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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.