THE ‘HORROR’ OF IT ALL : on SUSPIRIA and THE SIXTH SENSE

These are my writings on two works that fall under the horror masthead. In essence, they convey a lot more than just a conventional descriptor .

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SUSPIRIA (2018)

This cinematic work is a retread of the 1970s original spearheaded by director / writer Dario Argento. There is no one logical reasoning for its commissioning other than to inject fresh new life into its underground ethos and refine it with modern accomplishments of technique and a deeper probing of the subterranean psychological fireworks. The cast, including the original’s lead Jessica Harper in a cameo, comes up aces to justify its absurd, then dominant, ominous and ultimately beguiling presence. If a work of art that alludes to real time tensions stays in the mind after the first view then consider it a minor miracle in today’s times.

SUSPIRIA does that, with its potent mix of dance forms as expiating personal demons and the chamber pieces of its claustrophobic setting in an institute, positing the irony of no way out within the pursuit of artistic freedom.This almost tribal, primal energy permeates the act of dance here . Body horror. Grotesque. Phantasmagoria. These words underline the narrative.
Then there’s Germany as a pivotal backdrop. The aesthetic of the body under seige / mind control is particularly potent given the Nazi era backlog of the setting. Juxtapositions with a hijacking incident and local dissident groups getting highlighted on television and radio are there too. All this unfolds circa the late 70s in the script, skewing it closer to the original film’s timeline.

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By casting these ladies as sophisticates (and witches) , a secret coven exercising great sensual powers of the mind as all art generally does, the stereotype of powerful, authoritative women deemed as ‘witches’ even as a playful slight is launched. You know, the heretical connotations accorded to questing females in a patriarchal society. This level of secrecy and constant monitoring within the institute is an extension of humanity’s voyeuristic temperaments.

Tilda Swinton is especially breathtaking in her other role here as the male psychologist besides playing the institute’s backbone because the information that she played him came out of nowhere; for me it’s a huge testament to her alchemy, an actor’s greatest asset.

Set at the height of the feminist era( the 70s), red is a primary colour in its scheme of things .
Zooms, close ups reminiscent of cinema of the seventies is employed while the theme track by Thom Yorke is evocative of its surface level exterior of cool tempers . It has a hypnotic thrall even though the story dynamics are laid bare early on. The dim lighting and interiority is era specific. Home to a thriving techno revolution since the retro era, Berlin comes alive in the same residual energy of the modern dance troupe presented here. This conceit itself grabbed audiences and reminds one of BLACK SWAN.

Of the cast, Dakota Johnson conveys the cool level-headedness and commitment of a neophyte. Her progression is quite transparent and she seems to be in a trance of her own in the latter parts. The paralleling of her audition and contorting of Olga’s body, the dance presentation and the climax specializing in epilepsy inducing visuals and grindhouse horror aesthetics (or garishness, according to one’s opinion) take the cake. I say hats off to the actors as the performances would have required great physical agility and the willingness to not react to physical pain in the conventional mould. This part often gets discounted under the heap of discussions on genre.

But the mood, gestures and performances overall convey a very realistic idea of power, incarnations of evil wrought from the dark soul of a post war world, artistic temperaments, energy of a collective and the deflowering of innocence. Multiple allusions are presented here within the fantastical imagery.

In Suspiria, we react to the tactile sense of danger. Atmospherics benefit it largely. Director LUCA GUADANIGNO has a visual flair that he had already essayed fluidly in his career crest with CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017) The same – gender dynamic is something he specialises in. In CALL ME.. it was the tale of Oliver and Elio ; here it is a consortium of females only. Like the sequence in which Tilda and Dakota telepathically communicate, this one is to be seen with patience and chances are it will cast its unique spell on you as well. Photographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom is a major contributor to its distinct aesthetic.

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THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)

Horror is anything that approximates our deepest, sometimes unfounded and lifelong repository of fears and is not restrictive to the ‘jump scares’ we have necessitated as a convention. It is a state of mind borne by silence, a gradual internalization and the slow burn of actions preceding words, many a times reliant on very effective and economic use of gestures and moreover singular expressions. Hence the visual medium is the biggest takeaway from a work defined by the predominance of horror, be it a social evil, a crime or dystopic caveats.

THE SIXTH SENSE(1999) is legendary and still the pinnacle of flexible filmmaking as it takes an U turn from all the clinical modes of the horror textbook. I properly watched it recently as an adult after years as it is one of those classics whose fragments and bit scenes too linger in the cultural stratosphere. I was enveloped in its humanity above all.

The dramatic elements of works sometimes reductively associated with the ‘genre’ or a type get buried under one lens. THE SIXTH SENSE trains its unfolding perspective on the distance and a breach in communication in bonds definitive of our filial and conjugal spirits, as in the one with Cole (Haley) and his mother (Toni Collette) and the other pivotal one between his psychiatrist (Bruce Willis) and his estranged wife (Olivia Williams) . The core of compassion and the poignant axis of a personal breakthrough within strained equations is paramount. Innately, the decency of individuals is the common thread, threatened by deathly shadows and its spectre on the living, maintaining a continuum of mortality.

I remember how its haunting poster had gradually become an inimitable print image and spooked me to a large extent, being the junior school chap that I was when it originally released .

The title itself pinpoints to a deeply spiritual conditioning of our sensory attributes, often brushed off as myth or superstitious fallacy but in essence it is this that often cements lifetime bonds, between mother and child, between siblings and spouses and the inexplicable, intuitive phenomenon has always guided the strength of interpersonal relationships.

Ultimately, the unique, unspoilt wisdom of children is memorably etched as a central conceit. It brings the world of adults intimately close to the former group. Watch THE SIXTH SENSE to grasp its many layers of meaning and heartwarming center. The photography by Tak Fujimoto and the editing by Andrew Mondshein attest to its stature.

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