Sunday, September 7, 2014

Review: Suspiria (1977)

What's come out this weekend... really? A Christian pseudo-Elvis movie that utterly bombed, and a re-release of Forrest Gump? That's it? Welp, time to dig into the DVD pile again.

Suspiria (1977)

Rated R (originally rated X)

If Suspiria doesn't scare you into needing a new pair of pants, then you're made of tougher stuff than I am. One of the films that made the world take notice of Dario Argento and Italian horror in general, Suspiria is a damn creepy tale that builds a tide of suspense (punctuated with lurid gore) over the course of its first hour through stylish, psychedelic visuals and music before capping it off with one of the most terrifying twelve minutes in movie history, a finale filled with so much nope that I was clutching my mouth so that I wouldn't scream. It takes a special kind of movie to get that reaction out of me, someone who's seen all manner of horror films in his life; the last film I can recall that did that was Insidious. If you watch this movie, you had better steel yourself for sleepless nights.

The film is about a young woman named Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), an American exchange student at an elite European dance academy. Upon arrival, Suzy gets her first indication that there is something sinister lurking at this school -- she crosses paths with a student named Pat who is fleeing the school for unknown reasons, later being killed that night. As the weird shit starts to pile up from there, Suzy and her roommate Sara (Stefania Casini) suspect that something is very wrong with the place and that the teachers and administration are lying to them about what's really happening, and set out to uncover what the hell is going on before they become the next victims.

From the very first frame, Dario Argento infuses the film with a bright, colorful style that stands out immediately. One charge that it is impossible to level against this film is that it's not gorgeous, as every shot is beautifully composed in both its visuals and its sound and musical cues. Vibrant colors, particularly blue, green, and (of course) red, illuminate almost every scene, and figuring out the rhyme and reason with which those colors were used made later scenes into nail-biters as I anticipated what might be around the next corner. Even taking out the tension, individual scenes are just stunning to look at. Italian prog-rock band (and frequent Argento collaborators) Goblin handles the soundtrack duties, making for a film that is just as tense a listen as it is a viewing. This is a film that runs entirely on style, something that's incredibly difficult to do justice to with mere words; it's something that needs to be seen to be believed. Argento is a master of cinematic style, and this film is among his masterpieces, building a wall of tension and dread with color and sound. I could never imagine a remake of this film no matter how good the writing, cast, and production values were, because without Argento at the helm, it would be a fundamentally different movie.

That's not to say that there's no substance behind this film. The plot is fairly simple, but it's told gracefully, with actors so good that I couldn't even tell that substantial portions of the film's dialogue were dubbed over. The heroines felt tiny in the face of the threats out to get them, partly because of the visual/set design (everything around them is oversized) but also due to writing that creates a childlike sense of vulnerability in the students. The original script called for the protagonists to be adolescent girls instead of young women; while this was vetoed by Argento's father, who produced the film, it's still clear from the writing, and winds up reinforcing the sense of danger and the grim fairy-tale style of the film. While the death is sparse by horror movie standards, the blood is not, with every kill being grisly and painful to watch and coming with excellent buildup that keeps you on the edge wondering when the knife is going to come out, and from where.

Score: 5 out of 5

Allow me to stop gushing and tell you to go see this movie whether or not you're a horror fan. It's a slick-as-ice horror masterpiece, a beautiful work of art that will probably have you running to mommy in the middle of the night.

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