A personal interaction with Dario Argento’s Suspiria.
Artsy films were never really my forte—give me The Forty Year Old Virgin any day and I’ll be enraptured—but I’ve never been opposed. I’ve just never really researched typical independent, obscure, or even foreign flicks on my own. Usually, a recommendation would interest me (I’m completely in love with Breakfast on Pluto and Hedwig and the Angry Inch—non-mainstream, genius works) and a search would ensue in either the library where the elderly woman at the check-out counter would shake her head in disapproval and send me a stare for a DVD cover of a transsexual or in Borders where the customer service girl with the blue hair and eyebrow piercing would praise me for my bizarre taste of cinema. Foreign films have been a turn off because of dubbing and a wary acceptance of the unknown (Is there a foreign parallel to Rob Zombie’s Halloween?), yet I let my guards down when the words “foreign” and “horror” (one of my favorite genres) are mentioned in the same sentence.
I desired to watch a movie that was a) recommended and b) scary—Dario Argento’s Suspiria, a film grotesque rather than frightening, a dated Italian horror psychedelic trip; it also was considered artsy (“artistic” verbatim). I was hesitant, of course, to watch a horror film midday, yet the impact of death and cover of bloodshed transcended the brightness of an August afternoon. Suspiria’s first victim claws at the blue suffocating air; she is repeatedly stabbed, with each stab her body reverberates between blue tones and reddish hues. She falls to the stained glass floor of reds and yellows and is stabbed again. The shredded hole that now appears in her chest reveals her bloody, red heart, grappling with a puncture wound as the pressure from her head can no longer withstand the stained glass, which in turn is a ceiling to the grand lobby below her. A spiral of jagged triangular edges of red, black and white tile the floor below; a noose is wrapped around her neck and as the stained glass breaks, it serves its purpose as a hanger for this blood dripping mobile. Her fate lay in the hands of art. Stained glass, a symbol of the Renaissance, religion, a mosaic of color; as a staple within Italy, its daily conventions are overlooked to take part in an unconventional dance of death, as the once coherent, vivid decoration, shatters, tumbles and spins to the ground, drenched in bright, red blood.
I am repulsed by the brutality yet eerily strangled by intrigue; I am queasy with fear, I feel drunk by colorful awe. Do you know those Skittles commercials, “Taste the rainbow,”? I hate Skittles, yet the colors and rainfall effects are so attractive; Argento’s palette of infinite hues of color enraptures me although the unconventional murders and torture are so unappetizing.
I turn to my left as my glance pierces through the large bay window of my den. How easy it would be for someone to break through and marry the shattered glass to my neck. It’s funny how Argento’s work makes me think when the screen is paused, afraid for my own life when a barrier is between me and the characters; if I press play I’m too caught up in the beauty of horror. Contrary to the beguilement off screen, the enchantment by the on screen twists and turns of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast lures me, a movie thematically similar to the works of Argento.
A determined (she relinquishes freedom for the confines of a dungeon cell by offering herself as the Beast’s prisoner to spare her sick, aged father) female protagonist (“Look there she goes, a girl who’s strange but special / A most peculiar mademoiselle”), Belle, leads the musical, vivid, cartoon ensemble (animated inanimate objects, Gaston and his sycophant, LeFou, her inventive father, Maurice, and of course, the Beast) from the cobblestone streets of a provincial French town, to a shadowy, tattered, gargoyle-adorned castle in the middle of the woods. Argento admits brutally, “I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man.” It’s uncommon to find a homely female in an Argento film (unless she is a witch in Suspiria, evil and crude); the translation of Belle’s name to the Italian, Bella, would surely appease Argento’s taste in women. Yet despite the graphic death of the girl in the opening sequence of Argento’s, Suspiria, as well as in other films of his, there is usually at least one strong female character, empowered and driven in the face of fear. In Phenomena, the female protagonist is tortured, yet lives. As does Belle, in the face of an unknown future.
