Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Harper’s Bizarre: Suspiria (1977) Review

When it comes to my love of horror movies I feel like an outcast living in a no-man's-land between the real world, where regular folk think I have an unhealthy level of interest in the genre, and the world of seasoned horror genre aficionados where I'm a comparative light weight with very little authority on the genre.

Ask your average Joe what they think of Suspiria and they'll likely have no idea what you're talking about and ask you in return when did you suddenly develop a lisp. Ask an internet horror blogger about Suspiria and you'll think they just popped an eccy as you witness the love for this movie pour from every... uhm... pore of their body. Now, if you'd asked me last week I would have said, "It's one of many Dario Argento movies I haven't seen". Ask me this week, and my response is yet another affirmation of my horror movie purgatory between the real world and the world of hard-core horror genre enthusiasts.

Suzy (Jessica Harper) is an American ballet dancer who travels to Germany to train at an exclusive dance school. When she arrives she is accompanied by dramatic gusts of wind blowing through the airport terminal, a frenetic music score, wild stormy weather, and flashing red lights in the back of her cab. It is, without a doubt, the most dramatic airport transfer ever committed to film.

In the 1970's German taxi drivers were often known to place flashing red lights on their rear parcel shelf in a bid to fool other drivers into thinking that they were an emergency services vehicle, ensuring them clear passage through Germany's notoriously congested traffic.

When Suzy arrives at the dance school she sees an overacting woman with poorly looped dialogue fleeing the school in a state of over-baked distress. When Suzy tries to check-in at the dance school a voice on the intercom refuses her entry and tells her to go away. Suzy pleads her case with the voice on the intercom, that she's a new student who is expected, but it is to no avail. She eventually gives up, gets back in her cab, and goes... well, I don't know where... because the movie then disorientating jumps to a set piece where two women are murdered... somewhere.

After the two women are murdered, writer/director Dario Argento cuts to the following day. Suzy heads back to the dance school after spending the night at... well, who knows... and this time, in the calm light of day, she receives a warm welcome from the women who run the school. We soon learn, via the poorly looped, expository, dialogue that the woman Suzy saw fleeing the school the previous night was one of the two women murdered... somewhere.

What ensues are a series of equally illogical and disorientating death scenes all centred around the dance school, a wholly unconvincing scene of exposition where Suzy learns from a couple of quacks what the source of the menace at the school is, and finally an anti-climactic stab-stab-stab-burn ending. The cherry on top of this half-baked pie is the first line of the final credits: "You have been watching Suspira". Thanks for the reminder Dario, for a while there I thought I was watching How Not To Decorate.

Argento creates atmosphere with red light.

Even the most enthusiastic admirers of Suspiria don't deny the story telling is flawed. To be honest, from what I'd read about Suspiria prior to watching it, I was expecting it to be more esoteric and impenetrable than it actually is. It turns out that the basic story is actually fairly conventional and does, very loosely, make sense. It's just really poorly told, with Argento clearly more interested in mood and atmosphere than a coherent narrative.

It's the film's visual splendour and frenetic soundtrack that that admirers love to shovel praise on. For me, impressive visuals are no substitute for character and story. Even if they were, I just wasn't as impressed with the film's visuals as so many others are. All locations are soaked, to the point of oozing, in garish primary colours. Scenes are illuminated by coloured party lights with a very strong emphasis on red, because, you know, red is the colour of bloooooooooooood!!! Ahem.

Argento creates even more atmosphere with even more red light.

Unidentified Suspiria actress goes perilously close to drowning in atmosphere.

I can only assume that hard-core fans who drool over Agrento's technicolor yawn have never been inside a sex shop, because these establishments are all decorated and lit pretty much the same way as the Suspiria sets. Garish solid colours adorn the walls whilst halls and entrances are bathed in red light. If you've ever been into one of these seedy establishments Argento's production design suddenly looks more like a derivative of the décor at Penelope's Porn Palace than the visual masterpiece it's often touted as.

I wanted to like Suspiria. I really did. And during the opening scenes I thought maybe I was going to. Maybe I was finally going to fit with the hard-core horror crowd. But, sadly, the muddled storytelling and porn shop visuals soon had me on the verge of falling asleep, dreaming about my destiny to forever languish in nightmare purgatory between the real world and the world of true horror fandom.

You have been reading a review of Suspiria.


  1. I loved Suspiria for many years because it was unlike anything I'd ever seen. I picked up a used DVD copy of it recently and found myself laughing at it. There's a certain charm to the unnatural acting and lighting, and I still have affection for it. But considering it's probably his best film, I don't know why Argento has such a great reputation.

    Hilarious review by the way, especially the last line.

  2. Thanks Marvin.

    I can see why Susperia has fans and I imagine if I'd caught it when I was younger it might have impressed me more. But, these days I'm a grumpy old man wholly intolerant of bad storytelling.

    That said, I'll reserve my judgement of Argento until I catch up with a few more of his films.