In the Irish language, there are a duo of words to refer to the real world and the other world: caentar and alltar. According to the definitions of Irish writer Manchan Magan, caentar means ‘place, region or locality,’ whilst alltar means its opposite, a ‘netherworld.’
Suspiria opens as Suzy Bannion walks from the caentar to the alltar, from the recognisable to the unrecognisable. The camera cuts between Suzy in the phlegmatic ambience of an airport and the gate to the outside. In the airport, there is no music, but through the gate, an eerie soundtrack crawls. The harsh distinction between what the audience knows and the mystic terrors of what lies beyond the gate is clear, and utterly inseparable from the music that accompanies it.
Dario Argento’s Suspiria follows the amateur dancer Suzy to an academy, only to watch as her sense of reality curdles. Caught up in the manipulation of the women who run the school, Suzy learns to her horror that they are a coven of witches. You only really discover that truth about Suspiria’s ‘neverworld’ in its final third, but if you have been paying attention, the film has been telling you that twist the whole way through. It quite literally whispers it to you through the soundtrack.
Claudio Simonetti, Goblin’s keyboardist, has spoken about how Argento played their music on set to create the mood. Imagining Goblin’s thrashing drums belting out during the filming of Suspiria makes so much sense to me. The mania of the film, its lurid colour and vicious scenes of violence, is perfectly reflected in the music.
So central is Suspiria’s soundtrack to the film that Argento dismissed the 2018 remake with the words ‘there is no fear, there is no music’. He is right. Thom Yorke’s music in Guadagnino’s Suspiria conjures nothing of the unknowing of the original. It has none of the power to spirit you away to another place.
The Suspiria soundtrack is the thing for which Goblin, the prog-rock band formed from a dynasty of Italian music legends, is most renowned, and Simonetti continues to claim that it is Goblin’s ‘masterwork’. Although it forms a vital part of Suspiria, there are moments where it feels disjunct from the film itself. In his book on Italian horror, Craig Hatch describes how Goblin’s soundtrack does not use sync points, demarcations indicating where a musical shift might be necessary to better complement what is being shown visually. Instead, it somehow fights against the pacing of the film, even as it tries to match it, with such blazing viciousness that it welds itself into its fabric.
And then often it goes silent. The scenes when you feel the students’s vulnerability, when Sarah is stacking boxes to try to escape through a window or Suzy is creeping towards the witches’ lair, have no music at all. Considering how much the audience is musically told in the horror genre when to feel afraid, I found Suspiria’s quiet moments additionally unnerving. Argento famously told Simonetti that he wanted to feel the presence of the witches in the soundtrack. When the music goes quiet, you convince yourself that Suzy might be safe.
This chaotic, piecemeal aspect of Goblin’s music is what drew Dario Argento to them in the first place. Argento met Goblin through the band’s producer. During this time, he was struggling with the music composer, Giorgio Gaslini, had provided for his film Deep Red. Argento could be seen to have a tempestuous relationship with the composers he collaborated with, including a twenty year spat with Ennio Morricone. But, perhaps it is fairer to say that Argento’s sonic tastes had been tectonically shifting for the past four years, and his impulse for dramatic change had finally reached the surface. He had tried unsuccessfully to recruit Deep Purple for one of his earlier films in 1971 and had become even more obsessed with rock music since. In an interview, Argento explained how he was seeking a ‘disorderly, elastic, improvised atmosphere’ from his soundtracks. Goblin’s involvement in Deep Red signalled this musical transition and Suspiria was its full realisation.
Simultaneous to this musical transition was Argento’s desire to move from thrillers to horror films. The partial inspiration for Suspiria is Thomas de Quincey’s Suspiria De Profundis, a further exploration of Quincey’s previous work documenting his life as an opium addict. It is a feverish book, constructed around a sense of how he is constantly losing himself, slipping between dreams and reality, addiction and recovery. This quote from the work seems directly in line with the approach Argento wanted to take whilst making Suspiria:
‘The true object in my “Opium Confessions” is not the naked physiological theme, on the contrary, that is the ugly pole, the murderous spear, the halbert, but those wandering musical variations upon the theme, those parasitical thoughts, feelings, digressions, which climb up with bells and blossoms round about the arid stock.’
