Splat­ter mas­ter Dario Ar­gento tells Calum Wad­dell all about the film that put his unique mix of art and ar­ter­ies on the movie map...

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Dario ar­gento’s Sus­piria.

Leg­endary night­mare maker Dario Ar­gento was al­ready a big­ger name than the Pope in his na­tive Italy when he be­gan pro­duc­tion on his first su­per­nat­u­ral hor­ror film, Sus­piria. Com­ing from the hit gi­allo Deep Red (1975), which had spawned a chart-top­ping sound­track al­bum and made its di­rec­tor as iconic as a rock star, all eyes were wait­ing for his next move. What tran­spired was against ev­ery­one’s expectations: a story fo­cused on an Amer­i­can bal­let stu­dent who ar­rives in Mu­nich, West Ger­many, only to dis­cover that her new univer­sity is ac­tu­ally the hid­ing place for a coven of witches. Chief among the an­cient evil­do­ers is Helena Markos, also known as Mater Sus­piri­o­rum, the Mother of Sighs, and the old­est and wis­est of a trio dubbed the Three Moth­ers – a group re­spon­si­ble for all of the malev­o­lence in the world.

So far so straight­for­ward, but very lit­tle in Sus­piria makes sense – from ran­dom rooms full of barbed wire to the fact a sect of time­less tor­men­tors man­ages to re­main hid­den when they slaugh­ter most of the pupils who at­tend the col­lege that they use to mask their oper­a­tions. But to crit­i­cise such nar­ra­tive fail­ings seems fu­tile given Ar­gento’s mas­ter­piece is so stylish, so scary, a heady mix of aes­thetic beauty and star­tling set­pieces.

it was an ex­per­i­ment in style,” laughs Ar­gento when SFX catches up with him. “We pro­cessed the film in Tech­ni­color and we were one of the last pro­duc­tions to do that. It was ex­pen­sive but I wanted the colour to really jump out at the au­di­ence. It was such a grand style, a big task... It is very Ital­ian, I think. It is hor­ror but it is art. I wanted it to have the ap­pear­ance of an old Walt Dis­ney film such as Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. But it also needed to have that tone. You should know that this is a very sim­ple story of good and evil. It was a flam­boy­ant film and I do not think I could ever make a movie like it again. Even now, though, the fans ask me, ‘When will you do an­other pic­ture like Sus­piria?’ [laughs]”

Trans­lat­ing as “sighs” in Latin, the ti­tle Sus­piria was prob­a­bly ev­ery bit as mys­te­ri­ous as the macabre thrills that its poster promised (“The only thing more ter­ri­fy­ing than the last 12 min­utes of this film are the first 92”). A block­buster-sized suc­cess in its na­tive Italy, Ar­gento’s grue­some gem also looked to a more in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence by cast­ing an Amer­i­can in the lead­ing role. Tak­ing on the part of Suzy Ban­nion, the New York ex­pat who finds her­self bat­tling against a satanic sect, was Jes­sica Harper – a re­spected ac­tress at the time thanks to her turns in the con­tro­ver­sial sex com­edy In­serts (1975) and Brian De Palma’s beloved mu­si­cal Phan­tom Of The Par­adise (1974).

s she even looked a lit­tle bit like Snow White, which is why she was so good for the role,” ad­mits Ar­gento. “I needed a strong fe­male for Sus­piria. It was about this in­no­cent young girl who is forced to bat­tle this much older, evil witch. We had to sym­pa­thise with her naivety but also ad­mire her beauty and her el­e­gance. So Jes­sica was per­fect – she is one of my favourite ac­tresses.”

In­deed, de­spite the fact that Sus­piria be­gins with an es­pe­cially bru­tal dou­ble-mur­der of two beau­ti­ful fe­male stu­dents, it is dif­fi­cult to deny that the story – as with a lot of Ar­gento’s work – is all about a strong young woman over­com­ing the odds to de­feat an over­ar­ch­ing author­ity. From Daria Ni­colodi in Deep Red and Harper in Sus­piria to Jen­nifer Con­nelly in

Phe­nom­ena (1985) and Cristina Mar­sil­lach in Opera (1987), Ar­gento – who is of­ten ac­cused of misog­yny – has rarely shied away from pre­sent­ing genre hero­ines with strong and pow­er­ful per­son­al­i­ties.

“I still hear this, all th­ese decades later. ‘Ah, you hate women be­cause you kill them in your films,’” chuck­les Ar­gento. “I have to say, ‘No, no you don’t understand. I tell sto­ries about women in all of their many forms! In my movies they are the hero­ine but they may also be the vic­tim or the mur­derer.’ I con­sider my­self to be a spe­cial­ist in telling sto­ries about women. I love women and that is why they are fre­quently the main fo­cus in my films. I enjoy film­ing women – and this is true of any artist. Look at the way women have been cap­tured and framed by all of the great pain­ters back through the ages. In Sus­piria there are only two men and they both have a phys­i­cal weak­ness of some kind: one is blind and the other is mute. In real life I think men are weaker than women and this is why, in Sus­piria, where the char­ac­ters are all strong fe­males the males had to be seen as to­tally sub­mis­sive.”

