Movie Discussion: Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977)

  • Monthly Theme: Witchcraft & Black Magic
  • The Film: Suspiria
  • Country of origin: Italy
  • Date of Italian release: February 1, 1977
  • Date of U.S. release: August 12, 1977
  • Studio: Seda Spettacoli
  • Distributer: International Classics
  • Domestic Gross: ?
  • Budget: ?
  • Director: Dario Argento
  • Producers: Claudio & Salvatore Argento
  • Screenwriter: Dario Argento & Daria Nicolodi
  • Adaptation? Yes, inspired by the 1845 prose-poem Suspiria de profundis by Thomas De Quincey
  • Cinematographer: Luciano Tovoli
  • Make-Up/FX: Germano Natali
  • Music: Dario Argento & Goblin
  • Part of a series? Yes. This was the first film in the Three Mothers trilogy, followed by 1980’s Inferno and 2007’s The Mother of Tears.
  • Remakes? No.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Horror actress Jessica Harper (The Phantom of the Paradise, Shock Treatment, etc.). Genre character actress Alida Valli (Eyes Without a Face, The Antichrist, etc.). Arthouse star Udo Kier (Flesh for Frankenstein, Blood for Dracula, etc.). Star of TV’s Dark Shadows Joan Bennett.
  • Other notables?: No.
  • Awards?: n/a
  • Tagline: “The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 92.”
  • The Lowdown: We end the month with this classic supernatural giallo, often considered to be director Argento’s signature masterpiece. The film is the first entry in Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy, inspired by Thomas de Quincey’s 19th century prose-poem Suspiria de profundis (the other two are Inferno (1980) and Mother of Tears (2007)). It involves an American dance student named Suzy (Jessica Harper) who flies to Munich in order to reside at the prestigious Dance Academy. However, when she arrives she finds herself caught up in a series of bizarre murders, starting with expelled student Pat Hingle (Eva Axén). Suzy befriends a fellow student, Sarah (Stefania Casini), who harbors her own suspicions about the Academy’s headmistress Madame Blanc (Dark Shadows‘ Joan Bennett) and the mysterious and unseen Directress. It turns out the Academy was founded by an occult leader known as the Black Queen, a renowned witch, whose coven may still be running things from behind the scenes. Considered one of the greatest horror movies ever made, Suspiria is renowned for its expressionistic lighting and colors, its dreamlike tone and the bizarre and noisy film score composed by prog rock band Goblin.

If you haven’t seen Suspiria our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Kristine: The main thing that has been on my mind since we watched Suspiria is kind of specific. Or maybe it isn’t, I don’t know. I have done zero research on this, so forgive me if all my observations are, like, common knowledge to kindergartners. I was really struck by how much David Lynch I saw in Suspiria. While watching I started thinking of Lynch being heavily influenced by Argento, but then I realized, no, they are actually contemporaries, which is weird to me since Lynch still seems very current and Argento does not… Which is not to say his films are not vital or fresh. Do you want my list of similarities between Argento and Lynch’s approach to films?

Sean: By all means.

Kristine: Okay, well before I give you my list, do you agree? And is this common knowledge? 

Sean: It is possible that this is a topic of discussion somewhere on the Internet, but personally I have never, ever thought about that connection before.

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Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of Eurotrash girls?

Kristine: Really? I am surprised. It was seriously at the forefront of my mind the whole time. Here is why: 

1. Mystery stories. Despite not seeming particularly interested in creating a cohesive narrative or solving anything, both Argento and Lynch continually frame their movies as mysteries, featuring a protagonist (sometimes female, sometimes male) who embarks on an often fruitless quest to figure out what is going on, what lurks beneath the surface of things, etc.

2. Conspiracies. Both directors construct worlds where there is some kind of shadowy cabal or uncanny conspiracy that is only noticed by the protagonist. The dramatic tension in their movies often comes from paranoia about who is in on it? Who isn’t? How powerful are these people? How high up the social/cultural ladder does this go?

3. Surrealism. Lynch and Argento characters frequently find themselves in dream-like states, trances, and altered states of consciousness. What is buried in their own subconscious often rises up and penetrates into the filmic narrative in order to astound and confuse us.

4. Music. Lynch and Argento are both heavily invested in the role music plays in the cinematic experience, and both are attracted to avant-garde yet also kind of cheesy rock/jazz scores. Think about the John Zorn-esque insanity of Lost Highway and the Goblin score here.

