Director: Dario Argento | Runtime: 1h 39mins | Horror
Young and talented dancer Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) transfers to a ballet academy in Berlin, but shortly after arriving a number of brutal murders occur and she begins to suspect it being a front for something more sinister.
Argento is a legend in horror genre, mostly working within the confines of giallo, the Italian sub-genre of generally utilising elements of slashers and mystery, with plenty of thrills. Many argue that over his illustrious career Suspiria is his masterpiece, not something which this review will debate as it would require analysis of his some 25 directorial credits.
It’s difficult to decide what to talk about first, the film employs the dreamlike and surreal state that many of Argento’s pieces are known for. Later works, such as 1980’s Inferno, are mostly incoherent without a real sense of narrative, but his unique and oddly beautiful take on gore horror lift the pieces up. With Suspiria, there is a much more obvious narrative at play, even if it is paper thin compared to other classics from the 70’s. Coming in at an hour and half, there isn’t a need for a more complex story. This is where some of the audience will be left though, as the film is wildly polarising between plenty of modern film goers. Many scenes play out with either little advancement to the story, or instead are illogical, except pushing the characters to where they need to be for the next beat to occur.
Mostly set in the ballet academy, there is an assumption that there would be more dancing, but aside from a few short sequences, it focuses on Suzy and fellow dancer Sara (Stefania Casini) as they try to unravel the mystery of the school. Though, there isn’t a great deal of detective work by the pair either, much of the runtime they spend trying to make sense of the strange situations that seem to befall them – such as the maggots falling from the ceilings. Madame Blanc, played by Joan Bennett, explains this away, but you are left wondering what purpose it served – other than to scare the characters.
A weirdly fascinating film, the strangest thing might perhaps be how engaging all this actually is. The above may seem like criticism, but oddly it endures the piece to be more charming, leaving plenty to mull over once the very short credits roll. The most notable element though, is the same as any Argento film – the visuals. Striking and bold colours illuminate the screen, with bright red lighting most of the scenes throughout. The sound of lightning bringing flashes of blue and occasionally green as a complete contrast everything inside. Sub-textually it might have importance to a few of those watching, but there is so much without any real explanation that it is more about personal interpretation than the message Argento is trying to get across. To me, it seems to represent the surrealness of the situation, making you question whether it’s real or merely a metaphorical story itself.
The production design is the most impressive part without question. Some of the set pieces are so beautifully designed and carefully shot, someone may mistake it for a horror directed by Wes Anderson (implemented further by the pop colours presented throughout). Layers of symmetry create wonderful but distressing hallways and corridors, and startling illustrations covering the walls, especially in the sequences leading to the climax. The score provided by Italian prog-rock band Goblin reflects the visuals in its abstract and exaggerated way, some beautifully suspenseful and some excessively pronounced.
It’s important to note that this was watched through the Mubi streaming service, as the version available on there has a very noticeable overdub throughout. Unfortunately, it does take a lot away from many of the performances, as much comes through as wooden or clearly recorded in a studio by a different person. This is due to many of the actors speaking their native tongue on film so many conversations were spoken half Italian or German, the other English, which does come across. As well as this, it feels like a film from it’s time in terms of make-up and effects. Almost cartoonish for modern audiences, some may find this distracting and detract from the piece.
This is all being hypercritical, though. For some, they may want a more established story and protagonist, better explanation of the occult Suzy falls into and a less ambiguous ending (the smiling?). However, if you feel that the wildly weird and beautiful side resonates more and forgive the pitfalls, and see it as more of a metaphorical story then you’re more likely to enjoy the experience. Whichever way you view the film, though, it it’s likely to stick with you for a while.