Whether or not Argento’s misogynistic-esque temperament is a creative façade is unknown though—for personal reasons, Argento harbors resentment toward his mother. But mommy issues cannot be his permanent excuse in interrogation. Deep Red was Argento’s first collaboration with actress Daria Nicolodi (whom he married soon after). Nicolodi would remain a central character in Argento’s films while simultaneously falling out of favor in his life. However, as their off-screen relationship became decreasingly based on love, their professional relationship became increasingly based on hate. Nicolodi’s characters became victims of twisted suffering, in real time, as her marriage to Argento fell apart. Daughter to Daria and Dario, Asia, spoke, “I’ve been thinking about how actually bizarre it is that my father has killed my mother several times and my sister once and never killed me once—but he had me raped a few times and it’s really bizarre if you think about it.” Are these inner fantasies portrayed on-screen, to shoot through the skull of a woman who broke his heart? For a young Argento, the cinema was a place to escape reality and live in a dream world—his own film creations have been compared to dreams, surreal, mystifying. But what is to be said about the necessity to torment your own flesh and blood on-screen? Borderline misogyny? I guess any sort of expectation from a man who resembles Nosferatu would have to be horrific. Argento’s gaunt visage, almost skeletal figure reminds of the classic vampire; paradoxically, without this recognition, I would be hard-pressed to believe that a man of such scrawny proportions would hold the power to unlock the depths of hell.
Yet Argento possess the key to not only unleash the demons, but also to gather every colorful detail, every speck of inspiration inherent in a miniscule flame. Like in Beauty and the Beast, among the gloom of a forbidden “West Wing,” Belle stumbles upon an enchanted rose, floating, shimmering, under the confines of a glass cover—a parallel to the darkness infused with color in Argento’s work. And as Belle admires this majestic blossom, the sparkle is cut short—the Beast emerges, roaring, threatening (“I told you never to come here”), slashing—Argento’s films possess the potential to go from sparkle to slash in three seconds flat as well; the Italian concept of chiaroscuro– the use of deep variations in and subtle gradations of light and shade, especially to enhance the delineation of character and for general dramatic effect—penetrates through design and attitudes; Argento’s L’Opera includes a scene in which a young couple has sex in a grandiose, Renaissance, castle-esque bedroom, the man leaves to get some tea, and within a minute, returns to find his love rope-tied to a column, with tape over her mouth and needles taped to her lower eyelids. Tears stream red, screams are muffled. He is killed within the next minute as she is brutally forced to watch.
A scene, “Beauty and the Blade,” demonstrates the need to complicate prettiness; as a play on the Disney title, parallels emerge in alliteration and the combination of horror and beauty. Argento understands the power of fusion, the command of unexpected macabre mingling with glorious architecture and hues. As screenwriter, Argento’s designation reflects the subtle way in which common themes are incorporated, yet clearly become his own vision; as marriage counselor, he acknowledges the faults of horror (campy, recycled themes (someone has to die)) and the faults of beauty (narcissistic, boring) and creates a stable medium. He retains the classic Italian horror aspects of gore and brilliantly fake blood, includes elements of suspense, foreshadow, yet adds an elaborate twist. With vivid and striking colors, he artistically stylizes his films. Each frame is a brushstroke, rhythm and density meticulously intact, comprising the canvas of eerie beauty he wishes to put on display. Such elaborate death scenes are common to Italian horror films, yet Argento’s incorporation of elements of color beyond what is expected creates a vision purely his own. His films are considered the most baroque of the Italian Horror Cinema, packed with punches of the macabre in a ring of hallucination. This “world of the incarnate,” that Argento has created was influenced by the works of Edgar Allen Poe, a master writer of evil. From these foundations, Argento appreciates the power of words—and as a jack of all trades, he succeeds to master them all, even screenwriter for the majority of his films—yet admits that expression and visual stimulation is more imperative than the acted script. Now, Argento may not be the Italian parallel to Rob Zombie, but the universality of horror is apparent; the words are merely vehicles to drive the plot along, but in the realm of horror, emotion is crucial, and in the case of Argento, typical fear is present as well as astonishment.
The duality in Argento’s work is literally seen through “point of view” shots—unique camera angles which capture the perspective of a particular character, as in the gloved killer who approaches a girl on a bed from behind, strikes forward and violently covers her mouth before she can scream in L’Opera or Phenomena’s young, gasping Jennifer Connelly who climbs the twisting staircase of a girl’s school while trapped in a dream-like state. We are able to understand the beauty of a thrill seeking kill as well as the horror inflicted on one who attempts to escape or remain silent. I feel the necessity to attack her mouth with my leather-clad hand, silencing the scream of agony that will give away my intentions, reveal my identity; I feel the need to climb the stairs, to investigate in haste despite what is lurking around the corner. I am meticulous; Argento is meticulous.
