The expressionistic goth horror of Suspiria

As the end of October steadily is closing in, so is the unholiest of holidays, with pumpkins, costumes and stacks of candy lurking around every corner. I personally have never really been the most engaged person in the celebration of halloween; beside some occasionally fun and impressive costume outfits and the excuse of stuffing myself with more candy than normally, I’ve never really had any reason for getting excited about it. It’s always just kind of happened, and then I’ve moved on with my life. For this year though, I figured I’d for a change partake in this fine yearly tradition of spookiness, and what better way to do that than by looking at my personal favorite horror film?

suspiria

Dario Argento’s 1977 cult classic Suspiria has, from the very first time I saw it, stuck with me as one of the most vibrant and expressive films I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. Much of this comes from its distinct blend of a wide variety of elements, such as its experimental color use through lighting and set design, as well as its haunting and pummeling score. But while the film is a lot of things, it is above all an exploitation film – a term probably most commonly associated with the American grindhouses which emerged parallel to the Hollywood industry during its Hays Code era, exclusively showing B-movies that were filled with all the wonderfully violent, erotic and in other ways explicit content that could never be seen on the big screen. The peak of the exploitation cinema though was arguably during the 60s and 70s when the Hays Code started dissipating, making the industry reach a wider market. It was during this era that all the sub genres that one commonly associates with exploitation films were born, such as splatters, slashers, cannibal films, rape and revenge films, blaxploitations, and so on.

And among all this came Suspiria, which to a large degree follows the same line as its contemporary exploitationists in terms of rawness and unrestraint. Although what’s being exploited isn’t so much gore or sex (even though the film does have its fair share of violence) as it is an aesthetic. This aesthetic is mainly a combination of two things: gothic horror and expressionism. So in order figure out what it is that makes this film so special, let’s pin down the definition of these two categories and how they play out in Argento’s movie.

Gothic horror is originally a genre of literature that emerged out of England during the 18th century, with famous novels such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and much of Edgar Allan Poe’s works. It later got its big place in cinema in the 1920s with a lot of adaptations of said novels. What typically characterizes the gothic horror genre is its fantastical elements, with vampires, werewolves and witches being commonalities, but also its sense of mysticism and often romantic, sometimes even erotic undertones. The literary genre was in itself inspired by the gothic architecture from the mid to late medieval period in Europe – or perhaps more particularly its nationalistic revivalism of the 18th century. By looking at just a few examples of this architectural tradition one can easily get a grasp of how it influenced its literary counterpart; the buildings are on one hand very high and pompous with all their compartments reaching upwards to the sky, but they also possess a massive amount of small details that are all very thin and sharp, giving the buildings a skeletal, almost spider-like character. The gothic architecture perfectly showcases the combination of romantic elegance and shivery suspense that is so prominent in both its literary and cinematic categories.

Reims Cathedral, 1211-41
Reims Cathedral, 1211-41.
St. Chapelle de Vincennes, 1379-1480
St. Chapelle de Vincennes, 1379-1480.
Sainte-Chapelle, 1243-48, Paris
Sainte-Chapelle, 1243-48, Paris.

So how can all this be drawn to Suspiria? Well, narrative-wise, the film is a classic gothic horror story by every sense of the term. Our protagonist Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) is a young American ballet dancer who enrolls in a prestigious dance academy in Freiburg, Germany. As strange things start happening – including several people around the school getting mysteriously killed – she and her classmate Sarah (Stefania Casini) start putting the dots together. Slowly but steadily they unravel the school’s dark secret; it is run by a clan of witches. An incredibly simple and straightforward plot whose influences of gothic horror couldn’t be more prominent, both in the fact that it’s a story about witches, but also in its highly mystical elements. On top of this, there are strong indicators from the very start that this isn’t your normal academy, as most of the school personnel have such a gothic character to them that they might as well have been taken straight out of The Addams Family: a blatantly blind piano player who constantly has his head turned upwards, a seven foot tall handyman with a ridiculously fat upper jaw and the cutout persona of Frankenstein’s monster (or alternately the James Bond henchman Jaws), a sleazy doctor who just as well could have played a mad scientist, and not to mention the vice-directoress Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and instructor Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) who both have a striking resemblance of Morticia Addams. These are all such overt stereotypes of characters seen in gothic horror that it’s almost parodic. But the real brilliance of Suspiria doesn’t so much lie in its gothic storyline and characters as in how this is executed, which has a lot to do with the other major factor of its aesthetic: expressionism.

