[Editor’s Note: Please welcome film critic Andrew Swafford as a contributor to the pages of Arts Knoxville.]
n 1977, on nearly opposite poles of the globe, Japan and Italy produced two delightfully surreal films called Hausu and Suspiria — which Knoxville cinephiles will get the rare opportunity to see on the big screen this weekend thanks to the Knoxville Horror Film Festival.
The films share more than just their release year: both concern groups of young women navigating enormous locations haunted by nonsense non sequiturs, for one thing (Hausu maybe takes the cake with its proto-David-Pumpkins dancing skeleton). But more importantly, both films share an obsession with vivid primary colors and surreal imagery, creating bold aesthetics that are still unmatched today.
Neither Hausu nor Suspiria are particularly scary films: they both aim for something closer to arch comedy than genuine terror, and certainly don’t intend for their violence to be taken very seriously. Instead, they are exercises in sensory overload, luxuriating in the space created for otherworldly images that are only possible with the horror genre’s very loose obligation to reality.
The director of Hausu, Nobuhiko Obayashi, cut his teeth as an “ad-wizard” (in the words of the film’s trailer) before making the leap to features, and he infuses the traditional haunted house narrative with the unique, anything-goes sensibility and candy-colored aesthetic of Japanese daytime television. The basis of the story, however, is a simple one: a young girl unhappy about her father’s new marriage runs off with a group of friends to a family member’s house deep in the woods, only for the house (“hausu”) to come alive with a dark supernatural presence.
Despite its familiar premise, it is not hyperbole to say that Hausu surprises on a minute-by-minute basis; it is built on a foundation of wild jumps of logic, features countless enchanted objects and transformations, incorporates animation both hand-drawn and stop-motion, employs unthinkable special effects both practical and digital, and manipulates its own celluloid images in ways that must have involved very small scissors.
There is a surprising amount of meaning to be gleaned from the film regarding the onset of adolescence and the historical trauma of the atomic bomb. But more than anything else, Hausu is just one of the most downright entertaining horror films ever made, and the experience of watching it with a packed audience will be an exhilarating one.
Suspiria, on the other hand, offers a slightly more grounded take on style-first horror. It’s directed by Dario Argento–the grandaddy of Italian giallo films–and is often considered the high-water mark of his career. Plotwise, Suspiria follows an American ballet student who travels abroad to a prestigious dance studio that is–surprise–actually a coven of witches preying on the life-force of young girls.
Here too, plot takes a backseat to visuals. But whereas Hausu bombards the audience with incidents that are perhaps best described as “bananas,” Suspiria is a much more patient and stately film, presenting its own type of architectural horror through the imposing geometry of its sets and art design. The camera often slowly floats backward through long, empty hallways decorated in dizzying patterns, inviting the audience to drink in the ambience of the film created by Argento’s high-contrast light and color.
The film toes an interesting line between painterly and schlocky; numerous set pieces and brutal murders punctuate the narrative, but Argento somehow always maintains the film’s overriding atmosphere of dreamy hypnotics (the ever-present score of symphonic psychedelia helps with this). I liken Suspiria to a cinematic lava lamp: you can hang on every detail of its beautifully crafted design, or you can keep it at arm’s length and just soak up the vibe. Regardless, there are many ways to appreciate the horror genre, and Suspiria is perhaps the ultimate example in a horror film that can be deeply enjoyed on a purely aesthetic level, no allegorical subtext required.
For Knoxvillians, the most crucial thing that Hausu and Suspiria have in common is their rarity. Hausu was only just imported for American audiences by Janus Films and the Criterion Collection in 2010, so opportunities to watch the film in a theater have been few and far between. Suspiria is more of a staple of the repertory scene, but not in its present form: the Knoxville Horror Film Fest is presenting a completely new 4K restoration done by Synapse Films, which is quite significant for a film that has existed primarily through shoddy DVD transfers and beaten-up celluloid prints in the states.
The opportunity to see both of these dazzling international classics on the big screen is a rare cinematic treat for movie lovers in Knoxville, and their presence alone would be worth the price of admission to the Knoxville Horror Film Festival. Additionally, the fest will also bring to Regal Downtown West Cinema 8 unique new releases like Better Watch Out (a Christmas slasher comedy), Tragedy Girls (a teen horror film billed as an internet-age Scream), Spookers (a New Zealand doc about the actors behind haunted attractions), Kuso (a gross-out body horror piece by renowned electronic musician Flying Lotus), and Blade of the Immortal (a brutal samurai film–as well as the 100th film by living-legend Takashi Miike), and more.
Interested Knoxville residents who are unable to get tickets for the entire fest are also able to purchase day passes–or try their luck buying a regular-priced ticket for individual films, though the theater may sell out of seats. Suspiria plays at 7 PM on Friday, October 20th; Hausu will be at 4:45 PM on Sunday, October 22nd.