Saturday, May 31, 2014

Suspiria (1977)

The Movie: American ballerina Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper of Phantom of the Paradise and, much later, Minority Report) travels to Germany to attend the prestigious Tanz Akademie in Freiburg. If you’re the type who believes in omens, her arrival at the airport presages very bad things. Just walking out of the airport subjects the poor girl to an ominous thunderstorm and a rudely aloof and uncommunicative taxi driver. However, it’s at the school where Suzy’s problems really start; because just as her taxi pulls up to the school, a girl (Eva Axen) runs out the door in fear, shouts something to an unseen person on the intercom, and flees into the forest. When Suzy tries to enter the school, the person on the intercom says that she doesn’t recognize her and refuses to let her in. Meanwhile, the fleeing girl, who we later find out is named Pat Hingle, spends the night with a friend with the intention of leaving forever in the morning. However, Pat’s friend’s apartment isn’t any protection against what Pat is fleeing from; that night a mysterious someone or something enters and brutally murders both women.

The next day Suzy returns to the school, where she is told by the dance instructor Miss Tanner (Alida Valli of Eyes Without a Face) that she was expected the night before. Also present is Madam Blanc (Joan Bennett of the original Father of the Bride, believe it or not), the vice-directress, who is discussing the murder of Pat Hingle with some police officers, explaining that the girl was kicked out just yesterday. Suzy quickly finds the staff to be weird and sinister, and the students range from eccentric to, quite possibly, downright insane. Events such as the sudden plague of maggots in the girls’ dorms, and Suzy’s strange sickness and collapse in the dance studio really don’t help matters much.

Suzy finally starts to get some information when she is befriended by Sara (actor and director Stefania Casini of Blood for Dracula). Sara has been noticing some weird things about the school. What’s more, she was friends with Pat Hingle, who also learned some weird things just before she was murdered; and Sara was also the woman on the intercom box the night Suzy arrived. It gradually becomes clear that some powerful evil lurks at the school; and when Sara gets killed, Suzy realizes that she has to figure out what’s going on if she doesn’t want to be next…

The Review:

Dear Readers, this blog has now been up and running for four years! Now, I confess that in recent months I have been slacking off on the entries, for reasons legitimate and not so much; I must apologize for that. However, as I’ve done every year, I feel the need to express my gratitude to those of you who have been reading this blog up to this point; and my sincere welcome and condolences for the inevitable fate of your immortal soul for those of you who are reading this for the first time. Thank you and welcome all!

Confession time Dear Readers: I had to watch Dario Argento’s Suspiria three or four times before I was able to understand why so many people consider it his magnum opus; and indeed, a true classic of the genre. At this point I am of the opinion that Suspiria is a true work of art, as well as a very effective horror movie. However, I will add the caveat that if you’re used to conventional, Hollywood-style movie structure, you may be in for a rough slog.

European movies made during this time, particularly Italian cinema, had a tendency to employ style over substance; imagery and emotion in place of logic or plot cohesion. At its worst, the results of this kind of moviemaking are frustrating and unintelligible. However, at its best the end product rises above a mere movie to be watched, instead becoming an experience to be lived.

As you’ve no doubt guess from my opening paragraph, Suspiria falls into the latter category. The moment Suzy walks off the plane at the beginning; she steps into a waking nightmare and drags us in the audience along with her. Argento does everything he can to play up the sense of unreality, and as a result the lack of logic and plot cohesion enhances the movie rather than detracting from it.

The architecture and décor we see throughout most of the movie is truly beautiful; but at the same time it is quietly foreboding and off. Argento uses a primary color palette, which throws the décor into stark relief; and for some scenes he employs color filters that further enhance the atmosphere. Then there’s the soundtrack, in particular three numbers that are the background music for nearly the entire movie. They are odd, discordant pieces that really don’t work outside Suspiria (as proved by a music video on my special edition DVD), but in the context of the movie are a large part of what establishes the atmosphere and makes it so effective.

The final notable reason for why the film works so well is how Argento, for the most part, tends to eschew traditional horror movie plot elements. Admittedly, there are two or three brutal murders, and the two we see at the beginning are as nasty a horror movie death scene as you could ask for. However, afterwards he tends to employ plot elements that focus more on the unnatural evil of the villains than the deaths themselves. The death of the blind piano player is more atmospheric than brutal, as he’s stalked by something unseen through the empty nighttime streets only to die by a completely unexpected agent. Personally, the maggot scene always causes me to cringe, and the scene where Suzy falls sick and collapses while dancing is one that I find very identifiable. Admittedly, that last one probably owes much to my own medical experiences; but it’s still very well done.

So in conclusion, Suspiria is less a conventional horror movie than a living nightmare on celluloid. There is little logic to much that goes on, but that actually enhances greatly the general feeling of unreality. If you’re interested in a truly great work of horror movie art, and can deal with the fact that it doesn’t follow what most of us consider a traditional plot, make sure you see this one.

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