Amaz­ingly, de­spite the adult im­agery in Sus­piria, Ar­gento also re­veals that his ini­tial plans for the movie were more PG-ori­en­tated.

“Sus­piria was orig­i­nally aimed at chil­dren,” he states. “I wrote the first version with th­ese pupils at a dance school who were be­tween eight and 12 years old. Some of the peo­ple who were fi­nanc­ing the film read the script and said, ‘No, no, no – we do not want some­thing for kids. We want a full-blooded hor­ror movie!’ So I de­cided to change it but to keep that early spirit alive – and this is why you some­times see the stu­dents in Sus­piria act­ing like chil­dren among each other and fight­ing and squab­bling.”

No dis­cus­sion of Sus­piria can be had with­out men­tion of its elec­tri­fy­ing prog-rock sound­track cour­tesy of Gob­lin, the leg­endary Ital­ian ex­per­i­men­tal­ists led by key­boardist and com­poser Clau­dio Si­mon­etti. Ru­mour has it that Ar­gento played it on set, at full blast, in-be­tween takes to frighten his young cast...

“That is such a good story that I don’t want to con­firm or deny it,” teases Ar­gento. “I started work­ing with Clau­dio on Deep Red and I knew that he was the right per­son for Sus­piria. The score for Sus­piria takes you to an­other world. In fact, it sounds like mu­sic that has come from an­other uni­verse. John

Car­pen­ter and many other film­mak­ers have told me how much it has in­spired them.”

Set in West Ger­many, and fo­cus­ing on a se­cre­tive cult that is led by an au­thor­i­tar­ian pres­ence, Sus­piria can also be viewed as a none-too-sub­tle com­men­tary on the then preva­lent split in the Euro­pean coun­try that hosts its grue­some ac­tion. Filmed dur­ing an era where the Berlin Wall stood tall, and no one could pre­dict an end to the Cold War, Ar­gento ad­mits that his Mu­nich lo­ca­tion was very much on pur­pose.

“I find con­tra­dic­tions fas­ci­nat­ing,” he main­tains. “I went to East Ger­many and it was sup­posed to be about equal­ity but you still saw peo­ple who were poor and ev­ery­one was sup­pressed. But the gov­ern­ment was try­ing to hide this. It was a ‘se­cret’ that peo­ple were un­happy – even though you could see it right be­fore your eyes. So Ger­many was very in­ter­est­ing. I ex­plored a lit­tle bit of that in Sus­piria and then when I pro­duced Demons, which was also in West Ger­many, we had the evil spill over into the ar­eas of city life and commerce. When I did Phe­nom­ena it was in Switzer­land, which is an­other ex­am­ple of con­tra­dic­tions: ev­ery­thing is neat, clean and tidy – it all looks per­fect but un­derneath it is full of per­ver­sions. The bank­ing and the cap­i­tal­ism is in­sane. So I have crit­i­cised all sorts of pol­i­tics in my work.”

re­leased in Italy in Fe­bru­ary 1977, Sus­piria was an overnight phe­nom­e­non and one of the big­gest gross­ing re­leases of the year. Un­for­tu­nately, in Amer­ica, its dis­trib­u­tor – CBS-Fox (who were em­bar­rassed enough to re­move their logo and name from the release) – chose to mar­ket the film as a tacky splat­ter-shocker, far re­moved from its arty avant-garde lean­ings. De­spite be­ing a mon­ey­maker, crit­ics and au­di­ences were gen­er­ally per­plexed – with fu­ture Mas­ter of Hor­ror Mick Gar­ris writ­ing an es­pe­cially damn­ing re­view for Cine­fan­tas­tique (the film­maker now claims it to be among his per­sonal favourites). Mean­while, in­dige­nous au­di­ences in Rome were thirsty for a se­quel – which led to 1980’s un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated and equally es­o­teric mas­ter­work In­ferno.

“If Sus­piria be­gan life as my hor­ror film for chil­dren then In­ferno was my night­mare fairy­tale for adults,” nods Ar­gento. “It is more to do with alchemy and de­monic prac­tices. I re­placed the re­silient Jes­sica Harper char­ac­ter with a weak and shy male – which seemed to take the au­di­ence by sur­prise [laughs]. But I wanted In­ferno to be very dif­fer­ent from Sus­piria – it does not even have Gob­lin on the sound­track. You see, I did not want to make the same film twice.”

Nearly four decades later Sus­piria re­mains ca­pa­ble of scar­ing even the hardi­est of hor­ror fans, while also amaz­ing art­house con­nois­seurs with some of the most ad­ven­tur­ous and out­ra­geously colour­ful cam­era cal­is­then­ics ever com­mit­ted to cel­lu­loid.

“Above all my other films, it is the one I will prob­a­bly be re­mem­bered for,” con­cludes Ar­gento. “I have been try­ing to top it ever since I fin­ished it [laughs]. Maybe one day I will get there.”

Sus­piria was orig­i­nally aimed at chil­dren

Jes­sica Harper’s go­ing to need a strong drink.

Aha, the “fright­ened hair­dresser” look!

Could th­ese bed­side visi­tors be any more sin­is­ter?

Never mind the script, just enjoy the im­agery.

Must have been a knot-savvy boy scout around. Even the stair­cases are wacky! Th­ese scenes are amaz­ing in colour, hon­est!

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