery, Sara counts the steps, "like the thread of Ariadne", intercut with detail shots of feet walking followed by less obviously motivated tracks and pans through the interiors of the school before coming to a halt by a billowing curtain behind which lies the (full) moon a montage more or less repeated within Inferno, with equal lack of narrative purpose.
Meanwhile, Daniel is drowning his sorrows in a bierkellar. Onstage a group of men in lederhosen are performing a traditional dance, its popular/folk form contrasting with the more studied techniques of the ballet students. The pianist departs and starts crossing a vast square, reminiscent, as Linda Schlute-Sasse30 then reminds us, of the type used in the Nuremberg rallies, as showcased in Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1934). The allusions to Nazism recall also that Bavaria was the birthplace of the National Socialists and Munich the location of their 1923 'Beer Hall Putsch' are clearly not accidental, providing some rejoinder to those who might question the politics of Argento's aestheticisation of violence that we discussed earlier. Daniel stops, sensing a presence.
Something is clearly there, signalled by first the soundtrack; the play of shadows flitting across the grandiose buildings; a pair of jarring Eisensteinesque cuts on an imperialistic-looking eagle statue (though it should be noted that the eagle does not 'move' in the manner of Battleship Potemkin's (1925) lions - that would be too obvious31) and, finally, a point of view swooping shot that crosses above the blind pianist. Then all is quiet once more, the danger seemingly past. But, without warning, Daniel's guide dog suddenly leaps at his throat and fatally mauls him32, a double surprise given that we had earlier been led to believe that the dog had attacked young Albert precisely because it had sensed there was something about him. Now the animal seems dangerously unpredictable or itself vulnerable to the witches' influence, indicative of an omnipresent and random violence that also suffuses Inferno where, for example, the crippled bookseller Kazanian is unexpectedly stabbed by a stallholder who we initially believe to be rushing to his aid. Also worth pointing out here, as Sasse again notes33, is that the guide dog is an Alsatian, a distinctively Germanic breed the 'German Shepherd' with connotations of concentration camps and suchlike that would have not emerged had it been commutated to, say, a golden retriever (though admittedly the image then seems more than a little absurd in a rare, negative sense of the term). It would, however, perhaps be going too far to then that the red cross on the dog's harness also refers to the cross of the Teutonic knights and by extension the swastika or broken/crooked cross through reference to Alexander Nevsky and its more obvious/conscious semiotic slippage here.
The next morning there is an alarming lack of concern at this latest incident back at the Tanzacademie. One girl ventures that "You can never put too much trust in wolfhounds" while another questions if there might in fact be a "hex" on the place and whether an exorcism should be performed, though the idea is dismissed without serious consideration34.
Suzy decides to confide in Madame Blanc, telling her about the "secret irises". Madame Blanc professes not to know what they could refer to though, ironically, the flowers are actually visible on the wall behind her and Suzy in yet another instance of Argento's 'purloined letter' strategy of hiding things in plain sight, offering the perceptive spectator the chance to solve the mystery for themselves. (In Inferno Rose Elliot's book offers the enigmatic clue that the third key to discovering Mater Tenebrarum "is hidden beneath the soles of your shoes")
Later Suzy and Sara go swimming. Sara admonishes her friend "that [she] really messed things up", explaining she was the one hidden behind the door who told Suzy to "go away". Yet if the two young women had hoped that the pool might present a safe place where they could talk in secrecy, an unidentified point of view shot looking down on them and the reappearance of the celesta and bells leitmotif indicates that the "secret irises" of the witches, their agents and, indeed, the audience are ever-present. Continuing unawares, Sara explains that Pat told her "a lot of strange, incredible, absurd things" again that word, absurd and gave her some notes the night she was murdered. "I've only told one person, a very good friend of mine, Frank Mandel. He's here for a convention. I'll let you read them tonight."
But, back in their quarters, a frantic Sara discovers Pat's notes have gone. Only one fragment remains, yet it is enough, "the key that can get us wherever the teachers go at night I worked it out…" Suzy, however, is now drowsy through the effects of her drugged food and is barely able to stay conscious, let alone undertake an expedition. Panicking Goblin's leitmotif playing as an eerie green light floods the image Sara decides that she too "must get away" and leaves her friend to explore the "gothic spaces" or, in Clover's formulation, "terrible places" of the academy alone35.
