Suspiria (1977) – Welcome to Freiburg

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Suspiria is unique in many ways. The enchanting visuals embedded with the tenacity of Dario Argento marks the beginning of the Three Mother Series, a supernatural horror trilogy, through which he explores the age-old myth of witchcraft. This combination results in a stellar drama that surpasses standard norms of horrors, transcends the genre, and questions the scantiness underneath the skin. At its heart though, Suspiria is about people. How events manipulate people and if they have the belly to overcome the odds.

As a movie, Suspiria isn’t about a great story told. It revisits the legend of witches in a loose, consequential style where the story isn’t the king, nor the concept. Yet, the unusual merger of a peculiar story and Argento’s vision is the masterstroke that lobs Suspiria into the upper echelon of classics and places it as one of the best horrors ever made.

When Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives at Freiburg for the first time, it’s pouring. When she leaves, it’s raging in fire. This symmetry completes the movie and tells you all of what she does, and goes through in this mysterious dance academy. Coming all the way from America to study ballet dancing at the Tam Ballet Academy—little does Suzy expect the bleakness awaiting her within the confines of the grand haunted mansion, with a rich heritage of its own; rich, yet, dampening and dreadful.

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Speaking about the plot too much would spoil the suspense since it’s so delicately poised. For the viewer of 2014, the story of Suspiria mayn’t seem as new as it would have for viewers back in 1977. But, that’s the catch. Despite having a simple plot, straightforward and hardly complex, Suspiria is intriguing for all the reasons people watch films. It grips the fancy of the viewer and the most compelling part of this horror movie is the passage from the beginning until the climax.

Unconventional for horrors, the climax of Suspiria is hardly out-of-this-world-type surprising, but it’s satisfying. You couldn’t call Suspiria an investigation of the occult. Everything drifts and the characters just go with the flow doing what they have to do. Just as the occult is the daughter of supernatural, our destiny is the same, perhaps the son of the supernatural. When the two collide, the supernatural takes care of everything. That seems like an appropriate way of framing Suspiria’s outlook.

Filmed with neon lights of red, blue, and green throughout, Suspiria feels surreal at times. The use of shadows and lights is enchanting and is a nice compliment to the artistry of the ballets. At times though, the alluring visual overrides the plot, but it still works because it adds to the aesthetic charms of the movie. Also capturing the splendor of Germany, the cinematography (Luciano Tovoli) makes this horror much more alienating, thereby, adding a tinge of coldness and making it an exhilarating watch. Not only is it beautiful, but the team ensures that the locales feel detached and even intimidating. When the ambience is so corrupt, the actions in the middle could only borrow from the same corruptness, which is what Dario Argento achieves through Suspiria.

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Adding to this depravity with panache is the music (Italian-band Goblin). The chilling background score blends hard drumming with ailing whines provoking you to a state of alarm. Many times the rhythmic music associated with death—la la la la la la la whum!—alone creeps into you and alerts you of the looming disaster. Other times, the banging of drums and the drastic switch of the tone, from stillness to hyperactive mayhem, configures Suspiria as a menacing little movie that articulates the chilling vagueness of the unknown. It wouldn’t be so chilling without the haunting tone, the manipulative lights, and the gothic captures.

Suspiria ranges from sordid and downright uncomfortable to gripping, terrifying, and ultimately enjoyable, which bodes well to the masterful direction of Dario Argento and seamless performances by the cast. Suspiria is also uncannily arty for a horror movie. Based on essayist Thomas de Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis, especially, the essay—Levana and our Ladies of Sorrow—the movie balances all the elements crisply to give us a deadly movie that not only goads us into buying the shrilling occurrences, but also ultimately manages to accomplish that by entertaining and keeping us at the edge of our seats.

Many similar movies have come out over the years, but Suspiria remains superior and is a landmark in the genre. You may be spiked out due to the blood, which can be uncomfortable to watch and looks unnatural at times, but you’ll love the ambience. That’s probably what separates this movie from the rest: the atmosphere.

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An all-time classic, this one certainly isn’t for the numb. If the death scenes aren’t gory enough to make you shudder, the dramatic sequences are haunting on its own for the sheer uncertainty surrounding this palace that has much more to express than it reveals. The aesthetics of Argento is at full show for viewers to enjoy and appreciate. Callousness comes together with sensibility, a rare marriage, but one for the ages.

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Eraserhead – In a Land of Chaos (1977)

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David Lynch, the American prodigal son of surrealistic cinema, has his roots hung up in the depressing industrial background that Eraserhead finds itself confined. After a series of short movies, Eraserhead is Lynch’s first feature movie, albeit an homage to the Father of Surreal Cinema, Luis Buñuel, and the beginning of a new wave in American cinema—perhaps the Lynchien Cinema. Eraserhead is grave, menacing, and open to multiple interpretations, but is largely a movie that serves as a tribute to surrealism and a mockery of the inconsistencies prevailing in the society during the 60s and the 70s. Dark and twisted, the movie is a demolishment derby of human sexuality and desires signifying the trapped, caged predicament of humans beneath the qualms of duty, responsibility, and self-will. In all possibilities, David Lynch sees parts of his psyches in Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) drawing a surreal parallel between Lynch’s own condition during those years at the American Film Institute (AFI) and the condition of the docile, unresponsive being of a human.

