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Friday, February 4, 2022

Erotic Nights and Nightmare Cities: An Ode to Late Night Cult Film Fans.


           Staying up all night even though you have to work in the morning, watching Erotic Nights of the Living Dead for the fifth time. Life has not been kind to you. But the strange synthesizers and bone-thin zombie hordes coming down the beach after George Eastman give you some kind of meaning. The strange atmospherics of weird horror films and sleazy sex films become a reason to keep going, you work like someone already dead, but when you get a new movie to watch in the mail, the promise of transgression and perversion keeps you going. Then you continue on with Porno Holocaust and then A Virgin Among the Living Dead. Something in these films makes sense to you. They present the world in a way that refuses to lie. Seedy, sex-driven, brutal, selfish, like you know the world to actually be. This isn’t bland sterile fucking like in the mainstream pornos, and this isn’t boring funhouse hack and slash like in the Hollywood slasher films. This is perverse and bizarre. A decayed dream world that is both alluring and degraded at the same time. Alone at night when the world is sleeping outside your windows. The flicker of the television set in your dark room. You will scour through hours of garbage to find that one scene, that scene of poetic perversion, that will live inside your head for the rest of your life. Films from Italy, Spain, and Japan stack up to form a mini barricade around your television keeping out the banal sadness of the outside world. The smell of weed and cheap snack food fills the air. 

Work, doing the same meaningless tasks over and over for a boss who controls your life. The only solace you get is from the strange visions of some poor quality, blurry, low-grade horror film played out on your irises at three in the morning. Watching the maid get her hand stabbed to the wall and her head chopped off by a crowd of ravenous zombies in Burial Ground. Watching a vagina open up in a man’s head as he is taken over by an alien in Goke: Bodysnatcher from Hell. Watching young lovers run down and mutilated by undead templars riding dead horses in Tombs of the Blind Dead. These dark, sometimes surreally campy, sometimes deliciously malevolent, visions keep you going through your banal and slowly crushing life. These films offer you something you can not find in your daytime life. A real transcendence. The grittiness, the sweaty flesh, the ramshackle sets, offer a vision of real life that makes the bigger budget mainstream films feel like lies, like purposeful deception. We are born into some rotten and fallen world. We grow and we change. We fuck and we strive. We wither and we die. And these films show this in a way that Hollywood never could. 

            The characters who live to fuck. Debutantes and libertines walking straight into some abysmal nightmare. The strange creatures emerging from old forgotten graveyards, dark underground tunnels, unexplored islands, old abandoned gothic castles, among dozens of other locations. Creatures who are a mix of cheap makeup and ingenuous prosthetics. Like some ramshackle monster straight out of some deeply disturbing fever dream, they have a mix of the grimy and the surreal. And the naked flesh of the stars of the films, poked and prodded, stroked and inflamed. These films offer an intoxicating mix of occult mystery and sexual luridness. In Anthropophagus, set on a sweltering, sun-bleached island off the coast of Greece, we follow a group of tourists stalked and eaten by a maniac cannibal. The atmosphere is drenched in sweat, abandoned buildings, hidden catacombs, and a strange pulsing synth score. Anthropophagus is committed to pushing the limits of onscreen violence, offering sights that will shock and absolutely scar themselves in your psyche. In Nightmare City, hordes of atomic zombies burst out of airplanes, into television studios, through amusement parks. It is a film of an unrelenting madness, exploding out into the world. In Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People, mushroom monsters attack a group of shipwrecked survivors. Hallucinogenic terror and long past midnight camp humor converge into a singular viewing experience. There is something pleasurable in having your comfort levels pushed by these films, in the delicate scars they leave on you, the strange sights, and the weird ideas you return to again and again.

            The films unfold through the night. The night is quiet with everyone asleep. Just you and your stack of films. Sometimes wide awake soaking everything in, sometimes half asleep fading in and out through the movies, your dreams and the movie intertwining. Undead hordes descending on fleeing lovers, alien doppelgangers infiltrating a family home, a curse visited upon a town, creatures emerging from long-forgotten crypts, radioactive mutants invading an apartment complex. These are the visions you live for. In a world of disappointment and failure, these visions give you a reason to live. No one you talk to has any idea about the films you watch. They have never heard of them and they don’t care to. They yap on about movies sure, the boring big-budget action films and the oh so important dramas that they will forget about a month from now. But your films you will cherish for your entire life. You will watch and rewatch them. Learning every line, thinking about every camera angle, delving into every idea the film presents you with, memorizing each curve of flesh. Until they become a part of you. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Guest review: In a Glass Cage by Brian O'Connell


