Suspiria, for the uninitiated, is the terrifying tale of American ballet student Suzy Banyon, who enrols at an exclusive dance academy in Germany. Her arrival coincides with a raging storm and the savage murder of another student. Increasingly odd occurrences and other grisly deaths suggest that there is something evil lurking within the school, and Suzy eventually discovers that it is actually a witches' coven. Often hailed as Argento’s masterpiece, Suspiria is a visceral onslaught of vision, sound and colour. The viewer is bombarded by graphic scenes of extreme violence, lurid lighting, overwhelming production design and an extremely sinister and powerful soundtrack courtesy of Italo prog-rockers Goblin.
The score is immensely important in Suspiria; it not only flogs the story forward, but compliments the bombardment of visual excess. Eerie vocal work, battering, crashing drums, shrieking strings and a sinister music box lullaby played on synthesisers culminate in a relentless attack on the ears. At times, strains of an oddly Eastern European variety, both mysterious and otherworldly, become apparent. A resonant and droning bass beat licked at by rasping, guttural whisperings, becomes mesmerising – and had no small influence on the scores of John Carpenter. A rough cut of the soundtrack was apparently played full blast on set to unnerve the actors and get them into a suitably unsettled mood.
Nothing can quite prepare you for the experience of hearing this score performed live. To describe the effect it has as 'sensory overload' doesn’t quite do it justice. Simonetti was joined by Daemonia members Bruno Previtali on (what I think was) bouzouki, and Titta Tani on percussion, their equipment laid out beneath the vast screen upon which Suspiria bled across. While there were only three of them, the musicians concocted a deafening sound that bombarded the audience, assaulted the senses and throbbed throughout the building. At times the music drowned out some of the dialogue, but with a film like Suspiria - the emphasis is firmly on the sound and visuals - this was a minor discrepancy that failed to hinder the experience. During quieter moments the three would whisper insidiously into microphones, their rasping voices creeping through the air and down the spine, conjuring all manner of otherworldly menace.
Horror soundtracks are usually crucial in helping to establish mood, create tension and inform onscreen action. All too often though, they can be lazy and predictable. When they’re good however, they perfectly compliment and enhance the mood and atmosphere of the film, and can often give it a completely unique feel (case in point: The Wicker Man). When John Carpenter was attempting to secure a distributor for Halloween, he screened the film to a prospective buyer without the score (it wasn't ready yet), prompting her to claim ‘it just isn’t scary.’ Once the score was composed and inserted, I’m sure she changed her mind… When estranged from the visuals some scores can lose their power. Experiencing a score performed live alongside the film can really highlight its strengths – or weaknesses. What became apparent last night was that Goblin’s score for Suspiria is a pretty unique one (just in case you didn’t already know) that works well not only within the context of the film, but outside of the film, too. Yes, it arguably dominates proceedings, but thanks to Argento’s opulent direction – and the fact that everything about Suspiria is the antithesis of subtle - the score feels perfectly at home in what is one of the most excessive and overwhelming horror films ever produced.
The opening death scene, in which a young woman is pursued through the forest to a vast and terrifyingly geometrical house, only to be wrenched through a window, stabbed repeatedly and then hung by her unseen attacker who drops her through a massive ornate stained glass window in the ceiling, is more akin to what is expected at the climax of a horror film. Seeing this scene with the score performed live was one of the most intense experiences this writer has ever endured. When the scene ends, and the music stops, you could almost hear the audience breathe a collective sigh of relief. And this was just the beginning of the evening...
Earlier this week I was invited to talk about horror film scores – specifically Suspiria’s - with local broadcaster and journalist Peter McCaughan, for a segment on BBC Radio Ulster’s Arts Extra programme. You can listen to it here for another few days.