Broken Mirrors/Bleeding Ears: An Evening with The Claudio Simonetti Horror Project

Last night saw Belfast’s Waterfront Hall play host to a very special screening of Dario Argento’s nightmarish, witch-infested classic, Suspiria. The screening, courtesy of the lovely folks at the Belfast Film Festival, was accompanied by a live score performed by none other than original Goblin member and long time Argento collaborator, Claudio Simonetti, and his band, the Simonetti Horror project. My ears are still ringing…

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.


Rg Lovecraft said…
I am incredibly jealous, this sounds absolutely amazing! I wish I could experience something like this, the use of soundtrack is something that I've always honed in on when it comes to horror. Thanks for the great article/review. Looking forward to reading many more and keeping my fingers crossed that I get this sort of opportunity as well!
Warden Stokely said…
I'm seriously honored that you choose to follow my site. When I clicked on your link, I thought are you, (uh, can I say fucking?)fucking kidding me? I wasn't able to see your interview with Peter McCaughan from the link provided, but I think I am still in shock. I'll check it out again later when I recover. I haven't seen Suspiria enough. Just once. I'll remedy that tonight, and in your honor, I'm gonna crank up the volume. Thanks for the tip, the great post packed full of interesting information on scores, (Man, I wish I was there last night, sounds unbelievable, I'm sure you seriously felt the music...along with the goosebumps.)and most of all for pushin my button, man. Until next time...Keep those fires stoked.
Eternally Yours
Warden Stokely
James Gracey said…
Rg - Keep an eye out for the Simonetti Horror Project, I think they're touring this at the moment. I know they also played Dublin before heading up here. No one was as surprised that they played in Belfast as I was! This was like a dream come true. Really hope you get a chance to see them at some stage.

Warden - Hee hee, hope you enjoyed Suspiria at full volume! It was pretty incredible seeing the film with a live score - an evening I will treasure always. Looking forward to reading more posts on your site - I ALWAYS smile when I see a murder of crows. ;)

Thanks for dropping by - have a good weekend.
Brandon Early said…
Warden pointed me in this direction, and I'm pretty damn jealous myself. Thanks for sharing your experience.

About a year ago I programmed some films for a friend's photography event, Suspiria included. We watched in the middle of the woods on a projection screen with speakers arranged in the woods around us for surround sound. Spooky as hell, and a unique experience.

I'd like to go back to screen Inferno . . .
Warden Stokely said…
I had a concert in my living room! THANK YOU! I sat a couple feet from the tv and used my binocs so everything looked REALLY BIG! hahaha I pretended I was in Belfast in front of the giant screen. I closed my eyes and I could see Claudio playing, the percussionist banging, and the strings, aw the strings! and backups whispering harshly into their mics. Aw. What a joy! I seriously want to redo my little apartment in red and blue. I just ordered your book. It's funny, I love the design and color of the school; I just love everything about it, but the look on Jessica's face at the very end, after she walks out, and the place is flamin, is priceless. Just priceless. In fact, right after I post this, I'm gonna add that to my intro, right after A Murder of Crows.:) You rock, James. Literally. Until next time...keep those fires stoked.
Eternally Yours
Warden Stokely
Warden Stokely said…
Hi James
I bought another book. I work at a library, and there is a young kid, Christopher, he's like 20, and I think he's autistic or something. Kinda Rainman like, but his thing is film, primarily horror, but all things film. He's got a photographic memory, and the kid's cranial database is immense. You guys could rap for days. I printed a copy of your post and a copy of your Argento interview for him. He loves Dario, and "Goblin is his favorite band!" When he heard you saw Simonetti, he was ecstatic. So I bought an extra copy of your book to give him as a gift. He is going to be so thrilled. We chat each time he's in the library, and instead of seeing "catch ya later!" it's "Happy viewing!" You're gonna make this young man very happy.
James Gracey said…
@Brandon: The event you helped organise in the forest sounds fantastic! I can only imagine how cool it must have been to watch Suspiria in that sort of environment. There was a similar screening of Evil Dead here in Belfast a while back - Belfast Film Festival screened it in ne of the big parks here - Ormeau Park - amongst the trees. In the dark. Sadly I wasn't able to go, but heard good things about it. Do you have a blog where I can read about your Suspiria gig?

@Stokely: I also love the production design and décor in Suspiria - it's all so incredibly overwhelming. And I love the spooky apartment building in Inferno, too. The colours and lighting in that are just beautiful - all those blue lit hallways.

I hope your friend Christopher enjoys the book! Also, I'm jealous you work in a library - I would love to work in a library. To be surrounded by all those books everyday must be pretty inspiring.

Thanks again for dropping by - hope you're having a good weekend full of spooky horror films.

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