Revisiting Suspiria on the Big Screen
Author: Chris Hallock
I just stepped in from the cold after catching a beautiful Technicolor print of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. I’d never had a chance to experience it on the big screen, so I was stoked that our local indie arthouse the Brattle Theater had borrowed a pristine print from overseas. Apparently there is no decent print to be found in the states. Damn if the screen didn’t explode with that famous brilliant color and atmospheric lighting! The near capacity crowd was awash in lush reds and greens and blues! The Brattle also cranked up the sound so that Goblin’s maddening score rattled my nerves like never before. Having only seen it in two small screen formats, an old VHS when I was thirteen, and a more polished DVD edition, I was smiling in wide-eyed wonder just like when I was a lad. That it’s often considered Argento’s masterpiece is no surprise. My only complaint is that it looks like this print received a number of small cuts with a bit of the gore left out (where was Pat’s heart stabbing?!). Just how many versions of this film are out there, anyway?
I’m not sure what’s left to say about Suspiria that hasn’t already been mentioned in countless articles, interviews, and conversations about the film. It is almost universally considered one of the most frightening films ever made. Even so, I’m always a little hesitant to recommend it to certain uninitiated movie fans. That’s sad to say considering it’s so ridiculously great in many ways. This dark fairy tale about American dancer Suzy Banyon uncovering a coven of witches running her a dance school is plagued a bit by some convoluted writing. Some unforgiving viewers might not understand.
Argento is clearly a visionary and he tells his stories with stark, angular, gorgeous and shocking images. He is an auteur who knows what he wants. However, the characters must have conversations to move things along, and therein lies the problem. Argento struggles with dialogue. The film hinges on a charming absurdity that requires a very high level of suspension of disbelief. It plays as a mystery, but everything is spelled out with the most obvious of clues. It’s one of those movies where a character will appear out of nowhere just to provide a left field explanation that ties everything together (Udo Kier’s appearance is one such instance). There is also a very flamboyant 70s sensibility in the art design and costuming that gets more than a few snickers from newbies. Sometimes those snickers are like stabbing because I love this movie so much, but then how can you not laugh at hulking manservant Pavlo and his wooden false teeth or doe-eyed Albert in his knickers and bowl cut?
I admit (grudgingly) that Suspiria can be downright silly at times, but it’s a mesmerizing piece of horror filmmaking. The sum is possibly not as great as its parts, but then those parts are pretty freaking amazing! Everything is so gorgeously composed and detailed that you never dwell on the plentiful ridiculous moments. In fact, it’s those touches that gives the film a dream-like quality bordering on the surreal. Argento clearly writes with a sense of humor that may lose a little in the translation. What is important is that there are many powerful, now iconic moments that deliver every time. From Pat thrust through a colorful stained glass window and dangling from a wire, to her friend carved up in a rain of glass and framed on the checkerboard marble floor. What about the moment where Daniel is attacked in a dark and foreboding square? Who hasn’t cringed when seeing the silhouette of the directress as she wheezes in bed, with only a sheer curtain to separate her from a whispering Suzy and Sarah?
Argento is often criticized for extended murder scenes of pretty girls and accused often of outright misogyny. Argento’s argument is that if he’s going to film several ugly deaths, he may as well balance it out with pretty girls to look at in between. Maybe the matriarchal culture of Italy brings out the worst in him. Who knows? It’s not like the men have it easy, either. Poor Daniel got his throat ripped out by his own seeing-eye dog! No one is safe in Argento’s nightmares!
Again, I need to mention the amazing Goblin score. The music throbs, beckons us into the story from the first moments we see Suzy in the airport. We know that once she goes through that sliding glass door, nothing will ever be the same again. The score gives the film a weight, a consciousness, a pulse, and a mythology that’s now been completed as part of a trilogy that includes Inferno and Mother of Tears. Like Suzy, we immediately step into a frightening realm of intrigue and terror with very few places to hide. The jarring cacophany of the score doesn’t guide us so much as it grabs and pulls us in kicking and screaming.
Ok, I changed my mind about hesitating. If you haven’t seen this, you are missing out on one of the great horror cinematic treasures. If there’s any hope of seeing it in a theater, please jump at the chance!