5. Witchy ladies. The female gender is often imbued with a special and remarkable kind of uncannyness. Lynch does this over and over again – weirdly clairvoyant/supernatural women (like Sarah Palmer or the Log Lady in Twin Peaks, many of the women in Eraserhead); monstrously wicked women (Marietta Fortune and Perdita Durgano in Wild at Heart); or simply uncanny/enigmatic women (Renee/Alice in Lost Highway, Rita in Mulholland Drive).

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But I’m a Ballerina…

6. Softcore lesbianism. Both directors have a ridiculous fascination with lesbians and often play out male fantasies of lesbian desire that are… problematic, at least.

7. Art design. There is elaborate, severe, intense staging in every movie by both directors. They both engage in a heavy-handed use of symbolic colors, absurdly ornate and decadent interiors, strange and stylized costuming, etc.

8. Misfits and weirdos. The cast of secondary players in both directors’ movies are heavy on the freaks. People with strange and unusual physical appearances, mannerisms and bearings populate their aesthetic universes.

Umm, I think that is all I have. Thoughts?

Sean: Wow. You have totally convinced me.

Kristine: Am I a genius??

Sean: I feel really dumb for never thinking of it before. 

Kristine: I made the connection watching Suspiria, but I came up with my list of points driving home from work. I have convinced myself.

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Any sane person’s reaction to the cast recording for “Rent”

Sean: Did this occur to you when we watched The Bird with the Crystal Plumage or Phenomena

Kristine: Not at all. But they both fit most of the points, I think. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage definitely fits many of them with the central mystery, the elaborate staging, the conspiracy, the cast of freaks (like that cat-eating artist). The protagonist being dragged into the puzzle/mystery despite not having any real connection or reason to care, that seems to be a running theme with both Lynch and Argento. And Phenomena with the witchy lades, the conspiracy, the lesbo fascination, and of course… Goblin.

Sean: Yeah, I have it so ingrained in my head that Argento is “the Italian Hitchcock” that I never stopped to think about how he might be connected to other directors….

Kristine: I think it’s the crazy staging and the fever-dream quality that takes Argento away from Hitchcock and towards Lynch… Plus Hitch would never have such a weak-ass story line.

Sean: Oh my god, the “plot” of Suspiria. I haven’t watched this movie since I was like 20 years old and it cracked me up how there is no real conspiracy. It’s like, ultimately what are the witches trying to do? Nothing. When Suzy overhears the witches at the end plotting to kill her I was like, “Why?” They have absolutely no motivation to do basically any of the things they do. It is hilarious. 

Kristine: I know. The plot is… non-existent. I kept trying to figure out what it was the witches were doing to the girls and then I realized I was not going to get an answer. “Kill the American!” Okay, then why bring her to the school and then move heaven and earth to have her room on campus?

Sean: Because those dance moves, Kristine. What self-respecting dance academy wouldn’t want some Suzy swagger on their roster?It struck me, too, how many scenes in the movie are just two people engaged in some petty bickering or pointless negotiation. First when Suzy arrives at the school in the middle of the storm and the trick on the intercom won’t let her in. Then Pat argues non-stop with that lusty lesbian about whether or not she can even talk about what’s going on. Then Olga and Suzy haggling over rooming together, then Suzy and the girl who wants to sell her the shoes, then Suzy and Madame Blanc about where she is going to stay, and on and on. It’s like the movie should just be called The Bickering Witches or something.

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Swapping strawberries

Kristine: Agreed. I kept paying close attention to all of those interactions, thinking that there were clues being transmitted… but no. Doesn’t it remind you of all of the intense but fruitless engagement in Inland Empire?

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: Despite none of those interactions providing “answers,” they really do up the tension and sense of menace, right? 

Sean: The critic for the Village Voice has a great quote about Suspiria: that it is “a movie that makes sense only to the eye.” 

Kristine: I like that. 

Sean: Me too.

Kristine: What do you think about Phenomena and Suspiria having mostly the same plot, with the boarding school honeys and the intense but very short female friendship that spurs the protagonist to figure out what the evil in the school is? 