    Out of the darkness, the image of an eye, so close to the lens and so deeply shadowed that it’s almost an abstraction, staring directly at the viewer. Cut: we now directly face onto the camera lens itself, a startling reversal, its round black lens an impassive mirror to the round black pupil of the previous image. A series of subsequent close-ups, each fading out from black, present us with isolated, fetishistically observed details of mortified flesh: bound feet, bound hands, a young bloodied face. All this observed and photographed by a large, middle-aged man who gazes upon this tortured boy—we see now that it is a boy, and furthermore a child, no older than ten—with an obscure mixture of wonder, erotic fascination, and stony despair. After photographing him, the man comes near the child’s face, lecherously presses his lips close to the corner of the mouth in a cold, sidelong kiss. He staggers back, and, almost as if he’s ashamed, wipes the trace of the kiss from his lips with a handkerchief, all the while regarding the boy’s bruised shoulder blades as he dangles from the rafters. Sighing, he contemplates the scene deeply for a moment, and then, steeling himself for the work he has yet to do, slowly lifts a wooden plank from the floor, raises it, and, for once mercifully off-camera, murders the boy by clubbing him once, sharply, in the back of the head. In the following moments, he will proceed to attempt suicide by leaping from the roof of the building. At the same time, everything described has been observed not only by the audience but by an unseen voyeur, their presence implied by shaky P.O.V. handheld camerawork and the quick panting of their breath on the soundtrack, who sneaks into the basement chamber and collects the murderer’s ghastly notebooks from the floor.

     The opening scene of Agustí Villaronga’s 1986 horror film In a Glass Cage presents images and implications that most viewers will find so repellant as to be almost unwatchable. After all, these subjects—suicide, sadism, pedophilic desire, and especially violence against children—remain perhaps the most universally reviled taboos in our society. And yet, in a tight four-and-a-half-minute sequence, Villaronga confronts us with them all, and in uncommonly graphic detail. Not only are we shown the naked and degraded body of a young child, but we are literally forced to take the abuser’s perspective, the inaugural montage of bodily details directly replicating the erotic-sadistic-objectifying gaze of the killer. Our gaze is sutured to that of the perpetrator of violence (and, moreover, his unseen witness), actively encouraging us to partake in their bestial fascination.

     This sequence succinctly establishes the whole formal and thematic edifice of In a Glass Cage, a film which, I think, has been often misrepresented by much of the non-academic writing that discusses it. The prevailing interpretation, as expressed in such writing, is that In a Glass Cage is an art-horror film about trauma, both individual (the sexual abuse of children) and historical (the atrocities of Nazism), and how it violently reproduces itself across generations. A surface-level examination of the narrative would certainly encourage this reading. The story tells of Klaus (Günter Meisner), an ex-Nazi and murderous pedophile, who, after the failed attempt at suicide at the climax of the opening sequence I’ve just described, finds himself almost completely paralyzed and dependant upon the respirations of an iron lung to live, which his frigid wife Griselda (the great Marisa Paredes, of Almodóvar fame) and their daughter Rena (Gisèle Echevarría) reluctantly undertake the management of. Some years later, a mysterious youth (David Sust) suddenly appears unbidden at the house, insisting that he serve as Klaus’ nurse. Gifted with the fortuitous name of Angelo and bearing a countenance comely and sinister in equal measure, Griselda is immediately suspicious of the new nurse, but Klaus insists they hire him after a private conversation between the two. It will come as no surprise that Angelo was the hidden voyeur at the start of the film, and, moreover, a victim of Klaus’ sexual violence in his youth. Having closed in upon his onetime abuser in a completely helpless and vulnerable state, he will proceed to sadistically reenact Klaus’ past crimes in front of him, torturing the monster of his childhood even as he gradually evolves into his mirror image.


