Tuesday, 2 October 2018


Fever Witch

Italy 1977
Directed by Dario Argento
Synapse Blu Ray Zone A

My revisitation of the early works of Dario Argento for this blog continues with a welcome US 4K restoration, limited edition steelbook Blu Ray of Suspiria. This is the edition approved by the cinematographer, which I spent far too much money on but which is worth it for the absolute crystal clarity of the transfer (which is important with this film in particular), not to mention the beautiful front and back cover artwork on the tin itself, initially hidden behind an equally gorgeous cardboard slipcase featuring the original, iconic ballet dancer artwork from the first release poster. Asides from the booklet, when you delve into the tin you get three discs... one of the film itself with the option of different opening credits sequences (not to mention two different commentary tracks), another disc full of extras and, on a third disc, a CD containing the famous Goblin soundtrack for the film.

I don’t know how you’d describe Suspiria to someone who has never seen it before. And, when I say ‘seen’ I mean experienced it... this is not like watching any other movie you’ve looked at so try and make sure you see it in the best conditions you can. Dim the lights and maybe pour yourself a drink... and don’t blame the almost hypnagogic visuals on the alcohol you’re casually sipping as your jaw drops at the attractive visuals. I’ve heard the film described as a few things in various documentary films on director Dario Argento over the years and, the two best ones I can remember are ‘fever dream’ and ‘fairy tale’. These two descriptions combined fit the visual aesthetic and atmosphere of watching the movie perfectly well so I’m not going to try and come up with something which is any more appropriate here.

The film was co-written by Dario Argento and his then partner Daria Nicolodi (father and mother of Asia Argento) and it was partly inspired by Nicolodi’s recollections of her grandmother’s stories of having attended such an academy and then fleeing when she found out it was a front for the study of witchcraft. Another influence is Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria De Profundis, which is often bundled together with his more well known Confessions Of An English Opium Eater... although it only relates to a couple of pages (from what I can remember, it’s a fair number of years since I read it) which outline the Three Mothers... the witches at the heart of Argento’s eventual trilogy of films Suspiria, Inferno and Mother Of Tears (aka The Third Mother).

The film is typical Argento and really establishes, more than any other, his similarity to the great Mario Bava in terms of the way he uses colour. It’s actually shot on Eastman colour but it was printed on one of the last surviving three strip technicolour machines in Italy. This allowed Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli much more control over the bright colours used here for the release prints (I won’t call them primary colours as everyone else seems to because, frankly, colours like purple and green which are in the film in abundance aren’t primary colours at all... unless you count RGB as primary and... I don’t).

During some quite sinister music going up as the opening credits roll, the scene is set by some voice over narrative telling about how Suzy Bannion (played by Jessica Harper here) went to Freiberg to attend the dance academy there. As the credits finish we see her leaving an airport, which already shows us the kind of strong and often quite nonsensical use of bright colours which will become the glue that holds the movie together. There is a certain sense of calm as the camera tracks us out (a series of shots which include a couple of glimpses of Daria Nicolodi herself, who walks out of frame and leaves the film for good) and, when Suzy leaves through the sliding doors at the front, Argento’s almost obsessional preoccupation with showing the visual mechanics of things already gets a highlight here as we observe the mechanism of the sliding doors filling the screen in two shots. When Suzy gets outside, the iconic Goblin Suspiria theme kicks in as her scarf whips up in the wind and she is pitched into a chaotic world of rain which assails the senses of the audience as much as it gets in the face of the lead actress. Eventually she is picked up by a taxi driver (a character and actor who we will see again in the second film of the Three Mothers trilogy) and she is driven through the Black Forest... since most of the film is shot in places which aren’t where it actually takes place fictionally. There is a truly amazing piece of film stitched into this sequence with the majority of the bottom of the shot just black, depicting the side of the cab and all we can see in the top sliver of the screen still visible is the rain pounding and rebounding on the roof of the cab as it goes past various brightly lit buildings... the effect being that we get different coloured washes of bright rain hitting the cab in greens, yellows, purples and reds etc as it passes by. Just really gorgeous, visually sophisticated film-making here.

When Suzy finally reaches her destination and she tries to get in to the academy, she sees but - mostly due to the thunder storm - doesn’t hear the majority of the words of the anxiety filled student who then runs off while simultaneously locking out Suzy who, after a brief pause where an equally hysterical person on the door intercom won’t let her in, is forced to return to the taxi and seek accommodation elsewhere for the night. The mechanics of this sequence are purely so we can see her on a return journey through the Black Forest where she can witness the plight of the girl who fled the academy as a transition scene, it seems.