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Lifestyles of the Rich & Paranormal

Sean: Yes Phenomena definitely finds Argento re-visiting territory he staked out with Suspiria. They are very similar, which I noted in the intro to our Phenomena discussion last year. They both have these strange class dimensions that many of Argento’s other films lack – like these schools are populated by the daughters of powerful and wealthy men. Remember that Jennifer’s father in Phenomena was a world-famous movie star, and Sarah’s father here is “the Italian consul in Geneva.” The blue blood angle to both these movies is interesting to me.

Kristine: Both movies also having these dark, malevolent older women at their centers really fascinates me. Frau Brückner, the mad mother/killer in Phenomena and the Directress here, the hirsute Greek witch/mother. I know we covered this during giallo month last year, but the Italians really do love their evil mother characters.

Sean: Well, I propose we use your 8-point list as a kind of guide/framework for the discussion. Your first point was that both directors share an obsession with “mystery stories” that are not traditional mysteries. And, like in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, this whole movie is really about the protagonist correctly interpreting the meaning of a weird memory, that she returns to again and again. In this case, Suzy keeps returning to that moment of glimpsing Pat leaving the school and trying to uncover what Pat was saying to some unseen figure. She can only remember fragments: the word “iris” and the word “secret.” Similarly, Sam Dalmas in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage has to unravel his memory of the violent scene in the museum in order to “solve” the mystery. Argento seems to be obsessed with how untrustworthy our senses are, and the complicated psychological processes of memory and understanding.

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Trick or treat

Kristine: Which is all so David Lynch.

Sean: My boyfriend watched this with me and when Suzy first says “secret” and “iris or flower” to Olga and Olga is like “Secret flowers? What the heck does that mean?” I yelled, “It means your vagina!” at the tv. There is so much repressed lesbianism in this movie.

Kristine: Or not repressed.

Sean: Like, even the look that Madame Blanc gives Suzy when they first meet is this long, look-you-up-and-down erotic leer. Obviously Pat’s friend is a predatory lesbian who is like, “I know you’re traumatized, I can make you feel so good and you’ll forget all about that” and Pat has to frantically lock the bathroom door to keep her pussy-licking tongue away from her. The Suzy/Sarah friendship has erotic undertones, the two of them huddled together in the dark all whispering scary things at one another. For them, fear and paranoia have a sensual component. They ‘turn each other on’ by terrifying each other. And, of course, Miss Tanner is the scariest bulldyke fistfucker I have ever seen in my life. 

Kristine: Oh my god. When Miss Tanner arrived on the scene, I scrawled “scary bulldyke” in my notes.

Sean: Did you recognize her? 

Screen Shot 2013-05-31 at 12.17.51 PM
Lesbian maw by Invisalign

Kristine: She looks totally familiar… Who is she?

Sean: She is Louise, the doctor’s queer assistant in Eyes Without a Face. Whose job it was to pick up young female victims and lure them to the mansion.

Kristine: That was what I thought when you asked if I recognized her. Well, she certainly carved out an interesting niche for herself, acting-wise. 

Sean: Both Lynch and Argento seem like really Freudian/Lacanian filmmakers, right? All obsessed with the workings of the subconscious and repressed memories and symbols, of twinning (there are twins/doppelgangers featured in Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire and in several Argento movies we haven’t watched yet) and bifurcations in the psyche.

Kristine: Yes. I was going to say that the mystery story is the raison d’être for both filmmakers, but “solving” the mystery ultimately doesn’t really matter, right? At least plot-wise? By the end of Suspiria we don’t understand anything about what we’ve seen – who the witches are, what they really wanted, what their plans were for Suzy and why they shifted to just wanting to destroy her, etc. All of those things would be significant plot points in a more traditional movie. But like you say, Argento and Lynch both care about the mystery only as a means to get into the subconscious mind.

Sean: I think it’s very revealing that the “memory” Suzy is struggling to interpret/understand ultimately is really only about finding that secret door. The fact that there is a secret door, and that it leads somewhere strange, is all Argento cares about. It’s all about the setpieces, about the physical construction of the world and about the movement of the protagonist into an uncanny space. Which is so Mulholland Drive.