This clever cross of Teorema and The Night Porter would appear to offer a very straightforward argument: violence is cyclical. The victims of violence can grow up to reperpetrate it. Trauma is passed on like some sort of genetic disease, an interminable merry-go-round of victims turned executioners, with no end in sight. This is a common enough theme in horror, particularly contemporary horror: Hereditary, Suspiria, The Wolf House, and Let the Right One In all offer radically different variations on the same idea. (Some prominent older examples might include The Shining or The Brood.) But I’d be hesitant to place In a Glass Cage’s treatment of the thesis on the same level as these other films. Compared to Hereditary’s evocation of how trauma structures of the nuclear family and domestic space, In a Glass Cage has little to no interest in its nebulously evoked family unit, essentially eschewing it altogether (Griselda is dispatched with as rapidly as possible) for a psychodrama between individuals—and ambiguously sketched individuals at that. Suspiria and The Wolf House frame their narratives within a heady historical context of mass totalitarianism and collective abuses of power. But the background of Nazism in Villaronga’s film feels almost arbitrary. Yes, we see images of concentration camps; yes, we hear of wartime atrocities: but the film isn’t truly concerned with these things in and of themselves; the actual nature of Holocaust violence (insitutional, not individual), its political context, the social setting and history that would be required to make Nazism a subject instead of a mere allusion, all are totally absent from In a Glass Cage’s sequestered mansion. Villaronga shows his hand when he explains that his original inspiration for the film came from the fifteenth century (alleged) serial killer Gilles de Rais, whose crimes he simply transplanted to a more contemporary era by setting them during the Holocaust. His interest is not in Nazism at all. Rather than Klaus’ actions acting as the metaphor for Nazism they’re so commonly taken to be, Villargona reverses the equation: Nazism acts merely as a canvas against which Klaus’ crimes can be contextualized. (The opening credits montage of concentration camp photos is the starkest example of this: the film doesn’t start with Auschwitz because it has anything to say about genocide, but because Auschwitz is as absolute and immediate a symbol of evil as we have in contemporary times—an evil that is immediately linked with transgressive eroticism, as evidenced by the photograph of a male German soldier kissing his gun-toting friend on the cheek.)

Which leaves us with the psychological interpretation, the argument that the film is creating an honest, if not “naturalistic”, portrait of how individuals process the wounds that have been inflicted upon them. The hollowness of this argument, when applied to In a Glass Cage, should be immediately evident to anyone who has seen a film that actually does fit that description, or to anyone who has experienced a comparable trauma themselves. In a Glass Cage is so psychologically flat as to be nearly opaque. Angelo and Klaus do not convince as people or human beings—in truth, they’re little more than shadowy puppets. We don’t enter their psyches and we never really understand their actions, even with the purely nominal explanation their vague histories offer us. If you watch In a Glass Cage as an expression of the “trauma begets trauma” thesis, it becomes an almost risibly simplistic and extremely dull viewing experience, particularly when compared to the richer treatment of this idea in other horror films. In a Glass Cage, frankly speaking, has nothing interesting or intelligent to say about the effects of trauma. And I don’t think it intends to, either. Like Klaus’ Nazism, the trauma explanation serves solely as the narrative pretext for what essentially amounts to an extreme sadomasochistic fantasy: a primal scene of domination and submission so archetypal as to erase any individual histories that might help us understand it.

It is this perceived shallowness of substance that has led some to dismiss it merely as a high-toned exploitation film. And it is. In a Glass Cage is about as pure an example of exploitation cinema as I can think of. It is a film more or less totally lacking in meaningful psychological or political insight, instead drawing its effects almost solely from the lurid magnetism of its perverse scenarios. The handsome cinematographic strategies and trendy historical allusions can’t disguise the whiff of Gothic grindhouse pulp that lurks barely beneath the surface of every single sequence. Villaronga chooses his topics not because his film has something profound to say about them, but because they offer a perfect constellation of absolute taboos with which to attract and repel his audience in equal measure. And his aesthetic strategies certainly don’t subvert the film’s lurid prurience in any way. Instead, they try to provide it with the most thrilling and least mediated means of expression possible.

    If I’m coming off as condemnatory, it’s only because I wish to dispute the dominant discourse surrounding this film. The high-minded expectations established by that discourse led to my initial disappointment and frustration with the movie back when I first saw it in 2020. I hope my words have provided a solid counter-argument to this narrative, which doesn’t, in my view, accurately characterize In a Glass Cage’s actual strategies and intentions. Let me now hasten to add that I do still think it is, in its own way, a sophisticated and intelligent work of art. What really makes this movie interesting and worthwhile is that it always remains acutely conscious of its own status as exploitation cinema. Indeed, rather than any narrative theory about fascism or cycles of violence, it is this awareness, which occurs on a primarily formal level, that becomes the very bedrock of the film: the audience’s prurient compulsion to look at, for lack of a better term, “abject” imagery and scenes (a compulsion Villaronga the filmmaker obviously shares) is replicated within the film so many times that it inevitably plays as self-commentary. In a Glass Cage thus ultimately reveals itself to be about the forbidden allure and, yes, the pleasure of looking at and experiencing the unspeakable. “Horror, like sin, can become fascinating,” Angelo reads in Klaus’ diary early on. It might as well be the film’s thesis statement.

