“Suspiria” (1977) – A Short Film Review

A new version of Suspiria came out in 2018, but I have not seen that. Instead, early last year, I saw the 1977 original when it was blessed with a limited cinematic re-release. The plot of this Dario Argento directed classic is simple enough (young American dancer (appealingly played by Jessica Harper) takes up place at German advanced ballet school, at which point spooky and lethal things start to happen). However it is not the plot that makes this film so remarkable but rather the art direction (in particular the lurid colour palette) and the integration of the soundtrack by Goblin (credited as The Goblins). The latter is so integrated into the film’s sound design that with it conjures forth a great sense of unease, with its whispers and disconcerting synth sounds feeling like they are happening within the film rather than an accompaniment to it. The film is so perfect in these regards that seeing this put me right off wasting my time with the recent remake, whose existence feels like another example of an intellectually bankrupt cinema industry looting the films of the past because it cannot come up with new ideas.

One other thing is maybe worth noting. Before seeing Suspiria I had the vague sense that it was some class of high class exploitation schlock, with the setting in what is basically a finishing school for buff young ladies providing an opportunity for lots of scenes in which said young ladies help each other in an out of their outfits. Yet despite being made in the 1970s, that sleaziest of decades, there is a notable lack of female skin on display in the film (misogynist readers will however be pleased to hear that a number of women characters in the film are murdered in manners both bizarre and gruesome).

image source (Michael Murphy Home Furnishing: The Red World of Suspiria (1977))

film: “In Fabric” (2018)

Seeing this film earlier in the year was me belatedly climbing onboard the Peter Strickland express. It tells of a weird department store and a cursed dress, with the film having the overall sense of being a mashup of Are You Being Served? and the darker works of David Lynch. It all feels very Scarfolk, with the shop seeming to exist in that mysterious long 1970s of yore, an effect accentuated by the curious early synthesiser music soundtrack by Cavern of Anti-Matter; the general aesthetic also feels a bit retro, unsurprising given Strickland’s rep as an aficionado of Italian trash films of the 1970s. That all sounds very appealing but for me the film had considerable problems, the greatest of which was its length. I think it could have done without the whole second plot. The film’s lurches in mood also seemed a bit problematic, with it being at times very funny (in a strange way) before going back to menacing horror. My sense of the film was that it was one where at the beginning the creator(s) threw out every possible idea in a brainstorming session, and then used them all. That would probably explain the length. For all that, I still think the film was worth seeing, given its appealing visual aesthetic, the strong performances from the actors and its general strangeness.

Just before it began I noticed that In Fabric received an 18 certificate from the Irish film censor. Curious readers will be pleased to hear that this most probably is for the scene in which some of the shop assistants sex up a showroom dummy for the delight of a strange voyeuristic onanist.

image source (No More Workhorse)

Podcast: “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” (2018)

This is a dramatisation by Sweet Talk Productions’ Julian Simpson of HP Lovecraft’s popular short novel of the same name. It is available to stream or download from BBC Radio 4. It is made in the style of one of those true crime podcasts that are popular with the young people, with the set-up here being that the Mystery Machine podcast people are investigating the eponymous character’s mysterious disappearance from a locked room in a secure psychiatric institution.

I think this would be fun to listen to if you if were unfamiliar with the source material, as the true crime podcast stuff is done so straight that even I at the start found myself about to look up the previous cases the Mystery Machine had been involved in investigating. But even having read the original a number of times, I found myself gripped by this. Partly the narrative takes some twists and turns that bring it along different paths to the original, with Lovecraft aficionados noticing that it increasingly draws from another of his works. Partly also there is the power of the audio drama format. Being able to hear but not see is an extremely effective device for horror, as the mind’s eye draws in the blanks in a way far more terrifying than any film’s special effects could manage. And there are some truly terrifying moments in this, like in the first episode when an old house is being explored or in particular the later episode where one of the investigators is poking around in an abandoned trailer home. The cast are also excellent, as is the appealing music by Tim Elsenburg that ends each episode.

I therefore recommend this work highly and will be keeping an eye out for future productions by Sweet Talk and Mr Simpson.

Sadly The Case of Charles Dexter Ward failed to be nominated in the Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) category in the Hugo Awards.

images (Sweet Talk Productions)

1/1/1818 “Frankenstein”: the dawn of science fiction

Two hundred years ago today the novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus was published. Its author was the 20 year old Mary Shelley. The novel’s strange gestation is well-known. Shelley and others, including her lover Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, were staying in the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Seeking to amuse themselves, they endeavoured to create ghost stories. In a dream Shelley imagined a scientist engaged in the process of creating life; the thought horrified her and from the dream came the novel.

Frankenstein is sometimes hailed as the first science fiction novel. The eponymous scientist creates his Creature not through magic but through science, though the exact processes by which he does so are not described (supposedly to prevent readers from replicating his obscene experiments). Nowadays most people know Frankenstein through its many film adaptations but the novel has its charms and is worth exploring. Much of the book deals with Shelley’s progressive social and political ideas, with a recurring question being whether the Creature is an evil monster or an unfortunate driven to terrible acts by the rejection of its creator.

Shelley’s later writings may well have produced better books than her first novel. Nevertheless, in Frankenstein she created stories and characters that have become modern myths, cautionary tales for us of the dangers of unfettered science.

image sources:

Title page of Frankenstein first edition (Wikipedia: Frankenstein)

Frankenstein’s Creature, by Marek Oleksicki, from the comic Frankenstein’s Womb, by Warren Ellis & Marek Oleksicki (Marek Oleksicki on Behance)