Kristine: Totally. Plus all the claustrophobic, overly-embellished and ornate interiors in Suspiria (don’t get me wrong, I would kill for any of those apartments). I was struck by how the characters were grouped closely together for no discernible reason (other than menace and a heady effect) for much of the movie – the overly cramped dancer’s changing room, how all the girls sleep together in that one space after the maggot attack (despite the school obvs being cavernous), how people are always squeezing by each other on the stairs, even how the coven is sitting together in this tiny room at the end of the hallway when Suzy discovers them. The almost maddening interiority of the school is itself some sort of weird Lacanian construct of the feminine, the uterine. There is only one scene that takes place in a vast amount of negative space – the amazing death scene of the blind piano player in the empty square.

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When you rub the petals, the flower opens

Sean: Lovely. Yes.

Kristine: Is that your favorite scene, by the way? I was… gobsmacked.

Sean: I adore the murder of Pat, with the green eyes outside the window and Pat crashing through the glass ceiling. And you’re right, her murder also takes place in this weird attic space (similar to the space that breeds the maggots), this interior, dark mysterious space that makes no logistical sense. And Pat’s creepy lesbian friend running around helplessly, banging on doors, going “Help! There’s a murderer!” Her shrieking those lines is a fine distillation of both Argento and Lynch’s entire filmographies. 

Kristine: Pat’s murder was good, but the blind man in the empty square did it for me. That was the only kill that actually seemed to be the work of “witches,” right? 

Sean: That poor puppy.

Kristine: Pat crashing through the stained glass and then getting hanged after already being stabbed in the beating heart. Overkill on top of overkill, right? 

Sean: By that hairy-armed witch. 

Kristine: That arm. Was that supposed to be the arm of Helena?

Sean: I love the reveal at the end of Helena, the ancient crone. The Directress. Get this. Jessica Harper, the actress who plays Suzy, told interviewers that the actress who played the crone/Helena at the end was “some ancient ex-hooker Argento found on the streets of Rome.” 

Screen Shot 2013-05-31 at 12.30.05 PM
Barbara Walters’ beauty nap

Kristine: Okay, that changes everything. I was all ready to say, “You are going to be disappointed, but I found the Helena Markos reveal to be a let down.” But not any more. I think any humanoid creature would have a tough time stacking up against all the amazing interiors and sets… 

Sean: Hahaha. The invisible outline? I just love it.

Kristine: Let’s talk about the conspiracy elements.

Sean: What did you make of the big coven, led by the fabulously named Madame Blanc? I love how her name also easily can be read as “Madame Blank” – an absence, a white space, an emptiness. 

Kristine: The girls are drugged and spied on and manipulated… but, like you said, to no real end. I guess witches just gotsta be witches… 

Sean: “Witches just gotsta be witches” is the best tagline in the world. 

Kristine: They just gotsta. I loved Madame Blanc and found her far more effective than Helena the Greek Whore. I love a turban and a severe red lip.

Sean: Just fyi, Madame Blanc is played by Joan Bennett, who was on Dark Shadows forevs in the 1960s. She also was the femme fatale in two classic Fritz Lang film noirs, and Suspiria was her last movie role.

Kristine: Oh, cool. It’s a great parting role. So, I have a question. 

Sean: Yes?

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John Tesh’s brother Juan Tesh

Kristine: Were Pavlo the Hungarian oaf and Albert, the fancy frilly freaky lad part of the coven, or are the menfolk just their slaves? 

Sean: Lil’ Lord Fauntleroy? 

Kristine: Yes. 

Sean: I think they are attachés. They are… Hag fags. 

Kristine: Love. (“Lil’ Lord Fauntleroy” = forever “Little Lord Fuck Pants” to me, thank you Christopher Moltisanti).

Sean: They just hang ’round the witchy fabulousness. One thing I’d forgotten (and I was dying) was how Suzy hooks up with a couple of RIMAs [Rational Masculine Inquiring Authority] to try and figure things out. I had forgotten all about those men and their weird theories/histories of witchery. [Editor’s Note: For the backstory on RIMA, see our discussion of Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy.]

Kristine: That part was a big bore and also totally echoed in Phenomena, though it was put to better use there than here. 

Sean: Fyi, one of them – Dr. Mandel, Sarah’s psychiatrist – was played by Udo Kier, who went on to star in both of Warhol’s horror movies.

Kristine: My boyfriend watched this with me and he pointed that out. I didn’t know which is totally shameful for me, since I am a Warholologist. Ugh. 

Sean: What did the bf think of Suspiria

Kristine: He didn’t give me an overall reaction, but I know he was impressed with the style. 

