BFI Gothic Season – Dario Argento In Conversation & Suspiria (1977)
Be afraid, there’s a maniac in town. Yes, that’s right, the second phase of the BFI’s Gothic season materialised last night in the form of one of the masters of murder, Italian maestro Dario Argento was in London town to discuss his work before a beautifully rendered screening of his macabre masterpiece Suspiria. Argento’s reputation precedes him, he can be a rather difficult and prickly fellow which may be in part due to the rather wretched quality of his output over the past twenty years – even his greatest fans reluctantly admit that his films have been terrible since the early 1990’s – but his iconic status is assured for a number of genre classics which revolutionised the murder movie back in the 1970’s, mostly due to his ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy (of which Suspiria forms the original entry alongside Inferno and 2007’s Mother Of Tears) and the gruesome giallos Tenebre, Profoundo Rosso, Phemomenon (a personal favourite – it is fucking nuts) and the glittering titled film which began his career The Bird With The Crystal Plumage. I’m a little on the fence when it comes to his work, whilst like Brian De Palma I can admire the craft of certain sequences, the loose commentary on cinema as cinema rather than an oblique storytelling ruse, a use of camerawork to map out the space of terror and a glorious use of mise-en-scene to reflect his characters fractured psyche’s terror I do find that there isn’t much lurking beneath the surface of his blood drenched degeneracy, and generally I prefer a little more meat on the bone to gnaw upon when it comes to the wider context of themes, obsessions, statements and illumination – in effect some scenes are great, but the overall films can be poor. However, as a technical artisan he is probably amongst the top dozen to have ever specialised in the horror field, and Suspiria in particular was a film I have been anxious to revisit given its rumored remake (by David Gordon Green whom has apparently stepped away so the project is circling Hollywood again) and the movies exalted position in the pantheon of pain, it’s a firm cult favourite whose wide-screen vistas scream to be seen on the big screen.
Interviewed by Frightfest warlock Alan Jones Argento seemed in good spirits through his slightly hesitant and heavily accented English, as we wandered through his birth into a family of movie executives and photographers, up to his first assignments as a film critic before he came to work as a screenwriter for Sergio Lenone on the Western classic Once Upon A Time In The West. Understanding that he would have to make something stylish to differentiate himself from the pack of cheap, quickly constructed horror movies (a cheap genre that usually had a solid ROI in those days) he turned to the lurid and yellow jacketed murder mysteries now known as giallo for inspiration, before directed his debut which went on to be a minor worldwide hit – he’s very rarely stepped out of the genre since. Some of his observations were quite telling – ‘dialogue is boring, cinema is looking and seeing’ hew said he learnt as mantra from Leone, but there was something of a disdain for American cinema which is a little hypocritical given his adoration of Hitchcock (he may be an Englishman but his masterpieces were made under the Studio System), as he remarked that he was disappointed with his second film Four Flies On Grey Velvet as it ‘looked like a US film’. Still, there was some banter on his involvement of the production of Dawn Of The Dawn and the subsequent alternate versions of the film (domestic and European versions), and his predilection for the band Goblin to score many of his triumphs (they have gained some cult kudos recently and playing a popular world tour), so all in all this was a pleasant re-cap of his career to date – although they really shouldn’t have closed things with a clip from Dracula 3D as it looks laugh out loud terrible.
These concerns were expunged by the shrieking screening that followed, I won’t waste valuable words on a detailed synopsis as plots aren’t exactly Argento’s strong point, it’s really his evocation of a delirious, phantasmagoric atmosphere which silhouette his films out from the majority of the gory pack, alongside a Hitchcockian imbibed ability in building cruel tension shredding set-pieces with are then punctuated with graphic and horrific violence – he’s a master of the kill scene. As Suspiria opens Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), an American ballet student arrives in Munich during an ominously gloomy storm-swept night in order to enroll at a mysterious and prestigious dance academy in Freiburg. After finding the building locked down and braving the threshing weather she decides to decants to town, but not before a harried figure exits the building and desperately whispers a phrase into Suzy’s ears – it’s quite a delicious mood setting opening which none other than John Carpenter has specifically praised;
The distressed evacuee is Pat Hingle, a recently expelled pupil who rushes for protection from a local friend before rather clumsily getting herself disemboweled in the bathroom by a knife wielding maniac, her twitching corpse crashing through a glass fresco which in turn impales her benefactor beneath a severe rain of piercing glass and metal. Suzy and her new friend Sarah (Stefania Casini) soon believe that these and other murders are part of some sinister plot lurking behind the Academy’s halls, for purpose, or purposes unknown. The film is first distinguished by the use of anamorphic lenses (similar to Carpenter’s adoption of the same for Halloween) which broadens the density and breadth of the images, whilst the giggling lunatic behind the camera soaks the frames in delirious flashes of colour, jarring off-centred framing, distorting focus effects and a gnawing sense of breathless anxiety, pummeling through with Goblin’s cacophonous electronic score. The effects are expedited by the imbibition treatment of the Technicolor film stock, a process which gives a lurid, lustrous sense of colour in the image which glistens on-screen, and I have to say that the print that the BFI have sourced was immaculate, pin sharp and vividly detailed, yet you could still tell it wasn’t a digital projection due to the cigarette burns and occasional distress mark.
Overall the film provokes a woozy, half conscious, nightmarish amelioration, it’s very much a roller coaster movie with a swirling blend of image, sound and severity which coagulates in the mind, co-written with Argento’s frequent muse Daria Nicolodi (the star of many of his Argento’s films, his ex-wife and the mother of Asia) the film has a brooding fairy tale veneer, of an innocent penetrating a seductive and dangerous metaphysical world where a murderous id runs amok. As much as I do find these films are little more than expertly orchestrated sequences stitched together with the most ridiculous and ill-conceived plots (not that its clear what the plot was as the final credits roll on this one), I do love Joan Bennett’s appearance in the film as the pulverizing principal of the Academy, keen Menagerie readers should recall that she is the crimson clawed femme fatale of one of my favourite films Scarlet Street, and her star presence helps obliterate the rather feeble performances from the majority of the doomed cast which of course is not particularly aided by the dubbed dialogue which is hilariously stilted and bad, I don’t know if the words themselves are this trite and ridiculous in the original Italian but frankly its some of this incongruities which fans like and admire about these malevolent little movies, they like the arch-kitsch dimensions of the speech in conjunction with the violent slayings which are operatic in tone and intent, a shrieking siren of a movie which hacks away in an eerie, mist drenched psychosexual pain. So that’s that, for my money Argento’s last watchable effort was an imprint of the Masters Of Horror TV series called Jennifer which is quite the memorable little tale, but here is the conclusion to the film (so, erm, SPOILERS) which is quite the deranged little ditty;