     I’ve already discussed the carefully staged process of gazing in the opening scene: a precise series of reflexive cinematic gestures (the eye, the lens of the camera, the gaze through the window) that immediately establish both the film’s central theme of forbidden voyeurism—our own as well as the characters’—and align that voyeurism with the cruel perspective of the antagonist. We will remain stuck in this forced point-of-view for the remainder of the runtime: limited to the unsavory options of identifying with either Klaus or Angelo, the audience always shares a sadistic perspective that derives sexual gratification from violence and domination. This disconcerting strategy, which weaponizes the horror moviegoer’s morbid appetite for disturbing scenes and acts against itself, finds echoes in Haneke’s Funny Games and, more obviously, Pasolini’s Salò, to which In a Glass Cage is often compared. But the comparison is immediately short-circuited by the stylistic qualities of each film. In a Glass Cage has nothing of Pasolini’s formal austerity and icy restraint, the qualities which constitute the crux of Salò’s aesthetic and moral project. The constantly shifting sense of distance in Pasolini’s film ensures that our own prurient fascination with these awful scenes remains constantly foregrounded and self-indicting. Villaronga similarly emphasizes that fascination, but instead of indicting it, he actively indulges in it.

     His camera avoids the merciless wide shots of the austere approach to violence, instead electing to squeeze the mise-en-scène for every richly Gothic effect it can elicit. We’re treated to sweeping camera movement, startling and dramatic editing, and intensely stylized lighting, abandoning itself to every gloomy shade of blue, nightmarish architectural detail, or thick pool of shadow it can find. The atmosphere is lush and evocative, absorbing and suspenseful; even when it’s frightening or disturbing (and it often can be), it’s never truly disgusting or depressing in the way a film like Salò is. Just take a look at Griselda’s death sequence, an extended tour-de-force of grippingly emotive, suspenseful filmmaking that has rightly earned the film comparisons to the best of the giallo genre, and you’ll see quite clearly that the true divinity behind this film’s seductive chill is Argento, not Pasolini.

     Outside of the opening, the scene that most successfully communicates In a Glass Cage’s confluence of ideas, style, and purpose for me is a murder that occurs near the climax: Angelo’s slaughter of a boy soprano he’s abducted from a nearby school. Villaronga pulls out all the stops for this scene, investing the already transgressive subject of child murder with a deeply disquieting eroticism and leveraging his toolbox of cinematic effects (a dense, tensely edited collage of camera movement, costuming, sound design, color, shadow, flame, smoke, etc.) for maximum effect. Here the narrative fixation on sexuality and death and the formal fixation on complicitous voyeurism and fantasy reach their fullest expression.

    Klaus, as always, is trapped in his iron lung during this scene. Angelo has manipulated the little mirror above Klaus’ eyes to control his line of vision: he is forced to witness the murder, unable to look away. This compromised position, which incidentally anticipates a similar device in Argento’s Opera just one year later, has often been analogized in the academic literature on the film to the position of the cinema spectator in relation to Villaronga’s images. That affinity is the most important element in the film’s reflexive arsenal, particularly as we’re pushed into an instinctive sympathy with Klaus’ suffering—it mirrors our own suffering as victims of the film, of course. But just as Klaus has brought this suffering upon himself through his past actions, the audience has implicitly consented to this sight by virtue of their very presence in the theater: a presence essentially determined by, whatever the individual justification may be, a fascination with the taboo subjects In a Glass Cage has on offer, a willing subjection to whatever horrors it may serve up. This sadomasochistic contract between director and audience finds its mise-en-abyme in Klaus’ half-agonized, half-engrossed stare into the targeted mirror, the crucial element of self-consciousness that pushes the film just beyond the basest form of exploitation.

    Intercut with shots of Klaus’ gazing (much like the beginning of the film), we witness the murder itself through the subjective viewpoint of a sadist. Villaronga draws out the terrified boy’s gradual stripping in a long take before coming in close for the kill, following Angelo’s leather-gloved hand as it slides down the boy’s bare, shivering chest in a frankly sensual caress. This is a genuinely shocking, even amoral presentation of such a subject, one that encourages us to join in its fantasy of abject eroticism. One cannot escape the feeling that one is looking at something forbidden—which, the film is well aware, is exactly what gives the sequence its disturbing excitement, and a consciousness that it subtly but firmly neuters through its blatant artificiality. The sequence climaxes in a flagrantly dramatic, aestheticized fantasy of violence: Angelo’s glinting knife slitting the boy’s throat, unleashing an orgasmic gush of dark red blood that surges down his torso before dissolving into crackles of flame. The exquisitely fetishistic imagery of this scene should completely settle that this is not a film about history or society or trauma, but rather the erotic thrill of evil: a thrill Villaronga invites us to share in, himself shares in, in the awareness that it is entirely artificial.

