Look What I Found! – Suspiria (1977)

A newcomer to a fancy ballet academy gradually comes to realize that the school is a front for something far more sinister and supernatural amidst a series of grisly murders. (IMDB synopsis)

Well, it’s about that time again! Welcome back, whoever you are – and if you’re new here, just… welcome. Today I decided to review Suspiria, Dario Argento’s technicolour masterpiece. I’ve seen it crop up on a few Best Horror Movie lists, and it looks quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen, so my interest was piqued. Also, I’ll be watching the English dub, as my Italian is a tad rusty, and by rusty I mean non-existent. *sigh*

Review:

A little spoken narration is given over the opening credits, meaning this is NOT a read-along narration as is typical of so many Western films. Our protagonist is a young woman called Suzie, with a wide set of eyes that would put Zooey Deschanel to shame. She’s also as slender as a reed and looks twice as fragile, but that’s probably normal for a ballet dancer. She manages to hail a taxi to the nearby dance academy where she’s expected; however, when she appears, a young blonde woman named Pat flees the place in distress and Suzie is not let in. Later that same night, Pat stays with a friend and is unable to put into words what is the matter. Unsurprisingly, she is then grabbed through the bathroom window, stabbed by somebody offscreen and then crashes through a stain-glass window and is hanged to death. Her friend also dies by way of stain-glass shards, which is certainly an… interesting… way to go.
The next day, Suzie is welcomed into the academy by her soon-to-be teacher, Ms. Tanner, and she tries to make friends with the other dancers, which is difficult as they seem to be a pack of weirdos. Much as Suzie would prefer to live with a girl named Olga than to live within the school, she is suddenly and mysteriously struck by illness and haemoorag hemoragg bleeding from her face, and she gets moved in anyway. Suzie can also apparently lip-read from memory, as she recalls that Pat spoke of two things before she fled – ‘secret’ and ‘iris’. Whatever could it mean?
As Suzie stays in this dance academy, more and more strange events occur, and it’s up to her and her close friend Sara to uncover the truth. They eventually realise it has something to do with the mysteriously absent Directoress of the academy, and, oh, the fact that the school has roots in an honest-to-goodness WITCHY COVEN.
Now, the first thing I noticed about the film was the terrific lighting and sound design. Most of the time it’s quite overwhelming, in fact, but in a very deliberate and artsy way. I was thoroughly impressed by the way this film was shot. Here’s a screengrab from one of the opening scenes:

Suspiria - shot

Notice the symmetry. Marvel at the size and scale of the architecture. Um, regard the clever use of the primary colour red, which is going to show up a LOT in this movie, by the way. Loads of the shots look like this, and it gives the film a really unique and beautiful aesthetic. Vivid shades of red, blue, yellow and sometimes green are used everywhere, and I get the sense that Argento had a great time splashing colour all over his sets.
The music is also ever-present, sometimes overlapping the character’s dialogue and making it difficult to hear what is said. Occasionally this could get annoying for me, but it was a stylistic choice I had to get used to. Sometimes it’s more subtly creepy, sounding much like a child’s music-box, and other times it’s a cacophany of whispers and wails (which makes sense, as ‘Suspiria’ is Latin for ‘sighs’). It all makes for a phenomenally nightmarish experience – and I mean that in the best way possible. It’s hard not to feel scared or apprehensive when all that’s going on around your ears.
Now, as for the story… I’m not sure how to feel about it. The suspense is driven up enough to keep my attention, and the ‘action’ scenes, if you can call them that, are very well done. Seeing all that bright red blood and gore reminded me of Hammer Horror. It isn’t supposed to look realistic, mind you. It’s another stab at the canvas from Argento’s directorial paintbrush. I hope that analogy makes sense.
So, the story’s quite good, as I said… but there are a few things that probably could have been done better. Suzie, for instance, has quite a flat-sounding voice and feels just a tad undercooked. I guess the actress was picked for her ability to look and act like a frightened little girl, but in scenes when sh*t ISN’T going down, she could stand to look a little more alive. Also, after a while, I made myself a checklist of… not cliches, exactly, but well-worn tropes that I’ve seen in other films.

Creepy staring woman and child ✓
Someone or something watching the main characters from above ✓
Pool scene for no good reason ✓
Conveniently loud noise that impedes an important conversation ✓
Nervous smoking ✓
Wine is implied to have been blood all along ✓
Maggots falling from the ceiling …Wait, what?

Another thing that niggles me just a tad is that after Sara’s murder (which involved a lot of screaming that the bewitched and snoozy Suzie didn’t hear the night before), Suzie does her own digging. She goes to an acquaintance of Sara’s/expository psychiatrist/Not Jude Law, who explains to her that the academy was founded by a supposed witch, then HE passes her along to an older, wiser psychiatrist who explains that if Suzie kills the Queen of the Coven, then the coven will crumble and fail. HMMMMN, good job those two came along, eh?

Final Verdict:

This is a very beautiful film, and it truly felt as though I was looking at a work of art. I can see why it became a cult classic and I am frankly THRILLED that the planned remake never came to fruition, because it doesn’t need to be improved upon. It works very well as a horror movie; I can imagine how frightened people must have been watching this in the cinemas. However, some of the stylistic choices, especially the sound, can be a bit much at times, so if you’re going to watch it for yourself, be ready to adjust the volume periodically. Otherwise a great film.

Rating:

8 jam sandwiches.

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