We then join that girl as she pitches up at a friends house, which is equally resplendent in its design using colourful, geometrical shapes and patterns and an almost surreal sense of architectural detail... which Argento obviously lingers on as much as he can. We then witness what is probably the most violent scene in the movie, with a double murder as some non-human creature stabs the girl repeatedly until a hole is carved through her torso... a hole through which we can see a close up of her beating heart which is also stabbed in gory detail. She is then simultaneously dropped through a stained glass window ceiling which shatters while a strip of wire which the murderer has stabbed into her body pulls tight and acts as a noose for her hanging, lifeless corpse. The punchline of the sequence comes as Argento moves his camera along the floor underneath her, so we can see how the carefully arranged and shaped blood puddle integrates with the patterned floor before we stumble across the body of her friend, who has been impaled and also had her head split open by large chunks of the falling, stained glass. This is probably the most violent set piece in the movie (at least in terms of credibility, to a certain extent) so if you happen to be squeamish and you can make it through this point of the opening ten minutes, you don’t need to worry about the rest of the film, where the violence is more felt than observed in detail... although the walking corpse of one of the characters with big pins stuck through the front of her eyeballs might unnerve some, I suppose.

The rest of the film deals with how Jessica Harper’s character integrates with the other students, including actresses Stefania Casini and Barbara Magnolfi... the teachers and directors of the school, played by legendary 1940s actresses Alida Valli and Joan Bennet... and how she tries to solve the problem of a dance academy where ‘things happen’ due to it being run by a coven of witches led by the long though dead witch Eleanor Markos. There’s even a brief cameo by a young Udo Kier which people will want to look out for, playing a psychologist who says the line... "Bad luck isn't brought by broken mirrors but by broken minds". Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds was also the name of a quite good book on Argento by Maitland McDonagh in the early 1990s but it’s presumably a reference here to the fact that an awful lot of the shots in this film use mirrors to highlight the characters in unusual ways.

Indeed, there’s an almost unbelievable shot set up where two characters are on opposite sections of the wide screen but because of the way the mirror in the first third of screen is angled against the wall in relation to the camera, they're also talking placed right next to each other when they’re simultaneously seen in the reflection. Broken mirrors might also be a reference to a bit of reflective glass which looks broken and which is being ‘polished’ as Suzy walks through one of the corridors. The plump woman who is polishing it is accompanied throughout the film by a young boy, dressed suspiciously like the young boy seen in the opening credits of Argento’s previous film Deep Red (reviewed by me here) and, as our heroine gets nearer, the piece is angled and the already sinister soundtrack gives us a sting as the blinding light hits Suzy and does... something... to her which causes her to be taken ill and essentially moved into the academy where the powers in charge can keep an eye on her under the guise of medical reasons (which involve feeding her wine and other food that keep her weak whenever she imbibes). The shot is a beauty, though, because as the light from the object bathes the camera, the lights on the rest of the shot are dimmed down, only to be brought up again as the piece angles away again. The first time you see this, however, you might not notice the artifice of having to coordinate the lighting to accommodate the effect of the shiny object in question.

Okay, let’s talk about those bright colours. All through the film the director borrows from Mario Bava’s lighting style and we are shown highly saturated reds, purples, greens, yellows and blues bathing various objects or people, sometimes simultaneously in the same shot. For instance there’s a shot of Suzy in bed with everything in the room lit normally except her friend who is bathed in green and apart from a table at the side and all the objects on it, which are bathed in red. A lot of this stuff goes on and you get things happening like, in a makeshift dormitory built with hanging white sheets after a maggot infestation renders a floor of the school temporarily unuseable, somebody turns the lights off and the whole room is bathed in red for no apparent reason. And the sheets are now showing the silhouettes of what is going on behind them as shadows against the red (one of the shadows in this scene is a deliberate foreshadowing of a confrontation scene near the end of the movie). Or, when a character turns a light off in a room to make it dark, instead of being in pitch blackness, everything is miraculously lit up in a neon green. And when a character later smashes into the glass doors of a cabinet, the interior of the cabinet lights up red against her for a brief second.

The colours make absolutely no sense in this film but they look amazing. I’ve heard it said that they are supposed to be symbolic of the internal psychological state of the characters but I’m not sure that level of synaesthetic response was truly what Argento was going for, to be honest... because if you try and follow along with the colours like this and assign them some meaning then you may find yourself coming up short. I would concede, however, that they do play a psychological role in the way they are used to affect the mental state of the audience when they watch it. But, like I said earlier... fever dream meets fairy tale and the film truly immerses you in an experience while you subconsciously watch the colours do their thing on an entirely different level to what would have been written in the script.

