Sunday, November 20, 2022

Suspiria (1977)

After making a name for himself with Giallo films, including the genre-defining Deep Red, Dario Argento began work on supernatural horror Suspiria, together with his partner Daria Nicolodi. It would become his other grand opus, and one of Italian horror's most memorable experiences...

Suzy Banyon is a young ballet dancer enrolling in the illustrious German Tanz Academy. Things get off to an immediately odd start when she sees a student muttering incomprehensibly before running away. News soon comes that she has been brutally murdered. Suzy gets used to the school, but slowly feels weaker and weaker. Her roommate gets suspicious, and begins her own investigation. When she too is killed, Suzy must work to save herself, and uncover the truth that lies beneath...

Suspiria is a fantastic supernatural horror, and gained instant recognition upon its release, both for its gorgeous imagery, and shocking violence. Managing to get itself censored or banned in a few places, it's now widely available in all of its uncut glory, as it nears 50 years of terror.

The plot to Suspiria is light, and feels like a classic fairy tale for an adult audience. Young girls, evil old witches, and untimely death. The most famous scene is the shocking beginning, that leaves you hooked and possibly squirming in your chair.

I like how the mystery unfolds, through the realisation of simple yet important details. As for the negatives, it feels like we're on the periphery of the story the entire time. Suzy is the protagonist, yet has no idea what's going on till the end. I guess that's the trouble with a story where every character who discovers the truth immediately dies. The film's a bit rudderless, with a protagonist who is unable to learn, or else she'd die!

The film makes absolutely no effort to delve into the world and mythology of these witches, or the Three Mothers. They just happen to be the cause of spooky events, and are in the shadows until the last 20 minutes. For a standalone film this isn't an issue, though when you take Suspiria into account as part of a greater trilogy, it is a disappointment. I guess you could see it as one entry to set up the atmosphere of the world, and the second for the story, but still, that's a lot of the overall trilogy wasted.

A neat fact is that Suspiria was originally meant to be about younger kids, which would fit even more with the fairy tale motif. But understandable concerns grew over children being involved in such violent setpieces. Granted, one of the victims is a teacher, and Pat could've always been older, but still. I am glad the characters were aged up.

Suspiria is well-known for its almost surreal nature. Illogical is another, less-generous word that comes up. When you really think about it, there are quite a few things that don't make much sense. How did a magical school get a maggot infestation? How did they even infiltrate Mater Suspiriorum's secret room? And why is the directress casually sleeping in a tent with all the other students? And what kind of dance schools keep rooms full of barb wire? Lots of little illogicalities you might wonder about, and they may not have satisfactory answers, but they're nothing that truly hurts the film.

The characters are a weak link. Suzy is a strong protagonist, but spends much of the movie drugged, and only comes into her own in the final act. Her roommate Sara picks up the slack, and is a good co-star. We briefly get to know Pat and her (somewhat overreacting) friend before their deaths. We also get short but rewarding scenes with a couple of experts near the end.

We have an abundance villains here. Miss Tanner, Madame Blanc, and the reclusive Helena Markos (aka coven leader Mater Suspiriorum). None of these characters get any exploration, and don't do much oscreen. The worst is Markos, who only has one scene, barring an earlier cameo as a snoring silhouette. It would've been better I feel if she'd been combined with Blanc or Tanner, so the film's true villain could have been a presence throughout, instead of a loud sleeper.

An interesting, and entirely underused character is fellow student Olga, who is clearly the bitchy one. You might expect her to be a constant presence, bullying the leads, or to turn out to be part of the coven. Instead the actress must have broken her ankle or something, because she vanishes 20 minutes in and is never seen again. Her personality is pretty interesting to think about. She's a forceful and mean girl, yet a word from the madames is enough to get her to play ball. It makes you think how much she's part of the coven. The lack of screetime actually helps paint a mysterious picture.

There is also the suspicious kid Albert (The dog clearly knows something's up with him, and tries to take action), who also disappears, the creepy butler, and a hunky male student. He seems nice enough, but the film has no romance. Quite a relief, really, since the film stands well without one. Perhaps that's a holdover from the characters originally being children.

Who the killer even is in an interesting mystery. Obviously it's the coven orchestrating the murders, but they are committed by an unseen figure. All we get a glimpse of are some cat-like eyes, and a hairy arm, making you wonder. Is it an actual character in the film? A monster? A psychic manifestation of evil?

The direction in Suspiria is superb, with the camera capturing many great angles and images. The lighting and colour go hand in hand to creating the film's unique atmosphere. The frames are awash in red, green, blue, and other rich colours. It does get a bit silly when you really think about it, like why does this taxi have a multicolour light? But that's easily overlooked when it turns out this good.

The set design is great too, and plays into the visuals. We have the academy's ornate front, the white and flowery head office, the almost surgical 'camp-out', and more. The set for the school was modelled after a real place, but Argento used a facade here. Naturally, since the board may object to the front of their school getting blown apart for a movie.

The effects in Suspiria are another high point, making for a masterwork in gore. The blood is bright red like paint, and it manages to convince in every scene, if a little rubbery in places.

My only complaint with the deaths is that they're not as evenly spaced out as they could've been, with only three death scenes over the course of 98 minutes. Thankfully any good horror movie can keep its audience entertained even if there's only a small body count.

The cast is great. Jessica Harper is an effective lead, and gets across personality, even if she is asleep a lot. Stefania Cassini does well as the supporting heroine, while Alida Valli and Joan Bennett are nicely bitchy as the villains. Playing Helena Markos (aka Mater Suspiriorum) was an old prostitute found on the streets of Rome. Vocally it was Daria Nicolodi who did the performance, to goofy effect. Hats off to the lady herself though, a non-actress at age 90 to be caked in prosthetics just for one scene! Udo Kier has a small but nice role, though sadly dubbed in the English version.Then again this straight-laced character may have been hard to take seriously if he spoke in Udo's distinct voice.

The score by Goblin is one of Suspiria's highlights. The music-box main theme is soft and eerie, fitting the tone perfectly. It's such a classic tune that it's found life outside/beyond the movie, and is often used in ballet or ice skating performances, even making an appearance at an Olympic game! Kudos to that team!

On the other side of the spectrum is the loud and chaotic 'death' theme, which keeps building in intensity as it goes. We also get assorted electronic twangs and buzzes. The most notable being the zweep zwoop rescoring of the main theme over the end credits. Whether these fit with the fairytale vibe the film's got going for it is up for debate. I think some of it works, though the ending theme is a bit much.

All these years later, Suspiria is perhaps Dario Argento's best film, and is still a unique entry into the genre. Well worth watching for any horror fans...

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