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Arabesque of Horror: The Legacy of Dario Argento's "Suspiria"

Why did this Italianate catalogue of carnage make such an everlasting impression?
Alan Jones
Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria is now in U.S. cinemas and opens in the U.K. on November 16, 2018.Suspiria
Luca Guadagnino was a 10-year-old student at summer camp when he became transfixed by the poster advertising Dario Argento’s Suspiria, excitedly drawing versions of the key iconic bloodied ballerina image in his school notebook. But it wasn’t until he was 13, after seeing the actual movie broadcast on Italian television, that he knew for certain the terrifying tableaux of fantasy, fascination and fear would somehow feature in his future. And now the Oscar-nominated director has fulfilled his obsessive childhood dream of repurposing the cult shocker that so scarred his psyche in those formative years.
But that has been the potent legacy of the original Suspiria for an entire generation of horror aficionados ever since it was released to huge global acclaim and box-office success to become continually listed as one of the Top Ten most frighteningly effective horror films of all time. For the blistering supernatural fairytale about pupils at a Black Forest dance school discovering the faculty are a coven of evil witches was a landmark breakthrough into new levels of cinematic sensation, spectacular décor, dazzling lighting and gory special effects the likes of which had never been witnessed before in the genre. Not only has it influenced Guadagnino, but also Quentin Tarantino, John Carpenter, Clive Barker, Jason Reitman and many more directors have acknowledged their debt to the malevolent Italian masterpiece. Celebrity fans such as David Bowie, Marc Almond and Toyah have gone on record to enthuse about its disturbing power too.
So why did this Italianate catalogue of carnage make such an everlasting impression? Suspiria marked a series of upstaging firsts unique in the genre despite the 1970s already seeing one taboo after another fall in the wake of such controversial offerings as The Devils (1971), A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Last House on the Left (1972), The Exorcist (1973) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). For a start it was former film-critic-turned-director Dario Argento’s first foray into the paranormal after a series of extreme thrillers in the popular "giallo" vein (so named after the Italian for yellow, the dust-jacket color of home-grown mystery novels). The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Cat O' Nine Tails (1971), Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) and Deep Red (1975) had earned him the title of ‘The Italian Hitchcock’ and knowing he would have to change tack to grow artistically he looked around for a distinctive subject to bring to his devoted audience.
He found it thanks to his muse Daria Nicolodi, star of Deep Red and mother of their actress/activist daughter Asia. She told her lover to read Thomas De Quincey’s 19th century literary classic Confessions of an Opium Eater, especially the story of the Three Mothers continued in the sequel "Suspiria de Profundis.’ Through Levana, the ancient Roman goddess of childbirth, De Quincey imagined her three evil companions, Mater Lachrymarum, Our Lady of Tears, Mater Suspiriorum, Our Lady of Sighs, and Mater Tenebrarum, Our Lady of Darkness. Using the Mater Suspiriorum foundation along with a bedtime tale her grandmother would tell about being at a finishing school run by witches, and Argento’s love of books on the Black Arts, the duo met real Satanists while co-writing the script.
But why Suspiria triumphantly works as a delirious fever dream, a brilliant stream of lurid unconscious and a hypnotic meditation on the power of dark imagination is not just because of the power-driven occult screenplay. It’s all about the individual look, the exceptionally created sonic atmosphere and the still matchless shock set pieces that Argento wove into a celluloid magic spell. The director wanted a vivid, in-your-face vibrancy given to the visuals in common with the two major influences he told noted cinematographer Luciano Tovoli to replicate—Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948).
And so, using an outmoded Technicolor film stock, Suspiria became the last film ever in the world to be dio-transferred, the reason why its almost 3D depth and incandescent glossy finish became so remarkable. Basically that meant Technicolor splitting the color negative into three separate black and white negatives; one for red, one for green and one for blue. Printing one color on top of the other in very high contrast gave the film its uniquely shimmering psychedelic appearance along with an almost living sculpture quality and cut-out cartoon intensity.  
Another key component of Suspiria’s inimitable look came from veteran Argento production designer Giuseppe Bassan who translated his outlandish ideas of heightened artifice into bizarre set constructions envisioned as blood red edifices shot through with jigsaw corridors, rainbow stained glass, geometric abstractions, gargoyle-encrusted walls, high atriums and rooms so boldly swathed in outré wallpapers, blacks, golds and secretive flower designs they virtually screamed as loudly as the ballerinas under stress. Argento, a devoted fan of Edgar Allan Poe, literally made his Tanz/Dance Akademie another ingeniously faked "House of Usher" waiting to fall into a blazing inferno of extravagant art-deco-meets-baroque sumptuousness.
The Suspiria soundtrack also became a landmark evolution in the way music was used to complement the screen image and would inspire a whole generation of future horror composers, like John Carpenter and his Halloween (1978) score. That revolution began with Deep Red because Argento had wanted either super groups Deep Purple or Pink Floyd on board. Then he heard a demo tape by a progressive Roman rock band called Goblin (named in homage to ‘The Lord of the Rings’ novel) and knew he had the perfect pumped-up sound to augment the sleek and sinister tone of his keynote "Giallo."
But Goblin found their true artistic direction with Suspiria as the band’s melodically repetitive electronic motifs, dissonant cacophony of heavy breathing, whispers, screams, chants, strangulated synthesizer and percussion hit the suite spot providing the perfect accompaniment to Argento’s all-out visual, vicious and visceral assault on the senses. So creepily evocative did Argento find Goblin’s original rough tracks, he played them on set while filming to help the actors get in the right mood in another innovation for the Italian horror industry.
The look, the design and the music all come together in Suspiria’s most celebrated sequence, the opening ten-minutes deliberately designed to be so uncompromisingly grisly and shocking, the audience would be on nerve-jangling edge not knowing what could possibly come next. Once seen, never forgotten is this terror tour-de-force, a chilling chain reaction of dropping its leading lady (Jessica Harper) into a maelstrom of symphonic suspense and visual excess leading to violent rainstorm disorientation and dual skylight deaths by open-heart knifing and hanging by telephone wires. A slow camera pan down the latter eviscerated body revealing a shard of falling glass has also split open the head of the friend who just wanted to help ensured Suspiria enduring shock value and instant cult status in the splatter Hall of Fame. 
However, aside from being a seminally horrific shocker, one precisely putting the Grand in Guignol, the one factor Argento is never given enough credit for is his narrative is completely dominated by women. That was almost unknown and highly unusual at the time and the main reason why Jessica Harper, who plays a wonderful cameo in Guadagnino’s version, wanted to be involved. And it was through his female casting that Argento paid further homage to his own past heroes. Look no further than Madam Blanc played by Joan Bennett, the femme fatale star of Fritz Lang’s film noir classics, his favorite director, and "The Next Garbo," Alida Valli, as Miss Tanner, photographed by his portrait artist mother when she first started out in the Hollywood on the Tiber industry. Everyone who attended the Rome world premiere of Suspiria on February 4th, 1977, has never forgotten the extraordinary audience reaction, one that left Argento stunned for days with a new epithet, "The Horror Fellini." Something akin to how the entire world would eventually respond, especially a 10-year-old schoolboy on holiday in the north of Italy with some very big dreams…


Dario ArgentoLuca Guadagnino
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