Sunday, 13 January 2008

Oh Suspiria, so much to answer for...

This review of the Dario Argento movie SUSPIRIA is part of the Final Girl Film Club*.  Its not really part of the Winding Way raison d'etre to blog about classic films, of which surely SUSPIRIA is one, but it is so under-seen by my peers I really felt like I needed to be part of this movement to bring its beauty to a wider audience. Not that my neophyte blog with its one entry every couple of weeks is probably going to have much of an impact on that, but my intentions are pretty pure (that's if you discount my hopes that I may be visited by more than my one regular reader).

* Final Girl is possibly the finest blog around, and a big inspiration for this site. I intend to review the site itself at some point in the future.

Anyhoo, I mentioned beauty earlier, and I didn't use it as a throwaway term. SUSPIRIA is surely one of the most beautiful films committed to celluloid. Certainly the most beautiful horror film I can remember seeing. The art direction is stunning and the sets are almost too perfect -FACT: the red building used for the outside of the ballet school is a real place (check the
Three Mothers entry on Wikipedia if you don't believe me. What?! As if Wikipedia would lie to me!) The moment we see the sliding doors open in the airport and the overstyled woman walking in front of Susie Banyon get buffeted by the wind machine outside, its obvious we are in for a treat (I always feel that the presence of an obvious wind machine has the potential to promote any film to greatness).  But Suspiria isn't just great OR beautiful, its frickin' weird - oh yeah, and damn scary, and it doesn't take any time at all for either of those to get into their stride. Before we can really take in the fact that our heroine, Susie, has been turned away from the ballet academy (we're assuming she's our heroine because she was introduced by voiceover during the titles) we're knee deep into a campily acted scene featuring the girl we have just seen leaving said academy. This situation soon develops into an incredibly violent yet somehow grotesquely gorgeous death scene. I do feel like a sicko for saying that, but I can't not, and if you've seen the film I'm hoping you know what I mean. Its just so terrifying, well-orchestrated, and yes, still a bit camp - especially the close-up of the knife stabbing the beating heart, and the denouement of the scene is just breath-stealing. The first time I watched the film, my friend Sina who introduced me to it, turned to me at this point and asked me if I was sure I wanted to carry on watching, I just looked at him like he was crazy and told him there was no way I could stop watching. 

There is a part of me that feels like the intensity of that opening shocker isn't matched by anything that follows, and I'm not sure that any one scene actually does - there is something a bit anticlimactic about the final showdown between Susie and the 'Black Queen' for example. But there is a lot more to SUSPIRIA than just gore and shocks, although there is still plenty of that to come. The mysterious and plain bizarre atmosphere that perpetuates throughout just doesn't falter. Possibly my favourite scene in the film occurs when our fawn-like heroine is on the way to her first ballet class. Whilst walking down the opulent scarlet corridor the troll-like dinner-lady shines light from a strange triangular object into Susie's eye. The lighting in the whole scene flips briefly and a loud "WITCH" burps out of the muted chanting soundtrack at the exact second that Susie is momentarily blinded by the reflected light. Its a relatively quiet moment compared to some, but for me it clearly demonstrates how Argento pulls together all the weapons in his film-making arsenal to create something unexplainable and fascinatingly other-wordly. 

Before I forget I have to talk a bit about Jessica Harper, who plays the very sweet and almost wimpy Susie Banyon. Although that charge may be slightly unfair as her character is attacked by the aforementioned hideous kitchen help, drugged, and bullied by the statuesque and formidable Miss Tanner. Harper is such a contrast to the rest of the predominantly female cast, mainly because she is the only really sympathetic player. Even Sarah, her friend and sometime confidante, is a bit too intense for comfort and seems to have slightly looser relationship with sanity than is usual. I wonder how conscious this was, and how much it is to do with the acting styles of the different nationalities - Harper is American, most of the rest of the cast seem to be European. My feeling is that it is deliberate. Susie is isolated as a character for most of the film and clearly isn't supposed to fit in. How better to engage the viewers sympathy with her, and therefore draw them into the film than to have her be the only one that acts (and reacts) relatively normally?

SUSPIRIA is one of my favourite films of all time, precisely because of the way Dario Argento is able to masterfully lift the film way above the sum of its parts. I've already mentioned most of these elements, such as the amazing sets and art direction, the evocative lighting and colour which play a huge part in setting the tone, and it would be so wrong of me not to give greater props to Goblin, frequent Argento collaborators whose prog-art-rock soundtrack add such a chaotic mood to the proceedings. Of course there are also the performances, some of which may be too hammy to suit everyones taste, but for me they accentuate the hyper-reality in which they exist. Everything is just that little bit bigger, (see the height of the doors and door-handles) brighter, louder, and just more hysterical than it needs to be. This could be an Italian thing (check out Fellini or indeed any opera if you think I'm guilty of racial stereotyping), I don't know, but whatever it is it works, for me at least. There's so much more that I'd like to say about it, but its late, I'm tired and I also don't want to spoil it for those who haven't seen it. The less you know, the more there is to enjoy. I would urge anyone who hasn't seen it to at least watch the first 15 minutes (look its on YouTube!) to see what they're missing out on. For horror and fantasy fans especially it is a dense, rewarding and fresh experience that still works even 30 years on.


AE said...

Everything is just that little bit bigger, (see the height of the doors and door-handles) brighter, louder, and just more hysterical than it needs to be.

Great point. I agree entirely with the opera analogy. This movie is so over-the-top -- I almost feel bad having rented it and not waiting for a big-screen showing. Although that might've been almost too much.

Sina said...

As ever, an insightful and entertainingly written review, and this time of one of my moist favourite horror films - nay, most favourite films period - OF ALL TIME. And I'd forgotten I'd asked you if you wanted to stop watching it early on, I guess I underestimated your true inner grotesquerie! ;o)