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A mint sportscoat? In August?

Sean: Back to Dr. Mandel for a minute, I feel like his tiny section of the movie actually has a lot of symbolic weight. Just how he relates Sarah’s whole backstory – she had a nervous breakdown after her mother died (significant because this links her both to the fairy tale tradition of motherless or orphaned waifs and also rearticulates the importance of maternity and mothering, for which both Helena Markos and Madame Blanc stand as dark doppelgangers). Mandel also lays out the Markos backstory and remember Suzy’s reaction? She says “I have a strange feeling someone all ready told me about [this], or something similar,” again underscoring Argento’s obsession with the processes of memory and cognition, and also pointing to the conspiracy angle (Suzy sort of instinctively knows that the Academy has a dark history, that there is this strange history of Markos the hirsute Greek immigrant witch), almost as if there is some collective unconscious or superconsiousness that exists. We are told that Markos had “something about her which urged religious-thinking people to persecute her” and thus she’d been driven out of “several European countries” over time. It made me think of two things – from a sympathetic angle, her story has lots of parallels to the history of the Jews in Europe (persecution, exile, nomadic wandering, charges of being heretics or heathens); from an unsympathetic angle, her story in a contemporary context has parallels to the spread of transnational terrorism. Markos can be read as a kind of terrorist, an agent of chaos who implants herself in the local community in order to destabilize it. I keep thinking of all the explosions in the final confrontation, like little bombs going off, and a giant conflagration to end it all. I know this is all foisting too much weight onto this little movie, but it’s interesting to entertain the ideas. If nothing else, I think it points to the fact that, over time, the superficial nature of “the enemy” shifts, but the basic ways in which Others, insurgents and external threats get constructed, worried over and narrative-ized stays pretty much the same. The evil is always something from out there, that other place, that has somehow managed to find a way in here, inside the “good place,” and is corrupting it. The images of the maggots raining down through the floorboards is the perfect visual expression of that corruption.

Kristine: Sure, and don’t forget Markos’ name “among the initiated” is the Black Queen. So the evil is monarchical and feminized, tied to an older feudal tradition (and so, importantly, is not modern, is anti-modern). She also, of course, represents darkness (this could be read as a kind of racial darkness, too – a Greek immigrant in Germany, the swarthy foreigner among the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Westerners). There’s also another twinning/pairing set up between herself (the Black Queen) and Madame Blanc (whiteness, lightness, blankess).

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Lesbian leer

Sean: The other thing that Mandel brings to the movie is a kind of theoretical framework that positions both the Modern and the Gothic (the moment when Suzy is attacked by the bat in the bathroom is probably the movie’s most overtly “Gothic” moment) in opposition to each other and, of course, the hallmark of the Modern is psychiatry. Mandel says, “As a believer in the material world, and a psychiatrist to boot, I’m convinced that the current spread of belief in magic and the occult is part of mental illness. Bad luck isn’t brought by broken mirrors.” Just think about how the 1970s brought with it a craze of witch/devil worshipper movies (remember the so-called ‘Satanic Panic’ begins in the 1970s in the U.S., some say with the publication of Mike Warnke’s now-debunked-as-a-fraud memoir The Satan Seller). The cultural war between the religious and the secular, the rational and the irrational, the superstitious and the scientific was fought in all kinds of ways and on all kinds of turf. Mandel pathologizes superstition, turns it into mental illness. Remember, Professor Milius’ book is titled Paranoia or Magic?

Kristine: Yeah and of course there’s a significant gender element to all that. Like the long line of RIMAs we’ve encountered before, the rational and scientific mind is a masculine mind, and the irrational and superstitious or uncanny mind is a feminine mind. Sarah had a nervous breakdown, Suzy can’t recall things and can’t rely on her mental faculties. The paranormal is ruled over by a female matriarch, the Black Queen. Women are sick, have sick minds, warped minds. That’s why its so significant that the males involved with the coven are all debased or queered – Pavlo, the deformed “freak,” Albert the little boy (feminine, not yet masculinized), Daniel the piano player has a disability that won’t let him “see” things (perception and the ability to deduce based on those perceptions being the key characteristic of the RIMA). Witches are always women, according to Milius, and witches are “malefic, negative and destructive.”

Sean: Right. So the wealthy foreigners are decadent and evil and women specifically are decadent and evil, corrupting the males around them.  