    All of these cinematic strategies aim to play upon the perennial fascination with the ambiance of death, sex, and evil. We’re kept conscious of that fascination through a series of self-reflexive devices, but we’re never distanced from it or judged for it—we’re not even asked to analyze it. On the contrary, Villargona’s seductive style encourages us to break from the silence ordinarily surrounding such subjects and to freely lose oneself in the amoral pleasures and pains of simply looking at them. The dominant impression is one of fantasy and play, of an intense (but never persuasively “real”, and thus never truly threatening) exploration of the social imagination’s outer limits, and as such In a Glass Cage begins to act almost as a self-aware reflection on the function of horror cinema itself—a certain strain of horror cinema, anyway. Seldom will you find an exploitation film so refreshingly honest about its intentions: it’s not acting as political or psychological commentary, but as a fictive window into the scenes of our culture’s deepest fears and fantasies. A collocation of taboos—fascism, sexual violence, torture, homosexuality, and sadomasochism—are all presented as if off a checklist, but it is Villaronga’s technical skill in stoking our morbid curiosity about such subjects, along with his frequent self-conscious gestures at the audience and at himself, that make this a much smarter and more memorable exploitation film than most. Its clever selection of especially lurid material comes into full focus when viewed in the political context of its day: la Movida Madrileña, that great outpouring of creative, countercultural, and transgressive artistic energies in 1980s Spain during the transition out of dictatorship to democracy, a period that In a Glass Cage was released almost at the direct midpoint of. Almodóvar was giddily conjuring the same taboos in his comedies and melodramas of the period; Villaronga does the same in a horror film. In both cases, it is not the topics themselves that interest the directors or the audiences, but rather the ecstatic creative freedom of expressing all that has remained inexpressible and unmentionable: the amoral delight of pure social transgression.

The glass cage of the film’s title, while literally referring to Klaus’ iron lung, has often been taken to symbolize the way trauma affects these characters’ lives, imprisoning them in invisible traps, limiting their movement to familiar pathways of violence and subjugation. But having watched the movie twice now, I’m more inclined to think that Villaronga shows us his eponymous subject right in the second shot. The glass cage is that of the camera lens, of the cinema screen itself: a translucent scrim through which we can view our most perverse and unutterable fascinations, safely distanced from them by the artifice of fiction and irreality. Is that boundary secure? The answer is already obvious in how quick the film’s characters are to reenact the violence they both witness and endure, the sway their dark passions exert over their lives—and, by extension, our own. Glass is easily broken, after all.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Guest Review: Suspiria by Brian O' Connell


        There are certain films that go beyond effectively realizing the promise of their genre and begin to act almost as pure distillations of it. Without implying the impossible essentialization of something as nebulous and elusive as art itself, one might nonetheless suggest that there are specific films that feel as though they fully express the most primal and basic characteristics of their genre, or perhaps more accurately a certain angle of their genre. These films focus on the most archetypal and elemental sensations of their genre’s emotional and stylistic palette, aiming to provide them with their most unmitigated, purified expression. They strip away any unnecessary accouterments, bury themselves in an almost obsessive rigor of form, and, if they are successful, stand as the closest thing to a Platonic ideal of a certain mode of art as any artistic work can ever get.

         Dario Argento’s 1977 horror movie Suspiria is one such film. It is also one of the finest films ever made. Its concerns are very simple, though its execution is anything but. Suspiria is about the not unpleasant frisson of terror and danger; about nightmares, the fantastic, the body in pain, and the morbid sensuality of fear. These notions are the stock-and-trade of many a horror film, but unlike most other films, Suspiria values such currents as ends in and of themselves. While it gestures at theme and metaphor—the subtle allusions to German fascism, the undercurrent of queer sexuality and gender politics, the analogy between art and the occult—it never probes too deeply into these associations. They are left for us to follow if we so choose, little breadcrumb trails through its smothering Black Forest, but it steadfastly refuses to didactically spell out or center such ideas. Its core interests lie solely with its surface: which is not at all to call it superficial; quite the opposite, in fact. The total, unquestioning reverence with which Suspiria treats the tortures and deaths, the haunted spaces and unearthly atmospherics, the unreal twists and diabolical reversals that constitute the basic elements of the horror film suggest an almost fanatical, quasi-religious deference toward the power of its genre. Every set piece is a sacrament, carried out with a ceremonial fervor that evokes the atmosphere of a passion play.

