Directed By: Dario Argento
Written By: Dario Argento, Daria Nicolodi
Produced By: Claudio Argento
Cast: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett
MPAA Rating: NR
Runtime: 98 minutes
Review Date: October 29, 2010
It may sound like I am making excuses for shoddy filmmaking, but the first thing you have to understand to enjoy a Dario Argento film is that there will be plot holes. In fact, there will not only be plot holes, there will be leaps in logic so vast, they are breathtaking in their audacity. If you can get past those two hangups, when Argento is on, his films can produce moments of pure beauty that devolve into true terror and grisly violence of the most upsetting kind. His best films are not for the faint of heart, and Suspiria may be his very best.
The plot is so simple as to be barely needed. Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), an American ballet dancer, arrives at a prestigious dance school in Germany. There she encounters Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), a sinister teacher who acts like a gleefully sadistic concentration camp guard. When two people connected to the school are killed, she begins to wonder if the strange behavior of Miss Tanner and the assistant director, Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett), might have something to do with the deaths. As she investigates the school and pieces together odd clues with her friend Sara (Stefania Casini), Suzy gradually begins to suspect that the school is in fact a cover for a particularly evil coven of witches.
The only reason the plot exists is to act as a hook on which Argento can hang an intense mood of paranoia and doom. He backs this atmosphere up with stunningly violent and terrifying set-pieces that takes the audience past the point of no return, sadistically focusing his camera on even the smallest moments in the deaths of the characters.
Effectively using a Steadicam to glide into and swirl among the actors, Argento is able to create a disorienting sensation that puts the viewer in Suzy’s shoes. Casting the action in alternating red, blue, and green hues that saturate the screen by using the old three-strip Technicolor printing process, the story takes on a sinister fairy-tale feel that allows the leaps in logic to feel like a waking nightmare. When the aggressive score by progressive rock band Goblin (using heavy synthesizers, mandolins, chaotic drums, chants, whispers, and screams) is layered over this nightmarish imagery, the tension and horror become nearly unbearable.
As is to be expected with an international production that uses actors from several different countries, there are some dubbing issues and the occasional clunky performance. But Harper anchors the film capably with an earnest frown of confusion that easily turns into a look of terror at the most appropriate moments. As the film goes on, even the worst performances in the film take on a feeling of being correct at the moment. The off-kilter beats add to the feeling that you’re watching a film that is capable of unleashing something very bad and bloody at any moment.
And that is the greatest strength that Argento plays with in the film — he shows that he’s willing to break the rules and truly torture his characters, and by association, the audience. Watching Suspiria is like getting a glimpse into the soul of a madman — it’s a horrifying place full of sights and sounds that once seen and heard cannot be forgotten, but you’re unable to look away. It’s a stunning piece of work that has stood the test of time. Once you’ve seen it, you will never be able to shake it.
Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.