The motif of innocent protagonists on the run from threatening authority figures, which features in much of Alfred Hitchcock's work, is often traced back to an awful childhood experience: the five-year-old Alfred was sent to a local police station by his father and confined in a prison cell for a few minutes, as punishment for some minor naughtiness. This is the kind of thing that can, of course, be dismissed as overanalysing – as retrospectively attaching too much significance to an incident in the early life of a famous person. Can an entire artistic career really be fueled by a single childhood episode? It seems pat and unlikely, but then who can really know?
Italian director Dario Argento has a childhood memory of his own to relate in an interview in the documentary "Dario Argento's World of Horror", which is one of the special features on my DVD of his film Suspiria. "We lived in a big house," he says, "and every night, after saying goodnight to my parents, I would have to walk alone down a long dark corridor to my room. Each half-open door on either side of that corridor seemed like a threat, harbouring the unknown. My hair would be on end, night after night." The director believes his obsession with scaring people stems from that time.
Suspiria, filmed in 1976, is one of the most distinctive horror films ever made, a visually enchanting work that gives us at least three grisly murders filmed with such grace and imagination that you won't be able to tear your eyes away from the screen (exactly the opposite of what a good horror film is supposed to do) – but which equally achieves its effect from what is not shown, only hinted at. There is a paradox here, and in Argento's oeuvre in general, which I find intriguing. Most horror-film directors specialise in doing one of two things: 1) creating suspense through atmosphere alone, with minimal depiction of actual horrors, or 2) going to the other extreme with an orgy of blood and gore that tests the tolerance of the strongest-willed viewer. But Argento is expert at both, and equally interested in both. On the one hand, he is obsessed with blood, with viscerally violent scenes that often seem gratuitous, even sadistic and cruel. (In many of the knife murders he films, for instance, the killer continues to stab away at the victim even after the purpose has been accomplished.) But on the other hand, some of his most effective work has been in the realm of the unseen. The two elements balance wonderfully in Suspiria, though in the final reckoning I have to cast my vote for the film's quieter moments.
As the credits roll, a solemn voiceover informs us that Suzy Banyon, a young American student, has come to Germany to join a famous dance academy. The film opens with Suzy (played by the gaminish Jessica Harper) walking to the airport exit, and a sense of menace is created almost immediately by the most quotidian elements: the automatic doors through which she walks, the howling of the wind, water flowing into sewers, the cab driver who takes her to her destination. This early scene is reminiscent of Marion Crane's car drive in Psycho - a journey to the netherworld, with rain and lightning heralding the way. It ends with a similar image too: a menacing building (the Bates Motel in Psycho, the dance school here) coming into clear focus through the rain-soaked night. Welcome to Hades.
Contributing immeasurably to the mood in this scene, and in the rest of the film, is the pounding soundtrack – very new-age, very punkish – by the rock band Goblin, with whom Argento frequently collaborated. Whispers of "witch!" punctuate the music score at intervals; Suspiria is not especially subtle or discreet about the mysteries of its plot, or about what Suzy will find at the dance school. You don't have to be a student of the genre to figure out early enough that the secret involves a witch coven.
What this means is that, superficially speaking, this film's structure isn't too different from that of a standard slasher. The ending in particular is overwrought. But Suspiria's great setpieces are the scenes that hint at something so strange and unknowable that it can't even be depicted on film. The barest hint of witchcraft, for instance, in the great shot where a chambermaid momentarily blinds (and weakens) Suzy with the light reflected from a piece of silverware. Or the magnificent (and magnificently show-offish) scene in a deserted public square where a blind piano teacher and his seeing-dog sense something evil around them but don't know exactly what it is (the viewer is given the privilege of a blink-and-miss shot of shadows flitting past a building – witches? On broomsticks?). And then there's the aerial view in a swimming-pool scene, which reminded me of Jacques Tourneur's creepy 1942 film Cat People.
Few directors can match Argento's talent for evoking unease without ever providing the viewer with a convincing explanation (even when there is an obligatory narrative justification). Brian DePalma is superb at it, as is David Lynch. (Hitchcock too of course, but he worked for the most part within the narrative structures defined by Classical Hollywood, and didn't experiment with avant-garde storytelling techniques as these guys did.) Suspiria is a strange, beautiful movie that makes the pretence of disclosing its secrets early on, but which remains fundamentally enigmatic even after you've watched it several times. When the supernatural is explicitly presented to us towards the end of the film, it's almost anti-climactic. But what continues to haunt the senses for days after you've seen the film are the shadows on the wall and on the swimming pool, and the strange behaviour of the seeing-dog.
(Warning: Suspiria doesn't contain anything that's inordinately gruesome, apart from a brief shot of a still-beating human heart being punctured through a chest cavity. But in general, Argento's work, balletic though it is, isn't for the faint-hearted.)
Some links: a Senses of Cinema profile, a classic Argento site Dark Dreams, and an excellent sub-section on Italian Gothic Cinema from Images Journal. And this on the Italian Giallo genre, which often provided the structure for Argento's plots.