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  • Brett Gallman

Field Guides To Evil: Suspiria (1977) and My Cult Cinema Journey

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

For cult cinema devotees of a certain generation, one space has emerged as the most obvious shrine: the video store. Though it no longer persists as a physical space for most of us, but rather an idealized memory, these wood-paneled temples of schlock were so formative that some films are inseparable from the shelves they once occupied.

Ask anyone of a certain age (okay, mostly those in their thirties and forties) and they’re likely quick to regale you with tales of misspent youth set among these musty aisles, all of them lined with a colorful assortment of alluring box art; some illustrations accurate, others wildly apocryphal. If these buildings were still standing, we could take you to the exact spot where some of our most frequently rented titles once sat, waiting for us each weekend like constant companions.

Ten bucks could get you a few tapes for a few days, but it sometimes felt like gaining access to entirely new worlds and dimensions ruled by the chaotic whims of genre filmmakers. The quickest way to escape from the mundane existence of ordinary life came with the familiar clunk of plastic loading into a VCR, followed by the deck’s barely perceptible hum as a fuzzy FBI copyright warning materialized on your TV screen...granted the previous patron actually rewound the tape, of course.

However, this is the idealized version that can only come from years of reciting glorified, nigh Proustian involuntary memories that tend to omit the downsides of video store patronage. Printing the legend allows us to overlook the inconvenience of rewinding; the misleading box art that left us feeling cheated by the actual films they were advertising; the frustration at discovering your store’s lone copy of a title had already been checked out (often followed by the unpredictable roller-coaster of approaching the counter on subsequent visits to see if it had been recently returned).

Even more frustrating: the growing realization that the video store offered, at best, a somewhat opaque, narrow window into these alternate filmic dimensions. This was especially true for those of us who weren’t just stranded in small towns but scattered throughout their outskirts in even more rural areas. And while I was graced by a few mom and pop shops, hindsight has only now revealed just how limited their selections were.

Nevertheless, the seeds of this realization began to blossom instantly, when printed sources simultaneously acted as guides to the unobtainable. Some of these titles would remain as such for years - part of the strange saga of growing up in an era where access was far from immediate. Whether they were glimpsed in TV Guide, the pages of Fangoria, or even John McCarty’s Splatter Movie Guide (the latter being inexplicably nestled on the shelf of the Woodruff Public Library during the 90s), these instantly disreputable pictures only existed in your mind’s eye, thanks to their literally untouchable status.

Considering McCarty’s blood-stained tome was always checked in, I have to assume I was the only one in Spartanburg Country who bothered to thumb through its pages, which housed capsule reviews for hundreds of horror movies. Make Them Die Slowly (1980). Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972). Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (1973). Many were familiar, their respective box art having haunted the area’s various video stores for years. Others remained an enticing mystery, no matter how critical McCarty could be of them.

These paragraphs would set my mind ablaze with imagined versions of those movies I couldn’t find, leading to years of shoring together the fragments of disparate sources - glimpses of gory Fango stills, scraps of edited television airings - before actually seeing the film. It was a journey dictated almost entirely by happenstance: who knows if I’m even writing this article today if McCarty's grotesque Guide hadn’t been one of the first steps in expanding my horizons.

Such chaos is almost inconceivable now, with so much content available at our fingertips, and yet I wouldn’t trade it for anything. In many ways, this endless quest, which instilled a dogged sense of patience and curiosity, is arguably responsible for turning what could have been a diverting hobby into a total obsession that persists, even in an era of streaming that overwhelms with the promise of instant gratification.

For perspective, one of these fabled untouchable titles that lingered in my mind for nearly a decade was Suspiria (1977). A movie that has long since been enshrined in the canon of great cinema (so much so that it arguably isn’t remotely a cult movie anymore), remained elusive, presumably because artsy 70s Italosplatter wouldn’t fly off the shelves in a rural South Carolina mom and pop shop.

From the moment I happened upon its entry in McCarty’s book, I was entranced. The title alone sounded exotic and ephemeral, and it became a slithery puzzle box whenever I would happen across it. McCarty’s entry for Suspiria lays down the gauntlet, hailing it as “another exercise in pure style by Bava protege Dario Argento” that boasts a “flamboyant color scheme” and finds its auteur “piling on the red with glee.” Sadly, McCarty’s declarations about the Goblin score and Argento’s radical aesthetic choices had to be taken on faith by a kid who didn’t understand any the author’s reference points.

