Suspiria (1977)

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Suspiria
Dir. Dario Argento
Premiered February 1, 1977

Dario Argento’s Suspiria is the most famous Italian horror film ever made. Its name is whispered by genre picture buffs as the stuff of legend and presented to newcomers as a rite of passage. The titular character in Jason Reitman’s Juno invokes it for maximum coolness points. The recent bumper crop of upscale horror films, which favor creeping dread over cheap scares, has drawn comparisons to Suspiria, not least The Neon Demon, my favorite movie of last year. People have, unbelievably, invoked its name in defense of I Know Who Killed Me.

But I didn’t find it to be that great, or even that entertaining. In fact, Suspiria is such an underwritten movie that it doesn’t appear to have ever been finished. But it was, leaving me perplexed as to its legacy. Only six movies into this project, I’ve had enough unpopular opinions to feel like an arrogant young’un who can’t appreciate the classics. And granted, my copy of the film was a dreadful second-generation rip from a VHS– unbelievably an official release. But my issues with it are pretty fundamental, so don’t get mad.

Suzy (Jessica Harper) has just been accepted to an elite dance school in Freiburg. Because she’s only arrived late at night, she’s not allowed inside, but she does see another girl named Pat (Eva Axen) run out of the building screaming; unseen by Suzy is Pat’s recapture and gruesome murder.

Returning to the school by day, Suzy quickly befriends the late Pat’s friend Sara (Stefana Casini), who has grown increasingly paranoid about goings-on inside the school. There’s no shortage of bizarre incidents to confirm her terrors, as when Suzy sees a disembodied pair of tiny green eyes staring back through her bedroom window, or when maggots fall from the ceiling. It’s the latter phenomenon that gets both Sara and Suzy to notice the distinctive snoring of the school’s headmistress, who supposedly isn’t there. In fact, though they claim to live in town, the teachers never actually seem to leave the building. And the disappearances continue.

Consulting a pair of psychiatrists, a believer (Rudolf Schündler) and a skeptic (Udo Kier), Suzy discovers that her school was founded long ago by a coven of witches, and as the bodies pile up and Suzy is henceforth forbidden to leave, she (correctly) assumes the worst.

Let’s start with the technical stuff. The score is maddeningly repetitive. The use of ornate locations and bizarre, otherworldly lighting, which recalls in my mind the earliest parts of the “Toccata and Fugue” segments in Fantasia, is distinctive but awkward. The film’s opening sequence, described three paragraphs earlier, is comparable to the worst action filmmaking of today in its disjointedness, though this is unrepresentative of the film as a whole.

My biggest issue, though, is the story. We never find out anything about the witches; their killings are an attempt to cover up their being witches, but to what point or purpose is never even hinted at. This setup isn’t inherently bad for a story, but usually those have said witches as the protagonists, or at least somewhat defined characters. Suspiria deliberately evokes fairy tales, but even fairy tales give us more motivation than this. Their use of magic is curiously inconsistent– seeming to prefer brute force– and their eventual defeat comes off as dumb luck.

Suspiria appears to want to be more of a cinematic experience than a traditional narrative film, but director/screenwriter Dario Argento leaves too much narrative in to ignore, and too little to matter.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Animals– maggots– were harmed in the making of this film. The Exorcist is jokingly referenced, and the forced exposition with Udo Kier recalls a much better scene in that film.

Additional Notes
That stereotypical bitchy girl Olga (Barbara Magnolfi) was pretty hot. She’s only in one scene. Either this movie was four hours long and was mostly cut out, or the people who made it gave no shits.
This is a title I genuinely can’t think of without thinking of “Sussudio,” the most popular song in the history of drugstores.

How Did It Do?
Suspiria grossed 1.4 million lire in Italy and $1.8 million in the United States. I have no idea what the movie’s budget was, so I have no idea if it made a profit. But its influence reaches far and wide, with a 93% rating on RottenTomatoes and frequent appearances on lists of the scariest movies ever made. In my personal opinion, being scared requires knowing, or at least thinking you know, what you’re supposed to be scared of. I didn’t get that here. Sorry.

Next Time: Fun with Dick and Jane

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