Suspiria ReviewJoe Shaffer
Director Dario Argento always had a knack for taking everyday activities, like riding a taxi or walking a dog, and casting them in a sinister light. That's what I've always loved about his work, and especially what I enjoyed about the first two films in his Three Mothers trilogy. In particular, the first film in the trio, Suspiria, remains one of his finest pieces of horror fiction.
You're probably familiar with the tactics that most horror filmmakers utilize to create brooding atmosphere in their flicks. In most cases, I've seen directors rely on dim lighting and a somber score. In other cases, they employ composers who damn near ripoff Harry Manfredini of Friday the 13th fame. Worse yet are those who pound on synthesizers to produce otherwordly sounds, as if they're trying to insist that you find the film bizarre. Then you have directors like Argento, who clearly aren't cut from the same cloth. This is a man who employs a number of cinematographic techniques and ensures that every frame on his celluloid resembles a diabolical painting.
Take one scene in Suspiria, for instance, during which the protagonist Suzy Bannion arrives in a German airport during a nasty rainstorm. As she walks toward the airport's exit, we see a pulsating red light that plays on surrounding faces, scenery, and myriad raindrops outside. The effect results in a visual display that's about the closest you'll come to seeing a real life depiction of a pulp horror comic panel or a penny dreadful cover. Even as Suzy takes a taxi to her destination, a prestigious dance academy, the film's colorful style doesn't let up. Colored light once again shines through the vehicle's window, illuminating the raindrops dripping from the glass. Although the coloration is beautiful, it also seems to serve as an ill omen. If you've seen your share of horror movies, then you know that Suzy's stay at the Tanz Akademie isn't merely going to be a harmless course in dance theory. Something more insidious awaits her at the school, and the film's grim style (especially its obsession with the color red) seems to indicate this without outright telling its audience.
Fast forward a few minutes, and Suzy arrives at the academy just as another girl darts from the front door. She sprints into the heavy downpour like it's a minor inconvenience, spins around to yell a few inaudible words at Suzy, then disappears into the night. Meanwhile, the academy sends Suzy away because of a misunderstanding, forcing her to stay at a local hotel for the evening. While on the ride, Suzy peers out the window and spies the girl she bumped into a few minutes earlier running frantically through the woods. The film shifts into slow motion and a hard thrumming signals the beginning of one of Suspiria's ghostly musical numbers, provided by progressive synth composers Goblin. Like Argento with visuals, these guys really know how to capture a sense of foreboding through their music. In this particular scene, the music serves as yet another omen. By now, you should know that the running girl won't live to see sunrise. Prior experience with horror films might tell you that, but I think even the uninitiated could guess as much based on Argento's ability to create mood.
What follows is quite possibly the best death scene in the flick. I'm not only saying that because it's artsy-fartsy, but because it sets the pace for the rest of the movie, in particular the film's lavish set pieces and illogical, nightmarish narrative.
Suspiria's sense of style and brand of terror doesn't dissipate after this scene. The film's pacing does drop a bit between deaths, but the movie all around remains tastefully artsy. Eventually, Suzy enters the academy and we get a chance to take in its posh interior and the collection of oddball characters who run the show. Among them are an androgynous instructor, a seemingly clueless directress, and scores of childish students. However, the gorgeous decor and caricature-like characters seem to serve as a smokescreen. This becomes more apparent as Suzy questions the academy's activity, especially after she discovers that the running girl from earlier in the film was murdered. And as Suzy and one of her close friends draw closer to discovering the truth behind Tanz Akademie, more characters meet similarly grisly fates.
During their investigations, we see sections of the academy that seem out of place. The premises appear to be fleshed out with superfluous hallways, hidden doors, and mysterious rooms. One such locale is a storage room filled with nothing but miles of piano wire. As you can imagine, this room plays a tremendous role in a death scene, as a certain character becomes entangled in the mess of cords just before an off-screen assailant slits her throat.
Like the dance academy's architecture, Suspiria eschews conventional horror narrative. The movie's narrative doesn't flow in a logical structure, nor does it sport much of a coherent plot at times. Argento's aim with this film wasn't as much about storytelling (although there's definitely a story there). Rather, he sought to create the film equivalent of a nightmare, and that's precisely how Suspiria rolls.
Unfortunately, I will admit that there are some scenes that could have been handled better. In particular, one scene involves maggots raining down from the ceiling into several of the dorms. The scene definitely needs to be there, as it sets the audience up for their first view of the story's main antagonist. At the same time, the scene is quite tame for a movie like Suspiria. Worse than that is one part in which Suzy battles an obviously rubber bat. I suppose I can forgive Argento for including something so hokey in one of his films. My main concern with this scene, yet again, is that its a bit trite for a movie as unique as Suspiria. Also, I tend to associate bat attack scenes with horror movies that aim to not be taken so seriously.
Just the same, Suspiria is a fine piece of surrealist horror. Maybe this isn't the pinnacle of Italian horror, nor even the apex of Dario Argento's work, but it is a fine addition to his line of grisly films. Unfortunately, the oft-slow pacing and lack of death scenes might leave you wanting more surreal terror. Thankfully, as Suspiria is part of a trilogy, it has a sequel that pays those elements in spades. But that's another review for another time...
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