Sure enough, Sara soon locates a hidden passageway but also finds herself pursued by a giallo-esque razor wielding assassin. Jumping through a window to escape, she plunges into a room filled with razor wire and, unable to free herself, is then dispatched by the murderer, her throat slit in another arguably 'gratuitous' moment.
If this content is easy to summarise the formal properties of the sequence the red, green and blue lights that flood the screen, creating effects somewhat reminiscent of early tinted films and highlighting the way in which the three pack Technicolor could be used for separation/fragmentation of the primary colour channels; the fetishistic close-ups of the razor being removed from its redlined case or slowly edging up the bar of the door, intercut with Sara's terrified reactions; or merely the use of music and noise are not: At the risk of again offering what might sound like an excuse for lack of analysis, it is another standout excessive set piece among set pieces that is best experienced.
It is all about the impact on the spectator or, perhaps, the voyeuristic presentation of an "attraction" to shock, awe and overwhelm in a manner reminiscent of the early cinema examined by Tom Gunning especially when we recall the "rollercoaster ride" metaphor often invoked when describing horror films like Suspiria or Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978). And if Gunning distinguishes between the primitive cinema of attractions and the present cinema of "effects", his emphasis is on the tendency represented by Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and the like rather than Italian fantasy horror where the priorities are often different. As Argento associate Luigi Cozzi's low budget Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) imitation Starcrash (1978) indicates, if the Italian filone filmmaker has the choice of 'unrealistic' effects and no effects at all, they will often opt for the former36.
Indeed, within Suspiria there was a conscious decision to do as much as possible 'in camera' using 'primitive' rather than 'modern' or 'high tech' effects37.
The use of colour meanwhile reminds one of Eisenstein's attempts to find colour correspondences for synaesthetic effect38 and the evident difficulties of developing any coherent cohesive theory: While Suspiria uses colour expressively throughout, there are no obvious and consistent sets of binary oppositions or schemata that can be drawn out red/blue, fire/water, male/female, danger/safety, say nor is the rationale behind the "red", "blue" and "yellow" rooms apparent, illustrating the way meanings are never fixed and defined negatively.
What is also interesting here, in light of Sara's earlier invoking of the Ariadne myth is how in Argento's filmic universe generic awareness the sense of being a character in a film affords little security. Besides reminding us of the differences between 'authentic', authorless folk tale and knowing, authored film, this differentiates Argento's approach from, for instance, from Wes Craven's aforementioned Scream, whereby the slasher aficionado can explain the "rules of the game" that ensure survival, and the miseenabyme supernatural horrors of New Nightmare (1994), wherein the fictitious Freddy Krueger seeks to gain entry to the 'real world' of the filmmaker and his actors. Indeed, it almost seems that Suzy's childlike naïveté here affords her insights and protection denied her more adult, rational friend.
Suzy awakens to find Sara missing. Dissatisfied with Miss Tanner's explanation "She just packed her bags and left. She was heard leaving about six. You heard her leave, didn't you?" and the cowed Mark's somewhat hesitant response "Yes… I heard the door close and… footsteps going down the hall… and I heard a car" she phones Sara's friend Mandel to arrange an urgent meeting.
Having become accustomed to the extravagant designs, décor, lighting and colours of the Tanzacademie the use of real world locations and the conscious choice of Antonioni-style modernist constructions is a shock. The meaning seems straightforward: This space is (relatively) free from the witches' power, its configurations and patterns 'architectural' rather than 'alchemical'.
Neither Sara nor her diplomat father can be reached. Mandel ventures that they have simply gone away for a few days and there is little to worry about. He used to be Sara's psychiatrist, treating her for a breakdown following her mother's death. She recovered, but something had been troubling her:
Lately she was upset by some notions put into her head by a friend of hers... wild ideas. She had discovered that the Tam Academy [sic] was founded in 1895 by a certain Helena Markos, a Greek immigrant, and that the local people believed her to be a witch... that really got Sara's imagination going. Earlier in the 19th century the Markos woman had been expelled from several European countries. There seemed to be something about her which urged religious thinking people to persecute her. She also wrote a number of books and I read that among the initiated she went by the name the Black Queen. After she settled down here she became the subject of a lot of gossip. Nevertheless she managed to put her hands on a great deal of money and she founded the Tam Academy at first a sort of school of dance and occult sciences, but that didn't last long because in 1905 after being hounded at and cursed for ten years Helena Markos died in a fire. That's all there is as far as witchcraft is concerned. The school was taken over by her favourite pupil, the study of the occult was abandoned and soon the place became the famous dance academy.39
Suzy has the feeling she has heard this before, though whether this is through unconscious recollection Sara's question "Do you know about witches?" or more supernatural agency the processing on Sara's voice here as it blends into the non-diegetic soundtrack is unclear. Mandel would clearly favour the former, going on to answer Suzy's question of belief in witches negatively through (unacknowledged) reference to Jung:
As a believer in the material world and a psychiatrist to boot, I'm convinced that the current spread of belief in magic and the occult is part of mental illness. Bad luck isn't brought by broken mirrors but by broken minds.