“In each of my characters there is a little of me. Not strictly autobiographical, but a little piece of my soul.” His scrupulous nature commits him to reveal detailed neuroticisms of characters. The murderer in L’Opera conscientiously pre-created his torture instruments—two pieces of tape with ten thin needles on each, pre-set around something that looks like a pen cap; I usually pre-rip tape prior to taping a poster up on a wall. It is a common human action that remains under the radar unless one is as detail oriented as Argento. However, sometimes his stylized details don’t translate from Italy to the United States (and as a man so proud of the country his family is from, Argento’s refusal to shift his creative process to the mainland of America and maintain his Italian film sets and work ethic as an Italian director with translators to inform English speaking actors, his films clearly reflect his Italian nationalism); the Motion Picture Association of America employs a ratings system which frequently subdues Argento’s traumatic specifics, creating a strict schism between unrated Italian versions and rated American ones. Case in point: Trauma. The documentary Dario Argento: An Eye for Horror elaborates various decapitation techniques, child violence, blood and gore from scenes in Trauma, however, these facets are nowhere to be found to the typical Argento extreme. For his first American film, the concept of plot overrides stylistic horror; I was disgusted by the victimization of his own daughter, Asia, but unexpectedly maintained my composure throughout modified, PG-13 scenes of death. Why settle for a diluted version of graphically created art? I’d think accusations of misogyny would be a reason to water down violent works, but if those don’t faze him, why not push for the honest (no matter how gruesome) intention of a film? His lack of action questions whether or not Argento fashions art to inspire audiences and twist the basic Italian horror genre or selfishly pursues chances to slice and slash personally envisioned replicas of those people he hates (in the most disturbing way possible) without being sent to jail as a serial killer. Trauma is not traumatic, but rather, a disappointment.
The essence of Argento’s work is Suspiria, admired for its mastery of color, noted prominence in a trilogy regarding The Three Mothers– a triumvirate of ancient and evil witches whose powerful magic allows them to manipulate world events on a global scale, and classic floods of blood; the “Italian Alfred Hitchcock,” satisfies our vampire-esque craving for blood, the stereotypical crayon-red, unnaturally human, Italian horror movie blood, served with an acquired taste for canvas beauty of horrifically gorgeous color schemes. The details of Suspiria, however, were altered after the original screenplay. Initially, the characters were based upon young children, however, with such gruesome twists of fate and violence, in the 1970’s, it was not permitted, thus, the ages were manipulated, and young adult females were to suffer at the hands of Argento. However, the nightmarish ideals of a gothic ballet school permeated with spurts of color maintain the ghastly sense enough to provoke fear and uncertainty in a child. The ability to twist a conventionally positive state into a negative one requires much mangling of reality and with contortion comes derangement. Derangement in the eye of the murderer awaiting the victim to place her eye up to the peep hole of a door, the perfect moment to ready, aim and fire. Derangement in the eye of the victim, frantically climbing a spiral staircase merely to reach the top, be trapped, and brutally stabbed. Derangement complementary of Gene Wilder’s portrayal of Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. “Come with me, and you’ll be, in a world of pure imagination,” sings Wilder, donning a purple suit, strolling through a fantasy land of rainbow candy and a chocolate river; a mythological place dreamed of by children from all corners of the world—but it holds a secret. The fact that only one child (Charlie) makes it out alive (and barely, after exploding through the glass roof of the factory in a super pressurized elevator) is disturbing, eerily so since he was not taken there by force. Suzy in Suspiria travels to West Germany to follow her dream and learn ballet, yet she, too, is one of the few to make it out alive and learn a hellish secret. In a supernatural institution where blood-red is a minority, this horrific fantasy examines the notion that dreams may come true—however, no one says dreams have to be good.
Argento has not always been obsessed with nightmares. His first project as screenwriter was Once Upon a Time in the West, a western historical film, demons, shattered stained glass, and shrill screams absent. What separates Argento, though, from other directors is his blunt approach. “‘I confess that there is no spectacle which fascinates me more as a director than that of a woman crying. What fascinates me is everything leading up to the tears, the journey the woman has travelled before crying,’” remarks Pedro Almodovar in, “The Flower of My Secret.” The tears Almodovar speaks of are ones of “nostalgia, weakness, impotence, emotion,” not tears in the face of death, a knife to the throat, needles to the eyes, an unwelcomed grope of the female body. Is this why Almodovar is not cited for an instance of misogyny, pleasure at the fascination of feminine pain? Almodovar’s approach is so subtle, and not fixated on the spectacle of torture, yet internally, what drives his films is the presence of life’s sorrows, and the characterization of the women in his films would possibly fall under the radar if they were not weeping over daily troubles. However, Argento’s women weep over daily troubles as well—they just happen to be unconventional, gruesome moments. Argento spins horrific nightmares into reality on a film set, and strips away the daily conventions we have grown accustomed to while Almodovar underlines nightmares with the promise of humanity (Strauss 615). When L’Opera’s protagonist is cut free (after a moment of breast-groping), I cringe when she rips the tape off of her mouth before she removes the needles set under her bleeding eyelids. It prolongs the moment of suspense, the feeling of misogyny, and twists the reality of inflicted pain—or does it? In an adrenaline rushing, heart pounding, moment of anguish, would I remember to go straight for the eyelids? I don’t know, and honestly, I don’t want to find out.