At the same time it honors the trappings of the horror tradition (from the ancient fairy tale to the Gothic to the Giallo), Suspiria is enamored of its own medium. It emphasizes the most elementary pleasures of cinema: the play of light and shadow, the expressive gestural acting of the silent era, rich color, immersive camera movement, enveloping music, absorbing editing. Argento’s well-documented roots in Disney and in German Expressionism indicate a return to cinema’s earliest forms, a kind of from-scratch approach that strives to evoke the wonder filmmaking must have inspired when it was still a new invention. It’s no surprise that, unlike many other horror movies of this period, Suspiria has somewhat broken out of its hermetic circle of cult devotees and reached a degree of, if not exactly mainstream viewership, at least of broad appreciation from other cinephiles, including those typically averse to the horror genre. It revitalizes a whole toolbox of cinematic devices that are all too often merely taken for granted, awakening us afresh to their potency and restoring some of that simple awe we experienced at moving pictures as children.

In this sense, for all its reputation as a vision of excess, I actually find Suspiria to be rather ingeniously simple and pared-down in its construction. It is about the pleasure of fear and the pleasure of the movies; nothing more, nothing less. The grotesque and arabesque, as Poe might have put it: an unholy knot between abject horror and dazzling technique.

The first fifteen minutes or so establish the whole of the film. We begin with a remarkable title sequence that, in its black-on-white graphic starkness, will only serve to render the subsequent bursts of color and image more spectacular. Goblin’s now-iconic score determines the mood before anything else: first a series of attacking drums and shrieking strings before the title card, then the twinkling, gruesome music box theme that has become the film’s signature sound. Something harrowing and something beautiful, violent noise hand-in-hand with seductive melody. Susie Bannion decided to perfect her ballet studies in the most famous school of dance in Europe, a dry, nondescript narrator, never heard again, informs us in voice-over. One day at nine in the morning she left Kennedy Airport, New York, and arrived in Germany at ten-forty p.m., local time. The strange specificity of the hours and locations—so peculiar for a film that otherwise feels so unbound from any real place or time—is less a halfhearted gesture at abandoned documentary specificity and more akin to some sort of hypnotic incantation. The darkness of the screen, the flat fairy tale language, the swirling, miasmic score, a score that sounds as though it’s conjuring something out of fire or air, all serve to juice the audience’s imagination for the sights to come: an invitation to participate in the formation of the film’s dark fantasia.

Then the famous opening arrival, Suzy’s exit from the neon-lit airport—that automatic door, snapping open and shut, slicing like a guillotine, or perhaps like the knife that severs the last umbilical cord tethering us to the real world, the world of safety—and her abrupt ejection into the howling German night, splashing rain and flickering headlights, having to throw herself in front of a car just to get a ride, and even then being unable to communicate with her menacing chauffeur; the hallucinogenic caress of color on her wet hair and distressed, disconcerted face as she’s driven through the city; the water churning darkly in the dam the taxi passes that the camera emphasizes in three progressively closer shots, and later the rainwater rushing into the grate, overflowing it (everything is fluid, everything is spilling over); the nightmarishly unreal vista of the taxi winding its way through the tall, rigid, thin black trees toward the academy. All of this takes only five minutes, but the spell it casts is more complete than most films manage in two hours, and it is so rich in individually examined details that all on its own it could form the basis of its own essay. You’re immediately enveloped by an atmosphere that is at once cruelly commanding, almost startling in its aggression, and extremely enticing, enchantingly beautiful, presenting such an irresistible sublimity of form that you can’t help but surrender yourself to it; a helpless seduction that will prove deadly once the film locks you in and truly aims to scare, like willingly sinking into a venus fly trap. There lies the cruel dialectic at the core of Suspiria, and of the horror film more broadly: the primal interplay between pain and pleasure, the knowledge that what beguiles us just as often scares us half to death.