Though Mandel is sceptical he nevertheless calls over his colleague Milius for a second opinion. Contrary to the younger man, the old professor asserts that "Magic is ever present… it is everywhere and all over the world it's a recognised fact. Always." Tellingly, Milius's words are momentarily accompanied by an excerpt from the witches leitmotif, as if invoked by his will-to-believe. Magic, too, has its rules. Witches such as Helena Markos can "change the course of events and people's lives, but only to do harm."
More interesting, in light of our assertions that Argento's films have a greater social element than generally acknowledged and the surprising concern with money found among Tanzacademie's denizens, is the witches' mundane motivation: "Their goal is to accumulate great personal wealth, but that can only be achieved through injury to others." They are thus perhaps not all that removed from everyday capitalists, with the remark reminding one of the way Marx, while endeavouring to describe the workings of capitalism 'scientifically', nevertheless used metaphors like "werewolf hunger" and references such as "dead labour that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour": if Argento is contradictory, allowing a multiplicity of readings, he is not alone.
This in turn leads to an awareness of another flaw in McDonagh's otherwise exemplary analysis: While acknowledging the 'broken mirrors broken minds' side of the equation the phrase provides the title to her study, even as her general preference from Freudian rather than Jungian psychoanalysis as key to understanding Argento's work reduces its significance she downplays Milius's corollary rider that magic is omnipresent. The failing, as Thrower suggests40, is symptomatic of the difficulty of treating such phenomena in and of themselves without coming across as extraordinarily credulous and/or unanalytic. Or, in phenomenological terms, the critic wants to too quickly move from first order concepts like 'magic' to second order ones like psychoanalysis.
On her return to the Tanzacademie Suzy finds all the other students have gone to attend the ballet in town. She telephones Mandel but a sudden storm cuts off the call. Suspicious that her food is drugged she pours it away, Argento here including shots of the decidedly artificial red paint like wine washing down the sink. She is then attacked by a bat, managing to trap and dispose of it. Having a smoke to calm her nerves (note again the lack of the American slasher film's prohibitions in Argento's universe) she finds the remaining fragment of Sara's notes and realises the point underscored via somewhat redundant voiceover that the teachers do not leave the academy at night.
Suzy sneaks past two of the ogre servants, hiding behind a curtain when one comes to investigate, and into Madame Blanc's office. It is the carpet that caused the noise of the footsteps to cease, another aural clue whose typicality is reinforced as she finally remembers, via flashback, exactly what Pat Hingle had said that night, the point being further underscored by the addition, Deep Redlike, of a zoom in on the detail: "Secret behind the door…. Three irises… Turn the blue one." Or perhaps, as with Deep Red's 'flashback' it is really more of a Deluezian "crystal image", the objective and subjective aspects less than clear.
Suzy searches, finally noticing the slightly blue raised iris in a mirror that it is raised maybe connoting modernity, denying as it does ideas that painting is about two dimensionality and fixed perspective which she rotates to reveal the hidden door a Magritte-like 'this is not a door' perhaps opening into a winding corridor decorated with ornate patterns, occult inscriptions and yet more drapes.
As she advances Madame Blanc's true nature is revealed, though it unclear if Suzy herself is party to the sound image: "We must get away with that bitch of an American girl. She must vanish, vanish, vanish! Die, die! Helena, give me power! Sickness! Sickness! Away with her! Away with trouble! Death, death, death!" Suzy recoils from the curses, but continues on, discovering Sara's horribly mutilated body. Meanwhile, Pavlos stalks along, illuminating his way with Sara's lighter (we can thereby infer he was the razor wielding assassin earlier) in another example of effect over logic, the tiny flame being engulfed by the dominant primary colour lighting.
