rev., October 1, 2013
I have mentioned in a previous note, that all film is dream, and that most makers of modern horror found a way to convey the state of reverie or hypnagogia in technical devices. I have also noted that one of the most common metaphors applied to this kind of change of mental state was hypnosis, and that in modern horror devices derived from the history of the magic lantern were used to induce trance states. The most common device was a spinning lamp with red, green, white, sometimes blue panels, so that the variation of the colors created a kind of “dream machine” effect, which put you in a state (this from The Crimson Cult).
Even when there is no lamp device, if you see these colors, as, for example, in stained glass in Incubus, and I saw this too in the newer The Last Exorcism, then you are being inducted.
And this brings us to the question of why Dario Argento made such extreme use of this convention in his classic movie, Suspiria. On the level of film chitchat, Argento is valued as an abstract movie maker, a formalist, who by his modern abstract formal attention to color and light, amplified horror. While it is true that, patently speaking, this is what he did, it is also true that this is a misreading of what he did (and he may have misread his own genius too, as in later films he exploited his tendencies in increasingly abstract ways, with less effectiveness). But the reason that Suspiria works so well, is not simply that it is a normal horror movie, overlaid with excessive baroque sound and light effects, as well as art direction, but because the two work together to logically and fully express the instrumentation of the witch, the Mother of Sighs, involved. In order to understand this, one must pay attention to what is said about how the witch works. When Udo Kier describes her methods to the disbelieving Suzy (Jessica Harper), a few things, often ignored, pop out (the fact that, whereas mostly explication like this is incidental, here it is critical, is key): she is a witch whose force is only malefic, that is, everything she does is evil; second, a coven is like a snake, it lives by the head, cut off the head, and the whole thing falls apart.
For the first part, this means that what she does permeates reality. That is, Argento casts her as an elemental force, in the German style. She has the ability to change weather, to cause nature to erupt, to direct evil demons through the sky, she is everything that a nemesis is. We get the clearest example of this, when the blind butler is killed by his dog, in the square in town. As he walks, the wind builds up, the weather seems to change, the impression is made, by the music and sound effects, a predecessor to Friday the13th, in signaling the presence of evil through sound effects, and through the shadows of some birds or witches or demons of the air on the front of the temple, and then she attacks by putting this spirit into the dog, and the dog bites and eats him. This is classic nemesis instrumentation. In Room 237, a documentary, it is suggested that, in the beginning of The Shining, as Berlioz’s Dies Irae sounds, and the camera zooms in but also around the car, that it is a vehicle pursued by a nemesis. This then provides the directors with the opportunity to quote from Fritz Lang, and some very German images of nemesis, the four horsemen
Witches over the land
Aerial demons, swooping in, caroming past a town, seen from above
Flying demons, or witches, this could be right out of Haxan, but it is not, and could serve to cast the shadows on the building in the scene in Suspiria
And then too even Satan shadowing over a whole town, this from Faust (I recognize)
This is the kind of being that Argento has created of the Mother of Sighs, a witch that works by the wind, that is the maelstrom and the weather. And this then is the first reason why it was important to show the witch as abstractly controlling all of the visual reality of the film. What this means is that when Suzy shows up in town, and it suddenly begins to rain, that weather is another of the witch’s spells
She has entered into the world of the witch, this explains why the woods have a fairy tale quality
And the strange academy, too, has a Hansel and Gretel dimension to it, its redness, its giltwork, its strange unreal look
Suzy is rebuffed in the rain because she walks in in the middle of another girl at the school being menaced and murdered by the witch. For whatever reason, the witch has decided that she must die, she is not fitting in, and so she is sent running in the woods
she seeks safety in a friends house, but the amazing soundtrack of special voicings at this point indicates that she is still being pursued. She sees laundry hanging out of her window,
we see her artificially light, in doors, through the eyes of a demon of the air sent out to get her (this POV reminds me of the zooming shots of Paris in Garfield’s original Svengali
And then she peers through the glass, and through her reflections, and sees, as one will, eyes, just barely, the demon pursuing her
She runs, and that results in her murder, and the death of the friend who sought to save her too.
