Sighs and Horrors*

27 Oct

*With apologies to the late Ingmar Bergman and his 1973 Best Picture nominee, Cries and Whispers…

Truth? I’m not so much into Halloween, not so much anymore. Oh, believe me, there was a time when I loved playing witchy-poo woman, traipsing all over the place in the middle of the night, but things change. These days, my idea of a great Halloween is to grab takeout and camp out in front of the TV with a favorite creepy classic. And I know I’m not alone. Scary, suspenseful movies enthrall us again and again. We get the chills and thrills, revelling in the chance to be expertly manipulated, our deepest darkest fears toyed with, only to snap out of it safe and sound after two hours or so. We feel safe again after experiencing a jolt, a rush of emotion, a wave of dread. Then, we get to laugh at ourselves for letting our fears get the best of us.

What is your favorite Halloween movie? Of course, as I have written previously, John Carpenter’s Halloween represents a special kind of genius, given its minuscule budget and other production constraints. That noted, 1979’s When a Stranger Calls, starring Carol Kane, scared me oh so much more. I know many people who swear by lighter Halloween fare, such as Hocus Pocus (starring Bette Midler, along with Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy), but I prefer to mix my laffs and chills with the inimitable Don Knotts and the lunacy of The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. I also think the 1979 original Alien pales in comparison to the propulsive action and growing terror of Aliens, featuring Sigourney Weaver’s ferocious Oscar nominated performance. While I also admire the proficiency of the old Universal horror flicks, especially Bride of Frankenstein and The Mummy, I actually fall harder for Gaslight (1944), an Oscar winner for Ingrid Bergman who stars along with Joseph Cotten and Charles Boyer. Gaslight is not a true horror story, a monster movie, but it deals heavily in psychological terror, suspense, and, oh yes,  MGM’s deluxe, Oscar winning, production details–in this case, a sumptuous recreation of Victorian era London, exquisitely rendered in velvety black and white

My go-to is often Hitchcock, of course, but not necessarily stab-tastic Psycho (1960). Frenzy (1972) is a bit of a spine tingler as are The Birds (1963), Strangers on a Train (1951), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), and Rope  (1948). Again, not necessarily monster movies, but full of monstrous people and deeds. Plus, I’m always down for Rear Window (1954), one of my all-time faves. Oh, and I actually get a huge kick out of the Master’s loopy final film, Family Plot (1976).  All that noted, I think this year I’ll snuggle up with something other than Hitchcock, specifically Dario Argento’s magnificent Suspiria.

Scripted, or co-scripted, by Daria Nicolodi, Suspiria has long been hailed by  enthusiasts all over the place as one of the greatest horror movies ever made. I remember reading all about it when it was released in ’77 but didn’t catch up with it until years and years later when Michael and I rented a VHS from our then favorite video store…since closed. Anyway, we loved it and snatched up the three disc 25th anniversary edition when it became available. 

Obviously, the story of an American ingenue who finds herself away from home among dastardly occultists is hardly original. Indeed, some of Suspiria‘s plot points and/or characterizations echo the 70s made-for-TV flick, Satan’s School for Girls (1973), starring Pamela Franklin, and pre-Charlie’s Angels Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd, along with Oscar winner Jo Van Fleet (perhaps better known at the time for her wicked performance as Lesley Anne Warren’s stepmother in the perennial Rogers and Hammerstein musical adaptation of Cinderella than for East of Eden…but I really digress).  Roman Polanski’s landmark Rosemary’s Baby (1968) starring Mia Farrow and another Oscar winner, Ruth Gordon, also comes to mind.

