Scores on Screen is a column by Clare Nina Norelli on film soundtracks.
The blackened screen. A barrage of percussion on the soundtrack summons forth the cries of an agonized, frenetic violin. They fuse with a chorus of synthesized sonorities and begin to crescendo, a perpetual discordant climax that is so all-consuming, so alarming, that if it feels as though your head might explode from the sheer intensity of it all. Suddenly the aural assault is brought to a halt with a jarring “crack!” The word “SUSPIRIA” appears on screen, followed by a new cue on the soundtrack, a sweet celesta and bells melody. The soft tinkling of the celesta and bells' repetitive motif would be almost soothing, lulling, if it were not for fact it is accompanied by a faint, discordant whisper. Our ears strain, we listen in, we cannot be sure of what we are hearing. Is the disembodied voice singing a demented lullaby? Or is it the mutterings of some ghoul cursing us from deep within the darkness?
Before we see Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film Suspiria, we hear it. As the bold white lettering of the film’s opening credits roll out, an atmosphere of dread is immediately established via the film’s relentlessly unsettling score. Composed by the Italian prog-rock band Goblin, the score for Argento’s technicolor “adult fairy tale” set in a ballet school-cum-witches’ coven features an array of unusual and eerie timbres that both play off of one another and combine to startling effect, providing much of the film’s sinister ambience. Unlike the band’s previous film scoring experience with Argento on Profondo rosso (Deep Red, 1975), where they were brought in at the last minute to replace the film’s original composer, Goblin were afforded the luxury of having several months in which to create music for Suspiria. This extended period of time in the studio fostered an environment of experimentation, allowing Goblin to supplement their sonic palette with exciting new sonorities.
In addition to their usual prog-rock instrumentation (keyboards, drums, guitars), Goblin also employed the tinny, yet naturally reverberant tones of the bouzouki, a Greek mandolin, and the guttural drone of Indian tabla drums. Additionally, Goblin utilized Moog modular synthesizers, which had grown in popularity and prevalence through the 1970s and for which they enlisted an expert, the multi-instrumentalist and Moog master Felice Fugazza, to assist in the instruments’ operation. This provided the band with further effects and instrumental sounds that may not have otherwise been available to them (e.g. the employment of a full orchestra).
The most memorable cue from Goblin’s Suspiria is undoubtedly their main theme for the film (titled “Suspiria” on the soundtrack album), which is first heard after the film’s title is shown in the opening credits. Centered around a repetitive six note, stepwise melodic motif on celesta and bells atop a D minor drone, the cue is heard regularly throughout the film, functioning as a musical evocation of the onscreen evil and a signal to the audience that malevolent forces are near. The use of the “shimmery” sounding celesta and bells to recite the motif immediately plays on listener’s associations of these timbres with both childhood innocence and the magical, owing to the instruments’ respective histories of being utilized to connote these qualities in Western musical composition.1 The sweetness of the motif is contrasted with devilish Sprechstimme: a menacing, raspy voice that half-sings, half-retches the motif alongside the celesta and bells, periodically breaking to ramble incoherently or shriek “WITCH!” at a startling volume.
Ballet student Suzy (Jessica Harper), the film's protagonist, is initially presented to us as somewhat of a "babe in the woods," a stranger in a strange land who is overwhelmed and confused by what she encounters from the film’s onset. As she walks through the Munich airport after arriving from New York City, it’s as if malefic forces have already set their gaze upon her. This is implied through the celesta/bells motif being heard in fragments, brief utterances, as she walks towards the airport’s exit doors, suggesting a spell is in the process of being cast. Then, when she passes through the doors and is met with a threatening thunder storm, the theme is fully realized, with bouzouki strums, Moog, tabla, and the disembodied vocal joining in the mix. As Suzy hails and then boards a taxi cab (operated by cab driver whose temperament matches the hostility of the storm outside), the theme is set into motion, and it becomes intoxicating, mesmerizing in its relentless repetition. This repetition creates a sense of restlessness, a feeling of needing to go somewhere, and we, like Suzy, are filled with nervous anticipation as we watch her approach her destination, the Tanz Dance Academy. “There was so much noise,” Suzy later tells her roommate of the night she arrived at the Academy, and indeed, the volume and intensity of the soundtrack in Suspiria’s opening sequence and in several other scenes in the film overwhelms and nearly consumes the listener-viewer.
We hear the “Suspiria” cue in the film not only to suggest magic is at work, but also to indicate the presence of witches, a conscious move on the part of Argento and Goblin. As Suzy explores the Academy, determined to make sense of its personnel and mysterious history, the cue is heard on the soundtrack, compelling her to go deeper and deeper into the Academy’s eerily-lit corridors. Though Suzie cannot hear the cue and reacts only to the disorienting ambience of her environment, we are made aware that the witches are watching her every move and exacting their powers upon her the moment the cue commences.
In one of the film’s most powerful and devastating scenes, the Academy’s recently fired blind pianist, Daniel (Flavio Bucci), is shown walking with his seeing-eye dog across an empty city square. The “Suspiria” cue is heard on the soundtrack, and we know that what is to follow will not be pleasant. The square is incredibly dark and the shadows of the buildings that line its margins obscure much of what is in shot. Daniel’s dog is suddenly upset by something unseen, its presence implied through the cue. Standing in the middle of the square, a terrified Daniel demands to know who is there, but we are shown nothing, and the unsettling drone of Goblin’s music continues. The cue ends and is replaced with the sound of batting wings as we are shown the point of view of Daniel’s tormenters and then a new cue is heard on the soundtrack (“Witch”). The shadows of his flying assailants pass across one of the building’s facades, accompanied by a brutal percussion and howling before an immense, supernaturally-charged synth-stab sends a chill down the spine. The cue begins to fade, it seems we are momentarily given relief, but then the ill-fated Daniel is set upon again and the cue resumes terrorizing our ears, amplifying the horror on screen.
In this scene, and in so many others in Suspiria, Goblin’s score is vital in establishing the film’s supernatural atmosphere. It is spellbinding in its intensity and relentless its primal fury and remains one of the greatest soundtracks of fear.