Monday, May 26, 2014


Suspiria is a film possessed by beauty and terror like a Baudelaire poem; it frightens and it enchants, often at the same time. It has some of the most gorgeous visuals ever committed to film; it also has some of the most violent, macabre death scenes ever to make you shrink in your seat and squeeze your eyes shut. 
It's a fairytale and a fashion spread. It's maggots and razor wire.

Suspiria's storyline is simple enough and has been used by countless novels and movies -- wide-eyed naif arrives in creepy house and must solve its mystery -- a suitably slender plot to be draped in director Dario Argento's couture embellishments. Our heroine is played by Jessica Harper, whom you may recognize from Phantom of the Paradise and who is the newest (American) student at a prestigious European ballet academy. She arrives in the middle of an apocalyptic thunderstorm -- the shock of the climate-controlled, ultramodern airport cutting to the torrential downpour of olde Mitteleuropa is just the first abrupt surprise Suspiria will offer.
She arrives at the school and is turned away. But as she gets back into her taxi, she witnesses a young woman fleeing the building, shouting something urgent yet unintelligble; we follow her as she runs through a dark, rain-lashed forest -- the first of many haunting images in Suspiria that you will recognize from its imitation in other, inferior films.

Making a significant contribution to the creepiness is the legendary soundtrack by Italian prog-rock outfit Goblin, an unsettling blend of whispers, echoes, percussion and synthesizers. Soon after, we get our first spectacular set and our first spectacular death. Suspiria focuses not on gore or shock, but a sort of heightened atmosphere, like the climax of an operatic aria or nervous breakdown -- making the gore and the shock that much more powerful when they hit.

In the daytime, Our Heroine returns to the school. There's been a murder, a disappearance and everyone seems quite hostile to the newcomer. But forget the bad vibes and dig the look! Throughout the film, the set design is a dream/nightmare version of the art nouveau retro looks of the 70's.

Serving as Suspiria's Head Witch -- erm, Bitch -- in Charge is old-school noir starlet Joan Bennett, carrying on the grand tradition of aging Hollywood legends playing the heavy in Eurosleaze horror flicks. Also in the girls' school cliche department, we have her assistant, your standard Germanic battleaxe.
Nope, nothing but friendly faces and warm welcomes here!

The rest of the girls at the school can best be described as "Mean Girls." If their Pre-Raphaelite on 'Ludes looks don't quite match their childish dialogue and behavior, it's because Argento (and co-author Daria Nicolodi) wrote the screenplay of Suspiria for pre-teens. However, back then no one would finance a horror movie that involved terrorizing children (back then), so they cast older, but didn't change the dialogue.
This also might help explain why Suspiria defies the trope of women in slasher movies buying it because of their rampant sexuality. Typically, as soon as a girl takes her top off, or skinny-dips with her boyfriend, or even thinks of going all the way, she gets the chainsaw/machete/rusty scythe. But not here: No one gets laid at Madame's. You can put it on the fact that a European ballet academy is simply classier than an American summer camp and the fact that Our Heroine is much closer to a Keane painting than a Playboy centerfold. But, again, it also means that the movie has to build its pre-kill tension through subtler means than trying to make sure the audience has a Hollywood loaf before the bloody axe swings.
And so here we have all of the ingredients for paranoia. Alone in a foreign country. At the mercy of some imperious diva who keeps coming up with reasons why you owe her money. A square-jawed old dyke who keeps checking you out. A bunch of bitches who hate you. An unnerving blind guy, a menacing retard  and a freaky little boy that keep popping up around every corner of this creepy, creaky mansion whose color palette seems inspired by blood.
Ballerinas keep dying, mysterious things keep happening, the eerie factor doubles, triples, quadruples -- you know you're in a seriously spooky netherworld when Udo Kier appears as a calm oasis of logic. Udo Kier! The weird German guy who is usually drenched in blood or trying to get hustlers to do diaper cosplay! And then, of course, there's the maggots.  And the razor wire...
Unlike many horror movies, Suspiria holds up to this day -- its dreamlike atmosphere remains hypnotic and timeless and its shocks are still potent. Some nitwit is planning on a remake, as though anyone could possibly equal, much less improve upon this film. There is only one remake i approve of, and that is the Suspiria-themed bar in Tokyo. Can we get one in Vegas? Please?

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