Dario Argento I 1974 I Italy / USA
A candy-coloured nightmare from Italian horror master Dario Argento, Suspiria proves to be one of the finest horror films ever made. It is without doubt the film Argento is most identified with - and rightfully so. Seldom have I turned off the TV feeling as satisfied (and terrified, mind you) as when I finished watching this film. I ended up thinking that this is how horror films should be. The film not only knows our fear and vulnerabilities; it plays with them, it annexes them. There are moments in the film that are filled with so much power you cannot help but admire the sheer brilliance with which it's all executed. The film's strength lies in how it often makes the horror so close, that it becomes literally impossible to bear it. You're not just scared by what's taking place on screen; you're utterly overwhelmed by it.
The story begins with Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper), a young American ballet dancer who arrives at a prestigious European dance academy run by the mysterious Madame Blane (Joan Bennett) and Miss Tanner (Alida Vali). But when a series of bizarre incidents and horrific crimes turn the school into a waking nightmare of the damned, Suzy must escape the academy's unspeakable secret of supernatural evil.
As the film commences, one instantly realises that they are in for something special. From the very first frame one catches sight of the palette of colours that paint the screen, which provide the film with a surrealistic, almost dreamlike feel. Red, blue, green and yellow are all used in a unique manner. As the haunting music begins to play, the deeper the viewer is drawn into this tale of witchcraft as a fairy tale gone horribly awry. Within the first fifteen minutes we witness the murder of a young girl. It completely sets the mood for the film and inundates us with the feeling that from then on something, sometime is going to go awfully wrong. Not only is the whole sequence inventive and phenomenally carried out; it's gruesome and brutally gory - possibly one of the most vicious killing scenes ever filmed (it would later be done homage to in Craven's Scream). It's all incredibly violent yet stylishly filmed and remains shocking after more than twenty five years. On making this film and these murder scenes, Argento was once quoted by saying "Fear is a 370 degree centigrade body temperature. With Suspiria I wanted 400 degrees"). And it clearly shows that he really accomplished this.
Perhaps the acting is not what one may call stellar, but I thought it was adequate for a movie of this sort. Jessica Harper is very convincing in her role and seems to grow more confident in it as the film goes. The supporting cast is no exception and delivers a nice bunch of performances. But, to tell you the truth, Suspiria is not a film about acting. It's not what it relies on and its not what it was made for. It was made to scare us, and it definitely succeeds.
For me, what makes the film so immortal is the fact that it plays almost like a real nightmare. Surely this was meant to happen by the director, because it's impressively done. Argento used the Technicolor three-strip matrix system, hand-screening each frame of the film and dying it in odd shades of colours, resulting in a hallucinatory, disorienting effect. All and every single of these components are what transform the film into a lurid experience. With his trademark visual virtuosity at his most ostentatious, he takes everything at his disposal and makes the best out of it. As a consequence, we, like the main character herself, obtain this sense of claustrophobia an intense panic which frightens us to a very large extent, let alone unsettle us. We feel somewhat bewildered because we don't exactly are aware of what is going on, we feel confused, just like in a nightmare.
It makes us obtain a sense of complete anxiety because it's so unnerving. We're willing to know everything, yet we cant find out.
It is the unpredictability which surrounds the film that makes it so memorable. I, for one, found the scene with the murderer chasing the girl with the shaving razor magnificently effective. The suspense is gradually and carefully built up, mainly due to The Goblins's haunting, booming score and the wonderful camerawork. I thought such and such things were going to occur and that in the end she would eventually escape when suddenly she falls into the barbed wire (again, this scene is very gory and unpleasant, but without it, the film probably would not be the gem that it is). This demonstrates the way Argento masterfully manipulates (and alters) the audience's expectations by showing us the things we'd never have expected to see and by raising the tension to such a large echelon that when silence comes, all we feel is relief, even though we're not aware of what really is about to happen. There is a constant sense of ominous menace which makes us alert, and this is the real richness of the film. Because, who would've thought that a dance academy could be so frightening and intimidating? Who would've thought that a horror film could've been set in a place like this?
While some may find the lack of coherence slightly frustrating (given that not everything is given an explanation here), it worked totally fine with me, because, one has to consider, that nightmares seldom make total sense (or any, for that matter). Also, the final revelations are not particularly difficult to differentiate and ultimately make the ending a bit unrewarding, but still, it all seems to work. In my opinion, this is one of the closest attempts that film has ever got to portray the real horror that a nightmare is. Some may complain about the director's often ridiculous disregard for credibility in favour of effect (the rain of maggots, for example) but if you just leave it alone and suspend your disbelief, I'm pretty certain that you may find this among the most unforgettable horror films you've ever seen.
There are touches of sheer genius in the film; the image of a light dimming light bulb is simply fantastic, and let's not forget the death of Daniel, the blind piano player. The way the tension is erected is mesmerising. With complex camerawork, including large shadows and far off shots, Argento manages to create arguably the finest scene of the film and one of the most creative deaths.
There are horror films that scare and there are horror films that leave you flabbergasted; Suspiria does both, and surprisingly with incredible ability. The film differs from the rest of horror films because it possesses qualities that few other movies actually use, and because of this, or rather, as a result of this, it manages to be essential viewing for any horror buff. Terrifying, slick and tensely atmospheric, Suspiria is a masterpiece of its genre. And one thing is assured: I won't be too surprised if I can't get to sleep tonight without the light turned on.