Of course, what those others do not have is director Argento’s audacious vision. Here are some highlights:

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The perfect set-up as Jessica Harper’s Suspiria character takes a taxi ride during a magnificently torrential storm from the Munich airport to her new home at a dance school in a village outside of town. Plenty of thrills and chills await… (IMAGE: Screenmusings)

I hope it is not too much of a cliche to write that with her big brown eyes, Jessica Harper is the living equivalent of a Keane painting though her voice is anything but child-or waif-like. No, her instrument might not be as commandingly resonant as, say, the pipes on Lauren Bacall, Beatrice Arthur, or Kathleen Turner, but it’s certainly sultry as all get-out, even more so considering how petite she is at only 5’4,” per the IMDb. When Harper made Suspiria, she was relatively fresh off Brian De Palma’s cultish rock musical Phantom of the Paradise, filmed at least partially in Dallas’s old Majestic theatre (well after its cinematic heyday and before its reinvention as a live venue); Phantom of the Paradise (1974), by the way, is one of Michael’s faves. Anyway, between Suspiria,1980’s  Stardust Memories (in which she was never more lovingly photographed), Pennies from Heaven (1981), My Favorite Year (1982) and, most spectacularly, Shock Treatment (1981), the so-called “non-sequel equal” to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Harper was no doubt one of the most exciting actresses of the late ’70s and early 1980s. Though she works most often on TV these days, she made a big screen comeback of sorts with a cameo in 2002’s Minority Report. Reportedly, she’s on board to play a key role in the dreaded Suspiria remake.

Saturn nominee for Best Supporting Actress and enduring Hollywood vet Joan Bennett (center) made her final screen appearance in Suspiria.

Saturn nominee for Best Supporting Actress and enduring Hollywood vet Joan Bennett (center, in black) made her final screen appearance in Suspiria. (IMAGE: Screenmusings.com)

In the grand tradition of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, both of whom reinvented themselves as mistresses, okay, madames, of the macabre with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and other similarly frightening flicks, old school Hollywood thesp Joan Bennett stepped up to the plate to portray Suspiria‘s headmistress.  Of course, by that time, Bennett had already established her horror cred, thanks to her role as matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard on TV’s game-changing Gothic daytime serial, Dark Shadows. In her late 60s at the time of Suspiria, Bennett, blue eyes brilliantly ablaze, still maintained the regal glamour of a studio-polished movie star.  It might seem demeaning to describe someone with Bennett’s impeccable credentials–over 90 credits at the time of this effort–as durable, but she reinvented herself time and time again. Originally a blonde, she dyed her hair dark (reportedly, perhaps, to  milk comparisons to international beauty Hedy Lamarr) and appeared in films as varied as noirish Scarlet Street and 1950’s wholesome Father of the Bride (ideally cast as Elizabeth Taylor’s mom opposite Spencer Tracy) and its sequel, Father’s Little Dividend. She had a few lean years after a murderous scandal involving her husband, producer Walter Wanger, but bounced back. Despite her versatility and admirable work ethic, Bennett never caught the attention of the Academy. That’s right: 0 Oscar nominations though she earned an Emmy nod for Dark Shadows in ’68. Interestingly, author Danny Peary boldly takes away Joan Crawford’s hard-earned Oscar for film noir supreme Mildred Pierce (1945) and instead awards Bennett his so called “Alternate Oscar” for the aforementioned Scarlet Street, opposite Edward G. Robinson. Peary describes Bennett as the “sleeper of the year,” adding that the “much-taken-for-granted-actress” turned in “a terrific, overlooked performance as an atypical femme fatale in Scarlet Street,” one of four collaborations with director Fritz Lang in the 1940s (82-83). Peary further rhapsodizes that Bennett “never had another part quite like Kitty March. She really let loose playing this ‘working girl’ who is too lazy to work” (83).

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On the 25th anniversary DVD, actress Stefania Casini squeals with delight at the mere mention of Joan Bennett, praising the actress, as Jessica Harper also does, for being a true star, the whole package, from her walk to her perfect hair and makeup. (IMAGE: Screenmusings.com)

Furthemore, Bennett managed to impress Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick during the legendary search for an actress to play Scarlett O’Hara back in the day. Per a story circulated on both a DVD documentary and Ronald Haver’s coffee table book on the biggest movie blockbuster of its era, Selznick wrote a letter to his wife, explaining that Bennett was one of four finalists for the demanding role, the others being Jean Arthur (though Selznick soon soured on her), Paulette Goddard (the only actress besides Vivien Leigh to test in color), and, legendarily, of course, Vivien Leigh–the winner. Footage of Bennett’s screen test is available on the DVD; one still photograph from the session (in which she looks exactly right for the part) has made its way to page 27 of the book.