What it does intend, however, complements the viewpoint of the murderer who wants the victim to suffer for as long as possible. This suffering is so intentional, that it is literally created at the hands of Argento, who uses his own hands on-screen to represent those of the murderer, leather clad, surging with evil energy. Even while behind the camera, Argento has a knack for slaughter—his hands grasp the knife, his hands strangle, his hands divulge the objective of the attack—not the hands of the actor playing the role. If I were an actor on Argento’s set, I’d feel emasculated, impotent to perform up to Argento’s standards for physical expression of a slayer. Argento is a rapist, a rapist of talents and conventions. He grabs il giallo (the Italian genre of vast perspectives—isolated settings, foreign inclusion, blood—traditional to Italian horror) by the neck, manipulates its body and infuses it with a mind of his own. With a distinct hands-on approach, his fantasies are fulfilled, he is pleasured by cinematic thrills timed to his own accord. And complementary to a murderous climax comes music—an Argento specialty. Frequently his films—Suspiria and L’Opera for example—are enriched with intensity, provided by a collaboration with the psychedelic, Pink Floyd-ian, progressive rock feel of the band, Goblin (How ironic!). The juxtaposition of Goblin’s music lies in favor of the murderer’s ecstasy. Synthesized screams, disturbing whispers layer the minor chords and harsh drum beat of the background composition, which overtly influences the forefront. Without the music, the imagery would not be as frightening; with a powerful, clashing melody, overriding the weakness of Argento’s victims, I feel it necessary to connect to the murder, enjoying his theme song, praising the marriage of rock and revenge. Argento does not fall victim to the stereotypical, minor-key organ played tunes generally connected to an era so baroque or medieval, yet conjures a relationship with the scream-y rockers on the radio today.
The satanic melody plaguing Deep Red mirrors the nightmarish gleam of a lullaby gone awry; voices utter “la” in a childlike demeanor, repetitively, conflicting with the musicality of sharps and flats, a minor key piece composed of devilish fantasy. The same unsettling feeling (yet void of lyrics) is present in John Carpenter’s Halloween. Carpenter, like Argento, reigns over his American horror flicks, chilling audiences with a Michael Myers theme, uneasiness fostered by piercing staccato notes. Carpenter is also not shy to credit Argento for influence; the theme music for Halloween is reminiscent of Argento’s collaboration with the band at his disposal, Goblin.
Not only does Argento have power over the innocent females in his chilling works, but also power over his audience, repelled by abhorrence yet attracted to aesthetic magnificence. We are accomplices in his scheme to elevate dreams to the status of reality, to showcase internal human evils, to put our deepest, darkest secrets on display. If Argento’s films were perpendicular with reality, they would intersect at a moment of psychoanalysis; Argento would be interrogated for possible psychotic tendencies or traits of a serial killer. Although we do not like to admit it, Argento’s films are a vehicle for our own terrible desires, a platform for the depths of the human soul. And that is why Argento consistently possesses a cult following, directing films of the macabre with no apology; his latest film Mother of Tears captivates enthusiasts with its elusive release date. Will it live up to expectations or will it fall victim censorship and blandness? An American version has yet to be released, but the European cut is heavily plot reliant; as a conclusion to the trilogy of The Three Mothers, Argento sums up the tale with an overpowering sense of plot (music enhances characters’ twists of fate and plays up dramatic irony rather than music to personify the killers, enhancing the mystical murderous atmosphere–when it is used, it appears via undertones) barely reminiscent of his artistic Argento style. It looks like an American movie–crayon-red blood is replaced with the dark crimson flow of reality, computerized graphics of ghosts and murder scenes (set on fire or harpooned with spears) are the modernized “spectacular” deaths. The movie is a tease; it’s a contemporary film with smatterings of blue and red reverberations and one hyperbolic slaughter involving strangling by human organs, yet overtly non-artistic but rather storytell-y. Could this reinvention of Italian horror recall the dead genre and conjure up virgin moviemakers? Whatever the case, Argento still wields the power within the confines of his twisted potential; his artistic license becomes his “get out of jail free” card as he employs classy methods to elaborate our horrific inner selves. He unleashes my insecurities, my nightmares, and carves them into an artistic, blood stained dream.