20 July, 2010

Movie Review: Suspiria (1977)

Italian director Dario Argento purportedly wrote the classic horror film Suspiria with his girlfriend, actress Daria Nicolodi, based upon a combination of a dream that she had once had and a scary story that her grandmother once told her. The screenplay was originally to star a cast of twelve-year-olds, but when producers balked at the idea of exposing children to graphic violence, the screenplay was changed to accommodate a cast of young adults without changing a single word of their immature dialogue or a single act of their childlike behavior. The result is one of the worst screenplays ever filmed.

The convoluted, plot hole-riddled story tells of a German school founded in the late-nineteenth century by a Greek immigrant, Helena Markos, who was actually a powerful mistress of the dark arts, Mater Suspiriana ("Our Lady of Sighs"). The school she founded was a combination school of dark arts and witchcraft-slash-classical ballet studio, but following public outrage and the death of Markos, the witchcraft department was removed from the curriculum, leaving only the dance school. Or so we think! New student Suzy Banton (Jessica Harper), with the help of Scooby Doo-style clues, physically impossible revelations, an idiotic and easily spooked friend who insists upon solving a mystery that doesn't even seem to be a mystery, and a chance encounter with a professor of occult studies who has literally written the book on Markos, connects the complicated and ridiculous dots and realizes that Markos is still alive, in some way planning something that's probably dark and possibly even powerful. So Suzy kills her by, of course, thrusting a glass feather into her shadow, which causes the entire school and all the evildoers within it to explode.

Most critics these days don't spend much time discussing the obviously absurd and inane plot of Suspiria, insisting that its set pieces offer chilling horror despite a lack of overall plot structure. I don't buy that. Supposedly, original audiences of The Great Train Robbery in 1903 would scream and hide under their seats when the villain pointed and fired his gun at the camera. A century later, such a gimmick doesn't scare a single spectator because most of us need more than visuals and camera trickery to feel a visceral, emotional response to the film reel. We--some of us more than others--need something that allows us to transcend the knowledge that we are merely watching a film. We need a heartfelt theme, a believable character, a raw conflict--something that tricks at least a tiny part of our brains into believing even if only for a few minutes that we are perceiving a meaningful reality and not simply twenty-four frames a second of contrived filmmaking. This is what the "suspension of disbelief" is. It's not just believing that pigs can talk or vampires fly at night; it's believing that anything at all in the film is something real. It's that tiny bit of movie magic that sells us the deception that we are no longer on a couch or in a theater staring at a flickering screen.

Argento never achieved that with me in Suspiria. I often speak of being "taken out of a movie." By that, I mean taken out of total immersion in the film's world and thrust back into my seat, abruptly jolted into the reality that I'm just a guy consuming a movie. A good movie is a sustained act of hypnotism; a bad movie consistently reminds you that you're being hypnotized. Though Suspiria starts strong with a storm-soaked, dreamlike establishing scene, it quickly devolves into confusion. The idiotic setting of Suspiria (the "coven-slash-ballet academy"), the atrocious characterization (fully grown young women who speak and act like bratty children), the ludicrous plot structure (a key revelation revolves around Suzy being able to count the distance and direction of footsteps throughout a massive building), the lack of motivation (what exactly are these witches trying to accomplish? what are they even capable of accomplishing? what have they accomplished aside from killing a few people they don't like?), the over-the-top, unrealistic effects of the grisly murder scenes (you can plainly see that the barbed wire in one memorable death doesn't have any barbs), the disoriented editing (cut to: a scene in which a bit character, a blind man, is killed far from home for reasons that have almost nothing to do with the plot), the hammy exposition (Suzy meets a professor at a pivotal moment who just happens to be able to answer all of her questions), the bad accents: all of these elements and many more constantly prevented me from feeling that Suspiria was anything more than a horribly made horror film.

We go into a horror movie prepared to be scared. In doing so we build up our defenses against being scared. A good horror movie tricks us into feeling fright anyway; Suspiria never does. At its best, it gets two things right: lavish, otherworldly sets painted in gorgeous, nightmarish Technicolor strokes of mutant green and blood red and a theme song by Goblin that--while much overused--is effectively unnerving. These elements save Suspiria from the vast, swampy dregs of the worst horror movies, but they're not enough to make it scary or a classic film. Why have Entertainment Weekly, Bravo, and Total Film named it one of the scariest movies of all time? Why has the Village Voice called it one of the hundred best films of the twentieth century? Why does the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? list of the greatest movies of all time list it at #484?

I have no idea.

Suspiria (1977)
d: Dario Argento w: Dario Argento, Daria Nicolodi
(Jessica Harper, Joan Bennett, Udo Kier)
TSPDT?: #484
4/10

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