Expressionism is originally a wave within painting that came out of Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. Even though the style of expressionism can be seen as early as the late 1800s with artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch, it wasn’t until around 1905 that it formed into an actual movement, when a group of German artists consisting of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Fritz Bleyl formed an association called Die Brücke (The Bridge). Being opposed against the naturalism and impressionism that dominated their contemporary institutions, they felt that the current state of art completely lacked any spiritual energy. Thus they sought creating art that wasn’t just portrayals of certain objects and/or settings, but was filled with feelings and expressions from within the artist. This resulted in paintings with highly exaggerated depictions of their motifs, which were achieved by using strong colors, violent brush strokes, and deformations and disproportions of both bodies and surroundings.

Kirchner, Ernst Ludwig. 'Street, Berlin', 1913.
Kirchner, Ernst Ludwig. ‘Street, Berlin’, 1913.
Heckel, Erich. 'Portrait of a Man', 1919.
Heckel, Erich. ‘Portrait of a Man’, 1919.
Rotluff, Karl Schmidt. 'Woman with a Bag', 1915.
Rotluff, Karl Schmidt. ‘Woman with a Bag’, 1915.

On top of this idea of bringing out raw expressions from within the artist onto the painting, one could also see another layer in the form of that the artist is, through his painting, bringing out the expressions of its motif (or perhaps more accurately: the artist’s perception of what the motif is expressing). Subsequently, this can then be drawn to more politically charged matters, as these expressive depictions of society may be seen as a form of social commentary – an idea that some artists even openly embraced by drawing their characters in caricature-like ways. This aspect of the expressionist movement can especially be seen in its addition to cinema, with the dystopian city in Fritz Lang’s 1927 science fiction classic Metropolis often being noted as one of the greatest examples. However, for the sake of drawing notable parallells between expressionism and Argento’s movie, I would instead like to take a look at an earlier film: the 1920 horror The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

What is probably most striking about this film is its set design. Right from the very first shot of the town Holstenwall in which the story takes place, it is highly evident how the design of this movie set is filled to the brim with influences of the expressionist paintings. When we then arrive inside the town we see how the film constantly plays with shapes, shadows and proportions: leaning walls that look like they’re closing in on you, buildings appearing ready to fall over at any minute, doors and windows in the strangest of forms, chairs that are too high and ceilings that are too low, twisted trees and lampposts, and sharp corners and painted shadows from every direction. It is a truly twisted place to witness, and you get the impression that there isn’t a single straight line present in the whole town’s design.

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The real impact though comes when looking at this design in relation to the plot. To this town of Holstenwall, there one day arrives a certain Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauß), who together with his somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) opens up a magic show at the town’s fare. At this show, the two foretell the death of a selected person in the audience, who then Cesare is sent out to kill the following night. After his best friend gets killed during one of these instances, the protagonist Francis (Friedrich Feher) loads up his suspicions against the pair and decides to investigate. However, by the near end of the film, the big plot twist gets revealed: the whole story has actually taken place inside Francis’ head, who in reality is a patient at a mental asylum where Caligari is his doctor. This fact adds a whole other dimension to the film’s visual style, as we learn that the whole town of Holstenwall is just a projection of Francis’ imagination. Suddenly, the expressionistic design serves a much deeper purpose; it shows what the world looks like from inside the head of a madman.

The reason why I specifically wanted to bring up Dr. Caligari as an example is because this film and Suspiria both share the exact same concept: using a strikingly expressionistic presentation in order to create a dreamlike, nightmarish setting. The difference here though lies in how it is used. Even though Dr. Caligari is very wild in its visual flare, you can still recognize a somewhat overarching theme. Suspiria on the other hand is a lot more experimental and excessive, constantly playing around with different stylistic outputs in a seemingly chaotic manner, while making you sit there in suspense over what it’s going to throw at you next.

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One of the reasons behind this is probably that Suspiria has a lot more elements to play with; not just set designs, but also camera angles, lighting, sound editing, and not least the music. Being the very old film that Dr. Caligari is, it was made in a time when not only the technology lacked things such as sound and color (even though the film does play around a lot with color filters, but you get my point), but also when the medium hadn’t nearly developed the practical techniques that it has today. Let’s just take the camerawork as an example: in Dr. Caligari, we pretty much only see two different types of camera angles; either a wide angle showing the whole scenery…

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…or a closeup on a specific character’s face.