Kristine: I mean, the only one who seemed rich was Madame Blanc. Though I suppose Mandel tells us that Markos acquired enough wealth to found the Academy. And, yeah, they “seemed” evil, but again, what did they really do? Well, killing people is bad… but you know what I mean. For beings who are supposed to be so “malefic,” I wasn’t that impressed with the scope of their evil. But I do see your point – old world aristocratic decadence versus American youth and pluck. Kill the American.

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Strawberry jam allergy

Sean: True, the witches themselves are pretty weaksauce. So then the “terror” of the movie is really just about the things that lurk behind the curtain, in the other room, behind the wall, outside the window. This is reminding me of… Phantasm.

Kristine: Umm. Why. How. I was going to ask if you thought all the weird grimy obsession with money amongst the students was somehow related to a larger tension around wealth and power distribution. 

Sean: Right? When Sarah is like “all this talk about money!” and Suzy is like, “I’m certainly not used to it.”

Kristine: Suzy’s American-ness sets her apart from their grimy money-grubbing, right? 

Sean: Right. More antisemitic subtext?

Kristine: Possibly.

Sean: Kristine, Suzy is…. ugly.

Kristine: I was not impressed with her at all. Total plain jane. 

Sean: Those doll eyes. That forehead. Her “sick” dancing.

Kristine: My favorite Suzy scene was when she was trying to dance while being all sick. I loved that dancing.

Sean: We were like, dying. 

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So You Think You Can Act

Kristine: I loved how she was all a weeping willow with wet eyes and cooked spaghetti arms… and yet remained en pointe throughout. Brills! It actually reminded me of stuff like The Red Shoes – cursed slippers that make the ballerina dance until she drops. I saw that scene as the witches having some fun with her. 

Sean: Argento has some diva in him. All these decadent all-girl spaces full of catty shenanigans. Olga. I was severely disappointed that more was not done with the fabulous Olga.

Kristine: I loved Olga. I didn’t care about Sarah. Olga should have been the reanimated killer, not Sarah. Argento is obsessed with girl friendships. 

Sean: Ok, the third point on your list was “Surrealism.” Let’s discuss the “dream-like states” of the movie. What surreal moments did you dig? I love the fat, ugly cook and Lil’ Lord Fauntleroy shining the scary obelisk of bad dancing in Suzy’s doll eyes.

Kristine: Oh, I loved that. And then LLF giggling evilly as Suzy staggers away?? 

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: I also loved how the art direction and sets increased the confused mood. Do you remember the Escher wall paper in Olga’s fabulous lipstick lezzie pied-à-terre?

Sean: Yes. The coral wallpaper and seashell wall sconces?

Kristine: Yes, for sure, but the Escher print in particular underscores the fact that there is no up or down, no right way that will “solve” this mystery, right? Very Euro-fatalism versus American pragmatism. 

Sean: I love that. Yes and it’s all just interlocking patterns that lead… to nowhere, that just keep repeating endlessly.

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Every seventh-grader’s dream bathroom

Kristine: Exactly. The Escher motif is played out again and again, brilliantly. 

Sean: What about that magenta-hued sleepover scene in the dormitory, with all the sheets hung up and the silhouettes of the teachers? 

Kristine: That sleepover. WTF? And what did you think of Suzy’s beau? The ballerino? 

Sean: Ugh! Monster. 

Kristine: I hated his limp-wristed waving over the top of the curtain. Remember??? 

Sean: When Olga tells her “You caught one” about him, I yelled “Throw it back!” 

Kristine: Haha! I think we are supposed to read him as another witch-groupie, right? As one of the only males there, maybe his role was to lure Suzy in?

Sean: Lure her in to what? To oblivion. 

Kristine: Well, exactly. But witches gotsta be witches, Sean.

Sean: Let’s talk the music. This score is famous. To put it in the context of our Lynch/Argento parallelism, I don’t think Lynch’s movies have ever had such a bombastic score, right? Suspiria’s score is over-the-top, cacophonous, full of witchy female vocalizations… Did it work with the movie for you? Or cut against the tone? 

