When his local Rabbi insinuates that artistic genius comes courtesy of the powers of darkness, the title character in Chaim Potok’s novel My Name Is Asher Lev raises a troubling question: “How can evil and ugliness make a gift of beauty?” As we approach Halloween, the question seems especially relevant to horror films. From F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu to a contemporary masterpiece like Robert Eggers’s The Witch, this category—distinguished primarily by its preoccupation with darkness—often yields serious works of art.
Argento refuses on principal to curtail his aesthetic flourishes for this scene because he understands that beauty often overstays its welcome, lingering in impudent disdain of the surrounding circumstances.But the question isn’t just academic for me; it’s personal. I grew up on the mission field in Europe, where my abiding interest in scary movies met with suspicion and no small amount of anxiety. There were somber warnings about “opening doors,” which, as we all know, is pretty much a euphemism for channeling evil spirits. I remember solemn warnings against staining my heart and mind with corrosive images that might float back up unbidden, like an LSD flashback. Some of my more creative critics pointed me to that McGee and Me! episode—the one where Nick defies his parents and goes to see a scary movie. (The writers went for broke and titled the forbidden film, Night of the Blood Freaks. I was deeply disappointed to discover that the film doesn’t actually exist.)
Well, none of these strategies worked. I’ve outgrown neither horror nor Christianity, but I can’t shake Asher’s question when I think of a certain film: In many ways, Dario Argento’s Suspiria is emblematic of the accusation made by Asher’s Rabbi. The movie abounds in supernatural evil and excessive violence. It’s also undeniably beautiful. Given that this is a horror movie, those first two features will make sense to most of us. Scary movies are known for supernatural invasions and generous bloodletting. But how do we account for the presence of beauty in the mix? “How can evil and ugliness make a gift of beauty?”
Aside from its reputation as a film with disconcertingly beautiful mayhem, Suspiria (the word means deep sighs) may have crossed your radar for other reasons. Predictably, Hollywood wants to fan the movie’s 1977 embers back into a flame in the only way it knows how: by ordering a remake. But the film industry’s tired antics aren’t the only reason Argento’s movie is back in the news. Suspiria has also gotten a gorgeous new restoration, and it’s currently showing off the results in a limited theatrical release. Wrapping up a painstaking three-year project, Synapse Films is also bringing out a pristine new special edition Blu-ray that is truly a labor of love. With these efforts in place, a whole new generation stands poised to discover Suspiria’s exquisite brand of terror.
For the uninitiated, forewarned is forearmed: The plot is ludicrous, the dialog is worse, and it still manages to be one of the best horror films ever made. I’m not offering a backhanded compliment so much as a piece of needed perspective. Every seasoned horror fan knows that half the battle with this genre is managing expectations. In the case of Suspiria, we’ve got a movie that has more in common with the The Red Shoes than it does with Halloween. Unlike both of those classics, however, Suspiria is pure ornamentation. The plot is just a convenient excuse for Argento to build an atmosphere of such nightmarish splendor that the film’s manifold deficiencies are effectively swallowed whole. Thanks to the Italian progressive outfit Goblin, Argento’s atmosphere is augmented by one of the most unnerving soundtracks of all time. A caterwauling symphony of incantatory sighs, rasps, and wails, these are sounds that might have issued from the throat of a leering gargoyle.
Little wonder that all of this exuberant style overshadows the film’s shortcomings. We forget that we’re watching a movie about an intrepid ballerina who pirouettes into a prestigious dance academy that houses a secret coven of witches. We forget about the inconsistent voiceovers, the stilted dialog, and wooden acting. All we see are the elaborate sets, the shimmering carnage, and incandescent lighting. A word on the lighting: Argento’s expressionistic lighting (often in garish shades of pink, red, and violet) envelops the character like an enchanted mist, and can almost count as one of the story’s characters. It certainly appears to have more substance than many of the actors. At no point can we move beyond Argento’s lavish surfaces because he doesn’t want us to. His is a vision of nearly pure exteriority. It’s somehow fitting that a film this visceral wears its insides out.
