Suspiria (1977) / Horror-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: R for gore, strong violence, scary images, and some language
Running time: 97 min.
Cast: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bose, Barbara Magnolfi, Susanna Javicoli, Eva Axen, Rudolf Schundler, Udo Kier, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett
Director: Dario Argento
Screenplay: Dario Argento, Daria Nicolodi
Italian master of horror, Dario Argento (Do You Like Hitchcock?, Deep Red), crafts this visually appealing shocker about the mysterious deaths that have occurred at a prestigious school for dance in Germany. Jessica Harper (Stardust Memories, Phantom of the Paradise) stars as Suzy Bannion, an American ballet student who witnesses the last known moments of another student who ends up mysteriously, and gruesomely, murdered, and begins to suspect that there's more to the old academy than meets the eye. The instructors seem somewhat antagonistic, the staff a bit strange, and some of the events have made her think that there may be worshippers of the occult in their very midst.
Suspiria is a barebones excursion into sensory filmmaking, where the story and characters are there to service what writer-director Argento wants to deliver on -- foreboding atmosphere and some solid shocks. Along these lines, it is a successful endeavor, as the richly textured color and light scheme mixed with indelible moments of genuinely despicable surprises stays in the memory long after viewing. This also holds true for the mesmerizingly eerie music that is played throughout, fusing uncomfortable melodies to hair-raising suspense in a fashion that keeps you from being able to avert your eyes to the perverse scares that Argento delivers with gratuitous (though not terribly realistic) gore.
Argento's film plays like a scary nightmare, where events seem to be exist in a realm that feels familiar, yet there are strange and unsettling things occurring in the background. Eventually these bad things come to the foreground, and the more the person experiencing the frightening developments tries to escape them, the more they seem to envelop her. Whispers and strange voices add a dreamlike feeling to the piece, as it worms its way into your thoughts to arrest your attention.
While genre enthusiasts no doubt consider Suspiria a classic and influential example of its brand of horror, I would warn potential viewers to think of it more as a very good B-movie rather than expect a fully-realized and adept work. The acting is sometimes substandard, the special effects can be far from convincing, the plotline mostly nonsensical, and the characters aren't particularly well defined in terms of their background or motivation except in service to the scene in question. While the music by Goblin is rich and well-suited to the material, it isn't really utilized in the way a typical score would (the music doesn't change to the visual beats on the screen), with Argento just turning it on and off depending on the feelings he wishes to evoke at any particular moment.
Suspiria is schlock, but schlock of the good kind, and even during slower scenes, it is often a treat to look at how each sorbet-colored shot is composed. Argento achieves what he sets out to do by delivering genuine intrigue, excitement, and scares. Don't try to make sense of it all, and Argento's hauntingly surreal vision will seductively wrap itself around your unconscious thoughts and tighten its grip until you can think of nothing but the sights and sounds you experience through one young woman's living nightmare.
©2009 Vince Leo