For our podcast episode about this very film, click here.
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Italian horror movies from the 70's are a peculiar and off-putting breed. Favoring beautifully rendered phantasmagoria over comprehensible storylines, they are particularly difficult to access from a modern perspective. It also doesn't help that Italian films at the time were shot without sound and dubbed later, so each actor spoke their lines in their native language.
Because the film was dubbed for whatever countries it would be released in, it's no crime to watch the English version, unlike the foreign films of today. In fact, a large amount of the main cast at least attempt to mouth their lines in English. But the disparity between mouth and sound is frequently disconcerting. But hey, it's an Italian horror movie. Very few elements aren't disconcerting.
Nope, nothing wrong here.
Suspiria tells the story of Suzy Bannion (Shock Treatment's Jessica Harper, reminding us of how fabulous she is), a young American who comes to a prestigious ballet school in Germany to study, only to find out that it is run by a coven of witches and the other students are dying one by one.
That's about it for the plot, really. Suspiria is an exercise in slow burn pacing, like boiling a pot of water over a match. In fact, it's so slow that you have time to inspect each individual frame in minute detail, something which suits the movie's particular strengths. You see, Dario Argento's magnum opus is an unforgettable visual experience, lining up a relentless series of elegant shots and smashing them into one another, all lit like a Kool-Aid commercial.
Cherry reds, lime greens, and neon blues dominate the color scheme, creating an otherworldly atmosphere that is incomparable to any other film in history. Cutting between perfectly symmetrical shots that would make Wes Anderson spontaneously combust
and rooms seemingly lit by the ghost of Liberace
or maybe by somebody with a vendetta against the colorblind.
Watching Suspiria is the visual equivalent of eating an entire sheet cake. It feels totally wrong, yet it is decadent and glorious. And afterwards you swear you'll never do it again.
One's enjoyment of Suspiria hinges on one and only one factor: your tolerance for Goblin, frequent Argento collaborators and composers of the score. Which is relentless, wall to wall, and sounds like an entire orchestra falling down the stairs while somebody whispers into a steel ceiling fan with some Beach Boys surf rock guitars thrown in for good measure.
I bet you didn't believe me.
It's a little hard to take, but for better or worse it creates an inescapable atmosphere that drives the story, insofar as there is one. It's a masterfully made horror film with gracefully composed deaths, but don't pop it in for a Friday night fright. It's too slow and occasionally dull for that. You have to be in the right mood for Suspiria, but if you are, prepare to be blown away by a truly bizarre, totally nonsensical, completely chilling piece of cinema.
The film is certainly an acquired taste, but it will stay with you long after watching it, and that is more than I can say for most modern horror with higher entertainment value. Watch it to get an intimate glimpse into horror history and maybe attain a deeper understanding of what the genre is capable of producing with a deranged master at the helm.
TL;DR: Suspiria can be dull if you're not prepared for it, but it is intense and elegantly beautiful.
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