Because Suspiria is indeed a scary movie, a sentiment that has possibly gone somewhat out of vogue in the intervening decades since its release, having been buried under uncounted layers of “style over substance” (as if the two were dissociable!) discourse, and the fatally mis-/over-applied use of that elusive term camp. Suspiria may well be camp—it’s hard to argue otherwise when it stars grown women playing roles originally written for twelve-year-olds—but it’s not toothless and seldom ever silly. On the contrary, I personally found certain sequences quite terribly and viscerally frightening, frightening in a way few movies ever accomplish for me. The death sequences, during which you can practically feel the cold breath of evil on the back of your neck, are obviously the clearest stand-outs. The protracted sequence of the blind man in the Munich Königsplatz at night, dwarfed by the blindingly-lit neo-classical architecture that once served as the stage for Nazi rallies, is simply excruciating. The chill of terror at the gargantuan, amorphous shadows that flicker across the columns, the anxious dog snapping its teeth before turning on its master, measured editing ruptured by the attack, a creeping zoom on the eagle sculpture topping the building, the pummeling rhythms of Goblin’s drums and craggy, multilayered vocals…the experience of watching this felt a cold grip on my shoulder, an icy clasp in which I felt helpless before my own dread even as I was awed by Argento’s skillful scene construction. More terrible still: the nocturnal pursuit of Sarah through the halls, beginning with her in Suzy’s room backlit by an acidic green (a sour enough color for terror) as the door to the adjoining room swings open, a vision from a bad dream; followed down the corridor, Sarah a Gothic heroine in her nightgown, stalked through rooms of shifting blue and red; slashed from behind, an act surreally punctuated by a sudden blush of crimson light from behind broken glass; the knife jiggling the lock which is the sole barrier between her and death; and finally, in the film’s most upsettingly random cruelty, an abrupt plunge into a field of barbed wire, the door just in sight, but every effort to disentangle herself only induces further agonies. In a sense, her predicament is not so different from that of the film viewers. Straining against the fearful symmetries of Argento’s wicked spell only serves to deepen its power over you. Every frisson of terror prompts another sting of sensation, a greater incision, a tightening of the stranglehold you can no longer escape even if you wished to. The curse is too strong; the spell too mighty to resist.

           Such is the power of the “fright” sequences, but just as important, and often just as frightening, are the quieter interludes that link them together, perfectly paced (ninety-nine minutes is just right for this film), and rich with haunting, highlighted specificities that are not easily forgotten. The glint of a knife in the midday sunlight that causes Suzy to swoon—the water spouting out of the stone lips of the gargoyles decorating the front facade of the academy—the emptying of a glass of drugged wine into the sink, prompting a bloody splash of red against the slick pink glint of the basin—these are just a few of the many little details that Argento and screenwriter Daria Nicolodi have embellished their macabre narrative with. Some of them are relevant to the plot, most of them are not, but all contribute to the deepening wonder of the occult trance strives to exert, a falling into a dream. None of these details, however “irrelevant”, feel incidental in the least. As in a fairy tale, they all seem to be charged with some hidden diabolic significance, a lurking duplicity that the film’s narrative increasingly starts to literalize. A painted iris turns into a doorknob to a forbidden realm. The neon feather of an artificial peacock becomes a gigantic, blinding needle. After the petrifying climax, when Suzy strikes a fatal blow to her invisible tormenter, the academy itself crumbles to pieces, bodily and architectural collapse one and the same. (This unsettling confusion of decor and real life is just the sort of blurring Suspiria’s aggressively unnatural stylistics effect upon the audience.) And even relatively “stable” moments, like the dance lesson or the kitschy German bar party, retain a disconcerting edge of unreality, if not outright dread. Consider Suzy and Sarah’s hushed discussion in the pool: the camera dollies toward them from high above, briefly dissecting and impaling their figures as it passes over the trident ornamental motif decorating the balcony; it then simply looms overhead, Suzy and Sarah looking terribly vulnerable, their figures almost silhouetted in the deep blue water of the pool, fragile dark bodies suspended in a disturbingly contiguous block of color that is nonetheless structured by the cruelly enclosing rectangular designs on the pool’s floor. Toss in the necrotic howls and stygian sighs of Goblin’s score, and you have right here, contained within this single brief moment, all of the magic of Suspiria in one place: color, shape, sound, terror. Even in the most “realistic” scene, Suzy’s expository conversation with the two scholars who clue her into the dark truth at the heart of the academy, the images and editing are beset by bizarre spatial manipulations and strange perspectives; it’s as if, having shot so many images of horror and phantasmagoria, the cinematographer felt quite unable to shoot a “normal” sequence. Suzy and the psychotherapist are framed in low-angle shots, unearthly clouds creeping across the sky behind them; the perspective is quickly and drastically swapped for an extreme overhead shot, a dizzying reversal that renders the human figures infinitesimally small before the towering of the architecture. When Suzy talks to the Professor, a simple shot-reverse-shot exchange becomes an alarming eclipse of faces as each figure moves closer toward the center, with each character’s head eventually almost totally obscuring the other’s. Tovoli ends the conversation in the dim, softly iridescent reflection of a pane of glass, finally collapsing their rationalist discussion back into the fevered unconscious the rest of the film gleefully occupies.

