Sunday, October 3, 2010

Suspiria (1977) Creepiness Never Looked So Good

I've always found that each country that contributes a substantial amount of horror films to the waiting community has its own identity. It's not always easy to identify it, but Japanese horror films are different from French horror films, which are different from Spanish horror films. As far as I'm concerned, diversity is an enormous strength. There's a little for everyone. Italian horror films have long been entrenched in the upper echelon of filmmaking. Often referred to as giallo, Italian horror films combine elements of - among other genres - horror, mystery, and visual artistry. Arguably, the reigning king of giallo has to be Dario Argento.

Argento's been making movies for a long time, and when he isn't making his own, he helps with others. He's often credited as playing a huge part in the making and European distribution of the original Dawn of the Dead, even helping add the distinctive music with the band Goblin. He's made some of the most influential films in the horror and mystery world, and continues to inspire directors, actors, and filmgoers.

Suspiria is considered Argento's greatest film (although many will have their own preference) and is a bizarre, twisty, gorgeous mystery with healthy doses of occult shenanigans and beautiful shots that lend to an ethereal experience. It's not full of savvy teens cracking wise and throwing out ironic quips. Instead, it's more of a dream-like walk through an old building lit up with primary colors. Oh, yeah, and with unsettling, wildly creepy music blaring at you from all sides.

It goes a little like this:

Young American dancer Suzy (Jessica Harper) lands in Austria one rainy, windy night, arriving at a prestigious dance school just in time to see a frantic student named Pat argue with someone, then run away through the woods. Suzy heads to town when she isn't allowed in, and Pat heads to her apartment where she is stalked and brutally murdered - emphasis on "brutally" - by an unseen attacker who seems to be able to operate at great heights. Maybe even fly. All Pat ever really sees are the eyes.

Suzy returns and meets the staff, plus the makeshift roommate she'll have until her room is ready at the school. After staying with her new friend Olga, Suzy tells the staff she'd rather stay with her, but they insist she move into the dorm. Suzy has a weird moment with the school's cook, causing her to pass out. When she awakens, all her stuff has been moved into her new room whether she likes it or not. Regardless, Suzy becomes fast friends with the girl in the room next door, Sarah.

In a strange turn, maggots begin to rain from the ceiling, thanks to some rotting food in the attic. Forced to sleep in the gym (shades of Revenge of the Nerds), Sarah is put off by the strange snore of the school's director, who isn't supposed to be present. All we see is a silhouette behind one of the shades, presented in stark red light.

Sarah is convinced that the staff slips away to some secret room when they claim to leave every night. Suzy is perpetually confused by the weirdness of the school, but is probably the only one who would listen to Sarah.

Oddly, the next morning, the blind piano player for the dance classes is abruptly fired when it's claimed his seeing-eye dog attacked Madame Blanc's (Joan Bennett) young, weirdo nephew. For you comic book fans, the nephew Albert (Jacopo Mariani) reminded me of DC Comics' boy-witch Klarion:

I don't know. He could've been the same kid. Crazy little witch boys. The pianist threatens to expose the school for what it is and leaves to have a beer at some Oktoberfest-ish bar. Crossing an empty plaza at night, he is spooked by strange sounds before having his throat ripped out by his trusty dog.

Turns out Sarah and Pat were friends and they took notes on the strange behavior of the school's stafff. Suzy recalls Pat saying the words "secret" and "iris" that first night, but has no idea what they mean. Sarah can't find her notes, but Suzy, still feeling out of sorts since that fainting spell, passes out in her bed. An intruder enters the room, and then gives chase to Sarah, who ends up in a room full of razor wire before having her throat slit by the attacker. That room - coils of razor wire everywhere - has always stuck in my memory.

Suzy meets up with Sarah's psychologist, Dr. Mandel (the ever-present Udo Kier, looking really young here), to get some clues as to where Sarah may have gone. Mandel and his friend Professor Milius reveal that the school may have ties to a very old witch, who apparently founded it.

Counting the footsteps she and Sarah would hear every night, Suzy finds herself in the headmaster's office, a strikingly painted room that sported flowers everywhere. Including painted irises.

Suzy finds a secret area of the school, and discovers that the entire staff is there, plotting as a coven to have her murdered since she's finding out too much. She also meets the original woman who founded the school, and I think it's safe to say she's rather...supernaturally based. She appears only as an outline of a person sitting on a bed and threatening Suzy. The woman, Helena Markos, even reanimates Sarah's corpse, who comes charging in for a reunion with Suzy.

A bloody, eyeless, knife-y reuinon.

Suzy reacts by stabbing the outline of Helena with the glass feather of a piece of peacock artwork present in the room in a bit of a reference to an earlier Argento film, The Bird With Crystal Plumage. Helena dies loudly, causing tremors to rumble through the school and the rest of the coven to writhe in pain as Suzy escapes into the night.

Suspiria ends there, but the story continues as Argento laid it all out as a trilogy, with the films Inferno and Mother of Tears following in 1980 and 2007, respectively.

While the dubbing is sometimes...interesting, and some may find the pacing to drag some, Suspiria is a beautiful film. I mentioned those primary colors. You see stark renditions of red and blue, from the blood to the lighting that are both sharp and dream-like. After some reading around, I found out that Argento used "imbibition Technicolor prints," which was a technique used in films like The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind that causes the primary colors to appear more striking than usual. This, combined with the angles that Argento used, created something like artwork. Argento used space like a stage, with the actors sent perfectly across each scene as if they were part of a painting.

Now, the soundtrack is crazy. Goblin, who first captured my heart in Dawn of the Dead, performs a stranger bit of music here. Yet, it seemed as though the copy of the movie I got had problems with the audio channels as I kept having to fuss with the volume to either soften the music or turn up the dialogue. Don't let that stop you from seeing this. Suspiria is considered one of horror's classics, and while everyone has different tastes, one should see it at least for the experience.

Well, that's all for now, fellow survivors. Until next time, be careful out there, and be wary of weird dance academies.


  1. Haha, love the Klarion comparison!

    Man, the atmosphere and design and lighting in this film! Nice to read another insightful take on Suspiria. I know everyone loves to talk about it, but I just love getting different perspectives on it.

    Got to see a 35mm screening last year, but it was one of the trimmed versions. Still gorgeous, though.

  2. The thing that always struck me was the use of color - felt the same way this time (3rd time I saw the movie) as I did the first time.