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