If I have fallen to using the lowliest of critical tools, mere description, then it is simply because for me, as for so many others, the basic qualities of Suspiria are qualities that elude language. It’s such a purely audiovisual experience that words feel limp and even demeaning when applied to it, inviting the dangerous temptation to merely recount, in a sort of hushed awe, the individual moments that constitute it, as I fear I’ve done here. Even highly formalized, academic writing on this film (Linda Schulte-Sasse’s piece being perhaps my favorite) ultimately can only insist on the necessity of actually sitting through it to understand it, or more accurately to sense it, to soak in what makes it so significant. It is part of what has made this piece so difficult to write, why it still leaves me unsatisfied: a sensation of straining to capture an experience that, for all the ink that’s been spilled over it, slips through every writer’s grasp. But I hope my words have apprehended even the barest glimmer of the deep, ineffable admiration I have for this magnificent, diabolical, insurmountable classic.

I would like to close with an appreciation of what is probably the film’s most infamous sequence, the early, dreadful set-piece that depicts Patricia’s death. It signifies the purest synthesis of Suspiria’s powers in its runtime: a statement, I hasten to add, which does not intend to diminish the intensity of the subsequent scenes, but only to suggest that this particular sequence, which is unsurprisingly probably its most infamous, is as Suspiria as Suspiria gets, the peak of its “itselfness”. It is staged within the most outrageous set in a film full of them: a sort of gothic art deco inferno that, with its inscrutable Escher-like configurations of geometrical symmetry and garish stained glass window, suggests a sacrificial temple of doom more than it does an apartment building. There is indeed a profoundly ritualistic element to the whole sequence, a sense of predestined agony that lends it, despite its stylistic extravagances and sudden shocks, the weighty air of a calculated and purposefully measured death march.

We are put in poor Patricia’s shoes when abandoned by her roommate, she is spellbound by the ghostly flutter of a dress left to dry outside as it rustles against the windowpane. Lit a seductive blue, the markedly textural, even sensual quality of this gentle susurration, the mesmerically repetitive brush of fabric against glass, might well stand-in for the whole arsenal of techniques Suspiria unrelentingly deploys to envelop you in its cruel embrace. No one could resist the beauty of such a surface. Instead of souring it, the anxiety with which the scene is suffused actually heightens the beauty, sharpens its edges to their keenest expression. Has no film, before or since ever understood so well that even terror has its poetry?

A gnarled hand plunges through the window. Its grip presses Sarah against the glass and transforms her face into a grotesque, corpse-blue, monstrous. Her screams mingle with the yelling of the roommate outside, of the wailing on the score. The editing is brutal, kinetic. She is dragged out onto the landing and subjected to a series of awful degradations: three stabbings, bound with rope, stabbed four more times, the last directly in the palpitating heart.

There is nothing sadistic whatsoever about this scene. It is exhilarating, it radiates pleasure. It does not dehumanize Pat, but identifies her suffering with our terror, and shows both to be sublime. The blood is bright as paint; it renders the white of her dress even lovelier. The disembodied arm is Argento’s, molding us like putty in his hands. Every moment of agony, every twist of the knife is given its own suspended moment of emphasis, protracted, lit, and composed with the care a Renaissance portraitist would apply to a depiction of Christ. Ultimately Pat’s head crashes through the vortex of stained glass, her reared-back head haloed by the neon crater, lips smeared with scarlet blood. Her face is a mask of annihilatory ecstasy, a totalized expression of despair so intense it has vaulted into euphoria. Her enraptured death visage merges the sexual, the fatal, the spiritual, and the artistic into one blissful moment of agony: nothing less than the primordial release of total submission to the sweet, splendorous song of death.

It is in this frozen image of transcendent terror that the lover of Suspiria can find their mirror. I certainly know that I—having, after so long, finally been initiated into the cult of this exquisite, dreadful masterpiece—expect, with equal parts fear and delight, to see it throw my haunted reflection back at me again and again over the years to come.