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Eurotrash prom date

Kristine: If memory serves, it worked much better here than in Phenomena. The absence of non-sequitur bursts of terrible 1980s heavy metal helped in that department. I agree that Lynch’s scores are not as bombastic, but I see a parallel in that both men are so personally engaged with specific musical collaborators. I can’t think of any other directors who are like, “Listen, I don’t care what the story is, Goblin is doing all the music!” Or Lynch’s relationship with Julee Cruise and Angelo Badalamenti. It is interesting to me that they share this (to my mind very unique) passion, along with being interested in so many of the same themes. It is fascinating to me that an artist who is obviously so painstaking about getting every aesthetic detail correct to convey a specific mood then puts this very over-the-top, show-y, loud soundtrack over the whole thing. Not saying it doesn’t work, it is just… intense. Then again, I don’t think Argento is often accused of being subtle, right? What do you think? 

Sean: Yes. I mean, I totally accept the music, and in some of the scenes I love it. Sometimes it is a little much for me. But I like all the discordant vocalizations that sound like devil-worshipping women. And those images of Pat running through the forest at night with the insane music playing are pretty great. I mean, like we’ve said, this is all about creating a complete aesthetic universe. 

Kristine: Yes. And here it works. But I think that Argento would use the music even if it didn’t work because he lives for Goblin. He is their number one fan.

Sean: Okay, point 5. “Witchy ladies.”  Nadine from Twin Peaks would fit right in at Markos’ Academy, right?

Kristine: Totes. 

Sean: Also Catherine is like, Madame Blanc’s soul sister. 

Kristine: And their missing sister is … Madame from Martyrs. I am dying. Turban and all.

Sean: Yes. Yes. 

Kristine: Catherine from Twin Peaks would totally flay someone alive, by the way. 

Sean: Haahaha. I love it. And just fyi, Piper Laurie – the actress who played Catherine – starred in an early 1990s Argento movie named Trauma and brings the campy gloriousness. And of course, she’s also Carrie White’s mother.

Screen Shot 2013-05-31 at 12.12.21 PM
Justin Bieber and his mom, an intimate portrait

Kristine: One thing that really struck me was that in Phenomena, Jennifer, the protagonist, was witchy herself with her psychic entymology. In Suspiria, Suzy is the most bland, powerless little thing.

Sean: Powerful enough to give Helena an impromptu tracheotomy. Okay, on to point 6, “Softcore lesbianism.” Why are these two directors obsessed with lezzing out?

Kristine: Well, I have a theory but I am not that confident in it. 

Sean: Please.

Kristine: It sort of relates to how they both want to be in with the cool musician kids, right? Despite being crazy smart and talented, I have always felt there was a strong boyish, juvenile streak to David Lynch. Maybe the lesbo and rock’n’roll stuff speaks to that side? The side that is not heavily wrestling with the subconscious dream twin we all carry around with us? 

Sean: Like, pointing at lesbians and laughing? That kind of boyish? 

Kristine: Like thinking lesbians are cool but scary. 

Sean: Ah right. Well, as we’ve noted, Miss Tanner is the scariest bulldyke ever. The dykes in Lynch movies are kind of soft and femme fatale-ish. 

Kristine: I mean, Argento clearly has a fetish about ladygirl boarding schools with bulldyke administrators, right? It doesn’t mean he’s a perv, but he is fascinated and cannot help but revisit it again and again. 

Sean: Yes. Though I think it’s safe to say he’s a perv.

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Strangest money shot of all time

Kristine: And also scenes of girls ganging up on each other and bullying. 

Sean: The evil killer in Phenomena was a total coded dyke, and was played by Argento’s ex-wife, who also co-wrote Suspiria with him.

Kristine: A-ha. 

Sean: She claims they based Suspiria on her grandmother, who allegedly fled an acting school when she discovered the faculty practiced “the black arts.” 

Kristine: A-ha times 100. Anyway, I don’t think the lezzie stuff has to do with their art, per say. I think men of Argento and Lynch’s vintage are just into that stuff. Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS and all that.

Sean: Hahaha. Magenta lesbian dorm. This leads up to point 7, “Art design.” I read that Argento made his cinematographer study Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs because that is how he wanted this universe to look.

Kristine: I like that. It works with how everything seems undersized, right? Like Suzy lying in that teeny-tiny bed while all the people fuss over her and give her medicine? Her being (nonsensically) drugged plays to the whole fairy tale thing, too… 

Sean: Argento wrote this to be about 12-year-old girls and his producers forced him to change it so it wouldn’t be childporn.

