“Suspiria,” Dario Argento’s first foray into supernatural horror, is by-far his most well-known and critically acclaimed film. Considering I’m such a huge dork for so many of the director’s films, you must think I love this one. Not so! If anything, I find “Suspiria” to be a bit on the overrated side.
Which isn’t to say it’s a bad film. Not at all. An Argento film is only as good as its murder sequences, and “Suspiria” has got two hefty ones. If the film has one major problem, it’s that it peaks too early. About ten minutes in, we find two characters in an apartment building with swirling, brightly colored, surreal architecture. A girl looks into a window and notices two yellow eyes staring at her from out of nowhere. Soon, a hairy, demonic arm explodes through the window and smashes the girl’s face into the glass. What follows is an incredibly furious murder that climaxes in a fashion both surreal and brutal. It’s one of the most startling sequences in a career full of them. Even somebody like me, who has self-identified as a non-fan of the film in the past, found myself thinking, “This is awesome!” A supernatural Argento film? How the hell can’t this work?
“Suspiria” was/is a deliberate homage to fairy tales. The central premise, a young girl finds herself in a dance school populated with witches, has a certain Hans Christian Anderson-edge to it. The story is set in the forests of central Germany, which was the setting for many strange fables. Furthermore, Argento originally wanted to cast the film with children. A couple of remnants of this plan are still evident in the final film, such as door knobs being placed up higher then usual. If anything though, Argento uses the deliberate fairy tale style as an excuse to make even less sense then usual.
One example of the dream-like mood at work here is the use of color. The color in this movie is crazy. Character’s faces are bathed in purple, blue, green, gold light, some times for no reason at all. It’s apparent early on that Argento is working over time to create a unique mood within the dance school walls. I think it’s fair to say the use of color is also far on the overdone side. Midway through the film, there’s a scene where a girl standing in a blue-lit hallway is knocked into a glass cabinet (Again with the shattering glass) and is suddenly bathed in bright red light. It’s almost comical. Moreover, and I can’t believe I didn’t catch this before, the crazy colors being layered on so thick has got to be a Mario Bava reference. It’s like Dario watched the antiques store scene from “Blood and Black Lace” and decided to do a feature length version. Now, Argento’s films have always featured surreal uses of color but I’m here to say that “Suspiria” takes it too far. Before the run-time is up, the effect goes from being dream-like to a little silly.
One of the film’s other intentional appeals to surrealism is the deliberately out-there set design. The school is a freaky looking place. Many of its hallways and rooms have deep red walls that invoke blood vessels and internal organs. The teacher’s main office has black and white illustrations for wall paper. (This, incidentally, is a plot point.) In one of the movie’s best visual moments, the girls are forced out of their rooms into the main hall, onto simple cots, white curtains separating them. The red background lights make the silhouettes cast through the curtains especially spooky and memorable. Argento’s camera movement is slightly restrained here, with the exception of two scenes where the camera is attached to a food trey and a cigarette lighter. But he lavishes a lot of attention on the design of the school. There are some subtle, smooth pans, up stairways and down hallways. It effectively establishes the dance school as its own world more effectively then the over-the-top color saturation.
The movie never matches the throbbing madness of the first attack, but it does come close. A minor character in the film is a blind piano player, always accompanied by his seeing-eye dog. As is common in stories like this, animals can feel evil, so the dog quickly gets the guy expelled from the premises. While walking home late at night through an empty, very large courtyard, a spell of evil comes over them. The courtyard seems far too empty, completely deserted. Even the birds quickly flee. The shadows on the way seem to move. There’s a subtle, barely audible whisper in the air. The silence is almost deafening. The camera comes swooping down at the man, as if taking the perspective of some unseen airborne spirit. The faithful dog turns and tears his master’s throat out. It’s a chilling sequence and maybe my favorite in the whole film.
Which kind of raises the question why the rest of the movie isn’t that good. There’s a pretty icky moment involving maggots but the rest… Argento and his co-scripter Daria Nicolodi obviously set out to make a supernatural story. But only the opening scene and the aforementioned dog scene play up the magical powers of the witchy antagonists. Later, one of the girls, suspicious of the teachers, leaves her room at night and goes exploring. After a mildly suspenseful sequence of her avoiding a patrolling teacher, she finds herself being stalked by a figure with a straight-razor. This is straight-up giallo. It’s almost if Argento lost confidence in the paranormal aspect of the story. The chase scene that follows is well done, and I especially like the denouncement involving a room full of razor wire, but it’s a bizarre change in tone. The movie also seems unsure of just what exactly these witches can do. At times, their powers seem limitless. Other times, their forces appear solely physical.
The story itself presents other issues as well. Why exactly the witches have such an interest in protagonist Suzy isn’t explained, neither are the witches’ goals in general. I’m fine with ambiguity in horror but this strikes me as just underwritten. Plot elements are swiped from “Rosemary’s Baby.” Suzy is drugged and poisoned with doctor-appointed and specifically prepared food and drink. There’s definitely a conspiracy at work here to keep her in the building. Suzy eventually figures something is up and goes out sleuthing in a way similar to Argento’s previous movies. There’s a painful exposition scene, featuring Udo Kier for some reason, where she visits a pair of doctors in town that flat-out explain the movie’s mythology. Later, she’s counting foot steps and remembering sudden details she couldn’t remember before, like your standard giallo detective.
The final confrontation with Suzy and Mater Suspiriorum is obviously meant to be the big finale of the movie, but ends up kind of anticlimactic. First off, despite supposedly being a supremely powerful evil being, the best Helena Markos can pull off is some magical moving corpses. Furthermore, the witch goes down way too easily, with a simple stab to the neck. Following video game logic, with the villain dispatched, the entire lair goes up flames, literally cracking up in an admittedly cool moment. This is a weakness with all of the Three Mothers films: These super-strong evil witches sure go down easy.
As a “Phantom of the Paradise” fan, I like Jessica Harper. She’s good in this. Her big wide eyes have never been used better and she conveys Suzy’s innocence nicely. The mostly female cast features some other standout performance such as Joan Bennett, who turns from helpful to evil successfully, while butchy Alida Valli cuts a memorable figure. Even with a strong cast, the characters still come off as somewhat thin.
So “Suspiria” isn’t subtle or densely written. Goblin’s bombastic, less-rock-n-roll, more-in-your-face-creepy score is indictictive of this dynamic as well. (Especially the frequent shouting of “Witch!”) These aren’t necessarily bad things but it does make the film less effective for me, personally. In my opinion, this isn’t the highlight of the filmmaker’s career nor does it make a particularly good entry point for newcomers. Even that can’t rob the movie of its occasionally very powerful moments. [Grade: B]