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Henry Spencer happens to execute the sanest expression of love to his girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), one unknown day. Consequently, Mary X gives birth to a child—a deformed child—and her mother (Jeanne Bates) forces the two to marry into a happy union. Nevertheless, this Spencer Jnr. is different. Resembling a human spermatozoon bandaged all the way up to his neck, young Spender Jnr. doesn’t eat anything, cries nonstop, and becomes a pain for its mother. Agitated, Mary decides to leave the premise and return to her parents leaving the child to Henry. The already poor soul trapped in a marriage not so perfect, a child who isn’t human, a Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near) who enjoys stomping spermatozoon-like creatures, and a dangerous attraction to a Sexy Siren (Judith Anna Roberts) living opposite his room, Henry Spencer’s challenge has only just seen light. Repressing urges towards the sexual entity and controlling impulses to stomp upon the responsibility, Henry Spencer has now to tackle reality and crack a balance between his responsibilities and the imaginary world calling for him. It is Spencer vs. Spencer, literally—and one could draw multiple analogies in this Spencer saga!

At the lowest echelon, Eraserhead is a surrealist film containing various undercurrent themes, especially tinges of sexuality and the call for freedom. Calling it mere surrealist cinema would be an understatement though. Deeper scrutiny suggests that it’s also a highly satirical film. Using the extraterrestrial components as sadistic humor, Henry Spencer is a character chained into this bizarrely uncomfortable mechanical setting, accompanied by the vileness of rot, dirt, compulsion, and disgust. Almost decaying in this condition, Spencer looks at the Lady in the Radiator as his escapist other half, and her destruction of the sperm-like creatures that fall from nowhere, without her consent—with a huge grin while stomping them—signifies Spencer’s core desire: to get rid of the duty, thus embarrassment thereon, of his deformed child.

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The deformed child may just act as a motif representing a person’s attitude towards children, in general. Both Spencer and Mary seem to be more than willing to abandon the child. In the case of Mary, more so than Spencer, as she seems to have a straightforward will to remain free and devoid of such a burden, as she would explain. Spencer feels differently. He is stuck in the middle—willing to escape but not having the influence to do what he desires. Hence, he roams around in his own imageries. Dreaming at times of a world of surrealism, whilst sulking into the glooms of the everyday pangs repressing his desires, Spencer’s surrounding of the disjointed interior and the menacing exterior is a mere representation of his psychological state of affairs—equally disjointed and nauseatingly congested.

Beyond the entrenched psychological warps, liberation is the key leitmotif of the movie. During the end sequences, when Spencer liberates his child from the binding sheathe—the child transforms from a state of vegetation to when he appears to come into life growing in prominence. Covered by a thick cream-like substance, Spencer Jnr. is free from the bondage binding him—liberated and salvaged. Immediately following the scene, Spencer embraces the Lady in the Radiator, in a bitter ending, specifying that Spencer melded the woman’s earlier acts of stomping the creatures to his own action of untying the child from misery, thereby liberating himself and his child from each other and perhaps the tepid conditions of Spencer’s inhospitable chamber. The liberation, here, from the bondage that tied them together, that tied Spencer in this rotting setting, that tied Spencer against the Sexy Siren, and the bondage that tied Spencer to his wife—therefore her family, and the society.

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The eloquent art direction by David Lynch and the pitch perfect designing of scenes by the team of first Herbert Cardwell and later Frederic Elmes lay the groundwork for this artistic classic—establishing a dreamlike, murky mood, whilst presenting its material through the lens of hallucination. The story moves with an intoxicated, dismal tone, and the environment around dampens the spirit—making Spencer an object of sympathy for all he undergoes, physically and mentally. The art direction and cinematography are two shining gems in the movie. With the method of minimalist dialogs and actions, the scenery expresses the story and moves it forward. Dialogs only in intervals, far away and in between, much of the sequences are for the eyes to decipher than the ears to listen. The dejected paradise that is the mechanical town of Philadelphia and the antithesis of heaven that is Spencer’s room is pure work of artistry by the holder of the lens and the creator of the blue condition.

Aiding to this blueness is sound designer Alan Splet and of course, David Lynch himself. The duo strikes another ace with the sound design. Using real sound samples and mixing them together, the sound effects create a gloomy atmosphere emphasizing on the ambience and working as a symmetrical toxin to the emotional state of the movie—giving the viewers the feel of the filth that the movie proudly proclaims to be. The cries of the baby, the stunning silence around, and the ruptured state of the characters in the movie, Eraserhead uses the available filming technique to its finest and the result is of a surreal piece of dark literature—not just a dark movie.

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Inspired by Lynch’s own experiences, vastly, Eraserhead is an escapist movie. It is the antithesis of glamorization showing a world of filthiness and abhorrence. Adding to the dystopian setting, the manner of filming, the demoralizing pessimism, and the suggestive taboos romancing the movie, undeniably Eraserhead is a tribute to filmmaking by one of the most potent filmmakers of this era. Not for the everyday audience and generally a movie with much negativity surrounding it, Eraserhead is an experience into a possessed style of filmmaking where intoxication and delusion meet and give birth to a gross adventure, an unparalleled odyssey. Call this a prototype—a benchmark indeed.