We later learn how this was done. Joan Bennett, who is terrifically odd in this her last movie, is the assistant witch but acting head of the coven. Still, she acts through the power of Helena Markos, a Greek witch come to Germany in 1895. Here we see her, spied upon by Suzy, taking some bread, or wine, having cursed the American girl, and wishing her illness, she somehow seals it, by directing the malefic power of Markos through her to the girl, by this ceremony. It is classic religious ceremony, in the context of a coven
What this means is that the night Suzy showed up, the same sort of event was taking place, and it raised a demon, an evil emanation of the spirit of Markos, up, to pursue her, and it did, and it, or Bennett, or the coven as a whole, or, ultimately, Markos, is what killed the girl. Here she seals the deal against the American, it is presumed she did the same for this girl, earlier
Earlier, the movie moves most curiously. Its aspect as “suspiria” or sighs, comes from suspicions of the school itself being “suspect,” and everybody having to sigh with embarrassment at this or that, because the plot is nothing but a series of mishaps, that Bennett then apologizes for, often unconvincingly. By far, the grossest scene, and the one upon which Argento might have been crucified himself by audiences demanding maggots forever after from him, and from the fact that maggots became part of the armentarium of Italian horror thereafter, is the fall of maggots onto the girls hair, causing a panic
The explanation is that there was some bad meat delivered to the school and placed up in the attic, and it went bad, spreading maggots all over the place
It is a bizarre sequence. The explanation does not seem entirely satisfactory. One gets symbolic: perhaps it represents to Argento the rotting soul of Germany, the locale of the movie, a place so rotten that Markos can still survive, perhaps it is, after all, Markos’s corpse, rotting, maybe it is the bodies of the murdered, it is left vague, but it is this bizarre event which is apologized with that most perfect upper class aplomb by Bennett, that made her role. I also note that it is in response to that violation, that she stands in front of the strange, my Fair Ladyish interior design of the main hall, a stageset evoking artificiality
In any case, since the upper floor has to be fumigated, the girls are all going to sleep, like camp, in the dance hall, set up as a dormitory
And it is in this context, since all residents of the upper floors had to be evacuated, that Markos is first introduced into the movie. The girl guesses that the woman snoring is the director we never see, and so her snoring is another form of sighing, and the form that gives her identity away
Suzy later encounters this being when she figures out, after the other girl is killed, where the steps lead in the building, to a secret annex. There she sees the shadow behind the veil again, in a room emblazoned with a one-eyed symbol, the all-seeing eye, the ancient cyclopsian over all
(again, the Cyclops represents POV in the extreme, that is, everything you see is seen through the eye of the one who controls it. This idea was standard fare in the modern era of horror, and made literal in the movie The Cyclops, itself, where the iris on the lens is zeroed in (and again a clue as to the meaning of the blue iris)
She then detects Suzy’s presence, and sits up, a shadow
But when Suzy pulls the curtain to kill, she sees only an indentation in the bed, making her a close cousin to mother in Psycho
Then she realizes she has to stab the profile in invisibility, she does, it lightnings up, and then kills her. In dying, Markos then materializes in body again as a classic hag,
And in materialization, dies. Remembering now what Kier said, if she dies, and she is the head of the coven, all die. Now, she is past 100, she is “dead,” to the body, but she has somehow remained alive as a spiritual, haunted entity, to give power to the coven, and to conduct her business through the bodies of the coven. When she dies, they all die, by wind, and, somehow, strangulation
At the same time, the last victim, raised as a zombie to attack Suzy, by Markos, also vanishes
But, then, even more germane to the specific direction of this discussion, the wind comes up, her death is a storm. It is also a destruction. All of the most curious artifacts in her room, by which, perhaps, she controlled things, as a game of chess, begin to explode (and, in the recorded history of poltergeist attacks, this is a unique instrumentation of them, and exploding is novel too, because here, they really explode
And this continues out in the main hall
And then all the walls begin to crack and fall down
