Greetings once again, my fellow travelers in the transgressive, to another installment of Reviews You’ll (Probably) Never Use.
Last week as you’ll recall, we explored a little of the background of the wonderful Italian crime and horror genre called giallo. This week, before getting to our feature review, we’ll explore three of the main personalities which shaped and defined the giallo over the years.
Undoubtedly the father of giallo, and indeed of Italian horror in general, is Mario Bava. Born in 1914, Bava got his first taste of directing in 1956 when, as cinematographer for I Vampiri, he was asked to finish the film when the hired director walked out on the project. He later went on to direct the gothic horror masterpiece Black Sunday (not the one about the football game, this one is better) and began directing what are widely considered to be the first true giallo films in the early 60s. Bava’s start as a cinematographer and special effects man provided the early shape of the genre as being primarily concerned with the immediate visual impact on screen and the relegation of other aspects to subsidiary status. His son also made films, but aside from a promising turn with Demons, has utterly failed to live up to his old man.
Next, we have the great Lucio Fulci. His film Zombi 2 was the subject of last week’s review (not linked here because linking to my own posts seems weirdly like masturbating), and if you watched or read that, you know his game. While his wonderful Don’t Torture A Duckling showcased a fine directorial ability, in general, he became known as the king of Italian gore. Despite getting his start in comedies, eventually his films were watched with a grim fascination by folks eager to see just how much brutal violence someone could get away with putting on screen. Seriously, if you have a problem with a slow close-up shot of an open eyeball having a straight razor dragged across it, don’t watch The New York Ripper. But really you should to you know, not be a pussy. His Gates of Hell trilogy (City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and The House by the Cemetery) are all good to excellent and worth watching for any serious fan of horror. The Beyond is probably my personal favorite Italian horror film from this era.
Finally, we come to the director of tonight’s film, one Dario Argento. He managed to have both a prolific and influential directorial career and to produce a pretty decent-looking daughter. He will be appearing at Texas Frightmare Weekend, and I will share a photo of the gentleman after I obtain my signature and regale him with stories of how much I love his movie because fuck knows he hasn’t heard that a thousand times from rando overweight white bald misanthropes. He started off as a screenwriter for Sergio Leone on spaghetti westerns but came into his own when he moved to giallo. In fact, his nearly flawless masterpiece, Deep Red, is considered by many critics to be the supreme expression of the giallo form. No less a personage than John Carpenter has frequently cited its influence on him when making American slasher innovator, Halloween. He’s fallen off recently (seriously, I bought his Dracula starring Rutger Hauer sight unseen, and returned it, it was that fucking bad), but man, when the guy was in his prime, he could make a fucking great movie experience. One thing I’ve always thought a bit off, however, was his willingness to direct his own daughter in nude scenes. How does that go? “OK sweetie, that was a good take, but now I want to see your titties a little bit more to the left, and rub that nipple a bit more sensuously. Yes, that’s the way…rub it slowly for daddy.” I mean, I know they’re Italian, and so their mores are going to be less “the corporation bought us lunch today so we can meet a deadline” and more “fuck it, let’s hit this bottle and sportfuck until the sun comes up,” but shit man, there are limits.
Anyway, that brings us to our feature tonight, Argento’s Suspiria. The film was inspired by Suspiria de Profundis, a series of short essays by English author Thomas De Quincey. Argento thought to make three films out of the three Sorrows recounted in the essay: “Mater Lacrymarum, Our Lady of Tears,” “Mater Suspiriorum, Our Lady of Sighs,” and “Mater Tenebrarum, Our Lady of Darkness.” Argento would indeed go on to complete his plan with Inferno in 1980 and The Mother of Tears finally in 2007, but let’s not digress onto those paths and ruin future reviews.
The film follows American dance student Jessica Harper as she attends a prestigious academy in Freiburg, only to discover that it’s a front for witches, just like all Arthur Murray Dance Studios in real life. Suspiria is pretty much the only famous thing Harper did, though she apparently was in Minority Report in a role I don’t recall just from reading the name.
Jessica’s introduction to the academy is seeing a student flee from it while ranting during a storm. The fleeing student is then murdered in most satisfying fashion. She goes to her friend’s apartment, and a random hairy-armed intruder stabs her so damn many times in the sternum that her heart is exposed, then we get a nice close-up shot of the knife being stabbed directly into the beating heart. Then she’s hung from the skylight, the shattered debris of which falls and buries itself in her aforementioned friend’s skull. It’s easily the best opening to any movie ever made, and if you disagree, you can fuck right off with your incorrect opinions which can be disproved mathematically.
So Jessica meets the various eccentrics who staff and study at the academy. Creepy things happen, people die, and she starts to get suspicious. There’s a great scene where the blind pianist’s guide dog is possessed and rips out his owner’s throat, and tears chunks of meat out of him until a couple of polizei come running over to chase him away. Her friend Stefania Casini tries to run away from an unseen murderous fiend with a straight razor, only to fall into a storage room filled entirely with razor wire. WHAT THE EVER LOVING FUCK? It’s giallo, it doesn’t matter or need any explanation! But seriously as she’s struggling with the razor wire and getting cut up she gets her throat slit with the straight razor. Very tragic.
Eventually, Jessica discovers that the academy was founded by an old evil witch, and after parsing out the meaning of the opening runaway’s rant is able to find the secret passage where the academy staff congregate to perform black magic. The main baddy animates poor Stefania’s corpse, crucified on a coffin and now with needles in its eyes for some reason, to attack Jessica, but our brave Final Girl is able to see through the witch’s glamour and kill her, which causes the other witches to apparently suffer cranial bleeding and migraine headaches while the whole house tears itself apart.
Honestly, the plot isn’t as convoluted as some critics make it out to be. You do have to pay attention and give the usual allowance for a giallo film’s somewhat blasé attachment to narrative flow, but that just comes with the territory. The real sparkle of this film is in the visual realm. The entire thing is shot in imbibition Technicolor, which was seen in films such as The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind but was no longer widely used at the time. It produces a more vibrant, vivid color palette, almost to the point of garishness, though of course, that’s only a good thing in certain circumstances, of which this happens to be one. There is heavy emphasis on strong primary colors as the background in many scenes – the academy walls are deep blue and red velvet, and in a scene where sheets are set up as a screen so the ladies can sleep without a horde of maggots falling on them through the ceiling (watch the damn movie), as soon as the lights are out a nightmarish red backlight pulses through everything. Even in a bedroom, at night, there will be what looks like bright green or blue spotlights shining onto the actor’s faces. The damn skylight the initial victim is hung from is an enormous mosaic of bright colors. The entire thing is like a kaleidoscope given form and is really quite remarkable, and I can’t recommend it enough. Lord only knows how great it would be to watch it blazed (note to self: what am I doing this weekend?). Maybe the best part is what I have lovingly dubbed the Disco Peacock in the main witch’s bedroom. I desperately want one of these, and it also would be suitable for extended viewing while blazed.
Again, though, this is very much in the realm of art for the sake of art, so don’t go expecting some kind of Tarantino-esque dialog or Oscar-nominated stories of black folks overcoming oppression. It’s all enhanced with a great soundtrack by Goblin, long-time collaborators with Argento, and mentioned in my previous post. It’s less accessible to a standard horror audience than Zombi 2, but is ultimately superior. I award Suspiria 13 Sexy Witches out of 15.