Film Fest Gent’s Oct. 18 screening of Suspiria didn’t boast an original print of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic, and offered no retrospective discussions, yet it was the best experience imaginable for the film. This was due to the presence of Italian prog-rock band Goblin, who crafted the film’s much-lauded score and performed it live in sync with the images. While Jessica Harper stumbled her way through a creepy dance academy and witches’ coven onscreen, the band power-blasted their keyboard and bass guitar, banged on the timpani and whispered raspy nonsense into the microphone.
In 2014 it’s a massive culture shock, in the best way, to watch a horror movie that’s as gleefully loud and melodic as a rock opera. Suspiria reminds horror fans of the soundtrack’s capabilities beyond shrieks, stabs and false alarms. Sound in horror is often antagonistic, snarling at the film’s victims, conspiring against the audience to goose them at every possible turn. Goblin and Argento, by contrast, want the audience to have as much fun viewing Suspiria as they undoubtedly had crafting it. Instead of sinister strings and angry clangs, Goblin’s score is throbbing, propulsive, rhythmic goth-rock. It’s danceable horror, and its DNA can be seen in everything from Rob Zombie to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” And it helps dilute the terror of Argento’s most demented visions, like the shot of a young woman who thrashes helplessly in a pit of barbed wire.
Even divorced from the live performance, Goblin’s score is one-half of what makes Suspiria such a distinctive cinema experience. The other is Argento’s bold color palette of bright reds, greens and yellows, achieved via the use of Technicolor stock. Together, sight and sound establish the performative nature of Suspiria, as they do for most entries in the Giallo horror subgenre Argento helped introduce to American audiences. Giallo, Italian for “yellow,” is a tip to the yellow-paged printing of pulp thriller paperbacks; it’s a brand of heightened style that takes hold when the film’s protagonists enter their chamber of horrors. Oddly, Goblin’s era-specific electric sound seems so natural for a film set in an ancient German castle and a dance studio that emphasizes classical studies.
The rooms flash like strobe lights, the killers can emerge from nowhere, and the most violent acts are divorced of any spatial logic, making them more palatable even to the most squeamish. Example: In the famous first murder scene, a woman is inexplicably transported from an apartment unit to the roof of its grandiose lobby as she dies, removing much of the sequence’s terror as the audience begins to see the actions from an outside vantage. All the while, Goblin kicks out the jams in the aural background, though at the live performance the score was so loud and imposing it was really in the foreground, with the characters’ screams behind it. Fitting for Film Fest Gent’s focus on the marriage of sound and vision, Goblin’s performance of Suspiriamade the 37-year-old film feel fresh, vibrant and thoroughly modern.