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Remind Me

BEHIND THE SCENES

Once upon a time, a teenage girl named Yvonne was sent away from home to attend a boarding school. Her parents believed she was going to a reputable place, a stolid institution where a budding talent like hers would receive valid instruction in the arts. The girl arrived, wide-eyed and innocent, and was terrified to realize she had been delivered into a witches' den, a school of Black Magic. She turned tail and ran. Unlike her fairy tale counterparts Hansel and Gretel, Yvonne was a real girl, and she escaped to tell her tale. This she did, to her own granddaughter, an actress and screenwriter by the name of Daria Nicolodi. As it happened, Nicolodi was the creative and romantic partner of Italy's dark wizard of cinema, Dario Argento, so Yvonne's tale was destined for bigger things.

Then came the day that Nicolodi and Argento went on a spook's tour of Europe to seek out the places whose history was most marked by the occult. Their travels took them to a Rudolph Steiner Community in Dorna, Switzerland. The place was a school for the arts, and for magic. The odd combination of artistic and occultist study reminded Nicolodi of her granny's anecdote, lurking in the back corner of the writer's mind, and she began to develop it into a film scenario.

Daria Nicolodi also took inspiration from the writings of Thomas De Quincey, whose books Confessions of an English Opium Eater and Suspiria de Profundis ("Deep Sighs") reveled in drug-addled imagery. One section in particular caught the screenwriter's eye: a passage describing the Three Sorrows that afflict humanity: "Mater Suspiriorum, Our Mother of Sighs; Mater Tenebrarum, Our Mother of Darkness; and Mater Lachrymarum, Our Mother of Tears." Suspiria would form the start of an informal trilogy, cataloging these three evil forces. A few years after Suzy Bannion confronted Mater Suspiriorum, the sequel Inferno (1980) introduced Mater Tenebrarum. For years, though, the trilogy remained incomplete. In 2007, the still-active Argento finally brought his cycle full circle with Mother of Tears (2007), a much-delayed conclusion starring Argento's daughter, Asia.

As originally scripted, Suspiria was to be populated with 8 to 10 year olds, in keeping with the fairy tale theme. The idea of putting vulnerable children into cinematic peril gave Dario goosebumps in anticipation-but the same idea gave his financiers palpitations. Argento was a temperamental director known for giving his actors vague, ambiguous direction while he focused perfectionist attention on costly stunts and effects. Putting such a man in charge of a cast of child actors was a recipe for endless delays and budget overruns. Reluctantly, Dario and Daria agreed to cast their film with teenage girls instead-but did little to update the script to reflect this change. As a result, the cattiness between the dance students has a strange otherworldliness, with their interactions lacking the kind of tension adults would have with one another but substituting instead a childishness that seems out of place. Olga (Barbara Magnolfi) taunts her roommates about their names being the names of, not sluts, but "snakes"--at which point the characters stick their tongues out at each other. To quote the Flight of the Conchords, "is she a young woman or an elderly girl?"

Children's fiction abounds with stories of women-girls displaced into fantasy worlds where they must confront and defeat an evil force. One obvious source of inspiration would be The Wizard of Oz (1939). Like Dorothy Gale, Suzy has been swept into a place of eye-popping color where she must battle a Wicked Witch. To obtain the vibrant colors on set, director of photography Luciano Tovoli stretched swatches of colored fabric across intensely powered carbon arc lamps. Then, in post-production, the film was printed using the three-strip Technicolor imbibition process that had lent the 1939 Wizard of Oz it's memorable color palette. However, by 1977 this technology was dying. To call it "obsolete" would imply that filmmaking technology had moved on to newer and better things, but the sad fact is that actually filmmaking technology had regressed into cheaper and simpler things. For color rendition, nothing beats three-strip Technicolor, but Suspiria would be the last motion picture printed with that technique, and the filmmakers had to lobby Technicolor's Rome office to keep one machine in operation while they finished the film, as the company junked the equipment at all of their other facilities.

In keeping with the overkill attitude of this daring production, cinematographer Tovoli decided that as fabulous as three-strip Technicolor was at producing vividly unreal hues, he figured there was a way to go it one better. To this end he omitted the procedure typically used to stabilize the boundaries between color fields, which produced clean, sharp edges at the cost of some color fidelity. Dropping that step meant the colors in Suspiria would be even more intense, yet would shimmer and bleed-which for a dream-like movie was all the better.

