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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Retro Review: Suspiria

Apparently, I'm in some kind of an Italian horror mood, as can be evidenced by the Catriona MacColl edition of Woman of the Week I contributed to Day of the Woman earlier today. Now, I'm continuing that theme with a special look at a movie which I strongly feel is one of the absolute modern masterpieces of the genre, Dario Argento's shining jewel, Suspiria (1977).

Argento can be a frustratingly erratic director, but generally speaking, he is one of the modern masters, and Suspiria is Argento at the very height of his powers. It's definitely the closest he comes to being the Italian Alfred Hitchcock, which I've always felt was his goal. The levels of genuine suspense, the ebb and flow of tension that he is able to create here is truly staggering.

Based loosely on Thomas de Quincey's 19th century novel Suspiria de Profundis, the movie tells the story of an innocent new student at a ballet academy who makes the terrifying discover that the school is merely a front for a bizarre coven of witches. But you know what? I'm tempted not to say it, since it sounds like a knock, but Suspiria is the kind of a movie where the plot points are somewhat irrelevant.

In fact, this is a property of many of the best Italian horrors. And in the case of Suspiria, it really is all about the sensory feast Argento and his crew have cooked up for us. Luciano Tovoli, who in later years would shoot such American films as Reversal of Fortune, Single White Female, and Kiss of Death, offers up some truly sumptuous cinematography that epitomizes Argento's philosophy that horror can actually be beautiful. The lighting is intriguing throughout, with some truly breathtaking use of color--red being the theme, of course.

There are shots in this film, for example much of those making up the stunning opening murder sequence, that really should be studied by film students everywhere. I'd say it's the kind of movie you could totally watch and enjoy with the sound off, but then you'd be missing out on another major reason the movie works so well--the insistent, profound and off-putting score by Italian progressive rock band Goblin. Their music washes over the film, bathing it in atmosphere.

This is a rich, textured film, and I find I take away something new from it every time I watch it. I enjoyed it from the very first time I saw it, about 12 years ago, but I don't think I fully appreciated it until I started rewatching it. There's just so much being thrown at you, that I think first-time viewers can be a bit overwhelmed by it all. But this film is like a fine wine that ages wonderfully, and provides greater and greater pleasure over time.

In addition to that classic opening sequence, with its unforgettable heart stabbing, there are so many moments that stay with me. The strongest one for me has always been the sequence involving the one unfortunate student who flees frantically from her pursuer, only to find herself plunged into a room filled with razor wire. This is among the most memorable scenes I have witnessed in any horror movie, and I find myself referencing it often. A truly nightmarish scenario brought brilliantly to life by Argento, Tovoli, and Argento's favorite editor, Franco Fraticelli.

Some point to the surrealistically bright red blood employed by special effects director Germano Natali as a negative, but I think those who grasp what Argento is doing know that realism is never what he's going for. The blood itself is beautiful in a strange way, adding to the aesthetically appealing brutality that is Argento's stock-in-trade.

For as much as I love Lucio Fulci, and as underrated as he was in his ability to create a mood, nothing he ever did rivaled the masterful work accomplished here by Dario Argento. As horror films go, Suspiria is an absolute gem, and a true pleasure to watch, in a way that few horror movies are.

Suspiria is also a perfect example of technique over content. It's a true filmmaker's film. While the script and acting arer all adequate, that's not what keeps me coming back to this film over and over. Rather, it's Argento's enthralling style, the deft manner in which he crafted this gorgeous, gorgeous film. Some may say it's a self-conscious style, but I eat up with a spoon every time. I never find it overbearing or pretentious--rather, I only wish all of Argento's work could live up to the quality of this picture. Although I also love films of his like Deep Red and Tenebre, there is only one Suspiria...

In addition to being a filmmaker's film, Suspiria is also a horror fanatic's horror film. It might not be the best to show someone who's only a casual fright flick fan, but for those more discriminating lovers of the cinematic macabre, Suspiria remains a titan of the genre. As a horror film, it is all but perfect.

9 comments:

Ms Harker said...

Ok, so I may be showing my ignorance but this is the same director as Mother of Tears,otherwise known as La terza madre? Uffa non capisco, questo film e` pazzo! My Italian is very rusty... I didn't get the film, but you have enlightened me to the craft of Argento's films. Some of the shots/scenes in Rome were stunning and his use of colour is indeed beautiful... I may need to watch Suspiria to gain a better insight?

www.musingcontinuum.com

B-Sol said...

See, that's what I mean when I talk about how frustratingly erratic Argento can be! You need to check out Suspiria, you won't be disappointed. And while you're at it, if you haven't, try Deep Red, Tenebre, Opera and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. That's Argento at his best!

gord said...

The first time I saw this film I could barely make it through it. It was at the beginning of my horror movie obsession, and it was also one of my first foreign horror films. It also didn't help that it's incredibly bizarre and definitely more about style than logic and narrative.

Anyways, after being reintroduced to Argento through Tenebrae, I tried out the film again and fell in love with it, as I have with everything of his since.

@Ms. Harker, like B suggested try him out again, though personally, I'd suggest starting with Deep Red and Tenebrae. They contain similar elements from Suspiria (great music, violent scenes), but they have infinitely more developed characters and stories.

MonsterScholar said...

Thanks for jogging my memory! I saw this at a Halloween film festival at the Border Theater in Mission TX on a date with my future husband. Aww memories. The red hallway scene really stuck in my head.

Fred [The Wolf] said...

SUSPIRIA is classic Italian horror. I disliked it the first time I watched it, but I enjoy it now after multiple viewings. That opening murder sequence is just absolutely stunning. And Goblin's score is haunting and beautiful at the same time. I plan on reviewing this one myself soon. Great review.

Andre said...

My favorite film hands down. I just reviewed this as well and your review is great. The movie has the ability to put me inside the nightmare that Suzy finds herself in. The entire feel is just so incredible and I haven't found another movie that can top it. I could watch this movie over and over again and never tire of it.

Tower Farm said...

Great review!

But "frustratingly erratic" is putting it mildly. What happened to him? Every time I think a new Argento can't be worse than the last one...

-Billy

bavafan@hotmail said...

One of my favourite movies of all time! Rivalled only by the best of Hitchcock (Psycho, The Birds), but even Hitchcock never pushed colours to the limits and beyond the way that Argento did here (although Vertigo comes close) I count myself lucky that I saw it on a big screen back in 1977. If only they would re-release it! Even watching it on DVD is the second-best way of experiencing this marvelous film.

B-Sol said...

Without a doubt, one of the finest horror films ever made. And scariest!

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