by Tony Nigro
Normally when I revisit a film, my response is affected by time and place, but it’s never so with Dario Argento’s Suspiria. The film exists on a different plane located at the other end of some wormhole, a place where temporal shifts are the norm, where every room looks like a mod experiment gone wrong, a set that Kubrick rejected as too baroque for A Clockwork Orange. The story isn’t short of any of the narrative leaps, bound, and WTFs found in its Italian horror contemporaries. The agenda is style over script, design above all, and not in a bad way. Indeed, spectacle is the best way to dress up what would otherwise be confusing schlock. But spectacle is one thing, and total sensory immersion is quite another. Suspiria happens to be one of my favorite examples of such, and maybe it’s the visceral responses it elicits in me, the inexplicable dread despite a story that is so damn retarded, that whenever I watch it all previous viewings escape me.
The swell of the Goblin score at the opening titles climaxes in the gloriously corny synth motif that propels much of the film’s creepy ambiance. After a brief, narrated prologue we meet the American heroine Suzy Bannion, who arrives at an airport terminal in Germany (or is it a bus or a train?), catches a cab in the rain, and rides to a dance academy she is supposed to attend.
But it’s not that easy. The whole thing lasts about five minutes, with minute detail given to the most seemingly random, off-putting moments that could occur on such a short trip. Throughout the film, great attention is given to sound design, score, light and color, and a bizarrely mannered use of time — abrupt short cuts and drawn out longer takes come in an onslaught at any given time, without the flow of dance that you would expect from characters who are largely dancers. The cab ride merely prepares us for all of this.
The first couple shots are of Suzy walking in the terminal. The second cut in the film shows her point-of-view of the automatic sliding doors out of the terminal. At this moment, the theme music intrudes for a few beats and is then gone at the next cut, which is back on Suzy. That happens again for the next couple cuts until she reaches the door, which whooshes open to a torrential downpour that blows back Suzy’s hair. During this moment, we cut back and forth from Suzy exiting to the tracks the automatic doors run on. Why? Does it matter? The effect is jarring, puts importance on those doors, which operate like a birth canal for Suzy into the all too strange world to come. But really, she’s only walked down a hall and out some doors into the rain.
When Suzy finally catches a taxi, the ride continues with the same sort of attention to detail. Her dialogue with the driver is stilted. The driver is menacing in an unmotivated way, offering long pauses before answering her. As the cab winds out of the city we pan off to a roaring river or wash of some sort, and later we cut to water streaming down a storm drain in the street. The water motif can again suggest some sort of birth metaphor, or not. It simply doesn’t matter because along with the building score and the disembodied voices buried in the mix, the atmosphere is thick like paste. You’re stuck and can’t get out. This is the eeriest fucking cab ride ever. And nothing even happens.
Perhaps the Italian style of production — all sound done in post, all dialogue horribly post-synched — forces the need for such atmosphere embellishments. Or perhaps it inspires the opportunity. All the same, it is mastery of a medium, when nothing becomes something different altogether and elicits feelings because of it.
(originally published at (A Superhero Named) Tony)