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.
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