I always feel bad not enjoying a movie that’s generally loved, or at least admired for something; such is the case with Dario Argento‘s Suspiria. I’ve seen Suspiria twice, the first time being about three Halloweens ago and I rewatched it today because I didn’t think I gave it a fair shot the first time. I applaud Argento’s use of color, music, and gore, but the story seemed to be lacking in favor of brutality. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good gory movie but some of these death scenes are crude and exploitative and I think the story is too thin and content to rely on the violence. I’d watch another Argento film to see if I like him as a director but Suspiria as a film is simply adequate.
American Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) enrolls in a prestigious ballet academy in Germany. Upon arriving an expelled student dies horribly and Suzy becomes increasingly ill. As others at the academy start dying mysteriously and Suzy becomes weaker, she starts to wonder if the rumors of witchcraft at the academy might be true.
Having now seen both a Bava and Argento film I can easily see why Argento is remembered; because he adores that blood! The blood is a red-orange, paint-like substance that makes beautiful splashes throughout the film and I can’t fault him for that. In fact I can’t complain about the set design of this film at all. Argento has mentioned that he was inspired by Disney’s Snow White and the fairy-tale imagery, the lullaby score from Goblin, and the naïvety of the cast, all make this on par with a modern-day fairy tale. It’s said that Argento originally wrote the film for a 12-year-old cast of girls but the censors wouldn’t allow brutality of this level to happen to children so Argento raised the ages of the characters to twenty but kept the script as written so throughout the characters are naïve and frightened. I particularly love the idea of making the doorknobs higher than the girls, as if the school is growing larger and trying to swallow them up. The bright colors extend to the images of stained-glass and wallpaper which can make the rooms like busy but are beautiful. I can see why Tumblr is filled with images from Suspiria because every scene is like a painting.
With the heavy aesthetic quality that does lessen the impact of certain things. The blood looks fake, again orange-y and thick, it’s obvious where dummies are used, and by not changing the script characters come off as annoying because of their child-like nature. Case in point is the seductive Olga (Barbara Magnolfi) who is meant to be this sexual temptress yet introduces herself by calling Suzy “snake”-like because of her name then getting into a hissing argument, literally she hisses through the whole thing, with fellow student Sara (Stefania Casini). Olga is only in about two scenes but it’s weird to see voluptuous, seemingly intelligent, young women acting like little girls. Keep in mind the film is a foreign language effort so several of the actresses are dubbed. It’s not an issue like in Black Sabbath but some characters have voices that don’t match, the aforementioned Olga has a voice that doesn’t match her character at all.
The gore is Suspiria’s claim to fame so let’s discuss it. It’s brutal, it’s gory, it’s awesome as a whole. The first fifteen minutes sees the violent murder of Pat (Eva Axen) who is attacked, slammed through a stained glass window, stabbed to the point of disembowelment strung up and throw through a window to her death. Suffice it to say it’s a lengthy scene, a shocking way to start your film, and a way to gauge whether Argento is for you. He pulls no punches with his death scenes, violating personal space to get close-ups of body parts. Within the death sequences you see a heart, close up, being stabbed and a throat sliced open. Despite knowing the body parts are fake, in the case of Pat’s death it’s obvious, it’s still gross and unsettling. The one death I took umbrage with was the death of blind Daniel (Flavio Bucci) who is attacked by his guide dog who then proceeds to rip and eat his throat! It’s mentioned that Daniel is fired from the academy because his guide dog attacked a child (I’m sure the dog knew the kid was evil) but to watch a dog, a guide dog worst of all, attack and devour a defenseless man seems crass and wrong. I don’t say that with many films but if the death and violence don’t further the story or just feel like grue for the sake of it, I complain and that’s what I saw here. My personal squeal moment had to be the maggots falling from the ceiling. Something about that just made me squirm.
The plot I think is the weakest element of the story and the actors are left to react and be terrified. The big reveal is that the teachers are part of a coven of witches and that’s about all the story you get. It’s never explained why they have a dance studio, or why Suzy is so important to them. She appears to be the only American and yet all the teachers take a special interest in her for some reason. Other things, like the aforementioned maggots, are chalked up to spoiled food (with the implication to the audience that more’s afoot) but that’s never discussed. Characters appear and disappear like Olga, and there’s a hinted romance between Suzy and a male dancer that’s never discussed or referenced. Ultimately, I wanted to know “why.” What do these women have to gain from studying witchcraft? Are they going to be immortal (they’re obviously not given youth), or money? It just seems like Argento liberally inserted violence, much like he splashes blood, to make the deficiencies in the story.
The acting is all fairly decent with Joan Bennett standing out as Madame Blanc in her last film role (I was shocked to discover that was Bennett). The score by Goblin is so intense despite being overused (I do want the Suspiria theme now). The beautiful imagery is worth watching on an HD television, especially my favorite scene of Suzy dumping red wine (which I believe is the same stuff used for the blood) in a white sink. There’s not many head-slapping moments like in Village of the Damned, but I do want to point out that Sara wouldn’t have been so cut up had she not been throwing herself into windows in the attic. She gets the worst death of all in my opinion, caught up in barbed wire right by the freaking door! Helena Markos’ voice is also fairly creepy.
Overall, Suspiria is good but far from great. It’s worth watching for the aesthetics, the soundtrack, and the fact that Argento is considered a “master of horror.” I would not consider this film a masterpiece in spite of that. The aesthetics overwhelm the story which is too thin to hold up and the violence can be overwhelming and exploitative.
Type of Horror: Gore
Fright Meter: 5
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.