In The Beauty of the Infinite, David Bentley Hart says,
There is an unsettling prodigality about the beautiful, something wanton about the way it lavishes itself upon even the most atrocious of settings, its anodyne sweetness often seeming to make the most intolerable of circumstances bearable: a village ravaged by pestilence may lie in the shadow of a magnificent mountain’s range; the marmorean repose of a child lately dead of meningitis might present a strikingly piquant tableaux; Cambodian killing fields were often lushly flowered; Nazi commandants occasionally fell asleep to the strains of Bach, performed by ensembles of Jewish inmates; and no doubt the death camps were routinely suffused by the delicate hues of a twilit sky.
You’ll notice that Hart’s prose models the very scandal it’s describing. It also offers a vivid reiteration of Asher Lev’s question, “How can evil and ugliness make a gift of beauty?”
In a similar vein, I once described the violence in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as gorgeous. This declaration earned uproarious laughter from my friends, all of whom assumed that I was joking. I wasn’t. The following passage can stand as a fairly typical example:
All about her the dead lay with their peeled skulls like polyps bluely wet or luminescent melons cooling on some mesa of the moon. In the days to come the frail black rebuses of blood in those sands would crack and break and drift away so that in the circuit of few suns all trace of the destruction of these people would be erased.
It’s difficult to overlook the complex dynamic that erupts between the beauty and violence on display in this scene—namely, the fact that both reinforce one another. The brutal violence intensifies the beauty, and the scandalous presence of beauty intensifies the violence. The result is a kind of shock that’s closer to ecstasy than trauma.
Like McCarthy, Dario Argento has an instinctive grasp of what Hart calls beauty’s prodigality, and the murder that opens Suspiria is simultaneously one of the most heartless and breathtaking spectacles you’re likely to encounter in the history of celluloid. Argento refuses on principal to curtail his aesthetic flourishes for this scene because he understands that beauty often overstays its welcome, lingering in impudent disdain of the surrounding circumstances. And so we’re treated to a merciless stabbing that culminates in a radiant shower of glass, rope, and blood, a mutilated corpse swaying from the rafters like a wounded porcelain doll. Here, we meet with a horrendous beauty that is all the more horrible for being beautiful, and all the more beautiful for being horrible.
Argento and McCarthy are both consummate stylists, but the reason their work resonates so deeply is that they’re drawing attention to a fairly basic feature of our world. Most of us have seen beauty’s indiscriminate distribution firsthand. We need look no further than life’s two major bookends. Birth and death abound in abject pain and sorrow, as well as heartening relief and luminous joy. Christ tells us that the Father “makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends his rain on the just and the unjust.” When a servant appeared in the splendor of the royal court bearing the head of John the Baptist on a plate, did all of the regal scenery lose its luster in some kind of inanimate gesture of solidarity? Is a breathtaking sunset somehow less captivating during a funeral than it is during a wedding? A fallen world displays a prodigal beauty, even a horrendous beauty at times. It is a place where Blood Meridian and Suspiria both reflect a very conflicted aspect of human experience.
For many of us, overfamiliarity has weakened our understanding of Christ’s crucifixion. Crosses in the form of tattoos, necklaces, and bumper stickers flash before our eyes with such frequency that we scarcely consider how deeply strange it is that a Roman instrument of torture is now little more than a fashion statement. The Christian vision isn’t quite so tame. Philip Tallon lifts the veil from our eyes in his book, The Poetics of Evil:
The fact that Christ has suffered on the cross not merely death, but a truly degrading and dishonoring crucifixion means that Christ is a horror-sufferer as well. Within this context, the famous images within Christian art of the scourged and suffering Son of God can be understood as art-horror: the deliberate presentation of events that are grotesque, frightful, and revolting.
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ—a film that many critics argue should be categorized as horror—is a contemporary example of this ancient sensibility.
But Jesus was not a helpless victim on the cross. The Son of God went willingly to Calvary and defeated the powers of sin and darkness. Ironically, today’s cavalier treatment of crosses is actually a sign of Christ’s victory—a subtle foretaste of death losing its sting. Because of Jesus’s work on the cross, it is possible to endure any measure of suffering without succumbing to despair. The horrendous beauty of Christ’s death and resurrection is the prelude to another world.
When we look to Christ and the hope of the resurrection, we see the promise of a world where beauty will never be out of place.