Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Project No. 3: Dario Argento, Suspiria, Goblin & the "Hyper-Real"

A PR photograph of an older Dario Argento

I almost immediately wanted to do a report on Dario Argento, having recently discovered his work over the summer, when I was rooming and working on campus. I always had an interest in late-20th century horror films, particularly ones of the surreal, artfully made kind, but I never thought anything would meet that interest halfway quite like Dario Argento. Watching Suspiria (1977) was almost like a dream come true. The incredible ambient music; the beautiful, vibrant primary color palette; the masterful cinematography; the dream-soaked art direction ripped straight out of a twisted fairy tale. This was the gothic horror film I thought would never see, until then. However, there’s only one problem: it is so damn silly, despite its art.

Whether Dario was aware of the inherent silliness that was Suspiria's characters, plot, narrative structure, or just all things related to its writing, there is one thing that is for sure - that Dario will have his way with his audience.

For the thesis of my research project, I argued that "Dario Argento’s directorial style mirrors Baudrillard’s idea of the ‘hyper-real’ because Argento plays with expectations as to how the his films’ archetypes, whether it be characters, narrative, action, and tone, evolve per one’s anticipation of what develops in an average horror genre flick, and he warps those said archetypes into something bizarre and unfamiliar, despite having a familiar format laid out from the start."

A younger Dario Argento

Before he became a director, Dario spent many years as a screenwriter for romantic dramas, comedies, and spaghetti westerns, one spaghetti western being the monumental Sergio Leone film Once Upon a Time in the West (1967), so it would be safe to say that Dario had worked with genre conventions many times over and, after having made a successful directorial debut with his first horror-slasher film The Bird with the Crystal Plummage (1970), wanted to break away from those said conventions to create a story concept that was new, unique, something unseen on the big screen, a concept so obscure and bizarre that no other person could have thought of making it a working project. Before, slasher films (or in Italy, "giallo") were just slashers with splashes of crime-fiction and/or murder-mystery, but now Suspiria had effectively revolutionized that horror sub-genre by including heavy supernatural elements and emphasizing an importance of strong production design. It was not long after Suspiria that we saw a sudden surge in fantasy-slashers like Halloween (1978) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) that, not too dissimilar to Suspiria, had lavish, if not a bit kitsch, production values, masterful electronic soundtracks, and stories about unstoppable forces of evil preying on innocents, under the guise of a standard slasher film.

Suspiria, and Deep Red (1975), another, earlier successful slasher by Argento, are both identified as "giallo," an exploitive 20th century Italian take on the popular slasher genre. "Giallo" (Italian for "yellow") was a term originally used to describe cheap, exploitive crime-fiction literature and, along with the evolution of cinema, has translated over to film. What makes giallo films so unique is their blend of genres; horror mixed with crime-fiction, mystery, romance, bumbling comedy, etc. Giallo films are also well known for their inconsistent quality, generally excelling in art direction and cinematography, but suffering from lack of cohesive narrative and characters that typically made no rational and/or moral sense.  Giallo films, which were experiencing an immense growth in popularity, also dabbled in eroticism, which created an extremely profitable outlet for voyeurism. Giallo effectively became a center of cheap and safe entertainment in Italy, exploiting and feeding the fantasies of consumers at the cinema.

A still from Deep Red / Profondo Rosso (1975)

Now, I had already brought attention to the fact that Suspiria had in a way cemented Argento's directorial style and artistic choices for a good length of his career, although that did not necessarily benefit him, as he eventually met a steady decline in the reception from critics and audiences to his later work, having not really evolved or matured as a filmmaker. Suspiria also perfectly highlights the best and worst elements of Argento's work; his loving attention to detail, whether it be the lighting, costumes, locations, sets, camera work, music; his ability to produce interesting story ideas and visual concepts; his inability to restrain the bombast of the violence, gore, and score; his inability to pace a story and make his characters believable.

A still from Suspiria (1977)

Then again, it is the bombast and almost comical suffering of relevance that perfectly parallels Jean Baudrillard's guidelines in his book Simulations as to what constitutes as "hyper-real" in regards to simulation, which Suspiria feels very much like: a simulation of feverish, colorful nightmare. What is "hyper-real" "...masks...perverts a basic reality," or creates "...the absence of a basic reality," or that it "...bears no relation to any reality," and Suspiria exactly does that - it bears no semblance to any sort of reality - and it all really comes down to the characters themselves (Baudrillard 11). Argento has admitted that he originally intended to have children be the center of focus, but studio executives argued against, thus he opted to have them be adults instead, except they still exhibiting manners of adolescent, overly curious children. The revelation that this was somehow incidental would come as a surprise to someone like myself, having known that Argento was heavily inspired by romanticized children's fairy tales like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. In fact, the bizarre fantasy world could be likened to how Baudrillard describes the effect of Disneyland, as "an infantile make us believe that adults are conceal...that real childishness in everywhere" (Baudrillard 25).

One thing that I noticed about Suspiria is just how much it flip-flops in tone and narrative. There are three key scenes that I take focus on concerning these major alterations. You see for yourself:

Case No. 1: Opening Scene of Suspiria (1977)
Case No. 2: Dance Academy Drama in Suspiria (1977)

Case No. 3: Climax of Suspiria (1977)

As you already know, the big twist toward the end of Suspiria is that the dance academy is in fact a front for an ancient witch cult. After all that build up, all of that drama filler, all of those strange happenings and brutal murders, you would least expect witches to be the responsible party. At least I did, and I felt tricked, but in a good way. I expected to this a haunted house movie, and, boy, was I wrong. But how could you tell?

The opening sequence was certainly a bend into fantasy lane, with the frequent cuts back and forth between the leading actress, Jessica Harper, and the exit doors out of the airport throwing us bit of the ambient score at us to hint that she is entering a strange, possibly mythical place. Terrible stuff ensues, but more within the generic slasher category.

Then, we are treated to cliched school drama typical of any horror flick. The earnest lead; the cute rivalry (not seen in the related clip above); the mildly antagonistic figure of authority; the competitive air. It is all very predictable.

But, all of the sudden, the revelation of witches, although alluded to earlier in some character discourse, comes out of the left field, and everything basically blows up in response, probably because Argento ran out of creative steam and decided to fire all cylinders to glorious effect.

Now, if you think those three key sequences were telling signs of how ludicrous this film is, you should listen to its soundtrack! The first track basically spoils the major twist of Suspiria, that witches are running the show and our protagonist Suzy should have steered clear of Munich! Toward the closing minutes of that track, we hear the rasping voice of a vocalist screaming "Witch! Witch!," but it was difficult to discern at first just because of how visually and audibly overstimulating the introductory credits and opening sequence are.

"Suspiria Theme," Goblin (1977)

"Witch," Goblin (1977)

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