Also pushing that fairy tale analogy is the fact that Argento originally wanted to shoot the film with young, teen girls but was told that it would not be a good commercial decision to have a violent horror movie utilising 12 and 13 years olds. To get around that, he has the camera placed just a little lower than he might usually shoot (so the audience is, more often than not in this movie, looking slightly up at the other characters) and he also has made the sets rather looming in comparison to the actors, with door knobs much higher than they would be in real life, for example, so the women have to reach up to open the doors in the rooms. The script wasn’t rewritten either so the child like and naive attitudes of a lot of the characters isn’t down to the bad acting of the majority of the actors like it is in a lot of Argento’s films (although there is a small amount of that here) but because the women are all written as children, so to speak.

But it’s not just the colours and height of the doorknobs that make this a typically Argento horror film (his first horror film, in fact, after a successful string of gialli and one failed comedy). The shot designs are the usual exquisite and meticulous works of beauty you would expect from the director. Geometrical patterns collide with walls and rooms adorned with 'trompe l'oeil' effects disguising hidden rooms and recesses and camouflaged with designs reminiscent of (and perhaps even the same designs in some cases) of the works of M. C. Escher. Indeed, the academy is in a street called Escher Stra├če so clearly Argento was not above wearing some of his artistic influences on his sleeve.

Other Argento-isms include the strange looking use of foreground objects seen attached to the camera and moving as the camera moves, such as a glass of red wine of a tray here in two shots, which are just like the shots he used of some of the murder weapons in Four Flies On Grey Velvet (which I reviewed here). Then there’s the moment when some items are dropped out of a bag and where they have fallen they are arranged meticulously so the camera can concentrate on them as they are picked up (even though they seem to have no narrative significance in the film, from what I can remember). There’s also a literal peacock made of glass and beads, which is presumably a visual reference to his first feature film, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (reviewed here), featured prominently in the final confrontation scene.

There’s a masterful, quite protracted scene comprising both static and moving camera shots where we know a character is going to be horribly killed but, as this blind character with his seeing eye dog are standing alone in the middle of a huge, deserted square (which Hitler used for his book burning rally in real life), we can feel the supernatural lurking in the shadows as we wait for the inevitably bloody denouement. When it does come it’s... well it’s surprising in terms of its origin is all I’m going to say about that one. Well, that and the fact that it’s quite brilliantly unexpected.

The thing which most of Argento’s films of this period have is also present here. That being the memory of an ‘escaped detail’ of something the main protagonist knows is there but can’t quite put their finger on until the end of the movie. In The Bird With The Crystal Plumage it was the struggle for the knife in the gallery. In The Cat O’ Nine Tails it was something Karl Malden’s character heard in passing. In Four Flies On Grey Velvet it was the masked killer, to an extent, and much later the mystery of the images of the four flies pulled from a dead woman’s retinas. In Deep Red it was Hemming’s niggling thought that there was something wrong with one of the paintings in the flat where he discovered the corpse of the woman he tried to save at the start of the film. In Suspiria, the thing haunting Suzy Bannion’s character are the fragments of the conversation she heard through the thunder storm as the girl who fled the academy at the start was talking to somebody just inside the door... primarily the words ‘secret’ and ‘iris’. In terms of this particular character in this particular film, you’ll be glad to know that she works out the significance of these words just when she needs to in order to move the narrative forward, quite near the end of the movie.

And that’s me done on Suspiria for now. I am curious about the new version hitting the UK in November although the audacity of someone trying to remake this masterpiece is something I find to be extraordinary. Suspiria is a truly beautiful film which is elevated greatly by its heightened colour schemes and unnerving musical score by Goblin, which Argento used to play at the actors on set to get them on edge (remember that most of these kinds of Italian movies are not shot with live sound and are dubbed into various languages for respective country's releases... so on set noise was not unusual). If you’re into horror films and you’ve not seen Argento’s Suspiria then you really need to fix that because it’s one of the most expressionistic and unique horror movies you’ll ever see, I suspect. Certainly nothing in the last 41 years of the genre since its release has come along to challenge it. Definitely a movie to be experienced, rather than watched and the limited Synapse US Zone A Blu Ray edition is pretty much the best I’ve ever seen it looking. Not much more to say on this one... an essential purchase for any fan of the horror film and... I’ll leave it at that.

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