For Suspiria, the ‘ugly pole’ is the theme of evil. Argento has talked a great deal about all the associations to evil that he sprinkled throughout his film, including geographic allusions to Nazism. But instead of concentrating on that core, Suspiria drenches itself in the feelings and digressions that Quincey describes. Suspiria is an amassing of dark associations that build and build into cacophony.
It is because of this that the use of instruments in the Suspiria soundtrack is so important. Goblin used a wild concoction of instruments whilst scoring the film. Most interesting of all, Argento involved himself in selecting them. Of all the instruments Argento helped to pick, the Bouzouki has a fascinating parallel to the hidden and the illicit.
The Bouzouki is the strummed instrument you hear within the primary theme of Suspiria. It is also the main instrument used within ‘rebetiko,’ a genre of Greece outlaw music that was banned for its illicit associations. Manos Hadjidakis, a Greek composer that integrated the Bouzouki into his compositions, described how the rebetiko he was invoking was usually “played in inaccessible hiding places, somewhere on the fringe”.
Dario Argento discovered the Bouzouki during a four day trip to Athens. He heard the instrument at a concert and was captivated by its beauty. He wished to use it, he explains, because of its invocation of Greece, where the coven of witches is originally from, and for the ‘vibrations it emanated’. Played low, as Argento requested, the instrument sounds like a snarl.
Then there is the mellotron. The song you may best know this instrument from is “Strawberry Fields Forever”, the sugar-coated, drug-woozy ballad to a childhood memory. Goblin used the mellotron to invoke a similar feeling of being young. Argento has been clear about how child-like he wanted his film to appear. He directed all the actors in the film to speak their lines as if they were children. This is perhaps why some of the decisions Argento makes in the film ring a little empty. When an adult Suzy is given wine, it seems a little baffling, but if she were a child, it would become something quite disturbing.
A key moment in Suspiria happens when Suzy is cursed by a reflection from a mirror. In this moment, those two instruments play together, the bouzouki and the mellotron. The evil and the innocent, in tandem. Instruments are used in devious ways to craft the ‘bells and blossoms’ which Argento weaves around the ‘ugly pole’.
I could go on. Apparently, Goblin crinkled a plastic cup and fed it through some reverb to make some sort of sound in the film that I could not even identify. Tabla drums were used, but often with almost Celtic rhythms and with extreme imprecision that is not typical of tabla playing. There is a mess of instrumentation from around the world in this film, but it all feeds into a sense of international chaos. There is no sense of an end to the alltar that Goblin’s soundtrack conjures.
The Suspiria soundtrack is an immensely popular album. The film’s vinyl has formed a presence in every shiny record shop you’ll ever enter. And yet Goblin has not gained anything beyond a sort of cult status. This is something to do with how film composers are hidden behind the film they create the music for. Even when someone like Alexandre Desplat for roughly one award-winning film a year, their musical reach remains couched within the film itself. The director, even in the case of such an individualistic score as Suspiria, absorbs the attention of people who experience its music.
Perhaps this is how Simonetti, Goblin’s ringleader, has managed to remain an immensely charming and oddly gentle interviewee for a musical icon. This is best shown by his response when asked by a slightly star-struck reporter if he ever met Italian horror icon Mario Bava whilst working with his son Lamberto: ‘No, never, never — maybe because he was dead before I met Lamberto.’
My personal belief regarding why the Suspiria soundtrack is so beloved is that it somehow feels haunted. If that is in the bizarre use of instruments, its associations with good and evil, or simply the terrifying whispers of ‘witch,’ I do not know. But for a soundtrack to conjure that much terror independent of the film itself is a marvel, and why Goblin’s score will forever be one of the greatest examples what horror films can bring into fruition.
By: OD Jones, author
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