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German born Udo Kier’s filmography includes 230 credits, in both German and English. Alas, he has only one scene in Suspiria. (IMAGE: Screenmusings.com)

Speaking of blue eyes, whose eyes are more piercing than Udo Kier’s? Like Jessica Harper, the extremely photogenic actor had already notched an impressive credit or two by the time he appeared in Suspiria, meaning back-to-back leading roles in Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) and Blood for Dracula (1974)–released, somewhat misleadingly, in the U.S. as Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein and, likewise, Andy Warhol’s Dracula. I actually saw the former at our neighborhood drive-in, more than once, maybe, even though it was rated X?  Coincidentally, Suspiria reunites Kier and one of his Dracula co-stars, Stefania Casini. Furthermore, before Suspiria, Kier had appeared in the scandalous The Story of O (1975).  Since the 1990s, he has acted in a variety of American made films, including My Own Private Idaho (1991), Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994), Armageddon (1998), Blade (1998), and Shadow of the Vampire (2000). As well, he has established a kinship with Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier, resulting in appearances in the likes of Europa (1991, released as Zentropa in this country), Dogville (2003), and Melancholia (2011). He even registered strongly in Madonna’s “Deeper and Deeper” video from the early 1990s even though he has no lines whatsoever, just his magnetic presence.

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Yes, internationally celebrated Udo Kier appears in only one scene in Suspiria, but what a backdrop: the towering headquarters for the Bavarian Motor Works, aka, the BMW building. (IMAGE: Screenmusings.com)

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Kier (l) and Jessica Harper (r) discuss her suspicions in front of the landmark BMW headquarters.(IMAGE: Screenmusings.com)

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This photo offers a bird’s eye view of the plaza in front of the BMW building. (IMAGE: Screenmusings.com)

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Suspiria‘s 25th anniversary edition DVD includes a most detailed documentary, including interviews with director Dario Argento, actresses Jessica Harper and Stefania Casini, along with cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, who explains the film’s bold use of color. (IMAGE: Screenmusings.com)

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Incredibly, as Tovoli describes on the DVD, although true three-strip Technicolor had long disappeared from Hollywood filmmaking, one lab with all the right equipment still existed in Rome at the time Suspiria was made. Thus, a cinematic classic was born. (IMAGE:Screenmusings.com)

 

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Though expensive to produce, Suspiria is one of the last films shot in true Technicolor. On the DVD, cinematographer Tovoli adds that the camera used during the shoot was later disassembled and sold to China. Tovoli also explains that many of the most fantastic shots were achieved in-camera rather than added during post-production, thereby invoking yet another cinematic reference: legendary experimental filmmaker, Georges Méliès. (IMAGE: Screenmusings.com)

 

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Both Suspiria director Dario Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli affirm that their film enjoyed success in America though in spite of that purported goodwill and the film’s undeniable visual splendor, the Academy failed to take the bait, snubbing Suspiria in all categories. At the time, the Academy was certainly a squeamish bunch, nominations for Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie (both from Brian de Palma’s nightmarish Carrie the previous year) aside. Even so, the film’s cinematography and art direction are hard to beat. Even more puzzling is how the film slipped by voters for the David di Donatello awards, Italy’s premier film accolade. (IMAGE: Screenmusings.com)

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Director Argento explains in his DVD interview the various sources of inspiration for Suspiria including Walt Disney’s version of Snow White, and German Expressionistic cinema (though he might not directly refer to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). This shot shows off an Art Deco sensibility. Oh, and M.C. Escher’s influence is clearly on display in one key sequence. (IMAGE: Screenmusings.com)

