Suspiria (1978)

Reviewed By Ryan Arthur
Posted 10/30/03 07:40:53

"Do you know anything about...witches?"
5 stars (Awesome)

Suspiria (and by the way, to "suspire" means to take a long, deep breath or sigh. Thanks, Mr. Webster!) benefits from having quite possibly the coolest and most intriguing tagline in movie history: "The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes are the first 92." That's pretty much the hard sell.

I went into Suspiria a blank slate. I knew the name of its director, Dario Argento, and I knew most horror fans viewed it as a damn fine piece of work, but that was about it. A friend of mine had raved about it, so when the opportunity to see it at a midnight showing on the big screen at our local art house popped up, he circled the wagons and our group of friends (of which, I should note, I'm the only horror novice) took in the show.

Hoo boy.

Jessica Harper plays Suzy Bannion, an American ballet dancer who travels to Germany to attend the Tanz Akadamie of Dance. She arrives at the school in a typical horror setup, "on a dark and stormy night." Upon her arrival she's turned away at the door, but not before she sees another woman leaving the school in a huff...and that woman later meets a grisly end. Related? Yep. Suzy ends up living at the school under a creepy headmistress and butch instructor (that's Joan Bennett as Madame Blanc and Alida Valli as Miss Tanner, respectively), and things start to get wonky. People die, Suzy can't seem to figure anything out (it doesn't help that she's apparently being drugged), and Suzy's friend Sara (Stefania Casini) is certain that she knows what's afoot...and then she disappears, leaving Suzy to figure out the whole mess before she gets offed herself.

I'm going to gloss over the performances and plot here.

Harper does a fine job as the lead, and she plays Suzy as kind of a distant Nancy Drew-type. She's actually quite pretty, and I kept thinking she looked so much like a Raiders-era Karen Allen. She's certainly got quite the acting pedigree, as in addition to working with Argento, she's done films for Brian De Palma (Phantom Of The Paradise, which the film Argento saw that convinced him to cast Harper) and Woody Allen (Stardust Memories, although I read that ironically enough, Harper passed up a role in Annie Hall to work for Argento). Harper was also fortunate enough to be able to dub her lines in her native English (the film was shot in a silent film format, with dialogue and sound dubbed in later, and most of the cast was Italian or German, so hers is the only character whose dialogue matches what's actually coming out), so she fares the best of all of them. The rest of the acting, by any sort of standard, is probably more than a little subpar, though Bennett and Valli carry themselves well within their roles. But this is not a movie about acting.

The plot is relatively thin, as well, as Suzy gets the backstory on the dance academy from a hilariously poorly dubbed doctor (Udo Kier) and a professor (Rudolf Schündler) who studies the occult...the short of it is, apparently the whole thing is a front for a coven of witches, and not just any witches: Suspiria is loosely based on an essay by Thomas de Quincey, dealing with the Three Mothers Of Sighs, Darkness And Tears, who are basically über-witches that are wicked bad and spread evil throughout the world, and Suspiria was supposed to be the first of a trilogy (Inferno being the second, and the third was never made - at least not yet). The Tanz Akademie witches are lead by the unseen-until-the-final-reel, Mater Suspiriorium - the Mother Of Sighs. Argento has claimed that it's also got elements of both Snow White and Alice In Wonderland, too. Anyway, back to the plot, such as it is: Suzy's already in over her head, as she's got to figure out just what the hell is happening. But - and I normally don't say this - this is not a movie about plot, either.

Where Suspiria succeeds - where it thrives - is in the look and feel of the film itself. Argento makes sure that Suspiria looks both amazing and at times surreal. The director and his cinematographer Luciano Tovoli shot the film with the three-strip Technicolor process, and holy shit, does this film look spectacular. It's just an amazing sight to behold, and any fan of either set design or just plain atmosphere will love it. The colors are absolutely incredible, as Tovoli and Argento bathe practically every scene in some color using various gels (lots of reds, blues and greens, with the occasional yellow), and the sets contain some wildly unique and inventive architecture, most notably in the film's first kill, which takes place in a hotel loaded with stained glass.

Ah yes, the kills. The print of Suspiria that I viewed, according to one of my friends, was apparently hacked to shit, with a couple scenes missing and some judicious editing done with the remaining death scenes, so I'd recommend hunting down the Anchor Bay special edition DVD set, which I'm told is outstanding and has everything intact, plus a rotting corpse-full of extras. That's not to say that the version I saw was bad; on the contrary, the woman Suzy sees leaving the academy meets an untimely end that almost borders on overkill (ha), so I'm not sure I can imagine how the uncut version plays out, but the sequence was shot in such a way that you're still breathless when it's all over. It's legitimately scary. According to Argento, that was intentional. He reportedly said, "I wanted the strongest impact possible. The whole point was to start Suspiria in the way a normal horror film would usually finish. That kept the audience on edge wondering what could possibly come next." Consider that mission accomplished. None of the other scenes in the film match that one for sheer intensity, but Argento certainly tries. It's not just the gore that is the money shot, it's the build to it. The suspense is frequently stretched to the max and the payoff does what it's supposed to do.

There's also the sound of the film, which is so important that it almost plays a character itself. The score (from the band Goblin, who Argento collaborated with) kicks in and is frequently relentless. Whether it's shrieks and wails, chant-like cries of "witch" in the background, or just an incredibly loud, grinding musical score, the sound (or in instances of almost unnatural quiet, the complete lack of sound) is just amazing, and at times totally unnerving. It heightens the tension to the extreme, and coupled with Argento's desire to drag out the inevitable in each scene until you just can't stand it, the whole package makes for some excellent suspense.

If you're looking for a strong narrative or good performances, then you probably won't find them outside of Harper's turn. But if (like me) you can overlook a film's problems and be completely drawn in by the mood, atmosphere and look of a film, then I heartily recommend Suspiria.

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