Synopsis: Jessica Harper stars as Suzy Banyon, a young American ballet dancer who arrives at a prestigious European dance academy run by the mysterious Madame Blanc (Joan Bennet) and Miss Tanner (Alida Valli). But when a series of bizarre incidents and horrific crimes (including what Entertainment Weekly calls “the most vicious murder scene ever filmed”) turn the school into a waking nightmare of the damned, Suzy must escape the academy’s unspeakable secret of supernatural evil.
eyelights: its stylistic look. its phenomenal score.
eyesores: its nonsensical script. its unrealistic performances.
‘Suspiria’, or “Style Over Substance”
‘Suspiria’ is a 1977 suspense film by Dario Argento. It is the first of a trilogy about the “Three Mothers’, focusing on three witches in three different cities. It is followed by ‘Inferno’ and “La terza madre’ and is widely regarded as a masterpiece – if not Argento’s greatest achievement (some prefer ‘Profundo rosso‘, then certainly his second-best.
When I first saw it, I wasn’t too thrilled with it. What I remember most is how patently absurd it was and how poor the dubbing was – to the extent that I would have preferred to watch it in Italian with English subtitles this time around if I could. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a copy with English subtitles anywhere – I had to watch the English dub again.
It wasn’t so bad, as it turns out. Of course, it’s quite possible that lowered expectations, combined with having seen many poorly-dubbed Argento films in recent months, have somewhat adjusted my perspective. While the vocal performances and the mixing remain weak, I’ve experienced far worse. Having said this, it could be a deterrent to the enjoyment of anyone who doesn’t anticipate these issues.
That somewhat resolves the dubbing issue. The script, however, is another matter: it still doesn’t make much sense.
‘Suspiria’ is the story of Suzy, an American ballerina arriving in Germany to attend a prestigious ballet school. Upon her arrival, she discovers that things aren’t quite right at this Academy: a student has recently been expelled and was murdered shortly thereafter. The school is also peopled with unusual characters, including the cook, the hired hand, some of the students, and the School Headmistress. Soon, as she starts to unveil the Academy’s secrets, Suzy’s life will also be in danger.
The key problem is that most of the characters’ behaviours and the events portrayed in this picture are totally unrealistic. Some might argue that these factors are secondary to the awe-inspiring surrealistic stylings of the film, which are the essence of Argento’s cinema, but this is not necessarily self-evident to first-time viewers. For instance, I clearly remember my intense reactions to all the “nonsense”, growing more and more incredulous as the film wore on.
The perfect example is when the Academy becomes infested with maggots. It all begins when Suzy is combing her hair and finds one of those nasties in her mane. She is repulsed, naturally, and looks up to see them falling from the ceiling. She runs out of her room to find that the halls and other rooms are also raining maggots. After checking the attic, they find some crates with spoiled food in it, from whence the larva came.
Problem is, a whole building doesn’t just pour maggots, no matter how bad the food is – it’s a situation that would only progressively get worse, starting with just a few maggots here and there. It likely wouldn’t ever go torrential, because the issue would be resolved early on. Obviously, this was done for effect, eschewing all logic. Not that it had any bearing on the plot or anything else…
Then there’s the sequence when Sarah, one of Suzy’s friends, is trying to escape the killer running rampant in the Academy. After ditching Suzy, who had suddenly become narcoleptic (!!!), she decides to make her way to the attic and, from there, to another room. After crawling through the window to the other room, she jumps down into a pit of razor wire.
Firstly, I don’t know who set up the razor wire pit, but it’s necessarily a premeditated endeavour. And one that’s highly unlikely: who would have the time to set this up, and sneak all of this wire into the room? Secondly, no one jumps down without looking first. No one. Yet Sarah did. Thirdly, even if you’re caught in razor wire, not moving prevents further pain. Sarah decided to flail about instead. Le sigh…
Another terrific sequence is when Suzy recalls the first murder victim, having seen her leave the Academy (coincidentally enough) just as she was arriving. When questions arise about the girl’s disappearance, Suzy proceeds to tell the authorities that she remembered seeing her mumbling to herself. As the film wears on, she can even remember exactly what the girl was saying – leading to clues about the Academy’s secrets.
It’s a ridiculous concept to start off with: given that the girl was leaving the Academy, she had no reason to be muttering secrets to herself on the way out. But, to make matters worse, this suggests that Suzy has some sort of delayed photographic memory – and that she has sharp enough eyes to see lip movement from a distance of about 30 feet. Sitting in a cab. In the pouring rain, no less. Ridiculous.
This sequence is even worse in that Suzy isn’t granted access to the Academy because the person she spoke with on the intercom was incoherent and hung up on her. Later, she would discover that Sarah, her newest friend, was that mysterious person. As any good friend would do, she doesn’t ask her what happened, nor does Sarah offer any explanations or apologies for locking her out in the rain. WTF?
These are but minor issues compared to all the small details that are totally overlooked throughout ‘Suspiria’. Again, my impression is that Argento was mostly focused on what would look interesting on camera, and found ways to put those elements together – but couldn’t be bothered to consider the plausibility of any of it. This is a recurring issue in his oeuvre, but it becomes quite an extravagant one by this point in his career, eventually culminating in the visually appealing but intellectually deficient ‘Phenomena‘.
The problem isn’t just in the script, either: even the performances are completely unrealistic. Absurdly so, in fact. Frankly, I had forgotten just how outlandish the performances were in ‘Suspiria’. Just the first murder sequence gives an indication of how theatrical the actors are going to be, with the victim going into these spastic motions that can only be described as violent convulsions – not a dying person’s final throes. It’s so jarring that one is either stunned into silence or laughing mockingly.
And this goes on throughout the picture. One truly gets the sense that the script and performances were totally secondary to the visual aspects of the film – because, if there’s anything to be said about ‘Suspiria’, it’s that it’s extremely stylistic. This may be Argento’s greatest achievement from a purely visual standpoint: it’s filled with stunning imagery, and a breathtaking use of colour – every moment is so gorgeously shot that it is worthy of framing and putting on a gallery wall.
The visuals aren’t the only impressive part of the picture. Argento also collaborated with Goblin to create an iconic synth-based score that, as artificial as it is, also manages to sustain the film’s tone throughout. In fact, it is arresting and possibly powerful enough to create the mood all by its lonesome. Combined with the images, the aural quality of ‘Suspiria’ is quite potent. Unfortunately, the audio is marred by some lackluster sound editing. Still, I was bowled over by the soundscapes that crashed through my speakers.
Is that enough to make a good movie out of ‘Suspiria’, though? I suppose that this depends on the eye that beholds it. I know that many regard it quite highly, as a genre classic and a masterpiece by a once-renowned auteur, a high point in his career – so clearly it works on some levels. But fans of more straightforward storytelling, people who hate suspending their disbelief, and more critically-minded film-lovers will likely find it difficult to embrace. I suspect that, for them, as with myself, it may be easier to digest the second time around, expectations properly tailored.
Be that as it may, one can’t argue that ‘Suspiria’ is an original. There are few films like it and likely none that match its visceral aesthetic quality. And, for that reason alone, it may be worth seeing at least once in a lifetime.
Date of viewing: April 5, 2013