After babbling on about the Italian horror movies for the last few days, it seems fitting to end this week with another special guest post. Earlier in the week Gavin gave us lots of trivia about giallo and exploitation films. Today, my guest takes a look at the genre from the opposite perspective, coming at as a complete newbie.
Today’s guest poster is the industrious Matthew R. Bowers: film student, writer, and man behind Wrong Opinions About Movies. He can be found on his website MRBowers.net, on twitter at @mrbowers, and of course his podcast Wrong Opinions About Movies.
So here’s Matthew on what happens when I make you watch Suspiria.
I haven’t had much experience with horror films. I never watched them growing up, primarily because I was a big scaredy-cat; I never watched them as an adult either, out of habit, I suppose. When Elissa started this “31 Days Of Horror” feature, though, it reminded me that there was a whole wide genre of films I hadn’t explored, ones that might not only inform my own efforts as a film student and filmmaker, but also simply entertain me, as well. I was a big boy now, after all.
So I waded in, starting with some standards I felt like I “needed” to see (Nightmare on Elm Street, The Exorcist, The Ring, etc.) along with a variety of others that guests would be discussing on the special bonus Halloween episode of my film discussion podcast (an episode also inspired by Elissa’s project here). Soon I was flinching at the “thwack”ing sound a knife makes as it plunges into a victim’s chest, squirming uncomfortably as zombies munched contentedly on human flesh, and checking to make sure the lights were on before watching Linda Blair twist her head all the way around to peer at me with those awful yellow eyes.
In other words, I was having the time of my life.
In the midst of all this was Elissa, urging me to watch Suspiria. “Have you watched Suspiria yet?” she’d ask. “Hey, when are you going to watch Suspiria? Don’t forget to watch Suspiria! Let me know when you see Suspiria!” Apparently, I needed to watch Suspiria.
I wasn’t opposed to the notion. I’d heard of Dario Argento, although I knew very little about him. His name evoked a specific sort of horror: an over-the-top, operatic aesthetic. In my youth, passing his films on the shelf at the video store, they always seemed like ultra-horror. They were Italian! They were crazed! Anything could happen in an Argento flick, anything! I’m honestly not sure where I got these impressions — just from the box art, I suppose — but as a kid, the idea of watching these movies seemed even more terrifying and unappealing than something like The Exorcist. Now, though, that I was embarking on my horror renaissance, I was curious. Not only about Argento, but about this whole “giallo” sub-genre he seemed to be a part of. So far as I could tell, it was a “spaghetti thriller” style of films, much like the “spaghetti westerns” I was already familiar with — badly dubbed, made on the cheap … and spectacularly bold and dynamic in terms of their filmmaking style. And if Dario Argento was the Sergio Leone of horror films, I was on board.
So, I cleared a couple hours from my schedule and watched Suspiria. When it was over, as promised, I called Elissa.
“Yeah. So. I’ll watch pretty much anything you tell me to, at this point.”
I meant it. She’d earned my trust. Suspiria was everything I’d been hoping for and more. It was outlandish, operatic, uncomfortable, squirm-inducing, and brilliant. It is, in this neophyte horror fan’s opinion, one of the greatest horror films ever made.
What makes Suspiria so brilliant? Not it’s script, frankly. An American girl (Jessica Harper) comes to Germany to study dance, and discovers that the prestigious academy she’s enrolled in is run by a coven of witches. The more she finds out, the more attention she draws to herself, and the more danger she finds herself in. That’s pretty much it. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this script would be a bore, but under the magnificent direction of Argento, it becomes a visual and aural orgasm.
Right from the get-go you can tell this film is something special. As Suzy, our protagonist, walks through the airport towards the doors that will lead her into Germany and the fun times that await, we become immediately aware that something ain’t right. Argento cuts back and forth from an angle on Suzy as she walks forward, and a shot from her point of view looking out towards the stormy night. The shots of Suzy’s face are free of non-diagetic sound, but the shots looking out on the rain hammering down are accompanied by the brilliant, unsettling score from Italian rock band Goblin. The idea that Suzy is about to transition from her nice safe world into a surreal nightmarish existence is obvious, but no less effective for that.
Indeed, this is not a subtle film, but then, I wasn’t hoping or expecting it would be. Argento paints his canvas with broad strokes, but those same strokes are so bold and inventive that I never once found myself wishing he would dial it back. Instead, I found myself completely transfixed.
What was so transfixing? Sheesh, what wasn’t? The odd and often uncomfortable camera angles. The lavishly decorated set that at times felt like a Victorian mansion and at times like an M.C. Escher illustration. The aforementioned soundtrack by Goblin, which included not only a haunting theme but horrifying guttural vocalizations and narrations. And the lighting. Holy cow, the lighting. I have never seen a more creative, inventive, or simply gorgeous use of light and color in a film. I could write a paper on the use of color in Suspiria alone. The long red hallways, the blue-tinted attic, the green-drenched bedroom … it’s all stunning, and none of it is arbitrary. Each color selection feels extremely deliberate, motivated not only by mood but by story concerns as well. Argento actually manages to use color to build tension and subvert audience expectations in amazingly sly and creative ways.
Suspiria is more than just the sum of it’s parts, though. Argento manages to take all these individual aesthetic elements and combine them into a breathless, heart-squeezing, exhilarating cinematic experience. When I was through with this film I felt like I’d been ridden hard and put away wet. In the best possible way.
Unfortunately, Suspiria has left me trepidatious about checking out not only the rest of Argento’s catalog, but the rest of the giallo genre in general. Not in the way that young timid Matthew was unsettled by the grotesque box art for Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2, but with an even more unsettling notion: what if I’ve peaked? Suspiria was, to my eye, so brilliant, so pitch-perfect, that I’m worried following it up with pretty much anything else will seem like a let-down. This is an absurd worry, I know, and it’s not one that will actually keep me from the rest of the giallo films — indeed, after Suspiria, you couldn’t keep me away from this genre without a horde of rampaging zombies (or maybe the guy in Suspiria with the teeth) — but I’m still left wondering if maybe I should have saved Suspiria for later, and started with some less fantastic representation of Argento’s work or the giallo genre.
On the other hand, if I hadn’t started with Suspiria, I might not be as excited as I am to explore this messy, brutal, gorgeous sub-genre. I might not be as in awe of Dario Argento as I now am. And I might not be as excited to try some of Argento’s aesthetic flourishes in my own films.
What’s more, Suspira managed to crystallize for me what it was I was enjoying about the horror genre in general. It’s the naked creativity. The boldness, the fearlessness, the chances horror directors are willing to take that directors of other genres don’t seem willing to. Suspiria called attention to this for me because it was so obvious, with the garish lighting and the growling vocalizations in the score. But it’s true of most of the other horror films I’ve seen as well, to a lesser extent. There’s just something about the genre that brings out the risk-taker in filmmakers, and for that alone I will not be a fan of horror for the rest of my days, but, again, determined to take some of those risks in my own works, regardless of genre.
The moral here, I suppose, is that however you come to Argento and giallo, it’s a journey worth taking. And when Elissa tells you to watch something, do what she says.
Matthew Robert Bowers a writer, film lover, film MAKER, photographer, one-time actor, occasional cartoonist, podcaster, lover of animals, former depressive, future Hollywood powerhouse, and an all-around nice guy. He currently lives in Portland, OR and foresees a move back to his home state of California in the not-too-distant future. His weekly film podcast and other works can be found at mrbowers.net.