With a remake of 1970’s horror classic Suspiria set for release this year, Amy Britton reappraises Dario Argento’s original.
When I first heard that a remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic “Suspiria” would be released this year, my immediate reaction was “is that really necessary?” Admittedly I may have been too hasty in my judgments, as the more I’ve heard about the remake – the director, cast, score etcetera -the more it actually sounds quite promising – but all the same I’d still urge anybody whose yet to witness the bloodied but beautiful spectacle of the highly influential original to seek it out. Over forty years on, Suspiria has been borrowed from and nodded too so much in horror films since that it has become important to watch it, as a modern viewer with a sense of perspective when it comes to its component parts – if aspects of it seem cliched, it is only because It has been so widely copied.
Inspired by a Thomas De Quincey essay, the original concerns the story of Suzy Bannion, an American ballet student enrolled in a prestigious dance academy were all is not what it seems, and as the murder and mystery swirl around the building Suzy realises that those controlling the academy are immersed in witchcraft. The horror technique of “all not what it seems” or something acting as a front for something else is a perennial; hidden worlds have potential to be delightful but cinema usually favours the concept of them being horrific, and the dance academy is the perfect backdrop. Firstly, for the sheer beauty that comes with the art of dance and thus feeds into the films seminal aesthetic. The building itself is stunning in an almost fairytale-like fashion, full of corridors and crevices which open themselves to Argento’s red-lit (typical of giallo) long lens looming camera shots. The visual link between dance and magick and mysticism occurs rhythmically through history. The Biblical character of Salome uses the Dance of The Seven Veils to ruthlessly get whatever she wants, and this character and concept has been the inspiration for years of art (many classical depictions repeat themes of red hair and subtly lit corridors which could almost hang diptych-like next to a still from Argento). Oscar Wilde’s take on her story turned Salome into a kind of emblem of female lust, which is also a huge part of what witchcraft in itself represents. (It is thought that the Malleus Maleficerum, the 1847 text against beautiful and sensual women by religious zealot Henrich Kramer, played a huge role in seeing many women sent to the stake.) And, of course, dance is a central feature of magic rituals in themselves – that other great occult film of the 1970’s, The Wicker Man, uses this to powerful and simple effect with its scenes of children round the maypole and Britt Ekland’s character performing a dance of primitive lust. It’s the finer points of Suspiria, rather than its themes, that make it a real game-changer though. The colours throw gaudy pulp tones over ethereal scenes; the deaths are gory but never seem to shock for the sake of it. The first onscreen death, in particular, is a real make-you-jump moment, and the suspense levels are played with a delicious subtlety which cause the moments of horror to have more power. Whereas horror films of old had used doom-laden dramatic music to kill any sense of mystery that the shock moments or villain were arriving, Suspiria’s soundtrack (by Goblin) weaves into the fabric of the film to capitalise on its other-worldly feel. By being so dreamlike, Suspiria manages the technique of turning into a nightmare with effortless ease, bearing all the hallmarks of the most horrific of dreams – a sense of being trapped (the scenes outside of the dance academy show a less glamorous and more ordinary urban world, but the camera techniques show it as distinctly more open and light), and the horror of having to chase up your suspicions whilst few will believe you. By seeing nearly everything through Suzy’s perspective – little of what is going on unseen is actually shown on the screen, another powerful technique which has garnered more popularity in the years since – we share her slowly mounting horror mixed with intrigue. She’s also a kind of emblem of Derridean deconstruction; she can’t be a traditional damsel in distress, as that relies on an idea about men, whereas she is coming up against the peak of female power. If anything, her character is more like Moira Shearer’s in that other dance classic “The Red Shoes,” bound by something beyond her control which comes from an outside source but has fed into her.
The influence of Suspiria is still being felt today, from the dark obscure corners of genres like Franco-Belgian Extremity to more mainstream television (for example when the hugely popular and binge-watch friendly American Horror Story turned its eye to witchcraft with its third season, Coven, the discreet nods to Suspiria through various rooms and lenses permeated much of it.) It’s easy for horror to date, but Argento was clever enough to make something which remains a tense, essential beautiful nightmare over forty years later. The remake certainly has something to live up to.