Kristine: Okay, maybe he is a perv. 

Sean: So he swapped in twentysomething ladies without changing anything else about the script.

Kristine: Maybe that’s why Suzy is so lame… Wait. There could have been a 12-year-old Olga.

Sean: Yes.

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Kristine: Dying. 

Sean: Me too. I actually think this would have been awesome with 12-year-old girls. Totally evil fairy tale realness. 

Kristine: Truth talk. 12-year-old girl witchhunters… I like that. 

Sean: So, your last point was “Misfits and weirdos.” That fan art you sent me of Pavlo the Mongoloid was insane.

Kristine: “He thinks he is very handsome…” I like the witches collecting man-freaks to serve them in their castle. 

Sean: Me too. I also feel like it hints at some dark reproductive monstrousness. Like Helena birthed him from her witch-cooch. 

Kristine: Well, LLF was clearly hatched. He did not come out of a vagina.

Sean: Did this movie scare you? 

Kristine: No. Well, I thought murder of Daniel in the square was scary. Chilling. I just had a thought.  Remember how Madame Blanc is bosom buds with Suzy’s aunt? Do you think auntie is part of the coven? I do.

Sean: Oh right. Yes totally. Blanc calls her “a patron of the arts.” The Dark Arts.

Kristine: Oh you are so right. Maybe that’s why they wanted Suzy there, but then they found out she was a dud and had no good witch genes.

Sean: You are brills. 

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: Stylistic triumph AND Batshit insanity!

The Freak’s Rating:  Masterpiece!


19 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977)

  1. I love the association of Argento and Lynch. I had thought about the red curtains before, but had never gone further than that! I’ve always thought of Argento as being the twin of Brian De Palma in the past.

    I have an Italian friend who says that all of the bickering about money etc makes more sense if you understand the Italian sense of humour. Argento movies apparently have a lot of jokes that go over the heads of non-Italians.

    By the way, the Snow White connections go way beyond the look of the movie. For example, in Snow White the Woodsman is told to cut out her heart (Pat’s heart); Snow White is put to sleep with poison in her food just like Suzy; in the Disney version we see her run madly through the woods (like Pat) and get attacked by bats (like Suzy); Helena Marcos, when finally revealed, sort of resembles the evil Queen in her “old woman” getup; I used to have a longer list of parallels but I can’t find it.

    suspect that the reason that the witches were plotting against Suzy might have had something to do with the way that she was poking her nose into their murders and running all around the town saying “Witchy witchy witchy poos!” to Udo Kier (who really should have dubbed himself) and everybody else she met. I love Jessica Harper, the actor who plays her, by the way. Despite her frail look she’s good a surprisingly strong (and deep) voice and if you check out the rad Phantom of the Paradise (or the dire Rocky Horror sequel Shock Treatment) she’s a very strong singer.

  2. Oh yes Argento/De Palma – Hitchcock’s two mentally ill stepsons. Love the Snow White/fairy tale connections you point out. I do think it would have been almost better with young girls as Argento had originally planned. As much as I dig this movie, I cannot get on board with the Jessica Harper love… I don’t get her (I remember her “awesome” dance moves in Phantom of the Paradise being hilariously not awesome). But, eh, different strokes…

  3. Ohmygod Goblin are coming to New Zealand to play the soundtrack to Suspiria live alongside the movie! I will die if I cannot get a ticket!!

  4. An opium den would seem perfectly in keeping with the tone of the whole thing, no? And would make it doubly worth going…

  5. Wow, I’d never made the Lynch/Argento connection either, but it totally fits. Bravo.

    Even though I’ve got the “Italian Hitchcock” label lodged in my head too, I think it got attached to Dario early in his career (pre-Deep Red) and has sort of followed him around ever since. Not that Hitch wasn’t an influence, but Dario is totally willing to throw his narrative out the window in favor of appealing to the senses. It’s sort of telling that when he set out to make a direct homage to Hitchcock with Do You Like Hitchcock? he didn’t have a clue what to do with it.

    Great review. I loved how thoroughly you guys dug into this one as well as all the bits of trivia.

  6. I have not yet watched Do You Like Hitchcock? mostly because the title and also made-for-tv. Looking forward to showing Kristine both Deep Red and especially Tenebre (my personal fave).

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