Monday, May 24, 2010

The Unseen - Suspiria (1977)

I don’t need to remind you that this weekend marks the end of a major pop culture series. That’s right, the Shrek saga is coming to a close, that is if you truly believe this is the “Final Chapter.” I wouldn’t worry though since the last movie series to use that subtitle was Friday the 13th. So until someone decides to resurrect the green ogre with a fence post and some lightning á la Jason Voorhees, you’ll have to look elsewhere for warped fairy tales.

Following the last installment of THE UNSEEN on overlooked comic book movies, this week I’d like to suggest an alternative twisted fairy tale; and let’s face it, they don’t get more twisted than Dario Argento’s Suspiria.

While Suspiria frequently appears on those top ten best horror movie lists that pop up around Halloween time, unlike its fellow scare flicks that make the cut, Suspiria remains largely unseen. It doesn’t help that Suspiria isn’t exactly the most accessible film. The movie doesn’t make much sense, nor is it for the squeamish (the opening scene is especially brutal). The poster warns “the only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 92” and that is not an understatement.
Suspiria is about Suzy Bannon (Jessica Harper), an American dance student who transfers to a prestigious German ballet academy with a dark secret. Suzy witnesses strange occurrences right away, as two students are murdered upon her arrival. But the oppressive faculty doesn’t seem too alarmed that there’s a maniac on the loose; they’re far more concerned with the school’s maggot infestation.

As Suspiria’s protagonist, Suzy isn’t really invested in figuring out what’s going on at the academy. Although she is clearly being targeted by some evil force, she spends most of the film bedridden while her roommate plays detective. Suzy only acts during the final reel and even then, she is spoon fed a movie’s worth of exposition in minutes. The school’s big secret isn’t a revelation though; the soundtrack literally screams the answer during the opening credits.

Instead of story and character, director/co-writer Dario Argento focuses solely on creating a wild nightmare experience for the viewer. Suspiria is best described as a psychotic Disney movie, so it’s no surprise the studio’s early animated features, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Alice in Wonderland, bare heavy influence here. The location is Germany’s Black Forest, the setting for many of Grimm’s stories and home to ghosts, witches and lederhosen-sporting villagers. The supporting characters (who wander in and out of the film at random) are ripped straight from the storybooks: evil stepmothers, wicked stepsisters and a fair-haired prince. And wait until you see the visual funhouse that lurks within the dance school. All that’s missing is a magic mirror.

Using the last bit of Italy’s Technicolor film stock, Argento infuses every frame with eye candy. Scenes are bathed in colored light from no discernible source. The wallpaper seems to be alive. Even the score by Italian prog-rock band Goblin is an assault on your senses, pounding and shrieking unexpectedly from every direction (Suspiria is great for showing off that spiffy sound system). Listen to the soundtrack alone in the dark and try not to get freaked out.

Previously known for his murder mystery thrillers, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red, Argento took a stab at the supernatural with Suspiria. Though it’s not his best work (that would be Deep Red), Suspiria is his most fully realized in terms of style, featuring all his key trademarks – menacing camerawork, crazy lighting effects and jarring musical score, among others. He would later follow Suspiria with two loosely connected sequels as part of the Three Mothers trilogy: 1980’s Inferno (worth checking out) and Mother of Tears (a waste). Best enjoyed late at night with the volume turned up high, Suspiria relies on dream logic, something that could initially turn off anyone in search of coherence. Give it a shot though… maybe even more than once. I hated the movie upon first seeing it, but after multiple viewings Suspiria is now one of my favorites.

1 comment:

Jacobo said...

Love this movie. I remember changing channels late at night after a drinking night and stumbling with the scene where Suzy's walking a hall where she's witched by the old lady (that looks like a fat man) and the devil kid, reflecting some light with the little mirror. I started feeling the hangover right away. The soundtrack is haunting and amazing.

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