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Review: “Suspiria” (1977)

“Do it big or stay in bed.” Opera producer Larry Kelly said it, but Rome-born director Dario Argento put those words to work. With his remarkable eye for the light and primary colors, Argento elevated the horror genre to new heights in 1977 when he made “Suspiria.” This is an experience that overwhelms the eyes and ears and teases the nerves simultaneously. In many ways “Suspiria” is not so much a film as it is an orchestrated event, an opera of contrasting colors, textures and sounds. This is art for fright’s sake.

Indeed, Argento — who infamously remarked that he’d rather “see a beautiful girl killed than an ugly girl or a man” — intends to give us a spectacle, an exercise in full-on style, and follow through he does. And then some. Rather than slowly building up to the initial murder, Argento rushes headlong into the violence. In the first 15 minutes, he unveils what must be the most grotesque and disturbingly dazzling murder scene* in cinematic history. (At least half the credit must go to Goblin, the Italian rock band that composed the freaky, cacophonous score.) As hard as it is to watch, it’s harder still to turn away — the intensity is faultless; so is the artistry. And everything we need to know is contained in this opening scene: 1) that “Suspiria” is an artistic statement first and a horror film second and 2) that style will never be sacrificed for any reason whatsoever. This is the definition of “high-concept.”

Still, excess isn’t always a bad thing, especially it it’s done well. But too much in one area usually signals lack in another, and if “Suspiria” has one glaring fault it lies in the nonsensical story, ill-conceived and poorly told. Just before the initial murder takes place, American ballet dancer Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper, the spitting image of a young Jennifer Connelly) arrives in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, home to a world-renowned dance school. Rushing to get out of the downpour, she collides with the soon-to-be-killed Pat Hingle (Eva Axén), who mumbles something about secrets and irises. No need to make sense of that; eventually it will be explained in clunky, whispered conversations that take five minutes to reveal the entire plot. Suzy finds the school to be a little strange, a little creepy, and this bonds her to Sara (Stefania Casini), who believes Pat died because she uncovered a secret about the place involving witchcraft.

The interim between Suzy’s unease at the school and the bombastic conclusion is a veritable playground for Argento, who lets his imagination run amock to great aesthetic effect. The death of the school’s pianist rivals Pat’s death in terms of gore, while another student’s end is torturous and dementedly creative (a decidedly unorthodox warning to all those who believe in “leap before you look”). Beyond this, there are more visual treats. Every shot of the school’s shadowy hallways is punctuated with bursts of blocked color — the bright red drapes, rippled by some mysterious wind, or the eerie blue-purple lightning that cuts through the darkness. Luciano Tovoli’s cinematography contributes to the mood wonderfully in the hall shots, with the camera panning to make them feel cavernous, then tightening to make them seem narrow and claustrophobic. Argento’s fascination with red hues and with light is evident in one of the film’s eeriest scenes, where a red glow backlights a figure sleeping behind a drape. The sense of menace grows as the camera slowly moves in, then pulls back. What beauty and care there are in shots like these.

So there’s no question that “Suspiria,” with its bold color palette, is a class act. Does that excuse the farfetched script, the undeveloped characters, the acting (inexpressive at best, hammy at worst) and the leaden and obvious writing? The character drama lover in this reviewer cries foul at the thought, but in truth “Suspiria” is unsettling and visually stunning enough that the characters are beside the point. Argento wants to shock and awe his way under our skin. By the end of “Suspiria,” I’d say: consider it done.

Grade: B+

*Watch at your own peril.

7 Responses

  1. Beautifully put as always.

    “Still, excess isn’t always a bad thing” when it comes to a horror movie it is often a very good thing.

    You say Jessica Harper is the spitting image of a young Jennifer Connelly (now you mention it she was), just wondering if you have seen Phenomena? Made a few years Suspiria and staring a young Jennifer Connelly!

    • Have not seen that one. But yes I spent most of “Suspiria” thinking “damn, she looks EXACTLY like Jennifer Connelly.” The eyebrows, the wide eyes, the hair — everything. It’s uncanny.

  2. I always liked Jessica Harper (who’s name I often confuse with Jessica Lange even though the resemblence ends with the first name)Two of her movies that always been favorites being “My Favorite Year” and (OK this one’s a GUILTY PLEASURE) “The Phantom Of The Paradise”.
    That being said, my first attempt to watch “Suspiria” did not result in rave reviews on my part. In fact, I was so put off by the Swiss cheese storyline, that I was barely able to appreciate any of the elements of interest that you mention.
    Based on your glowing review,I do expect that it may be worth a second look.

    • The dialogue is terrible, the acting isn’t great but the visuals and artistry excuse a lot (in my mind, anyway).

  3. The terrible plots and acting seem to be a staple of these types of films. Argento, Umberto Lenzi, Lucio Fulci, all names I’ve come to love but some of the plots of their movies are just awful.

    They do make up for it with spectacular gore and visuals and that’s enough for me. I still have this movie sitting on the shelf and started to watch it once but never finished it, getting sidetracked with something else. And by sidetracked I mean falling into a deep sleep for a complete lack of energy after chasing small children around all day! It’s time to bust it out again and watch the entire film.

  4. Beautifully put as always M. Carter.

    Suspiria took a while for me to like. I initially felt it was all style and no substance – now I realise there’s style and substance to Argento’s films, it’s just the stilted acting, terrible dialogue, and hollow plots that put me off. And that sounds like I dislike the guy’s films but I think there’s a place for his type of horror movie. Like you say, it’s a visceral pleasure that assaults the eyes and ears. It’s technically a brilliant example of the horror genre.

  5. I think, and I have no evidence to back this up, that Argento really could care less about a sensible plot or good acting. For him it was the atmosphere that mattered, and telling the story through mood, music and visuals. Admittedly this will cause a problem for those who are big into story, but as you experienced, there’s more to Argento’s work, Suspiria in particular, than meets the eye.

    I was blown away when I first watched Suspiria, and yes, the attempts to add on a plot did hamper the film a bit and I believe it will always hold it back, but there is enough story in the aesthetics and visuals that I can overlook any other minor quibbles I had with the film and love what flashes before my eyes. I’m happy to see you were able to do the same.

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