Over the years, it became appropriate that the title Suspiria - derived from the Italian "suspire,” meaning “to breathe” - became something like an enigmatic whisper as it recurred in other print sources and even cable ads (once satellite TV was accessible out in the sticks, that is). These words and images became shards of a fragmented mosaic, not unlike the fractured stained glass that cascades down after Eva Axén’s body plunges through a skylight in the film’s unforgettable first murder set piece (which was spoiled long before I ever witnessed it in full). Logging online for the first time in the late-90s proved to be an eye-opening experience, as cult cinema message board communities were eager to share titles that doubled as secret handshakes. Once again, Suspiria haunted me, this time in the digital ether, where information proved to be plentiful but the actual film still remained at arm’s length (note: we couldn’t download trailers, let alone entire movies on 56k modems).

Luckily, this online era coincided with arguably the most pivotal revolution for cult movies: the rise of the DVD format, which soon became a haven for enthusiasts thanks to labels like Anchor Bay, Elite Entertainment, and Synapse. Suddenly, those out-of-reach films were prominently displayed in garish, full-color adverts in the pages of Fango, touting affordable prices and supplementary material that felt like a dream for those of us who missed out on the brief life of Laserdisc. As much as I cherish the video store era, I am just as fond of those years in the early-to-mid aughts, when you could stroll into a big box store like Best Buy and find their shelves loaded with some of the most outrageously strange transmissions from all corners of the globe. One of these movies was eventually Suspiria, which Anchor Bay gave the deluxe treatment via a 3-disc Limited Edition that set an early format benchmark.

But even had it been a bare-bones release, it would have been a quick addition to my modest but burgeoning collection. Suspiria finally unfolded on my television set that October, its vivid, nightmarish hues casting my room in a phantasmagoric glow. By the time its frenetic, day-glo crescendo reached a fever pitch with howling wind, writhing witches, and Goblin’s manic score, it was almost like reliving a repressed, hazy reverie. To actually experience Suspiria in full (it almost feels like an disservice to say one passively “watches” Argento's masterpiece) was the climax of my aforementioned journey, and I like to keep the memory as a reminder that things weren’t always as easy as they are now, when titles like this are routinely available via streaming or even UHD 4K Blu-ray.

Of course, this wasn’t the conclusion of this journey. While that famous end title card - ”you have been watching Suspiria” - felt like it should have been an emphatic punctuation mark signalling the end of a nearly decade-long ellipses, it only made me ravenous for more. Argento hadn’t just directed a semi-sequel in Inferno (1980), but was also responsible for scores of titles that would become iconic as this generation of cult movie fans discovered his work.

Before long, names like [Mario] Bava and [Lucio] Fulci took up near permanent residence in my search engines, as my quest extended to uncover an entirely new world of Eurohorror. Suddenly, the video store’s window into the world of cult/exploitation movies was shattered, leading to a glorious run of online crate digging that stretched through the rest of the aughts, as distributors like Blue Underground, Code Red, and Severin emerged, introducing audiences to even deeper, weirder cuts.

It’s fair to say that those of us who consider these formative years will always be chasing that dragon of discovery, so to speak. When you spend over a decade chasing titles, the hunt becomes instinctual, so much so that you start to earmark new grails in hopes they’ll someday be released. The most recent cult video resurgence of the past decade, heralded by the likes of Scream Factory, Vinegar Syndrome, and Massacre Video, has proven to be just as instrumental in uncovering a wealth of obscurities, proving that the cult cinema well is far from dry.

Fall ‘20 saw the release of Curse of the Undead (1959), a Universal horror-western that hadn't been officially released since the VHS era and had been on my radar for at least two decades now. No matter what I think of the movie itself, it’s yet another reclaimed grail; the latest in a dusty treasure abattoir that will stretch on so long as the “cult” persists, unable to resist the urge of straying off the beaten path, into those dank corners that aren't easily accessed.

It’s here you’ll find the democratized nature of the cult scene flourishing, as we’ve all taken the mantle from the likes of McCarty, Bill Landis, and Job Bob Briggs to etch our own canon and craft our own movie guides, further spreading the grindhouse gospel to the next generation and beyond. So while the video store may be an idealized memory, this intangible journey lives on in their wake, destined to be taken up by a new class whose appetite for oddity cannot be suppressed.

Brett Gallman is a longtime horror blogger, whose work can be found on Oh the Horror!, and who has been published in everything from Daily Grindhouse to Fangoria.

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