Dario Argento's "Suspiria" is the 70's gem of Italian horror movies, if not the greatest Italian horror movie of its time.  This movie realizes what I love about so-bad-its-good horror.  You do not watch Suspiria in search of mind-bending ingenious plot twists or incredibly deep character studies. There are very few horror movies that truly master that delicate balance without going overboard.  Fortunately, "overboard" is this particular movie's mantra.  In tackling the witch genre, Suspiria stands out as a lovingly-made horror trip.

Total Score: 22/30
W= 6
T= 8
F= 8 

Within the first minute of the film, it's obvious that Argento thought about the images, particularly color and form, that the viewer sees. Nothing is blandly lit, nothing looks too realistic.   The set design is pure eye candy.  The colors are bright and primary, often lavished in gold or lined in black, from garish velvet wallpapers to extremely fake stained glass.  It's meant to be an experience in another highly superficial world.  The lighting is as doused in reds and blues and greens as a psychotropic trip.  The soundtrack of the film, done by The Goblins (a band influenced by the mighty King Crimson) was oddly recorded in one night at the behest of Argento himself.  Though cheesy at points, I think it is true to the kind of thrown-together sparkle that is pervasive throughout the film.  

Like a posh Italian designer, style is Argento's primary concern, and possibly he focused so hard on how things would look, that he focused less on how things would make sense - hence not a perfect rating. But there is a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor to the piece, particularly in some of the non-eye-candy or boob-shot characters (you know, the ones who got hired because they actually know how to act?). Watch the face of Miss Tanner for one. There are moments where the characters, scene, and music sweat delerium and panic, almost like you're drunk and lost somewhere without any idea of how to get home. At some points, it is gore-tastic; at others, you ask yourself why Argento didn't put in just a little extra time to thicken the plot. But it is what it is (a classic 70's horror piece), and should not be missed. Argento may not be creating the great horror mystery of the century: but he is having fun. This is his best film. 

Jessica Harper leads as Suzy Bannion, an American dance student beginning her short-lived learning experience at the mysterious Tanz Academy in Germany (formerly a dance /occult studies school).  She discovers as soon as she leaves the airport that this journey is ill-fated, and the strange mishaps add up to her consequent discovery of a coven of malevolent witches who eliminate anyone in their way.  At one point, the question is posited: "What does it mean to be a witch?" 

Suzy is denied entry into the academy on the night of her arrival, as a nameless girl runs from the front door, through the forest, and into the first gore scene in the apartment of a friend.  This scene sticks with you throughout the movie, because it sets the tone for the way Argento kills off his ladies - he's gotten a lot of criticism that these are misogynistic portrayals of girl slaughter but I'll let you decide for yourself.  The girl ends up stabbed in her beating heart, thrown through a stained glass skylight (simultaneously impaling her friend in the entry hall with shards of glass), and hung by a cord just a few feet from the floor.  
When Suzy makes it to the academy the next day, the vice-directress of the the school (played by Joan Bennett in her final role) greets her with a dark stare, obviously annoyed by her attempts to volunteer information to the police about seeing the girl who was expelled from the academy the night before for "improper conduct".  Likewise, the ultra-severe lead instructor, Miss Tanner, played by Alida Valli (once dubbed "the next Garbo" in her screen beauty youth), quickly engages Suzy in a kind of strange competition, forcing Suzy to dance after she has been zapped by a foul spell in the hallway of the school.  There is an "old vs. young" component to this movie.  Suzy quickly falls into the "malefic" control of the aged school staff. 

Bannion befriends one girl at the academy, Sara, a doomed friend of the expelled victim.  She tries to make friends with the intimidatingly sexy (in a viper kind of way) "Olga", played by Barbara Magnolfi, but soon discovers that Olga is willing to sell Suzy out without a second thought.  Hearing Sara's theories of witchcraft, torture, and manipulation on the part of the school staff, Suzy gradually wises up to the process of elimination dominating the school, supposedly under the command of the ever-absent "Directress".  Suzy must ultimately go head to head with these creatures in order to escape with her life. 

On the witty end of the production, there is some sense to its message of the consumptive vices of black magic (in testament to horror as opposed to stuff Wiccans might take offense to) with the spotlight on the evil nature of this particular coven, headed by the  lead-witch "Directress", Helena Marcus.  Argento's direction does achieve the presence and influence of the coven and its values, knitted deeply in the often catty and vicious torture that women in competition inflict upon each other.  Being a dance academy, you get the picture that these (mostly female) students are not summer camp buddies.  They are focused on their careers and monetary gain after their training at Tanz, as seen in the cruel behavior of Olga, and the other students who seem only to see Suzy when she is in trouble or hurt.  

There is a keen sense of manipulation, of people quick to take offense, the coveting of money and wealth at the expense of others, of punishment for those who do not conform, and in this way you sympathize with the heroine's plight.  As mentioned, there is also the "old vs. young" rift as a power struggle.  Suzy's stubbornness with the Vice-Directress over her lodging quickly results in punishment in my favorite scene of the movie.  As she walks down the hallway to the studio, a strange unsmiling scullery maid polishing silverware shines a glaring bauble directly in Suzy's eyes, briefly blinding her and rendering her too dizzy and nauseous to function in class.  Tanner goads her further, half-laughing, and she collapses, manipulated into staying permanently at the school on a 'special diet' of wine that makes her too sleepy to think. 

As I said, it's not without its humor too.  Though I'm not sure if it was intentional, my favorite line in the movie is delivered by the cursed blind piano player when Miss fires him for the misbehavior of his terrified and provoked dog.  As Tanner throws his jacket and cane to the floor for him to pick up without help, he turns to her screaming: "You Beeeeeeeeeeeeetch!"  (My brother and I often use this quote to each other, it never fails to rustle up laughter once you see this scene and makes for a great prank phone call). 

This movie has duality to the point that when you finish it, it is very hard to decide if you have seen something wonderful or hysterically awful.  On the one hand, there is bad overdubbing, flimsy acting, choppy scene cutting (beware the shortened versions of this film!!!), low grade cheap-o scare tactics (aka worms, bats, blood so unreal ketchup looks scarier), and an ending that feels somewhat rushed and thrown together that is the plight of so many horror movies.  On the other hand, there is the mysticism of the coven, the unwritten rules of the dance school, the lurid and seductive set and (sometimes) gore, and the ultimate fate of Suzy, the innocent abroad. 

That this movie is being remade apparently with Natalie Portman disturbs me a little (mini gag).  I believe this movie could be well made, but it's tricky business capturing the magic that this particular film has in connection with the time it was made AND nailing Bannion's kind of dumb/helpful innocence... although it might be fun if Portman plays the role of Sara - something a little more insidious perhaps.

See Suspiria because of what it is: a strange, colorful, and playfully ridiculous trip.  I think the ill-fated Sara put it best: "It all seems so absurd, so fantastic."  And indeed, it is.  

Suzy Bannion gets witchslapped:

And some good ole heart-stabbery:

1 comment:

  1. I loooooooooove this movie!!!! Especially the barbed wire scene!!