I’m not much of a horror fan, but I tend to think it’s because I just haven’t seen enough horror films, which is why Dario Argento’s Suspiria has been on my “to-watch” list for years. Its reputation as a gore-filled but beautifully filmed movie had me excited to finally see it as part of this challenge, but I was sadly left wanting more. Maybe my hopes were too high, or maybe I have just seen too many modern movies with much more blood and guts, but the shock value that Suspiria offered in the 1970s is somewhat lost on me. Either way, the film did not live up to my expectations.
Suspiria starts with Suzy Bannion, (Jessica Harper) a ballet dancer from New York who has traveled to Germany to enroll in a prestigious dance academy. When she arrives at the school late one night in the pouring rain, she sees a woman escaping the school and running through the forest in hysterics. The next day, she discovers that the woman has been murdered, and that the school is much more frightening than it appears. An increasing number of supernatural effects begin to occur and she soon discovers that the school’s dark history of witchcraft may not fully be a thing of the past.
Suspiria suffers from a disconcertingly weird screenplay. Argento originally wanted the ballet school students to be about 12 years old, but the producers thought that the story was too violent to involve children. To appease the studio, Argento changed the age of the girls to 20 but didn’t re-write the script. The result is a bunch of grown woman reciting dialogue that seems childish and out of place. Worse, the plot itself offered few shocks, with most of its reveals happening halfway through, leaving very few twists and turns. It seemed as though the element of surprise was reserved for the gory parts and not for the story itself. To top it off, the acting was pretty bad, though that is almost to be expected from an art house horror.
That said, Suspiria had quite a few redeeming qualities. For instance, despite the weird adult/child story and the bad acting, Argento gave us a well shot film. True to his claim to fame of making art house movies with lots of gore, the film is saturated in deep red tones and extremely stylized shots and sets. The dance school is filled with bold colors and an elaborate spiral staircase, and the hallways and rooms have high ceilings and sharp angles. It must have been so much fun to shoot, as we get a lot of clever shots from Argento. In one scene where the blind piano player is walking home with his dog through a large empty square, we spend most of the time viewing through a series of long shots. The square is full of shadows which makes us just as afraid as the blind man that someone might be lurking close behind. It’s the most suspenseful part of the film which already is fairly suspenseful in the opening 90 minutes. It’s also hard to think of this movie and not think of the absolutely amazing music. The theme as performed by Goblin fits the movie so well: it’s like The Exorcist’s bells, but with some funk to it, and every time it pops into my head it takes hours to get out. And, to be fair to its story, I believe you would have a much better film had Argento been able to cast 12-year-olds instead of adult women; it would be a terrifyingly awful film, the kind I look for when I think of the horror genre.
Despite its pitfalls, Suspiria is actually an interesting and kinda fun movie. Although they weren’t scary, the 3 or 4 gory scenes were almost amusing with their bright red blood and over-the-top acting. It’s disgusting, yet beautiful and that sits almost uneasily with me. Had I known more about Argento’s style before sitting down to watch Suspiria, I think I would have liked it, as I feel I had the wrong expectations going into my first viewing. It’s campy and gripping and very stylized, which I feel certain I will enjoy more on a second viewing. It is definitely worth a watch.
Suspiria landed at 482 out of a possible 1344 movies on my Flickchart. That converts to a ranking of 3 out of 5 stars or 64%. It ranked #24 out of 62 on my list of seen movies from the 1970s. It is ranked #4 out of 6 movies so far in the challenge.