FEATURE: Shocktober '15 - Suspiria

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here.

Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives late to her new ballet academy in Germany, nearly colliding at the door with another student, Pat, leaving the school in some distress. Pat seeks refuge at a friend's apartment, only for them both to be murdered in a suitably grisly fashion. When Suzy takes her place at the school, the teachers appear to be hiding something and the murders continue. She begins to investigate and soon uncovers the dark history of the academy and the secret it hides behind its blood-red walls.

What struck me most about Suspiria was how traditionally Gothic it is, albeit with the freedom to show the kind of shocks and gore that 18th century writers could suggest. Most early Gothic follows a pattern; they're set in Europe, feature a young, virginal maiden at its heart who is trapped in some kind of creepy castle with something preying on her (usually a randy older man). Suspiria sticks to this format fairly rigidly, not even updating it massively for the 20th century apart from the psychological paranormal angle. It helps that I've also re-read The Castle of Otranto recently, which is widely acknowledged as the first Gothic novel and key exponent of the above formula, and adheres to the same kind of frenetic atmosphere that Suspiria creates.

In Otranto, the helmet of a statue falls on the head of a prince and kills him instantly within the first three pages. What follows is a hilariously short tale of inheritance, marriage and death where long lost sons are found, prophecies are fulfilled and daughters are stabbed by their fathers. The plot isn't so important, but the shocks are. Walpole sets out to sensationalise his audience and give them an experience rather than a story. Suspiria strikes me as having very similar intentions. Argento isn't focused on just telling Suzy's story, but making it into something that will provide an experience for his audience, one in which narrative comes second to the way in which its told.

Of course, Suspiria sticks to that classic narrative formula too (minus the randy old man bit). From the moment the film starts, it's an assault on the senses. The visuals are riotously bright, with liberal splashes of red across the screen and the other primary colours dialled up to a garish maximum. The double murders are inventively staged in such a way that immediately establishes the heightened, hyper-real story. The apartment building in which it takes place is an exercise in the sublime, in the more traditional sense of the word, an effect carried over into the dance academy set. The outdoor red facade is a Gothic delight in itself, the inner corridors grandly claustrophobic and threatening. 

The score, by Italian prog rock band Goblin with director Dario Argento, captures that combination of nightmare and fairytale, with the main theme reminiscent of a child's music box. It's at once both creepy and comforting, abrasive yet gentle and gives the film a fairytale quality that, combined with the visuals, is more Angela Carter's disturbing rewrites than Disney's sanitised renditions. At times, the score is of such a volume that it can feel quite overwhelming, an effect that I've no doubt was entirely intentional. It almost threatens to engulf the film, but Argento balances it masterfully, knowing the exact moment at which to dial it back and let the visual components take over.

As a big fan of the Gothic in all its forms, it is always exciting to come across one which is so enthusiastically traditional and like the works of Walpole or Radcliffe, goes full tilt for sensation and shocks. The reveal of what's behind the curtain here is almost incidental to the experience of the film, a sensory nightmare of the most thrilling variety.

- Becky

You can find my other Shocktober '15 reviews here.

Follow @AssortedBuffery on Twitter
Or like our Facebook page

FEATURE: Shocktober '15 - The Raven (1935)

FEATURE: Shocktober '15 - Rogue