While interior scenes for Suspiria were mounted in Rome on wild Art Deco sets created by Giuseppe Bassan, exterior scenes were filmed in Germany. Although the story is set in Freiburg, the vision of Freiburg in the film is altogether more like Munich. The fact of its having been filmed in Munich, and not Freiburg, of course explains this in large part, but the parts of the city he highlights in the film are the most Munichian, the least Freiburgian. It would be as if someone shot a film in Las Vegas, centered around the casinos, but called it Los Angeles. Suspiria takes place in a city still haunted by fascism, where the echoes of Nazism still resonate in the public squares and the stiff bearing of Alida Valli's Miss Tanner.

Valli was at this point in the fourth decade of her multinational film career. She had already racked up credits for some of cinema's most visionary auteurs, having worked for Alfred Hitchcock (The Paradine Case, 1947), Orson Welles (The Third Man, 1949), Luchino Visconti (Senso, 1954), Claude Chabrol (Ophelia, 1963), Bernardo Bertolucci (The Spider's Strategem, 1970), Pier Paolo Pasolini (Oedipus Rex, 1967), Georges Franju (Eyes Without a Face, 1960), and Mario Bava (House of Exorcism, 1973). Leading lady Jessica Harper was fresh from Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise (1974), making the easy transition from one post-Hitchcock specialist to the other. Daria Nicolodi had written the starring role for herself, but was forced by the film's financiers to swap places with an American star in order to help overseas sales. Nicolodi then intended to take the supporting role of Sara, but suffered an injury shortly before production and had to be replaced. Stefania Casini instead got the rare privilege of writhing in a room full of barbed wire - an experience she says she took home with her that night in the form of multiple cuts and bruises.

On the set, the actors listened to an early version of the film's score, played over loudspeakers to set the mood. Let's pause here and emphasize the "loud" part of the word "loudspeaker," since the nerve-jangling music was played at full volume to unsettle the cast and create an authentic atmosphere of nervous tension. Since the cast spoke a wide variety of languages, which were to be redubbed in post-production anyway, no effort was made to record a usable soundtrack on the set. Musician Claudio Simonetti and the band Goblin had collaborated with Argento before, and the director had always prioritized daring, innovative music in his films. Working from the script and their knowledge of Argento's aesthetics, Goblin wrote their music before even the first frame was shot-but once the final program was edited they returned to the studio to rework and re-record the score to more closely match the film.

It was through the tools of filmmaking itself-choice of camera angle, use of lighting, patterns of editing, musical accompaniment-that Argento made Suspiria into something uniquely and recognizably his. Daria Nicolodi and the cast have all gone on record that the final film differs in no way from the screenplay, which itself was fairly explicit about what was to be seen and heard, and yet none of them could visualize in advance what it was that Argento had in mind. The recipe seemed straightforward enough, but it was something special about the chef that made it into what it was. At the same time, many reviewers who were disinclined to like horror films in general and who were specifically put off the grisly content of this one, nevertheless found themselves admiring Argento's technique, finding his approach ennobled material they found distasteful. Which begs the question: What do the makers of the forthcoming remake of Suspiria with Natalie Portman expect to bring to the table? Time will tell, but it remains unlikely that any update will unseat Argento's impudent masterpiece from the loving memories of its legions of fans.

by David Kalat

SOURCES:
Interview with Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi, Fangoria Issue 35, 1984. "Dario Argento: An Eye For Horror" documentary by Charles Preece and Janne Schack

Dennis Daniel and Michael Will, "Profondo Rosso: Interview with Dario Argento," Psychotronic Magazine, Issue 18, 1994. Travis Crawford, Liner notes to DVD release from Blue Underground.

Scott Michael Bosco, Interview with Jessica Harper, from the liner notes to DVD release from Blue Underground, conducted 2000.

"Suspiria 25th Anniversary" documentary, Blue Underground.

Tim Lucas, "Suspiria review," Video Watchdog Issue 46.

Linda Schulte-Sasse, "The 'Mother' of all Horror Movies," Kinoeye Volume 2, Issue 11.

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