The following is October's entry in my (much-delayed) Blind Spots series.
Dario Argento’s Suspiria is a film that only lets its audience know what is going on mere minutes before it concludes, yet provides more than sufficient immersion into its world within seconds. The director sets his tone without monsters or suspense, merely an insert shot that occurs as soon as Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), an American student bound for a German dance academy, leaves a Munich airport in the film’s opening. As she exits, Argento cuts to a close-up of the automatic door’s locking mechanism hissing open and folding back into place, a tossed-off flourish that communicates such blithe menace that one is instantly primed for both the film’s horror, and its effervescent embrace of the extremes that horror can explore.
Of course, Argento has more than a little help in establishing this tone courtesy of the soundtrack by Goblin, which starts to work its magic even before the first images slam onto the screen. The main theme of the film is the atmospheric equal of any of John Carpenter’s themes, and compositionally it proves significantly more textured and multivalent. Its lilting celesta and bells set down a foundation soon augmented by electronics and a hissing rasp of a voice that sounds like it rolled out from a crypt and had to traverse a forest of stripped trees to reach a microphone pick-up.
The united but disparate textures perfectly bridge the movement out from Munich’s urban setting to the distant, wooded area where the academy lies, the prog-rock electronics helping smooth the transition from a modern metropolis to the neo-pagan area where the acoustic instruments and that proto-black metal rattle dwell. That patch of music alone, to say nothing of the rest of the score’s interwoven tension and the ever-effective callback of that central theme, produces such curiosity and nervousness that one does not even need a story to be hooked.
That’s helpful, because Suspiria barely has a plot. Or, rather, its plot is a strange beast, at once capable of being bluntly spelled out but always mysteriously withheld, as if the moments that eventually let us know that the dance academy is a giant coven are divulged only by accident, the script no longer able to bear the secret it whispers into the reeds. But then, who among the characters has time to scout out the deeper truths of the school when they are too busy fending off mysterious attackers that spring from nowhere to dispatch the next unlikely person?
Oh, and what gleefully ordered murders they are. The film’s vivid production design, with its Pop Art color scheme and ample sets, only gives a partial clue into how intricately planned and choreographed the film’s grisly deaths are. To take but one example of many, look to the first kill: the camera moves with a start away from a window where an arm suddenly snakes in after a woman, then along slatted walls that add diagonal motion to the lateral fleeing before a vertical element is introduced when the poor soul finds herself standing on a pane of glass that is broken from under her, sending her plummeting until a cord the killer wraps around her neck stops the fall. The sequence displays total control, and it even throws in a bit of cosmic unpredictability in placing a friend in the path of falling glass to show that unhappy accidents can still occur in this perfectly ordered world.
But Argento can also savage in subtler ways, as in a scene in which a possessed dog mauls a child. There is scant indication that the scene will go the way that it does: a shot of the boy walking near the dog is matched by a reverse of the canine looking up almost sleepily at him. Before anything can seem out of order, Argento cuts far away to the other end of the school as a dull, curt shout is heard in the distance, and suddenly one knows exactly what happened. At times, Argento even finds beauty in the gore, as when he cuts from a gruesome close-up of throat flesh blooming around a knife wound to an eye frozen in death, a strangely poetic acknowledgement of the person turned into a cut of meat in the previous shot.
Those moments of grace—for want of a better term—define the film’s sophisticated mise-en-scène, which works wonders for the mood with nothing but some good design and careful positioning. Areas are established through extreme long shots that clarify the dimensions of each space before subsequent actions push the camera closer to pursued occupants, and diagrammatic patterns emphasize the inhuman precision underlying the film. But no sooner are these areas defined than they are subverted by various angling tricks that distort that which seems objectively measured. Mirrors tilt precipitously in Suspiria, as if they were all hung on the very edge of a nail, and all their reflections are thus slightly obscured and warped. High- and low-angle shots complete this effect, stressing all the sharp corners and angles of each room to point out all the areas where characters can cut themselves. As much as the cloaked killer who tracks after Suzy and her compatriots, the interiors themselves remind the audience at all times that some force is watching the characters and plotting their demise, and if Suspiria often makes no narrative sense, one knows exactly how to feel at all times.