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Suspiria‘s rainswept exteriors as first seen by Jessica Harper. (IMAGE: Screenmusings.com)

 

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The differences between this very real historical marvel and its studio lookalike, or near lookalike, (above) are subtle but noticeable with much scrutiny. Give it a try. (IMAGE: Wikipedia)

To clarify, though Suspiria takes place in and around Munich, Germany, most of the movie, aside from a few specific exteriors, such as the aforementioned BMW building, was filmed in Italy on studio sound stages. That noted, notice the similarity between the facade of the dance school (above) and its real-life inspiration, the Whale House in Freiburg (r).

I looked up the definition of “suspiria,” fearing that it would turn out to be a made-up word, but, lo, I discovered that it means “sighs,” and, even more compelling, the title was at least partially inspired by “Suspiria de Profundis,” that is, “sighs from the depths,” a literary work by Thomas De Quincey, circa 1845.  The reason I mention this is because the movie’s soundtrack sounds exactly as it should. Composed and produced by Italian band Goblin, and heavy with synth effects, bells, and strings, the score features layers of whispery voices, achieving that “sighs from the depths” quality the title suggests; moreover, film score enthusiasts treasure the finished product. Even Halloween director John Carpenter is on record with his enthusiasm, reportedly remarking that  his score for Halloween, which I wrote about two years ago, was inspired by Suspiria. I also sense a similarity between Suspiria‘s main theme and the X Files theme. That noted, I think Suspiria is not too far removed from Mike Oldfield’s familiar “Tubular Bells” from The Exorcist (1973).

Of course, no film is perfect, and Suspiria‘s weakest link is in the quality of its dubbing. As Jessica Harper explains on the DVD, in 70s era Italian cinema, performers understood that their dialogue would be corrected, or dubbed, during post production–meaning, for example, that while shooting a given scene, Harper would be speaking her lines in English, as that is her native language, while, say, Stefania Casini, would speak in Italian. It apparently did not matter that the two actresses could not necessarily understand one another because they were responding to what they read and learned from the script. Sounds ghastly, doesn’t it?  Anyway, once the film was shot, Casini could be dubbed for English speaking audiences, and, likewise, Harper could be dubbed for Italian audiences.  Anyway, the finished effect sounds amateurish and more than a little jarring.  The dubbed voices appear to be piped in from somewhere far away.

Make no mistake, as noted earlier when I compared Aregnto’s film to TV’s Satan School for Girls, Suspiria‘s story is well-worn. That noted, this movie revels in its willingness to push audiences to terrifying highs by cutting right to our primal fears, our worst nightmares,  serving up such effects as phantoms lurking outside upper-storey windows, strangulation, hangings, little white worms dripping from ceilings and proliferating faster than our imaginations can process, and, oh yes, rooms booby-trapped with barbed wire.  All exquisitely rendered, like deluxe Halloween eye candy, but disturbing. Horrifying. But also horrifyingly brilliant.

Since I began writing this piece, I have learned that the fabled Texas theatre on Jefferson Boulevard in Oak Cliff will be showing Suspiria on Halloween night. If you’re in the neighborhood, or even if you want to trek across town, this good be great albeit twisted fun.

Thanks (sigh), for your consideration…and Happy Halloween…

Haver, Ronald. David O. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind. Bonanza Books, 1986.

Peary, Danny. Alternate Oscars. Delta, 1993.

Suspiria (Three Disc Limited Edition, per Amazon):

https://www.amazon.com/Suspiria-Three-Limited-Jessica-Harper/dp/B00005LQ04

Most images, per Screenmusings.com:

http://screenmusings.org/movie/blu-ray/Suspiria/

More about the soundtrack and a quality trailer: http://www.factmag.com/2014/10/31/suspiria-is-the-masterpiece-of-goblin-claudio-simonetti-reflects-on-the-best-horror-soundtrack-of-all-time/

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