And, while it is normal, or conventional, for the enchanted realm of the magic being to explode, and even more conventional for palaces and whatever to explode at the ends of movie (here I will insert numerous examples at a future date), the fact that this whole school turned out to be an enchantment in body of a malefic spiritual force emanating from Markos is unique in many ways. However, this brings us back to the issue of the use of hypnotic colors. Argento had to figure out a way in which to convey the pervasiveness of the evil in the whole world of the movie interjected into it by Markos. He had to explain why Suzy was always feeling sick, and drugged, and so many bad things were happening. He had to convey that the entire place, and the entire movie around it, was an instrument of hypnosis, to cast us into a spell, by using a device of hypnosis in a novel way. He had to undertake and elaborate misdirection, and tell us while he was doing it that he was doing it. And this is what he did. There is no hypnotic device in the movie, except, perhaps, for the curious curio of a peacock with multicolored gems on it in Markos’ room
But there is plenty of the elements of the standard hypnotizing magic lantern, which would be red, green and blue, both individually, and continually contrasting. When Suzy arrives in Germany, she is already in the enchantment, it is red
The school, red, with its windows, yellow, is an architecturalization of a dream machine
Even when the girl she encounters seeks escape, she remains in the realm, as it has a red, illusory, almost Pompeiian quality to it
And then of course she runs up to the skylight, all stained glass in the colors, and dies in the colors, and then even the glass comes down and takes out her friend too
Simply put, Argento has taken this simple device, used malevolently by Rathbone in Tales of Terror, and turned it into a machine of torture, but, then, taken it beyond that, and architecturalized it, so that all elements of it contribute
The fact that the friend ends up sliced in half by some of the colored glass indicates its literalization here, but, then, too, her housepaint red blood again reinforces the fact that this simple device was made the very machine of murder.
When Suzy has to stay in the school, she encounters the red lined hallway right away, and when a cook, polishing silver, shines a reflection of silver in her eyes, she gets sick: the hallway itself is that magic lantern, exaggerated into hallway scale
And then the cook activates it in this instance
The spell is reinforced at Suzy’s first try out by the fact, the very odd fact, that the dance hall is graced with some very strange novo-catholic church modernist style Chagallian stained glass windows, perhaps evoking the opera and fine arts, when in fact the lessons offered by this apparently not very qualified teacher seem highly suspect
When Suzy is in her rooms, she is put in the middle of the magic lantern. The way that the door transoms internalize the magic lantern, and suggest to me, too, the forms of the Martian searching for hiding heros in War of the Worlds, is quite inventive. She IS being hypnotized as she lives (if one imagines the phrase, as I live and breathe, then her breathing, in the chambers, is another form of the sighs),
All the halls are instruments of hypnosis, red and the other primaries,
In this scene, the transom is almost a figural presence, just like, again, in War of the Worlds. Here’s the transom, a figure of always being watched, something always over ones shoulder, sometimes glowing
Later, the transom is especially malevolent as it changes colors, when the girl goes looking
And here is The War of the Worlds (1953 version)
(such a quote would be typical of Argento’s mashup style, which, not unlike a classic Mexican horror movie, mixed genres, especially the supernatural and extraterrestrial: and I discuss this in more detail in Aregento’s curious decision to turn Dracula into a walking stick in the recent remake). As noted before, when the hall becomes a dorm, and Markos is there, it is red
When the girls talk over the steps and finding out where the teachers really go at night, it is red and pink and blue
At the pool, which seems rather unrealistically large for the place, a classic illusion place, again the red and blue windows watch
Argento seems to signal that all of this is emission from the lighting fixtures, and therefore derived in fact from the tradition of the magic lantern, in this curious shot, taken from the ceiling lamp bulb out, a very weird POV
and later in her search, red and blue
And in the murder
And escape. It is all the instrument of the witch’s spell, the visual sign of her way of controlling and attacking and exerting her power. She is by now a spiritual force, acting only through a coven. But her world is also a physical environment, the whole school, and the whole school, and the whole countryside around, its weather, the demons in the air, all is her creation, she is a mother of creation, the mother of sighs, and of snoring, and of breathing, and of the wind, the sound and the weather. It is not simply then that Dario Argento turned a basic horror movie into an arty movie by going abstract and colorific with it, but that he developed a very traditional notion of who the witch was, what her powers were, how far they went, what they entailed, and devised for all that, an visual counterpart, derived from the convention of the magic lantern as hypnotizing object, to create of every frame of the film an classic enchanted realm. This is why the movie works so well: because it is an entirely inspired instrumentation of horror.