Suzy opens a door into a chamber, stopping next to a peacock figurine with multihued, iridescent colours a Bird with the Crystal Plumage reference perhaps as she hears the distinctive sound of Helena Markos's wheezing. As Pavlos comes closer or appears to do so, the spatial relationships being somewhat occluded Suzy knocks over the figurine, attracting the witch's attention. (The tracking shot following some balls as they roll across the floor perhaps pays homage to a similar moment in Bava's giallo Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970).) The shadowy figure rises behind the curtain and taunts Suzy, who picks up a long needle from the fallen figurine and advances. "You want to kill me. You want to kill Helena Marcos," screeches the witch, her laughter omni-directional41.
Suzy wrenches back the curtain, but the witch has disappeared. A figurine explodes as the voice continues. "Now death is coming for you! Hell is behind that door. You're going to meet death now, the living dead!" Sara's corpse rises an obviously abject thing, blurring the boundaries between living and dead and advances through the opening, but Suzy now sees the outline of Helena Markos and stabs at it. The zombie vanishes and the horrible form of the ancient witch, a horribly wrinkled, grey-green skinned figure, appears and crumples, dead.
Markos, then, is as Creed identifies, a classic figure of the "monstrous feminine", one whose abject status is confirmed by her essential meaninglessness. As an old woman she no longer has any obvious childbearing and rearing functions in reproducing society and the symbolic order even as, in doing so, her female role would necessarily be a fundamentally negative one. Yet, against this we might also speculate whether and here looking away from the dominant French feminist and psychoanalytic theories within film studies - Mary Daly's idiosyncratic celebrations of terms such as "hag" and "crone" and quest for a new, non-phallologocentric order "beyond God the Father" might offer the hint of alternative, more positive, formulation42 even as the young heroine predictably triumphs over the aged monster in this instance.
Or, in terms of Nicolodi's influence on the film, whether what we are seeing here is less an expression of Argento's own 'fear and loathing' as a white witch othering her black witch counterparts in a negative but not particularly gender-driven way. For, given the awareness that Nicolodi exhibits in interview, it is difficult to depict her as a victim of classic (albeit psychoanalytically rather than class inflected) "false consciousness":
Everything belongs to me in Suspiria, even the individual quotations such as Jung's phrase "there are no cracked mirrors, only cracked minds"… or the famous quotation by Saint Augustine, "Quoddam ubique, quoddam sempre, quoddam ab omnibus creditum est," which, however, is wrong because the actor had lost his lines… the exact sentence is "Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est."43
Amidst a cacophony a storm sweeps through the Tanzacademie. The furniture starts moving, Exorcist-style and things explode randomly44. Suzy flees as the remaining witches writhe in their death throes, exiting into the (natural or supernatural?) storm and cracking a relieved smile at her survival/triumph. Behind her a window explodes, billowing flames behind it. The credits roll, announcing that we "have been watching a Dario Argento film" as an ultimate - if unnecessary, and hence all the more apt statement of authorship and excess.
And then we must remember that we have been looking at Suspiria primarily in itself, rather than exploring the inter-textual associations more evident when we view it in the light of Inferno and its development of the Three Mothers mythology, having said nothing, for instance, of Argento's appropriations of Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater or the alchemist Fulcanelli's writings. Together the two films form a post-modern mythology wherein meanings are multiple, final and absolute knowledge impossible. If, then, Suspiria may be about a single unitary effect of to overwhelm the spectator with sensation, endeavouring to produce the emotional/cathartic response of the horror film and the gesamtkunstwerk over the more intellectual detachment associated with the montage work, it nevertheless manages to resist the totalitarian impulses perhaps implicit in the Wagnerian operatic by elsewhere displaying a keener awareness of social-political concerns and contradictions than expected.
(pronounced 'djallo, plural gialli) is an italian 20th century genre of literature and film, which in italian indicates crime fiction and mystery. In the English language, however, it is used in a broader meaning that is closer to the french fantastique genre, including elements of horror fiction and eroticism.
The word giallo is Italian for "yellow" and stems from the origin of the genre as a series of cheap paperback novels with trademark yellow covers.