MY FAVOURITE HORROR MOVIE: NICHOLAS MCCARTHY
American Writer and Director NICHOLAS MCCARTHY is best known for his unnerving breakthrough feature The Pact (2012) and demonic horror At The Devil's Door (2014). McCarthy also wrote and directed a sequence in this year's horror anthology Holidays. Here he talks about a horror classic that not only helped develop his love for the genre - but that has influenced his film-making as well. That film is Dario Argento's 'Suspiria' (1977)
The summer I was 16, SUSPIRIA screened at a decaying 900-seat movie palace outside of Boston, where I grew up. When I first saw Dario Argento’s most famous film, I knew nothing beyond that it was an Italian horror movie. There had been a single sentence I had read in a magazine that alerted me to it. Back then, before the Internet gave us weirdos the ability to find other weirdos to be friends with, I literally knew no one who was a fan of horror films like I was. So I went by myself.
There were probably about a dozen people that night at the Somerville Theater. It was a double feature, and we watched Larry Cohen’s IT’S ALIVE first, which I had already seen on tape. Then SUSPIRIA started. The sound of the agitated drums that open the film blasted over the soundtrack as if someone skipped the needle a few seconds into a record. White title credits against black flashed across the screen, the classic bizarro sing-song “Suspiria” theme suddenly taking over. It was incredibly loud, the speakers in this giant, near-empty theater sending the music echoing everywhere. Then, an oddball 1950s-sounding narration ambushed the score: “Suzy Banyon decided to perfect her ballet studies in the most famous school of dance in Europe…” The music shifted gears yet again to a frenzied cue that brought the credits to a halt on “Directed by Dario Argento,” and we smashed to the first shot of the film: a fragmented close up of an airline arrival board. It cranes down to catch sight of Jessica Harper, a 1970s princess in a flowing white dress. She’s somehow bathed in a blanket of red light, on her journey through the Munich airport. All is calm, but everything seems off. Her passage through a set of automatic doors is amplified and prolonged with a series of disconcerting sound and picture edits that make her exit to the cabstand — with an explosion of thunder and lightning — an audacious and frightening event. These were the first minutes of SUSPIRIA. Nothing had happened, but everything had happened.
What was this movie? It just got crazier and more provocative, more colorful and sonically daring, possessing it’s own strange, secret rhythm. And it punched us in the audience regularly with scenes of violence so sadistic they were at times difficult to watch. My compass was completely off; I was scared, fascinated, totally engrossed. This was a film directed by someone using black magic. There was just nothing like it.
SUSPIRIA has since led me to hundreds of European genre films. It also, of course, led me to Dario Argento’s other movies, many of which continue to be touchstones for me. My own first feature, THE PACT, was quietly cribbed from some of the key images and ideas in Argento’s other masterpiece, DEEP RED: secret rooms and close-ups of eyes, a plot reveal of a family’s dark secret of shame. But SUSPIRIA was so important to me that I made sure within the first minutes of my own movie to give a little nod to it by recreating a shot, where the camera silently booms upwards and peers past a lighting fixture at our female star. The moment was a way to create tension, lifted from Argento’s landmark film, but also a way to leave a note to myself in the future about what formed me.