Though I focused in this note on the coloring, and their derivation from the hypnotic magic lantern, I also want to mention to other elements of the space. One, if it is an enchanted space, then it has an excess of space, and the space can be irrational. It is also a manipulated or twisted or what Deleuze and Guattari might refer to as a paranoid space, as the controlling force is free to turn the space into a web of its own design. The unreality of the space, the enchanted realm, then, would explain why when the girl goes up to look for where the steps are coming from, she is chased to her death. And it is death by architecture, as she is chased down a hall, into a room
And then the room, rather illogically, has a lit window looking out into, what, another room? It does quite have a floorplan logic. In any case, in the illogicality of the space, she is now desperate for escape, so tries to escape
And then in a classic misdirect shot, not unlike one copied in Home Alone 2, she lands on her feet on a raised platform, but then only sees the door, opening out, and does not look down, so she leaps, only to find, in undoubtedly the most surreal element of the film, a room full of razor wire, in which, any move she makes will slit her. In this case, it only traps her, the killer reaches in and finishes her off
(now this is an escalation of a trend in Italian horror that started with the interesting set ups of Bloody Pit of Horror, and others, especially the spider web and the arrows: a purposeful trap room, a variant of the torture room, here disguised as a strange sort of excess storage room). But it is still a typical element of an enchanted, not a real realm.
Finally, there is the central mystery of the building having some inner chamber where the teachers disappear, and figuring out where they go. On the basis of this, Suzy thinks about what the girl in the rain was saying: in fact, she remembers, she was giving her clues about what is the truth in the house. This panoramic painting is the oddest artifact of the movie. At present, I cannot discern what its cultural genealogy might be
But it is marked, hiding in plain sight, by three bright flowers, and they are yellow, red and blue. And it turns out that the blue iris is the most important, because it is not only a painting, but a lever, a key, the camera closes in, and for the first time we see that it is in three dimensions
Suzy turns it, and it opens a secret, but not very secret door in the wall (thus it can be seen that the murals odd girlish style was a kind of Pompeiian deception to hide the fact that some elements were dimensional. Inside, is a blue curtain
And then that opens up into a long curving hallways, painted Germanically in laurels, and inscribed in Greek, Latin, German and Hebrew, THIS is the movie’s equivalent of the occult book explaining it all, it is a spell in architecture
I like the curtains too: it’s a very odd place, hardly explained, and it exists in the movie less than ten minutes
And it is here that the final encounters as described occur, all of it then to get blown up. One final comment: I believe that as you move from the outer to the inner levels of an occult realm the spell becomes a hyperspell, in which everything is not only haunted or enchanted but becomes the instrument of a spell. Therefore, in ways I have not yet determined, I believe Markos did her magic by the shorthand voodoo of manipulating the objects in her room, very strange objects, very strange room, I especially like the bizarre rococo baroque stand
It is said by some that all nightmares are waking dreams, or dreams one wakes up on in the middle of the night, and that one senses the presence of this clash in the form of a hag crawling up or sitting on one’s body. In the end, then, the entire movie is a very concentrated, then quite extenuated, hag attack: one of the greatest hags of the movies, Helena Markos, by this point, in 1977, well over a hundred years old, like Marcato in Rosemary’s Baby, a survival from the classic period of symbolist modern occultism, here at last her reign coming to an end. But, throughout the movie this snoring presence, the mother of sighs, was the architect, through Dario Argento, of every single frame of film you see.
P.S. The evil of this hag, finally, is subconsciously reinforced by two additional overlaid themes, one striking Americans of a certain time, in particular: Suzy gets sick, overseas: it is always a traumatic experience; then too, Suzy is sexy, but we are never once allowed to engage that sexiness and in fact in her pain and anxiety she actively works to crush her sexuality, a scene most graphically rendered by the fact that when a bat gets into the bathroom and it gropes for her on the floor, her shoes backing off, a figure of her hairy thing, she then takes a stool and beats it to death. In which case Argento purposefully frustrates the male viewer, who ever after surrounds the movie with the meta menace of seeing her bent over this and that, Suzy then becomes the worst example of a girl that got away. But these at least are incidental remarks.