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In Suspiria on the other hand, we get shots like these:

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As is highly evident from several of the screenshots above, Suspiria has a very high emphasis on color. This was actually among the last films to use technicolor, and boy is it used strongly. From the screamingly pink hotel lobby at the beginning to the devilishly red student corridor, the movie is filled with attention-grabbing, color-sharp sceneries. Also worth bringing up is its different uses of colored lighting, particularly blue and red. While always very noticeable when it’s there, it’s used to lesser or larger degrees; sometimes as more of a background effect…

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…and other times so strongly that it takes up the entire screen, making it almost look filtered.

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But perhaps the most unique thing about Suspiria‘s expressionistic style is that it’s not just expressed visually, but sonically as well. The score for this film was written and performed by the progressive rock band Goblin, who also did music for several of Argento’s other films such as Tenebre and Phenomena. With its hissing vocals, dissonant harpsichord, hard-hitting drums, as well as all kinds of strange and noisy instrumentations, this is a haunting score to say the least.

What is apparent about this score in relation to the film isn’t just its distinct musical approach, but also its sonic volume. This doesn’t have so much to do with the music itself (even though its often chaotic nature definitely plays a notable role) as with how it’s edited into the movie. Usually when you hear music in a film, it’s played on a level below what’s sonically happening onscreen – or at least to an enough degree that it stays in the background and doesn’t steal the focus. This principle does not apply to Argento’s film at all; whenever one of Goblin’s violent tunes appears it drowns everything else and is as loud as ever. At times it works pretty well, like when it enhances the more intense death scenes, but in other more low-key instances it has a rather contrasting effect. Although I’d argue that it even in these cases works in favor of the film’s aesthetic, being the hyper-expressive spectacle that it is.

Now that we’ve gathered all the elements that make Suspiria‘s expressionistic character, I’d like to illustrate how they all come together by examining the film’s first death scene (beware that it contains some pretty gruesome content):

The first thing we see is a young woman in a hotel bedroom with very pink walls, approaching the window while accompanied by Goblin’s loud music. As she looks outside, she sees two strange eyes in the darkness. Suddenly an arm smashes through the window beside her, grabs her neck and presses her against the glass. We then cut to her friend on the other side of the door in a room with very blue walls, not while reacting to the occurrence, but immediately banging on the door in panic as if the reaction had been cut out. She then goes outside to the corridor and starts banging on a neighboring door for help, while the young woman is being pressed against the glass so hard that it breaks. The next time we see the young woman she is suddenly somewhere else – which, judging from the metal fence and concrete in the background, is not anywhere near the hotel room – where she gets stabbed by presumably the man with the arm. We then cut back to her friend who’s still banging for help on what one at first would assume to be the same door, but with further examination we see that that cannot be the case since she no longer has her back against the hotel door which she previously came out from. Instead she is now standing just above the very pink hotel lobby, which we get to know since the camera is filming from downstairs. Further we see the young woman getting stabbed multiple times with the room being covered in red and blue lights. The killer grabs some sort of wire and attaches it to his victim while she lies on a surface of colored glass. At one close-up instance, we see her getting stabbed in her overtly beating heart. The glass surface breaks around her head, and it turns out that this surface is the ceiling window above the hotel lobby. Just after her friend runs out to the lobby, the window breaks completely, and as she falls down she gets hanged by the wire. Blood in a screamingly sharp red color is dripping from her body, forming a puddle beneath her feet. Her friend who had been standing just below the window has gotten killed by its shards, and is now lying dead on the floor in a carefully arranged manner. Not only has Argento here composed a highly vibrant and expressive scene, but with its strange spatial discontinuities created by almost jump cut-like editing, it’s also a kind of surreal one. This scene perfectly encapsulates the experimental wildness that is so present throughout the whole movie.

But why is it that this spectacle of a film works so well in a horror format? Because if there’s something that often makes a great horror film, it’s subtlety – something that Suspiria has anything but. So how does it come together so brilliantly instead of just falling on its head? Maybe it’s exactly because of how blatant and excessive it is that makes it so good, and how it is so uncompromisingly raw and unrestrained. As I wrote at the beginning of this post, this is above all an exploitation film. Conclusion-wise we can now see that what’s being exploited is both its expressionistic presentation, as well as its abundantly clichéd villains in a shamelessly simple gothic storyline. And just like your typical exploitation film, it is very untidy in its delivery; the acting is clumsy, the music is too loud, and the editing is off. The film is like a wild beast with no intentions of holding back; it’s rough, messy, chaotic, and wonderfully vivid. More is more is the name of the game, and Argento delivers. Suspiria is to this day one of the most unique cinematic experiences I’ve ever had, and one that I’d highly recommend to any horror fan or even general movie fan out there.

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