Suspiria

Belfast Film Festival screen Dario Argento's classic horror, with a live soundtrack performed by Claudio Simonetti

The influence of the Italian giallo flicks of the late 1970s, early 1980s on classic Hollywood slasher horror was monumental, as any discerning gore hound will tell you. Heck, Friday the 13th Part 2 is practically a shot-for-shot rip-off of Mario Bava’s bayside bloodbath, Twitch Of The Death Nerve.

In his heyday, Dario Argento reigned as the chief purveyor of Euro horror, cranking out a slew of stylish chillers including seminal genre classics Tenebrae and Profondo Rosso. Arguably Argento's finest, Suspiria is a psychedelic nightmare that tells the tale of a ballet school doubling as a witches’ coven.

One of the most celebrated aspects of Suspiria is the iconic, influential and extremely unusual score, provided by prog-rock group Goblin. So when the Aurora Belfast Film Festival decided to screen the film at the Waterfront Hall, with Goblin driving force Claudio Simonetti performing the soundtrack live, it was no suprise that the event sold out fast. A second performance was then scheduled to take place immediately after the first.

Performing with two other musicians under the Simonetti Horror Project banner, Simonetti takes to the stage silently, suitably stylish in a Daemonia t-shirt (his heavy metal band) and leather jacket. As the projector crackles to life, the trio launch into the spine-tingling main melody from the film, and hairs stand up on backs of necks throughout the aisles.

Although driven by a haunting earworm of a melody on keyboard, added weirdness is provided with atonal vocal rasps and howls, which serve to drag the audience into the terrifying world of Argento’s vision. And it is loud – oesophagi rattle in the front row as kettle drums are pounded. The effect is engaging and terrifying as we watch heroine Suzy Bannion (played by American starlet Jessica Harper) travelling through a rainstorm to what she is told is a prestigious Freiburg dance academy.

While the true nature of the sinister ballet school is revealed on screen through a series of high-saturation Technicolor vignettes (which add to the otherworldly sense of demented paranoia), the live band add a further level of terror to proceedings, involving the audience in the narrative on a whole new level, adding to their emotional investment in the characters.

As someone who has seen Suspiria dozens of times, I am still frightened witless during an early and particularly gruesome death scene, which ends with a young dance student being ripped from a bedroom window and forced through a stained-glass ceiling onto a noose – not for the faint hearted. There are audible gasps as atonal jangling on strings complements the sickening anamorphic point-of-view shots Argento is renowned for.

The film itself holds up incredibly well, with Alida Valli’s velociraptor-meets-Klaus Kinski performance as the brutal ballet tutor Miss Tanner standing out. Although the booming score is remarkable, the real success of the soundtrack is in Argento’s tact for knowing when to quieten things down, or conversely when to boost seemingly innocuous sounds to deafening levels.

Never before has a running tap or a rainstorm been so scary – and the monstrous snoring of head witch Helena will haunt the dreams of Belfast film fans for weeks tom come. Believe me.

While Alfred Hitchcock has long been crowned as the undisputed King Of Suspense, for this reviewer’s money Argento really deserves the throne. Just like the esteemed director of Psycho and Vertigo, Argento knows that the most horrific things often happen in the viewer’s own imagination. But he also knows when a great deal of claret is necessary.

In one of Suspiria’s most memorable scenes, a student hides terrified in an azure-tinged storeroom while a switchblade-wielding killer tries to unlock the door – the only audible sound is the knife gently rattling in the lock. It then appears that the girl has found an escape route, climbing out a solitary window. However, she then falls into an impossibly large pit of barbed wire on the other side – just when we all thought her ordeal was over.

Here Simonetti Horror Project kick back in with aplomb, just in time to mask the screams of the audience. The only disappointment of the evening is that, due to technical and instrumental limitations, some of the more outlandish prog-rock songs from original soundtrack don’t appear in their entirety. And, after the film reaches its bloody conclusion, I can’t help but hope for a full-on psychedelic wig-out from the band, which doesn't materialise.

Nonetheless, the evening finishes with something of a flourish, Simonetti hammering out some squelchy synths before throwing some horns – of the rock and roll variety – at the audience. Now, can we get John Carpenter over here please, Belfast Film Festival?

The Aurora Belfast Film Festival continues until August 31, with screenings of 2001: A Space Odyssey at Titanic Dry Dock and more.

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