Suspiria (1977)

suspiria A little over an hour into the classic fever dream Suspiria, a killer comes after a frightened young woman we’ve grown to like, intending to dull his straight razor on her. She locks herself in a room, and the razor slides through the door opening and jiggles the latch. Jiggle, jiggle, for quite some time, as she stares at the blade with dread. We can see that the killer could easily flip the latch up with the razor, but that wouldn’t serve the purpose of the scene, which is twofold. The plot-centered purpose is simply to scare the woman into fleeing through a window into another room, where an even uglier surprise is in store. The second purpose is purely aesthetic — the film’s cowriter and director, Dario Argento, loves to draw out the suspense for its own cruel sake. We stare as if hypnotized as the woman backs away, backs away, at a crawl, futilely. Whether she moves fast or slow, death is still coming for her, as another character says in a different context later on.

Suspiria, whose modern remake arrives in American theaters next month, is probably Argento’s masterpiece. The first in his Three Mothers trilogy — followed by 1980’s Inferno and 2007’s Mother of Tears — it seems to encompass everything he holds dear: art, music, architecture, elaborate death sequences. It’s a death ballet, really, with various crescendos that function as nightmare logic. I mean, when we’re talking about a drizzle of maggots falling on unsuspecting young women, the movie can try to explain it away as the headmistress (Joan Bennett) does, but Suspiria is no left-brain experience. I see, for instance, that I’ve made it some 300 words into this piece without mentioning that the movie takes place at a ballet academy, and that the star, the mildly agreeable Jessica Harper, is the school’s new American student Suzy Bannion. Thinking back on Suspiria yields sense memories, electronic haunted-house sounds, stylish and outré brutality. It’s possible to forget Harper is even in it, but it’s not possible to forget the opening salvo of operatic violence, perhaps the only gory slasher kill that also wreaks collateral damage.

Argento throws in maybe two quick scenes of dance practice, but ballet isn’t really what he’s interested in. He sets the movie in a ballet academy because it has dozens of comely young actresses to terrorize (and is run by older women who may or may not be witches). It’s simplistic to call Argento a misogynist based on the baroque ways women are killed in his work. I believe him when he says he’s trying to show how horrible violence against women is (despite his disconcerting habit of “playing” the killer’s hands in his movies). I also think the murder scenes, the spikes in the heartbeat, can’t help being beautiful and exciting. The extremely loud and almost cartoonishly ominous score by Goblin (Dawn of the Dead) and the hyper-rich, Disney-inspired color scheme by cinematographer Luciano Tovoli turn the violence into myth, fairy-tale, illustrations in some fiendish old leatherbound book of stories.

Argento is an artist and his art, like that of Hitchcock and Peckinpah, is the shock of sudden death, the blood and guts of mortality. Suspiria runs on spooky virtuosity that both confounds sense and forges its own internal sense. There’s a room at the academy that’s filled with barbed wire for some reason — sure, why not. I imagine Suspiria is also not the kind of movie that plays well with snarky modern audiences; there are just too many weird infelicities you have to agree to overlook, like the usual uncanny-valley Italian dubbing — the worst example being Udo Kier, dubbed in the U.S. release with an American accent, even though Kier is a German actor in a film set in Germany. The apocalyptic finale makes about as much sense as anything else; it feels right, though. The movie plays best when it comes off like a little kid telling a scary story, skipping around, giving you over-the-top gross-outs. It’s less convincing in scenes where Harper goes around like a detective trying to get to the bottom of the strangeness. She won’t, because the strangeness of Suspiria is bottomless.

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